Friday, June 22, 2007

Summer Foods (and why the organic market isn't always the best place)

Now that summer is officially here, I decided to throw a Solstice Dinner last night. The idea was to eat it on the balcony and celebrate the long day. Sadly, my hopes of a Pagan Rite were dashed by a nasty and sudden thunderstorm.

Strawberries are at their peak right now, so I was sure to celebrate with strawberry shortcake. I am a traditionalist. If it's an actual cake, it's not shortcake. A proper strawberry shortcake is made with a sweet biscuit (and preferably fresh whipped cream). I'll admit I take a shortcut on this. Bisquick is my shortcake standby. I needed a fresh supply of it, so I made sure to purchase some on my most recent shopping trip. Unfortunately, I shopped for the rest of the dinner ingredients at Wild Oats. The baking area of Wild Oats has all kinds of whole-wheat and gluten-free flours and unrefined sugar. It's frustrating at times to find typical baking ingredients. I did find some biscuit mix though.

It wasn't until I was preparing the biscuits last night that I saw my biscuit and pancake mix was gluten-free. I never bothered to look at the ingredients to see what kind of flour went into the mix. The taste of the biscuits wasn't terrible, but I thought the texture was a bit chewy. I will definitely stick to Bisquick in the future (or make my own biscuits when I feel ambitious).

Earlier this week I made my other summer favorite, pesto. I love pesto. I remember as a kid looking forward to summer when my mother would start making pesto again. Back in those days basil wasn't available year round, and was rarely available in supermarkets. You had to go to the farm stands or grow it yourself. That made pesto a real summer meal. I loved it on spagehtti and also on tortellini as I grew older and my tastebuds grew more sophisticated. I was a picky eater as a kid and it's amazing that would eat something like green spaghetti, but I can't remember a time when I didn't love pesto. To this day, I still love it. Pesto will always taste like summer to me.

Since pesto is so high in fat, I do what I can to cut the fat and add more nutritional value. I mix the basil with baby spinach. I also cut much of the oil with lemon juice. Although I still include the fatty ingredients, I think I do limit them a bit. My pesto has a tart taste, but it's still good and it's sort of refreshing. It's nice on grilled chicken as well as on pasta.

Raspberries are coming into season soon. I can't wait to make a tart.

Monday, June 18, 2007

No Mere Trifle

I just love multilayered desserts. I love digging a spoon into something and pulling up multiple tastes and textures.

The classic English trifle is a great example of this. The standard version is layers of cake, custard, and jam, sprinkled with sweet sherry and topped with whipped cream. I like how it mixes the sweet, tart, and creamy in one dessert (although I am not fond of sherry unless you're using it to cook savory dishes).

Over the years there have been plenty of variations on trifles. Some seem inauthentic to me. I saw one on the Food Network for example that was cornbread and whipped cream with peaches. I have seen others as well that are cake, whipped cream and fruit. There are other so-called trifles I have seen that seem just gross. I remember in college they served "English Trifle" in the cafeteria and it consisted of Jell-O cubes in vanilla pudding. The British Isles food section of Wild Oats has a nasty looking "instant trifle" as well.

I try for semi-authentic when I make trifle. One thing I do differently is I don't use a big trifle bowl. I make individual trifles in wine glasses. My version of the basic classic trifle is pound cake dipped in framboise liquer, raspberry jam, fresh raspberries, and homemade vanilla pudding topped with fresh whipped cream. I slice the pound cake in horizontal sheets and then use a cookie cutter to cut it into rounds that fit in the wine glass.

This weekend, for the Father's Day dinner I held in honor of my own father, I made a Chocolate-Raspberry-Almond trifle. I started with a marble pound cake and dipped the cake rounds in amaretto. I layered raspberry preserves, fresh raspberries, sliced almonds, and homemade chocolate pudding between them. The topping was fresh whipped cream laced with more amaretto and garnished with more sliced almonds and fresh raspberries. The varying tastes and textures were excellent and it made for a very satisfying dessert. No one left my table hungry (that also might have had something to do with the red pepper soup, short ribs, homemade sweet potato gnocchi, and roasted cherry tomatoes I also served).

