Thursday, February 26, 2009

How to Prepare a Steak Dinner

1. Forget everything you’ve ever learned about healthy eating (temporarily) before proceeding. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.

2. Buy a couple of lovely red steaks (I chose sirloin), organic, if possible (OK, maybe don’t forget everything you’ve ever learned about healthy eating). Rub them down with Montreal steak spice.
3. Come up with some kind of a potato side—you need to have potatoes with steak. Almost anything will do: French fries, roasted wedges, or good old-fashioned baked potatoes with sour cream and butter. I did twice-baked potatoes from here:
4. Come up with some kind of vegetable side. Yes, vegetables are necessary, but preferably covered in butter and/or cheese. Green beans and peas are both good options. I did roasted asparagus, tossed with garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then covered in Parmesan.5. Decide on a cooking method: an outdoor grill is always preferable for steak, but if you’re like me and you don’t have one, a cast-iron skillet is the next best thing. Drizzle some vegetable oil in there and get it really hot—just shy of smoking. Then, your steaks go on there for about three to four minutes per side for ¾”-thick steaks for medium doneness. They will smoke—just turn on the fan, open the window, and let it do its thing.

6. Serve up each steak with a generous helping of vegetables and potatoes. Don’t be shy—your diners will thank you for it.
7. Pour glasses of a nice Cabernet Sauvignon, and dig in!

8. If the high fat, carbohydrate, and red meat content of the meal cause feelings of guilt, please refer to rule #1.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Root Vegetable Pie with Rosemary Biscuit Topping (a vegetarian Sunday night dinner)

I’ll admit it: I am an omnivore through and through and to me, there is nothing like popping a tender morsel of slowly stewed beef into my mouth on a cold winter evening. That said, this pie, which is actually more like a stew, is the epitome of winter comfort food, with savory root vegetables baked in a creamy sauce and topped with steaming rosemary biscuits. It certainly hits the spot.

Speaking of beef stew, I only just realized that my previous post never actually included the recipe for the beef stew. I apologize from the bottom of my heart, and have edited the post to include the important recipe. It will never happen again. Probably.

Now, on to yummier things: when I saw this recipe in the March issue of Bon Appétit magazine, my eyes were immediately drawn to the tempting photograph of golden rosemary biscuits blossoming out of a baking dish. I knew I would be making this recipe in the near future, and I did, with great success. Well, great success despite some ambiguous instructions on BA’s part. This recipe isn’t particularly complicated, but it certainly isn’t as simple as the beef stew recipe, and then it doesn’t help that BA has a tendency to be a little vague with their instructions. I’ll get to that.

First, let’s get our ingredients together: vegetarian bouillon base (I love the Better Than Bouillon brand—I’ve only tried their vegetarian one, but it’s really wonderful), carrots, celery root, parsnips, rutabaga, turnip, dried porcini mushrooms, butter, onion, garlic, rosemary, flour, cream, dry Sherry, and parsley. Got it? Good.Now, prepare your vegetable bouillon, and simmer your vegetables and mushrooms in it for about seven minutes.Here’s where I nearly blew it: once your veggies are tender, you drain them, BUT you also want to reserve the bouillon, so don’t drain it into the sink! Do it over a bowl or another pot—you want to hang on to both your veggies and the bouillon they were simmered in.

Now, melt the butter in the pot and sauté the onion in it until it begins to brown.
Mix in the garlic and rosemary, and stir it for a couple of minutes. Then, stir in the flour and let it cook for another minute.Still have your broth? Good. Whisk it in, and then whisk in the cream and the Sherry. Cook until the sauce thickens and reduces, whisking from time to time.Mix the vegetables and the parsley in, season to taste with salt and pepper …
…and transfer to a buttered baking dish.Now, you’re ready to start baking, and to also start being confused by BA’s directions. So, here’s the deal: BA says to bake at 400 F for 50 minutes. Then, it moves on to the directions for the biscuits, which are to prepare the batter, and then drop the dough by spoonfuls onto the hot pie filling. Then, you bake it for 45 minutes. So, does that mean to bake the filling for 50 minutes, and then another 45 after the biscuit topping has been added? Or do they want us to add the biscuit dough five minutes after starting the filling, and bake it for a total of 50 minutes? I’m thinking the former, since it seems a little ridiculous to put the filling in the oven for five minutes, and then pull it out to add the biscuits, and then pop it back in for 45. However, it also seems a little ridiculous to me to bake a pie for almost two hours when everything in it (other than the topping) is already cooked. So what to do? The magazine didn’t contain any answers, so here’s what I did …

