Monday, October 26, 2009

Homemade Chicken Stock

I finally succeeded and broke my pattern. As I'm sure you have no idea what I'm talking about, my cooking so far has been following a pattern: first I make a successful dish, and then the next one is a failure, followed by another successful dish, and another failure. (You'll also notice the dishes that are failures are the salads I've made so far. Coincidence? I think not.) Well for the first time so far, I made two successful dishes in a row! First the granola bars and now the chicken stock. I know I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, so let me start at the beginning.

Chicken stock is something that I've never made before. I personally think that using a quality store-bought variety works just fine, mostly because I never wanted to deal with butchering a bunch of whole, raw chickens, which I thought was integral to making chicken stock. So I've been perfectly content using the boxed variety. That being said, I don't typically make recipes that call for large amounts of stock, such as soups or stews. The only time chicken stock is typically made in my house is when my mom makes matzoh ball soup for Passover, and spends an afternoon making Martha Stewart's chicken stock, something I choose to opt out of every year. 

Because of this inexperience, I was a little hesitant to even look at the recipe for this stock. As soon as I saw the words chicken neck or liver, I was slamming the book shut and vowing myself over to vegetarianism. Ok, a little dramatic I know, but I don't do well with raw meat. It is at this point that blogger Carol Blymire would start laughing hysterically since dealing with a few puny chickens is no comparison to the butchering she was faced with. But again, sorry Carol. You're just more woman than me.

Now Ina, unlike myself, thinks homemade chicken stock really makes a difference. I've heard her say it a hundred times on her show, and have never seen her use anything other than her own. Not only is there a recipe for homemade chicken stock in Back to Basics, requiring me to make it in order to complete my project, but Ina has also included a lot of recipes for different soups and stews, in which chicken stock plays an integral part. Since Fall and Winter are such nice times to spend an afternoon making a nice, warm, hearty soup, I knew I wanted to make the chicken stock relatively soon so I could get started on some of those dishes.

Dan and I had already done the shopping for the week so I had all the ingredients I needed. This recipe makes 6 quarts of chicken stock, most of which I would freeze until I needed it. This of course led me on a search for appropriate tupperware. What I really wanted were single quart-sized round containers, basically the plastic containers Chinese food comes in. Of course, these were nowhere to be found. I checked the grocery store and then Target (after a second round, successful job interview) but no dice. I don't know where Ina gets her cookware, but I would love to find out since I'm having serious problems finding the containers and bakeware she uses, which is incredibly frustrating. Anyway, I took what I could find and headed home to face the birds:
I really wanted to come up with some clever names for this trio, but couldn't really think of any that were worthy enough. Maybe next time. I'm open for suggestions. Thankfully, all I had to do with these little ladies was rinse them off and remove the lovely package-o-parts that was tucked inside the cavity. Even this was a little much for me and I considered vegetarianism for about 2 minutes, until the thought of a cheeseburger crossed my mind and I pressed on. I put the chickens into the biggest pot we had, which incidentally, was not big enough. Even though it was pretty huge, it was only about half the size I needed. A 16-20 quart stockpot: yet another piece of cookware that only Ina has. Next up were the celery carrots and onion:
This recipe also calls for parsnips, but they are optional. I really wanted to use them since they're not a vegetable I'm that familiar with and I was curious how they would change the flavor of the stock, but after looking in two separate grocery stores, I couldn't find them. Clearly I did not look in Whole Foods or I'm sure I would have been successful.

Ina suggests using carrots with the greens still attached since she thinks they're sweeter...sure Ina. They also look pretty. The one good thing about making chicken stock is there's not a lot of prep work like dicing or precise measuring. I washed the celery, which included the leaves, and cut the stalks into thirds, and did the same with the carrots, discarding their greens. Since I washed the carrots and we weren't going to eat them, there was no need to peel them, which was also a plus. Lastly, I quartered the onions, leaving the peels on. This may sound strange, but the peel is actually what gives the chicken stock its deep brown color, so although it's not important for taste, it makes a difference aesthetically. And, it's one less step!

I added all of these pieces to the stock pot with the chickens, shoving the celery stalks and carrot sticks down the sides of the pot, since I was already running out of room. Next were the herbs:
which consisted of parsley, thyme, dill, and garlic. There was no need to chop any of these herbs or even peel the garlic. I simply cut it in half crosswise and even left the peel on. I squeezed all of these into the pot, which looked a little something like this:
The biggest problem with using a pot that was too small was that there wasn't enough room for the 7 quarts of water once all the other ingredients were inside. I added about half of that, which was all that would fit, and put the whole shebang over very high heat. Once it came to a boil, I reduced the heat to bring the stock down to a simmer. My plan, since I couldn't add all of the necessary water initially, was to add it gradually as the stock reduced, allowing more room for more liquid.

