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Friday, January 25, 2013

Germs Never Tasted So Good

2013 has not started out on the right foot.  I keep getting sick.  I started off the year with a bad cold.  I was healthy for a week or two, only to develop an even worse cold this week.  This cold has knocked me flat on my back with a killer cough, a leaky faucet nose, and no energy whatsoever.  I work from home (with frequent naps) and have not seen the inside of a gym for a week.  Nor have I seen the faces of my beloved horses (even though I think the best therapy for me would be Riddle's soft little nose - one day I will patent Riddlenose therapy and charge money for it).

I knew I was taking a turn for the better when I started thinking about baking again.  When I feel so bored sitting around at home that I start thinking I need to bake rather than sleep, I know I must be on the mend.

I had been planning to bake this week even before this bug hit.  I had been promising my coworkers more baked goods for quite some time and had been hoping to use the long weekend to make something for them. I had found a wonderful cream cheese brownie recipe that I had been planning to make, but I did something really dumb.  I didn't read the recipe before going to the store and ended up buying semi-sweet chocolate when I needed unsweetened.  I don't know what possessed me.  What brownie recipe uses sweetened chocolate?  I took stock of what was in my kitchen.  I had semisweet chocolate, pecans, coconut, and cream cheese.  I should be able to do something with all of that.  I kept putting those ingredients into Google hoping to find a good recipe, but nothing useful was coming back.

One of the reasons I was planning to use the cream cheese recipe meant to share only at work was that my husband hates cream cheese.  Since I didn't know when I would be returning to work, he wouldn't be terribly happy if I used that cream cheese in a dessert meant to eat at home.

I had a revelation.  What about pie?  There are plenty of recipes out there for cream cheese pie crust.  Chances are a pie crust wouldn't taste too cream-cheese-y and I've always wanted to try that method for pie crust anyway.  The question would be what kind of pie?

When you consider my ingredients on hand, the kind of pie was obvious, especially when you consider Sir Pickypants' favorite pies.

I remember when we first began dating I asked him what his favorite kind of pie was so I would know what kind of pies to bake him in the future.  He said he loved pecan pie and coconut cream pie.  The first birthday I celebrated with him I baked him my basic coconut cream pie.  He seemed a bit indifferent to it at the time.

Since then the pies I have bake that he has named as his favorites are my white chocolate coconut cream pie, Kentucky Derby Pie (which I've stopped making since I realized I was allergic to walnuts), and a coconut-macadamia nut tart.( I can't find a recipe online for it.  The recipe came from an old Williams Sonoma cookbook.  It's a good tart if you ever want to email me for the recipe).

He also is my husband, which means he has to love chocolate by default.

That settled it.  I was going to make a pecan-chocolate-coconut filling for my cream cheese crust.  I took my germy self to the kitchen, washed my hands really well, and commenced pie making. 

I started with a Martha Stewart recipe for cream cheese pie crust.  It worked well.  The dough was more elastic than butter/shortening dough, making the rolling process much less painful.  I'll even post a photo.

For my filling I had to take several points into consideration.  I wanted to keep the amount of sugar fairly low.  I was using corn syrup, sweetened coconut, and sweet chocolate, which could be sugar overkill.  I didn't know how that might affect the consistency, so I added an extra egg for assured binding.  I know most pecan pie recipes call for dark brown sugar, but I used light brown.  I'm not fond of dark brown sugar.  I don't like that obvious molasses flavor. 

I love Ghiradelli chocolate because it's so easy to chop into small pieces.  I added an entire package each of coconut and pecans along with an entire chocolate bar.  What you don't see here is a shot of bourbon.

I was afraid it wouldn't all fit into the crust, but it did.  Here it is.  Ready for the oven.

Bake at 350 for 50 minutes.














This pie is sweet, gooey, rich, and crunchy.  You will become your dentist's favorite patient and your nutritionist's favorite client.  Even if it's covered in germs, it's worth it.


