Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Poaching Needs Coaching

Jenn and Jill have challenged the Daring Cooks to learn to perfect the technique of poaching an egg.  They chose Eggs Benedict recipe from Alton Brown, Oeufs en Meurette from Cooking with Wine by Anne Willan, and Homemade Sundried Tomato and Pine Nut Seitan Sausages (poached) courtesy of Trudy of Veggie num num.

Let me state at the beginning that I knew this would be a challenge for me.  Not only have I never poached an egg, I've never eaten a poached egg, let alone Eggs Benedict.  I think it stems from a childhood disgust of all things runny when eggs were involved.  My eggs were scrambled until dry or fried with the yolks broken - no oozy stuff for me!  Okay, so that was quite a while ago and I am only gradually moving towards more flexibility.

The challenges continued.  I decided to make the Eggs Benedict on Wednesday morning - the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when I should have been making soup.  But hey, I bought special eggs for this and if I waited, they would be stale and I'd have to get new fresh eggs.  And the recipe provided suggested it took only 20 minutes to pull the whole thing together.  Well, maybe.  Maybe if you had perfect luck and mastered the technique the first time.

The hollandaise actually looked pretty good:  silky, lush.  The instruction was to keep it in a thermos or carafe or warm bowl while preparing the poached egg.  I cleverly put it in a low (very low) oven to keep it warm.  Probably mistake number 1.

The first egg I poached sat on the bottom of the pan, so I assume the "gentle simmer" was a little too gentle.  I would have used it but when attempting to remove it from the pan, I broke the yolk.  Start over.  Meanwhile, I had put the muffin in the toaster and the ham in the frying pan and they were ready.  Acckkk!!

Reheated water with small amount of vinegar.  Had a more bubbly surface this time and put the egg in - not gently enough, but I'm not up to refinements at this point.  It seemed to be doing the right thing and when the egg white was firm, I removed it with a slotted spoon - no breakage this time.  I had put my muffin and my ham on a plate, so I gently laid the egg on top.  With a little rearrangement of the trailing ends of white, it didn't look too bad!  Then I went to get my warm hollandaise with which to crown my creation.  Curdle.  I guess my plan to keep it warm was a bit of overkill - plus, of course, it was in the oven for much longer than I had anticipated, more like 10 minutes than 3.  I added a little more butter to loosen it up (I am sure there is a way to redeem hollandaise but I didn't have time to investigate), sort of poured it on.  It actually didn't look too bad - from a distance.  So quick with the camera!

Okay.  Forget the camera.  The batteries are dead and I don't know where the extras are and Bob isn't home.  Meanwhile my creation, such as it is, will soon be inedible in addition to being only passably pretty.  I give up.  The one redeeming factor - it tasted fine.  The hollandaise was clearly not the right texture but the flavor was good.  The egg was cooked right, with lots of warm yolk to sauce up the ham and muffin.

I may do this again under less stressful conditions and using the lessons I learned from this morning.  Then again, I may not.....

Now on to Thanksgiving soup!

Friday, December 3, 2010

I'm On a Roll

Let me just say this:  I have a small amount of bravery in me, at least when it comes to food.  After all, I ate a scorpion!  And I made and ate a poached egg - my first ever (I have residual issues from my childhood - no runny part of any egg was permitted).  And now, I deliberately ordered and ate not one, but TWO raw oysters.  And I even chewed them!  Now, I admit, I asked for the smallest oysters they (Jake's Crawfish in Portland, OR) had - kumamotos.  They were really small and probably didn't need any chewing but I was advised to really taste them, not swallow them whole.  So, I squeezed on a little lemon, and took a big slurp (well, OK, a little slurp), chewed and swallowed.  And they were good - smooth, briny, sweet with just a little tang from the lemon.  Bob ate six much larger oysters, but I thought I made serious strides in the exploration of new (to me) foods.

So cheers to me!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Adventures in Eating

It's been a while since I posted anything because I haven't done much cooking over the past month.  I have done some eating, however, so I want to share that with you.

We spent two weeks in China in October and it was an experience unlike any other.  Not only is China a beautiful country (and we have 3000 pictures to prove it), the people are incredibly friendly.  We were often approached by people who wanted to have their pictures taken with us - they love Westerners, I guess.  The places we visited were all different but had some things in common:  good food, beauty, cultural and historic sites, and crazy traffic!  We also discovered that, while tea is offered at meals, the beverage of choice seems to be beer at both lunch and dinner.  And no napkins.  And no ice.  I asked one of the guides about the ice thing and he told me cold was bad for the stomach.  Hmmm.  Finding ice got to be a bit of a scavenger hunt.  In Hong Kong, we went to a 7-11 so I could get a drink from a drink dispenser and have ice.  In Beijing, I asked our hostess at the hotel buffet if I could have some ice and she brought a whole glass - bliss!  In Guilin, the breakfast buffet had a little ice bucket by the OJ.  And in Shanghai, I requested ice at an Indian restaurant and the waiter brought an ice bucket and carefully added one cube at a time to my glass until I told him to stop.  Oh, and Bob found a Starbucks which was willing to put ice in my iced tea!  He's a hero.

