Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Recipe and Results: Southern Biscuits with Shrimp and Grits

The Process:
Biscuits are devilishly tricky breads to get right, and I figured that by following Alton Brown's extremely scientific recipe I would have a greater likelihood of getting them perfect. Little did I know that just after Alton's super precise (aka: you need a kitchen scale) ingredient list, the actual process of making the biscuit dough would include terms like rubbing, poking, and massaging. If only that were being done to my back, I would be a very peaceful cook. Alas, I had to do it to the dough, and I had to do so in a way that would replicate Alton's grandmother's arthritic fingers. That's right-- the recipe explicitly talked about the advantage of stiff fingers and a semi-light touch in order to make my biscuits light and fluffy (excessive mixing of the fats and flour packs the dough together too densely and leads to thick, crumbly crackers).

Now, I don't have rock-climber-strong finger tips. I can't palm a basketball (...or throw one, but that's beside the point), and I am always afraid I am going to break a nail (zero pain threshold), but in general I have fairly strong hands. So, I had to act. In the most privately embarrassing cooking moment I have had since attempting to make a tableside Caesar Salad "with great flair and flourish," (yet another Alton Brown mandate), I crooked my fingers, pretended they were frozen and couldn't move, and prodded at my biscuit mixture until I had what I thought would be the perfect dough. Fortunately, nobody was around to see.

The Verdict:
The biscuits were good... Not perfect arthritis biscuits, but good nonetheless. My first mistake was that I made the dough round too thin because I didn't think I would get enough biscuits out of it. I assumed that the dough would rise quite a bit... It did not rise even a little. My second mistake is that, looking back at the recipe, I put about 1/4 of the amount of baking powder I was supposed to. Oops. What I got were thin, slightly-too-dense biscuits with a really lovely flavor. Lesson of the week: double the recipe, cut the biscuits much thicker, and when the last biscuit is eaten, relearn that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Second lesson: Put enough baking powder.

The rest of the meal was not memorized, but it was such a delicious main course to have with our biscuits that I will share the recipes here too. The shrimp sauce was perfectly creamy without being too heavy (I don't know how Bobby Deen promotes healthier versions of his mom's recipes without completely insulting her, but he pulls it off without a hitch). I doubled the recipe, except for the tomatoes. Personally, I don't like my Shrimp and Grits too acidic. The recipe also called for instant grits, but the slow cook grits I used were truly spectacular once they cooked down. A word to the wise: if you are serving a group of people who choose rice as their preferred carbohydrate, the grits may not fly. Our dinner group consisted of my roommate, her dad, and our friend, all of whom are Asian and none of whom liked the grits. The situation would have been a culinary anthropologist's dream. (Do they exist? Because I may have just found my calling.) To top off a nice meal in a short amount of time, we made indoor s'mores on the gas range (so cute and fun!). And of course, the roomies brought wine.

The one part of the biscuit that did rise was the middle,
so press a little thumbprint on each for a flat top
I made 1 1/2 times the recipe, but the dough was too thin.
I would expect about half this amount if you make a better, thicker biscuit.
Keeping the biscuits in a clean kitchen towel and popping them
in the microwave (don't turn it on!) will preserve the warmth until dinner time.

The Recipe: Southern Biscuits by Alton Brown, adapted from Good Eats: The Early Episodes
Yield: 1 dozen biscuits
Ingredients:

  • 12 oz. all purpose flour plus 1/2 cup for dusting
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1 oz. unsalted butter, chilled
  • 2 oz. shortening, chilled
  • 1 cup lowfat buttermilk, chilled
Preparation:
  • Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  • Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
  • Using your fingertips, rub the butter and shortening into the dry goods until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
  • Make a well in the mixture (volcano style) and pour in the buttermilk. Stir with a large spoon until the dough just comes together, then knead in the bowl until all the flour has been taken up.
  • Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface, then start folding the dough over on itself, gently kneading for 30 seconds.
  • Press the dough into a 1-inch thick round (don't get greedy here and make it thinner to make more biscuits: see "The Verdict" above).
  • Using a 2-inch round biscuit cutter, punch through the dough and twist to release the biscuit. Reroll scraps and keep punching until all the dough has been formed into a biscuits.
  • Place the biscuits on a baking tray so they just barely touch.
  • Use your thumb to press a small dimple into the top center of each biscuit.
  • Bake 15-20 minutes or until the biscuits are tall and light gold.
  • Let cool a little bit in a kitchen towel-lined basket.
  • Serve with butter, honey, jam, and whatever else your heart desires.
Having the proper accoutrements is essential for
dressing up the grits (chives) and the biscuits (butter and honey)

The final product: perfect for breakfast, lunch, or dinner
Shrimp sauce pre-cream
Shrimp sauce post-cream--
delicious taste and consistency, especially mixed with the grits

