Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pappa al Pomodoro

Let me preface this post by saying, I don't like tomatoes.

What Morgan? You have an aversion to some perfectly normal food?! That's so unlike you!

I know. But, oddly, I like all things made with tomatoes: salsa, ketchup, marinara sauce (granted, I do pick around the large tomato chunks), but for some reason I just hate raw tomatoes. I think it's partially their texture, and also I don't think they have a lot of flavor. And the little flavor they do have, I don't like. Hence my need to have them in a very concentrated processed form, i.e. ketchup.

Nevertheless, I was looking forward to making this soup. Soup is just something that's so relaxing. It's hot and soothing and hearty, and most soups you can just leave on the stove for a while, so they also don't involve a really labor-intensive cooking process. Plus, look what I got for Hanukkah:

My very first Le Creuset! Sooo beautiful. It lives in its box when not in use.

As I mentioned last time, I got the ingredients for this dish during my ill-fated trip to Whole Foods, so I'll of course spare you any more ranting and raving about that, since otherwise, that would be cruel. So I had all my ingredients and my awesome new cookware, and was very excited to use more of my Homemade Chicken Stock. I heated some olive oil in my beautiful new Le Creuset and added onions, carrots, fennel, and garlic, and cooked over a medium-low heat for about 10 minutes.

While the veggies were cooking, I placed the tomatoes in my food processor, and pulsed a few times until they were coarsely chopped.

I know it looks like I have eviscerated them into tomato juice, but they were still chunky, I promise.

Once the vegetables were tender, I added the cubes of bread and cooked, stirring, for another 5 minutes. The bread will gradually melt into the soup and is what thickens this mixture and gives the whole dish some heft so that we're not just eating marinara sauce out of a bowl.

Next, I poured in the tomatoes, trying to get more tomatoes in the pot than on myself or all over the stove. I also added my homemade chicken stock, red wine, basil, salt, and pepper. I increased the heat and brought the soup to a boil.

Once it was hot and bubbly, I reduced the heat and partially covered the pot, so it could simmer for another 45 minutes.

At this point, I preheated the oven and got started on the topping. I cut more ciabatta cubes and cubed the pancetta, which had been in the freezer for about 10 minutes so it would be easier to cut. I placed the bread, pancetta, and whole basil leaves on a sheet pan, and drizzled with olive oil, salt, and pepper, tossing to combine.

When the soup was about halfway done, I put the sheet pan in the oven for 25 minutes, stirring every once in a while, until all the ingredients were crisp.


mmm bacon-y goodness

Using a whisk, I stirred the soup, breaking up some of the larger chunks of bread that hadn't quite melted into the soup. 

The instructions say to add Parmesan cheese into the soup at this point and then serve, but since I had made such a large quantity, I added the Parmesan just to our individual servings, and then topped with the bread, pancetta, and basil. 

Ta Da! Don't worry, the basil is supposed to look like that, although, I'm not really sure why. The crispiness just seems so unappetizing, and I expected the leaves to taste burnt and dry, which is why I just picked around them.

The crispy pancetta was nice and salty and meaty, and gave the soup a fabulous crunch. The toasted croutons got a little softer as they soaked so they were the perfect texture when I bit into one. I served this with a grown-up version of grilled cheese: pepper jack melted on ciabbata slices, served open-faced. I really liked the heat the pepper jack gave to the meal, so next time, I would add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, just to give the soup a touch of spice.

For about a week, I was re-heating this soup and toasting leftover bread and pancetta to eat as an appetizer for dinner. It kept really well in the fridge and reheated perfectly.

Make this when: you get home from work on a rainy or snowy day and just want to snuggle into your bed. The ingredients are pretty simple and it only takes an hour to cook, which makes it a perfect weekday meal. Plus, you can bring the leftovers for lunch the next day.

Next Course: A palette cleanser

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Prosciutto Roasted Bass with Autumn Vegetables

So, remember my love affair with Whole Foods that began a few months back? Well, it's OVER. O-V-E-R.

It was a brisk Saturday afternoon and I was really in the mood to do some serious cooking, which I'd taken a break from for a little while, getting settled in my new house and job, etc. I had all my ingredients listed, had worked out contingency plans based on what ingredients I could or couldn't find, and was even ready to brave the craziness that is Short Pump on a Saturday afternoon.

I fought my way into the parking lot, staked out a decent space, and ignored the angry stares I got from other drivers as I sat and waited for what seemed like forever for the current occupant to pull out.

I headed into Whole Foods, lists in hand, and grabbed a cart since I needing ingredients for 2 dishes. I maneuvered around all the people milling about the produce department and made a beeline for the seafood counter. Unfortunately Halibut is out of season, but they did have beautiful fillets of Chilean Sea Bass, so I got 2 8-oz portions.