After just half an hour on the stove, the entire first floor was smelling delicious. It was at this point that Dan came home and took a look at my handiwork. Soups, stews, and stocks are things that he really enjoys cooking and has some experience with so I was a little nervous about what he would think of my concoction. The look on his face as he walked in the door and caught a whiff of the chickeny-deliciousness was promising though. To ensure I wasn't just stewing a big vat of bacteria, he checked that the temperature was high enough, which of course it was (I blame the biochem background and med school paranoia). He did notice that part of one of the chickens wasn't cooking, since there wasn't enough space to cover it completely with water. He suggested we cut the chicken into pieces to make it fit a little more easily and since I wasn't about to go fishing for chicken to butcher, he grabbed some tongs and strapped on his apron.
Just look at that concentration and technique 
He cut the chicken into four pieces and we situated it back into the pot. Dan was also helpful in noticing that a lot of fat from the chicken had risen to the top of the pot, and was sort of stifling the rest of the liquid from evaporating and reducing. This was all news to me. But we got a ladle and skimmed most of the fat away, putting it into a bowl to discard later.

As the stock simmered for the rest of the afternoon, I added more hot water, 2 cups at a time, as often as I could, while skimming away fat and other impurities. This is pretty much what it looked like the whole afternoon:
Appetizing, I know
Chicken fat, sort of like bacon grease, is not something you can just pour down the sink, so I used empty Diet Coke cans to dispose of the grease. By the end of the process I had 2 full cans. Gross.

The stock simmers for four hours, and luckily after about 3 hours I had successfully added the total amount of water to the pot. Since this was obviously a departure from the original recipe, I let the stock simmer for an additional 30 minutes, just for good measure. Finally it was done and was time to strain. I set up a smaller sauce pot with a colander over top of it to catch the solids, and started ladling the stock into it:
so that it looked like this:
I must say, I was pretty impressed with the golden color of this stock 
Dan couldn't stand the thought of wasting all the chicken meat that had been cooking in the delicious stewy mixture all day, so he begged me to save as much of it as I could. This was easier said than done. The chicken was so tender that it had basically fallen apart, and trying to salvage chicken meat without any of the mushy vegetables was quite a challenge. Nevertheless, I acquired enough chicken meat to fill the biggest mixing bowl we have and put it in the fridge for Dan to deal with. In the end, Dan's dog Jager ate more of it than we did since we kept feeding him scraps and eventually just had to throw it away.

As I strained, I filled the numerous tupperware containers I had gotten earlier that day and put them in the fridge:
This recipe yields 6 quarts of chicken stock, which was the perfect amount to just fit into all of my containers. Once they were all filled, they went into the fridge to chill over night. The next day, I checked each container for any fat that had risen to the top. Since chicken fat solidifies at room temperature (or colder) when the stock cools, all the leftover fat rises to the top and is very easy to discard. Since I had done such a good job of skimming the day before though (remember the 2 Diet Coke cans?) there was barely any fat in any of the containers. Something to note about good chicken stock: when cool, it more closely resembles Jello than stock. I'm not sure why this is, and surprisingly Ina doesn't make a note of it in the recipe, which might be concerning to other cooks who have never made stock before and end up with chicken Jello. But I knew this was nothing to worry about so as I finished with each container, I put them in the freezer to store until I needed them.

Oh, I haven't mentioned how this tasted yet. It was good. Really good. Very flavorful, not too salty, and nice and clear with no impurities. Now, I've never tasted store bought chicken stock straight out of the package, so I can't really speak to how my stock compares to store bought. But since no one's here to dispute me, I'll say mine was better.

Phew, that was a looong post. I guess it's appropriate given the length of time it took to make this recipe, but if you think about it, there wasn't actually that much work involved.   

Make this when: you have a full day to devote to it and it's too rainy and cold to do anything fun outside. Since it makes the whole house smell wonderful, it's also a good thing to make when you want to impress someone with your baller cooking skills. 

Next Course: Wild Mushroom Risotto

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Homemade Granola Bars

After the latest salad debacle I felt it was time to cook something I felt more confident about so, I turned on the oven.  Ina has a whole chapter devoted solely to breakfast, which is my favorite meal of the day. People who know me well also know that this is somewhat ironic since I hate eggs. That's right, I don't like 'em scrambled or boiled, poached or in an omelet. And every time I see someone else enjoying a delicious omelet filled with salty, crunchy bacon, creamy cheese, and fresh veggies, I sigh and wish my palate wasn't so damn picky. But alas...

