Sunday, September 30, 2012

How to Create a Celebratory-worthy Meal on a Whim

So for dinner tonight, James and I had a portobello and oyster mushroom duxelles stuffed quail, vegetable ragout and roasted rainbow carrots - sound fancy?  What if I told you you could create something comparable in under 45 minutes?  Our dinner was easily worthy of being served for a celebratory occasion (the Patriots won, that warrants a celebration, right?) but I firmly believe that good food should not only be reserved for special occasions.

So to begin recreating our meal, take your cast iron skillet and heat it for about 10 minutes on the stove top.  Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and put a large nonstick skillet on low heat to begin heating as well.  Finely dice 1/2 of a shallot and 1/4 of a sweet white onion and divide between the cast iron skillet and nonstick skillet.  Begin toasting the onions and shallots to get them a light brown color and just a shade under being burnt.  To the cast iron skillet, add 1 tablespoon of white truffle oil, 1/4 cup finely chopped bacon (I used wild boar bacon but any high quality bacon will work), one large portobello mushroom cap, two oyster mushrooms, a good pinch of herbs de provence, sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.  Mix well and cook down for about 3 minutes then transfer to a pie plate and place in the oven to finish.  In the same pie plate, place four, small peeled rainbow (or traditional) carrots.  Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and add sea salt and pepper to taste.  Return the skillet to the burner.

Duxelles prior to going in the oven
Now in your nonstick skillet, add 1 finely diced red bell pepper, 2 roma tomatoes, 1/2  of a summer squash finely diced, 4 chopped asparagus spears, 1/2 teaspoon of smoked paprika, 1 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes, sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.  The liquid from the tomatoes will act as a cooking base for the ragout and there's no need to add any oil.  Sauté until the vegetables are al dente and turn the burner down to a low simmer.  You can use any vegetables you like (or happen to have on hand at that point) - the only major component not to omit is the tomatoes (you could substitute canned diced tomatoes if you like).

Lightly dust both sides of your semi-boned quails with salt and pepper and in your hot cast iron skillet, place your quails skin-side down for 8-10 minutes to bring to a good sear.  Turn them over and cook 3-5 minutes on the other side to cook through.  Transfer the birds to the nonstick skillet with the ragout to keep them warm but as to not over cook them.  In the cast iron skillet, deglaze the pan with 1 cup chicken stock, 1/4 cup Cognac, 1/2 teaspoon corn starch, sea salt and pepper.  Allow the liquid to reduce for 3-5 minutes until it forms a thick glaze and strain through a mesh sieve to remove any bits leftover from cooking the quail.

You're now ready for plating.  Make a small pile of the mushroom duxelles on each plate and place the quail over the top.  Lay 2 carrots on each plate diagonally with a small pile of ragout on the opposite side.  Voila!  You have an incredible meal that took minimal preparation time, clocks in under 600 calories (including a fabulously paired glass of Cote du Rhone) and will easily impress your most critical dinner guests.

If quail isn't readily available, you can easily substitute chicken thighs.  In the world of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, thighs get a bad rap.  Yes, they're dark meat and have a marginally higher fat content than white meat, but they also pack about 20 times the flavor.  You'll want to cook your thighs for about 12-15 minutes skin-side down and an additional 5-8 minutes on the opposite side to ensure they're fully cooked (or use a meat thermometer and temp them to 165 degrees).

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Full Flavor on a Tight Scheudle

I love soup.  It's one of the many reasons I'm extremely excited for fall weather.  At the end of a long day, it's just a great way to enjoy a warm, inviting meal that makes you feel comforted.  The downfall - most soups tend to flourish with a long, extended day of simmering on the stovetop to develop rich, intense harmonious flavors.  Well, after working a 13 hour day, I don't really have time for that.

There is the crockpot option, which I'm a strong advocate for if you have the forethought ahead of time to think, "hmm, I think I want soup for dinner tonight."  To my downfall, James and I can barely decide what we feel like eating at that moment, let along a day in advance.  So in theory, this is a great slow simmering method if you're open to planning ahead; the remainder of today's post will give you some clever options to develop deep flavors if you're a procrastinator like me.