So here are some shots:

In Hong Kong, I missed out on a seafood dinner, but Bob brought the best back to the hotel. This small lobster-like crustacean was superb!

These prawns were also on the seafood dinner menu and he saved some for me.  Excellent and so fresh.

This is a picture of jasmine.  The tea comes in a tightly rolled ball, which, when soaked in hot water, actually blooms.  We went to a tea house outside the grounds of the Summer Palace in Beijing and a lovely young woman went through an elaborate tea preparation and tasting ceremony.  I left with 6 different teas and a special clay teapot.  Some of the best tea I've ever had - fragrant, nuanced flavors, totally different from Lipton's!

One night we were taken to a restaurant which specializes in Peking duck.  The drive late at night past the Olympic buildings in Beijing and ending at an outdoor mall which could have been transplanted from any upscale community in America was a little surreal.  This restaurant, which is clearly on the tourist route, is huge and has a multi-item menu featuring virtually every part of the duck.  This particular dish was garnished with crispy scorpions!  And would you believe it - not a scorpion was left uneaten by our table of adventurous gourmands.  They were crispy but had no particular flavor.  I would have eaten more.

A slightly better shot of the actual little critter.

And evidence that I ate it!

Sometimes there were creative garnishes on the dishes - this is a lovely little swan made from a carrot.
In Guilin, we ordered (despite the server's concern) a beef dish with very spicy peppers.  Bob scarfed it down!

In the old town outside Guilin, these eggs were cooking in ash in the market area.  Didn't try one, but this is a traditional way of cooking eggs in this area.

The best dish of the trip - river crabs in ginger and scallion sauce.  Absolutely incredible!

Breakfast in the Western style hotels in which we stayed followed a pattern:  European breakfast food (salami, cheese, croissants, yogurt), American food (eggs to order, bacon, sausage, sometimes pancakes or waffles), Japanese (miso soup, vegetables, rice), and Chinese (congee, wonton soup with veggies, dim sum).  These little dumplings were served at the Swissotel in Beijing - some of the most creative we saw and all very tasty - if you could bear to eat a panda!

This was a little penguin, I think.

As I mentioned above, getting ice was an endeavor.  Here is my glass of ice water -  protected until every cube was gone!

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Our October 2010 hostess, Lori of Lori's Lipsmacking Goodness, has challenged the Daring Cooks to stuff grape leaves.  Lori chose a recipe from Aromas of Aleppo and a recipe from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.

I have stuffed cabbage leaves and they were excellent, if I do say so myself.  However, they were also labor-intensive and, as I recall, took most of the day to make.  Between blanching and prepping the cabbage, making the filling, making the tomato sauce and cooking them, it was a considerable effort.  Bob really like them, so maybe I'll do them again some day.

This project was considerably easier and faster.  In the first place, grape leaves come in jars, pretty much read to use.  The toughest part of the grape leave preparation was getting them out of the jar!  They are rolled up and really packed in.  I used one "roll" of leaves, soaking them in boiling water first and then again in cold water, to remove the brine in which they are packed.  Then it is just a matter of unrolling them carefully and separating them.  There are different sizes, but that doesn't really seem to matter.  The larger leaves are a bit easier to stuff, but even the smaller leaves work fine.

The choice of stuffing was up to us, other than using rice.  The short grain rice is soaked in water for 30 minutes to soften it slightly and then mixed with the other ingredients - in my case, sausage, mushrooms, pistachios and Vermont cheddar.  The leaves are rolled around a couple teaspoons of filling and placed in an oiled saucepan.  They are then covered 3/4 of the way with a mixture of lemon juice, salt and water, weighted down in the pan, which is covered, and braised for an hour in the oven.  I also stuffed extra mushrooms in amongst the grape leaves and actually wish I had used more - they were really good!

This is how they looked in the pan.  Not exactly things of beauty, but definitely grape-y.

After I cooked them, I took them out to test them.  The filling was quite good, but the grape leaves were a mixed bag.  Some parts were tender but they were really salty.  I think the soaking process didn't remove all the salt or perhaps the salt content in the sausage combined with the additional salt in the cooking liquid was just a bit too much.  If I were to do this again, I'd leave out the cooking liquid salt and just use the water and lemon juice. 

Bob got some of these in his lunch the next day after they had been refrigerated overnight.  Very portable!

If I were to do them again, I think I'd try some fruit variation - maybe dried figs with pine nuts or pistachios, spiced with cinnamon or allspice.  I think this is the kind of challenge for which it is fun to dream up different stuffings, paying less attention to the traditional fillings and trying things that sound appealing to you.  The best part of Daring Cooks is the freedom to be creative, not just follow the recipe as written, but use it as a starting point for doing something you think sounds good.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it is all educational!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Apple Butter plus Cheddar Gougere = Pie in a Bite!

The September 2010 Daring Cooks' challenge was hosted by John of Eat4Fun.  John chose to challenge the Daring Cooks to learn about food preservation, mainly in the form of canning and freezing.  He challenged everyone to make a recipe and preserve it.  John's source for food preservation information was from The National Center for Home Food Preservation.