This still leaves me with all the yummy carbo-loaded breakfast foods like pancakes, home fries (not hash browns), croissants, and bagels. Yummm. But, I'm getting myself off track. And hungry.

There are plenty of good options in Ina's breakfast chapter, but, like I said, I was looking for something relatively stress-free, and decided granola bars were the way to go. I bought all the ingredients about a week before baking, since they are all dry and could be kept in the pantry for a while. This felt sort of like a lazy Sunday project, so this past Sunday I went into the kitchen and started baking. I preheated the oven and prepped the baking dish:

Although I was using a disposable tinfoil pan, I still buttered and lined it with parchment paper, as per the instructions, since you can never be too careful. Next, I measured out old-fashioned oatmeal, sliced almonds, and coconut, and placed these on a sheet pan, before tossing them all together:

This went into the oven and almost as soon as the heat hit the coconut, it started to smell great. It baked for about 10 minutes, with breaks every now and then while I stirred it so it could brown evenly. When I wasn't stirring, I measured and chopped the dried fruit:

Dates on the left, Apricots on the right, and cranberries at the bottom

Once the oatmeal mixture was nice and lightly toasted, I took it out of the oven:

Doesn't look like much now, but believe me, it gets better.

I lowered the oven temperature and then carefully transferred this to a large bowl, trying not to let it scatter all over the floor, and added wheat germ:

  I know what you're thinking: Wheat Germ? What could be better than that?!?

Next, I combined butter, honey, brown sugar, vanilla, and salt in a small saucepan on the stove, using up almost my entire stock of honey:

Poor, sad Honey Bear

I put the saucepan over medium heat and waited for the sweet mixture to come to a boil:

Waiting, waiting, waiting

Once it came to a boil, I cooked, stirring for one minute, and then poured it over the toasted oatmeal and wheat germ mixture. I added all the dried fruit and stirred well:

  Mmm, sticky

I poured this mixture into the pan, and spread it out evenly. Ina suggests wetting your fingers and pressing the mixture down into the pan, but I found using the back of a wooden spoon worked just fine. I nonetheless wet my fingers anyway (since Ina said so), but just ended up with wet, sticky fingers. I put the pan in the oven and baked it for about 25 minutes until it was light, golden brown like this:

By now, the house smelled coconutty and delicious, but unfortunately for Dan, these have to rest for 2-3 hours before I could cut them into bars. Ina suggests that these are even better the second day, so I actually waited until the next day to cut them into single servings.

At first I was a bit skeptical. I don't like almonds, or really any nut for that matter, and am not a big fan of oatmeal or dried fruit (although thanks to Dan and his Great Grains, I discovered dates aren't actually that bad). But these granola bars far exceeded my expectations. They're chewy and crunchy and sweet, and way better than your average store-bought variety. Thanks to their numerous ingredients and density, they feel fulfilling and satisfying. The only drawback is that they are a bit crumbly, so they may not be the best choice to eat in the car on the way to work, but they make an excellent afternoon snack. 

Make this when: you want to impress new neighbors with something other than a boring bundt cake. Just make sure they don't have a nut allergy. Talk about a bad first impression. 

Next Course: Homemade Chicken Stock

Monday, October 19, 2009

Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with Warm Cider Vinaigrette

Let me premise this post by saying, it might not be my best one yet. I had a tough time with this dish which translated into a tough time writing about it, but I'm committed to every recipe and every post so (deep breath) here it goes.

On Tuesday I finally made it out to the local farmer's market that Dan's been talking about for months now. It was smaller than I expected, but there were a good handful of vendors who had very good selections of local produce. I was anticipating making this butternut squash salad later in the week so I picked up a small butternut squash and some arugula along with a couple of other things that looked yummy (like the green beans you saw in the last post). Unfortunately, the market is only open until the end of this month so my selection of local produce will be limited, but with the discovery of the amazing Whole Foods, I'm a little less disappointed.

Ok, on to the salad. Now this salad has 2 things in common with the Cape Cod Chopped Salad:
1. I made it on a night when I had an interview in the afternoon
2. It didn't turn out very well.

Are we sensing a pattern here?

Alright, if you ask Dan, he'll tell you that #2 isn't true. I think based on his brutal honesty about the last salad, he's probably telling the truth and not just placating me to avoid the mess that would ensue after my inevitable frustrated tantrum. Needless to say, I didn't like this salad. And I didn't like making it either.

First, I preheated the oven to 400 degrees and cut the top and bottom off the butternut squash so it was stable on the cutting board:

Then it was time to peel the squash, which, if you've never attempted it, can be quite a feat. One way to do this is to cut it to separate the round section from the longer, straight section and then peel each section separately with a chef's knife. I, of course, chose the harder route.

