Monday, September 24, 2007

Cowboys, Chili, Cornbread, Crockpots & Crème Brulée

Fall means NFL -- just another reason for me to love the season. My favorite team is the Dallas Cowboys. I'm from Little Rock and they are the closest team we have, there's a UA connection and it is also big brother's favorite team. He's 12 years older than me, so I really didn't have much of a choice when it came to Sunday TV viewing when I was little. (It was pretty much football or nothing else.) I had the unique opportunity of being a Dallas Cowboy fan in Chicago last night.

In anticipation, I made my first batch of fall chili. I don't eat red meat or pork, so I substituted turkey for the beef. I top mine with cheese, onion, sour cream and cilantro. This means my Crock Pot is officially out of the cabinet for the season!

Homemade cornbread and sweet tea kept the meal Southern and simple. Let me pause for a moment and plug the Mr. Coffee Iced Tea Maker. Instant iced tea -- now that's pure genius. One of my favorite blends is a combo of regular tea and Celestial Seasonings Mandarin Orange. Serve it with an orange slice and cinnamon stick.

Back to the cornbread. If you aren't making yours in a screaming hot cast iron skillet, you're missing out. The crust that develops on the bottom provides an unbelievable flavor.
The cornbread batter should sizzle when it hits the skillet.
Dessert was unbelievably crème brulée. It's actually easier than making cookies from scratch and it's one of my friend's favorite desserts. It's funny because I'd invited the three football-loving women I know, but no one made it out. I understand because if I had to go somewhere, I wouldn't have made it either. Anyway, ... crème brulée and chili. Who knew?

Tools of the trade:

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Food & Friends

My favorite saying at work is, "I work with fools." We are a nutty group and we work hard and laugh loudly. I've made some really good friends. One of which is my former boss who never never misses an opportunity for a free meal.

The conversation usually starts with, "Whatcha cookin' tonight?" ... Okay, I'll be there at 7." So she and another co-worker were coming over on a Monday when I didn't get home until 5:30. The menu was a mix of favorites:

  • roast chicken
  • roasted veggies
  • fried corn

I combined two chicken recipes, Giada De Laurentiis' garlic and citrus chicken and Cook's Illustrated's high roast chicken. Yum-yum. Unfortunately, I didn't get to make the pan sauce in the citrus-chicken recipe, but it was still good.

The roasted veggies were the usual, baby carrots, onion, potato and fennel with fresh rosemary. I really do love my vegetables! The fried corn was good too.

The best part of the meal was getting to share it with friends during my favorite time of year (even though it's still in the 80s!)

Baking Machine

I have to completely pat myself on the back for this one. I pulled off three baked goods on Sunday (a first for me):

  • whole wheat buttermilk biscuits
  • blueberry muffins
  • pound cake

Now I was so tired from the baking that I didn't make my usual Sunday dinner, but that's okay. I made it Monday and had a couple of friends over.

The biscuits had just an unbelievable flavor. I think I may prefer these to regular biscuits. The only thing I didn't like about them was the shape. The recipe called for the dough to be divided into round balls and placed touching in a pan. I'm a sucker for perfectly round cut biscuits. Anything else looks like a roll. Mine looked exactly like the picture above. They also keep really well.

The blueberry muffins were my response to not having anything sweet in the house. I made them in a muffin top pan and par-baked them. In the mornings, I pop one in the toaster until the top is nice and brown. I spread lemon curd on top and it's the best!

The pound cake was old faithful. My dad gave me this recipe and it is always a hit. Although I never bake one for me (I'm not a big pound cake fan) it's my signature dish. I baked this one for a co-worker who catered lunch for her entire department. I got to sneak in for a plate. I love anyone who will feed me dressing and hers was excellent. My pound cake was a thank-you and it went over well. Although I've only screwed it up once, I'm always nervous about it, so I usually end up slicing it up. This one was A-okay. Everyone enjoyed it.

Do all cooks crave approval? I damn near held my breath as people tried the cake!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Bag o' Funk

Last weekend, I discovered the joy of my Chicago Public Radio Membership card. It essentially gets you a free entree at many Chicago restaurants. Two friends and I vowed to spend the weekend dining only at restaurants that honored the card. One of those was a usual favorite, Bin 36. (I love any place that will sell me a plate of artisanal cheese.) We dined on crab salad towers and pepper-crusted swordfish. The fish was so good that it needed to be recreated at home. We tried it yesterday. Unfortunately, my friends couldn't find Tellicherry peppercorns at my favorite spice haunt, World Market. We resolved to make it work with the tri-colored peppercorns. As the fish started to cook, my kitchen filled with the worst odor! We started to wonder if the fish was bad. It turned out the smell came from the peppercorns. They became so pungent as they bloomed in the oil. (duh) Ick and double-ick. Now obviously I wasn't cooking at Bin 36, so I can't attest to if black peppercorns smell the same or as strongly, but I swear my fish had a better flavor at the restaurant. Lesson learned - Tellicherry for crusting! Spice Crusting 101
  • Pat the food to be crusted dry
  • Rub with oil (not a lot, just enough to coat)
  • Dip food into the spice mixture and press the spices in
  • Add a scant amount (just enough to coat the bottom) of oil to a hot pan
  • Just before the oil starts to smoke, add the food
  • Do not move or adjust the food until the spices on the bottom are golden brown (you'll know it's ready when the food releases easily when you try to move it)

