Saturday, December 25, 2010

So This Was Christmas

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas filled with your favorite gifts, your most loved family and friends, and of course, good food.

I was so happy to host Christmas Eve this year. For the first time in my life I had control over the menu. NO FEAST OF THE SEVEN FISHES! Christmas Eve was never my favorite holiday growing up. After years of dreaming of certain foods at Christmas, I was going to be making the kind of meal I always wanted to make.

The scene was set on a chilly winter's night with my beautiful tree and some good music (Stings CD "If on a Winter's Night" is awesome). Gifts were ready to be unwrapped.

I made sure the beverage table was well set. I specially ordered the pinot gris and pinot noir from Noble Pig. The scotch is for my stepmother.

For pre-dinner nibbles I simply put out a wheel of brie, some fig spread, some store-bought cilantro pesto and some flat breads. I'm learning I don't have to make everything myself.

Dinner officially started with a salad of grilled portobello mushrooms and pears tossed in a lemon-thyme dressing. I forgot to take a photo, but everyone loved it, even Sir Pickypants ate the pears.

My standout was my main course. I bought the most beautiful bone-in pork loin ever from Whole Foods. It was a thing to behold. I didn't know if I should eat it or worship it.

I cooked it with a molasses balsamic glaze and sliced it up into giant chops. Well, not all of them were giant, but the folks who took smaller ones ended up grabbing seconds anyway. It was that good.

My stepmother said she was having her nails done earlier that day and when the manicurist asked her what her plans were she said she started bragging about the meal I would be cooking for her that night. I'm glad I didn't disappoint!

I took a photo of my full meal, although I couldn't resist a few bites of pork first as evidenced here. My sides were spicy gingered green beans and brown butter mashed potatoes, recipe courtesty of More Than Burnt Toast. You can't believe just what magical things browing your butter can do for your potatoes.

I don't know why I forgot to take a photo of dessert. It's one of my most favorite cakes in the world, Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse Cake. I highly recommend this recipe for anyone who wants an incredible and easy cake. It's made with Nutella and mascarpone. How could it be bad?

Then it's on to brunch at Mom's. She keeps it simple, but I made a big batch of cinnamon rolls courtesy of the Pioneer Woman. She uses maple flavoring in hers with no nuts. I filled mine with pecans and just used vanilla to flavor the icing.

I took these out of the oven and told my husband, "Look at these and tell me how much you love me."

I can burn all of this food off with MY NEW KINECT YYYYEEEESSSSSSS.

Tonight I'm heading to Chicago once more so my husband can watch the Jets play the Bears at Soldier Field and freeze his butt off while I stay nice and warm inside a museum. I won't be doing any more food reviews this time. I don't want to insult any more Chicago restaurants or take offensive lamb chop photos again.

Merry Christmas!!!!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Can I Make the Perfect Chili?

I’ve had a very strange relationship with chili my entire life.
I tried chili for the first time when I was about 7 or 8 in the form of a hot dog. I felt I had made one of the world’s greatest discoveries. A food as perfect as a hot dog could actually be made more delicious by the addition of this meaty substance known as chili. I became obsessed with the chili dog, almost forsaking the hot dog itself for the love of chili.
My mother, being the good mother she is, caught onto this and decided to make me some chili for dinner one night. I recall being suitably excited. I’m sure she probably made the version from her old tattered New York Times Cookbook that she still makes for parties as her go-to chili recipe. I must have liked it. I don’t think it tasted like the stuff on my hot dogs, but it wasn’t bad.
Later that night I barfed my brains out.
Looking back on that night, I’m sure it wasn’t the chili that did it. The illness couldn’t have been due to tainted meat since my brother also ate it with no ill effects (and back in those days, there was far less hysteria about ground beef anyway). Still, throwing up after eating chili really ranks up there with some of the most unpleasant experiences of childhood and I wanted it not to be repeated. I wanted something to blame. I was convinced that eating chili would send me into a conversation with Ralph on the porcelain phone.
People were sympathetic, even Mom. There were gentle suggestions that I just can’t tolerate spiciness. That didn’t make sense because I was always eating the red-letter foods off the menu in Chinese restaurants. There were other suggestions that I might have a problem with beans.
I took the bean one to heart. I was never a huge bean fan anyway. For years I avoided both beans and chili, convinced that it would all cause an anti-peristaltic reaction. My love affair with chili and chili dogs had ended.
I’m not sure how I eventually came to eat chili again. It was likely some time in high school when I realized that perhaps I was being a bit extreme in my belief of chili’s devastating effects on my digestive system. Sometimes the stuff really looked good. My brother got really into making chili for a while and I started wanting some. By golly I really wanted to eat it!
So I converted back to being a chili lover, although not as obsessed with it as I was in the chili dog days of my youth. I find it a very comforting and easy meal.
As I grow older and wiser, I find that chili means many things to many people. What one person calls a good chili may be swill to another. Considering the number of chili cook-offs in the country, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the number of ways people can interpret a single dish.
The first thing to consider is the classic Texas chili con carne – chili peppers with meat. Such a concoction is rare in the northeast. I am fascinated by the concept of beef chunks slowly simmered in a strong pepper sauce, unadulterated by beans or even tomatoes. For some there is no other type of chili. For me, it’s as rare as praise from Gordon Ramsey. We just don’t make chili like that around here.
I could try making it myself of course, but I couldn't serve it to the husband. I tried stewing chicken thighs in a hot pepper sauce and simmering it slowly, but it wasn't the same.
So what if you’re making chili the other way with ground meat and beans? Guess what. You’re still going to encounter another hundred recipes. What kind of beans? What kind of meat? Tomatoes or no? How spicy? How sweet? How smoky? Do you even want meat at all?
I have made several attempts at homemade chili, but have never been 100% happy with any of them. Thank goodness my husband, so often dubbed as Sir Pickypants, seems to enjoy every pot of chili I make.
To make my perfect chili, I had to think long and hard about what I like. In every bowl of chili that I have truly enjoyed, what has made me happiest?
Well, first I like beef and pork. Okay. That doesn’t fly in my household. Maybe the Pickypants thing is correctly attributed after all. Let’s just say what’s the ultimate non-red-meat chili?
First, I like chili that’s meaty. When I spoon up a bite of chili, I want to see honest-to-goodness, toothsome meat. I hate it when chili looks like baby food with some beans scattered in it.
Next, that meat has to be suspended in a spicy sauce. I don’t want sloppy joes. I don’t want loose meat. I want something akin to a good stew. Surround that meat with a thick, wondrous red goo.
I like tomatoes in my chili. I’m definitely in the pro-tomato camp. I don’t like ketchup though. I don’t want things too sweet.
I don’t want vegetables in my chili. I have nothing against the veggies, but I don’t think they really add anything to chili. The two tastes and textures cancel each other out. Maybe corn can handle it, but zucchini certainly can’t. I don’t even think bell peppers, a favorite of mine, have a place in chili.
I don’t want my chili underseasoned. I want it spicy. I like it to be a little smoky. A little sweet is fine, but again, not ketchup-y sweet.
Okay. Let’s start on assemblage of my Perfect Chili.
Start with soaking some dried peppers (in this case ancho and habanero) in boiling water. Let them soak a half hour and puree with about half the soaking liquid. The soaking liquid tastes like a hot pepper tea (if you're inclined to taste it).
Saute a big onion and two fresh poblano peppers in a little oil. I like the mix of fresh and dried chilis.
Add turkey (dark meat) and some chopped chicken-turkey andouille sausage.
Add a 28 ounce can of tomatoes, the pepper puree, and a spoonful of chipotle powder along with a cup of chicken stock. I would have liked to have used dried chipotles and soaked them along with the other peppers, but those suckers are expensive. I went with what I had for the smoky taste.
For my beans, I prefer pinto. They're a very neutral bean with a palatable texture.
Now stir it together and simmer it till the husband comes home.
Serve with tortilla chips. Cheddar is a nice idea too. In our house it was one bowl with and one bowl without.

