Saturday, February 25, 2012

An upgraded first meal

February 19, 2012

Grilled Black Forest Ham and Swiss
Classic Tomato Soup
Sweet Potato Fries
Forest Ville 2010 Gewürztraminer
French Silk Chocolate Pie

When planning a meal I usually decide on the main course and then add other dishes as complements. However, sometimes I start with a side dish, in this case homemade tomato soup. Winter is the time for soups and tomato is relatively easy to make and is always satisfying. The recipe uses canned tomatoes. Tomatoes for canning are picked when ripe unlike the "fresh" tomatoes you see in the supermarket that are picked green and then gassed to turn them red. The tomatoes are cooked with only a few other ingredients — onions, chicken broth, bay leaf, brown sugar, heavy cream, salt, pepper — and then pureéd. I used the immersion blender to pureé the soup because of the convenience. A conventional blender does a better job but it's more hassle to use. You need to drag it out of the cupboard, assemble the parts, pour in the soup in batches, then disassemble it, wash it, and find a place for it again in the cupboard. With the immersion blender you have none of that, just snap the blender attachment on the motor, plug it in, and go. I even forgot to remove the bay leaf before blending but this was not a problem, the blender did a good job of shredding it.

What better to go with the soup than a nice grilled ham and cheese sandwich. I went to Whole Foods to get quality ham and cheese. The deli has several kinds of ham to choose from so I asked the clerk for a recommendation. The two clerks on duty disagreed on the best ham to use for a grilled ham and cheese sandwich: one liked the black forest ham and the other a different ham (I've forgotten its name). In order to help me choose, they very kindly gave me a thin slice of each. Both were good, and I happily stood there in the store eating ham at the deli counter while pondering my decision. I eventually chose the black forest ham which had a stronger, more distinctive flavor. I asked for half a pound, figuring that would work for two meals ... when that came out to seven slices I asked for one more to make it easier to divide. I also got 4 slices of Swiss cheese.

Diane picked up a loaf of rustic, white "Sheepherders bread" from the Supermarket bakery. I had originally been thinking of whole wheat or rye. Rye was rejected because we wouldn't have much use for it other than for these sandwiches. Wheat would have been good, but I'm glad we had a white bread so the flavor of the ham was more prominent. I thought about adding something else to the sandwich, some greens or tomato, but in the end we decided ham and cheese with no other ingredients is the best way to go. This ham has a very strong flavor, it was easy to smell after the sandwiches were grilled. It tasted so good that neither of us took advantage of the Dijon mustard jar on the table. The mild Swiss cheese was barely noticeable so we probably should have had a stronger cheese. I don't know much about cheeses so invite suggestions. Perhaps gruyère? Some added sweetness might have been good, too, perhaps a honey Dijon dressing.

The menu was completed with some sweet potato fries (frozen, Alexia brand purchased at Whole Foods), some raw crunchy vegetables, and a nice fruity wine.

The meal was followed up with a yummy chocolate pie for dessert! It wasn't too hard to make but required spending some quality time with a hand mixer. Eggs, sugar, and water were combined in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water on the stove and beaten with a hand mixer for about 10 minutes. The bowl was removed from the heat and beaten for another 8 minutes or so. Chocolate (lots), vanilla, and butter were added then whipped cream was folded in, as in a mousse. This filling was added to a pre-baked pie shell (Normally I'd make this from scratch but to save time I bought a frozen pie shell at the store and baked it.) and then chilled. It was very good, though I thought it was a touch too sweet. I have another pie shell and I can see making another French Silk Chocolate Pie sometime soon.

In 1975 I was a chemistry grad student at UC Irvine and was the Teaching Assistant that fall for a Quantitative Analysis lab class. I was attracted to one of the girls in the class. She wasn't doing particularly well so, sly dog that I was (not!), I asked her to stay after class to talk about her grades. Since it was an evening class and neither of us had had dinner, I invited her to my campus apartment for something to eat. I fixed her a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. I guess it must have been an OK meal because she buckled down and improved her grades. Over 37 years later I still fix her the occasional grilled ham and cheese. It turns out she was attracted to me, too.

Classic Tomato Soup from Cook's Country
French Silk Chocolate Pie from Cook's Country

Note: You may need to be a member to see the recipe on an America Test Kitchen web site. 

The oven-fried chicken thighs were very good as leftovers. We re-heated them in a pan on the stove with a little oil. This crisped up the skin without overcooking or drying out the thighs. They may have been a little under done to start so came out nicely being reheated this way.

