On Trial: ToH Best Ever Desserts – Tiramisu Brownies

Discouraged and irritated, I took a couple of weeks off of the current On Trial series, where we are painfully working our way through Taste of Home’s latest publication. The cover article proudly boasts “Best Ever Desserts” and we are putting them to the test.

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After one failure of a cheesecake and one decent, although not “best ever” cake, we’re back in the kitchen to find out if ToH magazine can redeem themselves with their Tiramisu Brownies.

Tiramisu is a dessert of Italian origin. It is essentially comprised of soft, spongy ladyfinger cookies (preferably Italian savoiardi) dipped in strong coffee and liquor. These are layered with a mascarpone, egg, sugar and cream mixture, and topped with cocoa powder. The original dessert did not contain any alcohol, as it was often served to children. A delicate cake with an intense flavor, tiramisu is served in different incantations across the globe.

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Photo courtesy Sebastian Kügler and Wikipedia

Still, I had some expectations going into this.

The savoiardi cookies that comprise a tiramisu are a spongy bite of deliciousness marinated in a strong coffee mixture. The cookies aren’t heavy at all, which left me a little concerned about a brownie version — a brownie is usually meant to be picked up and, in order to do so, this would have to have some sort of substance to it. Still, I was hopeful.

I’m not going to list the recipe to this – you’ll thank me later. If anyone out there wants it, the magazine is available at grocery stores everywhere and will probably be up on the ToH website in the near future.

Semisweet chocolate is melted and mixed with butter. So far, we seem to be on the right track here. If you use a decent-quality chocolate, you will get better results. I always love the glossy texture of chocolate and butter.

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So far, so good. Beat in sugar and a lot of eggs. Add flour and… a quarter cup of instant coffee granules.

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Ugh. You’ve got to be kidding me. An entire quarter cup!? Too late, this thing is now a train wreck that I can’t turn myself away from! I added it to the bowl.

That mess gets set aside, and you start on the filling. It’s mascarpone cheese, sugar and vanilla. Pretty basic.

Now we just put it all together. Half of the chocolate mixture goes into the bottom of a greased 13×9 baking dish. As you can see from the photo, I used parchment paper. That’s just how I roll. The mascarpone cheese mixture is poured on top.

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The remaining batter is spread over the top. I found this annoying because the dough is not pourable, so I had to carefully smooth this out as best as I could without mashing it into the mascarpone. If you are making this recipe (I don’t know why you would be but just in case you are) I would suggest putting thin strips down and trying very carefully to smooth this out. Space the chocolate evenly, so as it bakes it can spread and connect to the other blobs of chocolate.

After baking, you get a big pan of brownies. Here is a slightly blurry photo of one that I managed to capture right before leaving for work.

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The brownie portion itself is just a brownie. There’s no depth of flavor, no “vavoom” of the chocolate. I really think that if I had just left out the instant coffee, I would have had something decent. The mascarpone filling is good, but is sort of left hanging by the brownie not being able to deliver.

The Verdict: Fail

The recipe tried to give us a light brownie to mimic the original tiramisu dessert, and that was its failure. If we had gone with a brownie that consisted of rich texture, deep chocolate flavor and good dosage of a decent quality (and brewed) Italian roast, it would have been more successful.

Taste of Home, you need to get your act together.

Next up, we’ll be trying out the Taste of Home mini apple pies and, if this doesn’t rock my sock off, we’re calling it quits and giving the ToH Best Ever Desserts an abysmal Sandra Lee rating.

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Weeknight Cooking: Thai Yellow Chicken Curry

It’s really only been in the past few years that I’ve tried expanding my culinary horizons. A friend had invited me out to dinner at a local Thai restaurant and, as nervous as I was about going, I accepted. The reason I usually avoided ethnic restaurants was because of strange ingredients, the smell of fish sauce and, most importantly, the fear of spicy food. What can I say? I’m a spice wimp. It hurts my tummy.

The first Thai dish I tried was an Americanized version of Phad Thai, the classic noodle dish served everywhere. People love Phad Thai, I was told. And supposedly I would love it as well.

I didn’t.

I’m not a fan of the glassy noodles because the texture just doesn’t do anything for me. As you’ve probably guessed from the other dishes I’ve posted about, I’m a rice girl. So, when the Phad Thai just didn’t do anything for me texturally, it was suggested that I try a classic yellow chicken curry.

It was everything I was looking for: Meat and potatoes soaking in a delicious coconut-curry sauce, mingling with a variety of vegetables, peanuts and pineapple, sitting on top of a cloud of Jasmine rice. Since that day, my love for Thai food has only grown as I’ve sampled a variety of different dishes from many restaurants, but when I go to a new Thai restaurant, I view the yellow curry as the benchmark. In later years, I have also included the chicken satay as the benchmark. If the curry and satay are good, the rest of the menu has to be decent as well.

A few years ago, I took my first trip to Hawaii. My brother was returning from his first Iraq tour, and was being given shore leave in Honolulu. My parents and I flew out to meet him.

Looking back, I realize that I should have gone all Anthony Bourdain on the island, avoiding the Jimmy Buffet explosion and searching for authentic Hawaiian cuisine — well, something other than Spam, but I didn’t. My parents and I wanted to partake in all of the cheesy touristy activities, including the goofy luau with extremely salted pig.

On our way down to the beach from the hotel, we passed a jazzy looking little Thai restaurant called Keo’s. My parents had never eaten Thai, so I insisted that we try it out.

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Photograph courtesy of Keo’s.

