Monday, December 24, 2012

Pork Pot Roast, Brioche, and Expectations

December 16, 2012
  • Pork Pot Roast
  • Brioche
  • Boiled Red Potatoes
  • Green Beans
  • 2011 Forest Ville Gewürztraminer
  • Cinnamon Candied Almonds
"Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed." – Alexandar Pope

My ninth grade Earth Science teacher, Mrs. Strong, had some good advice about expectations. She told us that it is better to expect the worst, while waiting for a graded exam to be returned, than to expect that you aced it. It is better to be pleasantly surprised at exceeding your expectations than to be disappointed. I failed to follow her advice when preparing pork pot roast and I was disappointed in the result.

Pot roast is one of my favorites, tender pieces of beef that fall apart,  swimming in a rich, savory gravy. I am also fond of pork so when I saw a recipe for pork pot roast, I was expecting something similar to beef pot roast: very tender meat and a rich, flavorful sauce. Beef pot roast is generally made using chuck, a tough, fatty cut with much connective tissue that contributes to the flavor and moistness of the meat.  However, this pork pot roast was made from the loin, a very lean cut with little fat or connective tissue. It is cooked for a long time in a covered pot with apples, onions, and white wine. Less liquid is used for the pork than for the beef so you seal the dutch oven with an extra layer of foil under the lid to help prevent moisture loss.

The loin that I got consisted of two pieces of meat tied together. The recipe includes double-butterflying the loin, seasoning it, and then tying it back up in its original shape. This procedure gets added seasoning into the thick roast, more than you would get just seasoning the outside. Rather than double butterflying the meat I butterflied each piece, seasoned all sides, and tied them together for roasting. This made for a thick three-pound roast but it still finished cooking in just 1¾ hours.

I was disappointed in the final result because it lacked the tenderness that I was expecting. It was neither tough nor dried out but it had more chew to it, and less moisture, than I would have liked. It was very nicely seasoned though and the sauce, though a little thin, was delicious and greatly improved the dish.

On the other hand, the brioche was a pleasant surprise. I had never made this before and was inspired to do so by the bread that we had at Morton's. I don't know how they make their bread as they neither name it on their menu nor release the recipe. But the yellow color and tender, slightly sweet crumb inspired me to try brioche. Cook's Illustrated has a recipe for "Quick Brioche", so called because the dough only rises once before baking. The bread is not too difficult to make with a food processor doing much of the work. It is soft and rich with a tender crust, in contrast to the chewy,  rustic no-knead breads with crisp crusts that I often make. The flavor comes from the addition of fat to the dough in the form of milk, butter, and eggs.  It is good to have a new bread to add to my repertoire when considering future meals.

For the holidays I also made a snack, cinnamon candied almonds, using a simple recipe provided by Dr. Dan in his blog. I used a combination of granulated sugar, super fine sugar, and brown sugar,  because I didn't have enough granulated sugar. The raw nuts are coated then cooked for an hour in a low oven. They are turned every 15 minutes and I found it useful to rinse the turner with water each time as it gets coated with a sticky mess of sugars and cinnamon. I used an un-rimmed baking sheet as that is all I had that was large enough. I had to use care when turning the nuts to keep them on the sheet. The parchment paper tended to move around and a rimmed baking sheet would have helped to constrain it. I put a small bowl of these out and they quickly disappeared. We've had to be careful about putting more of these on the table as they are quite irresistible. Diane plans to make some more this holiday season, perhaps using walnuts.

I don't know if there was a problem with the pork or my technique or if it was a problem with my expectations. In any case I don't expect to make this recipe again. I hope that my disappointment is not leading me to miss out on a dish that could be truly enjoyable. Fortunately there are many more recipes to try, both new ones and old favorites, so I'm not too unhappy that this one didn't work out as well as I had hoped. On the other hand, the brioche was a great success and I'm sure to be making it again.

