Friday, December 30, 2011

Back to Real Life in the Kitchen

After making that fantastic rib roast for Christmas, and spending three days prepping for a major meal and multiple desserts, it's hard to know where to go next.  I need to eat to live and I should cook if I want to eat, but what?

I decided to start small and simple, using just what I had in the house.  This is so basic, I don't need a recipe.

Brown 2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs on both sides in a little olive oil.  You can use breasts if you prefer.

Remove from pan and saute` two large diced shallots until soft and add 3 cloves of minced garlic.

Deglaze the pan with a cup of white wine.  Scrape up the brown bits in the bottom.  Add about a tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary and the zest of a lemon and the juice of half a lemon.

Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and add chicken back to pan and cook another 10 minutes (more if you're using thicker pieces of chicken).  Finish the sauce with a pat of butter if you're so inclined.

I got a bit more elaborate with the next meal because I used up all of my duck fat at Christmas and wanted to make more duck so I would have a supply of duck fat again.

I took a whole breast, scored the skin with a knife, and put it skin-side-down in a pan at a very low temperature for 20 minutes, pouring off rendered fat periodically and saving it.

Then it went 10 minutes in a 400 degree oven. 

Meanwhile I caramelized an onion, then added some port wine (about a cup) and chopped dried figs (around 6).  I let the figs soften up in this mixture and let it simmer and reduce down.

It all got whirled in the blender with some stock and a pinch each of cinnamon and powdered ginger.

 It went over the finished duck.  I served spinach on the side, but for once I didn't cream it.  (Yes, I do have an obsession with cooking spinach with lots of onions.)

Hope everyone has a very happy new year.  What are you doing to celebrate?  Going out somewhere fancy? Staying home?  Going to a house party?  SPP and I will be hanging at the home of one of our horsie set friends and spending the weekend at a B&B.  I'm making Emily's Chocolate Rum Cake for dessert.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Live Blog

Hi-Ho and Ho Ho Ho to all of my TERP Muffins.  Christmas is here and it's going to be a doozy this year.  Saturday night I'm hosting Christmas Eve dinner for Dad's side of the family at my place.  Sunday evening it's a Christmas dinner at Mom's. 

I have tons of stuff to do. It's so overwhelming.  I decided that I'd blog the whole process.  I doubt many readers care about every detail of Christmas dinner, but I am hoping that by keeping an account I will keep my sanity, and perhaps stay better organized.

It's Thursday morning and I probably could use this day off to relax, go riding, and take a breather before the real stress, but I decided to stay home and start putting dinner plans in motion.  The more I spread the chores out over the next three days, the less overwhelmed I feel.

Right now my to-do list consists of:

Buy coffee, milk, and ice
Buy wrapping paper
Wrap gifts
Iron table linens
Bake two kinds of cookies
Bake one cake
Make chocolate pudding
Clean the house from top to bottom
Prep anything I can prep ahead of time for dinner

My menu for Christmas Eve:
Cheese and pate` tray
Chianti risotto (another imitation of Italy)
Beef Rib Roast (using this method Susan recommended)
Shrimp roasted with lemon and herbs (Thanks to Sir Pickypants, I can't have a seafood-free Christmas Eve)
Green beans sauteed with garlic
Duck Fat Smashed Potatoes
Dark Chocolate Pudding in Snickerdoodle cups

I'm taking two desserts to Mom's house:
Cranberry and Chocolate Chip Cookies
Emily's Chocolate Eggnog Cake

Right now my house looks like this.
Can I pull off a Christmas miracle in 3 days?  Can I do all of this cooking and baking, get my gifts wrapped, and make my home look like civilized people live there?

I do have my trusty guide containing all recipes and a game plan for what needs to be done and when I should do it.  I didn't get fancy and bind it this time.

So...let's get this holiday started.

10:05 AM - Just did a big sweep through of the house, revealing my dining room table and trashing (via recyling of course) any excess paper.  My goal is to simply be rid of anything that doesn't need to be there.

My next stop is CVS.  I need more wrapping paper and gift bags.  This time of day it shouldn't be too crowded.  We shall see...