Everything we tried was delicious. I didn’t know this at the time, but it turns out the owner, Keo Sananikone, has gained recognition in the culinary world with his dishes. Bon Appetit voted Keo’s “American’s Best Thai Restaurant”, Gourmet named it one of “America’s Top Tables”, and Newsweek described his restaurant as “One of the choicest dining spots in Honolulu”.

After eating at his restaurant, I was interested in obtaining recipes for some of the dishes. So, as a Christmas gift, I was given a copy of Sananikone’s cookbook, Keo’s Thai Cuisine. Of course, I took one look at the ingredients and processes and, completely intimidated, I shelved the book for a few years.

Recently, I forced myself to get over it and was incredibly surprised with how easy it is. So let’s start with Keo’s classic Yellow Chicken Curry dish.

This is a two-parter, hence my initial reservation. In the cookbook, there are recipes for all of the curry pastes — there will be no purchasing curry pastes from your local department. He shows you how to do this right.

Before you get intimidated and decide this isn’t the dish for you, consider that the curry paste only has to be made once. Dump all ingredients into a food processor and combine. It makes enough paste to make a thousand yellow curry dishes, and the paste will keep in a glass container in the refrigerator for a few months. To make the dish itself, you only need 1 1/2 teaspoons of the paste so a little goes a long way.

Yellow Curry Paste
5 – 10 fresh yellow chile peppers, seeded
1 stalk of fresh lemongrass, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots
2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped garlic
1 tsp. coarsely chopped kra-chai or ginger
1 tsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. caraway seeds
1 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. dried mustard
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. If a mortar and pestle are used, then add oil after all other ingredients are ground.

Simple as that. Because I am not good with spicy food, I only put 5 chilies in my paste. This may still seem like quite a bit, but remember that when you make the curry, you only need 1 1/2 teaspoons of paste to make the dish.

The curry dish itself is equally as simple. I like to let my chicken and potatoes sit for a bit longer in the sauce so that the potatoes really soak up the coconut-curry sauce, but I don’t want to sacrifice the amount of sauce to put on my rice. I have changed the recipe to account for that.

Keo’s Yellow Chicken Curry
1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2 breasts)
2 potatoes, peeled, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 1/2 tsp. Yellow Curry Paste
1 1/2 cup coconut milk
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
1 1/2 tsp. brown sugar
1 – 5 chile peppers seeded and chopped (optional)

Get your rice going. I use Jasmine, but Basmati would be fine, too. Thinly slice chicken into bite-sized cubes. Cut potatoes into 1/2-inch cubes. I have made them 1-inch cubes, but they take a longer time to cook.

In a saucepan, heat oil and curry paste on high heat, until curry paste bubbles.

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Add chicken, potatoes, coconut milk, fish sauce, brown sugar, and yellow chile peppers. Peppers are optional – this is where the “spicy” level is decided. I don’t put them in at all. Also, let’s talk about the fish sauce for a second. I know what you’re thinking: “Fish sauce? That stinks up the kitchen!” It is sometimes listed as optional in Americanized-recipes, but it does add a bit of needed saltiness to the dish. If you aren’t comfortable with putting in that much fish sauce, cut it in half.

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Stir well and cover with foil, allowing it cook for about 7 – 12 minutes or until chicken is cooked. Stir periodically, making sure your potatoes get dunked in the sauce. Accompany with hot steamed rice.

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There’s a short, interesting bio about Keo Sananikone at Honolulu Magazine. Scroll down to the second bio.

If you’re interested in purchasing Keo’s Thai Cuisine book, it is available for a decent price at amazon.com. Above I mentioned both the yellow curry and the satay being my benchmark and, in case you’re wondering, Keo’s satay is in the book and quite tasty, too.

Top Chef Season 4, Episode 1: Brett Favre and Lesbians

After the new Season of Top Chef kicked off, AwK writers Citizen Chef and Miss Macchiato converse on the new season and what went down in Episode 1: Anything You Can Cook, I Can Cook Better.

Miss Macchiato: I’m a huge fan of the show so of course I was very excited for the first episode to air. Unfortunately I had been reading some of the blogs that had a sneak peek at the first episode, all saying there was a big, surprising twist. By the time I sat down and watched it, I was happy with the first episode, but it didn’t lead up to the hype. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t disappointed in the new season at all, just irritated that I had been reading other blogs who had a sneak preview and didn’t talk about any of the things that actually made this season different.

Citizen Chef: Yeah it was a great first episode, but nothing to differentiate it from the other seasons. We actually seem to be falling into some archetypes in the show. We have the “Asian chef with mad cooking skills but no social ones”, the “goofy hair molecular gastronomy guy”, and the “big burly guy who cries all the time”.

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MM: This season the notable differences are the chefs – more cursing edited out and, for some crazy reason, more frou-frou fine dining chefs who act and talk as if they think they’re 50 Cent. Otherwise, I wasn’t shocked at the challenges. They were invited to a get together and BAM, the Quick Fire immediately followed. As for having Rocco diSpirito as the surprise judge – he’s been a judge before, so I can’t say I was shocked. They also brought Anthony Bourdain back as a guest judge in the Elimination Challenge, and that was actually a little disappointing because he was so tame.

CC: Yeah I would agree. I love Bourdain, but it’s hard to know if Bravo took the piss out of him or if he was behaving himself. To have him on the same panel as Rocco, whom Bourdain has eviscerated in his writing, and even named a Golden Clog Award for “Worst Career Move” after, was a bit odd.