Was it perfect? Was it the ultimate chili? Well, I have to say it was the best turkey chili I have ever made so far. It really makes a difference when you sit down and think about everything you like in a pot of chili and carefully consider ingredients than it does to simply throw stuff in a pot, or simply use a random chili recipe.
I think this recipe could have been a little spicier. I might user more peppers or a bigger variety the next time and would have added more chipotle powder for a bit of a smokier touch. I might have added a little cocoa powder too (I wish I hadn't read this post by Stacey after I made the chili as it might have reminded me that a little cocoa powder would have been nice). That's the nice thing about chili though. Your options for variations are endless. Maybe that's why there is no perfect chili. You can always make it better or at least differently. Chili is about the journey, not the destination.
Almost Perfect Chili
2 dried ancho peppers, stemmed and seeded
  • 2-3 dried habanero peppers, stemmed and seeded
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 2 Tbl oil
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp ancho chili powder
  • 1 Tbl cocoa powder
  • 2 fresh poblano peppers, finely diced
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 1/2 pounds Ground turkey thigh meat
  • 4 links of turkey andouille sausage, finely chopped
  • 1 28 oz can pureed tomatoes
  • 1 15 oz can pinto beans
  • 1 Tbl chipotle powder
  • 2 tsp salt 
  • In a bowl, pour boiling water over the dried peppers. Let sit 30 minutes to reconstitute them. Place in a blender with 1/2 cup of the soaking liquid and puree until smooth.
    In a large pan (I used a big saute pan, but a big saucepan will work nicely too) heat oil and add onion and poblanos. Cook until soft. Add cumin, oregano, ancho chili powder, and cocoa powder.  Stir until onions are well coated and spices are very fragrant.  Add garlic and cook for another minute or two. 
    Add the turkey and sausage to the pot and brown the turkey well.
    Stir in the pepper puree, tomatoes, chipotle powder, and salt. Mix well and then gently stir in the beans.
    Simmer for at least an hour.
    Serve with tortilla chips and plenty of grated cheddar cheese.

    Sunday, December 12, 2010

    Pork, Port, and Pomegranate

    I am so lazy. I came up with a new recipe earlier this week and keep neglecting to share it.

    This week's inspiration came from my mother's port-ginger cranberry sauce that she makes every Thanksgiving. I love that sauce. I had some fun the last time I made Thanksgiving dinner converting the leftovers into a glaze for pork by thinning it out with red wine.

    I wasn't sure what I was thinking when I saw a bottle of pomegranate juice in the store and decided that I just had to make something with it. I wasn't thinking of Mom's cranberry sauce, but once I decided I wanted to have some pork chops for dinner, something clicked in my brain. I thought of making a variation on Mom's sauce, but with pomegranate instead of cranberry.

    I simmered the POM juice with port, grated fresh ginger, and a piece of cinnamon stick.