1:40 PM - I checked out our wrapping paper supply.  We did, in fact, have two large rolls of it, but the large rolls were bent to fit into a small drawer, crushing the paper and leaving it in deplorable condition.  I decided to buy some new paper anyway.  I finally have all of the gifts wrapped and under the tree.  I confess that during my lunch break I did some extended time in front of the Idiot Box.  I watched Gorden Ramsay and was reminded to stay in line and cook good food on Saturday.

I had to hit the supermarket as well.  At first I thought all I needed was ice, but then I realized I had very little coffee in the house (I only keep it around for guests, so I don't keep track of the supply).  While I had heavy cream, half-and-half and eggnog, I had no milk.  I also noticed I had very little Windex and a very dirty bathroom mirror.  The store was suprisingly quiet and uncrowded today.

I cam home to find my Christmas gift from my BFF had arrived. 

I could put these lovely artisinal Italian salami out in the appetizer tray for dinner.

But I won't. (evil grin ensues)

My next stop is to work out.  How else will I maintain this girlish figure during the holidays?

3:20 PM - RIP to my trampoline.  I decided I needed to shake up my cardio routines a bit and that I hadn't used my trampoline in a while.  I pulled out my Urban Rebounder DVD and did two of the workouts on it (they're short).  I heard something snap while I was bouncing around.  I assumed it was just the elastic on the mat cover and thought nothing of it.  I would just pull off the matt cover and trash it after my workout.  After I was finished, I turned the trampoline over to take the legs off and put it away when I saw that one of the springs had snapped off.  If the spring next to it had snapped off, the mat would have pulled away from the frame and probably would have caused a broken bone somewhere.  My trampoline is no longer safe if the springs are going to be breaking off.  I'm afraid I had to send it to the compactor room. :-(

9:00 PM - I think I have accomplished everything I want to do today.  I did laundry, cleaned the hardwood floors and ironed all of the table linens.  I feel uncommonly exhausted.  How will I feel tomorrow after hours of baking and more cleaning?  Find out in the next liveblog entry.


8:45 AM - Last night I tucked myself into bed with my annual reading of Paul Theroux's A Christmas Card.  It's the best children's Christmas story ever.  It's about a little boy whose family gets lost on their way to their new home.  They are given shelter for the night in the home of a strange and mysterious old man who disappears the next day, but leaves them with a Christmas card that seems to have magical powers.

I slept kind of fitfully, which is why I'm up so late.  I have taken my ingredients for my first batch of cookies out of the refrigerator and I'm going to work out while I wait for them to come to room temperature.  I'm a little angry with myself since I neglected to print up one of my other cookie recipes.  Good thing I was going to come here and live blog since I was going to be at the computer anyway.

Every muscle in my body aches right now.  I wonder how I'll survive another day on my feet.  A good workout should get the blood flowing.

11:15 AM - Just baked my first batch of cookies.  My chocolate chip-cranberry cookie recipe made so many that I had to bake two shifts.  That is setting my day back by quite a bit.  One would think all of the cookie dough I ate would keep the number of cookies to bake down. ;-)

I wanted pictures of them, but my camera battery died.  I'll be charging the battery while I head out to buy some more liquor, some toilet paper (the supply is way too low in the house for 8 guests) and take a shower  (I did just work out after all).

1:05 PM - Made a batch of cookie dough that is chilling in the refrigerator.  You'll have to wait to see my plans for it.  Then I headed to the liqour store.  I just wanted some spiced rum for my cakes and a bottle of white zinfandel for my mother-in-law to drink at dinner, but ended up with a very pleasant surprise . There sitting on a shelf was Brolio Barone Ricasoli chianti!  To think I had trudged all the way to NYC for a bottle of that stuff and it was right there in my neighborhood!  I asked if they carried it regularly.  They said they had just gotten it in and didn't know if they would continue to carry it.  I snatched up a bottle right away.  Let's keep those memories of Italy going!

Time to indulge in less fun activities like cleaning the guest bathroom and dusting.

4:10 PM - Just had my first flop of the holiday.  When I decided to serve chocolate pudding for my dessert, I realized I had nothing nice to serve it in.  I had some small, ugly bowls.  I also had nice ramekins, but only 4 of them.  Should I go out and buy some nice dessert cups? 