So last night, I wanted a grilled cheese with tomato soup.  Not being one to stock canned soups in our pantry, this left me with two options: drive to the grocery store and buy a sodium and preservative laden can or make my own soup.  Being that I wouldn't be writing about Campbell's, I'm guessing it's rather obvious the route I chose.  The challenge was to get that rich, deep flavor that typically comes from slow simmering in a shorter period of time and I'd like to share a few of my tricks.

The first key to good soup making (slow or fast) is a good dutch oven.  Le cruset make the BMW of dutch ovens, but I personally don't have a spare $300 to spend on a pan unfortunately.  About a  year ago, I bought a "Cooks" version from JC Penny at Home ($40 during their 60% off sale) and it's a great piece of kitchen equipment.  Dutch ovens are great at maintaining heat and evenly distributing it on both the bottom and sides for even cooking.

So start by getting your dutch oven good and hot.  I leave mine on the burner for around 5-10 minutes before adding any of my ingredients.  Start with 2 tablespoons of good quality olive oil, 3 cloves of garlic, half a shallot and about a quarter of a white onion and sweat them out together until the garlic is a toasty golden brown and the onions and shallots are translucent.  Add one large can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes (if you can't find San Marzano's, any high quality canned tomato without added salt works well) and reduce the heat to a low simmer.

Now is where you get to play with some of the flavors I was talking about earlier.  If I was making a slow simmered tomato soup, I'd probably opt for a chicken stock as my base.  The extended time period would allow the excess water to evaporate and create a rich base flavor for the soup.  Instead, I opted to use concentrated veal stock (demi glace base).  Veal has a much more pronounced flavor than chicken so it will stand up to more water in the soup and using a concentrate, you have the control of how much water goes in in the first place.

Second, about 1/2 cup of a tannic red wine will help develop your flavors quickly as well.  The bitterness of the wine will help balance the acid in the tomatoes.  I also tend to look to other intensely flavored sauces and liquids to help the soup along - tamari, soy sauce, fish sauce, worcestershire, tabasco and balsamic are all great options.    When blended with the acidic tomatoes, these all bring what I like to refer to as "back flavors," ingredients that bring out that lingering aftertaste rather than being aggressive and upfront.  You want to enjoy the bright tomato based flavors on the forefront, and then have something interesting linger on the finish.  That's how to create a great balance in your dish.

Make sure your tasting along the way as well.  Although the ingredients have to "cook together" in order to really form a great soup, you still want to aim for balance along the way.  I'm an advocate of selecting your spices before you begin and slowly integrating them along the way, rather than just dumping a bunch of garlic powder in at the end.  This way, you maintain that balance through each stage of the cooking process.  I kept the herbs spices simple this time around: sea salt, cracked pepper, smoked paprika, and fresh basil.  Too many spices won't help mask underdeveloped flavors, they'll just give you an overbearing punch with each bite so be mindful of what and how much you're using.

My other essential soup  making tool is my stick blender.  I love this thing.  It may be my absolute favorite kitchen gadget ever.  I have a Kitchen Aid brand one that has a sturdy blade and a strong motor, which are the two major components you'll want to look for when selecting one.  Just emerge the end of the stick blender into the dutch over and blend your soup to a silky consistency.  The cleanup is also amazingly easy.

I added about 1/2 cup of 1% and 2 tablespoons of honey to my finished soup to add to the creaminess and cut the last bite of acid.  The finished product was velvety, bright and had a bit of heat on the finish that really paired well with the grilled turkey and cheese sandwiches.

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Disney Classic at Home

So back in December of 2010, James and I took a trip out to California, including a day in Disneyland, where I introduced him to the amazing, decadent wonder that is the Blue Bayou's Monte Cristo Sandwich.  Yes, it's a turkey, ham and swiss cheese sandwich - which is then dipped in egg batter, deep fried, topped with powdered sugar and served with a side of blackberry compote.  For nearly 2 years, the sandwich (which I may add, James didn't even order - he just ate half of mine) has made numerous conversational appearances.  It would easily rank as one of the best sandwiches either of us has ever eaten.  It's a harmonious marriage of salty, sweet and savory with a delicate crunchy coating and a tender, rich interior.  Basically, it's a damn good sandwich.

