Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Burger Night

A few months ago, I picked up some ground bison meat at the New Amsterdam Market. If you haven't had a bison burger before, I'd highly recommend it - the meat is much healthier and leaner, plus it's really delicious (and not too far off from regular ground beef, so you don't notice all that much, except that your burger is surprisingly good). Anyway, it promptly went into the freezer, waiting for a burger night.

Needless to say, it was waiting for awhile. So when Wright requested sweet potato fries for dinner last night, I knew that there would be no better compliment than the bison burgers, so we turned it into a full-on burger night. I used my new cast iron grill pan (thanks Wright!), so it almost felt like we were at a barbecue - a perfect respite from the January weather.

Baked Sweet Potato Fries
2 medium sized sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 pinch cinnamon
1 pinch nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon paprika
Sea salt (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Using a sharp knife (this can be difficult) cut the sweet potatoes into fry-like sticks, a little less than an inch thick.
3. Spread fries out on a rimmed baking sheet, and toss with olive oil to cover (use more if necessary). Add spices (minus sea salt) and toss again, spreading fries out along the baking sheet (try to fit them all in one layer).
4. Bake for about 45 minutes, shaking the pan once or twice along the way.
5. Serve with ketchup and coarse sea salt if you have it

Bison Burgers with caramelized onions and sharp cheddar cheese
1 large vidalia onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 lb ground bison meat (feel free to substitute regular beef)
1 shallot, finely diced
1 large clove garlic, finely diced
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
6 dashes Worcestershire sauce
4 dashes tabasco sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
A few slices of sharp white cheddar cheese
hamburger buns

1. Start the onions caramelizing immediately. Heat up a large pan with 1 teaspoon olive oil and one tablespoon butter. Add onions once hot, along with a hefty pinch of salt and a small pinch of sugar. Cook, stirring fairly often, on medium for about 5 minutes, then turn down to medium low and let cook, stirring occasionally until the onions are brown and caramelized (this can take about 3o minutes).
2. Mix the beef (using your clean hands) with the shallot, garlic, worcestershire, mustard, tabasco, salt, and pepper. Don't over mix, but make sure everything is combined somewhat evenly. Divide meat into four burgers (freeze two if you'd like - thats what we did).
3. Heat up your cast iron pan (or regular pan) on medium, and use either olive oil or a non-stick spray. Place burgers on pan when hot but not quite smoking, and cook each side about 3-5 minutes. For the last minute, place cheese on top and buns face down on the pan to toast.
4. Assemble the burgers by placing them on the toasted buns with a heaping amount of caramelized onions on top.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Sweet Treat

A few weeks ago I had a few friends over to celebrate my birthday. We had some champagne and I made a few appetizers to nibble on, but I wanted to keep it low key. I'm not a huge birthday person to start with, and I don't like surprises or lots of attention focused on me, but I didn't have a housewarming for my apartment, so I thought this would be a good excuse to have some friends over who hadn't seen it yet.

As I thought about what to make, I felt the most unsure about the dessert. Technically, I wasn't serving dinner, so dessert wasn't required, but I do have a bit of a sweet tooth. I didn't want to bake myself a cake, embarrassed enough that I was throwing myself a party, and (as stated) I don't like surprises, so I insisted that guests only bring gifts of the liquid variety.

Ina Garten, as usual, solved the problem with her French Bark recipe. A simple, elegant dessert that consisted of chocolate, nuts, and dried fruit, this would be the perfect way to have something sweet to nibble on without going too over the top. She has a few recipes for it - both white and dark chocolate, and with varying nuts/fruit - featured in her books and on at least one episode of Barefoot Contessa that I've seen.

I used a mix of bittersweet and semi sweet chocolate, with almonds, hazelnuts, dried cranberries and dried almonds. The combination was great both presentation-wise and taste-wise. One thing I boldly (stupidly?) did was attempt to temper the chocolate without a thermometer. Ina uses a microwave to do hers, which I don't have, so I looked into various methods, namely Mark Bittman's recent article, and totally guessed the timing on all fronts. I'll admit, it barely worked and I had to keep the pieces in the freezer until serving; I'd definitely recommend getting a thermometer or microwave.

