09 January, 2008

Back from NOLA

So my blogging entries resume, after a week of vacationing in New Orleans, LA (NOLA). I have to say that in my mind I was hoping that I will populate these first posts after the trip with mouth-watering images of the famed Creole and Cajun cuisines. Having been disappointed myself, I have to disappoint anyone who reads the blog. (Also, I imagine, I will even anger those Southern-food devotees who find gumbo and jambalaya the most sublime of meals. I am really sorry to say, but 1) they totally imitate Spanish paella; 2) have too little of a difference between them to be worth long discussions; and 3) are simply not to my taste. Apologies in advance and don't take it personally.)

We did, however, find a number of fun restaurants, including the huge buffet-style jazz brunch place called "The Court of Two Sisters" and "The Palm Court", with a menu of limited but generally nicely done offerings and great traditional jazz accompanying dinner, both in the French Quarter (FQ). Probably the best place - judging it simply as a restaurant, which does not have music or any other entertainment to color its image - was a seafood place called "The Red Fish Grill", located at the border between FQ and the Business District.

What follows here is a quick bullet-point reminder of some more or less interesting food-related points from the trip:
-> alligator bites - definitely tasty; I wish they were served in some other form than deep-fried, so that I can really know how to describe their flavors;
-> turtle soup au sherry - wonderful, as prepared at "The Court of Two Sisters; would love to see it offered somewhere here in the North-East;
-> beignets - totally overrated in my book, first, since in my home country we make the same for breakfast (minus the emblematic square shape) and second because the places that offer them in NOLA are extremely touristy, rushed and the staff is downright rude (e.g, "Cafe du Monde");
-> you can find small non-traditional, but not nondescript places in areas such as The Faubourg Marigny, where we stayed. Case in point, a wonderful corner coffee shop called "Kahve" (which is the Turkish word for coffee and coffee house, although the staff and many of the pastry choices were East European) which is also the informal rehearsal place for a bohemian-looking klezmer band;
-> oysters - now, here is one kind of seafood with which you can hardly go wrong in NOLA. Normally you should make sure that the oysters you're ordering are super fresh since you eat/suck them out of their shells pretty raw, but at least according to what I saw, here they all come directly from the Mississippi and ARE very fresh;
-> king cake - a type of cake known in many countries in Europe, especially ones which have been influenced by Catholicism, that can be found in NOLA under this English name. It is served to mark Epiphany (Jan. 6), which is also the beginning of the Mardi Gras season. Normally in this blog I do not plan to talk about non-food aspects of my life, so it's unexpected to mention a bar we went to, but we were actually offered this yeast-based kind of sweet at a place called "Vaughn's Lounge" where we had gone to hear the local star Kermit Ruffins. We did not get the "baby" inside our pieces of cake, but it was in fact quite yummy, despite being store-bought.

By far the biggest gem we came upon during our whole vacation was a sweet shop in the Garden District called "Sucre". It is a gourmet dessert place where someone like me, who has no sweet tooth but enjoys sophisticated little treats, can go crazy just by looking at the beautiful displays of hand-made bonbons and gelatos and the intricately garnished plates of the other customers.
This is what we ultimately ordered - a citrus opera and a mousse of three flavors (coffee, maple and chocolate). The little pink "purse" in the background is how their take-away products are packaged. In mine are candied mango and raspberry fruit. Mmmm.

02 January, 2008

Quick lunch for one

Today I had to eat lunch alone, but as I hope you will agree, this is no reason not to eat well. I made myself a less-than-thirty-minute meal - pork chops and an avocado salad. With simple recipes like these you can create your own variations with different spice combinations. For me, this time I kind of stuck to the very basics.

Many people in the US never think to get pork, especially to cook at home. I, on the other hand, LOVE pork. Since I only eat organic animal products, I am fairly lucky that my local grocery store (not a Whole Foods or anything of that sort) actually started carrying organic pork some time ago. So I get their
2/3-pound packet of 2 beautiful equal-sized chops
and go crazy.