Well last week, I came across a Pintrest pin that linked to a website of copycat recipes - obviously worth exploring - and low and behold, the recipe for the Monte Cristo!  Now here is where I want to enter my caveat to this tantalizing treat... it is after all a deep fried sandwich which clocks in around 950 calories.  That's no small caloric undertaking and with training, had to be planned cautiously as to not derail all of our hard work thus far.  We figured climbing a mountain this past Sunday warranted it and planned accordingly.

Now that the warning label has been sufficiently provided, back to my story.  During our pre-hike breakfast Sunday, James glances over at the cookbook shelf and says "I'm surprised that the Monte Cristo isn't in one of your Disney cookbooks."  I then think to myself, "have I ever even looked?"  Well, low and behold, the recipe (yes, matching the one I found online) has been in our kitchen for years now.  James may or may not have threatened to disown me at this point (he takes food quite seriously, which I fully respect and encourage so I can't really say I blame him).

Well since I'm guessing the majority of my readers don't necessarily own "Delicious Disney," I wanted to share our interpretation of the Monte Cristo with you all so you can enjoy a little piece of Disneyland in your own kitchen.

The Blue Bayou Monte Cristo Sandwich (serves 4)

1 egg
1 3/4 cups water
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 cups vegetable or canola oil
8 slices of thickly sliced challah bread (or other egg based bread)
8 oz thinly sliced turkey breast
8 oz thinly sliced brown sugar glazed ham
4 oz swiss cheese (I recommend Boggey Meadow)
1/2 cup Penzey's Raspberry Enlightenment (or other raspberry or blackberry compote)

- Heat your oil to 375 degrees in a 3"- 4" deep skillet
- Combine egg, water, flour, baking powder and salt and whisk together until well combined and smooth
- Assemble each sandwich by spreading a very thin layer of Raspberry Enlightenment on each slice of bread and stacking each with 2 oz of turkey, 2 oz ham and 1 oz of swiss cheese.
- Slice each sandwich in half
- Dip the halves in the batter, ensuring that each one is well coated, and place them in the heated oil
- Fry until golden brown and flip to cook evenly on both sides
- Remove from oil and place on a piece of paper towel to drain excess oil
- Dust halves with powdered sugar and serve with ramekin filled with 2 tablespoons of Raspberry Enlightenment for dipping

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Stop Buying Salad Dressing

With one exception, I can honestly say I haven't bought a bottle of pre-made salad dressing in about 10 years (I have a weak spot for Mikato Ginger Soy Dressing and haven't been able to replicate it effectively on my own).  Since I moved into my first post-collegiate apartment with a full kitchen, I've had an ever growing collection of oils, vinegars and spices that create incredible concoctions to dress even the most unique flavor combinations.  Currently in our refrigerator, we have a Blood Orange Vinaigrette (fresh blood orange juice, muscat vinegar, EVOO, sea salt, lavender and fresh cracked pepper - start with a 1:1 ration of vinegar to oil and adjust quantities to taste) and a Cinnamon Apple Cider Vinaigrette (pressed apple cider, champagne vinegar, walnut oil, sea salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and fresh cracked pepper - start with a 2:1:1 ratio with cider, vinegar and oil and adjust quantities to taste), but the possibilities of flavor profiles are endless based on what you feel like that day (can't do that with Hidden Valley).  A few of my favorite old standbys are a Dijon Vinaigrette (apple cider vinegar, EVOO, dijon mustard, herbs de provence, sea salt and fresh cracked pepper), Buttermilk Greek Ranch (a 1:1 ratio of fat free buttermilk, low fat plain Greek yogurt mixed to taste with Penzey's Buttermilk Ranch seasoning blend) and Asian Soy Miso (1 part each of low sodium soy sauce (or tamari for a gluten free option), citrus ponzu, miso paste and sesame oil with freshly ground ginger and fresh cracked pepper to taste).  There are so many flavor profiles that you can create just with what you have in your pantry right now and guess what... you'll not only be able to customize your flavor profiles but you'll also be able to pronounce every ingredient (check out a the label on one of those store bought bottles).  Let your creativity shine through and I'm willing to bet you'll surprise yourself with what you come up with.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Best Thing I Ever Ate - Round 2