Saturday, September 8, 2007

In Celebration of Fall

I love Labor Day. Not because of the day off (which is always cool) and the barbecue, but because it is the unofficial start of Fall (my favorite season.) The temp is just right (at least in some states), the leaves turn, clothes are better and comfort food makes a comeback.

This week I changed my kitchen colors from oranges, golds and red to black and brown. I pulled out the vanilla-scented potpourri. I fell in love again with my Mahogany dinnerware. I'm giving some thought to what my Christmas colors will be. (Hey, I do not go down to my storage unit after the first week in October. It may be snowing and I am not hauling Christmas ornaments up icy steps.)

Best of all, I made a fall dish without feeling guilty. This was a pot of love. I seared a bone-in turkey breast and braised it with turnips, onion, acorn squash, garlic and sweet potatoes. (I'm choosing to omit the secret ingredients) Garnished with fresh sage and rosemary -- now you have a bowl of love. Sometimes rustic is the way to go.

I tried to take a picture of it plated, but the camera phone did it no justice. I'll take some pics when I get my new camera. In the meantime take a gander at the pot that made it all happen, my All-Clad Dutch oven.

Braising 101

Braising is a slow cooking method. It makes large and/or tough cuts of meat tender and juicy. If you know how to cook a roast in a slow cooker, your already there!

The keys to a good flavorful braise are high heat and moist low heat. Let me explain. Caramelization of meat and veggies occurs when the sugars in the foods brown. It happens when easiest during searing or grilling, which are high-heat applications It's that sizzle when the steak hits the fry pan.

Many of us never get foods to caramelize because we like to move the food around in the pan instead of letting it cook and developing fond in the pan. (more about fond later). This is why many TV chefs instruct you to place the food item on the hot surface and walk away. How do you know when your food has properly caramelized? It will readily release from the pan when you try to move it. Once you lift it, you'll see the golden brown color.

Let's say you're working a turkey breast, as I did above. I heated the Dutch oven until it was nice and hot. I added just enough canola oil to cover the bottom of the pan and plopped the breast in. After caramelizing the skin side (always sear and fry the skin side first), I flipped it to sear the other side. I repeated the process until every possible inch was golden brown. I then removed the breast from the pot. Remember that I used high heat because I wanted to brown the outside quickly without cooking the inside. Braising is a two-step process, I had to save room for the low heat to work.

Next comes the veggies. Almost everything tastes better when caramelized, so I caramelized the veggies in the pot in batches. I did not clean the pot as I progressed because I wanted plenty of fond. Fond is the tasty dark brown bits left in a pan after searing or roasting. The more the merrier, but be careful not to allow it to burn. To prevent the fond from the turkey from burning, I lowered my searing temperature slightly when browning the veggies.

Deglazing is the act of removing fond by adding a liquid. Your pan should be hot and the liquid should hiss and bubble when added to the pan. This happens to be the foundation of a good pan sauce. You can deglaze with wine, water, broth, etc. Obviously water will give you the least flavor. As you add the liquid, use a wooden utensil to scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen the fond. My favorite tool for this is the Oxo wooden turner.

After adding enough liquid to remove the fond, I added the veggies and turkey breast back into the pot. I added enough liquid to come about halfway up the turkey breast and covered the top of the meat with the veggies. I then adjusted the seasonings, covered the pot and placed it in a pre-heated 350 degree oven. I let it cook for about two hours.

The liquid and low heat from the oven create a wet sauna for the turkey. This is braising. Anything you cook in this manner will bring you a pot of love.

Now you can use a thermometer to check when your food is done. I usually go by sight. I like braising because you also get a delayed "thumbs up" the next day to let you know if you cooked the food properly. If you've braised something bone-in and your liquid has gelatinized the next day, pat yourself on the back. You've broken down the collagen in the bone to extract maximum flavor. Eat your leftovers with pride, job well done!

Braising tips:

  • Throw in a bay leaf when you put the dish in the oven
  • Leave out the fresh herbs until the food goes into the oven
  • Season well and season as you go
  • Searing is for color, not cooking
  • Make sure your pot has a tight-fitting lid. Many quality braising vessels have domed lids to maximize the amount of moisture in the pot.
Tools of the trade: