Time for Christmas Pasta…

Christmas Pasta Shapes from Costplus

For tonight’s dinner plan, I’m doing the same thing that I did last year, a variation of Rachel Ray’s Christmas Pasta recipe. I find her base recipe simply has too much meat in it, mine will be more like a amatriciana sauce, with onions and red pepper flake, seasoned with some sweet and some spicy italian sausages. Of course, we do have to use the classic Christmas Pasta shapes that we got from Cost Plus. Yum!

More about pot roast…

I’ve mused about potroast before on my blog, but it’s such a great (and now overlooked) dish when it came up on Slashfood
I thought it deserved a link. A couple of additional comments on the recipe presented:

  • This is a long cooking recipe, so if you want any of the vegetables to actually be in one piece, I wouldn’t add them until later. The mirapois (celery, carrots, and onion) add a lot to the flavor, so I’d go ahead and use them from the get go, but I’d add the potatos and peas later in the cooking process, after the meat is half done at least. Otherwise the little potatoes will dissolve and the peas, well, I usually add frozen peas just before serving.
  • I’d probably brown the meat, set it aside, lower the heat and sweat my mirapois for three minutes or so, then add the garlic for 30 seconds longer, deglaze the pan with a little red wine, and then dump it all in the slow cooker.
  • I like chuck for pot roast, which can have quite a bit of fat. Skim it off as it cooks. It doesn’t add any flavor, and just makes the roast greasy.

There you have it: more on pot roast.

Cooking when Sick

Well, today is one of those rare days when I miss two days of work: I’m home sick with body aches, a headache, stuffed head, and a bit of a fever. I was also a bit hungry, so I decided to dig through the fridge, freezer and pantry to see what I could make. I found most of the ingredients for some kind of navy bean soup, so that’s what I’m making, in my pressure cooker.

Want the “recipe”?

1 onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and chopped into slices
2 stalks of celery, diced

Sweat these in some olive oil. You aren’t looking to brown them, just get them going. I seasoned them after they were translucent with a bit of fresh ground black pepper, some kosher salt, and a couple sprigs of fresh rosemary (I’ll fish the twigs out when its done).

1 bag of navy beans. I sorted out one or two of the worst looking ones, but just dump them in, no need to soak them because we are gonna use the pressure cooker.

1 big can chicken broth. Dump it in.

Bring to a boil, cap with the pressure cooker lid, and let it go for 45 minutes on setting 2 (my pressure cooker has two settings).

If I had some ham, bacon, or a hock, I would have added some of that in, but those aren’t frequently found in my cupboards since I’m trying to lose weight.

Some recipes I’ve seen also add diced canned tomatos. If I don’t like the flavor when this comes out, I might add those in too.

Anyway, that’s about it.

I’m also trying a bit of an experiment: I don’t much like my pressure cooker because it has a nasty tendency to get a hot spot in the middle of the pan, burning whatever is in contact with it. To help alleviate this, I placed the pressure cooker in my heavy cast iron skillet, and placed that on top of the burner. Hopefully the heavy mass of the skillet will even out the temperature and prevent scorching.

Stay tuned for the results. I’m gonna go rest now.

Update: Soups on! I cracked the pressure cooker after 45 minutes, and while edible, I didn’t the beans had reached their sufficiently soft stage, so I went ahead and added the diced tomatoes that I mentioned above, and let it go for another 30 minutes in the pressure cooker. The resulting soup, while not amazingly sophisticated in flavor, was hearty and delicious. I think the large can of diced tomatoes gave it a bit too much of tomato flavor, next time I’ll only use one of the small cans. Still…

Oh, and the experiment with using the cast iron frying pan as a heat diffuser seemed to work admirably! No hot spots. And it probably helped season my pan some more. I merely rinsed it out again and applied some vegetable oil. Looks great.

Buffalo Chicken and Blue Cheese Dipping Sauce

While watching Food Network the other day, I saw an episode of Calorie Commando that featured a dish I thought I might like to try: Buffalo Chicken and Blue Cheese Dipping Sauce. I gave this a whack this weekend. Basically I took a bunch of chicken breasts that I had lying around, and cut them up into smallish uniform pieces. I then soaked them in some Louisiana hot sauce for an hour, took them out, dusted them with a mixture of Pappy’s Cajun seasoning and flour, and then fried them for three minutes a side in a couple tablespoons of hot olive oil. I also prepared their Blue Cheese dipping sauce. Carmen proclaimed them delicious. I thought they were good, but could have been a bit spicier. Perhaps I’ll use more pepper flake and cayenne in the flour mixture next time.

It’s actually not the lowest point recipe you’ll find: in the portions specified in the recipe (4 servings in 12 oz of chicken tenders) it’s about 7 Weight Watchers Points which means that I probably consumed about 14 or 16 points worth, but they are tasty and when paired with some fresh vegetables can be delicious. Certainly they help satisfy the craving for something like KFC which would be much, much worse.

The Incredible Edible Egg

Courtesy of lifehacker, here is the account of one intrepid hacker attempting to learn the secrets of egg poaching. Interestingly, he comes up with a solution that I’ve never heard of before.

