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Friday, January 11, 2019

How To Be A Good Cook

Why should anyone learn to cook?

There are many reasons.  Cooking saves money.  Cooking is potentially more nutritious.  Cooking is fun.  Cooking is an expression of love.  There are far more reasons to cook than there are not to cook.

Even though most Americans know the benefits of cooking a meal, too many of us eschew the kitchen with the belief that it's too hard.  I know some of you out there reading this are nodding in agreement.  I know how you are feeling.  You attempted a meal or two and it didn't meet your expectations, so you threw up our hands in despair and said, "I can't cook.  I'm hopeless."  Then you ordered takeout, all the while envying the people in your lives who are regularly turning out meals, (and you keep wishing for an invite to their homes for dinner).

I'm here to save you.  I'm here to tell you it's not impossible.  You too can be a good cook and enjoy all the benefits of making your own meals.  Do you want to know the secret?

Cook.

That's right.  Get in the kitchen and start cooking.

Cooking isn't a magical ability that you are either born with or not.  It's a skill like any other skill that takes time and practice.

I'm not talking about chef-level skills here.  Sure there are people who are born with an innate sense of smell and taste that helps them create finely-tuned flavors in their dishes that your average home cook might not be able to achieve.  There are also people who are blessed with the kind of dexterity and fine motor skills that make it easier for them to do work with knives and pastry. I'm not talking about these people.  You don't need these kinds of skills to be a good home cook.  All you need is practice.

Do you have a grandmother who made the best dishes of your ancestral cuisine you ever tasted?  Maybe she made delicious tomato sauce, or pierogi, or strudel, or samosas, or matzoh ball soup.  You looked at her ability to cook those wonderful dishes as magic.  You believed her talent was not passed on down to you.  You don't have that magic.

Let me tell you a secret about your grandmother.  Her gifts were not magic.  She cooked that well because she did it for decades.  She grew up making those dishes.  She made them for years.  During that time she figured out ways to tweak the recipes to be the way she liked them and the way your parents liked them and the way you liked them.  There is no magic and there are no secrets.  Your grandmother cooked that well because did it all her life.  If you cooked as much as she did, you would be a good cook too.

The hardest part of becoming a good cook is getting started.  You need to take those first steps.  I'm here to help you on the journey.  Take a deep breath and consider everything I am about to tell you.

The first thing to consider is what you like to eat.  What are your favorite foods?  The most important part of learning to cook is making foods you will enjoy eating.  It is possible that your favorite foods may be some of the most difficult ones to prepare, but I am going to guess there are a few that are fairly easy.

The next thing to do is find recipes that sound tasty to you.  There are recipe sources everywhere.  Go to a used bookstore and find some basic cookbooks.  Look at recipes online.  Look at YouTube videos. ( I wouldn't suggest watching the Food Network.  Too many of their shows focus on the personalities of the presenters and don't cover the steps well enough.)  You can also reach out to people you know.  If one of your friends or relatives cooks a beloved dish, why don't you request to shadow her in the kitchen and learn how to prepare this dishes by watching how they are made.  Make sure these folks let you participate at some level.

When you first begin cooking with recipes, follow them to the letter.  Don't skip any steps.  Learn the process.  Start learning the techniques.  Understand the basics.  Develop a feel for how long it takes to brown meat, blanch a vegetable, or deglaze a pan.  You may have to make one recipe several times before you feel comfortable making it and enjoy eating the results.  Don't give up.

Once you are comfortable cooking a few basic recipes, you can liberate yourself bit.  Maybe you thought a certain dish would take better with more salt or less salt  Maybe you feel daring enough to see if you can substitute lime juice for lemon juice in another dish.  Would the sauce benefit from a splash of white wine or some sweet fruit juice?    Once you know how to cook a chicken breast one way, you can use your taste to guide you to make it the best chicken breast* ever (in your opinion).

When you cook, pay attention and taste often.  Think about each step of the recipe.  Did something cook too quickly or too slowly?  Consider the heat in the pan.  Listen for the sounds of sizzling.  Poke foods to feel their softness or firmness.  Taste your sauces.  Taste again after you adjusted the seasoning.  How easily do your vegetables yield to a knife or fork?  Do you like them done more or less?  Keep tasting.  Take notes as you go. Don't be afraid to play.  If something didn't taste right the first time, make a note of what you did when you made the recipe and make adjustments the next time you make the dish.

