Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Don't you just give a little sigh of relief right about now? The "HOLIDAYS" are over (almost...I mean, New Year's Eve is mostly just fun and usually requires very few relatives). Those millions of last minutes errands are done. Not many things give quite as much relief as taking down all the Christmas decorative clutter. Oh, and I can stop eating mass quantities of butter and sugar (honestly, I was totally force-fed the stuff during the last month).
The ante on my family's holiday season is upped by the fact that my husband has maybe the second worst birthday of the year (the first being Christmas day). The day after Christmas, when everyone is stuffed and sick of the sight of celebration food and sweets, when all of your friends and family can't stomach the idea of yet another party...my hubby is forced to apologize for being born on this particular day.
In fact, for the first many years of his life, he claims to have not even known his precise birthday as his family lumped Christmas, his birthday and his brother's early January birthday all into one. Isn't that sad?
Since we've been married, I have done my best to make a big deal of his big day.....food, cake, present not wrapped in Christmas paper, even taking down the tree on some years just to make it less Yuletide-y. Last year was a special number birthday that required a party which we had to push a couple of weeks so that friends would actually come.
This year, we were celebrating with family....my parents and my sister's family (let me just say that my brother-in-law had no problems whatsoever working up another celebration appetite---we can always count on you, thanks!). When asked for the birthday meal of his choice, my husband came up with a few elaborate ideas--dishes that I've never made before. I like to be accommodating, I mean this is his special day. But I begged him for something simpler that can be found in my own repetoire of recipes--I wanted to enjoy his birthday, too.
Thankfully, he is a fan of my food! He wisely chose my special fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and homemade biscuits. Now all I needed was my do-rag, a beer, and some Lipitor. Frying chicken is hot work, so I stripped down to my tank top (or in this case, we can refer to it as my "wife-beater"--what a terrible name, don't you think?).
Donning my cute apron, I drained and dry-rubbed the buttermilk-soaked chicken parts with my special blend spice rub including paprika, cayenne, and garlic powder. Flour dredging came next followed by melted trans-fat free organic shortening (hey, I do what I can for my family's health!).
The mashed Yukon Gold potatoes accepted a generous splash or three of cream from the embarrassingly large half-gallon in my fridge. Perfect.
Now for the biscuits. There are not a lot of things that everyone in my little family will get so excited about, but these biscuits are one of their favorites. We can usually polish off all but one or two and they've been used as leverage in more than a few sentences containing the words, "If you eat all of your _____, you can have another biscuit."
I've tried a few variations including substituting soft white whole wheat flour for the all-purpose flour or buttermilk for the regular milk, but I would suggest making these biscuits just like the recipe says for best results.
JULIE'S HOMEMADE BISCUITS
2 c all-purpose flour
1 TB baking powder (non-aluminum and make sure it's fresh!)
1 TB sugar
1 tsp salt
1/4 c butter or shortening (I've used both)
3/4 c milk
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut in the butter or shortening and blend using a fork or a pastry blender. The mixture will be lumpy and resemble cornmeal in texture.
Stir in the milk a little at a time, adding just enough so that the dough rounds up and leaves the sides of the bowl (I usually use most of the milk).
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a couple of times to bring the dough together. DON'T OVERMIX OR THE BISCUITS WILL BE TOUGH!
Roll out the dough to about 1/2 inch thick and cut with a 2 1/2 inch biscuit cutter (or canning jar ring or whatever you have). Place the biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes until they are golden brown on top.
Serve with butter, honey, jam, or maple syrup. They are also good for egg/sausage sandwiches.
And don't worry, we still had room for some vanilla cake with 16 sweet birthday candles (did I mention my husband was so young??? Love you babe!).
Friday, December 26, 2008
Just before the Christmas season, our local PBS station was deep into its holiday pledge drive. Sometimes they feature cooking demonstrations during such times. But this time, they were featuring the European travels of Rick Steves, our local PBS tour guide host. And not just any Rick Steves--Rick Steves European Christmas Tour!
The show consisted of Christmas traditions within most of Europe--from hiding the tree until Christmas morning, to an all community reenactment of the Nativity story, to each different version of Santa Claus.
With 3 kids now, we've been at the Christmas tradition thing for a few years. However, we found ourselves drifting through the seasons without much direction. And let me tell you--most traditions take some thought and planning! I sure wish we could have "happened" into some great and meaningful traditions, but that wishful thinking wasn't producing results. Time to be proactive.