    I'm not sure what made me do this, but I pounded a pair of boneless loin chops to half their thickness, coated them with almond flour and sauteed them in butter and olive oil. (Normally I leave my chops thick, brown them on the stove, and finish them in the oven, often with the glaze on top.)

    I drizzled my glaze over them and served with some nice creamed spinach.

    The sauce was a bit too tart. If I make this again, I will definitely add some honey or agave syrup. In fact, the recipe I'm going to give you includes some sweet. I'm going to start with 2 teaspoons. That's what I would start with if I were making this again and work my way up from there if I still felt it wasn't sweet enough.

    Pork with Port-Ginger-Pomegranate Glaze

    2-4 boneless loin chops, about 6 oz each, pounded to about half their original thickness
    Salt and pepper
    Almond flour (or whatever flour you like, but nut flours give a nice flavor dimension) for dredging
    2 Tbl butter
    2 Tbl olive oiil
    1 1/2 cups pomegranate juice
    1/2 cup port wine
    2 tsp grated ginger
    1/2 cinnamon stick
    2 tsp honey or agave syrup

    Place juice, port, ginger and cinnamon stick in a small saucepan. Gently simmer until it becomes thick and syrupy. Do not bring it to a high boil or it will just evaporate away.

    Meanwhile, heat oil and butter in a large frying pan. Brown chops well on both sides, about 5 minutes each.

    Serve on a plate, liberally drizzled with pomegranate sauce.

    You know what else I made this week?

    Don't look at the burger. It's just a turkey burger embellished with sauteed mushrooms, shallots and soy sauce atop roasted tomatoes.

    Look at what's next to the burger.

    I have opened Pandora's Box and there was a Fry Daddy inside it. This was my first attempt at homemade French fries. It's too bad the Fry Daddy only fries at one temperature because I always wanted to try the double-fry trick where you fry them a second time at a higher temperature. Regardless, these came out pretty good and my husband was asking for me to make turkey burgers and fries again soon.

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010

    Sufganiyot - Because I Must Fry

    You know how I say I never know who is reading my blog? It really is true. I never cease to be surprised when some reference to one of my blogs comes up from someone I had no idea was reading it. Think of the most recent example where my brother-in-law acted upset because I took a photo of his friend’s lamb chops. Who knew?

    Earlier this year I posted about making fried chicken and how I finished it in the oven because I always fear that I can’t keep a consistent cooking temperature when I fry on the stovetop. I said that if you want me to fry a chicken the entire way, you’ll have to buy me a temperature-maintaining Fry Daddy and that my birthday was coming up.

    Lo and behold, look what Kevin’s cool friends gave me for my birthday this year.

    I always thought it would be dangerous to have a Fry Daddy. Owning a Fry Daddy carries the same risk as permanently storing the chamber to my ice cream maker in the freezer. Being able to deep fry something on a moment’s notice is quite the temptation. After all, I once said that my favorite food is, “anything spicy, fried, or chocolate.”

    For a while I was just plain in awe of my Fry Daddy. I just wanted to stare at it all the time. Look at my Fry Daddy. I really have a Fry Daddy. Is it really true I have a Fry Daddy? Imagine everything I can do with my Fry Daddy.

    Then it all became sort of paralyzing. I sat and thought of everything I could do with my Fry Daddy. I thought of homemade French fries and fried chicken, and fish and chips, and fried candy bars and zeppoli and fried polenta and tempura veggies. The possibilities were endless. That’s when it became paralyzing. What, exactly, was I going to do with this wondrous machine? What would I fry? Besides, eating all of that fried food wasn’t going to do much for my health. A recent visited to the doctor earned me some subtle encouragement about needing to to lose some weight. Unable to come up with an answer, I stuck it in a cabinet and didn’t look at for a while. Whenever I saw my Fry Daddy, it just sort of mocked me. It almost seemed like a case of “Be careful what you wish for.”

    Then a few weeks ago Emily made this great post about homemade doughnuts. She had the same wistfulness about deep fryers that I used to have, along with the same misgivings about the dangers of being able to easily fry things. She fried doughnuts the old-fashioned way. I’ve made doughnuts that way too, but wouldn’t it be easier to do them with a Fry Daddy? Don’t I really love doughnuts?

    This week the stars aligned and two lucky events coincided. The fist was Hanukah – a holiday known for Sufganiyot. The other is that I was invited to a party where it was my job to bring dessert. What a perfect situation! I could use my Fry Daddy to make homemade Hanukah doughnuts and I could share them at the party, sparing me the shame of eating them all myself.

    It’s really neither here nor there that I’m a Shiksa who doesn’t actually observe Hanukah in any real meaningful way.

    I used a recipe from Martha Stewart. Doesn't she make you think of Bubbes? No? Oh well.

    I normally use the yeast in packets. My local supermarket always carried those little yellow packets. Not anymore. All they had were these weird blocks. It smelled pretty horrid.

    Roll out dough that is gently spiced with nutmeg and cut with a cookie cutter.

    And FRY!

    Roll in sugar and fill with jelly using a pastry bag.

    A delicious little pile of doughnuts results. They were a big hit at the party.

    Now that I've broken in the Fry Daddy, I'm afraid I really am going to want to use it constantly. How about some more of that gluten-free fried chicken?

    Tuesday, November 30, 2010

    Lunch in My 'Hood

    Whenever a new restaurant opens in my neighborhood, I always try to eat there as soon as I can and write a review of it here on TERP. I'm pretty determined to make sure there is no place in my neighborhood that I haven't tried.