The best part about pecan pies is that they are ridiculously easy to put together.  There is no fruit chopping or custard stirring.  Once your pie crust is rolled out, all you need to do is stir it all together.  It's ready by the time the oven is preheated.

Nothing makes a husband happier than coming home to a homemade pie, even if his wife did bake a few germs into it.  

Pecan, Coconut, and Chocolate Pie

Ingredients

  • 1 unbaked pie crust
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 stick butter, melted and cooled
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup bourbon
  • 2 cups chopped pecans
  • 1 bag sweetened, shredded coconut
  • 4 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped into small bits
Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together corn syrup, eggs, butter, sugar, and bourbon until well blended.

Stir in the nuts, coconut, and chocolate.

Pour into pie shell.  Bake for 50-55 minutes or until set.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace - By Tamar Adler

I wasn’t sure what to make of this book when my mother first gave it to me. “Cooking with economy and Grace”?

I felt a bit like Elaine Benes at her ill-fated job interview. “I don’t have grace. I’m never gonna have grace.”

I’m the girl who chops things willy-nilly, never really having the patience to develop good knife skills because I just grow tired of chopping stuff. I sometimes toss away anything I can’t immediately use. I throw seasonings in the pan because I think they will taste good, without making much effort to find out if they will actually taste good - or how much or too little will ruin or improve the taste. In short, I am not always the most patient or conscious cook.

As I said in a previous post, I wasn’t always sure where the book was going. It sometimes seemed like a stream of consciousness. Adler would take one ingredient, tell the reader how to prepare it, then run on to how to use it in something else, and then do something even further with it. It was information overload. What was I going to glean from all of this information filling my brain?  Adler was forcing me to think differently and I was resisting it.

The more I read, the more I began to feel a sense of what Adler was trying to convey to me. The first is consciousness. It’s funny how in the desire to put dinner on the table, I sometimes forget to stop and really pay attention. I don’t taste. I don’t take notice of the sights, sounds, and smells that will alert me to how something is cooking. Adler advocates even tasting plain water periodically as it boils. What a difference that makes from me dumping the juice of an entire lemon into a sauce without taking care to notice if it’s making the sauce too acidic. I don’t pay attention to the ways a piece of meat can signal to me that it’s time to be flipped (including just looking at a clock now and then to pay attention to average cooking times).

The other lesson I learned from the book was to think outside the box. Adler offers many options for how to cook certain ingredients. The first example was her advocacy for boiling vegetables and then reusing the water. I applied this lesson to my kitchen and my blog right away. She also comes up with ways to use those bits that we often throw away. Leaves and stems can be sautéed, boiled, and pickled. In a previous post I explained how I shredded a broccoli stem and placed it in brine to both flavor it and tenderize it. This weekend I bought a leafy romesco cauliflower at the farmer’s market. After roasting the vegetable, I quickly cooked those leaves in boiling water and pureed  them them with caramelized onions, olive oil, and freshly grated pecorino (Adler advocates for always having caramelized onions on hand). This is the type of vegetable mix that Adler might advocate spread on toast, folded into an omelet, mixed into risotto, or served over polenta.  I saved the cooking water for soup.

Adler devotes chapters to certain ingredients or techniques. She devotes a chapter on how to best prepare and use beans. One chapter waxes poetic on the various ways to cook eggs.  There is a chapter to inform the reader of everything one can do with rice. Another chapter gives endless ideas for sandwiches using all of those re-used vegetables. She centers a whole chapter on salads, asking the reader to reconsider what a salad is.  She calls a salad anything raw or cooked, chopped small, placed in a dish or bowl, and dressed with fat, salt, and acid.  She includes her stream-of-consciousness cooking ideas, but also gives some concrete recipes for dishes such as minestrone or ribollita that incorporate the ingredients she highlights in each chapter.