First, we decided to plan around the advent calendar. Each Sunday night we lit the candles (unfortunately, Michael's--the stroke inducing craft store--was not carrying advent wreath/candle holders....so we made do with a grape vine wreath and a circular candle holder with 5 candles...the extra candle was assigned to Christmas Eve dinner).
In addition to the candles, we drew from a variety of European Christmas ideas and planned an activity for each Sunday night...snowflake making, gingerbread house, cookies, window drawings (very cool Crayola brand window markers). Perhaps most proactive of all...we refrained from setting up the Christmas tree until the very last Sunday before Christmas! I can't tell you how much I loved this part. This must be the first year that I wasn't hating the tree by Christmas day. The anticipation of the tree was really great.
The one aspect of the tree that we saved even longer was its "starring." Christmas Eve was our special night. My family hosted a dinner for my parents and sister's family. Post-dinner, we topped our evergreen with my favorite decoration--the star glittering with thousands of pieces of crushed antique mirror glass. A perfect ending to a fantastic meal.
So let's talk about the meal, because it deserves some text space. When Rick Steves visited a family in France, we witnessed our dinner muse. A brunette French housewife took a beef tenderloin, seared it in foie gras, grated local truffles over the top, and wrapped the whole thing in brioche dough!
Yes, this was the one. My parents graciously contributed the beef tenderloin--an expensive cut of meat to begin with coupled with nearly five pounds of weight. With such a precious hunk of bovine muscle in my refrigerator, I decided I should be a teensy bit more responsible and look up a few recipes just to be safe.
We discovered that this dish is most closely related to a Beef Wellington differing in a few details--butter vs. foie gras, mushroom duxelles filling vs. truffles, and puff pastry vs. brioche.
I fully intended to go to my local Whole Foods for the foie gras and maybe even a truffle (which I've actually never tried yet). However, here in rainy Seattle where it rarely ever snows...we've now been under storm after storm dumping more than a foot of snow. Let's just say that those 8 snow plows that the greater Seattle area owns are not making the grade, especially here on the Eastside. And my super cool mini van lacks snow tires, chains, and 4 wheel drive. We are truly stuck close to home.
So, fancy ingredients were out the window and I wasn't about to attempt puff pastry for the first time! I made some delicious brioche dough (12 yolks!), seared the beef in butter and brandy, and used half of a recipe for the duxelles mushroom filling (we had some mushroom allergies to factor in). Wrap it all up like a present in the brioche...roll out the extra scraps and carved the letters NOEL to decorate the top of the dough...and bake it to tender perfection.
With the addition of my neighbor and her 3 kids (who's father was stuck in Alaska--no flying into Seattle!), we managed to polish off all but one piece of that nearly 5 pound tenderloin. Coupled with creamy risotto, a mandarin orange salad, and my mom's homemade rolls...we were stuffed...with only enough room for a piece of caramely coconutty Laisy Daisy cake!
BEEF WELLINGTON, ALMOST
Preheat oven to 425. Tie a heavy string at several points around a 4-5 pound beef tenderloin. Season very well with salt and pepper. Brush the meat with 2 TB soft butter and 2 TB brandy. Sear it quickly on all sides in a roasting pan, transfer to a rack and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes.
Remove it from the oven, transfer to another rack and cool for about 30 minutes until barely warm to the touch. Remove the string and pat dry with paper towels.
While the beef is cooling, make your Mushroom Duxelles Filling. Finely chop a pound of mushrooms and sprinkle with lemon juice to maintain their color. Melt 4 TB butter in a skillet and add mushrooms, 1/2 c finely chopped scallions, 1/2 c dry sherry (or wine), 1/2 c minced parsley and seasoning. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until all the liquid is absorbed (about 10 minutes).
Roll out your puff pastry (about 2 pounds) or brioche to about 3/8 inches thick or about 12 by 18 inches. Spread the duxelles over the pastry pushing it into the dough--leave a 1 inch margin around the outside. Place the meat inside and wrap the pastry around the meat, sealing the edges. Place on an ungreased baking sheet, seam side down.
Roll out leftover pastry and cut out small designs to suit your purposes for decorating the top. Wrap the Wellington in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.
Pull out the Wellington to leave at room temperature for another hour before the final baking.
Preheat the oven to 400. Mix a couple of egg yolks with a couple of tsp of cream or milk and brush your pastry. Bake the Wellington for about 45 minutes (the recipe said 30 minutes, but that wasn't enough time). I stuck a meat thermometer in and took it the meat out when it reached 130 degrees for rare beef. I also covered the brioche with a loose foil tent a few minutes into baking as the dough was browning too fast.