Before you unwrap your meat, however, you start by washing and cleaning
4-5 scallion stalks.
You cut off the "beard" and any yellow edges there might be. Then you chop them up in thin circles.
For the frying I use a non-flavor vegetable oil, in this case corn. You pour
1/3 cup of oil
in the frying pan and add the scallions. You might start on high heat to get the oil hot more quickly, but as soon as you see some frying starting to happen, reduce to medium.

Then comes the meat. As I said above, you shouldn't open it before you're ready to put in the pan to minimize the getting of any bacteria on it, the quick and invisible little nasties everywhere around us.
You add the meat to the frying scallions at this point. I like to cover anything I am frying to try to control the splattering at least somewhat. I have a splatter screen too, but don't think it works nearly as well as a regular lid (in my case from a different cooking set, but one that fits my frying pan perfectly).

Seasoning the meat can happen before, during or after the cooking, but you should understand the different effects each choice has. In this case I seasoned mine while it was cooking - first after I turned the chops for the first time and then before I turned them again for a finish. The reason I chose in-pan seasoning is because this way you can have the spices fried onto the meat in a lovely little crust. The three most basic ones I use for pork are
black finely ground pepper (large pieces don't stick as a crust)
ground cumin.

In about 3-4 minutes (for pieces this size), I season the still raw side and turn the chops over. You can see in this picture how the pieces have curved up a bit, with the center rising above the rest. This is normal during cooking. When you flip them the same thing will happen from the other side and ultimately they will flatten down again.

The other side should be left in a tad bit longer, 4-5 minutes. The reason for this is that you should turn the chops over one more time, after seasoning the now-up-side too. Since the less cooked side will end up on the bottom again, we will give it an additional 1-2 minutes so that the cooking time ends up being even. Overall pork as tender as this needs very little cooking as you see.

This is what a finished pork chops looks like. Once you see the nice brown, both on the meat and on the spice crust, you are ready. Or rather your lovely pork chops are.
I will show what my final lunch plate looked like at the end of the avocado recipe post that follows, but you should know it was delicious.
PS Now, you will have a bunch of very tasty oil left in the pan. I never refry in the same oil, but with something as well spiced up from the scallions and spices as this, I find it hard to throw it all out. What I do is put pieces of bread in it, which I then eat as an accompaniment to my meal. You can also have them as snacks at a later time. I just hope you are not afraid of fat. :)

01 January, 2008

New Year's Eve Apple Fritter Rings

I personally don't have that big of a sweet tooth, but I enjoy a dessert that combines a little sweetness with a little tartness, and this is exactly what these simple apple fritters offer. They were meant to be some sweet finger-food, but we ended up having them for dessert, with accompaniment of caramel ice cream.

The biggest part of making them is really just prepping the apples. You use

4 large tart apples. (The recipe I used called for 5, but the batter was just barely enough, even though I must have eaten at least half an apple from the pieces that didn't come out perfectly.)

You peel and cut them into one-inch thick rings.

If you don't have a corer, there is actually a pretty easy alternative which I use. You take each slice and with the tip of the knife cut out a circle around the seed heart. Make sure your slice is placed flat on a cutting board since the end point of the knife should go all the way through the height of the slice. If you do this well, once you press gently that small circle in the middle, it will pop out immediately. If you don't do it so well, as you might not on the first 1-2 slices, you will have some nice peeled apple pieces to snack on.
1. Cut...
2. ... and pop,
3. until all the rings are ready.

Making the batter is extremely simple. Beat
1 egg
2/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon vegetable oil (use one without a strong smell or flavor, i.e., no olive oil. Something like corn or sunflower works best.)

Mix all the following dry ingredients:
1 cup flour

2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 dash salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon.

Stir the dry mix to the wet mix and beat (using a fork is enough; no need for an electric mixer) until the batter is smooth. It is pretty thick, something like this:
At this point, place a deep skillet with a sufficient amount of vegetable oil (same note as above applies - you don't want your apple fritters to taste like olive oil) on the stove and heat it up. Instructions will often call for 375F (medium-high). I don't know of a way to measure this in a pot of hot oil, but from long practice I know how the oil starts looking when it gets hot enough - something like surface "waves" start to appear. If you are really uncertain, you can always drip a small drop of the batter and see if it start frying immediately. If so, you're ready to start deep-frying the rings.
Dip each slice into the batter and place carefully (to avoid potentially very painful splatters) into the hot oil.
Fry a few at a time, but make sure they are not touching each other too closely. Your heat should not be too high, so you can afford to cover the pot so that there is less mess all over the stove. Flip them over if necessary.
They are done when they are golden brown all over.