So I'm actually in disbelief that it's taken me this long to write a Duckfat blog.  For over a year now, Duckfat has been a slight obsession in our household and every time we make it up to the Greater Portland area, we have to stop in for milkshakes and french fries.

Duckfat is this quaint, quirky little sandwich shop in downtown Portland, Maine.  Sometimes I wish it was a better kept "hidden gem" because the wait for a table can be well over an hour but I promise, you will not be disappointed.  The secret to their success really isn't very well kept... they deep fry everything in duck fat.  Have you ever had a french fry cooked in duck fat?  You're missing out.  I was a peanut oil fry purist until my first Duckfat endeavor and I'm now a full blown convert.

Their fries are hand cut, blanched in oil and then crisped to a rich golden brown in a sumptuous vat of delectable duck fatty goodness.  A large order is actually large enough to share.  They also make a poutine with house-made duck gravy and Pineland Farms cheese curd (check out my recent blog on the wonder that is Pineland Farms here) which is incredible as well.

They also make their own soda, which may not initially sound like anything amazing, but their grapefruit and ginger flavor is light, refreshing, and exactly what I want after devouring a giant cone of fries.  I'm typically not a huge soda drinker but when you can give me something that's made to order, with fresh ingredients and still has that fun, effervescence that tickles the back of your throat, I'm in.

The piece de resistance at Duckfat however is their Original Milkshake.  Now, some of you will be tempted by the chocolate, caramel or strawberry flavors - you're going to have to trust me on this one.  The scrape Tahitian vanilla beans into a fresh creme anglais  and blend it with rich, creamy gelato for the silkiest, most luxurious milkshake you'll ever experience.  They even serve it old school, soda shop style where you get your glass and the half full mixing tin as a backup.  My personal recommendation, dip your fries into the milkshake.

They always have fantastic sounding specials and we've tried a panini once, which were good, but nothing warranting of a blog post.  All in, definitely worth a stop if you're the Portland area - heck, it might even be worth planning a trip to Portland for!

Monday, September 17, 2012

A New Favorite Autumn Side Dish

This past weekend, we were invited to a backyard pig roast and when asked to bring a side dish, I wanted to make sure it was something that played well with the pork, but also helped welcome the impending fall weather.  I knew I wanted to use a nutty grain as a base but initially debated between pearled barley, faro and red quinoa until it hit me - create a pilaf of all there!  By combining the heartiness of the barley, the toastiness of the faro and the subtle bite of the quinoa, I was able to concoct a base for my dish that wasn't only delicious, but provided some great visual contrast as well.  I followed the general cooking instructions for each of the grains, however in lieu of water (which adds absolutely nothing to a dish), I boiled them in half apple cider, half vegetable stock (chicken stock would also work well, but I wanted the dish to be vegetarian friendly) with a bit of salt and pepper.  After each grain completed cooking, I rinsed them in a sieve to remove the starchy outer layer and cool the grain as to stop the cooking process before reaching that undesirable mushy stage. 

I added 2 cup of chopped baked apples, 1 cup of dried bing cherries (you could also use cranberries or raisins) and one cup of toasted mixed nuts (pistachios, walnuts, pinenuts, almonds and pecans).  As a dressing, mix 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup apple cider, 1/4 cup champagne vinegar, 2 tablespoons of diced shallots,  2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon of ground clove, 1 teaspoon mustard powder, 1 teaspoon sea salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder.  Garnish with some freshly chopped parsley and you've got a great pilaf that can be served warm or cold and pairs incredibly with a roasted pork loin.  