The recipe can be found here. I wish you more success than I had, though of course, the dish was enjoyed just as much as I think it would have had I properly tempered...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Daniel Boulud's Lamb Stew

It has been the perfect coincidence to have a beautiful new dutch oven right at the height of soup and stew season. I've been having a wonderful time honing my techniques and trying out new flavor combinations. This stew recipe is adapted from Daniel Boulud, who adapted it from a recipe his grandmother used to make when he was young.

I found the recipe in one of my favorite cookbooks, The Pleasures of Slow Food, given to me by my dear friend Serena. When we lived in Charlottesville, we loved having having marathon home-cooked dinners that would take hours to prepare. Our friend Elaine worked at a nearby farm and would bring home loads of fresh, very local vegetables; the wait time of cooking them carefully and thoughtfully was always well worth it. This gorgeous cookbook, which features recipes from many accomplished chefs, is a true inspiration.

The stew was very simple but very flavorful. I couldn't believe how easy it was to make, and how delicious the outcome was. A lot of recipes from such highly esteemed chefs tend to rely too much on details and techniques that I don't have, so that I end up completely messing up, or feeling confused when mine comes out lacking the depth I'd hoped for. This was certainly not the case, and with the first bite, I felt instantly redeemed from the recent lentil soup disaster.

Lamb Stew
Adapted from Daniel Boulud

2 tablespoons butter
3 lbs lamb shoulder, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-inch chunks
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 large leek (or a handful of baby leeks, which is all I could find), washed and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
1 cup white wine
3 lbs yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
6-8 cups water
a few sprigs of thyme
a sprig of sage
1 bay leaf

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cover the lamb chunks with flour, salt and pepper
3. Using an oven-proof pot or dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat, then add the lamb. Stir occasionally and allow the lamb to brown for 6-10 minutes.
4. Add the onions and leeks. Stirring occasionally, cook until the vegetables are soft.
5. Add the wine and allow to reduce for 3-5 minutes.
6. Stir in the potatoes and add enough water to cover everything by about an inch.
7. Add sprigs of thyme and sage and bay leaf and bring to a boil.
8. Allow to boil for one minute, then cover loosely and place in the oven for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or up to 2 1/2 if necessary (until the vegetables are soft and the stew has thickened and reduced considerably).
9. Serve in warm soup bowls with roughly chopped parsley on top and salt and pepper on the side.

Note: This makes a LOT of lamb stew, so be prepared to feed friends or eat it for the week. It did take about 2 1/2 hours for mine to reduce down, and it was well worth the wait!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Day at the Museum

Having yesterday off was wonderful - a treat made even sweeter since I didn't find out I had it off until Friday, so I hadn't overwhelmed myself with plans or tried to squeeze in a trip. I had a full day with nothing to do!

Since it was a comparatively balmy 46 degrees out, Wright and I decided on a picnic in the park followed by a museum trip. We'd gone to MoMA the day before, had already seen the fabulous Kandinsky show at the Guggenheim (twice), and with the Met closed on Mondays, we ended up at the American Museum of Natural History - a little bit different than our usual art-focused ventures.

We had the most wonderful time wandering the halls of this enormous and fascinating museum. Returning there is always nostalgic for me. The dioramas still look the same as they did when I was in a stroller and no matter how tall I've gotten, the whale remains enormous.

While I attempted to insist we just wander the permanent exhibition (for free), Wright was steadfast and sweet, treating me to two of the special exhibitions. We first went to see the film "Journey to the Stars," narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, and shown in the Hayden Planetarium. If you've never seen anything in this theater, let me tell you, it is a real treat! Forgive me for botching this explanation, but the images are projected onto a large, circular screen above you, so that you lean back in your chair and really feel as if you are looking up at the stars. With stunning images taken from telescopes, the show was a real knock-out, and well worth the splurge.
We also saw The Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World, a fantastic exhibition with plenty of interactive and interesting components. I have to admit, I learned a lot!! Thinking back on the exhibition from a curator's perspective, I can't even imagine what it would be like to put together a show of that magnitude and breadth. It takes us long enough to arrange a hanging of work on paper in the gallery I work in, let alone if we had taxidermy camels, interactive smelling spices, digital movies, ancient artworks, etc.!