This challenge was more about learning a process than producing a specific product.  There was an extensive tutorial on preserving - both canning and freezing.  Coming from a long line of food preservers, you would think I would be really comfortable with all this, but I have never been a jelly/jam maker and it has never even occurred to me to "put up" fruits and vegetables.  I've seen it done but I've never done it on my own.  My daughter, Elisabeth, probably knows more about this than I do!

Nonetheless, I followed John's suggestion and made apple butter and chose freezing as the preservation method since it requires substantially less equipment and time.  The butter came together really quickly and easily and I was ready for the preserving piece of the challenge in no time.

We are not big users of jellies or jams or spreads in this house.  I use them as ingredients in recipes sometimes, but never on toast.  Nick loves his Grandma's Oregon grape jelly, but he's the only one who uses jelly as a spread.  However - I had a thought about how to use the apple butter.

I eat apples raw and in salads and in ... pie!  Could I find a way to make a pie-like product with the apple butter?  My thought was to make gougeres with cheddar cheese in them, bake them and then fill them with the apple butter.  An experiment in an alternate pie universe, perhaps.

And with little effort - pie in a bite!  The gougeres have grated cheddar added before cooking.  After they puffed up, I filled them with the apple butter by just inserting a very small spoon into the center of the gougere and adding the apple butter.  Topped with some whipped cream and a little mint sprig, we have a bite-sized dessert which, if not exactly a pie, comes close. 

I found it best to use a somewhat milder cheddar since a very sharp cheese takes over the flavor of the gougere and doesn't complement the apple butter as much.  These are best hot, right out of the oven, but the pastry can be cooled and refrigerated or frozen and then heated up at a later point.  I think I would add the apple butter before reheating to be sure everything was piping hot when served.

Fun little experiment. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Big 6-0 and a Special Birthday Treat

Ron turns 60 today, but we celebrated yesterday with a dinner.  I thought a recap of the meal would be fun, especially since there were some special treats involved.

I forgot to take a picture of the pre-dinner nibbles and they disappeared before I remembered, but they were, for the most part, purchased treats.  There were Organic Blue Star Farms Stone Ground Wheat Crackers (made in Kent), Boat Street Pickled Figs (from the Boat Street restaurant in Seattle - really good!), and Dinah's Cheese.

This cheese was wonderful!  Soft, buttery, and golden - and made on our very own Vashon Island, so local as well.  A totally locavore appetizer without even trying.

The special treat was something I made.  Let's see if you can figure it out.

Know what these are?  How about a bigger picture?

Does that help?  How about this?

Yep!  Gummy bears.  Now, what happens to gummy bears when they "marinate" in vodka for a few days?

They get bigger!

Inflated with vodka!

But not only that.  They become lethal - a child's candy transformed into a portable adult cocktail.  They are also very easy to eat.  We didn't indulge enough to know if one can become tipsy from these little nibbles, but we laughed a lot!

The real dinner followed:  A green salad (very local lettuce, from Bob's garden) with peaches and candied almonds in a peach viniagrette, tomatoes stuffed with robiola and gorgonzola cheese, risotto, and Alaskan king salmon.  Thanks to Emma, I managed to deal with the salad and salmon while she was tending the risotto.  It is wonderful having a God-daughter who is bright, entertaining, cute and an extremely capable sous chef.

Peaches and candied almonds in Bob's homegrown lettuce.

Robiola and gorgonzola stuffed tomatoes

Emma's risotto

Roasted Alaska King Salmon

When dinner was done, it was time for the official birthday dessert.  Cake is not a big dessert favorite for some of the guests, so we had an alternative:  A chocolate-mint Bailey's cream pie, based on a 1975 New York Times recipe.  The chocolate-mint Bailey's was combined with cognac and mixed with a mousse-y filling in a chocolate cookie crust.  What was I thinking?  Start with vodka-infused gummy bears and end with Bailey's and cognac cream pie?  Did we have a designated driver?????

Boozy cream pie with 6 candles (because 60 candles would have been a fire hazard).

The birthday boy and his birthday pie!
While I love cooking these birthday dinners because I get to try new things with a receptive audience, the best part is an evening with some of my very favorite people.  And Sarah, if you are reading this, I had a great meal planned for your birthday so we will have to do it next year!

Ooops!  Almost forgot - no picture but the pie was accompanied by a freshly- made strawberry-tequila (or was it rum?) sorbet, kindly whipped by Bob to add to the overall alcohol level of the day.  (NOTE:  Dr. Bob is in charge of ice cream/sorbet production (and he has extraordinary talents in that category) and coffee roasting/grinding/making (scientifically approached, as you would expect)  and hashbrown cooking (his skills far excel mine).  All other food production on his part is incidental and not necessarily enthusiastic.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Reconstructed Classic Summer Meal

The August 2010 Daring Cooks' Challenge was hosted by LizG of Bits n' Bites and Anula of Anula's Kitchen.  They chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make pierogi from scratch and an optional challenge to provide one filling that best represents their locale.

What meals do you think of when its 80+ degrees outside and summer has finally popped out?  Hamburgers?  Barbequed chicken?  Hot dogs?  Pierogi?