The Most Amazing Feta I've Ever Eaten

So, I don't eat feta cheese very often.  Don't get me wrong, I like a good Greek salad, it's just not James' favorite so when selecting cheeses, I tend to gravitate toward options that appeal to us both.  He was out of town last week so during my grocery shopping, I haphazardly tossed a tub of Feta crumbles into my basket.  This undoubtedly turned out to be a moment of "cheese nirvana"because this little container turned out to be the smoothest, creamiest, richest feta that I've ever tasted.  At this point, I turned to the label to learn who had crafted this delectable treat - Pineland Farms of New Gloucester, Maine (it's locally produced to boot!).  I consider myself to be somewhat of a cheese connoisseur - I read periodicals on the subject for fun - and to find a product that I enjoyed so much, particularly going in with minimal expectations was a truly fantastic treat.  Unfortunately, I'm guessing it's not the most readily available product but if you do stumble across it, definitely give it a try.  There website also lists vendors (including Duck Fat in Portland! - blog on the incredible french fries and milkshake coming soon) so check it out here.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Defeating an Arch Nemesis

For the longest time, I’ve viewed the protein shake as an arch nemesis of the culinary world.  I prefer to eat my meals, rather than drinking them and I’m still baffled as to how a “shake” with a watery, chalky consistency can  pack 20 grams of protein in 12 fluid ounces.  My traditional post workout fare has always been more or the grilled chicken breast or Greek yogurt variety, but sometimes, convenience trumps my desire to eat something truly spectacular.

With our half marathon training underway, I’ve gone on a mission to find protein shakes that weigh in around 250 calories, 20+ grams of protein and quite frankly, don’t taste like crap.  After some pretty extensive trial and error, I think I’ve managed to concoct a few recipes that are actually borderline enjoyable.  Amber – 1, Chalky Protein Powder – 0. 

This first creation was spawned after a quirky nostalgic love of the McDonald’s St. Patrick’s Day Shamrock Shake.  Yes, I fully understand that there’s nothing milk-like about a McDonald’s shake and I personally gross myself out a little bit with the thought that I actually crave them once a year.  My version however, actually consists of ingredients I can identify and more or less comes in around half the calories of the fast food version. 

Shamrock Protein Shake

½ cup low fat cottage cheese
½ cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
¼ cup water
1 scoop Designer Whey vanilla protein powder
2 tbsp sugar free pistachio pudding mix
½ tsp peppermint extract
1 packet stevia
6 ice cubes

- Combine all ingredients in a blender, placing the liquid ingreiddents in first to help promote even blending

Next I wanted to play into the impending fall weather and create something reminiscent of pumpkin pie.  As I’m sure any avid reader knows, I love pumpkin.  Heck, I love fall and everything about it so any excuse to create a healthy option that uses pumpkin, I’m in. 

Pumpkin Pie Protein Shake

½ cup low fat cottage cheese
½ cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
¼ cup water
1 scoop Desiger Whey vanilla protein powder
¼ cup canned pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling – pumpkin should be the only ingredient)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground clove
2 stevia packets
1 teaspoon honey
6 ice cubes

- Combine all ingredients in a blender, placing the liquid ingredients in first to help promote even blending

With the basic protein shake base (cottage cheese, almond milk, water and protein powder), the possibilities are really endless with what you can create.  You just want to be mindful to keep your flavorings to under 50 calories to keep the nutrition content in tact. 

I’m sure some of you are questioning the choice of cottage cheese in the base.  I’ve tried yogurt and while yes, it works just fine, the tanginess that accompanies the flavor profile can offset some of the flavors of the shake (it worked okay with the pumpkin but I wouldn’t recommend it with the shamrock).  I know cottage cheese initially puts a lot of people off, but I promise, after you blend it, you’ll achieve a smooth, creamy texture with no signs of curds. 

Give it a try and be creative!  I’d love to hear some suggestions and creations my readers have come up with.  

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Our Second Anniversary Dinner

One issue we do tend to run into when trying to find a restaurant when celebrating a special occasion, is finding one place that covers all of the flavors and components that we're looking for.  After much toil and debate, we just decided to prepare dinner at home and completely customize the menu.  I wanted to let you all share in the amazing feast we prepared today and give you the opportunity to recreate elements of it yourself, if so inclined.