Pork Pot Roast from Cook's Illustrated, published as "French-style Pot-roasted Pork Loin"
Brioche from Cook's Illustrated, published as "Quick Brioche"
Cinnamon Candied Almonds from 101 Cooking for Two

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Change can be good: Beef Stroganoff

December 2, 2012
  • Beef Stroganoff over noodles
  • Garden Salad
  • 2010 Doña Sol Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Triple Chocolate Cookies, Breyers Natural Vanilla Ice Cream

There are many foods that I enjoy eating now that I would't even consider eating when I was younger.  I went through four years of college and four years of graduate school without eating pizza. When my mom served spaghetti I would have something else, a hamburger perhaps. When she made grilled cheese sandwiches I would have a grilled PB&J (which I still enjoy). BLT, no, I would have bacon, lettuce, and peanut butter. And I avoided sour cream for a most of my life.

Over time, though, my tastes have changed. While sour cream is not something I would go out of my way to eat, I don't avoid it or dishes that use it, either. Which is a good thing because I would not have considered making beef stroganoff for dinner this Sunday. According to wikipedia, beef stroganoff is "a Russian dish of sauteéd beef served in a sauce of sour cream ...". The exact origins of the name are unknown but it is likely taken from a member of the Stroganov family. In Russian, beef stroganoff is Бефстроганов. You can learn all sorts of stuff, some of it even useful, on the Internet.

Beef stroganoff is a good, cool weather dish, rich and satisfying with the sour cream sauce and egg noodles. Made from the Cook's Illustrated recipe it is a one-skillet dish so you don't end up with a kitchen full of dirty pots and pans to wash. The recipe calls for sirloin steak tips which I believe is a regional cut of meat from New England, sometimes called flap meat in other parts of the country. I went to Whole Foods and asked for sirloin steak tips. The butcher left the counter and went into the back to prepare my order and returned with a package labelled "top sirloin". After getting home and opening the package I am sure this is not the cut of beef that the Test Kitchen cooks had in mind when they published this recipe. Perhaps this is why the meat in our finished stroganoff was a little tough, though still edible and good tasting. This was not the only error in this recipe as I forgot to quarter the mushrooms before microwaving them. Thus they probably had more moisture than envisioned by the author. I thought the finished dish may have had too many mushrooms, perhaps quartering them before microwaving would have reduced their volume in the finished product.

To accompany the stroganoff I made a salad using mostly ingredients from our monthly box of local organic produce from Farm Fresh to You. The salad included red leaf lettuce, spinach, carrots, cucumber, celery, and cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes were the last of the season from our own tiny garden.

For dessert I made triple chocolate cookies. Searching on the web turns up a lot of different recipes for this cookie. The way I made them they were double chocolate cookies as I added whole Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate chips to the finished dough rather than using milk chocolate chips. The same chips were also used, melted, in the dough. I used a stand mixer and so I added the flour to the other ingredients rather than doing it the other way around as described in the recipe. The cookies are rich with a deep chocolate flavor. They're soft and slightly chewy and lack any crispness. I thought my dough was not quite as thick as the recipe describes but the cookies are still good. I don't think they're as good as chocolate chubbies but these perhaps have a deeper chocolate flavor.

This was a real satisfying winter dinner. The warm, rich stroganoff and noodles were just the thing for a winter dinner. These were was nicely complemented by the fresh garden salad and hearty wine. I've learned to like pizza, spaghetti, BLTs, and even sour cream. I could probably learn to like grilled cheese sandwiches, too, but so far I have stuck with my grilled PB&J.

Beef Stroganoff from Cook's Illustrated 
Ultimate Triple Chocolate Cookie from Kitchen Trials

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Anniversary Dinner at Morton's The Steakhouse