MM: While they were doing the judging, I couldn’t help but notice they had Rocco at one end and Bourdain at the other. I have no idea if that was intentional or not, but I kept thinking about the Clogs, and I felt socially awkward for everyone. That may have been all editing to make the judging portion seem as polite as possible, but it came off as awkward.

CC: Let’s talk about the challenges. I would rate the Pizza Quick Fire as almost as stupid as the Ice Cream Quick Fire from the previous season. The dough was premade, so is throwing some toppings on a pizza really a challenge?

MM: The dough surprised me as well, although in their defense, making good dough takes more than 30 – 60 minutes. It has to rise, you punch it down, let it rise again… I’ve made dough before and it isn’t hard, just time consuming. Still, I can’t figure out why so many chefs had a hard time making a pizza. Maybe it was nerves.

CC: I will say Richard did take the “signature” part of the challenge to heart with the peaches and I thought the sweet tea reduction was a really nice idea.

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MM: Yes, absolutely. This competition is called “Top Chef” and that means being inventive and taking risks. It’s not about making a safe pizza you would get from Domino’s. Show me something new!

CC: The other weird part about that challenge, apart from the amount of chefs who can’t make a damn deep dish pizza, was that the losing group ended up getting more of an advantage in the next challenge. I’d rather pick the dish I’m making, than have the person I’m competing against pick it, especially when it’s the first day and you haven’t had a chance to size up the competition. Wouldn’t you?

MM: Yeah, and what’s up with the spiky hair guy who took the K-Fed wannabe’s pan?
If that was me, I would have asked that he give one back.

CC: Marcel 2 and Guywhodidntknowwhatanamusebouchewas 2?

MM: The smoky technique guy with the spiky hair who went up against Marcel 2.

CC: the smoky technique guy IS Marcel 2

MM: Except that he seems like a nice guy.

CC: Yeah, I admit like him already.

MM: The whining K-Fed wannabe guy is too much like Marcel – to me, anyway.

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CC: Well he whines like Marcel, but that’s about it.

MM: Remember when Marcel did the rap? I wanted to reach through my screen and throttle him.

CC: Oh god, the rapping. I forgot about that.

MM: I want to say that the Marcel/Hung carryover would be the new Asian guy on the show; the one who didn’t win anything but kept talking trash. He’s one to watch out for, I think.

CC: So this season we have a Marcel doppelganger: One with the hair and cooking techniques, and one with the attitude and poor musical judgement. Lecram 1 and Lecram 2. I also think it’s odd that there were at least two chefs taking the “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win” route, which NEVER works because being a chef is about inspiring people. That makes you a great line cook, but I’m not going to your restaurant because everyone who works for you will hate your guts.

MM: Well, that doesn’t mean your food is bad, it just means you’re a jerk.

CC: Yeah, but being a chef is about being a leader. Let me go off on a tangent here for a second. Brett Favre —

MM: Oh, let him retire already!

CC: No wait, I have a point here.

MM: Unless Brett Favre can make a soufflé, let’s move on!

CC: Fine, grumble grumble… best QB ever… grumble…

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MM: Let’s talk about the Elimination Challenge. Two chefs went head-to-head, each cooking a classic dish against the other. In the end, we said goodbye to the chef who over-salted her shrimp.

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CC: Yeah that was a close call I think. You could say the chicken picatta guy and both the soufflé people failed because none of them made what they were supposed to.

MM: I disagree that it was a close call. Chef Colicchio has crucified people in previous seasons over this one thing because, as he always says, knowing how to properly season your food is fundamental. So I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she would be out.

CC: Well here’s my question: How do you not look up how to make a soufflé, or what chicken picatta is while you are shopping? Or do you think they have them under radio silence while they are on the show?

MM: I think it’s probably the same as Project Runway and they aren’t allowed to have cooking books, technique books, etc. Remember the drama around whether Tiffany’s final challenge dessert was hers or Dale’s? Dale memorized the recipe because he knew they couldn’t have recipes brought in with them. Tiffany claimed she had a lot to do with Dale’s dessert that he made for her final challenge, but that was a lie. He memorized it, knowing he couldn’t look up recipes or bring any recipes with him.

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CC: Ok, so if we assume that you can’t look stuff up, then we have the question “should an aspiring chef know how to make ‘classic dish X'”. I don’t think they can be expected to make everything, but a soufflé seems pretty basic to me.

MM: Executing a soufflé can be difficult. All that the contestants were saying about slamming doors too hard, loud noises, breathing on it wrong – I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea. The slightest things can make your soufflé collapse. Chef Colicchio did have a good point about needing to know the classic dishes, and that is, chefs need to know the classics, otherwise how can you know the newer stuff?

CC: I bet I could make a soufflé in 90 minutes without breaking a sweat – and I certainly know what chicken picatta is. I suppose it’s easy to armchair quarterback (BRETT FAVRE) but then again I’m not under the illusion that I could run my own restaurant either.

MM: So what you’re saying is if Brett Favre were a contestant on Top Chef, he would have won both the Quick Fire and Elimination challenges and would have retired to a penthouse suite with Padma at the end of the day?

CC: I’ve actually looked at Brett Favre’s cookbook and it all looks pretty horrible. But I’m saying if Brett Favre was a contestant, he would inspire everyone else to cook for him and he would win, yes.

MM: He has a cookbook? I don’t know what to say about that. At least he has never been caught doing the Superbowl Shuffle.

MM (continued): Anyway, the bottom dishes came as no surprise to anyone, so let’s talk about the winning dishes.

CC: The crab cake, lasagna, duck a l’orange, and something else.