I popped the filling into the oven for about twenty minutes at 400 F. Meanwhile, I worked on the biscuit batter.After that twenty minutes, the filling looked like this:I decided it was biscuit time. So the biscuit dough was dropped onto the filling by tablespoonfuls.
Then, back into the oven it all went for another 45 minutes, and you know what? It turned out great. The filling was hot, thick, and creamy; the biscuits were golden on the outside, and hot and fluffy on the inside.
Maybe BA wanted me to bake the pie for the entire 95 minutes, but 65 worked out perfectly for me. Try it yourself and let me know what you think. The recipe is available online.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Simple, Savory, Sensational Sunday Night Stew

While I was growing up, Sunday night always meant something special in my household. It was the night when no one had soccer, Girl Guides, meetings, work, or school, and my Mom, Dad, sister, and myself would all sit down together for a family meal. Being the foodie that I am, I looked forward to these meals all week. My Mom cooks good food every night, but there are few dishes that inspire such feelings of comfort and delight like those Sunday night meals: perfectly roasted chicken with buttery peas and mashed potatoes, juicy roast beef with horseradish and Yorkshire puddings, pork roast with cranberry and peppercorn gravy and roasted potatoes, and, sometimes, beef stew with thyme dumplings. They were all my favorites, but now that I have actually made all of these myself, I have to say that beef stew is the easiest to get just right.
First, you want to start with the best ingredients, of course. I got some amazing organic stewing beef from Whole Foods, and it wasn’t too expensive since stewing meat is one of the cheaper cuts. You only need a few more ingredients: onions, carrots, peas, garlic, thyme, a bay leaf, tomato paste, vinegar, sugar, flour, salt, and pepper.Next, put the beef into a paper bag with the flour, salt, and pepper and shake it up to coat the meat.
Then, your meat goes into the bottom of a casserole dish.All the vegetables except for the peas go over that.In a separate bowl, combine the water, tomato paste, vinegar, sugar, thyme, garlic, and bay leaf, and then pour it over the meat and vegetables in the casserole.
Cover it all up, and stick it in the oven for two hours at 350 F.About halfway through, take it out and give it a stir. How good does that look?
Meanwhile, you can get going on your dumplings. Actually, about ten minutes before the two hours is up, you can get going on your dumplings. They’re not exactly complicated. You’ll need flour, baking powder, dried thyme (rosemary works too), salt, egg, and milk.
Combine the dry ingredients in a medium bowl, and the wet ingredients in another, and then stir the wet into the dry.

After the two hours are up, stir in the frozen peas, and then drop the dumpling batter by rounded tablespoons onto the stew.Cover it up and bake another 20 minutes. Pull it out, and it should look like this:
Serve the stew in shallow bowls with a of couple dumplings on top.
Take a bite and you’ll be transported back to the warmest kitchen you’ve ever visited, the most loving dinner table you’ve ever sat at, and the most welcoming company you’ve ever been surrounded by.

Happy eating!