I used a vegetable peeler and peeled the squash whole. The peel on this squash is very tough and with a very sharp vegetable peeler, maybe this would be no trouble at all. The one I was using, however, was a little dull, which is generally no problem for everyday use. On a butternut squash though, it's another story. I peeled the whole thing once, and then went back and peeled it again in order to remove all of the leftover peel.

Next, I cut the squash in half and hollowed out the round part of the squash, the inside of which greatly resemble the inside of a pumpkin:

I diced the squash (which smelled like cantaloupe, by the way, giving me a great sense of false hope) and spread it on a sheet pan. To the squash I added olive oil, maple syrup, salt and pepper and tossed to combine:

Into the oven this went. Now here's where things get a little hairy (not literally, although with the amount of hair Jager sheds, you never know). Up until this point everything was lovely and going smoothly. Granted, I hadn't done much, but I was still in my happy zen place thinking about how my interview had gone well. The squash roasts for 15-20 minutes, but I had gotten a smaller squash than the one the recipe called for since it was just Dan and me, so I knew the roasting time would be on the shorter side.

This is the point at which my poor prep work comes and bites me in the ass.

In addition to the salad, I was also making some chicken, which hadn't quite defrosted yet. So while I was trying to defrost the chicken, I was also preheating the pan for it, making the salad dressing, keeping an eye on the squash, which I had to toss around in the pan without any falling over the sides, and toasting walnuts on the stove:

You know that Electrolux commercial with Kelly Ripa as Supermom, doing the laundry, juggling pots and pans, pouring and stirring, serving fresh cookies, all with one hand tied behind her back? Yeah...that's not what this looked like.

I started on the salad dressing, combining apple juice, cider vinegar, and some shallot in a small saucepan on the stove. While I was waiting for this to boil, I added some dried cranberries to the pan with the squash and let this mixture continue to cook:

Please note the oven thermometer. Ina would be so proud.

It was now that I realized the squash was basically done, the chicken was only half-cooked, the dressing wasn't boiling, and I hadn't washed any lettuce or grated the cheese I needed.

I took a break from the stove and washed and dried the arugula, putting it into a big salad bowl with the walnuts. By now, the dressing was finally boiling and was starting to reduce:

I had taken the squash out of the oven and set it on the stove to keep it warm. Off the heat, I added Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper to the dressing and whisked in olive oil. Since I still wasn't ready to serve, I put the saucepan back on the stove over a very low flame. Next I grated Parmesan cheese on a box grater as per Ina's instructions:


I added the squash and cranberries to the salad bowl, followed by the Parmesan cheese, reserving some, and lastly, some of the dressing. I was very careful this time and added just enough dressing, since I think I dressed the last salad a little too heavily. I plated two portions and added a little extra cheese on top. Here's the final plating:

  Looks pretty good, right?

Yeah, I thought so too. And after such a rushed, stressful time making it, I was really looking forward to enjoying it. Dan and I sat down, I ate a big forkful of lettuce, cheese, and squash... and immediately decided that I hated this salad. 

The squash was way overcooked so it was on the verge of mushy, and was nowhere near as sweet as I thought it would be (remember the cantaloupe smell? It was misleading). Also, I mistakenly bought regular arugula as opposed to the baby arugula the recipe calls for. Baby arugula is much more tender and less bitter than regular arugula which is tough, even when slightly wilted by the warm squash and dressing. Also, even though the squash was overcooked, it had cooled to room temperature and really would have been better genuinely warm.

The dressing was very mild, almost as if it wasn't there, the exact opposite of the cape cod salad. And it wasn't that I hadn't used enough dressing, because any more and the salad would have been oily. Perhaps the problem is that I used apple juice instead of apple cider, although the recipe lists them as interchangeable. But since I already had apple juice in the fridge to go along with my morning english muffin, naturally, I chose the juice. Maybe apple cider would have more of an impact.

Surprisingly, my favorite part of this salad were the cranberries (Yes, me, Ms. Is this a grape in my salad?!?). I'm not sure if it was because they gave me the sweetness I was expecting or because they were so necessary against the bitterness of the lettuce. Oh, and of course the cheese. That was great too.

Now, I have no doubt that most of my dissatisfaction with this salad came from 1) operator error since I overcooked the squash, and 2) personal taste, since apparently, I don't like butternut squash. I're shocked.

Dan, however, really enjoyed this salad, which is saying a lot since he doesn't normally like salads with warm components. He, unlike myself, does like butternut squash, and didn't actually think it was overdone. 

Make this when: you're fully prepared and are sure your diners like butternut squash. The warmth of this salad makes it a great starter, rather than a lunch dish. Assuming the former conditions were met, this would actually be a good start to Thanksgiving dinner...just not mine. 

