Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Caesar salad & steaks with compound butter

It was Jeremy's birthday yesterday so we celebrated with extra-special dinner plans. He is fond of caesar salad (really, we are all fond of caesar salad, so that worked out well) and it seemed like it would be fun to grill something so we decided to go retro with a strip steak and salad combo for dinner.

Melanie & birthday boy picked out 3 pounds of beautiful NY strip steaks. Seriously, they were perfect. I covered them liberally with salt, pepper and a good drizzling of olive oil and we let them rest at room temperature until the grill was ready.

Caesar salad isn't difficult but it relies heavily on timing well with the rest of the meal because it must be served immediately. So I prepped as many ingredients as I could but did not assemble the salad until the steaks were done grilling. First we made garlic croutons. Melted 3 tablespoons of butter with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sauteed 4 cloves of minced garlic until soft but not browned. Sliced 6 pieces of good italian sandwich bread into 1" chunks. This created a little drama with Brian who was sad to see all the bread get used up until he remembered (deus ex machina!) that he had plenty of bagels in the fridge. It was like a little one act play. You can probably use any kind of bread that suits you--this is just what we happened to have lying around. Tossed the bread with the butter-olive oil-garlic mixture in a roasting pan, added salt, pepper, 1/2 tablespoon of red pepper flakes and 1 teaspoon of oregano. Popped it in the oven at 350 degrees and said to Melanie "Ha ha, now I'm going to forget about it!" Of course I forgot about it and remembered in a panic about 10 minutes later; fortunately they were not burnt but I think they easily could have been. Set them to crisp up on paper towels. Meanwhile, Melanie and I washed a large head of romaine lettuce and chopped it into 2" pieces. You don't want huge, unwieldy bits of lettuce while you are trying to enjoy a caesar salad. We also cut a garlic clove in half and rubbed it all over the inside of a wooden salad bowl to get it ready to have the salad tossed in there.

Here's the part where you should be ready to go with eating dinner as soon as you're done putting this together. For the dressing, I brought a small pot of water to a rapid boil and put in 2 eggs. Let them sit in there for 60-80 seconds (keep a good eye on the clock!), then scooped them out and cracked them into the salad bowl. Made sure to scrape out any egg white that had lightly cooked and clung to the shell and got that into the bowl as well. Beat the eggs very well with a fork until they were well mixed up, then slowly added 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. Continued to beat with the fork and slowly incorporated 6 tablespoons olive oil. When than was all mixed up, added a dash of worcestershire sauce and then about 2 tablespoons of well-minced/mashed up anchovy filets. Added salt and lots of black pepper, mixed well again, then added the romaine lettuce and tossed up from the bottom. This takes a little while. Toss toss toss. You want to make sure the dressing gets evenly mixed up with all the lettuce. Then taste a piece to make sure it doesn't need more salt and pepper, then top with the garlic croutons and a ton of fresh shaved parmesan cheese. Serve tout de suite.

Meanwhile, the steaks were getting finished up on the grill. The only trick is to flip them a lot and keep a close eye. Try to use a really hot grill at first so you can get cool looking cross-hatch marks on them. When the steaks were done, we served them with pats of delicious butter on top. Mashed up 3 tablespons of butter with 1 tablespoon of capers, 1 tablespoon minced parsley and 1 minced garlic clove with my mortar and pestle. Just kept mooshing it until it was all well combined, then scraped it out and put in in a plate in the fridge to chill until it was time to eat. Put a dab on top of each hot steak--a perfect accompaniment to garlicky Caesar salad.

Melanie's mom had made Jeremy a chocolate pound cake for his birthday. We had it after dinner with vanilla ice cream and strawberries and it was indescribably delicious.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Corned beef and cabbage

Well, it has been awhile since I got a chance to post on anything...to make up for the absence, this is the story of how I home-cured a brisket into corned beef then cooked it up with other things on St. Patrick's Day. This should answer the oft-asked question: "What exactly is a corned beef?" and "What do you mean you corned a damn beef?" and so on. Interestingly (or maybe not, you be the judge) the word "corned" in this case refers to the salt you use during the process. I guess large bits of salt were called "salt corns" at one time. So really, we're just saying "salted beef," sort of like pickling it or preserving it; the end result is kind of like a cross between jerky and home-made pickles. Anyway.