Some chapters I liked better than others. I was not terribly interested in her fish chapter. I also didn’t like the chapter where she advocates for using the bold flavors of olives, capers, cornichons and anchovies (although I am cool with capers and cornichons). The meat chapter, while it sounded tasty, is not that practical for me. She recommends cooking large joints of bone-in meat.  I'd love to do more of that, but I'd be the only one eating it.

Every technique or ingredient provides a leftover that can be made into a new dish. She also devotes a chapter to fixing mistakes. If you oversalt or overcook or burn a meat or vegetable, Adler will give you creative ways to turn it into a whole new dish.

One of my favorite recipes was one for baked ricotta where two pounds of ricotta are mixed with two egg yolks, fresh herbs, salt, and a quarter cup of olive oil then baked for twenty-five minutes at four hundred twenty-five degrees. The result is like a crustless quiche or savory cheesecake. I ate it for breakfast topped with roasted cherry tomatoes. I think it would also be useful cut up into small bites and served as an appetizer at a cocktail party, perhaps topped with some prosciutto slices or maybe some cornichons pressed into it.

One method she recommends is saving bones and vegetable ends for soup. This is one task I always do.  I save chicken carcasses, spines, and wing tips along with old carrots and onions for eventually making into stock. I'm starting to think outside the traditional box now and am saving other bones and veggie ends.  What other types of stocks can I make?  She is particularly gung-ho about cooking beans and using your leftovers for cooking beans, and then using the bean stock for soups.  I have not made a pot of beans in ages.  She gave me the desire to do that again.

Occasionally Adler does come off as being a little condescending, and even seems to be finger-wagging.  She assumes the reader has been doing everything the wrong way (i.e. not her way) all along and expresses disapproval of it.  She assumes the reader has access to farmer's markets and money for  ingredients that don't always come cheap (e.g. capers). 

While Adler's recommendations are meant to be economical, she forgets that there are other types of economy.  As a chef she has the luxury of always being in a kitchen.  I don't have that luxury.  I have short windows to cook most days.  I don't have the leisure time to spend hours canning and pickling and slow roasting.  When I have that kind of time, I don't always want to spend it all in the kitchen.  A day off from work in the winter might mean a day for baking, stock-making, and onion caramelizing. On the other hand, a day off from work in nicer weather demands I leave the kitchen behind and spend it riding my horses.  Does it cost me less to buy a head of broccoli, trim it myself, and use the stems for another recipe?  Sure it does.  However, there are many days when time will dictate I spend the extra money on pre-cut florets or even frozen vegetables.  I don't always have the time to visit the farmer's market on the one day it's in my neighborhood.  Sometimes I have to make late-night trips to the 24-hour supermarket to procure food. 

I'm not a 19th century homemaker (whose lives are often too well-glamorized by people like Adler).  I'm a 21st century working woman with some time-consuming hobbies.  I spend more time on cooking than many of my peers because I love cooking and care about my health.  I envy my blogging friends who can and preserve fresh food, especially those who have their own gardens.  Right now, I can't be them.  I can only do the best I can with the time I have.

In general I would recommend that any cook read An Everlasting Meal.  It will help you rethink how you use your ingredients.  It will get you back in touch with your instincts.  Although this sounds sort of new-agey, it will aid you in cooking more consiciously.  I believe it really is helping me pay more attention in the kitchen.  Just don't be too hard on yourself if you can't do it all, if you sometimes rush, if you occasionally neglect to economize.  Tamar Adler is not living in your shoes. Cook according to who you are.  Trust yourself.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Lemon Tarragon Chicken - A Lesson in Restraint

While cooking my latest recipe, I couldn't get this song out of my head.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9FKEzTYSSU

My brother once said that the problem with the band Blues Traveler is that John Popper's harmonica playing is relentless and dominant in every song.  Sure he's a great harmonica player, but he doesn't need to show it off so forcefully in every song the band performs.