December 9, 2012
  • Baked Five Onion Soup
  • 6 oz. Center-Cut Filet Mignon
  • 6 oz. Filet Mignon with 3 Grilled Shrimp & 2 Bacon Wrapped Scallops
  • Grilled Jumbo Asparagus
  • Chicago Style Horseradish Mashed Potatoes
  • 2010 Mirrasou Cabernet Sauvignon
When I called to make our reservation for dinner at the San Jose Morton's The Steakhouse, I hesitated when they asked me if this was a special occasion. After a pause I said yes, it was for our anniversary. The hesitation came because our anniversary was three months previous and we were just getting around to celebrating, in part because Diane was out of town on our anniversary date. I'm glad that I said yes as we were greeted with "Happy Anniversary" several times. We had special menus which also celebrated our anniversary, they snapped a photo of us and presented us with a print, and we got a free dessert. They went out of there way to make our special dinner special and we appreciated their efforts and the very good service that we received.
I love onion soup (I need to try and make it at home, I have several recipes to try) and so ordered Morton's version to start my meal. Diane, having ordered a mixed-grill platter, felt that her entreé effectively included her appetizer. The delicious soup of caramelized onions and rich broth was topped with a thick layer of Swiss cheese and slice of bread. I enjoyed the soup and bread and cheese but I would have preferred there to have been more broth and perhaps less cheese. 

A round loaf of bread was part of the meal. The bread was soft with a soft crust and it was garnished with poppy seeds and sweet caramelized bits of onion. It had a slightly sweet flavor enhanced by the onion which I enjoyed as it provided a pleasant side note to the savory meal. It has a yellow crumb, probably from the use of egg and/or butter in the dough, and so might be related to brioche. We didn't finish the loaf and asked our server to pack the leftovers for us to take home. Rather than do this, they generously gave us a whole new loaf which we enjoyed with several dinners this week at home. One complaint is that they only provided one knife, a steak knife. The knife was poorly suited to cutting the bread and to spreading butter (which was served at the perfect temperature, it makes no sense to serve frozen pats of butter that you can't spread without destroying the bread).
Our dinners were both very good. We both ordered our steak medium-rare and that is how it was delivered. The filet mignon was very tender, it hardly needed a steak knife to cut. The seafood was also very good, especially the scallops which Diane noted as being very sweet.

Side dishes are ordered separately at Morton's and we chose two. The portions are generous enough so they easily serve two people. The grilled asparagus was nicely cooked and served with a balsamic glaze. (Though Diane preferred the steamed asparagus served with her entreé.) The horseradish potatoes went very well with the beef. We ordered a bottle of wine, one of their lower-priced bottles, and we were very pleased with the very smooth and drinkable Cabernet Sauvignon. The sommelier who served it shared some stories about visiting the old Mirrasou winery in San Jose. It is only a few miles from our home and we had visited it often before it closed when the brand was acquired by Gallo.

For dessert there were many delectable choices. Diane and I both love chocolate and there were several tempting dark chocolate treats. However, our anniversary dinner included a complimentary dessert which this night was a lemon soufflé. So we controlled ourselves and shared the soufflé wondering if we could return some evening just to try the double chocolate mousse or hot chocolate cake.

Morton's is a restaurant we would return to. It was a very expensive meal so we would only come here for a special occasion, but the pleasant atmosphere, excellent service, and the special attention they gave to us for our anniversary leave us with fond memories.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A quick and easy Italian dinner

October 13, 2012

  • Panzanella
  • Spaghetti with Quick Tomato Sauce
  • Bolla 2011 Chianti
  • Gizdich Very Berry Pie

Several years ago my family gathered at Green Lakes State Park to celebrate my dad's 80th birthday. Food was prepared by a variety of people including my son, who was trained in Culinary Arts at the Culinary Institute of America. He made panzanella, an Italian bread salad, using Ciabatta bread and heirloom tomatoes. I loved it, as did everyone at the party, and I've wanted to try making it myself.

This Sunday dinner was on a Saturday as we would be spending Sunday at AT&T Park for the first game of the National League Championship Series. (Our San Francisco Giants lost this game but won the Series, beating the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.) Diane was finally back from Oregon and Caryn was home from college for the weekend.

I would have preferred making my own bread but didn't have enough time, so I bought a two pound loaf of sweet French bread at Le Boulanger. You have to have fresh tomatoes for panzanella and I got these at our local fruit stand, J&P Farms. I picked up some fresh basil there as well. It was the availability of fresh tomatoes which led me to make panzanella this weekend. I made a mistake with the dressing, using Raspberry Vinegar instead of Red Wine Vinegar (hey, they're both red!) but the result was still very good. Everyone enjoyed the salad and Diane had seconds. I should have made the cubes of bread smaller, they were bite-sized and did a good job soaking up the dressing but some were a bit of stretch to eat in one bite.