First of all, I procured a large amount of flat-cut brisket from the venerable DeKalb Market. I got 7 pounds at first, then figured I'd need more so Marilyn kindly picked up another 3 pounds. Took this 10 pounds of brisket and pricked it all over, both sides, with a fork. I mixed 1 cup kosher salt with 2 tablespoons each of ground allspice, cracked black peppercorns, dried thyme, paprika and about 5 crumbled bay leaves. Notice that there is no saltpeter in there. That's what makes corned beef turn bright pink, which is a color many people expect to see. I don't use it. It's an ingredient in gunpowder and that makes it seem suspect. Probably toxic. Spread this salt & herb mixture over both sides of the briskets, kind of like a dry rub. Packed up the seasoned beef into large ziploc bags and stuck them in the fridge in a large metal baking dish (so they wouldn't get all drippy on the fridge). They stayed in there for about 5 days, getting flipped over every now and then.

The day before St Patrick's Day, I removed the now-corned beef from the bags and rinsed them off. I had to use 3 pots to accomodate all the beef. They got covered in water and I added about 3 tablespoons of pickling spices per pot. Then I set them to boil for a couple hours, until we had to go pick up Francesca and Paul from the airport because they were coming to visit us for the weekend. This is really the only reason that I started pre-cooking the corned beef--I didn't want to get stuck in the kitchen and waste time that I could have been spending with Fran and Paul. If you are doing this, you should just cook it all the day you intend to serve it. This also cuts down on possible foodborne disease (mmm, toxins! Clostridium perfringens, anybody?). I followed instructions from the person at my job who is in charge of restaurant inspections--she gave me very specific directions on cooling it to a safe temperature before storing it in the fridge over night.

Marilyn drove me to the market to get 2 green cabbages and about 5 pounds of mixed red potatoes and tiny fingerling potatoes. I try to get them as tiny as possible--they are so cute and can be boiled whole without any cutting up. She also came over to hang out and help me prep ingredients which was very helpful. She sliced all the cabbage up into chunks and we cleaned the potatoes.

About 1 1/2 hours before we expected anybody to show up, I put the 3 pots of corned beef back on the stove and brought them to boil again. I ended up consolidating into 2 pots of beef (the brisket shrinks down quite a bit) and saving the other pot full of liquid to cook the potatoes in. I added water as necessary to keep the pots from boiling off all their liquid. About 25 minutes before eating, I put the potatoes in to boil and 15 minutes out, I added the chunks of cabbage to the pots with the beef and also about 2 pounds of carrots, peeled and chopped into 3 inch chunks. When the vegetables were done, I drained them and took out the beef, sliced it against the grain and arranged it all on platters with beef in the center, surrounded by cabbage, carrots and potatoes heaped on the side. And let me tell you, that was some tender, delicious corned beef.

We had a ton of people over. Byron was first one there, besides Francesca and Paul who don't count because they were staying at our house. Rick made 3 loaves of his excellent irish soda bread. He's really good at it--seriously, he should open a bakery that only sells soda bread. Katie produced these gorgeous little profiteroles for dessert that she makes with a perfect pâte à choux that I could never duplicate. She sliced them open and we stuffed them with ice cream that Marilyn and I had made the night before. It was vanilla but we added green food coloring to be festive. And we all drank a ton of whiskey and it was a lot of fun.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Maki sushi

This post represents a fairly successful attempt at home sushi! Normally, this is definetely something to be left to the experts, but we had been going out for it so much lately that I felt like the only way to put this craving to rest was to actually try to make some. It was mostly vegetarian, but we also had crab (er, alaskan pollack, pressed, dyed and formed into crab-like sticks) and cooked shrimp. If we seek out some sushi-grade tuna or something, maybe we'll try making the raw fish variety someday, but for time being it seemed best to stick to relatively benign ingredients. We did not make nigiri or anything fancy, just stuck to maki rolls. It was definetely a group effort--in fact, I did very little beyond prepping the ingredients. I am not so skilled at rolling and it was really neat to see Melanie, Jeremy, Ryan and Betsy producing these beautiful maki rolls. Even if our sushi wasn't perfectly authentic, it was a fun thing to do all together.