Then, I headed over to the produce department, and that's where things start to go downhill. I needed parsnips and butternut squash for this dish, and I knew I was going to make soup next, so I also needed fennel. Hmm, where could all of these things be? Searching, searching, dodging other people's carts... I couldn't find anything anywhere. No squash. No parsnips. No fennel.


It was just about this time that I started to get irate and mumbling to myself about how much I hate Whole Foods. It takes 20-25 minutes to get there, it's always ridiculously packed on the weekends, and now THEY DON'T HAVE ANYTHING I NEED?!?!?!?! SERIOUSLY??

Yes, I needed other things that were staples, like carrots and garlic, but I knew I could get those at Ukrops, and probably for a much cheaper price, so I wasn't going to waste my money. The only other things I bought were red wine (which I couldn't get at Ukrops since they don't sell alcohol, although thankfully not for long) and ciabatta bread.

Please picture my cart: fish, wine, bread. I didn't even need a basket, let alone a whole big cart.

I was completely over it at this point and just wanted to check out and get the hell out of there, but lo and behold, since everyone and their MOTHER was at Whole Foods, every checkout line was at least 8 people long. Commence more grumbling, angry texting, and awkward stares from strangers. "Yes, my cart is practically empty! Because I couldn't find a damn thing I needed in this godforsaken place!!" 

Checkout person in obnoxiusly cheery voice: Hi there! Did you find everything you needed?
Me: *Blank, angry stare* 
Checkout person: Ok....

Ok, so I know what a lot of you (or the few of you that actually read this) are thinking: Morgan, was it really that big of a deal? So you couldn't find what you needed; there are other grocery stores out there. Jeez, talk about sweating the small stuff.

And maybe I am overreacting a touch... But here's my suggestion to those of you who think I'm being a drama queen. Come visit me in Richmond for the weekend, and we'll take a trip out to Short Pump on Saturday afternoon, because in order to understand the madness, you really have to experience it for yourself. And to repay you for risking your sanity in order for me to prove a point, I'll cook dinner for you...if we survive.

Getting back to my epic journey for produce. Once I had escaped the black Whole Foods (Get it: black hole...Whole Foods. What, not funny?) and vowed never to shop there again, I made my way to Fresh Market. Not only was it a little closer to my house, but it was also pleasantly populated with only a handful of other shoppers. Unlike Whole Foods, I'm used to shopping at Fresh Market since we have one in Virginia Beach, so I felt pretty comfortable walking in. (I will say, the meat and produce department at Fresh Market leads a little something to be desired. It's the one thing Whole Foods still holds over its competition. Bastards. Anyway...)

Looking around the produce department, I wasn't letting my hopes get up too high, but once I spotted the fennel, I started to feel a bit calmer. Someone stocking produce saw me milling about and easily found the parsnips for me. Someone else even checked in the storeroom to see if they had any butternut squash (they didn't, but I forgive them). My next stop was the deli counter to get thick-cut pancetta. Unlike my first nearly failed attempt to get this ingredient, the deli worker knew exactly what I was talking about, knew the correct thickness to slice it to, and even gave me a pointer to put it in the freezer for a few minutes to make it easier to cube.

Now that's the kind of shopping experience I want to have. Fresh Market, you are my new best friend. Can I just move in? And may I just say, how sad is it that I was so excited that the workers at Fresh Market were actually helpful? I mean, come on, that's what they're paid for and yet, I was so thankful and relieved after my hellish Whole Foods experience.

Of course, as awesome as Fresh Market was, I had to make one more stop, at Ukrops, to get some of the staple items I needed. But I was still on my Fresh Market high, so it wasn't all that bad.

So I FINALLY had all my ingredients together. I know, you thought we would never get to this point. Believe me, so did I.

Once at home, I organized my ingredients

butternut squash, parsnips, carrots, yukon gold potatoes, garlic, fish, lemon, butter, rosemary

and preheated the oven.

I diced the butternut squash, potatoes, parsnips, and carrots into a very small, 1/2'' dice and placed them all on a sheet pan. I mixed up the vegetables, drizzled them with olive oil, salt and pepper, and tossed together again. I spread them out in a single layer

and put the pan in the oven to roast. After 15 minutes, I tossed the vegetables so that they would brown evenly and they went back in the oven for another 25 minutes.