The Recipe:
Shrimp and Grits, by Bobby Deen, adapted from pauladeen.com
Yield: 8 large servings
Ingredients:
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
  • 2 lbs. uncooked shrimp, peeled, deveined, and tails removed
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 (14 1/2-oz) can petite-cut diced tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup Pinot Grigio (or dry white wine of your choice)
  • 2 tsp Sriracha (or hot sauce of your choice)
  • 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 6 cups water
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 cups stone ground grits (I used the ones from Trader Joe's)
  • 1 cup milk (any % fat)
Preparation:
  • Bring water, salt, and butter to a boil in a pot.
  • Gradually stir in the grits and return to a boil.
  • Lower the heat and cover.
  • Let the grits cook, stirring frequently, for 15-20 minutes.
  • Add milk and cook, uncovered, stirring constantly, for another 10-15 minutes or until grits are a soft, oatmealy texture.
When making the grits, do not stop stirring or you will end up with a grit-lined pan
  • As the grits get started, add oil to a nonstick pan and heat.
  • Add onions and bell pepper and cook for about 8 minutes.
  • Add the shrimp and garlic to the pan and cook, stirring, about 1-2 minutes.
  • Transfer the shrimp to a bowl and set aside.
  • Add the tomatoes, wine, hot sauce, and salt to taste to the pan and bring to a boil, gently scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any stuck bits.
  • Lower the heat and simmer until the sauce begins to thicken, about 10 minutes.
I have to give some credit to our household's preferred Malbec-- Layer Cake
If you don't have a chocolate bar, a little pile of chocolate chips will do the trick.
PS: My sincere apologies for only having one post for this-- time flew, and clearly not in a good direction since I messed up the biscuit recipe!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Viva Mexico! The Results and Modified Recipes

The Process:
Since I only gave myself two days to memorize these recipes, I was (naturally) nervous as I set everything up. However, as I reviewed all of my recipes after the fact, I did a pretty nice job remembering the key components. I still have my blender on loan with a friend, so the pureeing of the prickly pear actually consisted of my roommate and me smooshing the pulp and juice through a fine mesh sieve (I have some battle wounds on my knuckles to prove it!). Needless to say, I recommend using a real blender or food processor.

The tortillas are a hit for the members of the group who want to get their hands a little dirty but aren't into cooking. Once the dough was prepared, I demonstrated one tortilla and let them go crazy with the rest. The more people, the better, but keep in mind that each person needs something heavy, cylindrical, and not likely to break in order to roll the tortillas. I used a rolling pin and a big jar of mayonnaise. What do you have in your kitchen that can double as a rolling pin? You may need it one of these days!

The Verdict:
The tortillas, as usual, were delicious. There's a sweet spot between to thin and too thick, too burnt and too raw, and I think we nailed it on all of them. I used my stovetop cast iron griddle/grill, which gave us plenty of room to cook three tortillas at once. The only down side was that it left some pretty nasty burn marks on the stovetop. Next time, I will cover the burners in foil.

The taco filling was a hit (I used my own recipe for the marinade, which I have written below).  The beauty of tacos is that you can use any meat or no meat. Beans on the side (refried, if you want them to be true border-Mex beans) pack a protein punch as well. I grill some chopped onions in a little vegetable oil, then add the canned beans and some cheddar cheese to make things more interesting.

Finally, the sorbet. For me, a 1:1 ratio of water to sugar in the simple syrup was far too sweet.  I know that's the definition of a simple syrup, but I would make it even simpler--2:1 water to sugar-- and up the lime juice. Prickly pears are already very saccharine, and to pour in more sugar just made me feel like I was eating pink syrup. However, a little sprinkle of normal table salt tempered the sweetness without tasting the least bit salty (add even more salt for a prickly pear frozen margarita sorbet!). And as one reader noted in my original recipe, the dessert may not be completely authentic, but it is a super sexy. What is more alluring that that gorgeous fuchsia color accented with a bright green sprig of mint or wedge of lime?

These recipes make so much food that your guests won't feel shy taking seconds and thirds

My Recipe: Tequila Chicken & Shrimp Taco Filling
Yield: 12 servings (3 tacos per serving)
Ingredients:

  • 1.5 lbs boneless skinless chicken breast and 2 lbs shrimp (or the meat/tofu of your choice)
  • 1 orange
  • 2 limes
  • 1/4 cup tequila
  • cayenne pepper
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 large garlic cloves
  • 4 sprigs of cilantro
  • 4 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 cups thinly sliced cabbage
Preparation:
  • In a liquid measuring cup or mixing bowl, squeeze the juice of the orange and limes and add the tequila.
  • Sprinkle with cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper, and stir.
  • Cut up the chicken breast into 2-inch cubes and make sure the shrimp is peeled, cleaned, and deveined.
  • Put the meats in a shallow bowl (separate them if that is important to you) and pour the marinade over the meat, covering it the best you can.
  • Cut each garlic clove into quarters and wedge the pieces of garlic deep in between the pieces of meat. Do the same with the cilantro sprigs. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  • Before cooking, remove the garlic and cilantro sprigs.
  • Drain the marinade from both of the meats and save in a separate bowl.
  • Heat vegetable oil in 2 separate large pans (2 tbsp in each).
  • Put the meat in the pan and cook until the meat is cooked through (times will vary depending on the meat). If the meat is not cooked but is starting to dry up in the pan, add some of the leftover marinade. Be aware that the marinade includes raw meat liquids, so it will need to cook down as well to be safe.
  • Stuff inside tortillas and top with cabbage.