First, I made the sushi rice so it would all be ready to go. This is probably the most involved part of the whole operation. Sidenote: I heard once that the Japanese word "sushi" actually refers to the rice, not the rolled up bits of deliciousness that you make with the rice. Is this true? Anyway, I have a rice cooker so everything is a little bit easier. I think it would not be too much worse on stove-top though. I rinsed well 3 scoops of sushi rice (I use Kohuko Rose brand) in several changes of water to remove the starch. Drained and added 2 ¼ cups of water and turned on the rice cooker. While this was cooking, I mixed ¼ cup rice vinegar with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon sugar over low heat just until the sugar and salt dissolved. Removed it from heat at that point and allowed it to cool to room temperature. When the rice was done, I scooped it into a wooden bowl and sprinkled the rice vinegar mixture evenly over the top. I covered the bowl with a damp dishtowel and let it sit for 2 minutes. I then enlisted Melanie to fan the rice while I stirred it gently (sort of in an up-down stabby motion, rather than round and round) to keep from breaking the rice grains. It's sort of hard to stir and fan at the same time, so it's good if you can get Melanie to come over and do that part for you. You want to bring the temperature of the rice down and get the grains very shiny but not mushy. Set the rice aside, covered lightly by a towel, until we were ready to assemble. If it's going to be much more than an hour until you eat, you may want to keep the rice in the fridge. Something interesting about quantity: This seemed like a lot of rice but it went pretty quick between all 6 of us making and eating rolls. I ended up making a second batch after we ran out halfway through. The second batch was a little too much--I'd say one and a half batches of rice done this way would be the right amount for 6 people, unless you want leftovers. However, if you only have 4 people, one batch would probably be the perfect amount of rice.

For fillings, like I said, we did not use raw fish of any kind. I had about ¼ pound of cooked shrimp, cut up into little chunks and a package of those weird crab-like sticks (thankfully for Ryan's sake, they were not made from over-fished haddock; apparently alaskan pollack is still OK to eat), which were sliced into thin strips. We also had a can of inari (sweet, fried tofu) which I cut into thin strips. I soaked 1/3 cup of dried, sliced shittake mushrooms in hot water for one hour, then put them in a pan with their soaking liquid, 2 tablespoons soy sauce and a bouillon cube. Reduced off all the liquid and set them aside. For other vegetables, sliced 8 radishes into thin sticks, 2 carrots into matchsticks, 1/2 long english hot-house cucumber into long, lengthwise strips, and one red bell pepper into thin strips as well. I also sliced up 2 avocados and drizzled very lightly with lime juice, just to keep them from browning. Also at the ready was a container each of black sesame seeds and white sesame seeds. I think that was it for filling choices.

Fortunately, Brian had rolled maki before, so he was able to provide guidance. My first one was really bad, but everybody else had good luck. You need to lay a sheet of nori (seaweed wrap) on a bamboo mat and then carefully spread rice over it. Maybe about a 1/3 cup of rice, unless you are Ryan who made a very successful Jumbo Roll with about 3/4 cup of rice. Then you flatten out the rice over the sheet of nori, but leave about a 1/2 inch space from the edges. Jeremy spread his rice with surgical precision, and it was a thing of beauty. Then place the fillings of choice on the end closest to you and begin to roll up. The trick is to get all your fillings in under the first roll over or it will probably not stay together very well (my mistake). Then just roll up, using the mat to press it tightly and keep your roll neat and together. Then slice it up crosswise into chunks of whatever width you prefer. There is a slight learning curve, but everybody at our house was turning out very pretty rolls fairly quickly, and I don't think any of us were what you would call predisposed to good sushi-making skills (well, maybe Brian because he is sort of an artist and Jeremy because he is sort of a doctor, but the rest of us are marathon runners and public health people, so really it must be easy).

Good filling combos were shrimp and avocado and cucumber, inari and crab and avocado, shittake and red pepper and avocado...really, avocado makes everything delicious. We also started sprinkling black sesame seeds on the rice before rolling it up--that was really good.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


It turns out that I'm not the only one who likes to make pizzas for Academy Awards night--my younger sister does it too. Anyway, it is sort of a tradition and my other sister once wondered how to make the sauce and George claimed that he really really loved the pizzas, so even though it kind of feels like a junk food entry, I'll write about it a little.