It was such a blast exploring all that this museum had to offer, I was so glad we stepped off of our beaten path to do it. What a reminder of how lucky we are to live in New York!

Friday, January 15, 2010

From the Pantry: Mushroom Pasta

I wasn't feeling very well when I got home on Wednesday night. Though I was tempted to just order pizza and glue myself to the couch, I knew that wouldn't make me feel better any faster. I needed a somewhat nutritious, but most importantly, comforting meal. And I certainly wasn't going to the grocery store.

I had some mushrooms leftover from the coq au vin in the fridge, and a half box of whole wheat pasta from who knows when. Not exactly ideal, but it would work. I sliced the mushrooms (with a lack of enthusiasm, so they were thicker than usual) and sautéed them in butter while I started boiling a pot of water. Once the mushrooms cooked, I added some milk (and a little more butter, since I only had skim) and then grated some swiss cheese, which I added to the mushroom sauce once it had cooked down. I tossed the cooked pasted into the mushroom sauce, added a few spices and served it up with some parsley (you know, so it would seem fancier than it was).

I was surprised by how good it tasted. Even with a stuffed nose, the flavors were wonderful and comforting. I happily ate two bowls and felt content falling asleep at 9pm.

What do you like to cook when you're sick? As much as I love a good chicken soup, I'd been eating leftover lamb stew (sorry, eventually I'll get to that post) all week, so this pasta was a welcome change. I stayed home from work yesterday and ended up eating mostly toast, though I did attempt a pear and goat cheese tart for lunch (good, but exhausting). The pasta reminded me how important it is to try to keep some ingredients around. As romantic as it sounds to go out and shop fresh for each meal you have, there are always going to be days when the grocery store is not an option, and it's nice to have some produce laying around for impromptu pastas.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Weekend

Happy Monday! Was this weekend too short or what? Mine was generally quiet but highlighted by seeing the play The Understudy, which was absolutely fantastic. It's only out for a few more days, though, so if you are in New York I'd definitely recommend you rush to the theater. It's a small off-Broadway comedy starring Justin Kirk, Julie White, and Mark-Paul Gossalaar, and it is really a riot. (I won't lie, it did take me about half the play to stop melting about being in the same room as Zach Morris.)

We also made a lovely lasagna on Saturday night, inspired by my cousin's recent post. She's just launched a new website - The Moonlight Chef - so please check it out!

While I don't have much else to discuss today, look forward to some posts later in the week about a delicious lamb stew we made last night. (Okay, that's all I know so far that I'll write about. Hold that thought.)

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Coq Au Vin

For my inaugural dish using my new Le Creuset dutch oven, I decided on coq au vin. Nope, this was not a last minute decision, I'd known for a long time that I'd make this dish first. It's just one of those dishes that I'd always wanted to make, but never could without the right pot. Kind of like how I'll make cinnamon ice cream when I get an ice cream maker (if I can ever fit an ice cream maker into my tiny kitchen; there is a real reason I don't own one).

Anyway, I was thrilled about the coq au vin and thrilled about the dutch oven. I even trucked down to Whole Foods to get better produce than that at my local grocery (which is 5 blocks and two avenues closer than WF). I used Ina Garten's recipe for the dish, deciding to hold off on Julia until boeuf bourguignon night. This was the right decision; the dish was simple, delicious, and flavorful. We paired it with roasted root vegetables (parsnip, turnip, and a few potatoes for good measure), which were surprisingly sweet and perfectly complimentary to the meal.

I ended up leaving out/altering just a few steps in the process, but tried to stick with the recipe. I couldn't find frozen pearl onions so I skipped them altogether, and I definitely guesstimated on the wine/chicken stock amounts. I also used one larger chicken instead of two smaller ones. The butcher at Whole Foods couldn't have been nicer when I brought over a whole chicken and asked him to cut it into eight pieces for me; lesson learned to never spend the money on packaged cut chickens!

Wright made me take this dorky picture of me with my new toy. Perhaps this will give you an idea of the size of my kitchen.