Let the meat rest for 15 minutes or so. Then carve into 3/4 inch slices and serve with your favorite gravy (red wine would be great!). We thought truffles and foie gras would be grand. Next time. Also, maybe a dijon mustard coat on the meat would enhance it further. Don't be shy with the salt and pepper!!!
Whew...a lot of work, but worth it. Happy Christmas!
Thursday, December 18, 2008
I got an early Christmas present delivered to me this week from my favorite Mrs. Purl of Austin, Texas. She happens to know that I like cooking and chose her gift accordingly.
With a beautiful butter yellow hard cover and a bold vermillion spine: The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse Restaurant.
It's starting to dawn on me that I'm becoming a sort of food nerd. How do I know? Well, I read cookbooks cover to cover now. I'd say that is a sure sign of culinary nerdiness. What can I say...I guess I've just discovered that there is a lot of good stuff in the text between the recipes!
The book sat staring at me for a few hours while I had to devote my attention to making dinner, getting the kiddos clean and to bed. I suppose I could have flipped through it briefly, but I wanted to begin reading without interruption.
Introduction: organic, local, sustainable, farmer's market, plant a garden, eat together, cook at home, appreciate your food. Check.
Getting Started: Ingredients and the Pantry, Equipment and Getting Started. Oooo, I love pantry lists. I took a few mental notes of some items to stock up on. The list was complete with explanations on how to store different items including their shelf-life expectancy. And equipment! I was happy to note that I possess quite a bit of the equipment suggested...and Christmas is around the corner for some of the items that are missing. I could definitely use an update in the knife department, as well as a new baking sheet (mine pops and warps in a hot oven). Thankfully, Alice Waters is a minimalist in the kitchen and writes her recipes for the barest of electrical equipment--read: no food processor necessary (thank goodness).
What to Cook?: Planning Menus, Everyday Meals and Friends for Dinner, Picnics and Packing a Lunch. I'm already a menu planner, but I did note her advice when planning for guests...KEEP IT SIMPLE! How many times have I planned something complicated and then been unable to enjoy the prep and the company??
Four Essential Sauces: Vinaigrette, Salsa Verde, Aioli, Herb Butter. Finally a good ratio for making vinaigrettes! Salsa Verde caught me by surprise. What I assumed was a Mexican green salsa turn out, in fact, to be "the classic green sauce of Italy." There are no peppers, tomatillos, etc. Instead it consists of:
1/3 c coarsely chopped parsley
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 small garlic clove, pounded into a puree
1 TB Capers, rinsed, drained, and coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 c olive oil
Let it sit for a while to develop the flavors. I also added some lemon juice. When I first tasted it, Wow--very salty. But, when it was dispersed throughout the fresh fettuccine noodles I just happened to whip up, yum. Just perfect.
She recommends Salsa Verde for roasted meats, vegetables, and fish (Ooooo, doesn't that sound good?). So, there you have it...salsa verde is an Italian sauce. I shouldn't have been so surprised...the languages of Italian and Spanish are quite similar. I remember having most of my high school Spanish replaced by the Italian counterparts when I studied abroad in Florence for a semester in college. (Como se dice vs. Come si dice)
I can't wait to continue my reading...I sense the section on soups will be quite helpful. In fact, I think one of my goals for the next year is to become really proficient at making soups--good soups. Wow, have you ever had orange and olive salad? This is going to be fun.
Thanks Texas Purl!
Friday, December 12, 2008
Tomorrow is the day for one of my favorite holiday events...a cookie exchange! I love seeing everyone's family cookies and traditions. I'm not really sure if my family has one special cookie that says "Christmas". Of course, there are always the cut-out sugar cookies and sometimes those yummy peanut-buttery cookies with the big Hershey's Kiss in the middle (extra tasty if they are still a little warm from the oven).
The one sweet that most sticks out in my mind are the chocolate covered coconut balls (unfortunately known as "Mounds Balls"). I've made them several years now and I just couldn't face another year of rolling those sticky little coconut balls seemingly by the hundreds, dipping them into the chocolate/wax liquid, then letting them harden impaled on a toothpick stuck in some styrofoam. I needed something new this year!
Enter Food & Wine magazine...oooo, holiday cookie recipes! After flipping through the section, I settled on Hazelnut Sandwich Cookies. The others looked great, but I figured the little Russian Tea cookies (or it's many nuanced variations) would probably be making an appearance tomorrow.