    Sadly, I have left a few stones unturned. Most of the restaurants I try are places where SPP and I go for dinner dates. Beyond the more elegant dinner places though are a wealth of hole-in-the-wall joints in my very diverse neighborhood that serve up down-home ethnic fare. I have tried very few of them. There is a reason for that of course. Most of these places are lunch-focused and I'm never home at lunch time.

    I decided to remedy that in the past two weeks. I have had large blocks of time off and plenty of time to try my neighborhood offerings. I decided to eat at a new place every day.

    My first stop was Super Pan, a Guatelmalan bakery. Walk into this place and you smell the cookies and sweet breads and homemade rolls that reside in a case in the back. But this place isn't just about the breads. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner consisting of sandwiches and platters and Latin specialities. You can have a burger, or you can have beans and eggs on a roll. It's tries to appeal to a broad audience.

    I decided to try a platter for my first time out. My choice was the Adobado. It was a thin pork chop in a spicy sauce. It was very tasty. It also came with two papusas. I've never had those before. Those little pancakes are DENSE. You won't be hungry after eating them. I wrapped up bits of pork in them, although I'm not sure that was what I was supposed to do.

    The sides were the weak point here. The black beans were too salty and the rice was mixed with what looked like frozen mixed vegetables. I have nothing against frozen mixed vegetables except for the fact that these contained peas.

    Still for $7.50, this was not a bad deal - flawed sides and all.

    My next stop was Veracruz. This is a tiny little lunch counter with a larger, airy dining area in the back for those who choose to eat in. The steam table looked quite interesting in an Anthony Bourdain sort of way. There were several specials of the day advertised, but my Spanish is horrible and I wasn't sure what they all were.

    I decided to take the classic route and try some tacos. I went for my most favorite taco varieties: carnitas and chorizo.

    These were so overstuffed that they needed extra tortillas to hold all of that filling. They were topped with a mixture of cilantro, lettuce, and chopped onion and garnished with radish and lime wedges. Both tacos were delcious and flavorful. They really satisfied you for $3 a pop!

    Next on the agenda was O'Neill's Country Store. I'm sure you're asking yourself right now how something called O'Neill's Country Store would be a place for tasty Latin fare, but this ordinary looking stationery store has a secret. Go to the back and you will find Berta's Kitchen, a Salvadoran food counter.

    Berta's has no real menus. There is a handwritten menu on the wall, mostly containing breakfast items (they do a big breakfast papusa business). Above the counter are photos of some of the specialties. I decided to order the one that looked the best to me. I went with tostadas de pollo.

    There were unlike any other tostadas I have ever seen. The perfectly crisp tortillas were topped with what must be a spicy bean puree`. On top of that was a coleslaw-like shredded topping. The grilled chicken went on next and then the whole thing was topped with a fried egg.

    It was a very interesting lunch for $6. Next time I'll try the papusas and see how they compare to the ones at Super Pan.

    My final stop was a Juarez. It's more of a restauranty place than the others with actual table service. It's less hole-in-the-wall and more small family restaurant. It's not as big or as fancy as the typical Tex-Mex places in town though. I decided to eat in rather than take out, so I took an interior photo.

    I decided to do my favorite thing again and went for a carnitas platter. What I ended up eating was sort of similar to Veracruz, but with more sides.

    The meat, although not terribly lean (for those who care about such things) was melt-in-your-mouth tender. The refried beans were probably the best I ever had. I even asked the server, "What did you put in these beans to make them taste so good?" I had pico de gallo and hot sauce to sprinkle on top and fold into my tortillas. I washed it down with pineapple Jarritos for $15.50 and I was full the rest of the day.

    If the crowd that shows up at an ethnic restaurant is indicative of its authenticity, then I will have to say these places are pretty authentic because in every place I went into, I was the only person not speaking Spanish.

    I'm glad I had this little food adventure. The next time I am home for lunch, I am going to have a tough time deciding where I'm going to eat. I hope everyone else in the neighborhood is exploring these places as well. I encourage anyone reading this to explore their own neighborhoods and see what great food finds are available.

    Saturday, November 27, 2010

    Tried Something New For Thanksgiving (and some thoughts on the holiday itself)

    I just returned from a trip to Chicago for Thanksgiving. Kevin and I decided my side of the family gets way too much of our time on the holidays and it was time to inflict ourselves on his family for a change. He hadn't spent Thanksgiving with his brother since before he met me.

    It was definitely a different experience this year as we spent it at a restaurant rather than at home - something my family never does. I am slightly hesitant to post about this.

    You see, I never think people read my blog because it doesn't get much in the way of comments. I never know who is reading and not commenting. If I were to list the people I don't think would ever read my blog I would include Sandra Lee, The Queen of England, Morimoto, Michelle Obama, and my brother-in-law. I was mistaken. Now thanks to him reading a particular post, I worry about what I say here because because, according to him, the last time I went to Chicago I "trashed every restaurant in Chicago." I'm not sure how saying that the RL Grill is kitschy (it is) was "trashing every restaurant in Chicago." It's not as if I said the food was bad. I said the opposite in fact. It also turns out I'm not supposed to take photos of people's lamb chops - even if my dining companion holds his lamb chops up for me to take a photo of.