Next Course: Homemade Granola Bars

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Indonesian Grilled Swordfish

A few days ago, Dan and I trekked over to the Whole Foods in Richmond's west end to do some shopping. Now, you'd think that with a Ukrops, Kroger, and Ellwood Thomson's (a natural food store) all practically within walking distance of the house, there would be no need to drive 15 minutes to Short Pump to go grocery shopping. Well, you'd be wrong. 

Make no mistake, for most things I just head over to Ukrops and can find most of the basic necessities for everyday cooking and eating; plus, since they're locally owned and like to imagine Richmond is still a small town, they routinely carry your bags out to your car for you. Now if they would only help you bring them into the house...but I guess that's what I have Dan for. Anyway, Ukrops is nice in its own right but its produce, and particularly its protein selection is a bit lackluster. So when Dan and I found ourselves close to the Short Pump area, we decided to stop in and see what goodies we could find.

Now, I've never been to a Whole Foods before. WHAT?! You say. Yes, Charlottesville had a Whole Foods, but I never felt the need to do my shopping there while I was in school. Harris Teeter worked just fine for me. Virginia Beach has a Fresh Market, and a Trader Joe's (finally!), but no Whole Foods, so I didn't really know what to expect. Basically, I thought I would be walking into just another Fresh Market. Boy, was I wrong. (Mom, once you read this you're going to be really jealous, just so you know. Sorry, in advance.)

This Whole Foods was huge. The produce department was impressive and had a lot of greens you don't see in regular grocery stores. But most impressive were the selections of proteins. Their meat and seafood departments had huge cases fully stocked with fresh produce. Much of the seafood had been wild caught and there was such a selection, I didn't know what to choose. One of the dishes I will be making is a bay scallop gratin, but the note in the recipe suggests bay scallops can be hard to find.

Apparently Ina has never been to Whole Foods.

There was a huge tray of them! I asked one of the employees working behind the counter how often they carried bay scallops and the response? "Oh, daily." YAY!! I know you're thinking, Ok Morgan, enough about the scallops, this post is suppossed to be about swordfish. Since I know the bay scallops will be waiting for me until I return, I chose a beautiful piece of swordfish and asked them to remove the skin and cut it into two portions.

Before I go on with the recipe, just one last thing. Yes, Whole Foods is great and all, but why is it that I can't just go to one grocery store and get everything I need? Although Whole Foods has great produce and meat and fish, since they're an upscale, somewhat "natural" food store, they don't carry cheap generic brands of rarely-used ingredients like cider vinegar or honey, nor do they have the name brand items we need on a daily basis. Where are my Honey Bunches of Oats or the Morningstar Buffalo "Chicken" tenders I like? Oh, that's right. They're back at Ukrops... Looks like I'll be seeing more of Short Pump than I thought.

Alright, on to the swordfish.

First, I made the marinade, which the fish was to soak in for at least 4 hours, or overnight. Here are the ingredients:

In one ramekin (the darker liquid) is soy sauce and canola oil. In the other ramekin is lemon zest and juice. I also used garlic (in the middle) and ginger, both of which I minced. Last was Dijon mustard, and of course, the fish. Please notice the newspaper-like wrapping the fish is in. Oh, that Whole Foods... so clever!

I combined all the marinade ingredients together in one ramekin and rinsed and dried the fish.

I know this marinade may not look like much, but it smelled so good. Something about the combination of the ginger, lemon, and soy was so aromatic and I started to think this could be a very promising dish. I layered half the marinade in the bottom of a tupperware, layed the fish on top, and poured the rest of the marinade over top.

This hung out in the fridge while I ran some more errands, including visiting the Farmer's Market I mentioned earlier, but sorry, you won't get to hear about that until my next post. While the recipe suggests to marinate this overnight, it also warns not to leave it too long or the soy sauce, which acts as a tenderizer, will make the fish mushy. Since I marinated this in the early afternoon, I was concerned about leaving it for more than 24 hours, and decided to cook it that night instead. 

Once the fish had been marinating for about 4 1/2 hours, I preheated the grill.

Ok, Dan preheated it, but I supervised.

After about 30 minutes, when the grill was hot, we (read: Dan) brushed it with oil to prevent the fish from sticking. After ensuring Dan didn't need medical attention for the burn he suffered to his knuckle, I got the fish from the fridge and sprinkled one side liberally with salt. You'll remember that there was no salt or pepper in this marinade and I did not salt and pepper the fish before placing it in the marinade. The recipe specifically instructs to be generous with the salt here, so, ignoring Dan's grimace, I salted away. Using tongs I placed the salted side down on the grill, allowing some of the ginger from the marinade to stick to the fish, as instructed. I then salted the other side of the fish and left it alone to cook.