The Egg, Courtesy of MorgueFile.com

I did have a couple of thoughts though. His attempt to use the conventional method (simmering water bath) was flawed by something simple: his pan was boiling, not simmering. Simmering occurs below the boiling point. You want to minimize convection to keep the yolks tight.

While I am far from poached egg perfection, I have made a few of them that seemed okay. I suspect that if my diet could suffer the assault that is Eggs Benedict (among the three or four perfect breakfasts in my estimation) then I’d probably get better at it. Here are my tips for a slightly more conventional approach to poached eggs:

  1. Use fresh eggs. This should go without saying, but it really does help. Older eggs tend to have looser whites, and you want nice tight dense whites.
  2. Use a wide pan, with about an inch of water. Bring it to a simmer, not a boil.
  3. Add a small amount of vinegar to the water. To be honest, I’m not sure how important this is, but the idea is that the acids help keep the egg whites together.
  4. I usually also lightly salt the water.
  5. If I really want a perfect poached egg (like, say for the aforementioned Eggs Benedict, where such an egg must sit serenely atop a toasted english muffin) then I take my egg rings (usually used for frying eggs) and spray them with nonstick spray and then put them into the water and gently slide the egg into the circle after them.
  6. Don’t overcook them. For the aforementioned Eggs Benedict, you really want the yolks to be rich and creamy, not solid.

Damn, wish I could have an Eggs Benedict right now.

Maybe next time I’ll describe my recipe for scrambled eggs with smoked salmon.

More Food Thoughts…

While I was out touring wine country this last weekend, I began to think a bit more about something that I’ve only recently become to realize: that many of the foods which are handed down to us over the years are only edible because of the actions of other critters. Beer, bread, and wine all owe their existance to the operations of yeast. Many cheeses owe their flavors to the actions of molds. Yogurt only exists through the action of bacteria. It’s amazing actually how many of our classic foodstuffs rely on, rather than try to inhibit the action of these helpful critters. Now our food is increasingly sterile, homogenized and bereft of life.

Hey, this is what you think of while munching a loaf of bread and a hunk of good cheese while surrounded by beautiful vineyards.

If you need to ponder this mystery further, try reading How to Make San Francisco Sourdough Bread and make some loaves of bread.

My weekend

Yeah, my blog was a little sparse on the nerd front this weekend: Carmen and I were off for a short anniversary getaway in Napa, sampling some of the local food and wine and generally trying to relax. We give a hearty thumbs up to Julia’s restaurant in the Copia center in Napa. We began with salads: I ordered a beet salad which was very delicate, Carmen had an assortment of fresh vegetables including peas and beans. Both were perhaps a bit subtle for us, but delicious. I ordered a pork chop, and was pleased when the waiter said that the pork chop was brined and assured me despite its juice texture, it was fully cooked. Bravo! People fear undercooked pork to the extent of ruining perfectly delicious chops by cooking them to 180 or higher. The best pork chops are cooked until they are slightly pink on the first cut, but turn opaque white after a couple of seconds, more like 165 or so. And brining helps. But I digress. The pork chop was excellent quality, large, delicious, flavorful and tender. It came with a tart made from cream, onions, and bacon and a side of purple potato chips. Delicious. Carmen had the rib eye steak, which I sampled and gave it my seal of approval. Also delicious. Dessert for me was a sampler of three cherry desserts, while Carmen went with a sampler of three chocolate pot de creme with small cinnamon churros. Each chocolate was infused with a different aromatic herb. Delicious again, but perhaps a bit too refined for our more rustic tastes. Still, a great meal for our anniversary.

The next morning we decided to ride the Napa Wine Train from NAPA to Calistoga, and sample their gourmet breakfast/luncheon service. I am a huge fan of Eggs Benedict (which I sample very rarely now that I am trying to lose weight, but it was our anniversary), so I went with their variation which substituted beef tenderloin for ham. Carmen had a stuffed French Toast, filled with creme cheese, craberries and grapes. Both were good, but not likely to be classic recipes. The tartness of the cranberries tended to overwhelm all the other qualities of the French Toast, and I don’t really think that Eggs Benedict is improved by the expensive beef tenderloin. Give me the classic any day.

For dinner that evening, we went to Tuscany in downtown Napa. I had an interesting pasta dish which had chunks of stewed wild boar. It was a very rustic dish, with hand made pasta served al dente. I suspect that it is a dish which originally would have been made with venison, and I enjoyed it a great deal. Carmen had a roasted half chicken, which while competently done, was nothing very exciting. The ambience of the restaurant was nice though, with an open fireplace and lots of roasting chickens. We had fun.

The following morning: a picnic at the Clos du Val winery consisting of a loaf of bread and two kinds of cheese: one, a rustic Irish cheese and a softer mild cheese. Good stuff, and a beautiful setting.

A fun time. Happy fifth anniversary honey, and I’m looking to the next five, even as I rue the scale this morning (back on weight watchers for the rest of the week).