Trifles and other multilayered desserts (tiramisu anyone?) are a lot of fun to play with. They can really feel special when you make them in individaul servings in wine or martini glasses. Consider making one for your next dessert.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A Return to Fat

When I was a little kid, no one bothered to tell me that I was supposed to trim the fat off of a piece of meat. They just forgot to tell me I guess. So I ate it. Oh yes. I ate it. And ate it. I started cutting it off just so I could save the best for last. Sometimes my grandfather would cut the fat off of a piece of meat before cooking - and then he crisped it up in a pan and fed it to me. Fat was heaven.

Once I reached a certain age though, my family became a bit concerned about my fat habit. Maybe it's because cholesterol and it's effects on the circulatory system were becoming front and center in health-related news. Maybe it was because of my grandmother's high blood pressure. Maybe it was because I was really starting to gain weight. Who knows? All I know was I started getting lectures about how bad fat was for me and I was instructed to cut it off and throw it away. I wasn't even supposed to have chicken skin anymore!

I convinced myself I didn't like it. I told myself fatty meat=gross. I convinced myself that greasy=inedible. I tried to convince myself. I really did. I stuck to boneless, skinless chicken breasts, lean burgers, and pork tenderloins. I knew it was better for me, but something was missing. Why, for example, did I always order duck in restaurants?

Somewhere out there, little voices here and there agreed with me. I remember my sophomore year of high school my Italian class had a field trip to the San Gennaro Festival in NYC. My biology teacher told all of the students in his class that were going to bring him back a zeppole and make sure it was nice and greasy. Then he said, "If grease didn't taste good, we'd all be a lot better off." Wow. Someone out there, someone who had a good idea of how the human body worked and what to feed it, actually admitted that while grease is bad for us, it's still tasty. It made me think about how food is perceived. Why can't we automatically be repulsed by things that are bad for us? Also, why can't we admit that things that are bad for us taste good?

A few years later the Center for Science in the Public Interest wrote scathing reports about Mexican and Chinese food (as if we didn't know they were bad for us). Columnist Dave Barry wrote extensively on this. Of course we know that these foods are bad for us. What CSPI didn't realize, according to Barry is that, "We like fat. Fat tastes good to most human beings."

I wrote a blog a few months ago about my love of roast chicken and how I love the idea of ripping one apart, taking all the fatty bits off the bottom as I saw Nigella Lawson do on TV once. Again, my love for barbaric eating and ripping into every single part bit of meat, fat-covered or not, was confirmed as not only normal, but a sensual, epicurean delight. Who would call Nigella Lawson a pig?

Today is the day I found the ultimate confirmation that people really don't want to eat dry, lowfat meats when I read this article. It seems the best restaurants are catching on to what people really want. Imagine tearing into a whole pig or eating fried pork belly bites with watermelon as a "salad". This is the kind of food I can sink my teeth into. This is the kind of food I dreamed about as a child. It's what I have wished I could admit to liking (and now, I suppose I can). I am taking notes on the restaurants listed in this article in hopes of trying them one day. I've made attempts to eat at Babbo (reservations are very had to get unfortunately), but maybe I'll get to eat at some of the others some day. It's interesting that Mario Batali once had to refer to his pork fat bits as "white prosciutto" at one point, but now "lard' is no longer a dirty word. Maybe Emeril Lagasse helped the movement along when he declared, "Pork fat rules." There is a reason why bacon tastes so good.

A few years ago I was at a barbecue with Kevin where some big, succulent ribs were served. I tore into them happily. Later on that night he commented, "You were like a savage with those ribs." I was so embarassed that it took a couple of years before I could bring myself to eat ribs in front of him again. Now if he were to call me a savage, I would say, "So what?" I'll bet I was having a much better time with those ribs than my non-pork-eating husband, and those like him, will ever have eating dry chicken breasts and grilled veggie kabobs (or even worse a veggie burger). To be savage is to be human. It is to be fully alive. It is the root of our primal, physical desires, and the ultimate expression of lusty sensuality. Tear into the flesh and savor the silky goodness. Besides, the more we forbid fat, the more we want it. Eat it, embrace it. Don't deny yourself pleasure because people tell you that you shouldn't want it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

My Summer of Food

I don't have much going on this summer. I have no dance, no theater, no classes of any sort. I need something to do with my evenings.

