“Honey, the kids can’t breathe…”

11 05 2010

This was supposed to be my first official post blogging the CSA, its food, and how we cooked it.  Instead you get treated to a story actually living up to the name of my blog.

NOTE: While reading this story keep in mind that we had company in the house witnessing the horror unfold.

I don’t just cook dinner, I entertain.  And I’m fairly good at it.  So it was Mother’s Day weekend and Karen suggested going out to eat.  I’ve waited tables on Mother’s Day and I didn’t relish the idea of waiting two hours for a table with a screaming one year old.  That’s a celebration of motherhood, isn’t it?  So I decided to cook up some gourmet food  for my foodie wife instead.  That way she can enjoy a fine meal and appreciate my awesomeness at the same time.  My menu included Steak au Poivre, potatoes, CSA veggies, baguettes, and some creme brulee for dessert.    So the day before I made the desserts (they have to set in the fridge you know) and started the poolish for the baguettes.

What follows is proof that a little knowledge can be dangerous, and ignoring other knowledge can be very dangerous.  I’ve made Steak au Poivre before with success, so I figured that this was in the bag.  The steaks used before were filet mignon, about an inch and a half thick.  This time flatiron steaks were on sale, and these are very thin.  So I decided to increase the temperature in the skillet so that I can achieve a good sear on the outside before overcooking on the inside.  What I forgot is that I was still cooking with butter and olive oil in the pan and we don’t have a hood over our range to suck the smoke outside.

See it coming already, don’t you?  Yes, what you’re thinking is exactly what happened.  The skillet was, in fact, too hot, burning the outside without cooking the inside.  The fat in the pan burned completely off quickly, all the while filling the house with black-pepper-filled smoke that choked the lungs and stung the eyes.  So there I was, opening every door and window in the house to vent the smoke, and it was cold outside that day.

The vegetables used from the CSA on Mother’s Day included chives for the potatoes and broccoli raab cooked via a Mario Batali recipe.  In it you poach it over medium heat for 20 minutes in a little water, olive oil, red pepper flakes, and finish it off with sliced olives.  We didn’t have olives so we used capers.  It looked good, but we only had one third as much green as the recipe called for but I sill used the same amount of pepper.  What resulted was so spicy I couldn’t eat it.

Once the smoke had cleared we sat down in our now 55 degree dining room and I then realized that I hadn’t made anything that the kids would eat.  Jonathan doesn’t like potatoes, the broccoli raab was too spicy and the steaks were too raw rare.  I sliced up some pieces of steak, washed the peppercorns off, and cooked them through in a skillet for the boys.  Jonny had some grapes and they each had a few pieces of the baguettes that turned out well (even though they looked like femurs).

The only thing I hadn’t done is set the house on fire.  So, for an encore I got out the blowtorch and set to work on the creme brulee.

Sorry I didn’t have time to take pictures of the carnage as it was being ruined.  I was trying to keep my house from burning down at the time.





Blogging the CSA

26 04 2010

Last year we bought a half share in a local farm through Community Supported Agriculture.  It was really neat going to the farm every Friday afternoon and seeing what had come in that week.  And there were vegetables (or varieties of staples) that we’d never heard of.  The produce was so beautiful that this year we bought a whole share.

This faces us with several challenges.  First, there’s no way Karen and I can eat all that food.  We’ve got to get the boys eating more veggies or we’ll waste a sizable portion of what we bring home.  The other challenge is us.  We realized quickly last year that there were lots of foods that we simply didn’t know how to cook.  It was an eye opening experience.

We’re really looking forward to our first harvest in May, so I asked myself “How could I make this a lot harder?”  My answer was this.  I’m going to blog about the CSA.  The kinds of foods, how we cook them, what goes with them.  It’s a true education about food.  My goals are simple: First, use everything.  No more hearty greens in the fridge to rot because I didn’t know how to prepare them.  Learn, do, consume.  Second, blog about it.  There’s going to be a lot of food, so this one may be as tough as getting the boys to eat their share.