To accompany the salad I made a quick tomato sauce which was served over spaghetti. The sauce is very easy to make and takes very little time. Though not quite as convenient as sauce from a can or jar I think it's worth the small amount of extra effort. The tomatoes come from a can but it turns out these provide more flavor than you would get from grocery store tomatoes. The latter are picked green, before they are ripe, while tomatoes that are canned are allowed to ripen before they are picked. Thus canned tomatoes are a more flavorful choice. It took less than an hour to prepare the full meal, tomato sauce plus salad. We heeded the old phrase, "when you eat Italian, drink Italian" and accompanied our repast with some Italian Chianti.

For dessert we had a wonderful fresh berry pie. Earlier in the day we visited the Gizdich Ranch, mostly to buy apples. We weren't the only ones who thought this was a good day to visit as the place was quite crowded. We purchased some sandwiches and enjoyed a picnic lunch next to the apple orchard. We gave in to temptation and purchased one of their Very Berry pies to take home along with all the apples fresh apple juice.

Panzanella from America's Test Kitchen
Quick Tomato Sauce from America's Test Kitchen

Monday, December 3, 2012

Pork Roast and Homemade Applesauce

November 25, 2012
  • Savory Sage Pork Roast with Apple Pork Gravy
  • Boiled Red Potatoes
  • Green Beans
  • Applesauce
  • Chocolate Chubbies with Ben and Jerry's Vanilla Ice Cream
This was our second Sunday dinner while in Central New York as we visited family for Thanksgiving. Once again I enjoyed the opportunity to cook for more than two people as we were joined again by my middle sister (we were staying in her house. after all), brother, and my dad. Also joining us this week was my brother's wife, herself a middle sister, so we again had a full table with six diners. (Alas, Diane is not a middle sister but she has one.)

The menu fell into my lap, not requiring much planning on my part. In my post for the previous week's dinner I had asked what I should make this week. My sister commented on the post (I wish more people would leave comments on my blog posts) that she had a pork roast in the freezer and some homemade applesauce. Nothing goes better with pork than homemade applesauce. Our oldest sister sent e-mail with the recipe. Thus all that remained was picking the side dishes and preparing the meal.

The recipe was from McCormick's and, not surprisingly, called for many McCormick products. I followed it pretty closely. We didn't have all of the ingredients for the dry rub but we had most of them. I used: 2½ teaspoons ground sage, 1 teaspoon garlic salt, ½ teaspoon parsley flakes, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, ½ teaspoon black pepper.  The pork was a three pound "center loin roast" but, bone-in. The recipe was for a boneless roast. I contemplated removing the bones but not being certain of the anatomy and how much hacking I'd need to do, I left them in place. I used a 13x9 inch cake pan, lined with heavy duty non-stick aluminum foil (my sister has an incredible amount of this, but that's her story to tell) to cook the roast and this worked fine. A probe thermometer was inserted into the meat and the alarm was set for 150°. The recommended temperature for cooking pork is now 145° but my sister was uncomfortable with the idea of eating pink pork so I increased it by 5°. The result was good, the center was still a little pink but the edges were not, so everyone was able to select a piece of pork that matched their preferences. I was disappointed in the amount of flavor provided by the dry rub, this may have been due in part to the bones which covered one side of the roast. Also, the rub wasn't on the meat very long before the meat went into the oven. The gravy, made from a mix and apple sauce, was a nice, sweet addition to the meat and potatoes.

The applesauce that my sister made was very good. She used some local Central New York apples and added just a little cinnamon and sugar. Dessert was simple and very good, Chocolate Chubbies is my recipe find of the year and I've made them several times already.

Savory Sage Pork Roast with Apple Pork Gravy from McCormick
Chocolate Chubbies from serious eats