Coq au Vin
Adapted from Ina Garten

olive oil
4 ounces bacon diced
1 (4 to 5-pound) chicken, cut in eighths
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound carrots, cut diagonally in 1-inch pieces
1 yellow onion, sliced
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
3/4 bottle good dry red wine such as Burgundy
1 cup good chicken stock, preferably homemade
10 fresh thyme sprigs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms, stems removed and thickly sliced

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F.

Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Add the bacon and cook over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove the bacon to a plate with a slotted spoon.

Meanwhile, lay the chicken out on paper towels and pat dry. Liberally sprinkle the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. When the bacon is removed, brown the chicken pieces in batches in a single layer for about 5 minutes, turning to brown evenly. Remove the chicken to the plate with the bacon and continue to brown until all the chicken is done. Set aside.

Add the carrots, onions, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper to the pan and cook over medium heat for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are lightly browned. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Put the bacon, chicken, and any juices that collected on the plate into the pot. Add the wine, chicken stock, and thyme and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid and place in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until the chicken is just not pink. Remove from the oven and place on top of the stove.

Mash 1 tablespoon of butter and the flour together and stir into the stew. Add the frozen onions. In a medium saute pan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and cook the mushrooms over medium-low heat for 5 to 10 minutes, until browned. Add to the stew. Bring the stew to a simmer and cook for another 10 minutes. Season to taste. Serve hot, with plenty of wine to go around.

A Brown Lunch

Today was not a great lunch day for me. I ate a carrot muffin and some pretzel goldfish with a coffee. Very brown, very boring, very unhealthy.

Why, you might be wondering, would I subject myself to this lunch? It's a little bit of a long story. You see, I got an amazing dutch oven for Christmas from my grandparents. I could go on and on about it, and I suspect I will in future posts. I was so excited about it that ever since I got it, I've been making all of my meals in it. It's just so beautiful, so useful, so wonderful. Note obsession here.

Alas, I decided to make a big bowl of soup to have for my lunches this week. It's freezing in New York, so soup seemed like the right thing to do. Instead of relying on my trusty soup recipes of the past, I thought I'd branch out and try something new: Lentil Soup with Sausage. Doesn't that sound delicious? I thought so too. I was excited. Thrilled, really.

I got out my first copy of Bon Appetit, which just started coming last month in replace of my - so sad - Gourmet subscription. I hope I don't offend anyone by mentioning that this issue was completely lackluster, and this lentil soup recipe was actually the only one I'd dog-eared. Anyway, I made the soup. It was pretty fun to make - especially since the color of the lentils looked so beautiful against my blue pot.

I stirred in some spinach at the end to make it even more hearty, and split it up into various tupperware for both freezing and bringing to the office. My kitchen smelled fantastic and I couldn't wait to try the soup!

Well. Well. The. Soup. Was. Awful. Awful. Awful. I could barely eat more than a few bites each day this week - the lentils were mushy and gross in my mouth, the sausage was bland, and the spinach was chewy. It was unappetizing, uninspiring, and unfilling. I was heartbroken. Still am. I am so far in denial that I haven't made a replacement lunch - I still have two large containers of it in the gallery fridge. I'm simply choosing to eat other things I happen to have here... like carrot muffins. And goldfish pretzels.

So there you have it. That's why I had a brown lunch today. I made a soup that was terrible. I don't think it was the recipe, I'm sure I did it wrong. I don't even know where I went so wrong. Maybe I just don't like lentil soup? Who knows. And I can't even come up with a moral of the story. Perhaps, you taste with more than your eyes? Because I know this soup sure looks good.

For the record, I've made some other extremely delicious meals in my new dutch oven - look out for more [actually successful] posts soon. And never be afraid to mess up! You'll survive. I have (so far).

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

On Cooking

Michael Ruhlman, one of my favorite bloggers and cookbook authors, wrote a great post recently on the message being sent to Americans today that cooking is hard, or that we are just "too stupid to cook." Read the post here, and get cooking! I promise it's not hard!

Mmm... Pancakes!

One of my favorite Christmas gifts this year was a fabulous cast iron grill pan from Wright. It has grill marks on one side and a flat surface on the other - perfect for pancakes!