    Then again, this is my blog after all. It wouldn't be a good blog if it weren't honest. I think my blog is rather kind compared to many. Anything negative I have to say about a restaurant while visiting relatives is by no means meant to reflect a lack of appreciation for the extreme generosity of Kevin's family who really put themselves out when we come to visit. So I will say :-P thhllppppt to BIL and continue posting about my Thanksgiving.

    What does Thanksgiving mean to you? Before you start in with the required rhetoric about family and being grateful for for all of those things you're supposed to be grateful every day, let me say that I want you to be a bit less introspective and say what Thanksgiving dinner means to you. How does what we eat shape our holiday? What is it supposed to be?

    Would Thanksgiving be the same without traditional foods? Do we need to eat turkey and root vegetables? How far will someone go to procure such a meal? If you're not a good cook, does it make sense to cook a frozen turkey, a box of Stove Top, a jar of gravy, some instant mashed potato flakes, a can of sliceable cranberry sauce, and a frozen pumpkin pie just so you can have a traditional dinner? If it's more about family and gratitude, why not just make a big taco bar or burgers or some easy spaghetti or whatever else it is your family loves best and save the big effort over a meal that will be mediocre anyway?

    How much work should Thanksgiving be? Is the amount of food you cook and how you cook it an indication of how much you love and appreciate your family? I'm not being facetious here. It's just that some people do have strong feelings that Thanksgiving dinner should take some effort, some loving attention, some big chunk of time. Thanksgiving should be the meal where you go all out and cook everything from scratch.

    The counter to the "you must make everything homemade" crowd is the barrage from the food media concerning easy Thanksgiving meals. Sandra Lee will show you how to do it with microwaved potatoes and barbecue seasoning packets. Rachael Ray will tell you how to do the whole schlemiel in an hour. Even the cover of last month's Food and Wine magazine advertised "Thanksgiving Made Easy."

    Make it easy. Make an effort. Just make certain foods no matter how you get them to the table. My own Thanksgiving dinners were never complicated in terms of the foods I made. What made the dinners complicated was simply the time involved. You can't cook a turkey, four side dishes, and a pie in a short amount of time and it always took two or three days to have it all done.

    Some just scrap the whole thing and go out to eat.

    That's what we did for Thanksgiving this year. I actually offered earlier this year to cook the dinner for them when we visited this fall. I had a fairly long discussion about it with Kevin's sister-in-law. They have a dream kitchen, three times the size of mine, which just begs for a big Thanksgiving dinner to be prepared within it. She said she could be my sous-chef. Imagine a big kitchen and help! Kevin even thought it was a good idea. I could fly in a couple of days early and start making preparations. I wouldn't have to cook for 17 people either. I could keep it small, keeping my stress levels smaller. The idea, although not impossible to carry out, was impractical on many levels (the least of which is that not everyone in Kevin's family likes my cooking).

    It was both a relief and quite strange to not have to cook ANYTHING for Thanksgiving. For at least 20 years every Thanksgiving I have at the very least baked a pie. Last year I made bread, pie, and turkey even though I didn't host the dinner. I wanted to bake something just because I felt weird not baking anything.

    So how was dinner?

    We went to Lovell's of Lake Forest, a restaurant owned by Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell. I was looking forward to this as I had eaten there once before during a visit and it was quite good.

    It's a lovely restaurant on the outside.

    Above the bar is the symbolic mural Steeds of Apollo.

    We were seated in this very cozy fireside dining room - perfect for a November day. It was almost like eating at the Iron Forge.

    The dinner had several options with some being more traditional than others. I started with a mushroom and hazelnut soup. I forgot to take a photo until I was halfway finished. Oops!

    A turkey dinner with all of the traditional fixings was on the menu, and there are several reasons why I didn't choose it.

    One reason was that I just enjoy throwing off tradition. It's not something I am able to do very often. I can thumb my nose at everyone who tells me a holiday dinner has to consist of certain foods. It's sort of like how I enjoy being an adult and no longer have to eat fish on Christmas Eve.

    The other reason goes a bit deeper. My family isn't one of those families that has recipes that are totally traditional and handed down from many generations. Still, everyone in my family who has ever made Thanksgiving dinner has certain recipes that he or she likes to make. For my mother it's roasted root vegetables, sweet potato pudding, and port-ginger cranberry sauce. For me it's pecan sweet potatoes, cornbread, apple and sausage stuffing, chocolate pie - and Mom's port-ginger cranberry sauce. My grandfather loved turnips. For most of my life Thanksgiving dinner has always been prepared by one of my parents or grandparents. I have certain expectations about Thanksgiving dinner (which I don't have about Christmas since there is no consistency in what we eat for that meal in my family). I just wasn't sure how far afield I was willing to go. What can a restaurant make that my family can't? I felt that traditional turkey dinners need to be made at home.

    I opted for lamb chops. These were crusted with goat cheese and dijon mustard. The crust was not too strong and overpowering as goat cheese can be and added a tasty layer of flavor to the perfectly cooked chops beneath it.

    The green beans here were especially good. I know it's odd to be excited about green beans, but these were so perfectly cooked to the right level of crispness with a gentle hint of garlic about them. Kevin had the turkey dinner, which also came with the green beans and he agreed they were especially well prepared.

    Dessert was a tossup for me. The apple tart with cinnamon ice cream looked good, but so did the warm chocolate cake. (The pumpkin pie was immediately dismissed as an option) Chocolate, as you can imagine, won out.