Recipe: Pulled Turkey

I haven’t posted any of my culinary explorations lately, so I thought that I would rectify this wrong by detailing something that I tried for yesterday’s dinner. I’m a huge fan of pulled pork, especially in the form of barbecue pork sandwiches. I like getting a toasted bunn, piling it with this shredded pork, and then slathering on tons of a nice spicy barbecue sauce, and eating that with some delicious potato salad.

But that’s not very Weight Watchers friendly, so I don’t get to do it very often.

But, I did see a good idea on Calorie Commandos the other day, which was to make the same kind of thing, but use turkey legs instead of pork. I took ideas from their recipe and adapted it to what I had on hand.

I began by heating a tiny bit of olive oil and sweating a diced onion and a diced red pepper over medium heat. I didn’t have any shredded carrots, but I did have some of those tiny baby carrots (I buy them by the 5 lb bag for munching) so I just dumped in a handful of those, and let them sweat for a bit. I then added the seasoning: chili powder, cumin, paprika, red pepper flake, cayenne, black pepper and let that go for just a few more minutes, until it begins to smell and look good. Then I turned off the heat. The original recipe called for these to be cooked in the oven for four hours, but I work, so starting this in the evening would mean dinner @ 9:30 at the earliest, so I did it slightly differently: I skinned my turkey legs, and dumped them in my crockpot in the morning. I then covered them with this vegetable mixture, and then added enough canned nonfat chicken stock to cover. Plugged in the crockpot, set it to low, and left for work.

When I returned, the meat was literally falling off the bone. Took some tongs, and fished out all the legs, and let them cool on a rack. Then, I went through and pulled out all the bones and any tiny bits of skin that I missed before, and shredded all the meat by hand. The turkey legs actually contain a fair number of smallish sharp bones, so take good care while doing this step. You’ll be left with a pile of deliciously seasoned seasoned meat, very soft and delicious. I then toasted some buns, and piled on this meat mixture, and added some of my favorite barbecue sauce. I like Sweet Baby Ray’s among all the store brands I have tried, it’s actually quite acceptable in a pinch. I also had some fat-free vegetarian baked beans, and a side salad.

A feast!

You can do the same recipe with chicken thighs. Delicious.

Wish I had left overs.

Recipes and Encouragement

While I was on Julian’s website, I noticed that he still hadn’t mastered the fine art of meat loaf. I thought that he should check out Good Eats Meat Loaf for inspiration.

It’s not a perfect recipe, but it’s not bad. They use a mixture of ground chuck and ground sirloin to get the right amount of fat, and some crusty garlic croutons to balance it out. Getting precisely the right mix of bread to meat is essential to avoid making a doorstop. I like the spice mix generally, but you should consider using red onions (I like meat loaf mostly on the second day, in sandwhiches with slices of red onion on it, yum!). It never hurts to put strips of bacon on top either.

Curse my Weight Watchers diet.

Oh well, another thing to try is to use an even greater variety of meats. I like a 1/3 split of ground chuck, ground pork and ground veal for meatballs, although I’m mostly opposed to using veal, I sometimes succumb to it for dishes like this. I’m in good company, Emeril’s Kicked Up Meat Loaf uses a similar meat mix.

Oh, and Julian, if you are listening to this, I liked the Chopin, keep up the recordings!

Sushi Prepared on a Printer

I’m about as much of a technology geek as you can imagine, but when I read the Slashdot headline Sushi Prepared on a Printer I must admit, my inner geek packed it’s bags and ran away, leaving the inner gourmand to merely shake his head.

You see, I have a philosophy about food. Take good fresh ingredients, do as little as humanly possible to them, and serve them in a basic, straightforward way. Sushi is close to the apex of this basic philosophy. Rice. Vinegar. Fish. Soy. Wasabi. What could be wrong with that?

Sushi is all about the important stuff. The size. The cut. The texture. The aroma. The freshness. The combinations. Whenever I get an assortment of Nigiri, it’s always about “which fish is the freshest”. Here in California, we often get good salmon (sake). Not the stuff that’s been lightly smoked, but real fresh salmon. Most of the time it beats the maguro, but maguro is nice too, and if you are in a high class place, can be better. I also am a fan of hamachi. There is a place I frequent that makes good negihama rolls, which are maki with hamachi and green onion. The combination is one of my favorites. I also rather like Ebisu’s saba and ginger maki.

Sushi can, of course, be obsessive and extravagant, but I tend not to go to those places. To me, it’s all about the basics. Fish. Rice. Soy. Wasabi. Tea.

Mr. Cantu believes that restaurant-goers, particularly diners who are willing to spend $240 per person for a meal (the cost of a 20-course tasting menu with wine at Moto) are often disappointed by conventional dining experiences. “They’re sick and tired of steak and eggs,” he said. “They’re tired of just going to a restaurant, having food placed on the table, having it cleared, and there’s no more mental input into it other than the basic needs of a caveman, just eat and nourish.”

At Moto, he said, “there’s so much more we can do.”

Frankly, I just want my caveman needs met.