Do you know anyone like Earl here who would probably starve if they had to prepare their own food?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Chicken and smoke

February 12, 2012
Oven-Roasted Chicken Thighs
Roasted Garlic Salsa Verde
Mashed Potatoes
French-Style Green Geans
Three Wishes California Chardonnay

Oven-Roasted Chicken Thighs looked like a nice, simple recipe. It didn't require much prep so it would work very well with my current crowded schedule. I bought eight organic chicken thighs at Whole Foods, inspired in part by a discussion with people from work who had found the higher price for organic chicken to be worthwhile. These thighs weighed a little more than called for in the recipe but I wasn't worried about that as much as the variation in the sizes. We decided to go with the full recipe of eight thighs as it would make four dinners for the two of us.

The chicken was easily prepared. Holes were poked in the skin to let the fat render and drain away during cooking. The chicken was seasoned and then roasted, skin-side down. To crisp and brown the skin, the chicken pieces were flipped skin-side up and placed under the broiler for a few minutes. The recipe included temperatures for cooking the chicken, both after the roasting and the final temperature, but with eight pieces of chicken it wasn't really practical to check more than one or two pieces. I have a good, fast instant read thermometer, but not fast enough to check eight pieces of chicken which varied somewhat in size. 

A bigger problem, one which could keep me from using this recipe again, was the smoke. A fair amount of fat collected in the pans while the chicken cooked, producing a little smoke. (I assume the chicken fat produced the smoke. The oven had recently been cleaned and the chicken was not burnt.) When the chicken was put under the broiler, a lot of smoke was produced. All three smoke alarms in our house started wailing, including one that we had thought was dead and hadn't heard from in years. It's good to test the smoke alarms from time to time, but this would not be my method of choice.

That having been said, the chicken came out really nicely. We chose the two smallest pieces to eat for Sunday dinner and they were done almost perfectly, a little underdone if anything. They were flavorful and juicy. A problem when re-heating chicken and other meats as leftovers is that you often end up over-cooking them upon.  We hope that if they are already a little under done they won't be dried out and over cooked.

We tried  the recommended sauce, Roasted Garlic Salsa Verde, but found it was not to our liking. Garlic was roasted in the oven along with the chicken. It was then chopped in a food processor along with the other ingredients including parsley, capers, and anchovies. The sauce was salty and its flavor was so strong that it overwhelmed the chicken.

The wine, Three Wishes California Chardonnay, is the Whole Foods store brand. It was quite good, especially considering it costs less than $2 a bottle. Apparently not everything at Whole Foods is expensive.

Oven-roasted chicken thighs from Cook's Illustrated
Roasted Garlic Salsa Verde from Cook's Illustrated

Note: You may need to be a member to see the recipe on an America Test Kitchen web site. 

I learned that my Make-Ahead Chocolate Soufflés were not so far off as I had originally thought. I found a free video clip from the America's Test Kitchen TV show demonstrating this recipe. I had thought, based on the recipe photo, that my soufflés had not risen enough. However, I see that mine rose just as much as those made in the Test Kitchen. I learned from the video that the soufflés should be a little moist in the middle, and I confirmed my suspicion that I had over-beaten the egg whites. 

We had the last two of the soufflés on Valentine's Day. I baked them for twenty minutes, two minutes longer than the 16-18 minutes in the recipe. I checked them at 18 and they were still too liquid in the center, but at 20 minutes they were in the Goldilocks Zone: just right. We'll definitely be making these again.

I thawed out the Chocolate Chubbies from a few weeks ago. They came out great, freezing had no significant effect on their deliciousness.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Super Sloppy Supper XLVI

February 5, 2012
Sloppy Joes, Not That Sloppy
French Fries
Chocolate Soufflé
Henry Weinhard's Root Beer, Vella Merlot

I had several goals for this meal, none having to do with the menu per se.  As my Sunday morning training walks for the Big Sur 21-miler get longer, the time I have to prepare dinner  gets shorter and the meals get simpler. I wanted a meal that didn't generate leftovers as we had plenty. And, I wanted something that could easily be served in the living room while we watched the Super Bowl and commercials.

Sloppy Joes is a dish I have prepared often.  I usually use a recipe from my Aunt Peggy who worked in the cafeteria at Oneida High School. We don't know for sure if that's where the recipe came from, but we suspect it could be related to the Sloppy Joes served there. I can remember having her Sloppy Joes at a family picnic at Green Lakes State Park when I was quite young so it's been in the family for a long time. My mom used Peggy's recipe as do my siblings, we included it in a family cookbook that we put together for a family reunion several years ago.