Implicit in this goal is the fact that we’re going to be eating more vegetables this summer.  So we’ll be eating healthier, and hopefully that will also have a positive impact on all of us.

Wish us luck!





My first baguettes

6 04 2010

We were committed.  We were making French onion soup.  The recipe called for baguette croutons, and that’s when Karen said the unthinkable.  “Great.  Panera is on the way home so I’ll pick up some baguettes and we’ll take it from there.”

Buy baguettes?

We were going through all this trouble to make this perfect broth from scratch, and she wanted to buy baguettes?  Clearly she’d had too much on her mind lately and she’d forgotten herself.  Good thing I am fearless, and although the only bread I’d ever made was pizza dough I said I’d make the baguettes for the soup.  And if they were terrible, at least I’d get an amusing blog post about how I not only ruined the bread but also the soup by association.  So I went to the authorities on making bread: The flour people.  The lovely folks at King Arthur Flour had this recipe to follow:

Baguette bread by the nice King Arthur Flour people

A great place to start.  Even better, I learned a new word immediately upon reading the recipe.  Poolish.  What’s a poolish?  Apparently it’s a mixture of flour, water, and yeast that’s set overnight on a very slow rise so that it can add lots of good flavor to the bread.  I learned from Alton Brown that slow rise = better flavor.  So how much yeast goes into a poolish?  A pinch.  That’s right, they actually called for a pinch of yeast.  That’s scientific. Fortunately I have the tools required:

So here was my poolish when I mixed it:

And here it was the next day:

Yeah.  I know.  Another couple days and I’d be bowing before it and doing its bidding.  After this part, the recipe is kind of self-directed.  Mix, knead, rise.  Standard stuff.  I found lots of very good instructions on how to roll and shape the loaves on Youtube.  This one was particularly useful:

You know what?  They weren’t as easy to roll as he made it seem.  This dough is sticky and as you peel it off the counter it gets longer and skinnier than you expect it to.  So here they were before they went into the oven:

And after:

I’ve heard people on the Food Network talk about baguettes.  Easy to learn but difficult to master, you know the type?  Well I’m no master, but these will do just fine.  And they were way better than Panera, and do you know why?  Because I made them myself, that’s why.

So, now you want to know about the soup, don’t you?  Well, it turned out great.  French onion soup is supposed to have melted cheese on top.  Notice that the only cheese is a little bit sprinkled on the baguette croutons.  This is, after all, from Cooking Light.  Next time I’ll add more cheese.  Karen found an awesome recipe for sandwiches to go on my awesome bread:

Baguette Cheese Tomato Sandwiches

And we had a perfect soup and sandwich night.

A lot of work? Heck yes.  Worth it?  Oh my, yes.





A labor of love

4 04 2010

Karen loves French onion soup.  She always has.  She’s begged me to make some for over a year now.  I never have because I was intimidated by it.  Think of it.  It’s all about the broth.  There your broth stands, almost alone, with no one to hide behind.  And I don’t make my own stock that often.  So I was scared.  But finally I relented.  We found a recipe in Cooking Light’s Soups & Stews cookbook for the soup.

It calls for beef stock and beef consomme.  Beef stock sounds pretty straightforward, but you know me, I over think everything.  And everyone has their own idea for how to make beef stock.  Tom Colicchio doesn’t make beef stock; he makes veal stock.  No wonder his food is so expensive.   In the end I chose a recipe that called for roasting some bone-in meat before boiling it.  We chose beef shanks and oxtails.

Karen made the stock, and truthfully that’s probably why everything else turned out so well.  The next day I set about making the consomme.  This is the entertaining part, since I didn’t read the recipe before setting to work.  It said to blend ground beef, celery, carrots, onion, egg and beef stock well.  Now, when I read “blend” it means put it in the blender.  The mixture went from this:

to this:

It looked like vomit.  I was horrified at this point, so I read in some of my other books, and they say merely to mix everything together.  I can see how that would be better.  But I’ve reached the point of no return so I put the heat to it.  The egg white is supposed to congeal everything together at the top into what they call the raft, leaving clear broth below.  You’re supposed to disturb the raft as little as possible, but poke a hole in it so the bubbles can rise to the surface as it simmers.  Honestly, for a long time it still looked like vomit.  But I finally saw a glimmer of hope with as the raft took shape.