Keeping tortillas in a clean cloth towel will help them stay warm, moist, and fresh
The Unmodified Recipe: Flour Tortillas, from Blanca Díaz
Yield: 18 tortillas
Ingredients:
  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 1/2 oz vegetable shortening (or 7 tbsp vegetable oil)
  • 1 cup very hot water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
Preparation:
  • Put all dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl.
  • Add the shortening (cut in very small pieces) or oil and the hot water.
  • Mix by hand until a pasty dough forms and all ingredients are incorporated.
  • Knead the dough for 3 minutes.
  • Let the dough sit covered at room temperature for 15 minutes.
  • Separate the dough into portions of about 1.5 oz and form into balls. Keep the dough covered as you form balls out of the entire batch of dough.
  • To form a tortilla, take one ball and place on a hard, flat, dry, and clean surface (I am a fan of a lightly floured countertop). Press down gently to flatten the ball into a patty. With a rolling pin, roll the tortilla into a small oval. Turn the oval 45° and roll some more. Then turn 45° a final time and roll until the tortilla is round.
  • Get a dry griddle or pan very hot. Place the tortilla in the pan, cook, and flip when air bubbles start to form.
  • Gently press out the air pockets that form with the back of a spatula. Flip again.
  • After about 30 seconds, remove the tortilla from the heat. Wrap in a clean cloth and keep somewhere warm until you are ready to serve.
This vibrant color looks even more beautiful when you know it's all natural

The Modified Recipe: Prickly Pear Lime Sorbet, adapted from Fossil Foods
Yield: 8 servings
Ingredients:
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 lime, zested
  • 1 cup prickly pear juice and pulp (5 small fruits worth)
  • 1 cup lime juice
  • 2 tbsp mint leaves, chopped
  • 2 tbsp tequila
  • pinch of salt
Preparation:
  • Heat the sugar, water, mint, and lime zest in a medium saucepan until the sugar has completely dissolved. Set aside to cool and strain out mint and lime zest.
  • Puree the prickly pears and separate the pulp and juice from the seeds.
  • Put the prickly pear juice, simple syrup, lime juice, and salt into a bowl and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until completely chilled, about 1 hour.
  • When ready to put the chilled mixture into your ice cream maker, mix in the tequila. Process the mixture in your ice cream maker according to the ice cream maker directions. Transfer mixture to a plastic storage container and freeze in your freezer until firm, at least 6 hours.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Flour Tortillas y Prickly Pear Sorbet: The Recipes

Happy Rosh Hashanah to all, and feliz día de independencia mexicana! This week's dinner will be themed, and since I don't have an inkling of where to start with traditional Jewish food, I will have to wait until another holiday to give that cuisine a run. Mexico, however, is near and dear to my heart, so tackling some Mexican food will be a great joy. Being from San Diego, there is nothing I love more than cruising into a taquería for a quick, cheap, and delicioso plate of Mexican perfection. The trick to winning my heart? Get me some refried beans and some handmade tortillas. To make it at home is an added bonus.

I have made flour tortillas from scratch a number of times, but I always go back to the recipe to take a peek and make sure I am doing it right. Not this week. On the menu will be Tequila Shrimp and Chicken Tacos with (memorized) Handmade Flour Tortillas. I will draw from the adorable YouTube video in which Blanca Díaz pairs the Charlie Brown theme song with the step-by-step directions for an  authentic tortilla recipe. For dessert we will put my trusty ice cream maker to use for a Prickly Pear Sorbet, which has been slightly spiked with tequila. The recipe I will use for the sorbet came from a number of searches for a refreshing sorbet that still goes with the Mexican theme (Mexican hot chocolate sorbet was a close second but just didn't satisfy my desire for fruitiness). 

This will be done, of course, with no notes or recipes, so wish me suerte!

This is the size, thickness, and cooked-ness that we are looking for. Just beautiful...