Wait - pierogi?  These dumplings which are the found in Eastern Europe and Russia, among other places, are generally filled with hearty ingredients - potatoes, sauerkraut, sometimes cottage cheese.  Lots of variations and lots of local variations in both the dumpling dough and the fillings.  This is not what comes to mind when I'm thinking of a simple summer meal filled with tradition; however, my roots are more German and Scandinavian than Eastern European, so maybe that explains it.

A friend I used to work with has a holiday party every year, just after Christmas.  While the timing has never worked out for me to go, I know she makes 1000 pierogis for this event.  Patty has very strong ties to her Polish heritage, unlike many of us who may remember the traditional foods of our childhood but no longer regularly turn out krumkake or rullepolse or lutefisk(!).  Now that I have tackled pierogi on my own, I have nothing but admiration for anyone who can do 1000.  I managed a couple dozen before I was too tired to roll dough.  I had lots of filling left over, despite cutting the recipes down considerably and I could have made more and frozen them, but I didn't.  I'm no Patty Wagner!

I decided to skip the local option, which would probably have been salmon in combination with something, since I've done salmon variations on other Daring Cook themes.  Instead, I re-imagined hot dogs and potato salad and made bratwurst/sauerkraut pierogi and potato pierogi.  The bratwurst was cooked in advance, sauteed onions added, along with sauerkraut and all was cooked a little longer in a small amount of chicken broth and then cooled.  The potatoes were also cooked and then riced and mixed with sauteed onions, butter (lots of butter) and milk.  Really, they were more mashed potatoes than potato salad, but the pairing was there.

The pierogi are assembled and then boiled in salted water until done - about 8-10 minutes.  When served with a traditional hot dog topping of mustard and a traditional potato topping of sour cream, they were a great alternative to a dog in a bun and potato salad.

This was a fun challenge, although I think we would have really loved eating the little dumplings on a cold rainy day in the winter.  So hearty and warming!  The potato pierogi were especially good - buttery and rich, like decadent mashed potatoes in a little slipcover - I'd do these again, maybe as a side dish with a roast - in the winter!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Cooking and Reviewing - I'm Published!

When Ivonne from the Daring Kitchen asked me if I wanted to do a cookbook review, I jumped on it.  What could be better than cooking and then writing about it?  My two favorite things to do - cook and write - well, okay, maybe eating figures in there, too.

The review is here:  http://thedaringkitchen.com/cookbook/thai-cooking-sufis-kitchen

The cookbook Ivonne sent me was a Thai cookbook written by the owner of a Thai restaurant in Richland, Washington, Thai Cooking in a Sufi's Kitchen.  Richland is on the eastern side of Washington, the hot/cold side, not the rainy side, which is where I live.  Apparently this restaurant has a solid following because there are many references in the cookbook to customers and their favorite dishes.

It's an interesting process to use a cookbook for more than just the preparation of a dish.  I was very conscious of ingredients, instructions for preparing the dish as well as the final outcome.  Usually the first time I try a recipe, I follow it pretty closely, but if I like it well enough to try again, I make some modifications.  I might change ingredients or spices or increase the heat level (we like hot!).  I might note any modifications to cooking instructions (how long to cook and at what temp).  When doing these recipes, I admit I made some changes during the first iteration, but I noted them in my review. 

Writing a cookbook and developing recipes is an art and a science.  Certainly the recipe should sound appealing and the ingredients should be flavors that work well together or present a variation which is intriguing; however, the technical details are also important:  measurements, order of assembly, cooking times, serving ideas.  Some of the recipes in this cookbook had instructions which I found puzzling, along the lines of "cook until the chicken is done and then add these additional seasonings or ingredients and cook some more."  Well, if the chicken is done, why would you want to cook it longer?  So I made modifications at times, something anyone who read through the recipe first and had any experience cooking would probably also have done.

I hope to do more testing and more reviewing.  It is a good way to test your ability to analyze what works and what doesn't in a recipe, a skill than can be used in all your cooking.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Birthday Boy and the Protracted Celebration

For the first time, Nick was not with any of his family on his birthday.  Last year, I spent it with him in Boston, taking him and several friends out for dinner.  This year he was on his own apart from birthday wishes via mail and e-mail and phone.

To make up for that, when he came home last week for a few days, I did a lot of cooking with him in mind.  His plane was scheduled to land about midnight on Wednesday.  It turned into Thursday before it actually arrived, but no matter.  When we got home, I welcomed him with cookies and cow - chocolate chunk cookies and a big glass of milk.

Thursday morning when he finally got up, he had freshly baked cinnamon rolls, which I had made on Wednesday and put in the refrigerator overnight to rise.  They were gooey with walnut caramel and he managed to eat a couple while adjusting to the time zone.  That night was his official birthday dinner:  ribs (which of course take a long time - overnight brine, one rub and then 2 hours of roasting, another rub and a 30 minute trip to the grill).  I cut up watermelon and cantaloupe, had corn on the cob and topped it off with cherry pie, which I made on Thursday before I started the ribs.