See some clear broth in there?  I was cautiously optimistic.  Now, getting the broth out without disturbing the raft is another issue.  I decided to use a turkey baster and it worked really well.  And to my surprise, a perfectly clear broth emerged.

Hope?  Now I’m excited to make the soup.  Karen takes it from here and makes the finished product.  I’m busy with other things, as you’ll see in the next post.  We were wondering how clear the broth is supposed to be in the finished product, but the recipe calls for corn meal so it’s not going to be crystal clear.  What you see is not the finished product, but merely the soup portion of the meal.  There are also croutons and cheese included in the recipe, but that’s another post.

...to be continued...

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An embarrassment

23 02 2010

When I’m cooking I talk like my favorite TV food personalities.  My top three are Padma Alton Brown, Mario Batali, and Gordon Ramsay.  So I’m one part food science, one part food history, and one part swearing.  This time it was mostly swearing.

I love soup.  Soup in the winter is an absolute must, and we tend to do it a lot.  Karen got me some soup cookbooks and we’d done a good bit of experimenting, but as is our habit we developed some favorites tended to stick with them.  One such dish is a cream of broccoli soup that even the kids like.  I’ve made it so much that I don’t even need the cookbook any more.  But this time I decided to make some changes to it.

My first change came when I asked myself “If this is a vegetable soup, why am I using chicken stock?”  Now, the answer to that question is simply that the recipe tells me to.  Also we found some very good store brand chicken stocks and we use them with great success.  But I wanted a vegetarian soup for some reason this week so I bought some store brand vegetable stock.  (It was College Inn, in case you were wondering.)

What I didn’t know was that Karen had a quart of homemade veggie stock in the freezer.

I knew I was in trouble the minute I started pouring the stock into the pot.  It seems that in making this stock they use some tomato trimmings or whatnot, giving the stock a red hue.  Doing some math in my head I came up with the following equation:

Red Vegetable Stock + Green Broccoli & Leeks = Brown Soup

I knew that the instant I put the stick blender in this soup I’d be witness to something very unappetizing.  And I wasn’t disappointed.

My next failure came when I went to add the dairy to the soup.  It is a cream soup after all, and the recipe calls for half and half.  And I had bought half and half especially for this soup.  Unfortunately I’d used it all up in my coffee that week.  So in went whole milk.

Yeah.  That’s what I said too.

I’m ashamed to say that I fed it to my kids and told them that it was the same as the nice green soup I usually make, except it’s brown and it’s still good.  They didn’t buy it.  It looked like swamp water and, what’s worse, it was gritty when you did try to eat it.  I still don’t know where all that grit came from; I washed those leeks thoroughly. I could only eat half a bowl, then I decided to strain the rest and “fix” it.  That only made it worse.  After straining it looked more vile than before.  You should be glad I didn’t take any pictures; it would ruin your appetite for days.





Just an excuse to make Jambalaya

2 02 2010

I’ve never made Jambalaya before.  It looks very time consuming and labor intensive.  So that was probably why I wanted to see New Orleans in the Super Bowl.

Two years running I’ve successfully picked the Super Bowl winners using only my cooking as the deciding factor.  Don’t believe me?  Fine.  Go read THIS and THIS then come back to me.  Here’s how it works.  I pick a dish indicative of one of the participating cities and make it.  So far, they’ve been (in my estimation) fairly ambitious meals that I’d never made before.  If the dish is awesome, they win.  If it fails miserably they lose.  The goings on during the preparation directly reflect the flow of the game.  In the end we eat and see who has a big parade on Tuesday.  Bored yet?  Let’s get to it.

This year pits the Saints and the Colts.  So OF COURSE I chose Jambalaya.  How creative.  I will be playing the part of current Saints’ star quarterback and former Chargers “washed up” quarterback (remember that, ESPN?), Drew Brees.  My predictions for the game will be in bold, followed by a brief description of how things went in the kitchen.

