Friday, February 21, 2014

Boy, do we have a lot of Ham

February 9, 2014

Baked Ham
Baked Garnet Yam
Sautéed Garlic-Lemon Spinach
Parker House Rolls
Lemon Meringue Pie
Mt. Difficulty 2013 Medium Riesling 

Sautéed Garlic-Lemon Chicken from Cook's Illustrated
Parker House Rolls form King Arthur Flour
Grandma's Lemon Meringue Pie from

The reasons for choosing a particular main course can be interesting. I once wrote about choosing ham because it would go well with butternut squash. Similarly, for this Sunday dinner Diane requested ham because we had an over abundance of sweet white wines (Rieslings and Gewürztraminer) which would go well with ham. But ham for two presents a challenge. I went to the supermarket planning to buy a small ham and I found some nice ones for $6 a pound. However, I found that I could get a half ham for $1 a pound. For the same amount of money I could get six times as much! Even with the bone this seemed too good of a deal to pass up; the bone can  be used to make soup. I came home with an 11 pound piece of meat for just the two of us.

I baked the whole thing at 325° to an internal temperature of 140° but afterward wondered if that was worthwhile. Since the ham was already cooked and baking is really just reheating, couldn't I have carved off a hunk and heated it much more quickly? The outside of the ham was black after it was baked which caused some initial concern but it wasn't really a problem other than visual.

I did make some interesting side dishes to go with the huge ham hunk. Since the oven was on for the ham, I baked some garnet yams ... they weren't done when the ham was done so I finished baking them in the microwave. They were overdone but still good, just too soft.

We had a bundle of spinach from our monthly produce box. We generally don't know what to do with spinach when we get it so I looked up a recipe to find a preparation that would be appropriate for dinner. The recipe has the advantage of being really quick and the lemon and garlic were good complements, adding needed flavor to the bland greens.

I made Parker House Rolls using a King Arthur recipe a few months ago and loved them. They are the closest I've found to the rolls I remember fondly from Lynch's Bakery in my home town of Chittenango, NY—soft and buttery. When I made them I had attempted to make brown and serve rolls using this recipe so we would have them to use on subsequent days but I was not happy with the results. I did some research and found directions in an Alton Brown recipe describing how to do this. I didn't use Alton's recipe but I did use his baking instructions for making brown and serve rolls.

We had wine that we brought back with us from the Mt. Difficulty winery which we had visited in New Zealand. This Central Otago winery (Otago is a region of the country) is known for its Pinot Noir but we much preferred the whites. This Riesling was very good with our ham dinner.

For dessert during this citrus season I made a Lemon Meringue Pie. I had a crust in the freezer that I had made a few weeks ago and this was a great way to use it. This pie was delicious, very light and lemony with a good balance between tartness and sweetness. Given that I already had the crust, it was very easy to make.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Chicken Marsala

February 2, 2013

Chicken Marsala
Boiled Garnet Yams
Garden Salad
Ranch 32 2011 Pinot Noir

Chicken Marsala from Cook's Illustrated

One of the perks of being the cook is choosing what to cook. I cook things that I enjoy to eat. Sometimes this means cooking what I like which Diane would be unlikely to cook. Perks. This week, however, I asked Diane if there was anything she would like. The only stipulation was that it should be relatively quick and easy. I have been very busy volunteering for several community organizations and I didn't want to spend too much time in the kitchen. Diane responded almost immediately, "Chicken Marsala". I went to the cookbooks and found this to be a  straightforward dish to prepare: chicken breast is quickly browned in a sauce pan and served with a pan sauce that features a reduction of sweet Marsala wine.

Marsala is a fortified wine from Sicily which can be drunk straight or used to make a sauce. Chicken Marsala is often served in Italian restaurants and Diane will frequently order it when given the opportunity. I bought four chicken breasts but used only three, cutting the largest in half. I pounded them a little so their thickness was more even, but not real thin. Even so, after browning both sides, when I checked the internal temperature I found they were a little overdone. The sauce includes pancetta, mushrooms, and garlic in addition to the Marsala, and is finished with butter, lemon juice, and fresh parsley. Preparing the ingredients before cooking started ("mise en place") was very helpful as things happen pretty quickly once the cooking began. The full meal took about 90 minutes to prepare, including photography.

