Friday, September 27, 2013

Burrata and Buffalo Mozzarella: Cheese Spotlight

Everyone has heard of fresh buffalo mozzarella by now (pictured just below).  Its soft and creamy flesh and slightly nutty flavor makes one wonder why anyone would ever prefer the harder blocks of mozzarella we had been shredding for decades.  After all, fresh buffalo mozzarella can also be shredded or sliced and used for dishes that require melted cheese like pizzas and lasagnas and Eggplant Parmesan.

Of course our favorite use for buffalo mozzarella is still insalata caprese.  We usually slice beefsteak tomatoes in thick slices and top with a thick round slice of buffalo mozzarella.  Then we sprinkle chiffonaded basil slivers.  Very elegant.  But sometimes, just for a change of pace—and in a more rustic mood—we like to cut heirloom tomatoes into thick wedges (since they are harder to cut in perfect round slices) and do the same with the mozzarella.  Then we tear up basil right on top before drizzling olive oil and sprinkling some sea salt crystals.  We learned long ago that the Italians know how to enjoy food: Simple preparations of the best ingredients.

We get our best buffalo mozzarella (Fattorie Garofalo) from Costco.  Oddly enough, this “warehouse” has some of the best gourmet foods, and their cheese selection is amazing.  Do you want a huge chunk (and, yes, you do typically need to get large quantities at Costco) of a triple cream Brie like St. Andre or Delice de Bourgogne?  Do you want some rosemary wrapped Manchego?  Do you want a small round of truffle-dusted Camembert?  Yes, all at Costco.  The cheese I get most frequently at Costco is the buffalo mozzarella though.  These are not cheap, but when we tried an even more expensive one at Whole Foods, we were severely disappointed.  The one at Costco is definitely a bargain in comparison for the quality you get.

Unfortunately, our Costco doesn’t yet carry another type of buffalo mozzarella, so we need to go elsewhere for the richness of burrata that Americans have recently discovered.  Imagine the freshest hand-made buffalo mozzarella, delicately stretched, and then filled with fresh cream and shredded mozzarella (for texture), and then pinched to seal up the creamy center.  For an impulse purchase one day, I paid an astronomical price for ONE ball of burrata (brand name of Gioiella) in an individually-wrapped bag and was expecting to find mostly liquid—which is what it felt like.  I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the bag to discover that there was hardly any water surrounding the cheese.  Instead, what I assumed was liquid was the most delicate of all free-formed cheese pouches.

Very gently, I laid it in a shallow bowl and surrounded it with marinated grilled artichoke hearts and roasted red peppers (picture at the top of post).  Then, once I split the ball in two, I found I had to quickly slice up some fresh French baguette.  You can see why we needed the bread.  The creamy center (as you can get a sense of in the picture below) rolled out, ready to be sopped up with some bread.  You do need to cut the richness of the cheese with something like the roasted red pepper since otherwise it’s sort of like having ice cream for dinner. 

This dish was originally intended for our end-of-dinner salad course.  After enjoying it that way, we’ve decided that it’s so rich that one burrta should be split into four for a starter at an intimate dinner party, with crostini—lots of crostini to soak up the cream!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Kimchi Kimchi Everywhere. . . And in Fish Tacos Too!

I asked my husband Will the other day whether he could remember a food item whose reputation has undergone as radical a transformation as kimchi.  Sure, there were some die-hard kimchi fans who weren’t Korean, but they mostly consisted of Korean War vets.  Otherwise, kimchi was considered a little too ethnic—sort of like chicken feet or pig intestines.

These days, you see kimchi everywhere!  I’ve recently seen recipes and featured stories in food magazines like Bon Appetit and Food and Wine talking about various different kinds of kimchi (cucumber, radish, etc.) and how kimchi is a method (pickling) or putting kimchi in all sorts of dishes one wouldn’t have imagined.  Spam and kimchi rolls.  French fries with bulgogi and kimchi.  Kimchi in mixed drinks!  I told Will that we’d better get prepared for the kimchi ice cream explosion.  (After enjoying bacon and maple ice cream in Portland, I’m keeping an open mind on this one too.)

I tend to be more comfortable with kimchi in dishes that already include other Korean—or at least other Asian—flavors or items.  At a Michigan winery, we had some short ribs and kimchi tacos which reminded me of the Korean beef and kimchi tacos at the Yardhouse.  I realized recently that most successful attempts to include kimchi revolved around tacos.  Perhaps there is the idea that kimchi is to Korean cooking what salsa and trimmings are to tacos? 

Our favorite use of kimchi in tacos were at an Evanston restaurant, the Cellar.  There, we enjoyed tempura fried fish with kimchi slaw served with mini soft tacos and a spicy mayonnaise.  We tried our home version this past week with some frozen battered fish, and we thought these are some of the tastiest fast dinners we could have.

Simple steps:

1) Heat at least 1 inch of canola oil to 350 degrees.  While you are waiting for the oil to come to frying temperature, prepare your accompaniments.  In addition to the kimchi, we decided on fresh cucumbers and organic grape tomatoes.  Chop or julienne all your trimmings, and plate them together.

2) Once the oil is hot enough, fry your frozen battered fish (just a few minutes on either side).

3) In the meantime, warm up your tortillas.  If you use mini tortillas, you can heat 3 comfortably in a 12-inch pan.  You should figure at least 3-4 soft tacos per person.

4) Once the fish fillets are finished frying, lay them on layered paper towels to drain. 

Now, all you have to do is assemble your tacos at the table.

Cut off a piece of battered fish, place on the warm tortilla, and then sprinkle toppings over.  And then spread or drizzle a bit of a creamy sauce on your taco.  Ranch salad dressing works surprisingly well in this dish, or you can use mayonnaise spiked with a bit of Sriracha. 