Then I had an inspiration.  I saw an idea online where you bake cookie dough over an inverted muffin tin to create little cookie cups.  There was my solution.  I could serve my pudding in cookie cups.  I had been planning to make snickerdoodles on the side since the pudding is garnished with ginger and the cinnamon cookies would make a nice accompaniment.  I figured I could just bake my snickerdoodles into cups.

After I had baked them, I realized I should have used a recipe that was specific to being baked this way.  Any old cookie recipe just doesn't cut it.  My cookies spread way too much and were thin on the top (where they needed to be thickest) and thick on the bottom.

Only 3 or 4 of them were able to be separated from the tin reasonably intact and they looked awful.  I ended up with a lot of cookie crumbs.

I didn't want to waste all of that butter and sugar, so what was I to do?

I have since been inspired.  I will take some of my small highball glasses and layer the cookie pieces with the pudding in them - like a freeform pie or parfait or trifle.  This is not the first time I have destroyed a cake or cookies and had to use what I had salvaged creatively.  I think it's going to turn out well

My cranberry-chocolate chip cookies are excellent though.  Now that the camera is charged, I got a photo.

The guest bathroom is clean now too and I even cleaned the glass doors on the shower in the master bathroom.  I dusted and vacuumed (but I will have to vacuum again due to all of the cookie crumbs that fell on the floor.  Next step will be the pudding.

6:05 PM - Pudding done and successful.  I made up my little snickerdoodle parfaits and wrapped them up and put them in the fridge.  Tomorrow evening all I have to do is top them with the whipped cream and candied ginger.  They don't look beautiful, but I think they are a fine example of making lemonade when life hands you lemons.

Waiting for the hubs to come home from the barn.  I'm sure he's going to hit terrible traffic over the Tappan Zee Bridge tonight.  I have told him that I'm NOT cooking.  He said, "Why should you?"  I said, "That's exactly right."  Takeout for us tonight.  The Christmas TV special for "Wait Wait, Dont' Tell Me," is on tonight too.  Have to chill out and watch that.

Tomorrow will be super busy.  I'll have to jump out of bed and start prepping veggies.  I have to keep everything on schedule if I want my roast to cook properly and my meal to be served on time.


7:05 AM - The countdown begins!  Last night we ended up going out instead of takeout so we missed "Wait..Wait".  Oh well.  I'm staring down a few veggies that need prepping right now.  Then there is laundry to do, a master bathroom to clean, and a kitchen to clean.  I want all of that done before the roast goes in the oven.

12:05 PM - Just got back from Mom's to pick up some extra folding chairs - which I will have to return to her tomorrow for her holiday dinner.  Master bathroom is clean, laundry is done, and veggies are prepped. I just took my roast out of the fridge to let it come to room temp.  I'm doing the same for the eggs and butter for the cake.  Then the kichen will need a good cleaning.  Once I finish that, all I need to do is set the table and wait for the guests to arrive.  Hard to imagine the idea that things could be this close to finished!

2:00 PM - Kitchen was tidied up and roast went in the oven.  Right now I'm defrosting the shrimp and waiting for the cake to cool before taking it out of the pan. I'm afraid it was a little overbaked, so I hope it doesn't crumble to pieces when I take it out.

Roast about to go into the oven.  I rubbed it with a mixture of salt, pepper, dry mustard, garlic powder and orange peel.  I had it sitting out for two hours, but it still doesn't feel like room temperature.  I hope it isn't too cold!

4:30 PM - Guests are due to arrive in 30 minutes.  My husband isn't even home from the barn yet.  I have the roast in the oven doing its thing.  Everything else is prepped to be cooked in its own time.  Let's hope it all goes smoothly.

As for transforming the house....

I got rid of a lot of clutter - or more accurately, hid much of it in the spare room and shut the door.  The towels on the couch may not be the most attractive thing on earth, but I just had that couch reupholstered a few months ago and I'm not taking any chances!

