Friday, April 25, 2014

Costco to the Rescue!

It’s finals week for me, and Will’s work has also been more hectic even than usual.  We’re both exhausted.  Never mind creative and well-balanced cooking!  Weekday dinners are designed to be as streamlined as possible; and Sunday dinners, which used to be major culinary events in our household, have started to feel burdensome.  One Sunday, as we were walking like zombies through Costco, my eyes lighted upon two items that subsequently rescued us for the rest of the week.

In my defense, I’d already picked up Ahi Tuna for our Sunday dinner.  But then I spotted the Brown Sugar Glazed Pork Shanks (photo above).  The package claimed, "You'll love finishing what our chefs started," and I decided to believe that.  I also thought about how it was still a chilly April outside and how pork shanks roasting in the oven would not only smell but feel more cozy than searing rare some sushi-grade tuna.  Imagine the sides that would accompany pork shanks!  So much more Sunday dinner-ish, right?  It didn’t take long to convince Will. 

Not far away, I saw some Roasted Chile Rellenos (above).  Personally, I prefer my chile rellenos to be lightly tempura-battered and fried, but I saw the virtue of roasting as well.  And the picture suggested a level of cheesiness congruent with my own notions of what stuffed rellenos should look like.  (See photo below for just how cheesy it was.)  Another package in the cart!

There were plenty of sides available at Costco as well, but we decided that we needed to have prepared somethings on our own from scratch, so we didn’t even let our eyes roam over items like scalloped potatoes, broccoli quinoa cheddar cakes, etc.  Ok, eyes might have roamed over those, but we didn’t pick them up…

Of course, Sunday dinner did feel more genuine with the addition of roasted sweet potatoes and sautéed Brussels Sprouts with bacon and shallots.  I sprinkled some toasted chopped pecans over both sides, for a southern touch that seemed to go nicely with the glazed pork shanks.  (See photo at top of post for the full meal.)

And our Wednesday chile rellenos wouldn’t have been the same without home-cooked kidney beans (slow simmered with roasted jalapeno, garlic, and onions).  Sure, the beans had been cooked long ago and frozen, but that sort of thinking ahead meant that all I had to do while the chiles were heating in the oven was to cook up a fresh batch of Mexican rice. 

Mexican Rice:

Sauté 1 cup long grain rice (I used Jasmine because that’s what I had) in 3 T canola oil for a few minutes until lightly toasted in color. 

Then add ½ t ground cumin, ½ t kosher salt, 2 cloves minced garlic, and ½ chopped onion and sauté for 1 minute to incorporate everything. 

Add 1 chopped Roma tomato and 1 T of tomato paste (I use the ones in the squeeze tube—very convenient) along with 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth.  

Let mixture come to a boil, and then reduce the heat to “Low” and simmer for 20 minutes.  When time is up, check to make sure liquid is fully absorbed.  If not, let it go another 5 minutes.  When water is fully absorbed, turn the heat off and let sit for 5 minutes before fluffing with fork.

With a bit of home-cooking, some prior planning, and some prepackaged entrées from Costco, we actually ate pretty well that week after all!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Challah French Toast "Sandwich" with Mango and Blueberries

At our local grocery store, they sell day-old bread for 50% off.  Obviously, the selection would vary day-to-day.  Sometimes I might be able to find a maple-pecan Danish, on other days an almond croissant.  One day, they had available some raisin challah rolls (Kaiser roll style).  At almost a dollar per roll, they were still pricey.  After all, it wasn’t a Danish or a filled croissant or anything like that.  Regardless, they were still very fresh and perfect for what I was planning for a weekend brunch!

The next day, I made a special version of pain perdu.  Literally translating out to “lost bread,” this staple of brunch menus is actually a way of being able to make do with leftover day-old bread.  Given that, getting day-old challah rolls and making French toast with it the next day was exactly the right thing to do.

  • First, split each roll as you would a sandwich roll. 
  • Whisk together 2 large eggs, ½ cup half and half, ½ t vanilla extract, ¼ t cinnamon, ¼ t sugar, and a dash of kosher salt.  Let sit to meld flavors together.
  • Cube the flesh of half of a large ripe mango or a whole Philipino mango, and combine with ½ cup blueberries.
  • In a large griddle, melt a tablespoon of butter over medium heat.  Whisk the egg mixture again to re-mix.  Dip each roll half in the egg mixture and let saturate a bit and then flip over to soak the other side.  Place on the griddle, cut side down first, over the melted butter.  Repeat with rest of the roll halves.
  • Be patient with the roll and let sizzle in butter slightly and let the egg-custard mixture soak through.  When first side is nicely browned, flip over.  Lightly press with a spatula so that the very top and bottom of each roll is nicely browned as well.

  • Place the bottom half of each roll on a plate, cut side up.  Spoon some mango-blueberry mixture on top, and then place the top half of each roll, this time cut side down.   
  • Warm maple syrup in a small pitcher in the microwave for 10-15 seconds and then drizzle around the plate and a bit at the top.  You can also garnish with sweetened mascarpone cream or whipped cream as you wish.

You now have a very special challah roll French toast sandwich for your brunch!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Beef Stew...or Boeuf Bourguignon?

Which one sounds better?  It might be the Europhile in me speaking, but the Boeuf Bourguignon sounds so much more appealing.  More special.  Not so Campbell’s-canned-soup sounding.  But is there really a major difference?  I think it’s all in the presentation—and just a few little touches.