OFF WEEK:  The Saints adopt an aggressive game plan.
I searched high and low for all kinds of recipes and in the end picked this one from Emeril.  No thanks to the Food Network, whose web search feature seemed to have been broken last week.  I chose it because of the duck.  Yes, I was enticed by the idea of cooking duck in with everything else because I figured it wasn’t enough work all by itself.  Karen wasn’t sure I could pull it off.  I don’t blame her.

SUPER BOWL WEEK: The Saints arrive in Miami and make a change to their offensive attack.
I live in central PA and andouille sausage is not something I can just go and buy.  Well, I can, but it’s frozen and mass produced.  On the other hand, the local butcher shop has homemade spicy Italian sausage.  No brainer.  I know it’s not authentic; I don’t care.

GAME TIME!  FIRST QUARTER: Drew Brees leaves the game and the Saints get behind early.
See, I was up very late the  night before painting the living room, so Karen suggested I take a nap with the baby.  I did and it pushed dinner back considerably.

FIRST QUARTER: Reggie Bush keeps the Saints within reach.
Why Reggie Bush?  Because he’s the superstar game changer who has mad skills.  In our kitchen this is Karen.  While I napped she did all the prep work.  Go look at that recipe and see how much there is.  She cut up the duck, prepped the peppers, onions, celery, garlic, sausage, and cleaned the kitchen.  Sounds like a punt return for a touchdown to me.

SECOND QUARTER: Brees gets back in the game and the Saints slowly start making progress.
I finally got out of bed and started cleaning the shrimp.  I was very pleasantly surprised at how much was already done.   It went very slowly.

SECOND QUARTER: The Saints’ stars score two quick touchdowns.
Dare I say they heat up?  Yes, in goes the duck to brown, followed by the sausage.

The kitchen smells great and the smoke alarm goes off.  There was still a good bit of fat on the duck so I actually drained a little before browning the sausage.  Then the onions, peppers, and celery join the sausage and I’m surrounded by the aroma of sizzling goodness.

HALFTIME: This part is painful.
Yes, the halftime show this year is The Who.  Maybe their walkers will be on stage with them?  No one learned their lessons from the Stones’ halftime show a few years ago or Springsteen last year.  Oh well.  In the kitchen the painful part was filling the pot with chicken stock and cooking the duck for an hour.  Waiting is so hard, but as Alton says “Your patience will be rewarded.”

THIRD QUARTER: The Saints shred the Colts’ defense and take the lead.
Actually this is the part where you shred the duck meat and cook the rice for 10 minutes.   It’s my blog, let me pick the metaphors okay?  Things are shaping up for a very exciting finish.

FOURTH QUARTER: The Colts take the field to tie the game.  All the Saints’ offense can do is watch and hope everything works out.
This is where it gets scary.  The recipe says to return the duck to the pot, add the shrimp, bring to a simmer, cover, and remove from the heat.  Do not open the lid for 15 minutes.   Karen starts to worry that the rice won’t cook.  But I remember Bobby Flay’s jambalaya throwdown and that guy did the same thing.  So I had faith.

FOURTH QUARTER: The Colts tie the game, sending it to overtime.
Now, you would say that this is bad for the Saints, but I say no.  Overtime would cement this as the greatest Super Bowl ever (except for every Super Bowl won by the Steelers).  So, that being said, I opened the lid and tested the rice.  Everything was cooked perfectly.

OVERTIME: The Saints get the ball and score a touchdown almost immediately.  Reggie Bush is named the MVP.
This is where Emeril tells me to add salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste.  I just added a bit of cayenne, and it was AWESOME.   A bit soupy, and we’ll probably use a cup less stock next time, but wow.

Now, why overtime?  It was 9:00pm, that’s why.  A little late for dinner, but it was a winner nonetheless.  And why a touchdown?  Because for the second time in my life Karen didn’t have to add any extra pepper sauce.  That’s my culinary yardstick folks.  And btw, had it not been for Karen doing all the prep work it would have been an epic failure; we’d have eaten dinner at midnight I’m sure.  So she gets the MVP for this one.

