Doing the impossible

27 01 2011

My annual Super Bowl post is coming very soon.  For an opening act I thought I’d showcase once again why this blog is called Mark Ruins Dinner.

If you’re like me (and why wouldn’t you be?) you purchase convenience food at the grocery store because it’s quick and impossible to ruin.  You may have even asked yourself “How could you possibly wreck a frozen pizza?”  Here’s your answer.

The boys had some friends over so I thought getting a couple frozen pizzas would be an easy dinner that everyone would eat.  So I got one cheese and one pepperoni and put them in the oven at the same time.  After 17 minutes we checked on them.  At this point Karen said to me “Why did you put one right above the other?  You’re supposed to stagger them so the crusts cook properly.”  She couldn’t have told me that at the beginning.  Besides, I’m the homemade pizza guy now.  Anyway, we moved them apart so that the top pizza crust would cook, but it wasn’t that easy.  You see, the crust on the top one had started sagging through the oven rack.  But we did our best and moved it over.  But then Karen decided it would be a good idea to turn it, so that it would stop sagging.  In the process she ripped a hole in the middle of the pizza:

That’s the cheese dripping through the middle of the pizza.  I quickly got it out before it opened up like a black hole.  We had a heck of a time getting it out of the oven, but the boys ate it just fine.  Karen said it looked like a belly button.  I don’t think that’s a good thing for a pizza.

This doesn’t bode well for my Super Bowl pick.





So THAT’S why your blog is called that….

8 11 2010

I get asked a lot “Your cooking looks really good, why is your blog called Mark Ruins Dinner?”  Here’s your answer.

I apologize for the lack of pictures in this post.  There are barely any words to describe what happened today, let alone pictures.  I shall do my best.

We’ve been busy lately.  Like, too busy to cook.  So Karen’s been going crazy on the weekends to make enough food for us to eat all week.  This weekend she asked if I would help her out on Sunday morning while she got caught up at work.  I obliged, of course, for who in the world can mess up a pot roast?

Karen even gave me a recipe as a starting point.  “This looks really good,” she says.  “Just follow the instructions and it will be great!”  I admit, it looked like a great meal.  A sirloin tip roast braised slowly in the Crock-Pot.  Some nice root veggies in there and everything.  And Guinness.

I gotta be honest.  We’re not beer drinkers.  We don’t have any Guinness in the house.  We still had a Coors Light in our cupboards from two Thanksgivings ago, when we had company.  We still had some Miller Light from last Thanksgiving.  Karen had bought a six-pack of Bud this summer to make beer can chicken with.  That’s all we had in the house.

The recipe was called Beef and Guinness Stew and it’s from Cooking Light magazine.  I think.  Karen told me all about it, but I guess I wasn’t listening.  She left it on her computer and I glanced at it, but only to look at the list of ingredients.  I did look briefly at the instructions, but only to see when to add the beer, and how much.  How about I just go through the instructions and tell you what I did instead?

Step 1: Cut the beef into 1-inch cubes. Wow.  I never even saw this bit.  I ignored it completely, leaving the roast as one big lump of meat.

Step 2: Use 1 bottle of Guinness Draught. As stated before, we didn’t have any.  In fact, I even forgot about the Budweiser and used the year-old Miller Light instead.

Step 3: Use 4 cups of beef broth. Really?  Where did this come from?  I just saw that right now for the first time.  Maybe I didn’t look at the ingredients as well as I’d thought.

Stop laughing.

Step 4: After sautéing the onions, stir in the tomato paste. I knew this was coming, I just plum forgot about it.  You ever have one of those days?  Yeah, my mind really was somewhere else this morning.

At this point I chopped up some celery, carrots, and potatoes and put everything into the Crock-Pot.  I switched it on, blew it a kiss, and went about my day.  Later that evening I’m at the store and I get a call from Karen.  “Did you reduce the heat on the Crock-Pot to Warm just now?”

No.  I hadn’t.  I had put everything in the slow cooker and turned the dial one click to the left.  Once again, I wasn’t paying attention.  Now, from my food handling class all those years ago I am aware that for 8 hours my beef roast had been lovingly kept at just the right temperature to encourage bacteria to grow.  I didn’t put dinner in the slow cooker; I put an agar in an incubator.  So yeah, after 8 hours it was still raw.  Karen told me “I tasted it, so why don’t we wait until tomorrow and see if I get sick before we throw it away?”