My appetizer table.  I have cheeses, pate`, and various accompaniments.  See?  I didn't need to put out my new salami.  I have plenty of other good options (and it has nothing to do with the fact that I managed to polish one of those salami off myself in the past 3 days - nothing at all).

Drinky drinky.  I think I'm very clever for turning my front hall table into a bar.  We will be drinking lots of chianti tonight.  Some of it comes straight from Italy, but all of it comes from the wineries we visited in Italy (Brolio, Arceno, Pacina)

Now I have to actually cook dinner!

9:55 PM - Dinner is over and everyone has gone home.  I think I was right to start dinner early and go through each course at  a leisurely pace.  No one felt rushed, but the folks who shouldn't be up too late were able to leave at a reasonable hour.

I never took a picture of my chianti risotto.  Sadly I didn't make enough of it though.  The hosts had to have rather measly portions.

The meat was PERFECT.  I can't say enough good things about how wonderfully tender and perfectly cooked my rib roast was.  That cooking method was amazing.

On the side I sauteed some blanched green beans with garlic and powdered ginger.  The whole smashed potato didn't work too well for me.  I find it's very hard to smash a boiled potato and have it stay in one piece.  Once my potatoes started to fall apart I decided to just keep smashing them and made a sort of duck fat hash brown dish.  It was a big hit.

My snickerdoodle pudding parfaits were perfect.  I think they were even better than the cups would have been.  They were quite rich.  Not everyone could finish them easily.

The dishes are running through the dishwasher now and I'm ready for bed.  I'm so glad we weren't up all night.  I can go to bed early and wait for Santa! 

Let's see how tomorrow's Christmas dinner goes!

8:00 AM - Christmas morning.  I'm the kid who can't sleep.  Husband is still in bed.  He had a long day (and a big disappointment after seeing the Jets lose yet again).  We'll open up each other's gifts soon.  I have one more cooking thing to do and that's make the frosting for Emily's cake.  I have my cream cheese and my butter softening up in the kitchen right now.

11:50 AM - I frosted the cake.  Doesn't look as pretty as it does on Emily's blog, but I'm sure my family will eat it anyway.  Just finished my workout, so now all I have to do with my day is hang out till dinner.  Sounds like a plan!


7:30 AM - So I came home a bit late to blog about Christmas dinner, but I will say it was a huge success. My desserts went over well. We also had a trifle provided by one of the guests.

Dinner offerings included beef tenderloin, lasagne biachne with mushrooms, mashed poatoes (high-fat Pioneer Woman style), Cajun turkey breast, and brussels sprouts.

We had a very nice load with the loot, but also just enjoyed a wonderful evening with friends and family.

Happy New Year from the Pickypants-(dis)Order Family!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I Should Probably Make a Post, Shouldn't I?

I will start by saying this post is just a placeholder. 

I have been cooking, but I haven't cooked anything new or noteworty recently.  Also, work is getting busier and I have less time to compose blogs during down time as I am sometimes known to do.  (Knowing I'll be laid off next year, I'm really hoping that future potential employers aren't reading this.)  I'm also so focused on Christmas that it's hard to want to be creative with upcoming meals.  I just want to have dinner on the table.  I envy all of you who never seem to lose your creative juices and keep blogging away.

So let's talk about Christmas.  Is everyone planning the big meal right now?  I feel like those people who wait until the last minute to shop. I know what I need to do, and I know what I'm making, but usually by now  I would have at least started compiling all of my shopping lists and put a game plan together.  I'm just not getting my butt in gear this year.  It's like how I finished all of my gift shopping, but no gifts are wrapped and the ones that need to be mailed have not been mailed.  This weekend I have promised myself that I will take care of the gifts.  Let's hope that I can also finish the shopping lists and game plans.

I am making Christmas Eve dinner for 8 people this year.  There will be a blog all about that when all is said and done, so I won't give away too much.  Suffice it to say, I won't be doing the traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes.  I know being in Italy this fall inspired me, but it didn't inspire me quite that much.  I will be making one of my Imitations of Italy recipes though. 

I'm also making cake and cookies for Christmas day dinner at Mom's.  I'm trying to decide on what kind of cake.  As always, I take a lot of inspiration from Emily!