I also made pizza dough on Thursday, which I divided into 4 separate balls and refrigerated overnight.  But before our pizza dinner, Nick had his "special request" breakfast:  over-easy fried egg sandwich on buttered toast with tomato and cheddar, accompanied by a fruit salad (watermelon, cantaloupe, blueberries, raspberries, pineapple and orange - all fresh, all tasty!).

Pizzas were made to order.  I assembled a variety of toppings:  figs, goat cheese, prosciutto, salami, fresh basil, fresh mozzarella, parmesan, Kalamata olives, tomatoes, sausage.  We don't usually use sauce on our pizzas, since we all like a lavish pour of olive oil instead.  Bob likes figs, goat cheese and prosciutto, with maybe a few olives.  Nick likes fresh tomatoes, basil, olives and prosciutto, but also had a second pizza which was split into the garden-side (all veg and cheese) and the main course side (some Salumi Salami and a little sausage with cheese and other additions).  The pizzas take only minutes to cook in a hot oven on a pizza stone (I actually make them on parchment paper, slide the paper and the pizza on the stone - easy-peasy and no sticking or mess to clean up).  These are definitely not kitchen-sink pizzas - just a few select ingredients placed sparingly around the dough.

Last night we had pasta using a recipe I had found recently - it was OK, but not memorable.  Tonight Nick is attending a wedding, so no dinner needed for him.  I did make him the traditional Dutch baby for "brunch" this afternoon when he finally woke up.

Tomorrow night he heads back to Boston, but will be here for chicken enchiladas before I take him to the airport.  It's been a fun several days - he is so appreciative of the meals I make for him.  He'll get to take some cookies and cinnamon rolls with him, if he has room in his bag.  And then it is back to what passes for normal around here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Little Nutty

The July 2010 Daring Cooks' Challenge was hosted by Margie of More Please and Natashya of Living in the Kitchen with Puppies.  They chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make their own nut butter from scratch, and use the nut butter in a recipe.  Their sources include Better with Nut Butter and by Cooking Light Magazine, Asian Noodles by Nina Simonds, and Food Network online.

The requirement was to use the nut butter in a savory dish - not sweet.  Bob suggested a Northwest theme when I said I was thinking about doing something with fish - hazelnuts and salmon.  I had been thinking pistachios with salmon because I thought the colors would be striking, but I decided his idea was just fine.

Finding hazelnuts or filberts was a bit of a challenge in itself, as was preparing them for the butter-making process.  My local store had nothing, but my favorite store, where I also bought my salmon, had a good supply.  Making the butter takes only minutes, but with hazelnuts, some skin removal is suggested.  I roasted the hazelnuts for 5 minutes and then rubbed them vigorously in a dishtowel.  That worked for some, but others were very stubborn.  After trying several other techniques, I gave up.  Some of the nuts had skins on when they went into the food processor.  It really didn't seem to affect the color or flavor too much.

The nuts were pretty dry, so I added a small amount of hazelnut oil (who knows why I bought that at some point in the past, but I was glad to have it).  The consistency, after a few minutes of pulsing, was like a natural peanut butter.  Soft, not stiff, and a dark tan color.

I sliced the salmon into narrow pieces, about 6 ounces each.  I salted and peppered them, put some nut butter across the top and wrapped them in two layers of phyllo which had been buttered and decorated with parsely sprigs.  NOTE:  I used Safeway brand phyllo and once again, I found the product inferior to the national brand I sometimes buy.  The phyllo was very sticky in places and already split when I unwrapped it.  Go with the national brand (which, of course, Safeway doesn't carry).  Phyllo is tricky enough without trying to cope with basic product flaws.

After doing a light egg wash, I baked the salmon wraps for about 15 minutes in a hot oven.  I also made stuffed mushrooms - sauteed onions, mushrooms stems, panko, parsley, some of the nut butter, and seasonings, drizzled with olive oil.  These baked for about 5 minutes, so easy to coordinate with the salmon.  A few steamed local green beans and dinner is on the table!

Bob decided his idea wasn't so great after all.  Now one must remember that Bob likes spicy food - this was not spicy despite the addition of some pepper to the dish.  He found the hazelnuts too sweet.  Not a fan.  I, on the other hand, could taste the nutty flavor and thought it did complement the salmon.  I also liked the stuffed mushrooms, although I think a saute of sliced mushrooms with all the same ingredients would also have tasted good and might have worked really well if stuffed into the phyllo with the salmon.  Maybe a roulade?  Something to think about for next time.

Monday, June 28, 2010

And the First-Born Turns 29

My darling daughter turned 29 today, which may or may not be a problem for her, but is a little freaky for me!  I offered to cook a birthday dinner over the weekend and she (as usual) requested paella.

Paella is a good dish when you are having a group of people with different food preferences eat with you.  While I'm sure it is not the traditional approach, I group the seafood in one area so those who would rather not eat prawns or clams can avoid them.  I usually have chicken throughout the dish and I keep the chorizo large enough to identify so those who aren't fans of spicy sausage can avoid that.  I really don't mind people picking and choosing - after all, I want them to be happy!