Chef John at Food Wishes recently published a recipe for "Sloppy Toms", made with ground turkey, and he had a link to an earlier recipe for Sloppy Joes. I have tried several recipes other than Aunt Peggy's over the years and found they're all about the same with only minor differences. I decided to try the Food Wishes recipe. I liked the detailed description for the desired texture for the sandwich filling. You want it to be sloppy, but not so sloppy that it all falls out of the bun, or so juicy that the buns fall apart from too much liquid. In other words, you want to pick up your sandwich to eat it, you don't want it to be a knife-and-fork sandwich.

The recipe called for 1.5 pounds of extra lean ground beef. The best I could find at the supermarket was a package of 85% lean ground beef. (I could rant about the packaging practices of supermarkets, but I'm restraining myself.) It worked out OK but I think it might have been better if I had purchased something leaner. The finished product tasted good and stayed in the bun well. The meat was nice and tender, and not rubbery as it can be sometimes, with good flavor.

I have never made a soufflé and had been thinking of trying this Cook's Illustrated recipe since it first came out in the magazine. It was appropriate for this meal, too, since it was prepared ahead of time. It makes eight individual portions which we can bake, two at a time, and eat fresh from the oven.  We had purchased ramekins so we would have enough for this recipe, and we're finally getting around to using them.

This is not health food! Making eight individual soufflés used six egg yolks and eight egg whites. There is almost one whole egg in every portion, plus ½ tablespoon of butter, and one ounce of chocolate. There's also a little bit of orange liquer. The recipe specified Grand Marnier but we didn't have any. I don't know why, but we did have a bottle of Curacao, so I used that. Frankly, we can't taste it in the finished product.

It took me less than an hour to make the soufflés Saturday evening. I started at the end of the second period of a San Jose Sharks hockey game, listening to the radio broadcast as I worked, and I finished about the same time as the game. I may have over beaten the egg whites, they were pretty stiff when I was done, so that will be something to watch out for next time. The soufflés are frozen when done, 8 individual serverings stored in the freezer until needed. The Sharks lost.

On Sunday after dinner I warmed up the oven and baked two soufflés. I put them on a small baking sheet; I was concerned that taking ramekins from the freezer and putting them on a 400° oven rack would be too much of a shock for them. The soufflés rose well, though not as much as the ones in the recipe photos. The baking time is 16-18 minutes but I cooked them longer hoping they would rise some more.  I'll have to experiment with the timing, I have six more to bake. They didn't release cleanly from the ramekins, even though they had been well buttered.  They were warm, rich, and chocolaty.  Diane thought they were overcooked, and she encouraged me to keep trying until I got it right, so I guess they weren't too bad.

I didn't achieve all of my goals for the meal. It was easy enough to prepare after my long walk. I did most of the work during half time of the Super Bowl. However, we do have leftovers which we will need to deal with. That's not so bad, its good to have easy-to-prepare meals for week days, too. We ended up eating dinner after the Super Bowl was over (Yea Giants!) but it would have worked as well on TV trays in the living room as it did on the dining room table. As a bonus, I learned that Sloppy Joes are named after a bar in Key West called Sloppy Joes, where it was first made. The bar is still going strong.

Sloppy Joes, Not That Sloppy from Food Wishes
Make Ahead Chocolate Soufflé from Cooks Illustrated

Note: You may need to be a member to see the recipe on an America Test Kitchen web site.

It's no surprise, the baked ziti is really good as a leftover. It's easy to warm up in the microwave, tastes good, and has good texture. Several of my siblings say they usually freeze some when they have it, and that works well, too.

The Chocolate Chubbies held up well. They started getting a little dry 3-4 days after they had been made. However, a few seconds in the microwave oven freshens them up. We haven't tried the frozen cookies yet.

Friday, February 3, 2012

What's a ziti, and why should I bake it?

January 29, 2012
Baked Ziti with Italian Sausage
Rustic Sourdough Bread
Green Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette
Maestri 2009 Chianti
Chocolate Chubbies with Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

One of the wonderful things about food and cooking is the never-ending opportunity to learn and try new things. Most of the recipes that I use for Sunday dinner are new to us. They're either entirely new dishes or new takes on old favorites. For example, more than one person expressed surprise when I mentioned that I had never had baked ziti. I had never even heard of this dish until a few years ago when my sister-in-law, Lori,  mentioned that she would be preparing it because it is "so good".

I presumed that "ziti" was a pasta shape that I had never heard of, not surprising because there are so many different shapes of pasta. Maybe it was like a lasagna noodle since it was used in a baked dish? When I saw the recipe on Dr. Dan's site, I was surprised to see there was no "ziti" in the list of ingredients, just penne. So off to the Internet ... what is a ziti? Lo and behold, it turns out my conjecture was correct, ziti is a pasta shape and it is much like penne. Perhaps the recipe calls for penne because it is easier to find, though Barilla, the brand of penne I used, also makes ziti.