Plus, I just plain love anything that combines butter, sugar, chocolate, and nuts!
We were asked to bring 3 dozen cookies (a fairly modest amount by cookie exchange standards--I heard of a 12 dozen party last year!). The recipe says it makes 40 sandwich cookies...perfect, I think.
Now, maybe it's just me, but have you ever actually made the full yield from any recipe? For some reason, I'm always a few short (or a dozen or two--I like big cookies).
I thought I did everything correctly...I chilled the dough, I rolled it to 1/4 inch (I used my ruler to check...boy, I could use some of those roller pin thingys). Lacking a 1 1/2 inch round cookie cutter, I traipsed all over the house with my ruler measuring various potential cookie cutters...baby food jars, canning lids, pencil sharpener cases, water bottle caps. Nothing quite fit, until I checked that cupboard in the laundry room labeled "Various and Sundry".
Hmmm...empty plastic Easter Eggs...those look about right. 1 1/2 inches! There was a tiny hole in the top, so I cut into the egg with my kitchen shears to make a place for my finger to pop out the cookies after I cut them. Who needs expensive cookie cutters?
I swear I cut those cookies as close as possible, rerolling the scraps and cutting out some more. But I was coming up waaaay short! Like 2 dozen short. Okay, I don't think there will be any "sandwiching"...but we can work with that.
I simply dipped those beautiful sandy brown cookies halfway in the chocolate and sprinkled them with some chopped hazelnuts. Beautiful! My son loved being the "sprinkler man" and it was gratifying teaching him how to "move your hand" when you sprinkle so you don't end up with a pile of nuts in one spot. He caught on quickly.
These cookies could become a family tradition...we'll see how everyone feels about them next year.
Chocolate Dipped Hazelnut Crisps
1/2 c plus 2 TB raw hazelnuts (filberts--the nerd of the nut family)
3/4 c sugar
2 1/4 c all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground allspice (if you like this one)
Pinch of cloves
1/8 tsp salt
2 sticks plus 6 TB butter, softened
3/4 c (6 oz) chocolate (I used bittersweet, but you can mix and match here)
Preheat the oven to 325. Toast the hazelnuts for 15 minutes until their skins blister. Transfer to a clean towel and rub vigorously to remove their skins. Take 2 TB of the really clean looking nuts and finely chop--these are for the sprinkling. The rest don't have to have all the skins removed.
In a food processor (or a blender on "grind"), finely grind the remaining 1/2 cup of nuts with 2 TB sugar. If you are using a food processor, you can pulse in all the other ingredients through the salt. Then add the 2 sticks of butter to make the dough. I don't have a food processor, so I transferred my nut/sugar mixture to my Kitchenaid and mixed everything in like regular dough.
Since there are no eggs in the recipe, the dough is sandy. Turn it out onto a work surface and knead it together a bit. The warmth from your hands sort of "melts" it together. Pat it into two 8 inch rounds and cover with plastic wrap. Chill for at least 30 minutes.
Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll out the rounds on a piece of parchment (cover the dough with plastic wrap to keep the rolling pin from sticking). They should be about 10 inches in diameter and about 1/4 inch thick. Cut out the cookies with a 1 1/2 inch round cookie cutter (or hacked up Easter egg). Arrange on the baking sheet about 1/2 inch apart.
Combine the scraps and chill for another 15 minutes. Repeat cut out procedure. Bake cookies one sheet at a time for about 20 minutes (at 325). Cool on a wire rack.
Melt the chocolate and 6 TB butter over low heat, whisking until smooth. Allow to cool for 10 minutes. Dip cookies halfway into chocolate, lay it on the parchment, and let your "sprinkler man" shower some of those chopped hazelnuts on the chocolate for added crunch. Let the chocolate set for about 30 minutes.
These can be stored in an airtight container separated by wax or parchment paper for up to a week! And they are delicious with some hazelnut ice cream drizzled with the remaining chocolate sauce (it gets hard and crunchy on the cold ice cream!).
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Not many things in December are quite as exciting as the uneven pulse of a diesel engine followed by a little "thump" on your doorstep. A package! What is it? Who sent it? (Oh, please don't just be a ridiculous phone book....was what I was really thinking)
Ooooo...what do we have here? A beautiful turquoise box big enough for a fabulous pair of shoes. I picked it up and it was surprisingly light. Not a pair of shoes, I guess.