Oven-Baked Stew with Dumplings
From my Mom--Serves 6

1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
1 1/2 lbs. stewing beef, cut into 1" cubes
3-4 medium carrots, cut into 2 " strips
4 small onions, quartered
2 cups water
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
1 tbsp. white vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
1/8 tsp. dried thyme
1 clove garlic
1 bay leaf
1 10 oz. package frozen peas

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. dried thyme (you can use rosemary also)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 egg
1/2 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 F. In a paper or plastic bag combine flour, salt, and pepper. Add cubes of beef 1/4 at a time, and shake to coat. Place beef in a 2 1/2 to 3-quart baking dish. Add carrots and onions. In a bowl, combine water, tomato paste, sugar, thyme, garlic, and bay leaf. Pour over meat. Cover and bake for 2 hours.

Meanwhile, combine the first four ingredients of the dumplings in a small bowl. In a separate bowl, beat egg and milk. Stir egg mixture into the flour mixture until just blended.

When the two hours are up, remove the stew from the oven and stir in the frozen peas. Drop the dumplings by rounded tablespoonfuls onto the stew. Cover and bake another 15-20 minutes, until the dumplings are done.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lemon, Lime, and Orange Snowball Cookies

At Christmas, I made a variety of cookies, both here in Redmond, and in Montreal with my Mom. One of the favorites was definitely the lime snowball cookies I made using a recipe from Bon Appétit magazine. They are shortbread-like, but packed full of lime flavor since you add lime juice, lime peel, and lime oil. Lime oil, you might ask, what’s that? Well, that’s what I asked anyway, because I’d never heard of such a thing. I wondered if this was one of these strange, impossible-to-find ingredients recipes in food magazines often call for that I would have to order online for some overblown price. Actually, this was one option, but the magazine also said that the oil could be found at Sur La Table stores. Sur La Table? I thought. There’s one of those right near me! So, I bundled up, hopped on a bus, and headed over to the Sur La Table location near me. Yes, I took a bus to buy one ingredient for a recipe, an ingredient that I would only need half a teaspoon of, but if I didn’t and found some kind of substitution for the ingredient, I would drive myself crazy wondering how the cookies would have come out if I had found that elusive lime oil. Also, I love going into Sur La Table—it’s kind of a culinary fantasy world. Even though I can barely afford anything in the store, I like to wander around and drool over the gorgeous pots and pans, fancy cooking utensils, and shiny appliances.

So, one twenty-minute bus ride later, I made it to the store and immediately began to search. I’m not going to get into the entire story, but I will tell you that finding that tiny little bottle of lime oil was something of an ordeal. The bottle had to be bought as part of a set, but half the set was missing. After more searching, the rest was eventually found, but then there was no SKU for it, so I almost didn’t get my oil. I was a cook on a mission, though, so I did eventually get what I had come for, along with a small bottle of lemon oil and a small bottle of orange oil.

After all that trouble, I figured I had better make the most of my tiny little bottles of citrus oils. At the time, I was focused on making the recipe the way it was written, so I made the lime snowballs and they were fantastic. I was itching to try making lemon snowballs and orange snowballs as well, which brings me to my most recent baking experiment. I call it an experiment because I was straying from the recipe a little—something I pretty much never do with baking—but I guess it wasn’t exactly the riskiest of experiments. I simply wanted to make the snowball recipe with lemon, lime, and orange and compare the different cookies. I decided to make one batch and divide it into thirds rather than making three full batches, since I figured that would be more cookies than Andrew and I could (or should) handle. I divided all the different ingredients into three bowls:I kept everything exactly the same except, of course, for the fruit juice, peel, and oil. Here is where my lovely little bottles came into play:
After mixing the ingredients, the important thing was to make sure to keep track of which fruit was in which bowl. I took note of the order the bowls were in, and also the order that I placed them on the baking sheet. I did a row of each: lemon, lime, and orange. Before and after, they all look the same, right?
That’s why I thought it would be fun to add a few embellishments to these guys. I got some gel food coloring and decorated the cookies, using yellow for lemon, green for lime, and orange for orange:Certainly not necessary, but definitely fun. When the world gets you down, decorate cookies! Maybe that should be my new motto.