The Recipe: Flour Tortillas, from Blanca Díaz
Yield: 18 tortillas
Ingredients:
  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 1/2 oz vegetable shortening (or 7 tbsp vegetable oil)
  • 1 cup very hot water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
Preparation:
  • Put all dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl.
  • Add the shortening (cut in very small pieces) or oil and the hot water.
  • Mix by hand until a pasty dough forms and all ingredients are incorporated.
  • Knead the dough for 3 minutes.
  • Let the dough sit covered at room temperature for 15 minutes.
  • Separate the dough into portions of about 1.5 oz and form into balls. Keep the dough covered as you form balls out of the entire batch of dough.
  • To form a tortilla, take one ball and place on a hard, flat, dry, and clean surface (I am a fan of a lightly floured countertop). Press down gently to flatten the ball into a patty. With a rolling pin, roll the tortilla into a small oval. Turn the oval 45° and roll some more. Then turn 45° a final time and roll until the tortilla is round.
  • Get a dry griddle or pan very hot. Place the tortilla in the pan, cook, and flip when air bubbles start to form.
  • Gently press out the air pockets that form with the back of a spatula. Flip again.
  • After about 30 seconds, remove the tortilla from the heat. Wrap in a clean cloth and keep somewhere warm until you are ready to serve.
Garnish with some mint or lime for a classy presentation
The Recipe: Prickly Pear Lime Sorbet, adapted from Fossil Foods
Yield: 8 servings
Ingredients:
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 lime, zested
  • 1 cup prickly pear juice and pulp (5 small fruits worth)
  • 1/2 cup lime juice
  • 2 tbsp mint leaves, chopped
  • 2 tbsp tequila
  • pinch of salt
Preparation:
  • Heat the sugar, water, mint, and lime zest in a medium saucepan until the sugar has completely dissolved. Set aside to cool and strain out mint and lime zest.
  • Puree the prickly pears and separate the pulp and juice from the seeds.
  • Put the prickly pear juice, simple syrup, lime juice, and salt into a bowl and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until completely chilled, about 1 hour.
  • When ready to put the chilled mixture into your ice cream maker, mix in the tequila. Process the mixture in your ice cream maker according to the ice cream maker directions. Transfer mixture to a plastic storage container and freezer in your freezer until firm, at least 6 hours.
Time to Memorize: 2 days (the disadvantage of being late with my blogging)

Triple Threat: The Results

The Process:
Keeping three recipes bouncing around in my head was an excellent cognitive challenge this week, though fortunately the Eggplant Parm was primarily assembly and the Marinara was a repeat. The biggest concern for me was the Caesar Dressing, which has a flavor that everyone is familiar with. If I botched that, I couldn't even finagle some sort of artistic interpretation; Caesar is Caesar. To top that off, I had two very raw, very unpasteurized eggs that had me praying I would not send all of my dinner guests to the bathroom (or the ER) right after dinner. Finally, the issue with the sauce... I could not, under any circumstances, burn my sauce again. It just couldn't happen. So between stirring, home-pasteurizing, and balancing ingredients, I had plenty on my plate (pun not intended, but I like it!).

The Verdict:
Despite my fears, this Triple Threat was a triple success. I placed a guest on stirring duty, making the Marinara sauce as delicious as could be but without the terribly charred pan. My at-home pasteurization process* worked well, and we were all happily salmonella free. The eggplant assembly made for the perfect main course, and as for the Caesar Salad, it was a much milder version of the bottled stuff, perfectly suitable for a delicious side. I did not modify the recipes, at all, so read on for the delicious (and flawless, if I may say so) recipes from this week's dinner.

The finished product-- perfect served with bread or pasta (we chose bread)
Although my bread was not a day old, Alton's directions still led to perfect croutons
The Recipe: Hail Caesar Salad, adapted from Alton Brown's Good Eats: The Early Years
Yield: 8 servings
Ingredients:

  • 8 oz day-old Italian bread
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 tsp plus a pinch salt
  • 8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large eggs (farm fresh or pasteurized shell), at room temperature
  • 1 lb romaine lettuce hearts*
  • 7 grinds black pepper
  • 1/2 small lemon, juiced
  • 1/2 tsp Worchestershire sauce
  • 4 oz parmesan cheese, grated
Preparation:
  • Heat the oven to 350°F.
  • Cut the bread into 3/4 inch cubes and spread on a pan. Bake until dry but not browned, 10-12 min. Set aside.
  • Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan.
  • While water is boiling, mash garlic and 1/2 tsp of salt together with a mortar and pestle or the back of a spoon.
  • Add 4 tbsp. oil to the paste and mash to combine.
  • Place the garlic oil through a fine mesh sieve into a large saute pan.
  • Place the pan over medium heat, add the croutons, and saute until the oil is absorbed and the croutons are golden, 5 min. Set aside.
  • Add the eggs to the boiling water and cook for 1 minute. Immediately transfer to an ice bath to stop the cooking. Set aside.
  • At the table ("with great flair and flourish") tear the lettuce into a very large bowl and toss with 2 tbsp of oil.
  • Sprinkle with the remaining pinch of salt and pepper. Add the remaining 2 tbsp of oil. Toss well.
  • Add the lemon juice and Worchestershire sauce and break in the eggs. Toss until a creamy dressing forms. Toss in parmesan cheese and top with croutons.
Stirring patrol in the background as I flip the roasted eggplant
The Recipe: Eggplant Parmigiana, adapted from Mario Batali's "Molto Mario" on Food Network
Yield: 8 servings
Ingredients:

  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 large eggplant, about 4 lbs
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 cups Marinara Sauce
  • 2 bunches fresh basil leaves, chiffonade
  • 2 lbs fresh mozzarella, sliced 1/8" thick*
  • 1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs, lightly toasted under broiler
Preparation:
  • Heat the oven to 450°F.
  • Oil a baking sheet with the extra-virgin olive oil
  • Slice each eggplant into 6 pieces about 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick.
  • Salt and pepper each disk and place on the oiled baking sheet.
  • Bake until the sliced begin to durn deep brown on top, about 12-15 min.
  • Remove the eggplant from the oven and place on a separate dish to cool.
  • Lower oven temperature to 350°F.
  • In 2 separate brownie or casserole dishes, place the 8 largest slices of eggplant evenly spaced apart.
  • Top each disk with 1/4 cup Marinara and 1 tsp basil. Place 1 slice of mozzarella on top and sprinkle with 1 tsp parmesan.
  • Place the smaller slices of eggplant each of the disks and repeat the layering process until all eggplant is used.
  • Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the top of the dish and bake uncovered until the cheese melts and the tops turn light brown, about 20 min.
  • Serve immediately.

*Tips:
  • Pasteurizing eggs: Shell pasteurized eggs exist, but they are difficult to find. If you are cooking something that includes raw or undercooked eggs, make sure they are as fresh as possible. Some other tricks can help assuage your fears as well. Boiling an egg for a minute then cooling in an ice bath keeps the yolks loose and most of the whites loose as well (some may stick to the shell, which is fine), but it kills the germs that hang out on the eggshell. Also, a trick to ensure that external bacteria do not enter the egg is to crack the egg on a flat surface rather than on an edge. 
America's Test Kitchen Feed gives a quick tutorial for cracking eggs
  • Drying Romaine lettuce: In order for the dressing to really cling to the lettuce, these lettuce leaves need to be extremely dry. A salad spinner probably won't cut it-- you'll want to hand dry each leaf with a towel or leave lots of time for air drying. My sous chef/roommate was unhappy with her drying task until she realized it was the second most important task of the night.
  • Fresh mozzarella: There is nothing like it. Look for the mozzarella that comes in a ball, and you will notice a huge difference in taste.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Triple Threat: Caesar Salad, Eggplant Parm, and Marinara v2.0

My birthday is on Monday, and it is the last milestone birthday before the one when they will send me my AARP card. In a few short days, I will be allowed to rent a car without any extra charges for being under 25! To celebrate becoming a true adult (since car rental freedom is obviously the sign of womanhood), I am going to tackle a triple-threat Walking Cookbook dinner. Dinner will consist of:

  1. Caesar Salad with all the homemade fixins... croutons, dressing, etc.
  2. Eggplant Parmesan (which uses...
  3. Homemade Marinara Sauce (without the burning part... I must redeem myself and make it up to my cookware)
With the help of my lovely Food Network consultants Alton Brown and Mario Batali, I will attempt both a Caesar Dressing from scratch (eggs and all) and a glorious-looking version of Eggplant Parmesan. And I can't forget Giada, whose Marinara Sauce will be just as tasty this time around but will hopefully take 1% of the time to clean up. That's a lot of cooking show inspiration (I promise I am really a public school teacher and not an under-cover Food Network exec)!

First, let me talk a bit about Alton's Caesar Salad. If I were stranded on a deserted island and could only bring one TV chef with me (tough life, I know), it would definitely be Alton Brown. I would trust him with my survival, which comes into play when I am using a recipe calling for undercooked eggs. In the Tips section of my results page, I will share his words on making food with raw or undercooked eggs. Besides, he encourages wearing a tuxedo while preparing the Caesar Salad tableside... how can I resist? Unfortunately, I don't have a tuxedo. Maybe my friend can bring over her adorable cat with a permanent tuxedo print to class up the night.

Chumley-- just needs a bow tie
Mario Batali's Eggplant Parmesan was appealing to me for a number of reasons. Above all else, there is far less oil involved in this shockingly greasy dish (I am starting to question the wisdom of making my local deli's Eggplant Parm Sub a regular lunch item). The eggplant is roasted before the dish is assembled, meaning awesome flavor and crispiness without the need for a frying step. Also, it uses fresh mozzarella, which I would eat as its own meal if it were socially acceptable. This is way better than the shredded stuff. The final major bonus is that I get to try my homemade Marinara Sauce again, which yielded delicious results but an atrocious burnt pan due to the lack of stirring (see the results from my first attempt here). Still no peeking at the recipe for me!

