Thursday, May 24, 2012

Saturday, dinner for three, and a gnome

May 19, 2012
Pasta Caprese
Roasted Garlic Batard
Green Salad
Vella Chardonnay

It was Caryn's first weekend home from college for the summer and I wanted to prepare a vegetarian meal. Normally I cook on Sunday, but on this particular Sunday Diane and I attended a San Francisco Giants game. We go to about a dozen a year, rarely  on Sunday, but the give-away at this game was particularly appealing. Knowing there would be long lines we left an hour earlier than usual to ensure being among the lucky 20,000 to get their very own Brian Wilson (a.k.a. "The Beard") gnome. Our planning paid off and we returned home with two gnomes. Knowing that we would get home too late on Sunday to prepare anything elaborate, I decided to fix dinner on Saturday.  We ended up having burgers on Sunday after the game.

For our Saturday dinner, I chose a summer-time pasta dish that I had made once before, Pasta Caprese. This is a light pasta which does not include a tomato or cream sauce. Rather, the pasta is served with fresh tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. The tomatoes, 1½ pounds, were cored,  seeded then marinated for a short time in extra virgin olive oil, garlic, shallot, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. A pound of fresh mozzarella was cut into ½ inch pieces and placed in the freezer for 10 minutes.  I kept moving the cheese from the freezer to the refrigerator to the counter top so it wouldn't get too cold and hard or too warm and soft. Freezing prevents the cheese from melting into a gooey stringy mess when it is added to the hot pasta. One pound of dry penne pasta was cooked then added to the tomatoes along with the chilled mozzarella. The dish was finished with chopped fresh basil and served. It was light and fresh and easy to prepare. It could have been improved by using real tomatoes, fresh and ripe from the garden, rather than what you get at the supermarket, but it is tool early in the year for that.

I had made bread the previous weekend, indeed we still had some. Rather than making more bread I  picked up a loaf from the supermarket bakery. It would not be as good as home made but it provided a chance to try a different kind of bread. It was a basic french bread with embedded slices of roasted garlic. The garlic and bread provided a nice accompaniment to the pasta.

The final course was a fresh green salad. I purchased Earthbound Farm greens: Half Spring Mix and Half Baby Spinach. We have found that while greens from Earthbound Farm cost more than other prepackaged salads they keep much better and are worth the extra cost. To this I added some sliced cucumber and tomato and served dressings on the side so each of us could choose our own favorite. I had Italian, Caryn a raspberry vinaigrette, and Diane chose Ranch.

I don't often prepare fresh, light meals like this but I always enjoy them when I do. Since I generally cook only once a week I'm not willing to give up preparing meat entirely while vegetarian Caryn is home. But she usually does fine with the side dishes and is a good cook herself, so there is no concern about her getting enough to eat. And after all, she does get to keep one of the gnomes.

Pasta Caprese from America's Test Kitchen

Some America's Test Kitchen recipes require registration before they can be viewed on-line. You may be able to find these recipes on other web sites.

There was a small piece of filet mignon left over from last Sunday's dinner. I cut a slice of whole wheat bread, also left over from the previous Sunday's dinner, sliced the beef thin, and built a sandwich. I garnished it with butter, horseradish, romaine lettuce, and a little ketchup. It was delicious and the beef was very tender.

Because the mashed potatoes were so dry we served them with gravy. We had chicken marsala one night and turkey gravy, from a mix, another day.

How it's done
America's Test Kitchen published an interesting graphic outlining the 12-step, 10-month process they use to develop recipes: Our 12-Step Path to Recipe Perfection.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Meal for Mom

May 13, 2012

  • Pan-seared Filet Mignon
  • Mashed Potato Casserole
  • Grilled Asparagus
  • Almost No-knead Whole Wheat Bread
  • Peachy Canyon 2010 Incredible Red Zinfandel
  • Chocolate Pots de Creme

It seemed only right to plan a special meal for my special lady on Mother's Day. We had nothing particular planned for the day and neither of our two children, both grown, were able to be with us. Menu planning thus focused on things that Diane is fond of which made it pretty easy. Since I hadn't done much cooking the previous two Sundays I was looking forward to getting back into the kitchen, so I didn't feel a need to budget my time as much as I need to some weekends.