So as for the results? The cookies were all delicious. My favorites are still the lime cookies—I find the lime flavor comes out the best in the cookies, but the lemon and orange are good too. In fact, I find the subtlety actually works in favor of the orange cookies—I had been concerned that those ones would have too much of an orangey flavor. And a hint for when you make these yourself: they taste best about a week after you make them. When they’re fresh, the citrus flavors are very muted, but after some time, they are much more prominent. My guess is that as the cookie dries out a little, the fruity flavors are absorbed more deeply into the cookie, bringing out their taste more than when they are fresher and a little moister.

Finally, I have a question for you: what should I do with the rest of my lemon, lime, and orange oils? I only used a very small amount of each one, and I am curious to know what else I could use these odd little oils for. I would love to hear all of your brilliant ideas!

The recipe for Lime Snowball Cookies can be found here:

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Room for Improvement: Spinach and Ricotta-Stuffed Manicotti

I think that everyone has those experiences of culinary euphoria when you love everything about the dish you’ve just made, and also those experiences of culinary dismay when the dish you’re making becomes a total disaster and ends up in the garbage. But there are also those times when what you’ve made is not a disaster by any means, but it’s also not all that great. It’s just kind of … meh. In other words, ordinary, boring, or bland.

That’s the kind of experience I had this weekend when I decided to make manicotti, an Italian dish that should, by no means, be bland or boring. My Mom has made it for my family many times, and it has always been a favorite of mine. There are different ways to prepare manicotti (large, tubular pasta that you serve stuffed with meat or cheese), but my favorite has always been one of the most basic. Picture this: ricotta-stuffed manicotti baked in a tomato sauce and topped with mozzarella cheese. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Well, it was this mouthwatering image that prompted me to snatch the box of manicotti pasta from the shelf at the grocery store and add it to my cart. I had ricotta in the fridge at home—dinner was looking very good.

So, this was my process: I sautéed some sliced mushrooms in olive oil with garlic and crushed red pepper flakes:Then, I made a sauce with them by adding some tomato sauce, chicken broth, fresh basil, oregano, salt, and sugar. I simmered the sauce for about half an hour:
I will tell you, the sauce was good. There was definitely no problem there—I tasted it throughout the cooking process and I was satisfied with it. The sauce was probably the element on the plate with the best flavor.

For the filling, I combined ricotta cheese with chopped spinach and an egg:
The assembly is pretty straight-forward. A little sauce around the bottom of your baking dish:
With a little help from Andrew, I stuffed the cooked manicotti with the ricotta mixture.
We stuffed them quite full, but not bursting. Then, the manicotti were placed in the baking dish:
… covered with the rest of the sauce:
… and then topped with a sprinkling of grated mozzerella:
So, after baking covered at 350 F for thirty minutes, then uncovered for another ten, I served up plates of this:
Now, like I said, it wasn’t exactly a bad meal. It just wasn’t that great. The sauce was good, but I think where the dish really fell short was in the filling. The ricotta and spinach mixture really tasted bland, and the blandness kind of muted the good flavors of the sauce. It was definitely lacking some seasoning, so I think that next time, I’ll add some Parmesan and some salt and pepper. Or maybe you have some better ideas? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Culinary Adventure in Creation: Curried Coco-Mango Scallops Fettuccini

Take some fresh bay scallops I picked up on a whim, an organic mango I bought because the price was so good, some leftover coconut milk from when I made coconut rice, and a bunch of coriander that I forgot to add to the dinner I made Monday, and what do you get? A tasty culinary invention that I like to call Curried Coco-Mango Scallops Fettuccini. Now, that’s a mouthful, no pun intended. OK, I lied, pun totally intended.

I have to admit, when I’m in an inventive mood and I decide to cook something without using a recipe, I usually hesitate to do anything too outside of the box in terms of ingredients or flavor combinations. Sure, I’m not afraid to take a recipe and play around with the ingredients and directions to the point that it pretty much becomes new recipe, but I’m talking about when I don’t even peek at a single cookbook, magazine, or website before coming up with something I cook. I’ll often take a well-known dish, such as lasagna or carbonara and make my own version, but it is rare that I invent a totally new dish. This time, I decided to take a few more risks, and they certainly paid off.