In the meantime, I lined another baking sheet with foil and placed a baking rack on top. I brushed the fish fillets with olive oil on both sides and seasoned them pretty liberally with salt (while Dan looked on disapprovingly) and pepper. I wrapped each fillet in a slice of prosciutto, forming a wide band around the center of each piece of fish, and overlapping the ends of the prosciutto. These then went, seam side down, on the baking rack.

When the vegetables had 15 minutes left, I put the fish in the oven as well.

Once the vegetables had been roasting for a total of 30 minutes (are the fish had only been in for 5), I added the minced garlic and tossed to combine. The vegetables went back in the oven with the fish for another 10 minutes.

With about 5 minutes remaining, I melted the butter in a saute pan and added the rosemary, still whole and attached to the woody stalk.

I cooked this over a low heat, until the rosemary got a little crispy and the butter had just started to brown. This took a little longer than 5 minutes, but that was ok because the fish was pretty thick and I think needed more than 15 minutes to cook. Once the fish was ready, I discarded the rosemary and added the lemon juice to the butter.

Then it was time to plate! I plated the fish and veggies, then spooned the rosemary-lemon butter over top of the fish. I garnished with some lemon wedges.

I'm still not convinced the fish was completely cooked through, but Dan and I survived and the prosciutto was nice and crispy, which I loved. Each bite I got with the salty prosciutto was so good, but the rest of the fish was only ok. Sea bass isn't a fish I typically eat, but thought it would be pretty safe since it's a nice white fish. I think with a little stronger seasoning, or maybe by wrapping multiple pieces of prosciutto around the entire fillet of fish, I would have really liked this.

My favorite part of the whole dish was the roasted vegetables. Ordinarily I really hate cooked carrots, probably because I'm used to the sickeningly sweet version you're forced to eat as a child, but these were quite good. I had never had parsnips so I had no idea what they were going to taste like, but they were also really yummy; a little sweet, good texture, and not overwhelming in any way. And the butternut squash and potatoes were delicious, as expected. 

Make this when: you're feeling totally stuffed after Thanksgiving or another big holiday meal. The fish is nice and light, but the fall vegetables are still delicious and satisfy that craving for something hearty and seasonal. 

Next Course: Pappa al Pomodoro

Just a head's up, there may be some changes to the blog coming soon, so stay tuned...

Thursday, January 7, 2010

French Chocolate Bark

*Ring, ring* 
Me: Hello? 
Ellyn: Yes, hi. I'm planning a dinner party in December and would like to enlist your culinary services. 
Me: Ok, let me check my schedule. Yes, I believe I am available. How many people will we be serving? 
Ellyn: Umm, probably 8. 
Me: Ok great, I'll start planning the menu. 
Ellyn: Thanks honey. And don't forget to take your vitamins.
Me: Ugghhh, Mom... 

Ok, so I may be paraphrasing slightly, but that's basically how it went. Many emails later we finally had a menu planned, and the guest list had steadily grown from "probably 8" to "oh we're going to squeeze just a few more in," and "guess who else is coming?!" until I was cooking for a hefty party of 12.

Of course, this was a perfect opportunity to make something for the blog, but I didn't want to pick something that was too risky that would leave me open to falling flat on my face in front of a bunch of my mother's colleagues and friends. Of course, the only thing I really wanted to make wasn't something in Ina's cookbook. I've been jonesing to make Cinnamon Ice Cream  ever since I bought my mom an ice cream maker 2 years ago. It just seems like such a yummy fall treat that would be sweet, spicy, and casual, but very festive. And since ice cream is something that I feel pretty comfortable and confident making, I thought, now's my chance! I looked through Back to Basics for something I could pair with the ice cream, and decided the French Chocolate Bark was perfect. It was interesting, fancy enough for a party, but also rustic and fun. People could break it up like a topping for their ice cream, or eat it on the side as an accoutrement. 

The night before the dinner party, once the ice cream was hardening in the freezer, I gathered my ingredients together for the bark and prepared to defend them from my family's curious fingers and hungry mouths.

bittersweet chocolate, semisweet chocolate, crystallized ginger, cashews, dried cherries, dried apricots, golden raisins

I preheated the oven and spread the cashews in one layer on a sheet pan. These went into the oven to roast for about 8 minutes. Once they were roasted, I set them aside to cool. I couldn't believe the difference in color when I took these out of the oven. 

the roasted one is on the right 

They were golden brown, a bit shiny from the natural oil, and were actually more tender than their raw, crunchy counterparts.

Using a pencil, I drew a 9x10 inch rectangle on a sheet of parchment paper, turned it over so the pencil was on the underside, and laid it on another sheet pan.

With both of these pans aside, I started on the chocolate. Ina has an interesting method for tempering chocolate, which is usually a pretty tedious and exact process involving melting the chocolate to an exact temperature and then spreading it out on a smooth surface before spreading it back and forth to cool it.