I've mentioned in this blog that Diane likes steak more than I do. I like it too but I'm not a big meat eater in general. I like the easy rule of thumb which says your meat portion should be about the size of a deck of playing cards. I had recently seen some recipes describing how to cook Filet Mignon which we both enjoy. Visiting the butcher at Whole Foods, I selected two "Beef Loin Tenderloin Steaks". These together weighed about 8 ounces and cost $22. To prepare them I used a hybrid of the two techniques I read about. I heated a cast iron skillet on the stove over medium-high heat. I patted the steaks dry with a paper towel and applied olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. They were placed in the hot pan and both sides were browned, taking about three minutes a side (and producing a fair amount of smoke, especially for the first side.) The pan and steaks were then placed in a 375° oven and the steaks cooked to an internal temperature of 125°, which should have been medium rare. They steaks rested while the other courses were completed and then served. The steaks were tender and delicious, very easy to cut and eat. They were, however, not medium rare, but probably medium. Still very good, though.

Mashed Potato Casserole was a new dish for us, but one I was confident Diane would like. At a dinner once we were asked what one food we would take to a desert island and she chose potatoes. (I chose bread ... I guess we both like our starch.) This casserole is essentially mashed potatoes that are then baked. There are some interesting ingredients, however, that normally don't go into mashed potatoes such as Dijon mustard, eggs, chives, and chicken broth.  Since I was cooking four pounds of potatoes I knew we would have a lot left over. Since our daughter Caryn, a vegetarian, was coming home this week for the summer,  I substituted water for the broth so she could help us with the leftovers. This may account for the end result as the potatoes were dry, perhaps the missing fat from the absent broth caused this. While regular old mashed potatoes might have been better (or Diane's favorite, baked potatoes) this does provide us with a convenient side dish for the rest of the week.

I learned to grill asparagus from our son, Caleb. A few years ago I had the pleasure of helping him prepare dinner for seventy or so guests at a party for the fiftieth anniversary of Diane's parents. I don't recall the full menu, but it included poached salmon, salad, grilled asparagus, and cheese cake. Since then, grilling has been my favorite method for preparing asparagus. It's easy to do and produces hot tender spears. You just coat the asparagus with olive oil, season it with salt and pepper, and cook it on a hot grill.

The bread was made using my standby no-knead recipe from America's Test Kitchen. Diane prefers whole grain breads to those made with white flour. I spent a little extra time shaping the dough so the boule would be nice and symmetrical. I scored the top using a tic-tac-toe pattern we saw being used at the Boudin bakery at the Disney California Adventure Park. (Though I could have made the cuts a little deeper, I think.) Probably because of the warmer weather the dough rose nicely, resulting in a beautiful loaf of bread with great whole wheat flavor and crispy crust.

We are not wine snobs by any measure. Our every day wine often comes from a box and we usually look for bottles that are on sale and cost us less than $10. For a special meal like this, however, I was willing to spend a little more. I looked at the Cabernets and Zinfandels at Whole Foods and selected a bottle from Peachy Canyon. I think it cost around $13, so the price was right. I chose this wine because we had visited the Peachy Canyon winery, which is near Paso Robles, on vacation a few years ago. We went on a wine tour, and since we didn't have to drive we were not so limited to how much we could taste. The Peachy Canyon wine was excellent and went very well with the filet.