Opening the box revealed only a label and packing peanuts (completely biodegradable, water-soluble, cornstarch peanuts according to the label). And the label...Organica Deluxe "Natural, organic, sustainable, fair trade--and always luxury."
My goodness, what do we have here? Dig, dig, dig...swimming in natural packing peanuts...
Oh..cookies. Two of them. Organica Deluxe Ginger Cookies to be exact. That's right, I remember, FoodBuzz asked me if I wanted to review some products! Of course, I said "yes" to free products. But, only two cookies? Honestly, for as much info in the label about post-consumer this and biodegradable that, you'd think they could package these two lonely cookies in a far smaller box...but I digress.
I went to open the cookie package only to discover that both ends of the little plastic package were jaggedly slashed, allowing the cookies to just slide out. Hmmm...should I even eat these? Are they "tainted"? Who have I been mean to lately (accidentally, of course)?
Well, I guess I was a little rude to the school secretary a few weeks back when I couldn't find my kid after school...but she doesn't strike me as the poisoning type. (I'd better apologize, just the same)
I inspected the cookies. Hmm...it looks pretty safe. I mean, poison couldn't be colorless and odorless, could it? (haha) That was my justification, anyhow. The sweet and spicy aroma of ginger, molasses, cloves, and "other natural spices" wafted into my nostrils. The rich brown cookies studded with little sugar crystals really should be tasted. A tiny bite couldn't hurt (I've spent some time building my immunity to anthrax and the lot).
Teeth sinking into the cookie. Mmmm, chewy and spicy, but not too spicy. Delicious molasses. I went in for another taste. What? Where did it go so fast? Ah, well, at least I have another one. This, too, began to disappear quickly until I heard the loud creaking of my son's door being opened from his nap (that stupid door has been repainted so many times and in combination with the noticeable settling of this rental house makes a tremendous amount of noise when it's opened--so needless to say, the baby woke up just after him).
Caught red-handed with half of a cookie, I offered my son a bite. He happens to love ginger molasses cookies and was an immediate fan! I might go as far as to say that they are the best ginger cookies I've eaten! Good job Organica Deluxe--next time send a double order--and try not to suspiciously slash and/or poison the cookies!
Hmmm...my tongue is starting to feel a little numb. That's weird.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
A couple of weeks back, I got an email from my daughter's elementary school asking parents to bring in some snacks for the teachers during Conference Week. "This will be great," I thought since I just happen to love cooking.
But what to bring? Surely roasted chicken is not what they had in mind. Nor fancy mashed potatoes or fish. They might have liked my Frankenbread...but I wanted to represent well. This event required something self-contained and semi-healthy (I wanted everyone to feel like they should eat it!)
When I read that they needed breakfast items for one of the mornings, that helped me solve my dilemma. Muffins! A little breadish, a little cakeish, all packaged nicely in its own pretty wrapper (and conveniently enough just right for sticking a toothpick-impaled business card on).
I've been making these Tropical Muffins for a year or so now. And although "tropical" might make one think "summer" at first, I think we Seattleites could all use a little tropical this time of year. The only thing they could use is a little more color--any suggestions other than a nasty pink cherry?
And thank you to all of the teachers at Lakeview Elementary School, especially my daughter's teacher--Meighan Lailey!
Tropical (Low-fat) Muffins
1 1/3 c flour (use soft whole wheat pastry flour for extra nutrition)
1 c regular rolled oats
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 c mashed ripe bananas (about 2)
1 c low-fat buttermilk
1/2 c packed brown sugar
2 TB canola oil
1 tsp vanilla
1 large egg
1/2 c canned crushed pineapple in juice, drained
1/3 c flaked coconut (I use unsweetened)
3 TB finely chopped macadamia nuts (or cashews)
2 TB flaked coconut (again, unsweetened works fine)
1 TB finely chopped macadamia nuts
1 TB sugar
1 TB regular rolled oats
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a muffin pan with muffin papers.
Combine dry ingredients (flour through salt) in a large bowl.
In a separate bowl, combine bananas and next ingredients (through egg). Add wet ingredients to flour mixture, stirring just until moistened. Stir in pineapple, coconut, and nuts.
Spoon batter into paper cups (it should make 12 muffins).
Prepare topping. Sprinkle about a teaspoon of topping over each muffin.
Bake for 18 minutes. Remove from pan and cook on a wire rack.
(Note...if you try to peel the paper off before they are totally cool, it may stick a bit. If you must eat a fresh warm muffin, bite off the extra bits when no one is watching!)