    It was my husband, who is not a lover of apples, and is a lover of chocolate, who decided to go for the apple dessert.

    So I'm not trashing any restaurants here. Lovell's is an excellent restaurant all around.

    For a post-Thanksgiving brunch we went to the Eggshell Cafe, which I mentioned in my last Chicago post. I still love this place and I still could stare at the menu all day and still be conflicted about what to order. Since I didn't take photos on my last trip, I thought I'd share the place with you today.

    The owner is a soccer fanatic and it shows in the decor.

    There was a mixup in the reservation so it took a while for us to be seated. They decided to make it up to us by giving us a complementary baked apple pancake. I had been considering ordering one of these, but I'm glad I didn't as they were huge and even with the entire family sharing it we couldn't finish it.

    Yum yum yum. This was the apple pie I didn't eat on Thanksgiving Day.

    For my main meal I wanted to keep things light and opted for the eggs florentine. Of course my intentions to keep things light after Thanksgiving were pretty ruined by the apple pancake, but who cares? In any case, my breakfast was well prepared and was exactly what I was looking for that morning (at least in my head as my heart will always crave bacon).

    But the best thing of all about the weekend was spending time with our far-flung family. I know how much it means to Kevin to be with his family and we enjoy being all together so much that we hope we can do it more often in the future.

    I'm home now and ready to detox from all of the wonderful food I had this weekend. Hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving no matter what and where they ate!

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    Apple Cake 2

    I promised you a second apple cake, didn't I? I'm still on quite the apple cake kick 'cause it definitely is the season for it.

    As you know, I've been browsing the blogs quite a bit looking for good apple cake recipes to ruin adapt and it's often hard to narrow down all of the good choices out there. There is a reason why I read certain blogs, but so many of them have such great recipes that it makes it hard to narrow them down.

    After drooling over many an apple cake recipe, I knew the one I had to try. It was Apple Ricotta Cake from Bunny's Warm Oven. The thing about Bunny's blog is that every post has multiple recipes. If you don't find yourself wanting to make AT LEAST one of the recipes featured in that post, then there is something wrong with you. When I saw Bunny's recipe for a cake with ricotta in the batter and a streusel topping, I had to make it.

    I decided that once again, I would make the recipe gluten-free. I made the recipe using 3/4 of a cup of rice flour, 1/2 cup sweet rice flour, and 1/2 cup potato starch (I could not tell you what made me decide on those proportions). I also added in 1/4 tsp and one little extra pinch of xanthan gum. For the flour in the steusel topping I used almond flour. The other adaption I made was I forgot to buy pecans, so I left them off.

    My biggest glitch in baking it was that I'm learning that rice flour cakes take longer to bake than wheat flour cakes. After the recommended 50 minutes of baking, a toothpick in the middle came out covered with raw batter! Another 20 minutes baked the cake, but also melted the streusel together a bit. That was okay. It still tasted really good.

    The cake had a bit of that grainy texture that rice flour cakes and breads tend to have, but was otherwise pretty delicious. The cake part was not too sweet, which made it a perfect foil for the sweetened apples and sweet topping. The ricotta kept it moist despite the extra baking time. I'd make this cake again in a heartbeat.

    Sir Pickypants, not a fan of apples, gave it a stamp of approval. I also brought part of it to my NYC office - that place where I'm trying so hard to make friends. They seem to be warming up to me and my baking as I received many thanks and kudos for the cake all day. I think Bunny deserves some of that credit!

    You know what the best part was? I had my jacket sitting on a chair near the kitchen. The next morning I was at the gym and when I was about to leave and put my jacket on, I could smell the cinnamon on it!

    Saturday, November 13, 2010

    This Week's Miscellany

    It hasn't been all cake and pie this week. I do eat actual dinner. Nothing much has been all that TERP worthy, but I do feel there are some things of note that are worth a mention.

    Don't look at the chicken here. It's no big deal. It's just grilled chicken with my mango-ginger sauce on it. I had some in the freezer and I'm on a budget this week, so I thought I'd thaw it out for a quick dinner.

    The standout here was the rice. It's a delicious coconut rice.

    How did I make it?

    I sauteed:
    The sliced white parts of two scallions in 2 Tbl olive oil and two minced cloves of garlic.

    Next I added:
    1 can of lite coconut milk and about 1/2 cup of chicken stock (enough liquid to make 2 1/4 cups is all you need to know)

    I brought that to a boil and mixed in:

    1 Tablespoon grated fresh ginger and 1 cup brown rice.

    Took it down to a simmer, covered it, and let it do it's thing for 45 minutes.

    Then I tossed the mixture with:

    The green parts of the scallions.

    Creamy and flavorful, it was great against the mangoes.

    For "Casual Friday" I came up with one of those meals that seems simple but ends up using every pot and pan in the house.

    I made Waffles Benedict(and boy is Benedict pissed about my abuse of the name in this recipe)

    I made savory herb waffles as my base. I started with gluten free baking mix. The recipe calls for mixing it with oil and water, but I used milk and melted butter. Really, all you need to know this time is that to a standard waffle mixture, I added a tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves and some chopped fresh chives. Then the waffles hit the iron.

    I sliced some campari tomatoes drizzled them with olive oil and sprinkled them with salt. I roasted them 20 minutes at 300 degrees.

    My intention was to top the tomatoes and waffles with poached eggs, put a cheese sauce on top of mine, and serve some chicken apple sausage on the side (because we just don't have enough fat in this recipe already). Unfortunately, I ran out of eggs!