Swordfish is a thick fish and cooks for about 10 minutes, 5 minutes per side. Nevertheless, I stood watch to ensure everything went smoothly.
Just call me Bobby Flay

After about 5 minutes on the first side, I flipped the steaks over with only a little difficulty due to some stick-age. As fish cooks it gets more delicate and can fall apart. Although I was able to flip these with tongs so they remained intact, a spatula may have been an easier tool to use, and was what I used when I removed the steaks from the grill after another 5 minutes. I placed the cooked fish on a plate, covered it tightly with tinfoil , and let it rest for about 10 minutes. And here is the final plating presentation


Let me just say, with this dish, I totally redeemed myself after the cape cod salad debacle. I'm not a big fish-lover, but swordfish is one of my few favorites. It's very substantial and meaty, (hence swordfish steaks as opposed to fillets) and is not fishy at all. The flavor this marinade infused into the fish was outstanding. The lemon stood out, but in a subtle way; it didn't hit me over the head like the orange did in the cape cod salad. Instead, all the other flavors in the marinade complimented and balanced the lemon, letting it shine. Even though I only marinated the fish for the minimum amount of time, it still had so much flavor. I'm not sure marinating it over night would have made much of a difference, and if it had, the marinade might actually have been too strong. 

The cook time was also accurate, although the very center of Dan's piece seemed slightly underdone. His piece might have been a little thicker, or perhaps we're both just paranoid and it was actually fine. Either way, he's still alive and well today so I guess it was ok. Also, allowing the fish to rest under foil kept it nice and juicy so it wasn't too dry. This is definitely a dish I'll be making again, probably for my mom since I know how much she likes swordfish.

And to make up for the fact that she doesn't have a Whole Foods. 

Make this when: you want to impress a date with your cooking skills. All the prep is done hours before and it only takes 10 minutes on the grill. Boys, you get to look all rugged and manly at your fire pit; and ladies, you look confident and capable, able to handle one of the boys' toys. Of course, you can always bat your eyelashes, feign ignorance, and let your man handle the tongs. Sometimes its best to let them think they're in charge.

Next Course: Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with Warm Cider Vinaigrette 

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cape Cod Chopped Salad

Ok, so I know what you're thinking. A salad...really? Do I really need a recipe to tell me how to make a salad? Apparently Ina thinks so because there are about 5 of them in Back to Basics. But since I like making homemade dressing and I think some of her flavor combinations are interesting, I don't think the salad posts will be too boring, so try to bear with me. 

Of the few in Back to Basics, I chose this salad because I knew I could get everything I needed at the regular grocery store. Additionally, I knew this wouldn't take that long or be too labor intensive, and since I had a job interview to worry about in the afternoon, I wanted something relatively stress-free. In order to make some of the more exciting dishes, I want to get the best fall produce I can find which, hopefully, I'll be able to get at the little farmer's market that is held every Tuesday, practically right around the corner. Now, who has the time to go to a farmer's market in the middle of the day on Tuesdays, I'm not sure. But thanks to my (un)employment status, I do! So once I check that out and see what produce is available, I'll start working on some of the more interesting dishes, I promise.

Scene Change: You'll notice that the background in these pictures is different than in my previous post. This is because I made the French Apple Tart in my mom's kitchen while visiting for the weekend, but now that I'm back in Richmond, the kitchen you'll see in pictures is the one in Dan's house.

To get started with the salad, I preheated the oven and laid out some bacon on a baking rack that was set over a sheet pan
Hello boys

and put this in the oven to get crispy. Now, I know that as a Jew, bacon isn't technically suppossed to be part of my diet, and usually, it's not. But generally I avoid it because it is usually undercooked for my taste. I like my bacon really crispy. Really, really crispy. Roasting bacon in the oven like this is perfect for this kind of crispness because all the fat drips down onto the baking sheet, as opposed to the bacon simply boiling in it on the stove. It's also a lot easier. Ok, enough about the bacon. 

Oh, there should be a picture here of Dan's dog, Jager, sitting at my feet, looking up at me with his big Hound eyes, waiting for me to walk away so he could snatch a piece of bacon off the pan. Jager's a little camera shy though (as opposed to Layla who is a camera whore), but I'm sure he'll pop up eventually.

Next, I chopped some walnuts and put them in a dry saute pan over medium-low heat to toast slightly. After about 5 minutes, I put them into the salad bowl with an equal amount of dried cranberries. 

To make the dressing, I whisked apple cider vinegar, orange zest and juice,  Dijon mustard, maple syrup, and salt and pepper together in a small bowl, and measured out the olive oil.


By now, the bacon was smelling yummy and looking nice and crispy so it was time to take it out of the oven to let cool.