At this point you can sprinkle with a mix of crystal (granulated) sugar and cinnamon, although it is more for decoration than flavor, because the rings are wonderful as they are. You can serve warm, cold (but don't put in the fridge), or heated over.

New Year's Eve Gougères

Here we are, in the new 2008. Best wishes to everybody! As promised, I will start the posts this year with a short look behind - to the last day of the old year - and will show you a couple of simple appetizer/cocktail food recipes, which I made for our fairly impromptu party. (Funny side note - the next day, today, I saw one of the recipes in an old Martha Stewart book. The photos looked amazingly similar, which - considering the low production budget of my own images - I will take as pretty flattering.) But you be the judge!

So we start with the savory treat. If made according to the most basic recipe, the dough for these cheese puffs is without a strong taste, which is why it is used as the foundation for pastries that range from profiteroles and eclairs to the gougères
I made. In this pristine form, before the creams, the fillings and the toppings, it is called pâte à choux.
You start with the liquid part. Some recipes call for water, but I feel there is something intrinsically wrong about trying to mix butter and water. Thus I went with the ones which ask for milk instead (whole).

In a saucepan mix and bring to a boil
1 cup of whole milk
4 tablespoons of butter.

Since I am only giving the recipe I actually made here - the savory kind - here is the place to mention I added

salt and pepper (technically listed as 1 teaspoon each, but who really measures these; just use your eye and good judgment), as well as

to the liquid mixture while it was heating. Savory here, by the way, refers to an herb, also known as summer savory which is widely used in my country's cuisine. (Even the English-language Wikipedia article about it focuses on that.) This was completely my own touch and I imagine you can put any other dry and finely ground herb which goes with savory meals.

As soon as the boiling starts, you should remove the saucepan from the heat and add (all at once)

1 cup flour

which you start energetically mixing with the liquid using a wooden spoon. Pretty quickly (depending on how energetic you have been; it's like the trade-off in the gym - to reach a certain goal you can either exercise less vigorously for a longer time or vice versa) you will see how the two parts have mixed to create a fabulously obedient dough ball which does not stick to the walls of the pot and shapes into a perfect sphere. This will not last through the next step, so enjoy while you can here.
The next step is to return the pot with the dough to back to your stove-top, now at low heat, and to dry-cook if for about 5-6 minutes, while constantly stirring (or more precisely, rolling the ball around). You want it to get a bit drier than before, but still to remain soft. If you see a whitish film cover the bottom of your pan, the dough is dry. You don't have to, however, wait for this cover to appear.

What gets added next are
4 eggs, one by one.
(Which, ideally, you have taken out of the fridge still at the beginning of your work and by now they have reached room temperature. I personally leave mine on the stove while all the cooking is going on to ensure this. But you should know yourself and if you as much as suspect that you might break yours or in trying to avoid doing so might burn yourself or - god forbid - let the milk+butter boil over, forget about it. Keep them on the counter away from yourself.)
Some wise cooks will tell you that if you are adding eggs to a hot mixture, you should let the foundation cool down for 5 minutes or so. Good advice, always, unless you want to make an omelet.

So the next thing - after the dough has had its 5 minutes of rest - is to add each egg and incorporate it into the mix by stirring rapidly with the same wooden spoon. I will post only one picture of what this looks like and you can imagine it three more times.
As you can notice, the nice ball I loved starts to lose its perfect shape and goes all over the pot again. Ultimately you see something much less disciplined and much more yellow.
Here I took the liberty to add a bit more flavor by adding
which was advice from Emeril Lagasse that I encountered somewhere. I don't much like the man, but you can count on him to kick it up a notch. Can't give you an exact amount, but it looked something like this in terms of squirts and this much resulted in a subtle, just-enough taste.
At this point all we have left to add is the main flavor of the pieces - cheese. Again, I saw various recommendations about what kind of cheese works and to tell you the truth, it seems any either soft or hard but meltable ones would do. I went with
1/3 of a standard packet of Philadelphia cream cheese, and
60 grams or so of grated Edam (a semi-hard, fairly mild yellow cheese).
Given the very mild-tasting result and my love of cheese, next time I will bravely go with double the amount of Edam. Until then, however, no guarantees.