I have decided to devote the Summer of 2007 to cooking. I am going to cook homemade food as much as I possibly can. I will be working to improve my cooking skills. I will take on more challenges. I will learn better techniques with my knife. I will challenge myself with the pastry skills more.

My cooking has become somewhat Rachael-Ray-like. I've been throwing things into a pan willy-nilly. I want to know I'm doing things the best way every time. I will invest in some books on technique and maybe even a DVD or two. I want to know that I've truly mastered the best of the basics, so I can move forward with confidence.

I hope to bake something once a week, even if it's just cookies. I do hope that I can attempt some more complex baking though. I like to make pie, so there will be a pie in the works at some point. I also want to do something with yeast as I haven't done that in ages. I am considering brioche. I will experiment more with pate a choux. Maybe I'll try scones too.

It's exciting and it's daunting and I'm hoping I come out of this summer with amazing skills. Maybe I'll throw a dinner party at the end of the summer where I'll create something completely different.

There is the fear that I might get fat of course, but then I figure if I'm cooking really beautiful food, I won't feel a need to overeat. I'll be cooking from fresh ingredients and summer is the time for the bountiful harvest of produce, so my food will be mostly good for me.

So what was my first homemade meal of the summer? Last night I made whole chicken breasts with a spicy tropical salsa. I browned whole bone-in breasts in a little olive oil for about 10 minutes. Then I popped them in the oven at 400 degrees for another 15 minutes. I put some chopped mango, cilantro, shallots, chili peppers, and orange juice (lime is traditional, but I wanted to go sweeter) in the food processer until it was all finely minced and then moved the chicken to a plate to keep warm, drained the fat from the pan, deglazed it with more juice, and warmed and softened the sauce in the pan. It was still quite spicy, but very good.

I served small Peruvian fingerling potatoes on the side. I cut them in half and coated them in roasted garlic, rosemary and olive oil. I roasted them for about 15 minutes, but they were hard and needed more time. Definitely will cook them longer or at a higher temperature next time.

I also served mixed butter lettuces in balsamic vinaigrette, but that's not that interesting.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Paula, Ina, The Next Food Network Star, and Snobbery

I've never liked Ina Garten. It never had anything to do with her skills as a chef or the food she cooks. It has everything to do with who she is. Long before she ever had a show on the Food Network, I always considered The Barefoot Contessa to be the caterer to the snobby Hamptons crowd. I never thought of Barefoot Contessa as someone who catered to the peasants.

Once she got the show on the Food Network, it just cemented that image of her into my head. She comes across as a nice person - nicer than I would have expected her to be. I'll give her that. But the show features her large beachfront Hamptons home, which she leaves from time to time in a very expensive (BARF) SUV to shop in this artisinal bakery or that upscale fish market in a town that looks like it exists only for rich tourists and local gentry. Then she cooks a meal for her wealthy friends and business associates.

On the other hand, I love Paula Deen. I know Paula Deen isn't really one of the common people. She may have been at one time, but she certainly isn't any more. Her waterfront house may not be in quite as upscale a neighborhood as Ina's, but I certainly couldn't afford it (or her well-equipped kitchen) and I don't know many people who could. Still, Paula manages to come across as very approachable and genuine (unlike Rachael Ray, who is so over-the-top that her girl next door act seems totally phony). She may not be, but after all of these years of watching her, I still buy the act. But there is a secondary reason why I like her and that's beacuse I like the food she cooks. The food is genuine, it's usually homemade, and it contains lots of fatty goodness. Paula doesn't drown bacon in olive oil and call it "healthful" or "figure friendly". She knows her food bad for you, but she knows it's delicious and she cooks it with love. I am becoming slightly bothered by her more recent shows though. It seems the producers are pushing her to make fattier recipes and using more pre-packaged foods in her cooking in order to push the brand a bit. At times the recipes are over-the-top enough to just look gross. However, in general I like Paula Deen and her style.