One resource I recommend is Samin Nosrat's book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.  It breaks down the elements of what makes food taste good.  Salt, fat, and acid  enhance, carry, and balance flavors.  Heat is the main element of texture.  Does this sound confusing?  It is really simple.  You probably are using these elements with your food without even realizing it.

The next time you make (or order) a sandwich, think about the stuff you put on it.  You might start with your meat, which is probably salty deli meat.  You might decide to add cheese, mayonnaise, or avocado (fat).  Do you like to add pickles, mustard, or other condiments?  Then you just added acid and salt.  If you decide to toast the bread to make it crispy and enhance the aroma of the bread, you understand the power of heat.

The same goes for a salad.  You start with your greens.  Then you dress them with a dressing made from acid (vinegar, buttermilk, tomatoes) and fat (oil, mayonnaise) and then crumble cheese (salt, fat), bacon (salt, fat), avocado (fat), or olives (fat, salt) over it.  Maybe you add acidic vegetables like tomatoes or marinated artichoke hearts.  Do you get it now?

I'll make it even simpler.  How much more do you enjoy your crispy, fat-fried potatoes (fat, heat) with ketchup (salt, acid)?

Did you ever consider that maybe the reason most of us like cranberry sauce with Thanksgiving is because there are so few other acidic elements in a Thanksgiving dinner and the sauce injects some much-needed balance?

In other words, you already know instinctively what makes food taste good.  You just never paid attention. 

Now that you realize this, think of your favorite foods and how most of them use ingredients containing all of these elements.  Pizza has a crisp baked crust topped with acidic salty tomatoes and creamy cheese, possibly topped with salty meats or olives.  Chicken parmigiana has a crispy fried coating with the same creamy and acidic toppings.  Macaroni and cheese mixes gooey melted fatty cheese and tops it with crispy baked breadcrumbs.  Spaghetti with tomato sauce is best enhanced with an acidic, fatty, salty topping of parmigiano-reggiano.

There are so many ingredients out there that can help you alter how your food tastes and create the perfect dish.  You can get acid from fruits, pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, condiments, sour cream, yogurt, vinegars, and alcohol.  Salt can come from bacon, soy sauce, miso, anchovies, fish sauce, sauerkraut, kimchi,Worcestershire, cured meats, condiments, or cheese.  Fat is found in oils, bacon, cured meats, cheese, cream, butter, sour cream, yogurt, and mayonnaise.  Note how many of the foods on this list do double, or even triple, duty (is there nothing cheese can't do?).  You don't need a plethora of ingredients to flavor and balance a dish.  One or two of these elements can turn a basic food into a delicious one.  You can transform the plainest foods - a chicken breast, a bowl of rice, a plate of steamed vegetables - with just a handful of the right ingredients. (One mistake beginner cooks make is to pile on too many ingredients into a recipe believing the more ingredients, the fancier the dish.  Please stop taking cooking advice from Rachael Ray.)

You have the knowledge.  You just need to take that knowledge and start practicing.  It does mean some effort.  You will have to go to the store and shop for ingredients.  You will have to make sure you have the pots and pans and knives needed for preparation (and plates to serve them on).  Don't give up.  The first few meals might not taste the way you had hoped and they may take more time than you feel it is worth.  Keep at it.  Eventually you will develop your skills.  The more you like your own cooking, the more others will like it as well.  Soon your friends will want to come to your house for dinner.

Do you want to know yet another  secret?  It takes only a little effort for others to consider you a good cook. In this modern age, where Seamless rules supreme, the willingness to cook from scratch automatically makes you a superstar.  Americans will appreciate almost any home cooking. I am my favorite example.  I am not the greatest baker out there.  I have friends who who create the most beautiful and commercially viable baked goods.  I don't do anything close to that.  Regardless, many of my friends and family think I'm a great baker.  I'm not exceptionally talented in that area.  I simply am willing to bake.  I go out there and buy eggs and flour and real butter and go to my kitchen and make those cakes and pies and cookies.  It's not just the food they appreciate.  They appreciate the effort.  Most homemade foods are going to taste better than most commercially prepared foods.  The most basic efforts are good cooking in today's world of instant meals.