To accompany the chicken I made a salad and boiled garnet yams. Unfortunately the yams were overcooked well before they were ready to serve. I was counting on them to take 20 minutes or so to cook, like boiled white potatoes, but they cooked faster than this.

Diane and I both enjoyed our dinner. The chicken, even though a little over done, was tender and juicy.  I thought the sauce could have been more flavorful, though when we had leftovers it had more flavor and I enjoyed it more. We will definitely need to make this again and perhaps try some other recipes, maybe the one from Food Wishes would be a good one to try.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Revisiting Shepherd's Pie

January 26, 2014

Shepherd's Pie
Vella Merlot

Shepherd's Pie from Cook's Illustrated

It's been over a year since we had Shepherd's Pie for Sunday dinner. This January has been very busy. So rather than trying new things for Sunday dinner, I've been making meals that we've enjoyed before and which don't require a full day in the kitchen. Shepherd's Pie is one of those simple hearty dishes that I particularly enjoy. It's a full meal in a single pan and it's great left over.

America's Test Kitchen developed several tricks for this recipe to help make it good yet relatively easy to make. It is made with ground beef which is easier to prepare then braised chunks of meat. However,  ground beef has some less than desirable characteristics: it tends to get tough and rubbery and it doesn't provide much texture. The first of these issues was addressed by raising the pH of the meat before it is cooked by adding some baking soda. This seems an odd addition to a savory dish but it really works well and the beef stays nice and tender. The second problem is solved by forming the beef into 2-inch balls which are added to the skillet. They are partially cooked then broken up into pieces before the cooking is finished. This leaves behind tender, bite-sized chunks of cooked ground beef which add texture to the finished pie.

The potatoes are cooked and mashed first then the rest of the ingredients are cooked on the stove in a skillet. The potatoes are spread on top and the whole pan is put under the broiler. I have little experience with our stove's broiler and I slightly over browned (don't want to say "burned") the potatoes. Fortunately, this didn't leave an unpleasant burnt taste, at least none that was noticeable, and we enjoyed Shepherd's Pie for Sunday dinner and on two week nights, too.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

"Modern" Beef Burgundy

January 19, 2014

Modern Beef Burgundy
Davis Bynum 2011 Pinot Noir

Modern Beef Burgundy from Cook's Illustrated

In 1963, on the very first episode of her groundbreaking cooking show, The French Chef, Julia Child made Boeuf Bourguignon, beef stew in red wine. Unlike most American beef stews, it does not include vegetables or potatoes but rather just braised pearl onions and mushrooms. This makes a great cool-winter meal thanks to the tender beef and rich, silky, flavor-rich sauce. I have written about Sunday beef burgundy dinners several times before using several different recipes, all simplified from that presented by Julia. I've used a Food Wishes recipe that produces a stew that is similar to vegetable-laden American beef stews. I have also written about a slow-cooker version from Cook's Illustrated which also includes some vegetables.

For this meal I used a new recipe from Cook's Illustrated. The preparation is simplified by moving some of the flavor-building steps from the stove-top to the oven. Salt pork and beef trimming are browned in a roasting pan in the oven as onions and mushrooms are roasted on a sheet pan. Setting the roasted vegetables aside, the remaining ingredients, many of which are present to add flavor to the sauce, are added to the browned pork and trimmings. The raw beef chunks being partly exposed to the hot air in the oven. This browns the meat, saving the traditional step of searing it on the stove top, saving both steps and time and reducing the number of dirty pans. Once the beef is tender, the sauce is strained, the vegetables added to add flavor to the sauce are discarded, and it is thickened with gelatin. The sauce, beef, mushrooms, and onions are combined to finish the dish.

I served the beef burgundy over noodles, which is common. However, noodles are not very good at soaking up sauce and the smooth, silky sauce in this dish doesn't stick to the noodles very well. Since the sauce is the star of this dish we will probably prefer serving it with potatoes, either mashed or boiled, which will soak up the sauce so none of the delicious liquid is left behind. On the first edition of The French Chef, Julia served it with boiled potatoes. Beef burgundy will only get better over time so we will enjoy it as weeknight leftovers for some time.