Dessert had to be chocolate. With my recent discovery about how easy it is to make puddings, I remembered a recipe from Cook's Illustrated that I had in my file of things I wanted to try. This was probably the easiest pudding I've made yet. Chocolate (Ghirardelli Bittersweet Chocolate, 60% cocoa) is broken and put into a bowl. The other ingredients – egg yolks, sugar, cream, half and half, salt – are heated on the stove with constant stirring, over medium-low heat to a temperature of 180°. This mixture is then poured through a strainer and over the chocolate. After five minutes it is whisked gently, a little espresso powder and vanilla is added, and it is refrigerated. As you might imagine, it tastes really good. I was a little surprised how thick it was, thicker than the puddings that I've made. One unfortunate aspect of the recipe is that it calls for 10 ounces of chocolate. Since chocolate comes in 4 ounce bars there were 2 ounces left over. Since, as everyone knows, it doesn't keep very well, we were forced to eat the extra  rather than letting it go to waste. Oh, the sacrifices we make.

Caleb and Caryn both called during the afternoon to wish their mom a Happy Mother's Day. I was busy in the kitchen cooking when they called, and so participated in the call using the phone on speaker. Each got a little play-by-play of a portion of the preparations: Caryn of dessert and Caleb of the potatoes and filet. So while they weren't here in person, they both were here in spirit and participated in the making of this special meal for mom.

Filet Mignon from Cook's Illustrated and 101 Cooking for Two
Mashed Potato Casserole from Cook's Country
Almost No-Knead Whole Wheat Bread from Cooks Illustrated
Chocolate Pots de Creme from Cook's Illustrated

Some America's Test Kitchen recipes require registration before they can be viewed. You may be able to find these recipes on other web sites.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Timing can be everything

May 6, 2012
Skillet-Glazed Pork Chops
Boiled potatoes
Glazed Carrots
Forest Ville 2010 Riesling
Best Butterscotch Pudding

One of the more challenging aspects of cooking a meal is timing. Ideally you want all of the meal's courses to be ready at the same time so they can be served at the ideal temperature and degree of doneness. I found this to be particularly challenging when I first started cooking, many years ago, and this challenge can still trip me up as it did with this meal.

This was an interesting dinner in that all three courses were prepared on the stove top at the same time. None were in the oven, none were cooked outside on the grill, nothing was prepared ahead of time. The challenge was deciding when to start the vegetables so they would finish at around the same time as the pork chops. The pork was to be cooked to an internal temperature of 140° and the recipe provided only an estimate of how long that would take, an estimate probably based on a gas rather than an electric stove. I had even thought I might stop cooking three of the four chops before reaching 140° so they wouldn't be overcooked when reheated for leftovers, adding to the challenge.

The pork chops took longer than anticipated. As the temperature crept ever so slowly towards 140° I was loathe to check it too frequently as each time I did a new hole was made in the meat through which juices could escape.  I don't know if it was just my perception or if I was distracted and didn't notice the time, but it seemed that after a slow gradual rise, the temperature jumped  upward when I wasn't looking.  After the meat reached 130° I waited a little while (playing a little Words with Friends while I waited) and when I checked again it had raced past 140° to 150°–170°  depending on which chop I checked. I was surprised. The sauce was done just about right by this time and not overcooked and it didn't need any further reduction. The pork was overdone and a little dry and tough.

Because of the longer than expected cooking time for the meat, the vegetables were on course to finish well ahead of time. I turned down the heat as the pork cooked when it became clear they would finish before the meat. The potatoes were fine, kept nice and warm in their hot water bath, and they were not overcooked. The carrots also fared reasonably well though they were a little over done, but not too bad. A pound of carrots was just the right amount for the two of use. They were cooked in chicken stock and glazed with butter and granulated sugar.

On to dessert, which was made in advance as it had to cool in the refrigerator for three hours after cooking. I have made chocolate pudding from scratch several times and found it to be delicious: chocolatey, creamy, and smooth. So I was happy to test a new America's Test Kitchen recipe for butterscotch pudding that I received last week. Making this pudding was more complicated than the chocolate pudding as it takes time to develop the butterscotch flavor. This part of the process is very much like making candy as you create a caramel by heating a mixture of water, lemon juice, corn syrup, granulated sugar, dark brown sugar, and salt to a temperature of 300°. (I was happy to find that my digital instant-read thermometer works to this temperature. I was a worried that it would be damaged or just not work.) It took about half an hour to raise the temperature this high. The mixture was then mixed with cream and milk and added to a cornstarch and egg yolk mixture to thicken. It was finished off with some vanilla and rum; the recipe called for dark rum but I wasn't about to buy a bottle just for this so used the light rum we had on hand.