Since sausage and cheese were the main ingredients, I went to Whole Foods to get a higher quality. I searched for Italian sausage and found two kinds of store-made sausage that did not come in a casing: hot and mild (or maybe it was called sweet, I don't remember). Reading the list of ingredients I thought the hot would be better, but I was afraid it would be too spicy. I checked with one of the butchers and was told it wasn't real spicy, just a little bit, so that's what I purchased. I then visited the cheese counter (How many supermarkets have a special counter just for cheese?) and talked to the cheesemonger to get their advice; I don't know much about cheese. We agreed a fresh mozzarella would not work for this application since it would be too soft to cube or grate, and they recommended a whole-milk mozzarella: I purchased two 8 oz. blocks.

The whole dish was easily assembled and baked. It includes 1 pound of dried pasta, 1 pound of cheese, and 1 pound of sausage. It would feed many more than two! I baked it in a 13" x 9" Pyrex baking dish. From start to finish it probably only took about an hour to prepare. It was not only easy to make but was hearty and satisfying, a real nice pasta dish. The two of us hardly made a dent in this large dish of pasta, we'll be eating it as leftovers for some time. Next time I will probably cut the recipe in half. Also, the sausage was a little too hot for our taste so I'd go for sweet Italian sausage next time.

After a disappointing loaf of sourdough bread last week, I reviewed the video instructions on sourdough starter maintenance at Breadtopia. I also found some helpful information at King Arthur. I took my starter out of the refrigerator early Sunday morning. I poured half of it into the sink then added 1 cup of flour and about ¾ cup of water. After 5 hours it was a gorgeous frothy mixture that had expanded considerably. I made  dough using a recipe from King Arthur. It is notable in using both sourdough starter and yeast as leavening agents. I used a stand mixer to combine the dry ingredients with water and to knead the dough. I finished the kneading by hand, because it's fun to do, and left it to rise. I made two free-form loaves and baked them as directed. The resulting bread is nice. The crumb is very uniform with no large holes and it doesn't have much sourdough flavor so I'd say the name is misleading, it is neither rustic nor sourdough. The crust isn't as thick and, well, crusty, as the no-knead breads I often bake inside a dutch oven. I don't have a spray bottle to mist the loaves just before baking so I just sprinkled on some water. Spraying may have helped a good crust to form.   King Arthur has an "extra tangy" version of this bread which I'll try next time. One of the two loaves was frozen.

I don't remember where I learned about the recipe for Chocolate Chubbies as I've had it for over a year, but I do know that I should have made these sooner! They are the best new cookie I've had since I don't know when. Even Diane, who usually only likes cookies that are fresh from the oven, enjoys these chocolate delights. One of the ingredients is superfine sugar. When making my shopping list I assumed this was powdered sugar, so that is what I purchased. When reviewing the recipe it didn't seem right to be using powdered sugar, so did a little research and learned  that superfine sugar is not the same thing as powdered sugar. Fortunately, it is easy to make superfine sugar by running regular sugar through a food processor.  The recipe calls for walnuts and pecans and I got both. The price of pecans was shocking, over $5 for a 6 oz. bag! Coincidentally I had heard a report on NPR about the high price for pecans and the problems farmers are having with thieves. I didn't have any unsweetened chocolate so I used Bittersweet. I froze half of the cookies.

So, I found out what a ziti is and enjoyed baked ziti for the first time. I talked to a cheesemonger for the first time ever. I refined my sourdough skills and discovered a new cookie that I'm sure we'll be having again and again, and in the process learned about superfine sugar.

Baked Ziti with Italian Sausage from 101 Cooking for Two
Rustic Sourdough Bread from King Arthur Flour
Chocolate Chubbies from Serious Eats

The Beef Burgundy that was too salty was still too salty when it was served as a leftover, but not nearly so much. We had it over boiled potatoes and it makes a nice meal.

The Meyer Lemon Bars were just covered and left on the counter for a few days, and they keep there with no noticeable harm. If anything their flavor may have mellowed somewhat reducing the tartness of the lemon. They were served at room temperature but without the powdered sugar that was used the first night.

Kitchen tip
Mise en place ... it's not just for TV and professional chefs. Before you start cooking, read the recipe all the way through and prepare your ingredients. Take boxes and bottles out of the cupboards, measure herbs and spices, do any required chopping and slicing and dicing and cutting and shredding. No, I don't always do this, but I should.