    So in the end Sir Pickypants got his Waffles Benedict(and boy is Benedict pissed about my abuse of the name in this recipe) as originally intended with the herb waffle topped with the roasted tomato and a traditional poached egg. He turned down the cheese sauce on top.

    My camera battery went dead. I never got a photo.

    For my own serving, my herb waffle was topped with the tomatoes and the chicken-apple sausage. Then it was drenched in my homemade cheese sauce. Think it had enough fat in it?

    This was less Benedict and really more like Welsh Rabbit/Rarebit/Texas Toast on a waffle with tomatoes and sausage. Still awfully tasty.

    The cheese sauce was a basic white sauce with cheddar. I made a roux of 2 Tbl butter and 2 Tbl potato starch. I added 1 cup of milk and stirred it all until thick. Then I added lots of shredded cheddar. It got a bit too thick, so I thinned it out with a bit more milk (wishing I had some macaroni to wrap this stuff around) and added a pinch of dry mustard, some grates of nutmeg, and a shake of white pepper.

    I had pots and pans a-plenty to clean after this!

    Friday, November 12, 2010

    Finally the Seasonal Desserts Arrive at TERP

    This time of year the words "seasonal desserts" conjure of thoughts of two ingredients: apples and pumpkin.

    That irks me because I do not like pumpkin. With only a very small handful of exceptions, I don't like pumpkin anything. I don't want it in my cakes, cookies, blondies, muffins and breads. Squash is not dessert. Again, with only a small handful of exceptions, squash isn't dinner either.

    But then there are apples. I love apples. Apples have always been a part of my life. Growing up there was always a bowl of apples in the kitchen, so that was the snack I could always have. I love apple pie, but what I really love is a good apple cake. I like it when there is pastry all among the apples and not just surrounding it.

    This time of year always puts me in the mood for apple cake and it always has me scouring the blogs, the cookbooks, and the recipe sites for apple cake ideas. There are just so many possibilities that can fall under the two simple words, "apple cake".

    So as my craving for apple cake grew stronger, I had to figure out where I would go for the most inspiring recipe.

    Well, I found it in two places. Great minds think alike, right? That was certainly the case this time. Two of my favorite blogs, More Than Burnt Toast, hosted by the prolific and altruistic Bellini Valli (who provides the recipe)and Sticky Gooey Creamy Chewy, hosted by the hilarious and sweet Dorie Greenspan fan, Susan. They both chose Dorie Greenspan's French apple cake, from her new French-inspired cookbook.

    This cake is definitely different from most other apple cakes. There is no cinnamon - but there is rum. There are no nuts or raisins (yay, no raisins) but more apples than one can think could possible go into a cake. In fact, there are far more apples than cake.

    I used two kinds of apples in my version. Many of my favorite apple varieties (gala, honeycrisps) are not ideal for baking, so I had to put some thought into what I would use. I started with good old fashioned granny smiths. They are the ultimate baking apple. I tempered the tartness with golden delicious. Those are my least favorite apple but they can be pretty good in baked desserts because they hold their shape and give off sweetness.

    I also used gluten-free, all-purpose flour (Bob's Red Mill) with a pinch of xanthan gum. I'm still trying to keep up the gluten-free experiment. It did change the flavor of the cake a bit, although not to it's total detriment.

    This was a very soft cake. It was almost hard to tell when it was baked. It was nicely moist and tasty though, and was even better the next day.

    The recipe suggests cinnamon ice cream and I wished that I had some. I was very tempted to make some as I had a decent amount of milk and cream and could probably have whipped up a very simple ice cream. However, my ice cream maker is the kind that has the chamber that needs to be stored in the freezer for 8 hours before you use it.*

    With no cinnamon ice cream on hand, I simply whipped some cream with sugar and cinnamon. Cinnamon whipped cream is good stuff!

    I hope this will be the first of two apple cake experiments. Stay tuned for more.

    *I'm beginning to think it might not be a bad idea to just store the bowl of my ice cream maker permanently in the freezer so I can always make ice cream on a whim. Would it be a good idea - or just dangerous?

    Thursday, November 4, 2010

    First Flops, Then PIE!

    As I said in my last post, nothing gave me my mojo back quite like the Iron Forge Inn. Even though I rarely dare to replicate anything I eat there, it still just makes me want to create.

    I did try to replicate something from there once. After eating a delicious appetizer of a tomato-mushroom ragout with truffle custard, I decided to cook a similar dish, which I chronicled in another post. After going there two weekends ago, I decided to order the same appetizer. It was just as good as I remembered it, so I decided to replicate it once more.

    My previous incarnation was to cook sausages in the compote. I decided this time around I would cook something my husband might eat. I decided to make the ragout a bit lighter (white wine instead of red) and stew some chicken in it, sort of like coq au vin, but maybe it’s more like coq au champignon?

    Well, I'm not going to share the recipe with you! Why? Because it wasn't good! I browned some chicken thighs and breasts. I cooked up some onions and garlic. I sauteed enough mushrooms to make me have visions of Smurfs for the rest of the evening. I poured on some wine. I stuck it in the oven for a while.

    I thought everything would come together in a tasty melange of flavors. Instead it all tasted watered down and bland. On the attractiveness scale it didn't look too bad. The taste was just meh. Oddly enough, Sir Pickypants thought it was really good. I guess the chicken itself wasn't devoid of flavor. I served it with some rich mashed potatoes made with whole milk and butter.