Well, Ina says, to hell with that, and throws it in the microwave.

So, putting my mother to work, we finely chopped both the bittersweet and semisweet chocolate. I put the semisweet chocolate and about half of the bittersweet chocolate in a glass measuring cup and microwaved it for about 20 seconds. Paranoid Ina of course suggests using a stopwatch because apparently you can't trust your microwave timer...just like you can't trust the temperature gauge on your oven (although that one, I actually agree with).

I gave our microwave the benefit of the doubt. After 20 seconds, I took out the chocolate and stirred with a rubber spatula. I put it back in the microwave for another 30 seconds, then stirred, and continued to stir until the chocolate was just melted. At that point, I added the rest of the bittersweet chocolate

and continued to stir until the chocolate was smooth. This seemed to take forreeeever and I was so sure that throughout this whole process, I would either burn the chocolate or it would never melt. I continued to stir and although there were still a few very small pieces of chocolate left, it had cooled to room temperature so I was pretty sure that was as smooth as I was going to get it. At this point, I stirred a little more quickly to give it a glossier finish. 


I poured the chocolate onto the parchment paper and spread it lightly into the drawn rectangle. I went slowly as I was convinced as soon as the chocolate hit the parchment it would somehow become uncontrollable and end up all over the kitchen floor, but it was surprisingly easy to work with and I was able to make a pretty acceptable rectangle, if I do say so myself. 

I know it looks like a square, but it was technically a rectangle

Once the chocolate was evenly spread, I started with the toppings, which Ina provides strict instructions about regarding the order in which they are added. The first layer was crystallized ginger.


Next were the cooled whole cashews


then the cherries


and finally the apricots and raisins. 



With Alex as my sous chef, we tried to make sure each topping adhered to at least some of the chocolate so half the toppings didn't fall off as soon as we broke the bark or picked it up to eat it, and I think we did a pretty good job.

I let this harden overnight until it was very firm, which worked perfectly. (Yay! Love when that happens!) The edges of the chocolate developed some odd whitish marbling though, which may have been from the chocolate drying out slightly overnight. It wasn't something I was too concerned about aesthetically, and I knew it wouldn't affect the taste.

Before serving, I cut the bark into about 24 rough triangles. My mom served the ice cream in small china bowls and some cappuchino cups, and put a piece of the bark on the saucer of each bowl or cup. The leftover bark was put on a platter in the middle of the table so people could help themselves to more.

Ok, so I know you're expecting to see a picture of the finished plating right about now, but I didn't take one. I know, I know, bad blogger. But in true catering fashion, my sister and I weren't invited to dinner so instead we were down the street, sipping glasses of wine at a local Italian restaurant. I also figured my mom had enough to worry about with 12 people in the dining room, and since she has been known to take pictures with the camera upside down, I didn't want to overwhelm her.

May I just say, that guests thought the ice cream was so good, they couldn't believe it was homemade. *Applause, applause* Thank you, thank you, you're too kind really!

Thankfully, there was a little bark leftover so the chef (aka moi) could try some. I liked the chocolate (duh), but thought the ginger was a little overpowering. I liked how the whole cashews looked but they were a little difficult to eat daintily. There were a lot of competing flavors, but as someone who likes their chocolate pure and unadulterated, I may be a little biased. There's a note in the recipe that Ina likes to use this for s'mores during the winter, which I do think would AH-mazing. The melted chocolate with the added sweetness of the Ina would say, who wouldn't like that?

Oh, and if you're curious abut the rest of the menu:
We started with the Roasted Shrimp Cocktail and Baked Brie wrapped in puff pastry that we made for Thanksgiving since they were so easy to make and both got rave reviews. The main course was Ina's Fillet of Beef (not from Back to Basics), which I served with Green Beans with Caramelized OnionsButtermilk Mashed Potatoes, and Popovers.

Make this when: you want to take Ina's advice and use these to make grown-up s'mores. They were OK on their own, but I think they'd be heavenly topped with a gooey, melted marshmallow and stuck between two gourmet cookies.

Next Course: Baked Chocolate Pudding

Sunday, January 3, 2010

French Bistro Steaks with Provencal Butter

Anchovies: Hairy. Salty. Fishy. Generally gross. So when I saw that I had to puree them into butter, I wasn't so psyched. I typically leave them out of just about any recipe that calls for them, including my "famous" homemade Caesar dressing. I've been making it sans anchovies for years and no one seems to mind.