Along with the paella I had a couple fruit dishes:  ribbons of cantaloupe with crispy prosciutto and watermelon with a lime dressing. 

And for dessert, peaches with vanilla ice cream, a bourbon caramel sauce and spiced pecans.  No picture because Bob was too busy eating to point and click!

Leftovers flew out the door and everyone went home with some extra treats for later.  We didn't sing or blow out candles, but it was still a happy birthday celebrated by Sean, Grandma, Bob and me - and of course, the birthday girl, Elisabeth!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Crustacean Cornucopia

Since I'm not doing the Daring Baker's challenge this month, I thought I would write about some of the other cooking I did instead.

*********SEAFOOD ALERT!!**************
Warning:  If descriptions and pictures of little crustaceans are more than you can handle - scroll quickly!

On Thursday, while preparing for dinner, I got a call from Bob saying he was bringing home some crawfish - live crawfish!  Whoa!  This meant springing into immediate action:  checking internet for live crawfish recipes, finding the SwampFire Seafood Boil that I knew I had because I'm an impulse shopper with no self-control, and finding another pot in which to cook the little beasties.  Since I was already planning to have prawns for dinner and couldn't delay that since they were ready to cook and all the prep had been done, I had two large pots on the cooktop heating up to receive the bounty headed in their direction.

My plan for dinner was a new recipe from the New York Times.  The Yucatan Shrimp recipe is from a restaurant in the Sanibel/Captiva Islands off the west coast of Florida.  The restaurant, Doc Ford's, is owned by a writer of detective stories (I have one of his books waiting at the library), and the description of this recipe and its popularity intrigued me.  While they use Gulf shrimp, I'm not sure how viable an option this will be in the future.  In any event, I used other shrimp and it seemed to work.  The sauce is a butter, garlic, lime, and sambal oelek (Indonesian hot chile sauce) mixture, and a little jalapeno pepper and cilantro are tossed in at the end.

INSERT PERSONAL OPINION HERE:  I added the cilantro because Bob likes it.  I do not understand why anyone likes cilantro - it smells awful and tastes like soap.  I know there is a physiological reason some people dislike cilantro and whatever it is, I've got it.  I picked all mine off.

The whole dish is extremely easy to pull together but messy to eat, since the shrimp are cooked with the shell on.  Spicy, limy, buttery - yum!  I threw together a mango and pineapple salad with a little more lime juice and some mint to counteract the heat of the shrimp.

This clearly would have been a good meal by itself, but I still had the crawfish to cook.  I had heard about SwampFire seafood boil and promptly ordered some because I "had" to have it.  If I had a plan, I don't remember what it was, but as it turns out, it was the right thing to have sitting on the pantry shelf.

A true crawfish boil uses potatoes and onions and spicy sausage (andouille, perhaps), a lot of lemons and the crawfish.  Not only did I not have potatoes or andouille, I had no room in my pot for them.  Instead, I added several lemon halves to the seafood boil, and heated it up.  When the crawfish arrived, they did not need purging - they were very clean - so we just rinsed them off, Bob gloved up and transferred them to the boiling mixture.  About 6-7 minutes later, I turned off the heat and let them soak up the spicy mixture for a while. 

Another little aside:  Bob doesn't like to work for food.  When we have Dungeness crab, I spend time cracking and extracting the crab meat so he can just eat it without having to waste his time dealing with the shell.  Dungeness crab is a piece of cake compared to other crustaceans.  The meat is easy to remove, comes in pretty large pieces and it doesn't take too long to have enough crab to feed a couple people.  Crawfish, on the other hand, are a lot more work.  There is very little meat - just the tail of the critter - and it isn't easy to get to it.  The head, which you twist off, can (and should) be sucked, but the tail has to be broken open.  It takes a long time to get any amount of crawfish into your belly.  And I don't do crawfish for Bob -he has to do his own.

This was a messy, multiple-napkin meal and we didn't even start eating until after 8 PM.  There were leftovers since 2 pounds of shrimp and 75 crawfish are way more than two people can eat.  And there were lots of shells to dispose of and pots to empty.  But it was well worth the effort and last minute frenzy for this meal.  And I got leftovers for lunch!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pate' Party

Our hostesses this month, Evelyne of Cheap Ethnic Eatz, and Valerie of The Chocolate Bunny, chose delicious pate' with freshly baked bread as their June challenge!  They've provided us with 4 different pate recipes to choose from and are allowing us to go wild with our homemade bread choice.

Imagine - the French countryside - Provence, maybe - all lavender and sunflowers and breezes.  Old stone houses, quaint villages and wonderful shops with glorious food.  Now imagine the Pacific Northwest in the pouring rain - endless, pouring rain.  Where would you rather be?

No choice at all for me - home is home and I like the rain, even in June.  However, the food of the French can be very enticing and this month's challenge let me bring a little of that to my table.  A little pate', cornichons, chicken liver mousse and homemade baguette - maybe even a bottle of rose' - practically like being in some small bistro in an ancient village without the airfare or jet lag.
I love pate' and have several recipes set aside to try at some point, so this was a fun challenge.  I had to tweak the hostesses' recipes a bit because I had to delay doing this challenge until nearly the last minute and didn't have time to check a variety of stores for some of the ingredients that weren't available at my usual grocery store.  I decided on the pork pate' but also added some some strips of ham, which I did not process with the rest of the mixture, to give the pate' a more rustic feel.  It was porky and salty and had a great texture.  Perfect with the cornichons.