So go out there, find some recipes, go shopping and buy the best ingredients you can afford, and hit the kitchen.  You can think big, but start small.  Make that sandwich and make that salad and work your way up from there. Practice doesn't make perfect, but it can make some edible meals.  One day your grandchildren will want to cook like you.


*Vegetarians, please don't be offended by my example.  I just used chicken breast because it's a common ingredient beginners use.  I'm not suggesting it's what everyone cooks. Just substitute the word chicken with tofu slab or spaghetti or portobello mushroom or whatever one might consider the most basic element in vegetarian cooking.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Have Your Cookies and Eat Your Cake Too

This summer is coming to an end faster than I would like summer to end.  Summer tends to do that.  If I have any consolation, it's that I was invited to many parties in these remaining weekends. I can close out the summer spending time with friends and family, and feel a bit less sad about the shorter days, the chilly temps, and the onslaught of nasty, pumpkin-based food.

When a friend invited me over for a potluck party last weekend, she instructed me to "bring something decadent for dessert." I will always answer that call.

Summer is always the time I do the most baking because I have more time.  This summer is no exception. I haven't documented it here on TERP as much because I haven't been creating new recipes.  I stuck with the classics.

 In July I made my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe and it kept a craving going in my brain for more chocolate chip cookies, but didn't want to make cookies again for the party.  I wanted to branch out.  I was in creative mode and wanted a new recipe as much as I wanted more cookies.  Then I realized what I wanted to do.  I wanted a cake that tasted like cookies.

What is the flavor of a chocolate chip cookie?  It's butter.  It's brown sugar.  It's vanilla.  It's chocolate chips.  Those are the major flavor components.  If I baked a cake with those elements, would it taste like a cookie but with a more cake-like texture?  What kind of frosting would complement it?

My strategy was to adapt my favorite brown butter cake recipe with brown sugar and lots of vanilla.  Then I stirred mini chocolate chips into the batter.  I put it in the oven and crossed my fingers.

The layers baked up tall and fluffy.  So far I was happy with them.

Next I needed a frosting.  I had a few ideas, but wasn't sure which would be the best?  Caramel would complement chocolate chip cookies.  Chocolate would be a classic choice.  Vanilla or white chocolate would seem lighter and give a bit more contrast to the chocolate chips.  I decided to go with my friend's request for something decadent.  I covered that cake with a Nutella cream cheese frosting on I found on Wicked Good Kitchen


I was clumsy with the cake comb, but this was my first attempt at using one.  I don't know how I ever frosted a cake before I bought a rotating stand and an offset spatula.

Did it taste like cookies?  Not as much as I had hoped.  It tasted delicious though.  Everyone at the party agreed.  I would definitely make this again.  Maybe I'll try caramel frosting the next time. 

Chocolate Chip Cookie Layer Cake

Ingredients
  • 3 sticks unsalted butter
  • 2 1/2 cups
  • 2 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 Tbl vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 cup milk
Preheat oven to 350. Spray 2 9" round cake pans with baking spray or grease and flour them.  Line bottoms with a round of parchments and grease and flour or spray as well.

Melt the butter over low heat until it foams.  Gently cook a few minutes more until it smells nutty and turns amber and the milk solids separate and turn brown.  Place in a bowl set over a bowl of ice water.  Cool until it begins to set.

Meanwhile sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

Once the butter has set, beat it with an electric mixer until creamy.  Add the sugar and continue beating until fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time, making sure each one is incorporated.  Do the same with the egg yolks.  Add the vanilla.

Carefully beat in the dry ingredients and alternate them with the milk in three additions ending with the flour.

Turn your mixer to low and stir in the chocolate chips.

Pour into the prepared cake pans.  Bake about 50-55 minutes in the center of the oven until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.  Transfer to wire rack to cool.  Remove from cake pans after 20 minutes.

Frost with your favorite frosting once completely cool.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Are You Tired of Your Old Parmigiana?