Here we have Popper as a guest on a Dar Williams song and sure enough, the song seems to be all about his harmonica.  When I listen to this song with headphones (which I do often since it's a great workout song) I have to lower the volume because the harmonica just kind of shrieks in my ears.  At one point Popper's backup vocals even drown out Williams. 

As I prepared the meal, I realized that the song is a great metaphor for cooking.  How often do I let a background ingredient become too forceful, or even dominant, over the main event?

I have a terrible habit of overdoing it when working with lemons.  It's not intentional, it's just laziness.  When I want to include a lemon in a recipe, I often just juice and zest the whole fruit, and then dump whatever I extract from it into the pan.  This often makes a dish overly sour or acidic, particularly when I'm using both lemons and wine.

The chicken I had at Bar Harbor restaurant last week was delicious and I was anxious to to try imitate it.  It was described as lemon-tarragon chicken, but it was not overtly sour or citrusy. It was creamy, herbaceous, intensely chickeny, and a bit salty.  The lemon just provided a bit more brightness to the flavor. The sauce did not jump out at the eater screaming, "I'm made of lemons!"  Whatever the incompetence of the service was that night, the chef knew what he was doing.  The dish reminded me of chicken dishes I had in Paris like the buttery boneless chicken breast I had for lunch at Versailles or the Poulet Estragon I ate in a random corner bistro near my hotel - well prepared, but served inelegantly with french fries. 

When I began to develop my sauce, I started with chicken stock and carefully tested the amounts of salt I used.  I needed enough salt to intensify the flavor of the stock, without making it seem salty.  I zested and squeezed a lemon, but this time I was judicious about adding it.  I carefully added lemon juice to the stock a teaspoon at a time, tasting after each addition.  By the time I had three teaspoons, I was satisfied with the intensity of the lemon flavor.  Once I added the wine to the mix I worried that it was becoming overly acidic, so I added a bit more stock and a bit more salt. 

I used boneless, skinless chicken breasts this time due to their ease of cooking and their thickness.  My sauce wasn't exactly like what I had in the restaurant, but I think that's a happy event.  While I wanted to replicate a dish I enjoyed, that was another cook's dish. This dish was my own.

I did need to taste it before adding all the tarragon though.  That was the overpowering ingredient this time.  Just because the package says, "singles" doesn't mean you should put it all in one dish.


I served it sliced on the bias with the sauce and a simple mixed green salad on the side.

Chicken in Tarragon Lemon Cream Sauce

Ingredients
  • 4-6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 Tbl olive oil and 1Tbl butter for frying
  • Salt and pepper for sprinkling
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 1 Tbl lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbl chopped fresh tarragon
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
Sprinkle chicken on both sides with salt and pepper.  Heat olive oil and butter in a large frying pan over medium heat.  Place chicken in the pan and brown well on both sides.  Remove from pan keep warm.

Combine chicken broth, wine, lemon juice, salt, and zest.  Add to the pan.  Bring to a boil, scraping up any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.  Boil two minutes. 

Reduce to a simmer.  Add the tarragon to the pan and then return the chicken.  Simmer an additional 15 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.  Remove chicken from pan and keep warm.  Add the cream to the pan and bring to a boil for two minutes more.  Serve sauce over chicken.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

An Imitation of Italy, or An Inspiration by Something Much More?

Recently my mother gave me the book An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler.  Once I finish it, I will give a more detailed review of it, but it's a hard book to explain. It's about cooking, but unlike a cookbook or an instruction manual, it simply tells you what to do with food.  "Try doing this to your vegetables.  Once you have done that, do this.  Now you take the leftovers and do something else."  It's all about simple ways to cook basic foods and how many ways you can turn them into other dishes.  Sort of.  Again, it's a really hard book to explain.

Adler does something I never hear any chef suggest.  She believes in boiling vegetables.  Who does this anymore?  Boiling means cooking all of the nutrition and flavor out of everything.  Vegetables are supposed to be steamed until they are tender-crisp or else slow roasted.  Adler believes boiling in salt water until you can stick a fork in a vegetable is one of the most flavorful and useful ways to cook them. 