    One way to comfort myself with a bad recipe is to come up with a new recipe, especially if it's a PIE recipe and that's what I did.

    If you want me to cook something, the best way to do it is to get a bug up my butt and suggest something I’ve never made before.

    Seriously, if you tell me, “Make X with X sauce,” and I think that sounds like a good idea, you can bet I’ll invent a way to make X with X sauce. Case in point: my Hazelnut-Crusted Chicken with Port Cherry sauce that came about from a single suggestion from Emily.

    So you can imagine how it made the gears turn in my head when at work one day my friend Erika innocently said to me, “You should make a chocolate-pecan-caramel pie.”

    I don’t know exactly what type of pie she had in mind when she suggested it, but sure enough I felt the need to take her up on her suggestion. What would go into such a pie?

    In a sense, I already do make such a pie. My favorite dessert cookbook Gooey Desserts (often mentioned in past posts) has a recipe for a Turtle Pie that includes a chocolate crumb crust topped with pecans, homemade caramel sauce and a rich topping of whipped ganache. Pies don’t get much better than that.

    Still, I wanted a caramel pie that was all my own.

    I toyed with what would go in it? Chocolate custard studded with pecans over caramel sauce in the crust? How about caramel custard studded with chocolate chips and pecans?

    The more I toyed with the idea I decided I wanted a caramel custard, but that I wanted the custard to be completely smooth and free of chunks. So how do I incorporate the three flavors together?

    Start with a baked pie crust.* Line the inside of the crust completely with melted chocolate. Then press toasted, salted pecans into the chocolate while it’s still warm and soft.

    The next step was caramel custard. I decided I could do a basic pastry cream, but Icaramelized the sugar before adding it to the milk. A threw in a scraped vanilla bean as well.

    I topped it with fresh whipped cream sprinkled with pecans and chocolate chips. This would also be pretty swirled with chocolate and caramel syrups if you have them handy.

    So how was it?

    The flavor of the pastry cream was quite distinctive. It wasn't quite what I was expecting it to taste like and definitely made for a unique pie. The pie was not without issues though.

    For one thing, 3/4 of a package of chocolate chips is WAY more than I needed. Yes, a layer of chocolate on the bottom makes a pie more delicious, makes it easier to cut in one piece, and keeps the crust from becoming soggy. However, a THICK layer of chocolate, although delicious, makes a pie rather hard to eat - at least if you're trying to be civilized and use a fork. Good thing SPP and I were by ourselves.

    The other issue was the custard. It tightened pretty quickly and ended up somewhat curdled. I strained it (something I admit I don't always do with custard) and after I had removed the lumps, I didn't have much actual custard left. It barely covered the chocolate in the crust.

    I merged a couple of recipes to come up wtih this one and I think I really don't have a good grip on proportions for homemade pastry cream. I suspect that one less egg yolk might have been a good idea. I would love to have someone who is a better pastry chef than I weigh in on this.

    Chocolate-Pecan Caramel Cream Pie

    1 baked pie crust
    1 cup toasted chopped pecans
    1 tsp salt
    2 cups chocolate chips
    3/4 cup sugar
    1/4 cup water
    2 cups milk
    1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
    4 egg yolks
    7 1/2 tsp corn starch
    4 Tbl butter
    1 cup whipping cream
    2 Tbl confectioners sugar
    1 tsp vanilla extract

    Fill a large bowl with ice. Set a smaller bowl inside it and place a strainer on top of the bowl.

    Toss pecans with salt. Set aside.

    Melt 1 3/4 cup of the chocolate chips. Spread inside the pie crust all over the bottom and sides.

    Press 3/4 of the pecans into the chocolate while it is still warm. Chill in refrigerator so chocolate sets.

    Empty contents of vanilla bean pod into the milk in a medium saucepan. Keep warm over low heat.

    In a small saucepan heat all but two tablespoons of the sugar and water over medium high heat and bring to a boil, giving it an occasional swirl. If crystals form on the side of the pan, wash down with a pastry brush dipped in cold water. Cook the sugar until it's a deep amber color and smells like cotton candy. Mix the caramel into the milk. It will harden, but keep stirring until dissolved.

    In a bowl beat eggs, corn starch and remaining sugar for about a minute or until thick, light colored and creamy. Quickly whisk some of the warm caramel milk into the yolk mixture to temper the yolks. Add the egg mixture back into the saucepan with the milk. Stir over medium heat for about 5-7 minutes or until it becomes tight and thick.

    Remove from heat and add butter a little at a time. Now pour the custard through the strainer that's set over the bowl sitting in the ice bath. DO NOT SKIP THIS. I sometimes don't strain my custards, but this one can get curdle-y very easily, so you want to get rid of as much of that curdle-y-ness as possible and have a smooth custard.

    Pour the custard into the set pie shell, cover with plastic wrap (unless you're one of those weird people who likes pudding skin - I'll pass on that one), and chill until competely set.

    Place cream, vanilla, and powdered sugar in a mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until stiff-ish peaks form. Spead on top of pie and sprinkle with remaining chips and nuts.

    *In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to using a pre-made frozen crust. Normally I would make a crust myself, make jokes about how ugly it is, and make snarky comments about people who don't make their own crusts. In this case, I wanted a gluten-free crust and wasn't up to figuring out the best way to go about it. I was more concerned about the creative filling than I was about the crust. I took the easy way out and found one at Whole Foods.