So without further ado...
Even Chef Cardini made his Caesar tableside in a suit. Class act.


The Recipe: Hail Caesar Salad, adapted from Alton Brown's Good Eats: The Early Years
Yield: 8 servings
Ingredients:
  • 8 oz day-old Italian bread
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 tsp plus a pinch salt
  • 8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large eggs (farm fresh or pasteurized shell), at room temperature
  • 1 lb romaine lettuce hearts
  • 7 grinds black pepper
  • 1/2 small lemon, juiced
  • 1/2 tsp Worchestershire sauce
  • 4 oz parmesan cheese, grated
Preparation:
  • Heat the oven to 350°F.
  • Cut the bread into 3/4 inch cubes and spread on a pan. Bake until dry but not browned, 10-12 min. Set aside.
  • Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan.
  • While water is boiling, mash garlic and 1/2 tsp of salt together with a mortar and pestle or the back of a spoon.
  • Add 4 tbsp. oil to the paste and mash to combine.
  • Place the garlic oil through a fine mesh sieve into a large saute pan.
  • Place the pan over medium heat, add the croutons, and saute until the oil is absorbed and the croutons are golden, 5 min. Set aside.
  • Add the eggs to the boiling water and cook for 1 minute. Immediately transfer to an ice bath to stop the cooking. Set aside.
  • At the table ("with great flair and flourish") tear the lettuce into a very large bowl and toss with 2 tbsp of oil.
  • Sprinkle with the remaining pinch of salt and pepper. Add the remaining 2 tbsp of oil. Toss well.
  • Add the lemon juice and Worchestershire sauce and break in the eggs. Toss until a creamy dressing forms. Toss in parmesan cheese and top with croutons.
Batali's Eggplant Parmesan, a la The Amateur Gourmet

The Recipe: Eggplant Parmigiana, adapted from Mario Batali's "Molto Mario" on Food Network
Yield: 8 servings
Ingredients:
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 large eggplant, about 4 lbs
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 cups Marinara Sauce
  • 2 bunches fresh basil leaves, chiffonade
  • 2 lbs fresh mozzarella, sliced 1/8" thick
  • 1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs, lightly toasted under broiler
Preparation:
  • Heat the oven to 450°F.
  • Oil a baking sheet with the extra-virgin olive oil
  • Slice each eggplant into 6 pieces about 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick.
  • Salt and pepper each disk and place on the oiled baking sheet.
  • Bake until the sliced begin to durn deep brown on top, about 12-15 min.
  • Remove the eggplant from the oven and place on a separate dish to cool.
  • Lower oven temperature to 350°F.
  • In 2 separate brownie or casserole dishes, place the 8 largest slices of eggplant evenly spaced apart.
  • Top each disk with 1/4 cup Marinara and 1 tsp basil. Place 1 slice of mozzarella on top and sprinkle with 1 tsp parmesan.
  • Place the smaller slices of eggplant each of the disks and repeat the layering process until all eggplant is used.
  • Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the top of the dish and bake uncovered until the cheese melts and the tops turn light brown, about 20 min.
  • Serve immediately.
Time to Memorize: 3 days.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Pad Thai: The Results and Modified Recipe


The Process:
Well, it looks like the children got the better of me. I worked late on my first day of school and wasn't able to make it to the specialty food store or to buy a wok, so this week's Pad Thai came with a few major alterations. I have kept the "real" recipe in order as much as possible, mainly for the sake of trying it again someday, but in the Tips section below the recipe you get all the details about the substitutions I made and all the others you can make if necessary. Cruising around Whole Foods, I had found everything I needed, all the way down to the palm sugar ($8.99, but worth it for its gorgeous subtle caramelized flavor). Everything, that is, but the tamarind. Whole Foods had two different kinds of tamarind (paste in a tube and pulp in a condensed package) and were sold out of both (according to all six of the employees that I annoyingly checked with). Having had tamarind candies, preserves, and leather a few times in my life, I was able to reach way back into my memory and think of its identifying traits: sweet, a little tart, and a tiny bit bitter, all with a slightly gritty and chewy texture. 

Toting my computer and two heavy Whole Foods bags in my hand, I walked down Broadway, furrowing my brow and chewing on the inside of my cheek (bad habit), worrying about what to do. Guests were coming in 2 hours, I had to make the sauce early, and tamarind just does not have a simple substitute. On top of all that, the only place to buy food that was left on my walk home was the sidewalk fruit stand. It was fruit stand or nada. By the time I walked away from the stand, I had just added cherries, dates, a random pear (to make the total a whole number), and a small glimmer of hope to my shopping bags.

