Thursday, April 25, 2013

What to have with Butternut Squash?

April 14, 2013

Roasted Butternut Squash with Yogurt and Sesame Seeds
Baked Potatoes
2011 Forest Ville Gewürtzraminer

Challah from Cook's Illustrated

Menu planning usually starts with choosing a main dish. Side dishes are then chosen to complement the entreé. Not so for this Sunday dinner as I started with butternut squash, and only then selected the protein and other sides. Spring isn't the season for squash, but I received a request from America's Test Kitchen to test a recipe they are preparing to publish later this year,  presumably when squash is in season. I had recently seen squash at the store and was interested enough to give this recipe a go. The only way I've had butternut squash is boiled and mashed–my mom served it this way almost every Thanksgiving–and I was interested in learning a new way to prepare it.

The choice for the entreé was between roast ham and turkey and I ended up selecting ham, which we hadn’t had in a while. Since the oven would be on to cook both the squash and the ham I thought baked potatoes would be good, too. I hadn’t made bread in a while so I also decided to try my hand at challah which I had never made before. 

Needing to have three items in the oven at the same time led to come compromises in temperature and timing. (The bread was baked before the other dishes were started.)  I set the temperature at 400°; this is the temperature specified in the squash recipe I was testing, and higher than the recommended temperature for heating the ham and baking the potatoes. When the squash was done the ham was still cool in the center (I had this same experience the last time I fixed ham) and the potatoes were not quite done. We ate the warm ham and finished the potatoes in the microwave.
The baked squash was good to eat and easy to fix: it is peeled, the seeds are removed, and the squash is halved lengthwise before being cut into ½-inch thick slices. These are tossed with melted butter and put on a baking sheet and roasted, being turned once about half way through. The garnish really set off the earthy flavor of the squash. It was with Greek yogurt, extra-virgin olive oil, sesame seeds, and coriander.
We also enjoyed the challah. The braided loaf was beautiful to look at, fun to make, and good to eat. Like brioche it is an enriched bread with egg and butter added to the dough. The tender, rich-tasting bread went well with the ham and squash.
This was more of Fall/Winter meal than a Spring/Summer dinner. However, it was a chilly, windy Spring day as we ate our dinner outdoors. In retrospect it was probably too cold outside for dining and we would have enjoyed the meal more inside where the food would have stayed hot longer. So the menu was not as out of step with the season as it would seem. I was able to provide feedback on the new squash recipe and we have leftover ham and squash to look forward to.

 The challah makes very good toast and was enjoyed with butter and cinnamon sugar for breakfast. 

The squash was served, with the garnish, at two additional meals,  reheated in the microwave, and this worked out well.

Ham is a wonderful leftover, just as good reheated or cold as when it was first served, and very versatile. We had breakfast for dinner one night: pan-fried ham slices with challah French toast. We also had reheated ham, scalloped potatoes with ham, and ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch. Finally we had a delicious Grilled Cheese with Roasted Pineapple, Ham, and Swiss. Sandwiches are beautiful.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Crispy Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies

April 20, 2013

I follow several food blogs. Often I just skim through the posts, looking at the pictures, searching for inspiration and appealing recipes. I certainly found a recipe worth trying when I saw the recent post on Patty's Food for a very thin, crispy, dark brown, oatmeal cookie with large chunks of chocolate. (It's based on a recipe in the book Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich.)  I save many more recipes than I have time to try but I couldn't wait to try this one. We had polished off the peanut butter sandwich cookies and I had some extra time this weekend, so I spent some of my Saturday afternoon baking.