Ina suggests leaving the bacon in the oven for about 2o minutes, but I left it in a little longer, (probably about 5-7 minutes more) since, as you all know by now, I like my bacon super crispy. 

While the bacon cooled, (and I was on the phone with my mother getting details about a wedding I had missed over the weekend) Dan, lured to the kitchen by the irresistible smell of bacon, peeled a Granny Smith apple, which I then diced and added to the walnuts and cranberries. Next, I added baby arugula to the salad bowl along with the bacon, which Dan had diced, trying hard not to eat more than a few pieces. To finish the dressing, I slowly whisked the olive oil into the rest of the ingredients.

I sprinkled some crumbled blue cheese over the salad and added some of the dressing, tossing to combine. As instructed, I waited until the last second to add the dressing and tried not to overdress the salad (which was a slight challenge as I had made the full amount of dressing but had cut the salad size in half). Here is how it looked tossed together in the salad bowl

To make this into a more substantial dinner, I sauteed some chicken breasts, sliced them, and added them to our individual portions right before serving. And here is the final product

Overall, I would say that this salad didn't quite meet my expectations. Dan, however, was the harsher critic; he found it thoroughly substandard, with the bacon and orange combination truly offensive. He expected more from you, Ina (he still cleaned his plate, and mine, but that's beside the point). I, on the other hand, am a little more protective over Ina and her choices. After all, I wouldn't want to say or do anything that might ruin my chances of being invited to cook with her at her fabulous house in the Hamptons... 

Hey, it could happen.

The biggest problem was the overwhelming taste of orange in the dressing. Theoretically the orange juice and maple syrup should have added sweetness to counteract the bitterness of the arugula, but the orange zest was much too overpowering. The dressing was more sour than sweet and didn't mesh well with all the other elements of the salad. The following night we even gave the dressing a second chance, drizzling it on some baby arugula to determine if it would be better in a simpler presentation, but this was actually worse. The sourness of the dressing just enhanced the bitterness of the greens, with no added sweetness or saltiness to distract from it.

When it comes to salads, I'm also a purist; I want veggies in my salad bowl, not fruit. But the apple was actually one of my favorite parts of this salad, and surprisingly, I didn't hate the dried cranberries, which normally, like the walnuts, would have been picked out and placed on someone else's plate (I told you, palate, and table manners, of a 12-year-old). The saltiness of the bacon and blue cheese was also yummy with the sweet fruit, although I found the cheese to be a little strong for my taste.

Make this when: you've got some bacon left over from Sunday morning breakfast and are looking for a satisfying lunch or light dinner. You're not going to the extra trouble of cooking the bacon and if it doesn't turn out well, it's no big deal. 

Next Course: Indonesian Grilled Swordfish

Saturday, October 10, 2009

French Apple Tart

For my first course I actually chose to make a dessert and I did this for a few reasons. First, I love dessert. I have a huge sweet tooth and I don't think a meal is really complete without something sweet, preferably something chocolate. Secondly, I wanted to start with something I felt comfortable and confident doing, and for me, that's baking. 

I chose Ina's French Apple Tart, the first dessert listed in Back to Basics and Ina's personal favorite. The last apple dessert I made for my family fell flat...literally. I had attempted to make an apple tart tatin, which I had never made before. It's basically a fancy upside-down apple tart covered in caramel that looks very impressive once unveiled...theoretically. I even convinced my mother to buy a special Emile Henry tart tatin dish and was really excited to try it out. However, after two separate attempts to make the caramel (one of which resulted in burned sugar that my mother had to practically pickaxe off the pan), apple juice all over myself and the counter, and a lackluster result, we chocked it up to a loss. Needless to say, my mom traded in the tart tatin pan for a new Cuisinart food processor on steroids, and I felt it was time to redeem myself. So was I successful?  

Well, the first component I started with was the tart dough, which the recipe suggests is done with a food processor. I have been making pie and tart dough this way for years and have found that this is by far the easiest method. It eliminates kneading and pastry cutters and is virtually fool proof. Seriously, just try it the next time you're just whipping up a quick pie in your free time. My first challenge was trying to figure out the intense new food processor my mom upgraded to:
Please note the instruction manual.

After a phone consult with my mother, I managed to assemble the food processor correctly and added the flour, salt, and sugar, and pulsed to combine. Next I added chilled butter which I had diced into small pieces. Here's what the mixture looked like before its spin in the processor:

I pulsed the mixture until the butter was the size of large peas, and then added a stream of cold water through the feed tube while the machine was still running. I then pulsed the whole mixture until it just started to hold together and looked like this:

I spilled the mixture out onto a floured surface and formed it into a disc (see, no kneading!)