MM: The Bravo website is broken so I couldn’t tell you, but those three were the ones who stood out the most to me. It’s hard to say what should win, because I agree that unless we’re there to actually taste the dishes, there’s no way to really know the winner.

CC: Yeah, although I have to say I was really impressed with the crab cake. The smoky technique he used was inventive. But I am not surprised about the duck winning, because the spring roll was a nice touch.

MM: Before we close, do we want to say anything about the lesbian couple who came out in the open? I think this will come back later on in the season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were both chosen to compete just to create tension and drama. Other than that, I don’t have much to say.

CC: They’re hot.

MM: No, they aren’t.

CC: One of them is.

MM: No.

CC: Sorta.

MM: Nope.

CC: Hopefully the couple will be talking about it more as the season progresses… in the hot tub. With Padma.

MM: Oh, God.

Weeknight Cooking – Angel Hair Pasta with Peas, Prosciutto & Lemon

Bon Appetit, and other magazines of it’s ilk are, let’s face it, the food-lover’s Playboy. Sure, we say that we’re buying it for the articles, but what we’re mostly looking at are the recipes.

Ooh, baby, you look good al dente! And that garnish is hot.

The articles are somewhat interesting and, if I become rich and famous and have the option of traveling to some obscure corner of the world to try an indigenous dish, the articles would be pertinent to me. I’ve tried to get through some of them, and all they make me do is wish I had the money to travel. They are also broken up by small booklets of advertisements, which makes it hard to follow anything. Even a small, two-page article on the top three “must have” baking utensils (half page of text on each page, with the rest of the page being filled up by large, pointless photographs of the aforementioned utensils) cannot be placed together. No, the article must be separated by three pages of ads, leaving the reader to flip around until you can find page 127, wherever it may be.

This pretty much sums up my love/hate relationship with Bon Appetit: Great recipes and decent articles, once you can actually wade through a Superbowl-sized mess of advertisements. It is because of the latter that I let my subscription lapse a few years ago.

I’ve kept my old magazines though, and every so often will sift through them to find a new dinner menu. One section in particular that I have fallen for is often located at the end of the magazine (that is, if you can find it), called “Too Busy to Cook”. The recipes listed there are supposedly quick dishes, all submitted by Bon Appetit readers. From this section, I have found a few great loves. One of them is the following dish that I wish to share.

It is by far the fastest recipe in my arsenal, and a surprise to eat because of the lightness. A couple of weeks ago I recommended this dish to Citizen Chef, who ate the whole thing. Whether he loved it or was just hungry is something he will have to clarify later.

The first time I made the dish there was far too much lemon, so the following is my slightly altered recipe. If you love a lot of lemon, increase the juice to 4 teaspoons. I found that to be way too much, and cut it in half with great results. Another note is that I always use fresh lemon juice. I tried it with bottled just so I could compare, it and the flavor was clearly not as bright. There are not a lot of components here and very little seasonings to mask cheaper ingredients, so go to the store and buy a $0.40 lemon. The addition of the lemon zest gives it a great taste and makes a beautiful presentation.

Angel Hair Pasta with Peas, Prosciutto & Lemon
1/2 pound angel hair pasta
1/3 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1 cup shelled fresh peas or frozen petite peas
4 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, chopped
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese

Keep in mind that angel hair pasta only has to cook for 4 minutes, so this is all going to be really fast. In fact, I overcooked the dish a bit because I was trying to get pictures of everything.

For the pasta, start heating up a pot of salted water on the stove and start cutting up your prosciutto. Make sure you have a good knife, otherwise it’s going to feel like a chore.

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Sorry for the blurry picture – the dish goes fast, and I was in a hurry to get this done in time for the next step. Hey, I am decent at cooking. I never said anything about being a good photographer!

When the water is boiling, add your pasta and set the timer so you don’t overcook it.

In a frying pan over medium heat, pour in your whipping cream and some grated lemon peel.

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Let this simmer until the cream reduces slightly, about 1 minute. Add the peas, prosciutto, lemon juice and wine – all of it at once. Simmer 2 minutes.

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At this point, your pasta should be about done. Drain the spaghetti, but keep 2/3 cup of the salted spaghetti water aside. Add the spaghetti to the cream/prosciutto mixture. Add Romano. Toss, mixing to coat. If the pasta dish is too dry (and it may be, depending on how much liquid the cheese soaks up) add a little of the salted spaghetti water and toss.

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As you can see, I cooked it just a little too long. Two reasons for that: First is because some of the sensitive eaters in my house insist on having the alcohol cooked out, and second is because I was trying to take a decent picture. So, try to keep the cooking time of the prosciutto and peas mixture as close to 2 – 3 minutes as you possibly can. It still tastes delicious, even when it’s overcooked, but the textures are going to be different – the prosciutto will not be exactly the way you want it, and the peas won’t be crisp. As long as you have everything prepared before you get started, it won’t be an issue, even for the novice chef.

Serve with bread and a glass of wine. Enjoy!

Half the Battle

I am not, and will probably never be, a “hey let’s see what we have in the fridge and throw something together” kind of cook. I recognize and appreciate the talent that takes, but I just don’t have it. I cook almost exclusively from recipes. So whenever my cooking receives accolades “It was my honor to cook for you your majesty” or “I’m glad you enjoyed the risotto Ms. Alba, but I am a happily married man, please put your clothes back on” I usually say something like “hey i just picked a good recipe and didn’t screw it up.” So, how do you pick a good recipe? You cook it in your head.