I made a few changes, more than I realized, to the recipe that Patty posted.
  • I used Ghirardelli 60% bittersweet chocolate chips; these chips are larger than the familiar chips from Nestlé and easier to find in the store than chocolate chunks. I could have made chunks from a chocolate bar but chose convenience and uniformity.
  • I used 1% milk rather than whole milk because that is what we had. There are only 2 tablespoons of milk so the reduction in fat is tiny compared to what is provided by the butter. 
  • I used parchment paper rather than aluminum foil to line the baking sheets and there was no noticeable effect on browning. (Though to be fair I should have compared cookies cooked on foil with those cooked on parchment, an experiment I didn't perform.)
  • In Patty's recipe the dough is divided into 15 equal size portions. I wasn't confident I could do this well. I considered dividing it into 16 portions, which would have been easier, but in the end I decided to use a disher. Think of it as a calibrated ice cream scoop. I have a few of these of different sizes and the #24 worked pretty well, producing 21 cookies. A #20 disher would get you closer to the size of the cookies Patty made, but we thought these were plenty big enough.
  • I tried using a 3" flat-bottomed mug to flatten the dough, but without success. The dough would just stick to the bottom of the glass mug even if I sprayed it first with Pam. So, I used the the heel of my hand to flatten the dough, keeping the dough cold so it would be less sticky.
  • I refrigerated the dough for about 2½ hours rather than 30 minutes. I found another version of this recipe that recommends overnight. The length of time the dough rests will affect the flavor and texture of the cookies so I wonder what the recipe in the book calls for.
  • I used table salt rather than sea salt. Sea salt makes a difference when used as a garnish on food, but when used for baking I don't think it is distinguishable from table salt. The amount of salt is small so I didn't bother to convert the volume of the sea salt in the recipe to the equivalent for table salt.
  • I bought a 10 ounce bag of chocolate chips and but used only 7 ounces in the cookies.  What a shame! I snacked on the leftover chips, but then maybe Patty did, too.

I am happy that I didn't wait to make these cookies, they are really good! They don't keep real well so you may want to freeze any, if any, that won't be eaten within a few days. They keep better in the freezer than they do at room temperature.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Quick Grilled Chicken

April 6, 2013
Quick Grilled Chicken
Grilled Asparagus
Grilled Cherry Tomatoes
Steamed Rice
Vella Chardonnay
Strawberry Shortcake

Quick Grilled Chicken Breasts with Grilled Cherry Tomatoes
from The America's Test Kitchen Quick Family Cookbook

Anticipation for the start of baseball starts to build shortly after the previous season ends. It builds through the Fall and Winter, increases as Spring Training starts in February, and finally, finally climaxes with the start of the season in early April. Opening Day for me and Diane was Sunday, April 5, the first San Francisco Giants game that we attended this year. Going to the San Francisco for a game is an all-day outing and we almost always eat at the ball park. (Baseball is not meant to be played in a stadium or indoors, but in a Park.) Thus, I cooked dinner on Saturday and I needed something relatively quick. I found a recipe for grilled chicken in the America's Test Kitchen Quick Family Cookbook which included grilled cherry tomatoes and a vinaigrette to form the basis for this meal.

I started the chicken and rice at the same time based on the time estimates in the chicken recipe, but, alas, the rice was done much sooner than the chicken. Our gas grill is apparently not as hot as the Test Kitchen grills judging by the extra time I needed to finish cooking the chicken.  For most of the cooking time I had two of the three burners lit on high and the burner under the chicken was off. After 15-20 minutes, the time in the recipe, the chicken was not done. I turned the third burner on low and this sped up the cooking.

The chicken came out nice, we had some of the smaller pieces for dinner and they were not overdone. The bigger pieces, which were done according the thermometer, were saved for another day. There was not a lot of variation in the temperatures between the big and small pieces.

Cherry tomatoes were grilled following the instructions in the recipe. The procedure for the tomatoes and asparagus is similar: just toss with some olive oil and cook until tender, the only difference is that the asparagus is seasoned with salt and pepper before grilling. The tomatoes were especially good cooked this way, warm and juicy and filled with flavor, much more flavor then you would get eating them cold. Since for a very long time I didn't even like to eat tomatoes, for me this is saying something.

The vinaigrette added a nice brightness to everything. It was made for the chicken and the tomatoes but once added to the plate some invariably got onto the asparagus and into the rice. It enhanced the flavor of everything it touched.

Our early season strawberries have been pretty good for the most part, and not unreasonably priced. Our benchmark price for most produce is $2 a pound, anything that costs less than this we consider to be reasonable. Because the flavor of the berries is not quite up to summer standards I have been adding extra sugar. I always macerate the berries in advance: the stems are removed and the berries are quartered. Sugar is added and the berries then rest for several hours, either on the counter or in the refrigerator depending on how long they will be sitting.  The sugar sweetens the berries and draws out some of the juice which then helps flavor the cake or ice cream that is served with the berries.