Uh huh.

The best part is this.  It was a pot roast.  That’s dinner for three days in our house.  So I didn’t just ruin dinner.  I ruined dinner for the week.

So, after a lengthy hiatus, it’s good to be back.





CSA Cooking: fennel, garlic, and basil

12 07 2010

It’s been a long time and the summer is halfway over already.  And guess what, I was right about something.  Blogging the CSA every week is hard.  But don’t think that the season is halfway over.  On the contrary, it’s hardly begun.  The CSA runs from early May through Thanksgiving.  So far the take each week has been small but once August hits we will hear the call of all-you-can-pick tomatoes.

I do have some other things to post from the last two months of farm fresh vegetables, but I also have a trip to Trinidad to post about.  Oh yeah, the food is still good.

So this week at the farm what greeted me was potatoes, carrots, lettuce, fennel (bulb, stalk, and leaves), garlic, basil, parsley, and cucumbers.  My thoughts immediately went to the fennel.  It’s the kind of thing you need to plan the whole meal around, you know?  It doesn’t really go with everything.  I thought of lamb, and Karen mentioned that we had some lamb shanks in the freezer.  It was on epicurious that we saw this recipe:

Braised lamb shanks recipe

Okay, there’s fennel seeds listed there, but not exactly what I’ve got.  That’s okay, we put it in anyway.  We didn’t have any star anise, but that tastes like fennel so I cubed up the bulb and sauteed it with the onion, and I chopped the stalk and put it in with the celery.  I was even planning on using the leaves as garnish.  Oh yeah, I’m getting my Top Chef on.  We also used the carrots and garlic from the CSA in the braise.  The reviews for the recipe said that it goes great with polenta, so I decided to make some as well.  I’ve never made polenta before, so this was a very big adventure for me.

We did, however, make some substitutions in the recipe.  It calls for 3 cups of port, which you are to reduce down to 2/3 cup.  I had some red wine and I poured out whatever was left in the bottle, which was about a cup and a half.  I reduced it down, don’t ask how much.  Then it calls for a quart of beef stock and a quart of chicken stock, and you are to reduce this down to a cooking liquid of 3 cups.  You know what?  I really don’t have that kind of time, so I put in a quart of chicken stock and brought it to a boil but didn’t reduce it at all.  So there.

Once that was braising in the oven I thought of the polenta.  I saw this recipe on the Food Network’s website and it seemed like a good, basic recipe.  But it made way too much, so I cut it in half.  Well, I cut almost everything in half.  I cut the water, cornmeal, cream, and parmesan in half.  But I had a moment of weakness, a moment where I had one too many things in my head and something fell out.  I didn’t halve the salt.  “What’s the worry?  It’s only an extra teaspoon.  Of salt.”  What are you going to do, start over?  All over a little too much salt?  Whatever.

So the polenta was barely edible; the addition of the cream helped a bit, but wow.  I ate my entire portion anyway.  I had to, since we forced the kids to eat theirs.

That was when Karen upstaged me.  She came home from work and asked me what vegetable we were having with dinner.  I hadn’t thought of that.  So she made a sauteed ratatouille with zucchini from the CSA and eggplant from our garden.  It was the highlight of the meal.

So the vegetables were good and the lamb was delicious, as were the carrots, onions, and everything else in the braise.  And I’m sure there was some sort of nutritional value or something in the polenta.  But in all it was a success.  And later in the week we did finish off everything else from the farm.





Blackened Chicken

18 05 2010

Two weekends in a row.  Not the kind of trend I was looking for.

It was our first BBQ of the year.  I was obviously out of practice.  I lit the coals with the chimney starter, and once they were ready I spread them evenly in the grill and put some new coals on top.  I didn’t want them burning out before the chicken legs were cooked.  What happened next was predictable.  I put the burgers on first, while the new coals were still warming up.  Once they were cooked I started with the drumsticks and wings.  By that time the new coals were burning and the grill was about 5,000 degrees.  I did my best, but they were still horribly burned on the outside and, you guessed it, raw on the inside.

We finished it up in the microwave, and Karen assures me it’s good once you take the skin off.  Whatever.





“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.