I wrapped this in plastic and it chilled out in the fridge for one hour. There's a note in the directions that a sheet of defrosted puff pastry can be used in place of making this dough, but considering that it only took about 7 minutes to make and was flaky and buttery and delicious, I don't think I would ever make the substitution.

With an hour to kill it was time to catch up on the Grey's Anatomy episode I missed last night, punctuated by some games of fetch with Layla.
I mean, come on, how could you resist that face?

After the dough had been chilling for about an hour, I preheated the oven and lined a sheet pan with parchment paper. I took the dough from the fridge and rolled it out on a floured counter top. 
Let me also say, this dough was incredibly easy to roll out. I've been known to get just a tad frustrated when working with a particularly tough or hard dough (visions of crumpling it into a ball and throwing it against the wall come to mind), but not this one; it was soft and smooth and lovely. Ok, ok, enough about the perfect dough. I rolled it out into a large rectangle and measured to ensure it was at least 10'' by 14''
Next, I trimmed the edges so I had straight sides. Ina suggests using a ruler for this step but I felt that was unnecessary since this is sort of a rustic tart. (Ok, so I actually couldn't find one, but in the end it didn't make a difference.) I transferred the dough to the prepared baking sheet and put it back in the fridge. Next, it was on to the apples:
The picture you see in the background is Ina's version of the tart, so you can compare mine to hers once we get to the end. Oh and Layla made an appearance when she heard mention of apples.

This recipe uses Granny Smiths which are my favorite type of apples to use in pies since the tartness of the apple is balanced by the added sugar and butter. I peeled the apples, halved them, and cored them using a melon-baller. Next, I sliced the apples crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices
And gave a piece to Layla
since she's more akin to a cow than a real dog.

Next, I started layering the apple slices in diagonal rows across the pastry, starting in the middle and slightly overlapping them as I went:

I made 3 complete rows and filled in the empty spaces around the edges with some smaller slices. My sister, Alex, took a break from her duty as photographer and also helped with this step since she's the more aesthetically inclined one. Once the dough was covered in apple slices,  I sprinkled it with sugar and dotted it with small pieces of butter. Here's the final product pre-baked:
While the tart baked, I prepped the glaze. Since I couldn't find the apricot jelly the recipe favors, I used Ina's second choice, apricot preserves and followed the directions to heat and sieve it.  The recipe calls for 1/2 a cup, but I started with about 3/4 of a cup since I knew some of the volume would be depleted once it was strained. I heated it over medium heat for just a few minutes, and put it through a strainer so it was nice and smooth:
I know the red bowl makes it kind of hard to see, but it was jammy and smooth

At this point, the tart had been in the oven for about 25 minutes, so it was time to rotate the pan. I was worried the apples were looking a little brown already, so I also moved the pan down to a lower rack in the oven. The recipe's suggested baking time is 45 minutes-1 hour, but after only 40 minutes, the apples were pretty brown and the pastry looked done so I took it out of the oven. There's something in the recipe about burning apple juice (which is apparently nothing to worry about...) but this wasn't an issue for me. Some of the sugar and juice caramelized around the edges of the tart, but this was easy to break away once the tart had cooled. 

While the tart cooled slightly, I re-heated the sieved apricot preserves with a few tablespoons of apple brandy to make the glaze. I then brushed this on the tart, covering the apples and any exposed pastry. Using a spatula, I loosened the tart away from the parchment paper to ensure it didn't stick later.  And here's the finished product:
Looks pretty good, right?

I was pretty proud

The suggested serving method is to cut the tart into 6 pieces, allotting 1 piece per person, but we found that you could easily cut these pieces in half again (as in the bottom right piece), which resulted in an adequate serving size as well. Theoretically, you could even cut these pieces further, into 24 bite-sized pieces to feed a larger crowd:

Unlike Ina, my family and I are die hard chocolate lovers so I was a little skeptical about how this dessert would be received, but we all really enjoyed it, even Alex who was probably the most skeptical given her distaste for the typical apple-cinnamon combo.  This was a nice departure from that classic preparation which can be over bearingly sweet and cinammony and completely hide the apple flavor. The combination here of the tart apples with the sweet sugar and super-flaky pastry was just delicious. The apricot glaze added shine and intensified the apple flavor, without competing with it. This dessert was such a hit, it even got clearance to be served as our choice for the fruit dessert at Thanksgiving this year. 

Make this when: you want to impress someone, such as your boss or your significant other's parents.  

Next Course: Cape Cod Chopped Salad 

Photogarphy courtesy of my sister, Alex. Editor's note: this post probably has more pictures than will be customary since I had my own personal photographer on hand, a luxury that may be scarce in the future.
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