Most of us love a good chicken parmigiana (unless you're a vegetarian in which case you probably love eggplant parm, unless you're a vegan, in which case I'm just sorry).  We call it Italian, but let's face it, the dish is as American as cheeseburgers.  Only in America would people fry a piece of meat, then cover it in tomato sauce, smother it in cheese and then throw the whole thing on top of pasta or stuff it into a wedge of bread.  It's an over-the-top dish loved by a culture that enjoys excess.

I do love it myself without apology (to either Italians or vegetarians), but it's the kind of dish you can have any time of year any place.  I can buy it at any local deli or pizza place.  I can make it in the dead of winter with tomato sauce made from canned tomatoes or sauce from a jar.  (NO I WOULD NEVER USE SAUCE FROM A JAR!  NOOOOOOOOOOO!)

It's summer and there is so much more out there to play with than canned tomatoes and chicken.  I can make sauces out of a hundred different vegetables and herbs.  The farmers' markets are brimming with good stuff.  This is one reason it's my favorite time of year.

Also, mozzarella?  Love it.  You know what I love more?  Sharp provolone.  It has been my favorite since I was a child.

My goal this time was to make a dish that recalled the decadence of chicken parmigiana, but incorporated other flavors.

Rather than make a marinara sauce, I made a sauce one might compare to caponata (or perhaps ratatouille) but without the olives. (I considered adding capers, but Kevin has to watch his salt intake.) Regular readers know I'm not a fan of eggplant, but eggplants are like potatoes.  Some varieties taste better than others. These adorable little fairy tale eggplants have a mild flavor and soft texture and the sort of melt into the sauce.

 I included the quarter for scale

 In addition to the eggplants I added the standard tomatoes.  I flavored the sauce with onions, garlic, basil, and a bit of red wine vinegar and honey for a sweet and sour taste.  I also tossed some toasted pine nuts in there.

I stuffed my chicken breasts with a square of sharp provolone rather than topping it with mozzarella. The recipe is for four stuffed chicken breasts, but due to someone's dislike of cheese, particularly a cheese as strong as provolone, only half of the cutlets I cooked were stuffed.

I thought it was great.  Kevin gave it the Sir Pickypants stamp of disapproval.  He couldn't tell me why he didn't like the sauce.  He just didn't like it.  This won't go into dinner rotation.  I hope if you try it, you like it better, and make it often.

Provolone Stuffed Chicken Cutlets with Eggplant Sauce

Ingredients

Sauce
  • 2  medium onions, diced
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 3 large tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • 15 fairytale eggplants, cut in small dice
  • 2 Tbl red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbl honey
  • 10 (approximately) basil leaves, cut in chiffonade
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 Tbl pine nuts, toasted
  • 2 Tbl oil for cooking
Chicken
  • 4 thick chicken breasts
  • 4 1-oz slices of provolone cheese
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • A few grinds black pepper
  • 1 egg beaten with 1 tsp water
  • 1 1/2 cups plain breadcrumbs
  • 2 Tbl parmesan cheese
  • Oil for frying
Heat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat 2 Tbl of oil in a large frying pan or saucepan over medium heat.  Add the onion and reduce heat to low.  Cook gently until onions are soft.  Add the eggplant and tomatoes and cook until eggplants are soft. Add the basil and garlic until fragrant.  Add the honey and vinegar and add salt to taste.  Cook over low heat until jammy.  If it becomes too thick, add a little chicken stock.  Stir in the toasted pine nuts.

Mix together flour, salt, and pepper and place in a shallow dish.  Place the egg and water in a second dish.  Mix together the breadcrumbs and parmesan and place in a third dish.

Carefully butterfly the chicken breasts and insert a piece of cheese in the pocket.  Dredge in flour, dip in egg, and dip in breadcrumbs.

Heat remaining oil over medium heat and fry cutlets carefully about 6 minutes per side until golden.  Place on a cookie sheet and bake in preheated oven for an additional 10-12 minutes.

Serve chicken topped with eggplant sauce and sprinkle with pine nuts.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

New Kid in Town - Don Jito

New restaurants continue to pop up in my neighborhood - and they seem to be doing it right under my nose.

