Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cream sauces and their accompanying guilt

Have I ever talked about how I swear cream sauces release mass amounts of endorphins in my brain? No? Hmm. That's mostly because I feel like, for someone who's "into food," admitting you like cream sauces is a little like claiming you're "into film" while secretly stacking your DVD queue with Jennifer Anniston flicks. Nonetheless, I love them. And I eat them. Probably more than I should. There. I said it.

This brings me to my next point. F*ck Anthony Bourdain. Okay okay. Not really. I like him. I do. I thought Kitchen Confidential was very inspired. I've watched (and cried over) WAY too many No Reservations episodes, and I'm now nearly done with Medium Raw. But this latest book, and its sometimes wistful focus on haute restaurant cuisine has me riddled with anxiety. And it's not singular in doing so. Sometimes this whole "Gourmet, Local, Organic, Authentic, Seeking-Out-The-Best-Most-Obscure-Purveyor/Restaurant-Of-A-Certain-Item/Dish " movement makes me really frustrated. I'm in support of it. I think it's REALLY necessary. Quality matters. Sustainable practices, important. Small mom and pop shops are vital. Creativity counts. I wonder, though, with all this focus on ingredients, if we sometimes miss the point: about dining being an event that encompasses more than the food. An event that's ultimately focused around having a great time, whether you're dining solo or with a group of friends. I don't want to lose the ability to sit down over a $5 dollar pizza with a group of friends and have a fantastic evening. (Not that I'm suggesting Anthony Bourdain and the like would be against this, because, well, just read his book or watch his show for 5 seconds and you'll see.) I don't want to stop being proud of the dishes I make just because I'm unable to afford the very best and authentic ingredients. Or quit believing that, yes, high dining in fancy restaurants is wonderful, but so is a simple meal at home on a quiet evening.

Do what you can, the best you can, when you can. Maybe that's all I'm asking. And maybe that really is something like sitting dockside in France with a platter of freshly shucked Belon oysters. But maybe it's not. It's not something I can do. (Not yet, anyway. ;) ) I say be proud of what you can do. Maybe what you can do is whip up a pan of fresh macaroni and cheese, because deep down, in some primal way, dairy products make you happy. Dairy products that aren't necessarily made by European monks in caves who only hum Beethoven and flog themselves while making their cheese.

This macaroni and cheese recipe can get as fancy, gourmet, artisinal, blah blah blah as you want. Or, like the original recipe, you can just use cheddar and monterey jack. It still turns out amazing. My version falls somewhere in the middle. What I love about this recipe is that it's impossible to mess up. It comes from Cooks Illustrated's test kitchen and it never ever separates, never gets oily or dry, even when reheated the next day. It's thick and creamy, and coats every noodle in liquid velvet. I'll print the original version. Then I'll give you the version I make.

WARNING: Just looking at a pan of this stuff will make you gain 5 pounds. I suggest you do not step on a scale for at least a week after consumption. Better yet, if you plan on adding this into your cooking repertoire, get rid of your scale altogether.

Classic Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 6 to 8 as a main course

"It is crucial to cook the pasta until tender - just past the "al dente" stage. In fact, overcooking is better than under cooking the pasta. Whole, low-fat, and skim milk would all work well in this recipe. The recipe can be halved and baked in an 8 inch square, broiler safe baking dish."

Bread Crumb Topping

6 slices of large white sandwich bread, torn into rough pieces
3 tablespoons of cold, unsalted butter, but into 6 pieces

Pasta and Cheese

1 pound of elbow macaroni
table salt
5 tablespoons of unsalted butter
6 tablespoons of all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons powdered mustard
1/4 teaspoons cayenne (optional)
5 cups of milk
8 ounces of Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
8 ounces of sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

1. For the bread crumbs: Pulse bread and butter in the food processor until crumbs are no larger than 1/8 inch, ten to fifteen 1-second pulses. Set aside

2. For the Pasta and Cheese: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and hear broiler. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in Dutch oven over high heat. Add macaroni and 1 tablespoon salt; cook until pasta is tender. Drain pasta and set aside in colander.

3. In now-empty Dutch oven , heat butter over medium-high heat until foaming. Add flour, mustard, and cayenne (if using) and whisk well to combine. Continue whisking until mixture becomes fragrant and deepens in color, about 1 minute. Gradually whisk in milk; bring mixture to a boil, whisking constantly (mixture must reach full boil to fully thicken.) Reduce heat to medium and simmer, whisking occasionally until the consistency of heavy cream, about 5 minutes. Off heat, whisk in cheeses until fully melted. Add pasta and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is steaming and heated through, about 6 minutes.

4. Transfer mixture to broiler-safe 13x9 inch baking dish and sprinkle evenly with bread crumbs. Broil until crumbs are deep golden brown, 3-5 minutes, rotating pan if necessary for even brownness. Cool about 5 minutes, then serve.

Here are the adjustments I make to mine. I use just over 5 ounces each of sharp cheddar, monterey jack, and smoked Gruyere. I also saute several shallots and pancetta to include when I add the cheese. I almost always use 2% milk. According to the footnote in the recipe, it's the monterey jack cheeses' high moisture content that gives the sauce a nice smooth texture, so I would eliminate all of it, should you choose to change things up. The flavor is subtle, though, so it's best when paired with a stronger flavored cheese.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Rainbow Salsa Fresca

Just a quick little post on an impromptu salsa I made last night. In an attempt to make black bean tacos a bit more inspired, I thought I'd whip up a quick salsa fresca using some tomatoes from my garden instead of my usual go-to fire roasted canned tomatoes. It was...well..the BEST thing I've done in a while! And maybe even my best salsa yet, and yes, I realize the gravity of those words. ;) The yellow tomatoes added a wonderful contrasting sweetness to the poblano and lime, and the whole thing was incredibly fresh-tasting. My only mistake was not making enough. Les and I devoured the whole batch that evening. I will be making this again. Probably today.