This particular entrée was born of a number of ingredients I just happened to have around and I wasn’t sure what to do with. In addition to those listed above, I also had some panko, a lime, fish sauce, and some parsley that I wanted to use up.

I poached the scallops quickly in boiling water, then set them aside (I found they were easier to keep tender this way than sautéing them):The coconut milk, the fish sauce, and the lime were simmered in a sauce along with some chicken broth, curry powder, ground coriander, ground ginger, soy sauce, and butter.
I sautéed the mango with scallions, garlic, and crushed red pepper flakes in olive oil:
Then, the sauce was added to the mango mixture:
…along with the scallops, some chopped cilantro and some cooked fettuccini. I tossed it all together:
I also sautéed some panko with some chopped parsley and butter until the panko was lightly browned:Finally, I served the pasta into shallow bowls, and topped it with the panko. You can add a couple of sprigs of coriander for garnish if you’re feeling kinda artsy:
I’ll bet it would also be nice to serve each bowl with a couple of lime wedges, but I didn’t have another lime leftover to try that with.

All right, so sure, I’m not the first to combine mango and scallops, and coconut and curry is a very popular flavor combination. In fact, I don’t think that anything I have done to make this dish is totally new, and I’m certain that every decision I made and step I took to create this meal was influenced by recipes I have followed before. But what I can claim as my own is the combination of the specific ingredients I chose, steps I took, and ingredients I used to make this very dish. Creating something is an exciting, life-affirming experience, even when you are creating something as simple as tonight’s dinner. And because no matter what’s going on in your life, you have to eat every day, creating a meal is an experience you can have every day. And this is one of the many reasons why I love cooking: it allows me to be creative over and over again in a way that is productive and can be shared with the people around me. So I encourage you to try this recipe (because it’s delicious), but I also encourage you to come up with one of your own. It’ll make your day.

Curried Coco-Mango Scallops Fettuccini
Makes about 2 large servings.

½ lb. of bay scallops (the small ones)

½ cup chicken broth
1 lime, juiced, halves reserved
1 ½ cups coconut milk
2 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. fish sauce
1 tbsp. curry powder
1 tsp. ground coriander
2 tsp. ground ginger
2 tbsp.+3 tbsp. butter

½ lb. Fettuccini
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 mango, peeled and diced
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 scallions, white and green parts chopped
1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus extra for garnish

1 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh parsley

Boil water in a large pot, salt it, and fill a large bowl with cold water. Place your scallops in a fine-mesh metal strainer and submerge in the boiling water for 90 seconds. Remove the scallops by removing the strainer and submerge them immediately into the cold water to prevent further cooking. Test for doneness by cutting a scallop in half: it should be creamy white, and no longer translucent (it’s ok if there is a little translucency in the very center). Place scallops in a separate bowl, cover, and refrigerate. Reserve ¼ cup of the scallop poaching water.

In a saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a simmer. Add the following seven ingredients (including the juiced lime halves) and the reserved scallop poaching water and stir to combine. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to low. Simmer for about twenty minutes, until it reduces by about a quarter and thickens slightly. Swirl in 2 tablespoons of butter.

Meanwhile, cook the fettuccini according to package directions. When the pasta has been added to the water, heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the mango and cook for two minutes, until the outside has started to soften. Mix in the garlic, scallions, and red pepper flakes and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about a minute.

Remove the lime halves from the sauce, then add the sauce to the mango mixture. Stir in the scallops, the cilantro, and then the cooked fettuccini. Toss to combine. Cook on medium-low heat until the scallops are heated through, 1-2 minutes.

While the scallops are reheating, melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter in a small pan over medium heat. Add the parsley and panko and cook, stirring often, until the panko has browned slightly, about 2 minutes.

Serve the pasta into shallow bowls and top each with about a handful of the panko and a couple of sprigs of cilantro.