In my last restaurant review I compared the attempts at good customer service at the new restaurant, Sofia's, to the terrible customer service I received at the defunct Spice Kitchen.  I was not surprised Spice Kitchen went out of business.

I didn't pay much attention to the empty space Spice Kitchen once occupied until about two weeks ago.  I noticed for the first time there was a new facade on the building.  There were no notices of a new place coming soon, so I assumed it would be a long time before there was a new restaurant in the space.

Then last week I saw people eating there.  The restaurant had opened right under my nose and I didn't even know the name of it or what kind of food it served.

I took a walk by there the next day and examined a menu posted on the door.  The restaurant was called Don Jito and the menu showed a hybrid of Spanish and Mexican food.  There were traditional Spanish tapas, a selection of specialty tacos, and a mix of entrees such as paella and churrasco.

Why didn't I see the name of the restaurant?  Well, our town zoning board forces a long and painful process for businesses to put up permanent signage.  New businesses often open before they can get signage approval.  They resort to displaying temporary banners instead.  Don Jito has a banner, but it is not anchored at the bottom so you can't see it when the wind blows because it blows upwards and over the roof of the building.


Kevin and I  decided to try it last weekend and see if it would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood.  It is directly across the street from our building, so we appreciate the convenience.

When we entered we were offered a small table for two in a cramped area.  They realized they had better tables and offered us a four top closer to the windows.

The funky decor from Spice Kitchen is gone and replaced with a simple, clean scheme of dark wood.  They also have a patio in the back with outdoor seating.

They also had interesting silverware.
 
Our server came to our table as soon as we sat down and started asking if we wanted drinks or guacamole.  I reminded him we had no beverage list or menus, so we really needed to see our options.  He brought our menus and gave us some time to peruse.  We ordered our drinks and apps and spent a little more time figuring out what we wanted for a main course.

We ordered albondigas picante - spicy meatballs - to start.  I was craving meatballs all week and was happy to see some on the menu.  These were a bit dense.  I tend to like my meatballs softer.  I also thought they were a tad too salty.  The spice was spot on though.  It was enough to take me by surprise, but it wasn't overpowering.  The sauce was good enough to want to soak up in the provided tortillas.


I ordered chicken tacos for the next course.  Kevin ordered the paella.  Our goal was to see the range of the kitchen by ordering different types of dishes.  Don Jito offers a variety of creative tacos, but you can only order one kind at a time (a plate of three).  You can't mix them unless you order a big taco platter for the table.  I had to choose which one I wanted to try.  I decided to go with grilled chicken and black beans.  If they can do chicken well, then there is a good chance others will be good.


The pickled vegetables on the side were delicious.  The tacos were a bit disappointing . Just like with the meatballs, the concept was good, but they were somewhat flawed.  They needed a bit more salt, or something else to boost their flavor.  I squeezed all of the lime over them.  Kevin liked his paella, but it was huge.  He took home the leftovers.

Service was friendly, but spotty.  We had three different servers working our table and they didn't seem to be in communication with each other.  After we ordered our dinner, another server came to our table and greeted us and asked if we needed menus.  After we ordered our dessert, our original server saw us waiting and came to our table panicked that we hadn't received our main courses yet.  There didn't seem to be much communication happening among the waitstaff.

We had to wait a bit for dessert.  They only had three options: churros, tres leches cake, and tequila tiramisu.  The third option sounded too weird to me, so I had the cake and Kevin had the churros.  The cake had a strange bitter undertaste to it, but it didn't spoil the taste completely.  I couldn't finish it, but I liked it enough to take home the extra.  The churros were light and crispy.  They were in the running for the best part of the meal.



My experience with the place was positive overall.  I overheard the owner say he was open for only ten days.  That's not much time to work out the kinks.  I would like to come back in a month or two and see if the service improves and if the kitchen gets more on the ball with seasoning the food.  I see potential here, but it could go either way. 

Saturday, July 21, 2018

New Kid in Town - Sofia's Italian Bistro


I haven't done a restaurant review in a long time on this blog.  One reason is the influx of new restaurants in my neighborhood has slowed down a bit, so I have fewer restaurants to review.  The other reason is I'm lazy.  Sometimes it's easier to put a quick note on Yelp and TripAdvisor and call it a day.