The sauce really does change depending on what I have around. The one I made this time was a little thinner than usual and probably not my best work. Whatever. Sauteed 1 small, minced yellow onion in olive oil until soft, then added 5 minced cloves of garlic. Stirred all together until well cooked and fragrant but not at all burnt (sometimes you can get away with a little carelessness, but a sauce will have a nasty taste if your garlic burns). Added red pepper flakes, a half-can of those whole, peeled roma tomatoes that I like (they come in a big, jumbo 48 ounce can but I always use half), one small can of tomato paste, 2 teaspoons sugar and about 1/3 cup of red wine. Simmered it all together, stirring frequently, and allowed it to get somewhat reduced and thick. After about 30 minutes, took it off heat and put it through a food mill to get a nice, smooth thick puree. Set aside until pizzas were ready to bake.

Toppings: Chopped one small bell pepper and sauteed in olive oil until soft and slightly browned, about 7 minutes. Removed from pan and set aside ina little bowl. Melted 1 tablespoon of butter in the same pan (you could, of course, use as many pans as you felt like washing up afterwards for, but I am lazy and like to see how few pans I can use) and added a 1 package worth of sliced cremini mushrooms. Sauteed over high-ish heat until golden and a little crispy. Took out of pan, laid out on cutting board to cool off (don't pile them up when warm or they get soggy and all your mushroom crisping work is for naught), then set aside in a little bowl. Sliced 5-6 cloves big cloves of garlic into thin slices, then crisped those slowly in a mixture of olive oil and butter until they were golden little chips of heaven. Set aside in a little bowl, after cooling them off (much like the mushrooms). Using kitchen shears, I cut up sun dried tomatoes into thin slices and put them in a little bowl--probably about 1/3 cup's worth total. Brian cut up a pineapple and sliced about 1/2 cup into teeny little 1/2" chunks for me, which also sat and waited in a little bowl. I rolled about 2 cups of fresh spinach leaves into a tube and sliced them thinly to make a chiffonade, and dumped them in a prep bowl too. Minced a bunch of parsley and set aside. I had some pepperoni from the grocery store and some pre-shredded mozzarella ready as well.

Here's the truly lame part--I don't make my own crust. Nor do I use really decent pepperoni or good cheese. My mother's eyes would be rolling and she would shake her hand at me and say "Hey, keeed! What ees theeese?" but I'm like, that's OK. I'll make the dough by hand one of these days and use good, fresh cheeses, omit the garlic and aim for less schizophrenia in my topping choices...and that will really probably be a true and good pizza. But I was raised here in the USA and that means I like a too-sweet sauce, gooey cheese, crackery crust and a lot of crap on top of my pizza. A lot of fidelity to true Italian cooking shows up in my day-to-day cooking, but for some reason I've never cared to do right by pizza. Anyway, I use a Martha White mix. It costs 79 cents per package at Publix. You dump it in a bowl, pour 1/2 cup hot water over, mix it, shape into a ball, drizzle over olive oil and cover it with a dishtowel for 5 minutes. That's it. Stretched it out over the greased back of a cookie sheet (yes, Brian, the BACKS of the cookie sheet. Why? Because no one wants to scoop it out of a ridged pan and it is too hard to spread out. If you have a flat pan with no edges then it don't matter which side you use. And I lost the pizza stone my sister gave me once, which is sad), pricked it all over with a fork and stuck it in a pre-heated 450 degree oven for five minutes. Now it was ready to be covered with a thin layer of sauce, then what ever toppings sounded good in combo, red pepper flakes and a mess of cheese. Threw it back in the oven, kept a good eye on it and pulled it out when all the cheese was golden and bubbly and everything looked good (maybe 10 minutes?). A particularly successful combination was pineapple and lots of pepperoni with red pepper flakes and parsley.

Melanie and I drank a bottle of wine and we bet on Oscar winners with George and Brian. George won. Melanie lost. Brian and I were somewhere in between, but I suspect Brian did better than I did.