Now, the last part was to make little dollops of the dough and to place them on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. The little things behave wonderfully - no sticking, no expanding to touch each other. They puff up just enough to deserve their name. Here is how they go into
the oven, preheated to 400 F.
One more thing concerning the baking arrangements. With this size of the scoops I got about 3 dozen beauties. Since I do not have such a huge oven, I had to separate them on 2 baking sheets which I placed on 2 racks. Thus the times I list below should be adjusted depending on the way you get your own puffs in your own oven. The best advice I can give is to simply check on your product often and go with what it tells/shows you.

So the trick here is that
after 10-15 minutes of baking them at 400,
you reduce the temperature to 350 F and bake 25-30 more minutes or until golden-brown.

And this is how we get to the infamous picture "as if out of that Martha Stewart cookbook" I mentioned above.

30 December, 2007

Getting in the spirit of a chilled out New Year's celebration

Virtually less than 12 hours ago I was planning to ring in the New Year by babysitting. (Something I haven't done in years, and yeah, despite kind of believing that the way you start the year...) It's a long story how and why, but ultimately I changed my mind (don't worry about the parents who needed a sitter; they had another option too - everybody's happy) and even decided to contribute some finger foods for my plan B, which is shaping to be an intimate cocktail party. In preparation for tomorrow, I picked my recipes (which will remain a surprise until I make them and post the results) and watched a bunch of kitchen shows that I found on my non-cable channel options.

I saw for the first time what Mark Bittman looks like for example. Although I have been reading "The Minimalist" for a long time and have leafed through his multiple-pound-heavy "How to Cook Everything" cookbooks, I had never seen any of his apparently equally ubiquitous TV shows. No intention to avoid them on my part; must be that I have no cable. (I know, I know - he also has short videos on the NYTimes' site, but I love the Times as a newspaper and even while reading it online actually am not very tempted to watch those).

So his "The Best Recipes" are my new discovery and the episode I saw, "A Sunday Dinner in Europe" made my mouth water, especially since my boyfriend and I also brought home from Catalonia the recipe for the simple and delicious
pa amb tomàquet. I promise to show how this bread-and-tomato snack is made at some future point, mostly to assure all non-Catalan (and non-Spaniards, I suppose) how accessible this crispy and garlicky wonder is in your own kitchen.

Now I have gotten all my ingredients for tomorrow's goodies and even scoured some clever wine-related web pages, from which I chose the oxymoron of New Mexico champagne for our midnight toast.
French word purists can relax: I sneaked that one in there just to tease them; but outside of technicalities, I really see no reason why a sparkling wine produced by the Gruet family (of proper Champagne renown), according to what they describe as a "true Methode Champenoise" cannot carry the same name. But so be it - I give this one to the brand-name lawyers. This (the part that starts around the 2nd quarter of the total clip; got 87 points by the crazy dude) is what I am getting for tomorrow.

PS To make up for sending you the way of the last link, here is something more appropriately polished - the best how-to video you can watch to be in top-notch form on December 31st, at midnight. (And any other occasion that calls for bubbles.)

Hours to the New Year

As a believer in doing one new thing each year, I am going to try to document some of my hobby hours -- spent in (and out of) the kitchen -- during 2008. The hobby is not new, the blogging about it will be.

Since I am not yet living in my own house, with the kind of dream cooking area where you can run around the marble-top, copper-pots-hanging-from-the-ceiling kitchen island, there will be no gimmicks, great gadgets or expensive utensils. My focus is on perfecting basic techniques, learning more about new ingredients, discovering recipes and just continuing to feel as if i am meditating while cooking. It's not a celebrity kitchen, but if anything, it should be more relevant to the average young cook at home.

Come take a look, ask a question, give me your suggestion in the new year!