Professional chefs do this all the time, in fact Chef Thomas Keller’s damn near signature dish “Oysters and Pearls” he’s never tasted. Which is too bad, because it’s awesome and he could probably get a reservation pretty easy. Now there are going to be plenty of recipes with unfamiliar ingredients or techniques, or even familiar-looking ones that surprise you with the synergistic alchemy that is great cooking. Yeah I really wanted to shoehorn “synergistic alchemy” in here somewhere, sorry. But the first step to picking a good recipe, is figuring out what you want to eat.

The example we will be using for this series is chili. I made a New Year’s resolution a few years back, to go on a year-long search for the “Citizen Chef family chili recipe”, to cook one recipe a month to find the best of the best, that would be passed down to future generations of Citizen Chefs. I never really found one I liked, but I never really stopped looking either. So let’s figure out what we’re looking for here. I’m looking for a chili with some heat to it, but a nice smoky heat with some flavor to back it up. I’m a big sausage fan, but I find that it can overwhelm a chili with grease, so we’ll stick to mostly beef meat-wise. Beans or no beans? Well I want a nice thick chili, and CASI would say that a chili with beans isn’t really a chili at all. But I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and now I live in Wisconsin, so I can’t say I would be offended if my bowl o’ red had beans in it.

Throwing our net out into the wide intarweb, we have this as a first contestant:

Winter Chili Recipe

  • 1 finely chopped onion
  • 3 finely chopped garlic cloves
  • 2 piece of bacon cut crosswise into pieces
  • 2 tablespoons of chili powder
  • 2 cans of cannelloni, pinto or red kidney beans
  • 1 ½ teaspoons of dried crushed oregano
  • 1 ½ teaspoons of paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ground pepper
  • 3 cups of water
  • Coarse salt
  • 3/4 cup of Monterey Jack Cheese or cheddar (shredded)
  • 2 tablespoons of fine cornmeal
  • 1 ½ cups of chopped winter squash or zucchini
  • 1 ½ cups of frozen or fresh kernel corn (whole)

Ok, we have bacon, that’s a good start. But there’s no other meat? Not a good sign. Beans, ok I can be talked into beans. 3 cups of water? I am suspicious of any recipe that calls for this much liquid and chooses water, when there are so many other options that provide flavor. Zucchini? Frozen corn?? I don’t have to actually cook this to see it’s not what I’m looking for. NEXT!!

Chili 1 (ooh catchy name!)

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 3/4 pound beef sirloin, cubed
  • 1 (14.5 ounce) can peeled and diced tomatoes with juice
  • 1 (12 fluid ounce) can or bottle dark beer
  • 1 cup strong brewed coffee
  • 2 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste
  • 1 (14 ounce) can beef broth
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 (15 ounce) cans kidney beans
  • 4 fresh hot chile peppers, seeded and chopped

Ok this is better, we have cubed sirloin, and ground beef. We got beer. We got coffee. Winter chili recipe, are you seeing this? Peeled and diced tomatoes, hmm. Tomato paste is good, but relying on diced tomatoes in my opinion doesn’t lead to a cohesive sauce. Cocoa powder. Ooh yes how mole of you, eponymous chili recipe! Fresh hot chile peppers. Ok there’s only like a million kinds of chile pepper, and if you don’t care enough to specify, then we’re gonna take a pass on this one too.

Ding Dong Eight-Alarm Chili

  • 2 oz dried ancho chiles (4 large), stemmed and seeded
  • 6 large garlic cloves, 3 of them finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon salt, or to taste
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder (not pure chile)
  • 4 lb well-marbled beef brisket or boneless chuck, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2- to 2-inch pieces
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 (28- to 32-oz) can whole tomatoes in juice
  • 1/4 cup canned chipotle chiles in adobo
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 1/2 lb white onions, chopped (4 cups)
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano (preferably Mexican), crumbled
  • 1 to 4 fresh serrano or other small green chiles, finely chopped, including seeds (1 is fine for most tastes; 4 is the eight-alarm version)
  • 1 (12-oz) bottle beer (not dark)
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 1/2 cups cooked pinto beans (optional; 30 oz), rinsed if canned

Beef brisket in cubes, good start. Also a huge plus for this recipe is that the beef is seasoned with cumin and chili powder before browning, a step too often missed in chilis. Whole tomatoes, but also in the directions (omitted here for space, but we’ll get to them soon) they are pureed with some of the chiles, the cilantro and garlic. See that’s the kind of flavor fusion from the get-go that we’re looking for. We got beer. We got some water but not too much, and not just water. And we got chiles. Oh we gots us some chilis. We got anchos, chipotles and serranos. That is going to give us the depth of flavor behind the heat that we need. Beans optional, and enough onions to probably not need the beans. Also, the beef gets shredded. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

Next time, hold on to your hats… Citizen Chef actually cooks something.

~Citizen Chef

The Great Scallop Debate

Seafood (especially scallops), when prepared properly, can be some of the tastiest morsels you have ever eaten without a lot of time consuming preparation. However, done improperly, words like “rubbery”, “fishy” and “icky” spring to mind.

With that said, I live in Wisconsin. You know, “Frozen Tundra”? “The Great Northwoods”? Pretty far from an ocean in any direction. Which means that the seafood that I can get my hands on typically comes from a freezer section. Up until a few years ago, my typical seafood purchase had the name of a certain lady on it. I have moved up since then to whole shell-on prawns and frozen crab. Hey… Alton says frozen crab is “okay!”