I also made a chicken liver mousse, which is not really a pate' but seemed to me to be in the same general family.  It was a pretty simple recipe.  I thought the end product was a bit underseasoned by itself, but it is served with a shallot jam which was rich and dense with flavor (shallots, balsamic vinegar and brown sugar), so the combination worked well.

The baguette recipe I used was from Ashley Rodriguez's blog, Not Without Salt, and is one of those supersimple breads in which all the ingredients are mixed together, kneaded lightly and then put in the refrigerator overnight.  I removed enough dough the next day to make one loaf and will be able to have freshly baked bread for a couple more days from the remaining dough.  It was crusty and tasty, but not as chewy as I would have liked.  I'll have to figure out why and see if I can fix that for the remaining dough.

Ta-da!  The pate', with bread and cornichons, and the mousse, with shallot jam. 

There's some good eats there!  Or perhaps I should say c'est magnifique!  (Please - anyone who actually speaks French, excuse my errors since mine is limited to reading menus!)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Croquembouche Maybe

The May 2010 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake.  Cat challenged everyone to make a piece montee, or croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump's Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri.

Okay, May was a challenging month in many respects. In addition to being a co-host for the May Daring Cooks challenge (an exciting but time-consuming endeavor), I fell (sigh) and badly sprained my right hand. This was a serious limitation for the month - very hard to do anything, from typing to stirring. My resident sous chef was called on daily to open cans, slice vegetables and lift things. I was pretty useless. Needless to say, the thought of trying to produce this impressive French pastry was a bit overwhelming. But - optimism triumphed and I plunged in.

Croquembouche is a tower of cream puffs held together with caramel and embellished with caramel or other decorations. Cream puffs - that means piping, right? My favorite activity and I'm so GOOD at it. Actually, I did all right. The weakness in my right hand had abated enough to pipe the puffs and it is amazing how a finger dipped in hot water can repair the occasional flawed puff. I did okay with this part. Yea!

That was day one. Carefully sealing my pate choux (or puffs) away in an airtight contained, I headed for day two with the plan to make the pastry cream. I can do this - no new techniques, have successfully tempered eggs and made custards - no problem! Well, no problem except that batch one turned into a lovely rich, creamy, sweet scrambled egg dish. What was it I said about knowing how to temper eggs? Maybe the milk mixture was not quite hot enough. Try again. Fail again. What's the deal? I know how to do this!!

Now, out of ingredients, I have to regroup. I give up for the day and find a different recipe. David Lebovitz, an American who lives in Paris and does all things dessert with incredible results, has just released a compilation of his favorite and most popular dessert recipes, Ready for Dessert. I find his version of pastry cream, which uses flour instead of cornstarch and takes a slightly different approach to assembling the whole product. New supply of eggs and milk, new recipe - let's try again. And...perfection! A smooth, not too sweet pastry cream. Beautiful texture, delicate flavor - ready to go. I cover and cool it in the refrigerator.

Day four should have been assembly day, but we were out of town, so on to day five. The pastry cream is fine, the caramel is good to go. Unfortunately, the puffs have not held up too well and I'm not prepared to do them again. They are soft instead of crispy and well past their prime. I soldier on. My plan is to stack them in a modified cone with the caramel, decorate with edible flowers and top with a candle (in honor of Bob's birthday which is now over but it is the thought that counts). I manage to create a sort-of tower, shove in the flowers, put the candle on top and rush to take photos. Battery in the camera is dead. Quick search for new battery. Meanwhile, puffs are rebelling and seeking lower ground. Repair. Photo quickly. Total collapse.

Okay - what did I learn? Making pate choux or puffs is not a problem. Making pastry cream with the right recipe is not a problem. Probably better to make the pastry cream first, let it chill overnight and then make the puffs and fill them. The caramel is quick. Honestly - I might do the components again but I would never try to stack them. A bowl with a couple of cream puffs topped with chocolate or caramel makes more sense for us. Even if I had been much more successful with the outcome, I would rather focus on the food than the appearance. I know the "eat with our eyes" adage, but I think a lovely plate with a trio of cream puffs would be more appealing than a tippy tower.

Challenging, yes, but probably more for the construction than for the components. I abandoned the puff and just ate the pastry cream, which was nummers treats!

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Challenging Cinco de Mayo

Our hosts this month, Barbara of Barbara Bakes and Bunnee of Anna+Food have chosen a delicious Stacked Green Chile & Grilled Chicken Enchilada recipe in celebration of Cinco de Mayo! The recipe, featuring a homemade enchilada sauce was found on www.finecooking.com and written by Robb Walsh.

The May Daring Cooks challenge was very special since Barbara and I hosted the challenge. This was quite the undertaking. We agreed to do at the end of last year and started working on it January, exchanging information and drafts via e-mail. Since our challenge ran from April 17 to May 14 and included May 5, Cinco de Mayo, we decided to do a Mexican dish. As it turned out, this was a very popular choice!