Hope everyone is enjoying the planning and enjoying the season.  Can't wait to read everyone's Christmas blogs!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Still More Imitations of Italy

Stews have never been my favorite food.  I don't know what it is about stews.  I think it's because my first experience with stew was a classic beef stew, which consisted of overcooked beef and vegetables all mushed together in a homogeneous and mucky tasting bowl of glop.  All too often it would contain foods I disliked like peas or mushy, overcooked carrots.  The worst part was the potatoes.  How I hated those starchy lumps of potatoes clinging to everything!

Even as I grew up and my tastes became a bit more sophisticated, and I tried other versions of braised beef dishes, they never really tickled my tastes buds.  I can even remember tasting a well-executed Boeuf Bourguignon as a teen and feeling sort of lukewarm about it.  I did a bit better with pot roasts in my twenties.  I guess that's because the meat can more easily be separated from the mush that surrounds it in a pot roast.  You can remove the roast from the muck and cut it separately.

I think part of it is I always preferred tender cuts of beef served rare.  I always wanted a steak or roast beef and not a burger as a child (and don't get me started on meat loaf).  Beef that had strong flavor and longer cooking requirement just never tasted quite as good.  If I had a burger it had better be cooked less than what today's food fascists would ever advise you to cook for a child. 

I had to ask myself, "What about a nice barbecued brisket? How about a nice slow-cooked bowl of chili?  What about short ribs? That's long-cooked beef."  So I think more about it and think that while a rare steak is still my preference over beef that's been cooked forever, maybe if I cooked beef forever in the right flavors, I would make a stew or pot roast that I really loved.

My first experiment was last year where I used a wine with an edge and sweet spices.  I avoided the mushy vegetable problem by browning the vegetables first, then removing them, and only adding them in at the end of the cooking.

While in Italy I ate a wonderful beef stew that was nothing more than onions, tomatoes, and red wine.  The flavors were perfect and there were no mushy bits of veggies clogging up the meat or the sauce.  Potatoes and vegetables were on the side rather than turning to sludge in the stew.

It's December and winter braises are on everyone's mind, so I decided to try to imitate my Italian meal yet again.

I started with bacon. (Isn't that always the best way to start?)  I doubt that's how they did it at the farm, but I'm American and in this country we believe everything is better with bacon!  (Wave your flags now.) 

I had about two pounds of beef.  I cut a chuck roast into chunks.  I could have bought stew meat already cut up, but it's cheaper to cut up a whole roast.  Money was a big factor in this because I wanted to get the best quality, most local, most lovingly-raised beef possible. That would be the closest to the kind of beef I had at the farm.  That kind of meat is going to be pricier.  I save money where I can.

I also added some red pepper flakes, garlic, and oregano.  Everything went into the oven for a little over two hours. 

The result was a mouthwatering combo of flavors and fall-apart tender beef.  Even the smell was irresistible. The long cooking mellowed out the flavor of the Chianti nicely. I served with with fried potatoes like we had at the farm along with a veggie mixture of mushrooms and spinach cooked in olive oil and garlic.

I think this will be my go-to beef stew recipe from now on.

Chianti Beef Stew

  • 2-3 pounds beef chuck, cut into chunks
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 strips thick-cut, uncured bacon, cut into small pieces
  • Pinch red pepper flakes
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 cups Chianti wine
Heat oven to 325 degrees.

In a large saucepan or dutch oven, cook the bacon until crispy and fat has rendered.  Remove bacon from pan and set aside.  Try not to eat it all before the recipe is done.  Pour off a tablespoon or two of fat if it makes you feel less guilty. 

Add onions and red pepper flakes to the pot and cook until soft.  Add garlic and cook for another minute. 

Lightly sprinkle the beef with salt and pepper.  Remove onions from the pot and add the beef. Cook until browned.  It is a good idea to do this in two shifts as adding it all at once risks crowding and your beef will steam more than it browns. 

Add onions back to the pot with the beef.  Add the tomatoes, wine, and oregano and stir to combine well.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer, cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and place in the oven.

Cook for 2.25 hours.  Sprinkle whatever reserved bacon bits you haven't already eaten over the top. Serve with potatoes.