Try this.  You will feel quite the trendy foodie.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Meat Grinders and Kebab Skewers, Oh My!

My husband Will is just like a kid with a new toy when it comes to gadgets—especially those associated with grilling.  A few weeks ago, we used our Discover Card reward points with Amazon to get a Food Grinder Attachment for our Kitchenaid.  We almost immediately started grinding beef for hamburgers, conveniently forgetting our new-found commitment to vegetarian cooking.

Then, once the initial enthusiasm of home-ground burgers wore off, Will started shopping online for kebab skewers.  The fact is, we frequent an Afghan restaurant where we enjoy excellent Mantoo and heavenly Bulani and hearty lentil soup, but Will is never quite satisfied with their kebabs.  There is something primally satisfying about the smell of the kebabs, but he is invariably disappointed because the actual kebabs don’t really have “char marks,” the sure sign for him that meat is grilled.

The last time we visited the restaurant, we asked for the Murgh Kubideh (ground chicken kebabs) to be “charred.”  The server said that indeed they can make sure the kebabs were “well done.”  They were well done—and tasty—but they were, alas, not charred.  We asked an Iranian friend of ours about this, and she told us that the meat is molded on to flat wide skewers and cooked OVER (not ON) the grill and thus are more rotisserie-like.  Indeed, when we actually consulted Steven Raichlen’s How To Grill, we discovered the same thing.  Luckily, a quick search online yielded Steven Raichlen’s “extra-wide” kebab skewers.  One click, and we were soon on our way to making our own kebabs!

A nice thing about having our own grinder is that we can now purchase those 6-pound chuck roasts from Costco without being concerned that they would never get consumed.  So, you could get a large pack and use half for a Boeuf Bourgignone, and then freeze the rest in packs for grinding later since the grinding works just as well with defrosted meat as with fresh.  In fact, that was one strong advantage of grinding your own meat.  I’m always slightly dismayed to see how pale brown—and not appetizingly blood red!—defrosted ground beef gets.  Somehow, even the defrosted meat looked better once the pieces went through the grinder.

Just make sure that you cut out all the visible gristle and as much (or as little) fat as you desire for your ground meat.  Then you push through a food mill with a stick they provide.  There are two disks—one for coarser and one for finer grinding—and you typically use both (coarse first, and then fine) for your meat. 

TIP: I would definitely suggest that you invest the little bit of time to stop and remove and clean the disk if it starts getting too congested with gristle.  It’s faster in the long run to clean and replace than to continue to push through tiny unclogged remnants of holes.

Then, you mix the ground meat (beef, lamb, or mixture of both) with onion, parsley, mint, salt and pepper, and a little cinnamon—for the recipe we used—and then carefully mold them onto wide flat skewers.  Ours are 3/8 of an inch wide, and you might even want to go wider.  The kebabs are then placed OVER racks placed on top of the grill such that the delicate meat doesn’t directly touch the grill (and possibly stick to the grill or fall off the skewers).  Then, as the meat gets cooked, you rotate the skewers—like a manual rotisserie.

And, yes, I could tell by Will’s satisfied face as we dug into our kebabs: He took the skewers off the racks for the final minutes of cooking so that they could get some direct “char marks” from the grill.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Two Items for Too-Busy Weeknight Meals

The Fall semester has begun in earnest.  I have three different courses I am teaching while the deadline looms—too closely—for scholarly research work and developing an online course.  Cook dinner?  Who, me?  Eat?

This week, I found saving grace in two items from the fridge that I knew would come in handy some day.  A few weeks ago, I found a new frozen pizza that Will and I promptly fell in love with.  Its brand name is “Mandia,” but I can find very little about this Naples, Italy company.  They have Portobello Potato, Eggplant Buffalo Mozzarella, Garlic and Cheese, and various roasted vegetable pizzas as well.  We had already tried two pizzas, and Wednesday marked our third variety: the traditional Margherita. 

I noticed that it didn’t have basil—which I think of as indispensable to a traditional Margherita—but it had cherry tomatoes that looked good.  I figured, why not?  After all, we always have fresh basil around, and it would be more appetizing to add fresh basil after the baking than actually to cook basil.  Will and I usually drizzle (need I add, “Extra Virgin”?) olive oil over slices of pizza to enhance its flavor.  The crust on this pizza is fabulous, like a good French baguette or Italian bread. Thin in the middle, slightly puffed and still crusty on the ends.

I would serve the pizza with a small side salad.  In addition though, some roasted mini sweet peppers came in handy.  As I mentioned in my post about Spanish tapas, we were tremendously impressed with the flavor of pimientos de padron—those mild tiny green peppers.  I looked all over my grocery stores for those, but sadly came up empty.  I did find, however, a bag of assorted mini sweet peppers which I remember seeing—and purchasing—before. 

To roast peppers shown in the photo at the top of this post: 
Heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat, drizzle and heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, and then throw in the washed and dried peppers.  Slowly let them roast until they are somewhat soft and starting to blister open in parts.  (You can roast them in an oven as well, but I thought the pan-roasting was quicker and just as tasty in the case of mini peppers.)  Take them off the heat and then sprinkle with some sea salt.  Try to use salt flakes or crystals such that you can still see them at the table.  Will declared that these peppers were just as good as the green peppers we had in Spain.  I cannot remember well enough to argue with him, and I quite enjoyed these.

Simple preparation of first-rate ingredients is something I have come to really appreciate during these mid-week dinners when we are both exhausted from the day’s work.  Something that takes all the cooking pressure off of us (like baking a frozen pizza and then throwing on some fresh herbs) or roasting a single ingredient in the best olive oil and then seasoning them with the best sea salt (in the case of the roasted peppers) allows us to continue eating well even when we have no energy to cook creatively.