I wanted this blog to be about all things food, including restaurant reviews, so I am long overdue for some new restaurant talk.  I shouldn't only talk about new restaurants either.  I should review all of them.

Today is one time I  have a new restaurant to review.  At the end of June a new Italian place opened up at the end of the street called Sofia's Italian Bistro.  It moved into a space once occupied by a Chinese restaurant called Lum Yen.


I hated seeing Lum Yen go.  It was an institution in this area for decades.  It was the last of its kind.  Most Chinese restaurants tend to be cheap takeout places or else they have been take over by "Asian Fusion" restaurants that cover Chinese, sushi, and Thai.  Lum Yen was a full service restaurant.  It was the kind of Chinese restaurant I knew growing up with its own classic "Polynesian" cocktails and several pages of dishes.  It may not have been authentically Chinese, but it did a good job of keeping up the pretense in the days when none of us knew better.

This meant I went into Sofia's with a bit of prejudice.  It displaced a well-loved local restaurant and it is another Italian restaurant in a region that is already saturated with Italian restaurants.  Would it be able to distinguish itself and find customers?  It was worth checking out.

Kevin and I didn't make reservations even though it was a Saturday night.  We had no idea if we would have a table or not.  We didn't make any and tried our luck.

We arrived and the hostess said she had a few reserved tables, but could find us something.  We ended up in the back by the bathrooms and kitchen.  It wasn't prime space, but we weren't going to complain since we had no reservation and they were doing their best to accommodate us.

It's a nice space.  There are no indications that this was ever a Chinese restaurant.  The space is much more open than it was in Lum Yen with clean and bright decor.  It reminds me a little bit of Tarry Lodge. 

The restaurant only seemed to have one waiter and one busboy working that night.  The busboy was sweet and poured our water right away.  The waiter took our drink orders.  We received a bread basket and some basil dipping oil.  Then we waited for our drinks.  We waited for a while.  Eventually the hostess came to us and asked us what our drinks were.  We had to order again.

We eventually ordered our food.  Once again it took a long time to get anything.  We noticed we weren't the only ones waiting.  The couple at the table next to us stormed out saying they had never had such terrible service.  We started wondering if we should pay for our drinks and go elsewhere.

The hostess returned to our table.  She explained that they were having issues with their ticketing system.  The waitstaff was entering the orders at the computer in the front of the house, but the kitchen wasn't receiving them.  It seemed to be due to a faulty WiFi.  It was easy to forgive them for this.  Tech issues can happen to anyone.  She took our orders again and relayed them to the kitchen herself.

We were eventually served our food.  Kevin ordered gnocchi with tomato sauce and mozzarella.  I ordered a pork shank with risotto.  It made for a better perspective of the restaurant to order a meat dish and a pasta dish and see the range of the kitchen.



Kevin loved his gnocchi.  My pork shank was cooked perfectly so the kitchen gets points for execution.  Unfortunately my risotto was way too salty.  It was just this side of inedible.  The chef didn't skimp on the saffron either.  I almost never send complaints back to the kitchen, but I thought the saltiness was something that needed to be brought to the chef's attention.

During the meal our hostess brought us an antipasto plate with salami, prosciutto, and a blob of delicious, creamy burratta on the house to make up for the wait.  After the meal they said the dessert would be on the house as well.  We ordered zeppole. I'm not sure if this is the normal sized serving or if this huge platter was part of the apology.  Either way, they were delicious as zeppole should be and came with warm Nutella for dipping.


The price point for this place is a bit high for us to come back here regularly, but we will consider coming back.  I don't want to come back too soon because I want to give everyone involved a chance to work the kinks out.  I think the food is good enough for another visit with the exception of the risotto.  I can excuse the issues when the restaurant is brand new.  If the service is still this spotty six months from now, I'm not sure the place will survive.

The experience is a lesson in customer service.  Kevin and I waited around and the house noticed.  They weren't embarrassed to take our orders again.  They checked in with us.  They were generous with comped items.  Good restaurants don't always have to be  about perfect food and service.  They also have to know how to smooth out the kinks and acknowledge and rectify their mistakes.