Scallops, on the other hand, are a very recent addition to my culinary skillset. I have made HUGE scallops even for fancy dinner parties and close friends thinking that the size was important to correct cooking methods. Boy was I wrong. If you haven’t heard of the difference between “Dry” and “Wet” scallops, here’s the scoop:

“Wet scallops are commonly treated with Phosphates which is a preservative. When scallops are soaked in phosphates, they absorb water making them weigh more and thereby costing you more. (Take in mind, that you are paying for added water.) The absorbed water evaporates during cooking and, in turn, shrinks your scallops leaving them smaller, dry and somewhat tasteless. Furthermore, the added water does not let scallops brown properly during cooking. It is generally easy to discern treated scallops as they will usually appear snow-white in color.

Comparison of Scallops

Dry scallops are all wild and natural. They are not treated with any chemicals whatsoever. They are harvested directly from the ocean, shucked on deck, then immediately frozen on the boat to capture their quality. Dry scallops caramelize naturally during cooking to a golden brown color that is very attractive when serving. And, as you might have guessed, there is no cost-added water weight with dry scallops. Dry scallops generally have a natural vanilla color. ”
– Taken from http://www.fishex.com/seafood/scallops/scallops-dry-vs-wet.html

“Pishaw,” says I! “I am going to take whatever scallops are the biggest and best bang for the buck.” Without knowing it, I was setting myself up to make not only sub-par scallops but also making more work for myself.

Here’s the deal when you buy frozen scallops or “fresh” scallops from a grocery store counter; they are almost always “wet” scallops. Dry scallops will almost always be labeled “dry” in some way on the packaging. It isn’t a requirement, but even frozen dry scallops usually specify it on the package. Now… If you are doing some small bay scallops in a cream sauce to throw on top of some pasta, you aren’t going to notice any appreciable difference (other than texture) between wet or dry. However, if you are going to try to sear a scallop, please learn from my mistakes and only get dry scallops! A fishmonger or good butcher with seafood connections should be able to get you dry scallops without breaking the bank.

I managed to find a small handwrapped package in frozen seafood section of the local “mega-mart” and it was labeled “Dry” right on the sticker. There wasn’t a drastic price difference between it and the jumbo scallops in a commerical package right next to it. But scallops have never been a cheap purchase. I think the package of seven very large dry scallops went for $10. And they may have been re-frozen.

Now I have made a number of what I thought were seared scallops before. But before I used the dry scallops, I hadn’t really done it successfully. These scallops seared beautifully, and the smaller of them were done perfectly in the middle at the same time as a golden sear was finished on the outside (about 2 minutes per side). If you get a package of widely different sizes, like I did; I discovered something else that was kind of handy. Once properly seared, if the center still feels too raw, place a single scallop on a microwave safe dish and cook it in the “nuker” for a max of 30 seconds. It doesn’t seem to change the flavor and for those who really can’t appreciate semi-raw scallops, it makes a big difference in the texture of the center.

So, standard searing practices (really high heat, stainless or cast iron, high smoke point oil, don’t over-crowd the pan, rotate once only, etc), a bit of sea salt for each scallop, a very light pinch of extra fine sugar over all of them and using dry scallops will lead you to a very happy place. Please note: Even dry scallops will need to be wiped off with paper towels before cooking in order for the sear to take. If you see any funny looking white liquid in the pan around the outside of the scallops, more than likely, they have been treated and will not really sear.

Pepper, especially white pepper, should be added to the top of the scallops only after they are rotated once. If you are going to want a buttery flavor -and let’s face it… Who isn’t going to want some buttery goodness? – wait until the very end and add room temperature (or melted) better to the pan right before you are going to remove the scallops. Lemon should be squeezed on by the taster, or for purists, left off completely. Serve the scallops with some cous cous or rice pilaf and sit back and enjoy.

Weeknight Cooking: Sweet & Sour Tangerine Chicken Stir Fry

As a rule, I stay away from any dish that requires a marinade. Having to sit around while my meat is soaking up flavor is probably something I should be patient enough for, but I’m not. Marinades add additional waiting time and, when I get home from work, I’m hungry now.

But, as they say, rules are made to be broken.

Every weekend I go through my magazines and websites, building a weekly dinner menu. When I came across this one in an old Bon Appetit, I was a little put off by the marinade, but decided to go for it anyway. I’m glad I did. The chicken marinates for 30 minutes, but you aren’t sitting around. In that time, you are getting your rice together, making the sauce, and preparing the vegetables — you won’t be able to do any of that once you start cooking the chicken, because the whole dish takes less than 10 minutes to cook once it’s in your frying pan or wok. Overall, I guess I would say this took about 35 – 40 minutes of active time, and 10 minutes of cook time. This goes over the usual amount of active time I like to take for a weeknight dinner, but I decided it was worth it because the hardest part is slicing up a couple of veggies.

The website comments regarding this recipe were mostly the same: The tangerine flavor is overwhelming! The recipe only calls for 1/2 cup of tangerine juice, and it really doesn’t sound like a lot, but I didn’t want to ignore all of the comments either. I tackled the problem by doing two things.

First, I used half fresh tangerine juice, half orange juice (not from concentrate). The end result was a nice, subtle citrus flavor that contrasted with the soy used in the marinade. I think I could even have gone with 3/8 cup of tangerine juice and 1/8 orange juice without taking it over the top, but I’m definitely happy with the results I got by going half and half.