So there you have it.  Saints win 36-30 in overtime and Mardi Gras arrives a little early this year.  What about you?  Who ya got?





Pepper Steak

2 03 2009

Every Valentine’s day the local butcher shop has beef tenderloin on sale.  And every time we get tenderloin we make a roast (this roast) because, well, it’s really good.  I tend to stick with winners when dealing with expensive cuts of meat.  As a result I’d never made a filet steak and now I had a perfect opportunity.  You see, I was planning a surprise dinner for Karen.  One thing I’ve learned is that if you’re planning a surprise dinner and they might come home late, a roast is a bad idea.  If you think that special someone is coming home at 6:30 and she comes home at 8:00 then you’re stuck with a really overdone roast.  But steaks cook quickly.  Steaks can be prepared while they watch, preferably after the kids go to bed.

Most of my culinary knowledge comes courtesy of Alton Brown.  And it is on his show that I was first introduced to Steak au Poivre.  (Here’s the recipe)  It’s got just a few ingredients.

Pepper, cream, and brandy works for me

Step one is to season the meat all over with salt.  Then crush the black peppercorns and press them into the meat, covering both sides.  Then cook the steaks.

No I didn't set off the smoke detector

When the steaks are done take them out and let them rest.  Then pour in some brandy and let the alcohol cook off.   Now I’ve read elsewhere (like Anthony Bourdain’s cookbook) that to make the sauce you need veal stock and demi-glace, but Alton just adds heavy cream and that’s good enough for me.  Let it reduce until it coats the back of a spoon.  You’re done.

It's almost done here, but not quite

Now I looked for more interesting things to serve it with than merely potatoes, but I haven’t seen many who mess with tradition.  Who am I to disagree?  I served mashed potatoes and a green salad that, I’ll admit, I asked Karen to make.  But I made 2/3 of dinner.

Nice dinner, yes? Only if the kids are asleep.

I did, however, overcook the steaks.  They were medium well to well, just a tiny bit of pink in the middle.  Too bad.  I’d rather they moo in pain when I cut into them.





Some love for milk chocolate

15 02 2009

There are levels to being a chocoholic.  Karen has her favorites, but she lies says that any chocolate will do.  I know better. 

make enough for seconds or she'll eat yours too

There was an article in Food & Wine magazine which mentioned that a lot of pastry chefs, as well as chocoholics, only love dark chocolate.  The bitterer the better.  Karen can be counted among them.  She views milk chocolate as unfit for consumption except in case of emergency.  I, however, am one of milk chocolate’s biggest fans.  So I was thrilled when that same article had recipes for milk chocolate that looked awesome.  I know, this is my second chocolate post this year, but I had to.  Click the link and look at that picture and tell me you don’t want it right now:

Milk Chocolate Pots de Creme (or something like that)

At first I thought it was going to be like the chocolate soup I made earlier, but it wasn’t.  It was way better.  It’s got a custard base, so it’s much smoother.  I’m getting hungry just writing about it.  But the picture in the recipe makes it look like it flows like soup, and if you don’t cook it as much as they tell you to, it may.  But I followed the recipe and it was a pretty firm custard.  That’s not a bad thing.  So the picture is a little misleading.  Really, who cares?

Is this a little more romantic than Karen’s Valentine’s Day gift last year?





I’m Now Accepting Bids

2 02 2009

It wasn’t the refs, it wasn’t the crowd, it wasn’t the weather.  The difference in the game was my cooking and you know it.  Two years in a row now I’ve picked the Super Bowl winner correctly based solely on my cooking.  If any team would like my services I would be happy to start the bidding at two tickets to the game.

Ben was riveted by the game the whole time, honest.

And one other thing.  I can officially say that the most effective Super Bowl ad was the one for the Hyundai Genesis.  With all those people yelling “Hyundai!!!” a two-year-old in the room started yelling it too.





Cooking the redbirds

30 01 2009

For all you Cardinal fans, please do not be offended.  All of this is done in good fun.  