Paula Deen is often blasted by her critics for her obscene amounts of butter and other fattening ingredients. They have good reason to do so. What I don't get is that Ina Garten also covers her recipes with cream and butter and no one ever calls her on it. Garten's recipes are loaded with fat, but people don't pillory her for raising the national cholesterol level. Why does no one ever call Ina Garten out on the unhealthfulness of her food?

The Food Network's current goal seems to be about cooking for the common people Every chef on the Food Network is supposed to act like a regular, down-to-earth person and not like a chef. The supposed popularity of Rachael Ray is said to come from the fact that she is somehow one of us.

This new outlook is reflected in the latest edition of The Next Food Network Star. I'm not a regular fan of that show. I think the challenges involved don't really make sense much of the time. I also don't think anyone is going to be a Food Network Star by being on that show. Nonetheless, I do watch when it's on. One of the prospective FN chefs is someone who lived in France and is obsessed with how things are done there. The FN producers aren't sure this will fly because she projects this image of, "I've been to Paris and you havent." Again, that doesn't really appeal to the common people (although I personally like the idea of someone with that kind of focus and perspective).

What really ticks me off about the idea that a woman who worked in Paris being too snobby is that it seems to come out of nowhere. Ina Garten lords her wealth over the viewers and she has certainly been to Paris. She wrote an entire book about it and did a series of Food Network shows about it. What about Rachael Ray who often talks about the places she has been on 30 Minute Meals? We never stop hearing about her travels in Italy. I don't know too many girl-next-door, down-to-earth types, one-of-the-common-people types who married in an Italian castle and paid for 100 of their closest friends to join them. Even Paula Deen went to Paris and did a series of shows about it.

So what's the goal of the Food Network now? It seems to be, "Don't intimidate with difficult recipes. Don't act like a chef. Make food as fatty as possible. Older hosts can be a bit worldly, but no new hosts can ever seem as if they are any more interesting than the average viewer. "

It's just so sad.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Baking Experiments (Tiramisu Bars)

Emeril Lagasse often says that when you cook you use recipes, but when you bake you use formulas. While a chef with Emeril's background might balk at the "recipes" I create when I cook and my tendency to "wing it" at dinner time, I'm usually smart enough to know not to bake without a cookbook in front of me.

Baking requires more than just a blending of flavors and cooking something "till done." Baking is often a complex chemical process. The unique properties of eggs, sugar, flour, and butter all have to properly combine to come up with the proper flavors and textures for a good cake or cookie. It's tough to make up a recipe if you don't have the background knowledge of the proper ways to combine ingredients, the proper proportions, and the proper baking times.

Despite all of this, I do occasionally try to invent my own cake and cookie recipes. I usually just add things to basic recipes I already know. For example I once made an "experimental" banana cake using what I knew of a basic butter cake base. It wasn't the best cake ever, but my coworkers ate it up.

This weekend I tried another experiment. I made something I called Tirasmisu` Bars. I love tiramisu`, but I often feel that it's not a good take-with-you dessert. You can't take it to a picnic or barbecue because it needs to be chilled and sliced up. I wanted to create a dessert with the flavors and textures of tiramisu` that you can pick up and take with you.

I used the kind of formula one might use for a cheesecake square with a shortbread base and a cheese-and-egg-and-sugar topping. I found the shortbread base recipe on Epicurious. I added a couple of tablespoons full of instant espresso granules in order to mimic the base of espresso-soaked ladyfingers. Rather than use a cream-cheese topping, I mixed three containers of mascarpone (expensive experiment I know) with two eggs, a cup of sugar, a good-size sprinkling of shaved chocolate, and a generous splash of brandy. I baked the whole thing at 350 until it was set and hoped for the best.

The result was not what I had hoped for. The flavors of the coffee and the brandy did not come through. The topping tasted more like a caramel custard than it did like a boozy tiramisu`. I couldn't taste the coffee in the base. Still, they weren't bad overall. I took them to work (Kevin wouldn't touch them claiming he won't eat cheese-based desserts, although I barely consider mascarpone to be cheese and he has eaten tiramisu` many times in the past) and they pretty much gobbled them up.

While I am not discouraged from making more experimental desserts in the future, I don't think I'll be adding this one to my repetoire.