In my review of the recipe for America's Test Kitchen I replied that I would probably not make the recipe again. Not because it wasn't good. The flavors were intense and the consistency very smooth, very creamy. Diane said the flavor reminded her of butterscotch candy while I was reminded of a Test Kitchen recipe for "Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies" that uses brown butter to impart a toffee flavor. However, while it was very good, the flavor was not to Diane's taste nor to mine. I am inspired, though, to try other homemade pudding recipes. They are so much better than the box puddings that we are all used to and well worth the extra effort to make.

So while my timing could have better, the meal turned out OK. A bigger problem than the overcooked carrots was the overcooked meat. I worry that this will only be exacerbated when they are reheated for leftovers.

Skillet-Glazed Pork Chops from Cook's Country
Glazed Carrots, Cook's Illustrated Cookbook, 2011, p. 256

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Burgers Al Fresco

April 27, 2012

  • Grilled hamburgers with peppers and onions
  • Potato Chips
  • Crudité
  • Henry Weinhard's Root Beer or Sangria

It was the end of a busy week which left little time to spend preparing a meal. We returned from our mini-vacation in Southern California late on Wednesday. Thursday and Friday were pretty normal days filled with work and catching up. The activity level picked up again when we got to the weekend.

Saturday morning we headed to downtown San Jose to participate in the March for Babies, a fund raiser for the March of Dimes, where we walked as members of the Pirate Power team. Following the walk and a brief stop at home we were on the road again, this time to Monterey for the Big Sur International Marathon. I have walked in the 10.6-mile and 21-mile events since 2000 and Diane has joined me the last few years. It's become an annual tradition and this year, as last, we walked together up the breathtaking Big Sur coast in the 10.6-miler.

For many years we would always stop on the way home at a McDonalds for lunch. However, we are now forging a new tradition, taking a different route home and stopping at Gizdich Ranch.  Gizdich is known for its apples and berries which you can buy in season and even pick yourself. Diane has visited there several times in the past to pick berries of various sorts. They are also famous for the pies made in their bakery which also serves sandwiches. We were too early in the season for any of the berries and they had only a few apples on sale from last year. Nonetheless it was a lovely day for a picnic lunch on the lawn adjacent to an apple orchard enjoying their nice, home-style sandwiches. We also bought some of their apple cider to take home.

For Sunday supper we needed something pretty simple. Inspired by the warm, sunny weather (which I, for one, have been yearning for) we have just this week started eating dinner outside on the deck. We eat outdoors for about half the year, so long as it is warm enough to be reasonably comfortable. We have even eaten in the dark, albeit with a floodlight wearing jackets to ward off the chill.

Hamburgers seemed to fit the need for a simple meal. A few days in advance I bought 1⅓ pounds of 80% lean ground beef from the store to make four burgers. I was happy to also find a package of four hamburger buns, rather than the usual eight. I fried some onion and bell pepper in butter to top the burgers along with lettuce, tomatoes, and ketchup. The hamburgers were cooked quickly on the grill. Some potato chips and fresh veggies completed the meal. We had considered stopping to buy sweet corn on the way home, having had our first ears of the season just a few days earlier, but we didn't bother. The corn isn't really good anyway until you can get locally grown product.

You have probably seen more photos of hamburgers than of any other food, and I know my pictures don't compare to those. But I am not a food stylist and I don't paint grill marks on the edges of the burger the way they do for the fast food commercials. However, the hamburgers tasted good and it didn't take very much time, effort, or planning to prepare the meal. That was just wat was needed on this Sunday spring evening.