The Verdict:
I tend to start my Walking Cookbook dinners with, "I'm not sure how this is going to turn out," and this time it was actually the truth. It was all hands on deck in the kitchen, and thanks to my two roommates who were home I was able to complete the meal without going crazy. Despite the lack of tamarind, the sweet-sour flavor was still very present in my sauce. Using a normal stainless steel pan also turned out fine, though I would absolutely want to try a wok someday when I didn't just start work. I made the Pad Thai with a side dish of avocados and asian slaw. I made about 14 enormous portions, which were gone within 36 hours, so I consider that a sign of success.

The beautiful finished product

Avocado Conference shot courtesy of Becky, the evening's photographer

The Modified Recipe: Pad Thai for Beginners, adapted from Chez Pim
Yield: 6 servings
Sauce Ingredients:
  • 1/2 cup tamarind pulp (no sugar added)*
  • 1/2 cup fish sauce
  • 1/2 cup palm sugar (about the color of cookie dough)*
  • 2-4 tsp Thai chili powder or paprika
Pad Thai Ingredients:
  • 16 oz. thin rice noodles (aka: Rice Sticks, Banh Pho, or Chantaboon)
  • 42 medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, and tails removed
  • 2 packs firm or extra-firm tofu, drained and cut into bite-sized pieces (picture the size of a Starburst candy)
  • 6 eggs
  • 3/4 cup roasted unsalted peanuts, finely chopped
  • 12 garlic chives (or the green part of a green onion), cut into 2" pieces
  • 3 cups bean sprouts
  • 1 lime
  • 2 cups safflower oil

Sauce Preparation:
  • In a small saucepan, melt the tamarind pulp, fish sauce, and palm sugar together over a low flame.
  • Add the chili powder or paprika teaspoon by teaspoon until reaching the desired level of spice.
  • Bring to a simmer and continue to season until you like the flavor. Remove from the heat.

Pad Thai Preparation: Make 2 portions at a time
  • Soak the rice noodles in water until they are very al dente. Drain and break apart.
  • Prepare all other ingredients as described in the ingredients list and set in containers near the stove.*
  • Heat a large wok* over high heat until very hot, to the point of smoky.
  • Add a splash of oil, about 3-4 tablespoons.*
  • Add 1/3 of the tofu to the pan (avoid including its liquids) and cook for one minute until the tofu is crisp and slightly brown at the edges.
    Caution: It will smoke and spit at you. Step back to be safe.
  • Add about 4 loosely packed cups of noodles and ladle about 1/2 cup of warm sauce. Stir vigorously, keep everything moving in the wok, and cook the noodles until soft. If the sauce evaporates too quickly and your noodles aren't quite ready, sprinkle a bit of water and keep stirring. Add a bit of oil if the noodles stick together. 
  • Keep the egg carton handy to replace the shells
    after cracking the eggs-- it makes the job much cleaner
  • When the noodles are ready (taste to be sure), push them up to one side of the wok and crack 2 eggs into the middle. Let set for 10-15 seconds and toss everything together.
  • Add 1/3 of the shrimp, ground peanuts, and bean sprouts and cook for 1-2 minutes, until shrimp turn pink and are cooked through. Keep things moving. Add more sauce if it looks a little pale.
  • Add a handful of garlic chives or green onions. 
  • Turn the heat off, and quickly give the wok a good stirring to mix everything together.
  • Add the finished Pad Thai to a plate. 
  • Give the used wok a quick rinse with warm water, wipe off any excess bits of food with a warm towel, then put the wok back on to the fire.
  • As soon as the wok heats back up to a smoking point, you’re ready to do another portion. Repeat this process until all your dinner guests are fed.*
*Tips:

  • Tamarind Pulp: If you cannot find tamarind pulp, I will suggest my own version. I used 3/4 cup pitted dark cherries and the insides of 1 date. Crush the cherries to a pulp the best you can. Split the date in half, place on a flat surface, and scrape the inside out with a spoon. When your sauce is cooked, put it through a strainer to get all the bits of fruit out before using in your Pad Thai. I also ended up adding about 1/2 cup water to the sauce as well.
With the sweet, tart, and salty, all that was left to add
 was the spicy element. Paprika or Thai chili powder work great.
  • Palm Sugar: If you cannot find palm sugar, use 1/3 cup of light brown sugar instead.
  • Preparing to cook the Pad Thai: This is the part of the blog where I get to be fancy and say "mise en place." Mise en place basically means setting up all of your prepared ingredients close to your cooking surface so all you have to do is grab and toss. You will feel like a real TV chef (only your assistants will be your roommates).
"Everything in place" sounds so much better in French,
but it is useful no matter what language you're speaking.
  • What to do without a wok: I used my stainless steel pan with high sides. It is likely to get a little more gunk on the bottom as it cooks, so don't be shy with the oil, and give it a bit of a scrape between batches. And don't forget to keep things moving!
  • Approximate oil measurements: I tend to count my pours when I just need to be approximate. Four quick seconds is about 4 tablespoons. You may be thinking, "But all seconds are the same length!" You are right. Count to four as if you were about to declare a thumb war (rapid but deliberate enough that all of your numbers are well articulated), and that is equivalent to four "quick seconds."
"1-2-3-4, I declare a thumb war!"
  • Feeding large groups: I like when everyone gets to eat at the same time, so I heated my oven to 200°F and let it warm for about 5 minutes. I then turned off the oven and put my plated portions of Pad Thai in the oven to stay warm until we were ready to sit down. This probably wouldn't work with a huge group, but it made 5 portions work well without getting cold or dry.
A lovely end to a lovely day