As our amuse, we began with a Tempura Squash Blossom stuffed with creme fraiche, Greek yogurt, freshly shaved parmesan and romano cheeses, chives, thyme, oregano, vanilla and Szechwan peppercorns.  The yogurt lightened up the richness of the creme fraiche and the salty cheeses, the vanilla added an unexpected softness and the intensity of the herbs and peppercorns definitely served their purpose of waking up the palate.  I also make my tempura batter with club soda to aerate it and keep the coating light and crispy.

Continuing with the light feel of the meal, our second course was a Wild Berry Gazpacho.   Inspired by the Chilled Raspberry Soup at Manchester's XO on Elm, I wanted to take their bright, yogurt-y concoction and take it up a notch with blood oranges and fresh wild strawberries.  It was a great balance of sweet, tart and rich flavors that didn't overwhelm one another and played against each other beautifully.  I froze the bowls with a dollop of whipped Greek yogurt and blood orange zest  in the bottom and poured the slightly chilled soup over for a subtle temperature contrast and topped it with freshly picked thyme for an herbal note.

Our third course was a duo of Seared Diver Scallops with Blood Orange Vinaigrette, Tangerine Gelee, Micro Arugula and Toasted Pinenuts.  James actually credited this dish as being one of the most completed platings I've prepared for him.  The dressing was a combination of freshly squeezed blood orange juice, blood orange zest, almond oil, champagne vinegar, honey, fresh thyme, oregano, chives, lavender and Hawaiian red sea salt.  Texturally, I was aiming for a gradual progression from the subtle crunch of the pinenuts and the arugula to the creaminess of the scallop and the gelee.

For the entree course, we seared a Snake River Farms American Kobe Ribeye with Crispy Duckfat-fried Fingerling Potatoes and Wild Mushroom Hash.  If you haven't tried beef from Snake River Farms beef, you're missing out.  Their facility is one of the most humane I've visited and the output of their product is truly exceptional.  The marbling on the steak gave the whole dish an rich, unctuousness that really elevated all of the components.  The mushroom has was a compilation of cremini, shitake, miatake, oyster, lobster and black trumpet mushrooms, slow roasted with white truffle oil, cognac and wild boar bacon and served with a quail egg yolk nestled in the center.   Finally to finish off the plate, thinly sliced fingerling potatoes crisped in duckfat with shallots and sliced chipolini onions.

I kept the cheese course a bit simpler than I usually would opt to, based on my innate love of cheese, mainly because I didn't want to ruin dessert and I knew we'd be pretty full by this point.  Lincet Delice de Bourgogne, Chocolate Stout laced English Cheddar Cheddar, a raw milk aged Provolone and Bellavitano with a Merlot-washed rind paired with sweet cappicola, procuitto de San Danielle and Wild Boar Salami.

Capping off this incredibly fulfilling dinner was my personal favorite course... dessert - Praline Bacon Sundaes.  I started with a strip of my signature, homemade praline bacon (see previous blog entry for the recipe) and added a homemade honey graham ice cream, toasted pine nuts, Valrhona chocolate whipped cream and a bourbon burnt caramel shell (think magic shell only without the processed, plastic aftertaste).  Although not the prettiest, this might be the best dessert I've ever made.

As for wine, we started with a 2002 Napa Rubicon Estate Cab, which was good, but not amazing.  We've had the 2001 before and it was definitely more complex and a bit bolder than the 2002.  Unfortunately, contrary to what one would expect of a California Cab, it mellowed out almost completely before we could finish the bottle.  With dessert, we opened a bottle of Alcoyne Tannat from Uruguay which was rich, velvety and had strong chocolate notes that really brought out the bitterness in the whipped cream.

All in all, I have to say we made the right call preparing our dinner at home rather than seeking out a restaurant to fulfill precisely what we were looking for.  My waistline is however quite glad that our anniversary only comes once per year.