Rainbow Salsa Fresca

Mix together the following ingredients:

1/4 red onion finely diced
2 cloves of minced garlic
1/2 of a poblano pepper, finely diced
Several heaping tablespoons of chopped cilantro
8 yellow pear tomatoes, diced
2 roma tomates, diced
juice from one lime wedge
1/2 tsp cumin
salt to taste

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What NOT to do in the kitchen

I haven't been bringing my "A" game to the kitchen lately. "Uninspired" isn't the right word, but it's the first word that comes to mind. I stepped on the scale this morning to reveal a three pound lighter me and thought, "How did THAT happen?" But then, yeah, thinking back I can't think of a time in the last few weeks where I actually cooked anything. I've "assembled" at best. A sandwich here. A salad there. I'm ashamed to admit that I've gone whole days on half a cibatta roll or muffin. Those days usually end with Les coming home to a sketchy mess of a wife and calling for take-out or taking over the kitchen himself.

Today, however, I'm feeling homey. My painfully neglected garden is now weeded and tended to. Laundry is going. Studio work consists of assembling and gluing pieces...something that can be done cleanly and upstairs. Today is a great day to get a little creative in the kitchen.

Well. Let's pretend for a minute that things didn't go horribly awry; that I actually FOLLOWED the recipe. Let's pretend I didn't substitute summer squash for corn. Let's also pretend the squash wasn't about 4 inches longer than it should have been, making it too tough to use raw. That I didn't double where I should have halved ingredients. Maybe envision a cucumber feta sauce that didn't resemble curdled light green cream. Even while preparing the salad, I knew it wasn't going to be very good. But in the same way you can't turn away when you're about to witness a train wreck, I couldn't stop chopping, blending. So confident was I in the failure of this recipe, that I started writing my post before the dish was even done. (Yes, maybe I've been a tad pessimistic lately.) In the end, the dish wasn't that bad. Okay, it was actually decent. My only complaint was its subtlety, which may not have happened had I not blended ALL of the cucumber and feta together for the sauce, making it a bit thin. I had to add additional feta to give the dish a little punch. Is there room for improvement? Probably. Maybe next time I'll marinate the chopped cucumbers in a little vinegar before adding them to the salad. Maybe there wants to be a little lemon in there somewhere. I'm going to share the recipe and let you decide for yourself.

Orzo and Summer Squash Salad with Cucumber Feta dressing


4 ounces of Feta
2 Cucumbers, peeled and seeded, cut into 1/2 inch pieces (just over 2 cups)
2 Tblsp of olive oil
1/2 Tblsp of water

1/2 lb of orzo pasta
2 cups summer squash chopped into 1/2 cubes and sauteed for a few minutes to soften*
1/3 cup chopped chives

Preparation for the sauce
Place all but a few tablespoons of the feta cheese, half of the cucumbers, oil and water in a food processor and process until smooth.

For the salad
Cook the orzo in a pot of boiling salted water until almost tender, about 8 minutes. Drain. Transfer to a large bowl. Add the remaining feta, cucumbers, chives and summer squash. Toss with dressing, sprinkle with salt and pepper and garnish with additional chives.

*The original recipe I was using called for corn, but I had summer squash from my garden to use up.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Where'd all the time go?

It's August? Really? It can't be. Wasn't it just May yesterday?! I think it's flown by because I've been out trying to make the most of every hot, sunny moment. There's been so much...a wedding, several camping trips, Duck Lake, an in-law visit, several trips to Connecticut, cookouts, cocktail hours, farmer's markets. Lots of good meals. Tons of good meals! I feel like I've been a cooking fiend, which is so deeply satisfying, especially considering all the good company with which I've been able to dine. But oh, the food. The grilled rack of lamb, the pan seared pollack over a white bead puree, the slow-smoked ribs, gazpacho, the salads made from ingredients still in the ground not 5 minutes before, and so much more. We have eaten well, to be sure.

And there's sure to be more. Summer isn't over yet! I'm keeping a mental list of things I want to do before the warm weather disappears. On that list? Gathering a bucket of periwinkles to enjoy with a cold bottle of white wine in the waning summer light, making and canning jam, homemade popcicles, escaping to Cape Cod to swim in the ocean, dining al fresco whenever I can, just to name a few.

Also on that list, cooking with fresh local ingredients as much as I possibly can, especially when they're from my own garden. Speaking of that garden, I've planted more cucumbers than I know what to do with. I love a simple sliced cuke with a pinch of salt, but I'm a little burned out. I need ideas. I need recipes. Interesting ways to use them up. My latest comes from Christine, who suggested using them in place of tomatoes for a salsa. Brilliant! And beautiful! I used this salsa to top grilled chicken and also to throw in fajitas. I bet it would go great with fish. Or chips. Or just a spoon!

Cucumber Salsa

1 cucumber, diced
half a red onion, finely diced
1 jalapeno, seeded and finely diced
2 ears of corn, kernels cut off the cob and blanched in boiling water for 3 minutes
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
juice from half a lime
a pinch of salt
maybe a little cumin if you have it

Mix all ingredients and let mingle in the fridge for a bit.

Super easy! Super delicious!