I think I have been so trained against boiling vegetables that I'm not sure I've ever done it.  At most I've blanched.

One of the first recipes in the book suggests boiling broccoli and cauliflower until soft, mashing it up a bit with olive oil and grated cheese, and then using that vegetable-enhanced water to cook pasta.  Once the pasta and vegetables are mixed together, the flavors blend beautifully.

I was transported back to my Italy trip in 2011.  One night we had a first course of a pasta dish of cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes, and bowties.  The method (with different veggies) is even posted on the riding center's website.  Our host Sadio boils the vegetables with the pasta rather than cooking them separately.  He also adds potatoes.  I decided that as much as I liked the version I had in Italy, I wanted to try Adler's version with no potatoes (I'd rather not have things so starchy).  I also remembered that some of the vegetables and beans I ate as contorni during that trip were often boiled and we doused them with olive oil at the table, which is exactly what Adler tells the reader to do.

I boiled one head each of cauliflower and broccoli in salted, rapidly boiling water per Adler's instruction. I really freaked when I put them in.  Their colors were so vivid.  I hated the thought of losing that.


I was amazed at how quickly they cooked.  They didn't even lose their color by the time they were done.  Once they were soft, I put them in a bowl and mushed them up.  I doused them with olive oil.  I am very fortunate that my brother gave me a lovely bottle of artisinal olive oil for Christmas.  This was the perfect use for it.  Next I tossed it all with plenty of grated pecorino.  It's a cheese I love and one my husband can tolerate both taste-wise and digestion-wise as it's made with sheep's milk and therefore lactose-free.


I used the vegetable cooking water to cook the pasta, allowing the pasta to absorb that vegetable flavor, marrying the tastes together further.  In the end everything was tossed together with a touch more cheese and oil. 


I'm afraid I never took a photo of the finished product.  I decided it was best to leave that to the imagination.  Anyway, a rustic dish like this didn't seem to warrant getting out the light box. 

That night in Italy when we had the pasta as a first course, we had chicken saltimbocca as a primo piatto.  I simplified it at bit and simply browned some boneless chicken thighs, then finished them in some white wine, sage, and butter.

In homage to the book, which encourages us to waste nothing, I shredded the broccoli stems in my food processor, covered them with cider vinegar mixed with salt and Penzey's Bavarian Seasoning, and let it sit overnight.  I had it with my eggs the next morning.
 
The pasta was wonderful.  It was so much more than the sum of its parts.  The flavor was something beyond the vegetables, olive oil, salt and cheese.  It's amazing how much flavor one can squeeze out of so few ingredients. The chicken was awfully good too.

I am sure to continue experimenting with boiling vegetables and seeing what else I can do with the parts I don't eat.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

I Said I Wouldn't Do This, But Here They Are: Favorite 2012 Recipes

I rarely ever do retrospectives of the past year on my blog.  I'm more likely to use the end of the year to acknowledge the recipes I made from other blogs.

Looking at other Top 10s recently, I thought to myself, "Can I find 10 recipes on my blog that were truly worth reblogging?"  I began to realize if I can't find recipes that I think are worth reviewing, making again, and sharing over and over again, I should get out of the food blog world and perhaps stop thinking of myself as a cook of any talent.

So I decided to go back over 2012 and see what I have made and assure myself that I do make some good dishes.  Maybe I wouldn't come up with ten, but to avoid being too hard on myself, I have to remember I didn't blog that many recipes in 2012.

So here we go.

The Short (dis)Order Cook's Best Recipes of 2012

Roasted Cauliflower Curry & Coconut Soup



A Lot of Work, But It's Worth It Chicken Mole


 


 


 


I wish I had been able to get a better picture than this.  I think this was the best dish I made all year and it deserves a better photo to show its deliciousness.

  


 

 


 


 

Let's not forget dessert.  I didn't make too many original dessert recipes in 2012, but I did make Blueberry Streusel Pie.