I want to compare this experience to the one I had at Spice Kitchen two years ago.  Spice Kitchen screwed up royally with our orders.  The waitstaff paid no attention to how long we were waiting.  The management made no effort to make it up to us.  We never went back.  The place is now out of business.

I look forward to seeing how Sofia's will succeed in the neighborhood.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Ini-Ini Soup

I want to start this post by apologizing to any commenters who didn't have their comments published in a timely manner (especially you, Katie and Tina).  For some reason Blogger stopped emailing me when comments were awaiting approval.  I have to remember to go to my dashboard and click on the "comments awaiting moderation" link.  I often forget.  I get so few commenters that I tend to assume no one has commented (so anyone reading this blog, please leave me a comment now and then so I know you still love me).  I will do my best to check more often and not leaving your lovely comments hanging out there.

Anyway, let's get on to the real topic of the post.

Regular readers know my favorite holiday to host is Christmas.  I love cooking a huge elaborate meal that is unconstrained by tradition.  I have loved all the Christmas dinners I have cooked, but I think if I had to choose a favorite, it would be the most recent one.

When I remember the food I think of the chocolate ricotta cake that I almost didn't make, the cookies that were a throwback to my childhood, and of course, the porchetta with it's delicious shards of crispy skin and the lemony arugula gremolata spread over its surface.

In the midst of the sweets and the meats, it's hard to remember the unsung hero of that dinner. I don't know if everyone remembers the soup course, but I remember it well.  I spent hours simmering the homemade stock. Then I found scrumptious tortellini to float in it. The soup was the simplest item on the menu, but it was perfect in its simplicity.  With the right pasta, the flavorful stock was all I needed to complement them.  It was equivalent to serving pasta in a well-made sauce.

I was in the mood for tortellini this week and I decided I wanted to serve them in a soup again.  I had simmered some stock last week and I was ready to use it.  I could make another round of tortellini in brodo, but I wanted to make a soup that would be a full meal and not just an appetizer.  Now that summer is approaching, the farmers' markets are filling up with the best fresh produce.  I wanted to experiment with a vegetable-based soup (but not tomato because I make a lot of tomato soup).

I decided to try making a zucchini soup.  I was thinking of a soup that was a little rich, but still fresh tasting, and wouldn't compete too much with the tortellini.  Zucchini-tortelini soup?  That's a lot of "inis".  It set up a cute name for it.

Okay, maybe the name is hokier than it is cute, but at least I didn't fall back on my pun habit and call it Ini Meeny Miney Moe Soup (although I kind of just did that, didn't I?).

I sauteed zucchini slices from two zucchini and cooked until they were soft.  Then I added some garlic.  I simmered this in my homemade chicken stock with mint, parsley, and lemon juice.


I made this into a blended soup.  Once it was well blended, I finished it with a touch of cream.



I cooked the tortellini separately and added them to the pot.

You can substitute veggie stock if you want to make this vegetarian.  I also think some pecorino would be good in it.

The recipe needed some improvements.  I used too much lemon, so I cut the amount of lemon in the recipe below (a half instead of a whole).  The color was a bit drab, so another zucchini (zucchino?) or two wouldn't hurt.  Some pecorino would also have been nice in here to play against the mint.  (If you haven't tried mint and pecorino together, please go find a way to do that).

Ini-Ini Soup (Cream of Zucchini Soup with Tortellini)

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • 2-4 medium zucchini, sliced
  • About 2 cloves of garlic (depending on size and how much you like garlic), minced
  • 1 quart chicken stock or vegetable stock
  • 1 Tbl chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 Tbl chopped fresh mint
  • Juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 9 oz. package cheese tortellini

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan.  Add the sliced zucchini and cook until soft.  It's okay if they take on a little color.

Add the garlic and cook another minute until fragrant.

Add the stock, lemon juice, parsley, and mint to the pot.  Simmer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile,  cook the tortellini in a separate pot in 4-6 quarts of boiling water.  Remove from heat and drain a couple of minutes short of cooking time directed on the package.

Transfer the soup to a blender or food processor or use an immersion blender and blend until smooth. Stir in the cream.

Stir the drained tortellini into the soup and serve.


Monday, June 18, 2018

I Thought I Would Try Jumping on this Bandwagon

I am not a cereal fanatic.