Our recipe was stacked chicken enchiladas with a green chile sauce. Above is the photo of the raw ingredients. The little green things with papery husks are tomatillos, an ingredient which is frequently used in Mexican cooking but which is not universally available around the world, as we found out.

Challenges have to be something that stretches the Daring Cooks. We required a homemade sauce. If the ingredients or flavors for the green tomatillo and chile sauce were not available or not something the cook thought would work, any other sauce was an option. People did red sauces, moles, cremas, and some very innovative things with local ingredients (North African sauce, anyone?). While we suggested stacked enchiladas with corn tortillas, people were free to roll their enchiladas or use flour tortillas or even some other substitute if tortillas or the ingredients for making them were not available. We suggested using grilled chicken, but there were beef, black bean and a wide array of other fillings used. And we used Monterey Jack, but there were lots of other cheeses, including Mexican cheeses, that people added to their enchiladas. Recipes are supposed to include variations for vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free cooking. This recipe was really ideal for all that. Corn tortillas for those avoiding gluten; vegetarian fillings for those avoiding meat; cheese optional for the vegans - worked out really well.

The creativity of the cooks was absolutely amazing. And the pictures! As I took my turn commenting on and complimenting those Daring Cooks who posted their results, I was drooling continuously. So many intriguing combinations, interesting marinades and solutions to problems finding ingredients - truly inspirational.

This was my final product and it was just as good as the first time I made this recipe years ago. I added some chipotle Tabasco sauce to the chicken, along with salt, pepper and some cumin, making the heat in the dish slightly more pronounced. The roasted chiles and tomatillos make a really succulent and spicy sauce. Below is a picture I "borrowed" from Barbara of the chiles as they went from raw to roasted. Mine looked pretty much the same, but her picture was better (thanks, Barbara).

From the comments we received, I think the Daring Cooks really enjoyed this challenge. For many of them, it was an introduction to Mexican cooking; for others, it was a chance to try something new. And, as might be expected, there were also a few mentions of margaritas on the menus!

My very special thanks to Barbara, without whom I could not have done this. She not only has an incredible blog to showcase her creative culinary endeavors, she is a master of the world of blog technicalities and dealt with the links, the pictures and the formatting. Plus her pictures were really good and she has an eye for detail. I think we were a good team and I'm very proud of our efforts.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Steamy Pudding

The April 2010 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Esther of The Lilac Kitchen. She challenged everyone to make a traditional British pudding using, if possible, a very traditional British ingredient: suet.

No suet around here and I looked. I ended up using Crisco, so what I made is not the traditional British pudding but perhaps a facsimile. I've never had a steamed pudding which means I don't really know how close I got. I was not extremely enthusiastic about this. While Esther said we could make something savory, like steak and kidney pudding, that didn't really sound too appealing either. Because we are not big dessert eaters and because this was not something I could ship off to the starving students in Boston or the "I'll eat anything chocolate" friend in the neighboring city, I wanted to make something more manageable for the two of us. Rather than make one 4 cup steamed pudding, I decided to make smaller versions and choose a different filling for each.

The filling is the main ingredient (fruit, chocolate, etc.), combined with sugar and butter. All is put into a bowl which has been lined with a suet pastry - or in my case, a Crisco pastry - and then topped with more pastry. The result is covered in foil, sealed up with a string and steamed for whatever period of time seems to work. I did mine for 4 1/2 hours to be sure the crust was golden and the interior all melty.

The pastry was quite fragile. It rolled out pretty well but fell apart when I lined the ramekins. I ended up just pressing the crust into place, which probably contributed to its failure to come out in one piece. Frustration number one.

I used a bamboo steamer I usually use for potstickers and dumplings. It worked pretty well, although I had to watch the water level closely. Subsequently, I read some finished challenge posts on the Daring Kitchen website and realized I could have used a slow cooker, which would have been so much easier and I could have done all four of the puddings at once. Maybe next time, if there is a next time. Frustration number two - spent all day steaming puddings that could have been done all at one time using the slow cooker.

The flavors I chose were lemon (using a whole lemon), chocolate, cherry and mango. And the results? The lemon I liked, but probably no one else would because it was really pretty tart. The recipe said to use a whole lemon, pierced through the skin with a skewer. Maybe a Meyer lemon would have been a better choice, but I didn't have a Meyer lemon. The seeds in the lemon were annoying to deal with when eating it, but it did transform into a lovely lemony sauce which went well with the pastry - even if the whole thing was ugly to look at since it did not pop out but had to be scraped out in pieces.

The chocolate (I used bittersweet) was not quite as successful or interesting. Both the mango (Bob's favorite) and the cherry (which I really liked) were much better. The fruit was soft and succulent, the butter/sugar melted together to form a caramelly sauce around the fruit and the pastry added some texture. So to sum up: looked horrible, tasted OK to pretty good. Would I do it again? Not without reading a lot more about technique and maybe tasting one done properly. Trip to England is essential, obviously.