In the last ten years or so, I’ve tried several different recipes for making Boeuf Bourguignon, including multiple variations in the Food & Wine annual cookbook round up of the year’s recipes.  Possibly the most expensive recipe I used was one from Carlos’ Contemporary French Cuisine cookbook, which called for sirloin steaks.  But all these recipes, always using enameled cast iron pots (like Le Creuset), doesn’t seem to measure up to a recipe for “Classic Beef Stew” in the little cooking brochure that came with my Cuisinart Electric Pressure Cooker.  (Click here for the recipe.)  

I’ve decided that I need to experiment with using the pressure cooker for more items.  In making tagines and stews, the pressure cooker does a terrific job—very quickly—of taking cuts of meat like chuck roast and turning it into something you could cut with a spoon.

So, you can follow the recipe using your own pressure cooker—electric or otherwise—and make some simple changes and a key addition.

1) For the stew pictured above, I used multi-colored organic carrots I get with my vegetable CSA.  But even if you don’t have multi-colored carrots, I would still use regular carrots cut up into fairly uniform pieces rather than use baby carrots.  Ever since I discovered hat “baby” carrots are just regular carrots that have been machine cut into smaller sizes, I decided that the waste is not worth it to consume something that looks cute and bite-sized.  Adults can handle cutting up regular carrots. 

2) The recipe calls for 10 minutes of pressure cooking the beef, then using the “Quick Release Method,” and then another 6 minutes of pressure to be followed by the “Natural Pressure Release Method.”  In this instance, I’m not a huge fan of the “natural” method.  It seems to take too long without bringing with it noticeable improvement in flavor.  So for the second step, I would use 8 minutes of pressure followed by another “Quick Release Method.”  The extra 2 minutes of pressure does wonders for making the beef more moist and also eliminates the need for the longer “natural” release.

3) If you are eating “Classic Beef Stew,” you can just follow the directions and serve by itself.  But if you want “Boeuf Bourguignon,” then I suggest that you make sure mashed potatoes (which will cook while you prepare the stew in the pressure cooker) and serve the “stew” over the mashed potatoes. 

Instantly a more French-seeming a dish than a stew served by itself!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Brussels Sprouts and Bacon Frittata 2.0

The good news is that the “Brussels Sprouts, Bacon and Gruyere Frittata” featured in the January 2014 issue of Food & Wine is quite tasty.  The not-so-good news is that the recipe could use several tweakings to produce this quite tasty frittata.

On Wednesday night, I decided to take advantage of the fact that we had some Brussels sprouts and bacon around by making the frittata that looked so good in the magazine.   Click here for the recipe and you can follow along with the many adjustments I had to make.

Don't we want to drain the bacon fat?
Step 1 of the recipe has you cook ½ lb of thick-cut bacon for 3-5 minutes “until softened.”  Then you are supposed to add the shallots.  And then you add sliced ¾ lb Brussels sprouts.  I looked ALL OVER the recipe and could not find the suggestion to drain the rendered bacon fat.  Now I love bacon as much as the next person—even on chocolate glazed donuts and in maple ice cream—but ½ lb produces a LOT of bacon grease.  I would suggest draining all but 1-2 tablespoon of fat to sauté the shallots and Brussels sprouts with.

Do we need so much salt?
So we already have ½ lb of bacon fried up.  Then you sauté shallots and then the Brussels sprouts.  At that point, we are told to “season with salt and pepper.”  I was pondering just how much salt I would need for Brussels sprouts when there was so much bacon—and thus salt.  But I was shocked when Step 2 called for mixing 8 eggs with “1 teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of pepper.”  Seriously?  Who needs to season 8 eggs with 1 teaspoon of salt, especially when the Brussels sprouts are salted and on top of ½ lb crisp bacon?  I would not use any more than half that amount!  In any case, the sauté mixture is quite tasty at this point and you can just stop cooking here if you wanted a nice side dish.  (See photo above.)

Eggs and Cheese
This is probably not the recipe’s fault, but my 8 eggs turned out not to be enough.  Possibly because my organic free-range eggs are smaller, but 8 eggs yielded a fairly thin frittata, not like what’s pictured in the magazine.  My finished product looked more like a savory pancake (pictured at top and bottom of the post) while the picture in the magazine made the frittata appear more quiche-like, filling the entire pan.  When I poured in the egg mixture, it didn't even cover the bottom of the 12-inch skillet I was supposed to use. 

And while I love Gruyere—and really most any kind of cheese—I’m not sure that we needed 1 cup of shredded Gruyere on top of ½ lb of bacon and 8 eggs.  Besides which, I like being able to really taste my cheese.  In this recipe, the strong flavors of bacon, shallots, and Brussels sprouts caused the more subtle taste of the cheese to be overwhelmed.  Other than to bind the eggs, it’s not clear that we needed ANY cheese. 

Cooking the Frittata
The recipe has you “pour the egg mixture into the skillet and cook over moderate heat, stirring gently, until the eggs start to set and the bottom is lightly browned.”  I’m not sure I recommend “stirring” any frittata—gently or otherwise.  If we’re going to do that, we might as well skip the cheese (and you might skip the cheese anyway) and just scramble the eggs with the mixture.  I would, if anything, take a spatula and gently turn over sections of brown-bottomed frittata one small section at a time (see photo above) until the entire frittata has been turned once.   Then I’d slide it under the broiler. 

The recipe makes a nice brunch (with some fruit and yogurt and a roll), lunch (slid inside a toasted baguette as a sandwich), or dinner (with a side salad).  But I’d follow recommendations I made here to make sure that you’re not left with a greasy, salty, scrambled cholesterol bomb.