Some people love cereal.  They want nothing else for breakfast.  They even like it as a dessert or a snack.

I'm not one of those people.

It wasn't always that way.  As a kid I loved sugary cold cereals (Cocoa Pebbles were my favorite), but as an adult, I started to believe my mother when she said they might not be good for me.  It took a few years of eating non-sugary cereal  for breakfast every day to help me realize cereal is no treat.  Not only do the healthful cereals not taste as good, they also are monumentally unsatisfying.  If I had a bowl of cereal for breakfast, I would be starving an hour later.  That's no way to start the day.

The latest food craze now is "Cereal Milk", popularized by Christina Tosi of the Milk Bar.  The concept comes from the belief that the milk at the bottom of your bowl is the best part of the cereal.  I have now seen this idea repeated in food blogs everywhere.  Cereal milk is now a flavor for ice cream and cake frosting and pie custards.

Is the milk at the bottom of the bowl the best part?  My memories from my cereal-eating days wouldn't agree.  I suppose as a very small child eating chocolate cereal I liked the chocolate milk at the bottom of the bowl.  Otherwise, it was just the nasty puddle I had to clean up off the breakfast dishes.  In fact, I rarely ever drank the milk at the bottom of the bowl because for years I had a greedy cat who would perch on the kitchen table next to my bowl and immediately stick his head in the milk as soon as I put my spoon down (spoiled kitty).

Despite my misgivings about how gross cereal milk is, I had to admit part of me sees the appeal.  Why not have a dessert that is subtly flavored with a sweet cereal without having to put the actual cereal in the dessert (the cereal itself would only get soggy)?

With my curiosity piqued and my sense of adventure activated, I decided to try it.  I invited my family over for Father's Day.  I wanted to create a dessert that my nephew would eat.  He doesn't like cake (hates frosting) or pudding or any other soft desserts.  In truth he doesn't like too many foods in general.  Among the few desserts I see him eat are cookies and ice cream.  I decided to bake giant chocolate chip cookies and make a super-sized ice cream sandwich with cereal milk ice cream.

Tosi uses Corn Flakes for her ice cream.  I wanted something sweeter.  I used Cap'n Crunch.  While I wouldn't replace a regular dessert with Cap'n Crunch, I have enjoyed it as an adult as an indulgent breakfast.  I thought it might make a fun ice cream flavor.

I decided to use a Philadelphia style ice cream with no custard base.  Part of my rationale for doing this is that ice creams without the enrichment of the eggs have more intense flavor.  I wanted the cereal to be the primary taste.  Also, it's much easier and faster to just throw the milk, cream, and flavoring into the ice cream machine than it is to cook a custard.  Ice creams without a custard base are perfect for lazy cooks.

I soaked the cereal in two and a half cups of milk.  I used more milk than the original recipe calls for because I knew I would lose some of it in the soaking process.  I let it soak overnight and then measured out two cups.

I mixed it in the blender with cream, vanilla, and some sugar and then churned it in my ice cream maker.

I used the classic Nestle Toll House pan cookie recipe.  Then I baked it in my cookie-shaped baking pans.

I spread the soft ice cream between the giant baked cookies and froze the whole thing.

Not bad.

What else did I serve?

I made a platter of deviled eggs in three flavors.  One was avocado, cumin, chili, and lime.  One was bacon and smoked paprika.  One was classic mustard and capers.

We had a simple salad of farm market lettuce dressed with good olive oil, white wine vinegar, and a touch of honey.

Main course was lamb shanks with classic risotto.

I have no photos.  I was enjoying the dinner so much, I forgot to take any. 

How did the ice cream taste?  It was really good.  The cereal came through nicely.  I would try this again and maybe even try a different cereal.  I could try peanut butter Cap'n Crunch instead.

Cap'n Crunch Cereal Milk Ice Cream

Ingredients

  • 3 cups Cap'n Crunch cereal
  • 3 cups milk
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Place the milk and the cereal in a large bowl and soak overnight. 

The next day, strain the cereal from the  milk.  Measure out the remaining milk to make 2 cups.

Mix milk with remaining ingredients in a blender.

Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer's directions.