I briefly mentioned my experiment with apple cinnamon pancakes a few weeks ago. Though they were certainly delicious, they were not nearly as wonderful as the version we made this weekend, on the new griddle. With much more surface area and no awkward sides to prevent smooth flipping, this new kitchen toy proved extremely valuable.

Truth be told, this winter was the first time I'd made pancakes without Bisquick. I'd never knock it, since I grew up eating delicious pancakes made with it, but I'd cut out a recipe for pancake batter from the New York Times Magazine a year or so ago, so I thought I'd give it a go. It was much easier to make than I expected (almost as easy as Bisquick!) and turned out to be delicious - especially as an apple cinnamon variation.

Simple Pancake Batter - makes enough to serve four
Adapted from Marion Cunningham, NY Times Magazine 10/9/08

7 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/3 cups whole milk
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cups flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon plus 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

1. Melt butter and milk together in a small saucepan, then set aside to cool.
2. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.
3. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs. Slowly beat in a small amount of the butter/milk mixture, then gradually add the rest.
4. Stir the wet mixture into the dry ingredients, just until combined. It should be a little bit lumpy and bubbly.
5. Do the usual pancake thing - butter the griddle, pour out the pancakes, flip when they bubble, etc.

For an apple cinnamon variety, replace one egg with 1/2 cup of applesauce (or one of those small containers), and add 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg to the dry ingredients. Top with walnuts for further excitement!

Monday, January 04, 2010

Christmas Cake

Happy New Year! I hope everyone had fun and restful holidays. I'm excited to get back to cooking and blogging - I got a lot of great kitchen gifts that I'm eager to try out and tell you about. Before I get to the presents I received, however, I want to tell you about the gift I gave my parents.

For the first time, my boyfriend and I decided to spend Christmas together, with both of our families. This meant complicated flights (my family is in New York, his in Florida), multiple Christmas meals, and some sacrifices on both ends. We planned to spend Christmas Eve with my family and spent Christmas Day with his (key word planned).

Anyway, this all meant that I'd be missing Christmas Day at my house, which my mom hosts every year and includes a cocktail party with friends and a big dinner with family. So for a gift, I decided to bake a special dessert for everyone to have on Christmas Day. It would take a load off Mom's cooking schedule as well as remind them that I'd be thinking of them during dinner. Yes, cheesy, but also a lot of fun to put together and plan for!

I picked out a pretty red cake stand at Williams-Sonoma, so that there'd be a lasting gift involved. Then I set about to finding a cake to make - it was time to put my baking "skills" to the test! I changed my mind about 47 times, but kept coming back to Smitten Kitchen's Almond Raspberry layer cake. It was a big, three layer cake that would be impressive and special, plus my family loves raspberries. It definitely wasn't that Christmas-y of a dessert (probably fell more into the category of birthday cake), but I decided to ignore that fact and push on.

For the frosting, I wanted to do vanilla, as I'm not really a chocolate frosting person (not that I would be eating the cake, but this is the way I think). I settled on Magnolia Bakery's Vanilla Buttercream recipe, which was easy and delicious - plus it stored well at room temperature for a few days (Recipe below).

So. Once I'd picked out everything, the hard part came. How in the world to make this. It took me a while to figure everything out, but in brief: I made the three cake layers five days in advance at my apartment using an extra cake pan borrowed from Lea. I wrapped them super tight and put them in the freezer. I made the frosting three days in advance at my apartment, put it into two air tight containers and kept them at room temperature. Everything was transported to my parents' house on the 23rd and appropriately hidden. On the 24th, I took advantage of the one hour my parents were out of the house to assemble and frost the cake, including the raspberry layers and the writing, which I did with melted chocolate chips. Upon their return, I surprised them with it, then promptly covered it in saran wrap to keep it fresh until the next day.

And? It was a success, if I do say so myself. And I can say so myself, because with a canceled flight, I actually got to eat it!!

Even my brother liked it!

Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
Adapted from Magnolia Bakery

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
6 to 8 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon almond extract (substituted for 2 teaspoons vanilla)

Using an electric mixer, blend the butter with 4 cups of the powdered sugar, the milk, and the extract. Once combined, gradually blend in powdered sugar (1/2 cup or so at a time) until you reach a desired consistency. Store in airtight container at room temperature.