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Pad Thai: The Recipe

It's going to be a special Family Dinner this Thursday... I will have just completed the first day of the fourth year of my teaching career. For someone who wasn't even sure that she would make it through two years, my school and students have become an invaluable part of my life. As my NYC "family" (roommates, friends, visitors, etc.) and I say goodbye to our summer days, I have to admit that I'm not quite ready to start cooking the real comfort food. My pot pies, mac & cheese, and other sources of warmth will have to wait a little longer. This week, I will be having fun with Pad Thai.

As common as Pad Thai is in my gastronomic repertoire as a consumer, it is not even close to my culinary comfort zone. Woks are involved, measurements are not precise, and to top it off, the ingredients are going to be a beast to find, even in the Big Food-Mecca Apple. However, if I am truly to become a Walking Cookbook, I have to jump this hurdle sometime. For this, I turn to the experts. Chef McDang, the king of Thai cuisine according to most of my sources, offered up his complex recipe on his website. Impressive, yes, but I ended up going the training-wheel route with Pim Techamuanvivit's wordier but somehow less intimidating version. Pim is a blogger, so her conversational style gave me just enough hand holding that I felt I could take on the task. Of course, I pared it down to my own virgo-esque list format.

I hope I am able to find the ingredients needed for a true Pad Thai, because as open as I am to substitutions, I don't want my entire meal to be made of replacement ingredients. So it's off to Kalustyans I go to search their shelves for the more esoteric (read: authentic Thai) ingredients in the recipe. Oh yeah, and I have to buy a wok...


Pim's mouthwatering results


The Recipe: Pad Thai for Beginners, adapted from Chez Pim
Yield: 6 servings
Sauce Ingredients:
  • 1/2 cup tamarind pulp (no sugar added)
  • 1/2 cup fish sauce
  • 1/2 cup palm sugar (about the color of cookie dough)
  • 2-4 tsp Thai chili powder or paprika
Pad Thai Ingredients:

  • 16 oz. thin rice noodles (aka: Rice Sticks, Banh Pho, or Chantaboon)
  • 42 medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, and tails removed
  • 2 packs firm or extra-firm tofu, drained and cut into bite-sized pieces (picture the size of a Starburst candy)
  • 6 eggs
  • 3/4 cup roasted unsalted peanuts, finely chopped
  • 12 garlic chives (or the green part of a green onion), cut into 2" pieces
  • 3 cups bean sprouts
  • 1 lime
  • 2 cups peanut oil

Sauce Preparation:
  • In a small saucepan, melt the tamarind pulp, fish sauce, and palm sugar together over a low flame.
  • Add the chili powder or paprika teaspoon by teaspoon until reaching the desired level of spice.
  • Bring to a simmer and remove from the heat.

Pad Thai Preparation: Make no more than 2 portions at a time
  • Soak the rice noodles in water until they are very al dente. Drain.
  • Prepare all other ingredients as described in the ingredients list and set in containers near the stove.
  • Heat a large wok over high heat until very hot, to the point of smoky.
  • Add a splash of oil, about 3-4 tablespoons.
  • Add 1/3 of the tofu to the pan and cook for one minute until the tofu is crisp and slightly brown at the edges.
  • Add about 4 loosely packed cups of noodles, and ladle about 1/2 cup of warm sauce. Stir vigorously, keep everything moving in the wok, and cook the noodles until soft. Remember to break up the noodles and don’t let them lump together. If the sauce evaporates too quickly and your noodles aren't quite ready, sprinkle a bit of water and keep stirring. Add a bit of oil if the noodle still stubbornly sticks together. 
  • When the noodles are ready (taste to be sure), push them up to one side of the wok and crack 2 eggs into the middle. Let set for 10-15 seconds and toss everything together.
  • Add 1/3 of the shrimp, ground peanuts, and bean sprouts and cook for 1-2 minutes, until shrimp turn pink and are cooked through. Keep things moving. Add more sauce if it looks a little pale.
  • Add a handful of garlic chives. 
  • Turn the heat off, and quickly give the wok a good stirring to mix everything together.
  • Add the finished Pad Thai to a plate and serve. 
  • Give the used wok a quick rinse with warm water, wipe off any excess bits of food with a warm towel, then put the wok back on to the fire.
  • As soon as the wok heats back up to a smoking point, you’re ready to do another portion. Repeat this process until all your dinner guests are fed.

Time to Memorize: 3 days