We had plenty of good, grilled chicken, one of the more versatile of leftovers. We had a simple chicken salad one night with enough left over that we both had some for lunch the next day. It was also served at two meals with a delicious orange sauce that Diane made: the meat was partially heated in the microwave then added to the hot sauce to finish heating. We also had leftover grilled cherry tomatoes which were served with the vinaigrette, and this worked well, too.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Dump and Go Chicken Cacciatore

March 25, 2013

Chicken Cacciatore over thin spaghetti
Almost No-Knead Bread
Garden Salad
2008 Tré California Merlot

Crock Pot Chicken Cacciatore from 101 Cooking for Two
Almost No-Knead Bread from Cook's Illustrated

There seem to be two different uses for the slow cooker (a. k. a. Crock Pot, though that's a brand name). The first is as a tool to fix meals quickly and easily: open some cans, cut up some meat, dump it all in the slow cooker, turn it on, and walk away. The second is to use it as a tool for cooking foods for a long time, but only after spending time preparing ingredients to fully develop their flavor, as in my favorite Beef Burgundy.

This recipe for Chicken Cacciatore fit clearly in the dump and go category. Sometimes, that's what you need. We had spent the weekend in San Diego for the Destination Imagination State Finals tournament. After two long days of driving and a long day at the tournament, I took Monday off from work to rest up and get caught up. That meant a dinner which could be fixed without spending a lot of time in the kitchen.

I made a few changes to the recipe published by Dr. Dan in his blog. Instead of 2 pounds chicken breast I used 1 pound of breast meat, which I cut into smaller pieces, and 1 pound of dark meat, which was already in reasonably sized portions. I added ¼ teaspoon of dry thyme and I included the optional ¼ teaspoon of red pepper flakes.

To accompany the Cacciatore I made a loaf of no-knead bread. While making bread would seem to be at odds with the goal of spending a minimum amount of time in the kitchen, it is not. This bread does take some time to make, but it takes very little hands-on time. Mixing the ingredients takes but a few minutes, then kneading it and shaping it take a few more, but other than putting into the oven and taking it out, that's about all. I didn't have any mild lager beer to add to the dough, as called for in the recipe, so I substituted some porter that I had. This resulted in a slightly darker crumb with a nuttier, less tangy flavor. I also prepared a garden salad using the fresh vegetables we had on hand.

This recipe met the goal of providing a hearty meal with a minimum effort. It wasn't the most flavorful version of Chicken Cacciatore but then that wasn't the goal. If I were to make it again I would omit the red pepper flakes. It's amazing how much heat such a small quantity of these flakes can impart to a dish, they effectively masked many of the other flavors. I might also omit the dark meat. It was so  over cooked by the time the white meat was ready that it was hard to find any reasonable-sized pieces of dark meat in the finished recipe. The white meat was tender but I thought it was a little dry, I think it was done before we were ready to eat and so maybe overcooked a bit.

This recipe made a lot of food for two people. We reheated it in the microwave and served it with pasta. It would have been nice if we'd had more big pieces of chicken to eat as the dark meat was all but invisible, as it had disintegrated. Including the original dinner, we had this for four meals, with a little left over after that which we discarded.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Tamale Pie for St. Patrick

March 17, 2013

Tamale Pie
Garden Salad
Madria Sangria

Recipe: Skillet Tamale Pie from Cook's Illustrated

Our repertoire of home made Mexican meals is slim. We often have tacos which are usually served with sangria and refried beans, but otherwise there is nothing we have regularly. On occasion we've had fajitas and we have made tamale pie using a mix from the supermarket a few times, but that's about it.

The tamale pie that we had on this St. Patrick's Day did not come from a box. I looked up a recipe from America's Test Kitchen to try. Their version is for a skillet tamale pie which minimized the number of dirty dishes, but does mean you will want to transfer the leftovers to another pan as a 12" skillet doesn't fit well in the refrigerator. This pie was very easy to make. Preparing the ingredients, the "mise en place", takes a little time but once this is done and the cooking starts, the dish is completed pretty quickly. The filling is first prepared on the stove top, the cornbread batter is spread on top of the filling, and the whole thing goes into the oven to bake the cornbread. Rather than buy a quart of buttermilk, then only use a small portion of it, I used a powdered buttermilk substitute which worked just fine. (Though I recently read that leftover buttermilk can be frozen, particularly if it will be used in baked goods.)