Last year I made my Super Bowl prediction based on soup (here’s the link).  I made Manhattan clam chowder, it was a success, and the Giants won in the Chowder Bowl.  This year my team happens to be playing in the Super Bowl, so the pressure has been raised to an all-time high.  If my dinner is lousy and the Steelers lose, it will be all my fault.

When selecting a dish to represent my home city of Pittsburgh I thought first of the Primanti sandwich. But then I’d need to make slaw, french fries, and a burger (along with everything else).  That would require two people in the kitchen, and baby #4 just won’t let that happen.  So in the end I chose a symbolic dish.  Something that I hope happens on Super Bowl Sunday.  Yes, a close game is very exciting, but how about a good old fashioned blowout?  Let’s cook us some birds!

Tandoori chicken was introduced to me by my lovely wife Karen.  It’s not a Trinidadian dish, it’s Indian.  But somehow she had the recipe and the spices and it quickly became my favorite food.  Then she started making her own Tandoori seasoning and it got even better.  For mine I decided to use Gordon Ramsay’s recipe from one of my favorite cooking shows, The F-Word.  Here’s Gordon’s recipe for tandoori paste.  We’re going to follow my progress as if it’s the Super Bowl.  

So how did the game go:

Playoffs: It’s crazy cold in the Burgh.
Yes, the cornish hens come frozen.  I had to thaw them in about two hours so they could marinate overnight.  Luckily they’re small, it worked just soaking them in some water.

too bad the super bowl wasn't last week when it snowed in tampa

Super Bowl Week: The teams arrive in Tampa.  Wow, it’s warm here.
Step 1 of making the tandoori was toasting coriander and cumin seeds.  Makes the kitchen smell good.

it doesn't look like much but a little is all it takes

Super Bowl Week:  Lots of talking, lots of waiting.
Once the tandoori paste was made and the hens were marinating, they go off to the fridge to sit overnight.

it's a lot like watching media day coverage

Super Bowl Week: The Steelers tweak their game plan.
I had planned on just making some rice and broccoli to go with the chicken, but that’s way too boring so I get out one of Karen’s Indian cookbooks.  I find some recipes that use ingredients we already have in the house. 

I used yellow squash instead of zucchini

Gametime!  After a week of practice the work is all done, time to play the game.
Actually once the chicken is done marinating it’s pretty easy to just slide them in the oven at 375˚.

is this Kurt Warner staring down the Steelers D?

First Quarter: The two teams act cautiously, trying to find an advantage.  The Steelers think they’ve found one.
After putting the hens in the oven, I start to prep for the side dishes.  I chop up some onion, garlic, ginger, tomato, and yellow squash for the veggies and get the stand mixer kneading some chapatis, which is a kind of flat bread.  That’s not a picture of them next to the recipe.

they were actually pretty easy to make

Second quarter: Things start moving, and both teams react quickly to each other.
The dough needed to rest for a while and the veggies were ready to go into the pan.  So much going on I didn’t have time to take any pictures.

Third quarter: The Steelers get two big plays from special teams.
I was glad that we had all these Indian spices at home already, because the house smelled great while I was cooking up the veggies.  At the same time I started cooking the chapatis.  We told the kids it was roti, and it was probably the same thing.  Both sides turned out great, and I did make some plain white rice for the boys.

Fourth quarter:  After the surprise play on special teams, the defense does the rest and puts the game away.
The yellow squash and fenugreek were really good and a very nice surprise, but the highlight of the meal really was the chicken.   Jonathan asked for seconds of everything, and even suggested that I “make this again sometime.”  I’d never heard that one before, not even from Karen.

Looks like a six pack of Lombari's for Pittsburgh

So there you have it.  Game over.  It was my first foray into the wonderful world of Indian cuisine, as well as my first attempt to cook cornish hens.  And it was a smashing success.  So, based on this meal, who wins the Super Bowl?  Who do ya think I’d say, even if I’d ruined it?

My pick: Steelers by 10.  It was that good.

If you’re interested in the recipe, click below.

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