During one of my first trips to Whole Foods, I decided to stock up a little on proteins so I wouldn't have to keep making separate trips every night I wanted to cook. So I bought the steak for this recipe and froze it so I would have it whenever I wanted it. The recipe calls for onglet or hanger steak, which Whole Foods didn't carry, so taking the butcher's advice, we chose another cut that was similar in that it was relatively thin, not particularly tender, but very flavorful. Unfortunately, since I bought the steak so long ago, the name of the cut escapes me now, but it looked similar to flank steak. I should really write these things down. 

I took the meat out of the freezer in the morning so it would defrost by that evening. To make the butter, I placed the anchovy fillets, capers, fresh chives, thyme, lemon zest, and pepper in a food processor:

and pulsed a few times to combine and to form a sort of paste. 

I know, what you're thinking...what in the world is that contraption? 

Before my mother bestowed upon me her 30-year-old food processors, I was using the attachments that came with Dan's immersion blender. This is a little mini food processor, and you attach the immersion blender to the top in order to use as it as the motor. Pretty neat if you ask me.

I added the softened butter and processed briefly in order to combine all of the ingredients. Despite the anchovies, the combination of the lemon and fresh thyme with the oniony chives smelled really lovely, and I kind of wanted to just spread this on some toast and eat it. Once the butter had come together in the food processor, I scraped it onto a strip of parchment paper and rolled and twisted it into a log. 

I put the butter in the fridge to keep cool while we finished making dinner.

Do you remember the classic postal service slogan? You know, the one that goes, "Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night... something something something..." Well, that's exactly what came to mind when Dan went outside to preheat the grill. It was wet, freezing cold, and pitch black. But did that mean we scrapped this plan and ordered Thai food instead? No ma'am. Dan donned his fleece, rain coat, and coal miner's forehead light (that's right, I said forehead light. Pictures to come.), and braved the backyard.

Dan preheated the grill and we brushed the steak with olive oil and then sprinkled both sides liberally with herbes de Provence, salt, and pepper. 

Since I like my steak a little more well cooked, we cut the large piece of steak into two smaller pieces so we could cook them for different lengths of time. We let the meat sit at room temperature for about 15 more minutes while the grill heated up.

Once it was fully preheated, Dan got grilling. Although I appreciate getting help in the kitchen, I generally like to do the majority of the cooking myself. But, given that I thought my toes would fall off if I had to spend more than 30 seconds outside, I left the actual cooking up to Dan and supervised...from a safe, warm distance, inside the kitchen. 

Please note the shiny light on his forehead

Dan takes his grilling seriously 

He grilled his piece for about 10 minutes total, and then brought it inside to rest, covered. My piece hung out on the grill for another 10-15 minutes until it was about medium-well. Although we had cut the steak into two smaller pieces, we had inadvertently chosen the thicker side as my piece, meaning it took even longer than expected.

Once both pieces of steak had been resting for about 10 minutes, I added a few slices of the cold butter to the hot steak and plated the rest of our dinner:

steak and taters 

I really wanted to like this dish considering that it involved steak and butter, and really, what could be better? But the steak, while cooked well, tasted incredibly fatty. In my opinion, there is nothing worse than when you're enjoying a lovely piece of steak, when all of a sudden you find yourself biting down on a piece of grissly meat. You then become faced with the problem of what to do with this completely inedible piece of fat that is rolling around in your mouth. Do you spit it into your napkin? Do you just swallow it with a gulp of water? Well, if you're a member of my family, you are probably going to take it out of your mouth and set it on the side of your plate, far away from the rest of your wonderful, edible meal. Classy and appetizing, I know.

The odd thing was, my steak did not have large pieces of fat running through it, because those are easily avoided. Rather, each piece just seemed to have an incredibly fatty texture to it, and not a whole lot of flavor.

On the other hand, the butter was pretty divine. The lemon really stood out, and the hint of onion was very nice. The anchovies melted right into the butter, adding a salty bite along with the vinegary capers. It was nicely balanced and I really enjoyed it.

Eventually my fork made its way over to Dan's plate to swipe some of his steak, which had a much better texture than my portion, and was quite delicious. Unfortunately, the herbs de Provence that we sprinkled directly on the steak prior to grilling were really overpowered by the butter, and I'm not sure how to combat this. Maybe next time I'll add some of the herbs to the butter itself. I also wish I had been able to find the exact steak Ina suggests using since it looks yummy in the photo, but this butter is so versatile you could really use it on any cut of steak, fish, or chicken, the latter of which we did the following night.

Make this when: you're craving a romantic trip to Paris and all you can afford is a black beret. Serve these with some shoestring potatoes and vous la, steak frites! 

Next Course: French Chocolate Bark
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