Second, I chose a sweet type of tangerine, the Clementine, also known as the Algerine tangerine. It is usually seedless and has a delicate flavor, whereas I gather the Honey and Clancy tangerines are just very, very sweet. Another tangerine that would really change the flavor of the dish is the Tangelo, which tastes like a cross between a tangerine and a grapefruit. I’m not a big grapefruit fan, so I stuck with darling Clementine.

The recipe says this is 4 servings, but considering our web admin and I polished off the whole thing (and he ate whatever I left in my bowl), I’m going to call this a 2 serving dish.

Sweet & Sour Tangerine Chicken Stir Fry
Marinade
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons cream Sherry or your run-of-the-mill cooking Sherry
1 tablespoon grated tangerine peel

Sauce
1/4 cup fresh tangerine juice
1/4 cup fresh orange juice (not from concentrate)
2 tablespoons vinegar or rice vinegar
2 teaspoons cornstarch

Stir Fry
2 tablespoons peanut oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons minced, peeled fresh ginger
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 red bell pepper, cut into matchstick-size strips
15 snow peas, trimmed
1 green onion, chopped

This seems like a pretty intimidating list, but it’s deceiving. Before we get into the details, let me first humiliate myself publicly and state, for the record, that when it comes to fresh ginger and garlic, I use… oh God, the humiliation… jarred.

There. I said it.

The ginger I use is actually a ginger mixture that comes pre-mashed in a little tube. It’s expensive, but worth it. Sometimes I use fresh garlic, it depends on the recipe, but I do keep a jar of minced garlic in the fridge because I don’t like the smell of garlic that gets on my fingers and won’t come off for three days. Chefs around the world insist on using fresh ingredients, and I have read that jarred garlic has a slightly acidic taste in comparison to fresh, but my palette doesn’t know the difference right now. One day it will and, on that day, I will come back here and shun all jarred garlic users with complete and utter snobbery. Until then, I will confess that I cut corners with jarred, minced garlic and a squeeze tube of minced ginger. It’s also much faster to reach for a jar or tube than to have to peel a hunk of something and mince it up.

With that said, prepare your marinade. I did grate up some tangerine zest for this. After all, I’ve already bought tangerines to use for it, and I like the idea of using the entire fruit – nothing goes to waste.

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The cut up chicken will go into a container or sealable plastic bag with the soy sauce, sherry, and grated tangerine peel.

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Let it marinate for 30 minutes.

While this is going on, start your rice. The Jasmine rice I used for this takes 20 minutes to cook, but there’s also the couple of minutes it takes to get the water to a boil. So start that now by getting the water on. As soon as the water is boiling, throw in your rice, and set the timer. At this point, as soon as the rice is done, the dish is done.

Put your sauce together. Squeeze 1/4 cup tangerine juice and orange juice into a bowl (okay fine, I admit that I used orange juice from a container, but at least it wasn’t concentrate). I squeezed the juice of two tangerines and it came to about 1/4 cup. Then I just filled up the rest of the cup with orange juice.

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Add rice vinegar or regular vinegar and cornstarch. Mix it up enough that the cornstarch isn’t a bunch of little blobs and set it aside.

Chop your vegetables. If you want your red bell pepper to look like pretty little matchsticks, lop off the tops and bottoms. If you prefer not to waste anything, then just slice it up. Either way, it all tastes the same going down.

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Once your vegetables are ready to go, your chicken should be done marinating. Heat up your frying pan or wok on medium heat. Add garlic, ginger and cayenne and saute for 15 seconds.

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Then, start tossing your chicken in. I didn’t dump the whole batch in there. Instead, I scooped the chicken out of the marinade in little batches, shook it off a bit, and then put it into the pan. The remaining marinade was discarded.

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Stir-fry until just cooked through, which will be about 4 or 5 minutes. Stir the chicken a bit so that it cooks on all sides. Transfer the chicken to a plate.

Put your vegetables in the wok or frying pan and cook until crisp-tender, or about 2 minutes.

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Then, put your chicken back in, pour the tangerine sauce on top of it, and mix it all up. Simmer and stir constantly for about 1 minute. The sauce will thicken a bit.

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Put it on top of your rice and eat.

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Goat Cheese and Sun-Dried Tomato Tartines

I am not a vegetarian, yet I find myself increasingly surrounded by them. Every food I gravitate to has to have meat in it, otherwise I have this idea that I will not feel satisfied at the end of a meal. Salad vs. Duck Confit? Tell you what, you eat your salad. Enjoy. I’ll be digging into the duck and its delicious fat that it cooked in.

This weekend I was called to an event where I was to bring a little finger-food to share. Some of my friends who were also attending are staunch vegetarians and, as much as I hate to give up eating meat, what bothers me more is knowing someone is going hungry. As a bona fide food lover, I could not, in good conscience, make something that would leave people out.

This left me to search for an appetizer that was appealing to vegetarians, yet had the weight any carnivore would love. I went with a recipe on the epicurious website. Sure, goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes are a bit on the expected side for an appetizer, but I was willing to risk giving any foodie in the house a sense of “ho hum” because, as I have found, most foodie recipes scare the crap out of the average eater. I decided on a “Goat Cheese and Sun-Dried Tomato Tartine” with the expectation that anyone with half a developed taste bud would eat it and be pleased. If I was serving to a foodie crowd, I would have tried going with something a little more unpredictable, but since I had no idea who my audience was, I went with safe and savory.

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Photo courtesy of epicurious

The end result is something that I would deem “very nice” on the food scale. It didn’t rock my socks off (mostly because it’s the expected goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes appetizer), but on the other hand it’s goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes! The goat cheese is sprinkled with salt and pepper and softened in the oven — my mouth is watering right now just thinking about it.