The tamale pie turned out well but the flavor was a little weak. This may be due to the use of lean ground beef which lacks the flavor provided by the fat. It could also have been due to the generic, and perhaps too old, chili powder that we had on hand.

The tamale pie makes a pretty complete meal by itself. To go along with it, though, I wanted something bright and fresh to complement the heavy pie so I prepared a fresh garden salad. We had a good selection of fresh vegetables as our CSA box had arrived shortly before and I picked up a few more at the supermarket.  It included: green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce, cilantro (just a little), cucumber, celery, carrot, mini sweet pepper, almond/cranberry accents, and tomato. It was served with a perfectly acceptable, drinkable, and affordable store-bought sangria.

We eat dinner outside for as much of the year as we can. As daylight saving time had just arrived and the weather was nice, this was our first outdoor dinner of the year. (Which improves my food photography more than anything else I might do as we don't get much natural light inside our kitchen.) I look forward to having this Mexican version of Shepherd's Pie again in the future but I might try another recipe next time to see if it provides a boost in the flavor.

Tamale Pie works well leftover as it can be simply warmed in the microwave and served. We froze some as we went out of town for a few days before using it all up and this worked well, too.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Not dinner, just cookies

March 16, 2013
Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies

Recipe: Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies from Cook's Illustrated

Since I started blogging, every post has focused on the menu for a single dinner, most of them made at home and consumed on a Sunday.  But for this post I'm writing not about dinner but about cookies. Just cookies. I made these on a Saturday afternoon but since we didn't have the cookies as dessert for our Sunday dinner  they don't really fit into my dinner story.

I posted recently about pie being a milestone in my recovery from surgery, not that we had pie to celebrate but rather that I was finally allowed to leave my place on the couch, where I spent much of five weeks, and get back into the kitchen. French Chocolate Silk Pie was one of two things I was looking forward to making during those weeks on the couch. Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies was the other. Unlike the pie, I had never made these cookies before, but I had been wanting to make them since reading about them in Cook's Illustrated and watching Julia make them on the TV show.

Because they are sandwich cookies, they are take a little more work than, say, chocolate chip cookies. The dough is assembled quickly and easily with all of the mixing being done by hand. You then need to portion the cookies and press them down so they will come out thin and crispy. The portioning have gone more quickly if I had a #60 disher (like a small ice cream scoop) rather than using a measuring spoon and table knife. Forty cookies later you make the filling, easy to do, then assemble the cookies. Care must be taken when pressing the cookies together as they are crisp and with too much pressure they will break, though that's not a disaster. I ended up with 40 cookies (20 cookies when assembled) rather than 48, but using the same measuring spoon for the filling as for the cookies, I ended up with just the right amount of filling.

I'm curious why the recipe specifies raw peanuts which you then bring home and toast. Roasted peanuts are easier to find in the supermarket than raw peanuts; I felt fortunate to find a bag of raw Spanish peanuts. I asked about this on the America's Test Kitchen Facebook page but didn't really get an answer to my question. I have several theories of my own. It could be because you don't want salted peanuts and it is easier to find raw peanuts than unsalted roasted nuts. Or, perhaps there is a problem with the texture or flavor of the peanuts after baking if you start with nuts that have already been thoroughly cooked once. Experimentation would lead to an answer but I prefer to leave that to the Test Kitchen cooks and so will use raw peanuts, as they require, when making these cookies.

Whatever the reason, everyone likes these cookies. I enjoy the crisp wafers that snap when you bit in to them. The peanut flavor in both the wafers and the filling is great. The cookies are big enough and rich enough that I have never felt like eating more than one at a time. They are not overly sweet as many cookies can be and that is a nice feature.

The Test Kitchen has published a recipe for a milk chocolate filling which we will want to try soon. The peanut butter filling is made with peanut butter, butter, and confectioners' sugar, the milk chocolate filling is similar but substitutes milk chocolate for the butter. Peanuts and chocolate should be a winning combination. Our daughter has suggested using Nutella which would also be interesting to try.