Well, what do you know?  That was eleven recipes!.  I had ten good ones after all.  I hope my readers enjoyed reading about them as much as I enjoyed making and eating them.  Happy New Year to all of my TERP Muffins!

New Kid In Town - Bar Harbor

I think some restaurant locations are just unlucky.  Sitting on the Post Road is a cute little waterfront building that has had some long-standing restaurants in it in the past, but lately can't keep anything open. 

It was the Jolly Trolley for a while. It was good in a mediocre kind of way.  It was one of those restaurants where you knew it was bad, but had some guilty-pleasure irresistible dishes. That closed because the chain that owned it started moving on to other projects and renaming all of its restaurants. 

Then it was The Barnacle.  Oh how I wished The Barnacle had worked out its kinks and been really good!  There is such a dearth of barbecue restaurants in this neighborhood.  It didn't.

Suddenly, with no announcements and no fanfare, a new place called Bar Harbor opened up in the space.  They opened without a peep.  They had no website for the longest time.  I knew nothing about their food or their price point or their level of formality.  They just had a cute knife and fork motif in their sign.

 Once they finally had a website up, I took a look at the menu and felt we really should try it.  The menu is very seafood-heavy, which doesn't make me happy, but it's something my husband can get behind. It's nice when we go to a restaurant and he has more than just one or two chicken or fish dishes to choose from. Besides, it's really close to home, which makes it convenient in bad weather.  Reviews online were mixed. I heard good reviews of the food, but rather inconsistent reviews of the service.

They toned down the decor quite a bit from the previous incarnations.  It's simple, soothing wood and lighting.  No kitsch needed.  I don't know why my flash wouldn't discharge properly in the restaurant.

There was no one to greet us when we arrived.  A man we assumed to be the owner had to come out from behind the bar and seat us - only after he saw us.

Our waitress was friendly and all smiles.  She came to our table quickly.  I had to ask her for the wine list as it wasn't provided with our menus.  The wines are only by the glass and they say that they change each week.  They don't tell you what the wines are.  I mean, they say it's a chardonnay, but they don't give a brand - or a price - on the wine and beer menu.

Once she took our orders we had to wait quite some time for the actual food.  I started with a pear and goat cheese salad with pine nuts, arugula, and dried cranberries.  Kevin had a shrimp cocktail.  The salad was good, but the chef clearly felt the need to make the plate look as full as possible and loaded it down with arugula.  Really it needed some arugula restraint.  It tended to overwhelm the other flavors.  What I liked was that the pears were poached with rosemary.  It was an interesting combination that I would love to try at home.


We waited another long wait for our main course.  Kevin had fish and chips.  I had chicken in lemon tarragon sauce.  We were pleased with our main courses.  He said the fish and chips weren't greasy at all.  I thought the chicken reminded me of some of the meals I had in Paris.  I liked the sauce so much I definitely want to imitate it.  Still, we had to wait a while before our server brought them.


The dining room was bustling with two families who had each brought a gaggle of kids with them.  Some were better behaved than others.  The presumed owner went over and chatted with those families.  He did not come by our table at all and ask how we were doing, which might have been nice.

The waitress was more than happy to bring more wine (I suppose they're encouraged to do so since it's more money for the restaurant), but I had to ask twice for water. After our leftovers were wrapped up, we were abandoned.  She just disappeared.  Finally someone else came so we could get the check.  We had considered ordering dessert, but we were tired of sitting around all night. Who knew when they would get to us? 

I guess I have to agree with other internet reviewers who say that the food is good, but the service, while friendly, is totally inept.  Kevin, normally a very generous tipper, left the lowest tip he could get away with and swore never to return.  I don't want to be too hard on the place.  Service is capable of improving.  I remember how bad the service was our first time at Ginban and yet we have gone back there since then and the service gets better every time.  Time will tell if Bar Harbor survives or goes the way of its predecessors.