Don’t get me wrong, I will be making this again. If I was going to an appetizer party but could only bring one appetizer, I would probably go with something else because I would want to zing people and be the belle of the kitchen. If I could bring multiple appetizers, then I would definitely include this one. It would also be great as a beginning course. It’s fast to prepare, looks stunning, doesn’t create a huge mess in the kitchen, and some of it you can prepare ahead. Lovers of goat cheese will elbow people out of the way to get more. I say this after watching my friends jump back toward the buffet table and fight over the last couple tartines as if they were deep in a mosh pit.

Goat Cheese and Sun-Dried Tomato Tartine
12 – 20 (1/2-inch-thick) baguette slices
3 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium tomato, peeled , seeded, and cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 tablespoons julienned soft sun-dried tomatoes (not packed in oil)
1 tablespoon torn fresh basil
1 teaspoon Sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar (I used a Chianti vinegar)
2 tablespoons bottled black olive tapenade
8 oz soft mild goat cheese log, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices

There’s not much to it. Preheat your oven to 350°F.

Line your baking sheet with foil or parchment paper. Take your baguette (sourdough would rock, but plain is fine), slice it in 1/2″ slices and lay them on the baking sheet. With a pastry brush, put a little bit of olive oil on each baguette slice, top side only. Bake that in the oven for 7 minutes – you just want to toast the tops a bit. If you put too much olive oil on (like I did) keep them in for another two minutes.

Take them out of the oven, but leave the oven on.

On top of each baguette slide, spread a nice, even layer of olive tapenade. Don’t glop it, but you do want it thick enough that the goat cheese is held down onto the tartine.

Speaking of the goat cheese, that’s next. Take a thin slice and place it on top of the olive layer.

In a bowl, mix up the last tablespoon of olive oil, fresh basil, vinegar (the recipe calls for Sherry vinegar, but I used chianti and it was fine), sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh tomatoes. In regards to the fresh tomatoes, don’t use beefsteak. At least use something that tastes good, like tomatoes on the vine or something yummy. Beefsteak just doesn’t give enough flavor and, since you aren’t really putting much seasoning into this, you’ll want to make sure your ingredients have a lot of flavor. Mix it up, and put a little teaspoon on top of your goat cheese slice. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

The recipe calls for drizzling with more olive oil before sending it back to the oven, but it doesn’t need it. I didn’t add any more oil because, good grief, there is already enough oil involved at this point. Olive oil is not as healthy as people believe it to be. Trust me, you’ll be better off without adding more.

Bake in the oven until the cheese is softened, about 5 – 7 minutes.

I got up at 6:30am to get this taken care of, and I had it all wrapped up in under a half hour.

Here’s the end result as I took it out of the oven:

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Definitely worth trying.

Panko Crusted Tilapia with Tangerine Honey Sauce

Ok so this is something I made up in my head. A dish I really liked at this excellent mediterranean restaurant was a fish I no longer remember, on a bed of greens served with fennel. Several permutations in my head later, we’ve got this.

Ingredients:

  • Natural honey (the cloudy stuff, though your normal clover honey should be fine)
  • 1 tangerine
  • 1 stick butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • Sea salt (I like the gray stuff)
  • 6 tilapia fillets (add more for hungry people/more than three people)
  • Panko bread crumbs (they’re Japanese – they might be in the international section of your grocery store)
  • 1 pkg bitter greens (anything with baby spinach and/or arugula)
  • 2 eggs
  • EVOO
  • 1 Fennel Bulb

(Note: I also used a side dish of frozen roasted potato wedges and baked them in the oven. Feel free to add an easy side dish of either salad or some sort of potato based on your preferences. A baked or microwaved sweet potato would also go great with this dish.)

The first thing you’ll want is time. You don’t want to rush this since the sauce needs low heat. Start there first. Melt about 3 tablespoons of butter in a small pan on the lowest setting on your burner. Once melted, add 2 tablespoons of flour and stir that in. Let that sit while you prepare the other things.

Dust the tilapia fillets with a little itty bit of flour. It’s ok if the fillet isn’t completely covered. Dip in egg, then push it into a bed of panko bread crumbs, and push some more crumbs on top. Place in a pan with a tablespoon of butter and just a little EVOO. Fill the pan with fillets and let them cook for about 7 minutes on medium heat. When you flip the fillets over you should see a nice light to golden brown color. Let them cook another 6 minutes.

Now peel the outer layer of the fennel bulb and chop it into thin slices, it will come apart like an onion. Throw in a pan with some sea salt, pepper, and EVOO or 1 tablespoon butter, let this cook on medium heat, stir or shake the pan occasionally. Let them cook down. They won’t carmelize like an onion, but they will get floppier.

Now your first batch of fish is done. Remove the fillets and wrap in aluminum foil to keep warm. Prepare a second batch, same as the first, but add a dash more oil or half a tablespoon of butter (a thin slice). Repeat your earlier work.

When the second batch of fish is cooking, add 1 tablespoon honey to the sauce. Stir it in, it may take a few turns, and then add 1 to 2 tablespoons of butter, depending on how thick it looks. Squeeze out the juice of the whole tangerine (I did this in slices) into the pan and let it sit on the lowest heat. Stir occasionally if you see the butter separating.

Once the second batch of fish is done, remove and put in aluminum foil. Take out the first batch of fish, which should still be plenty hot, and place on a bed of the bitter greens on a plate. Add the sides of fennel and whichever other sides you’ve used. Let the sauce cool a bit before pouring on the fish, serve.

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