The First Fire in Early Spring

There’s something magical about lighting a chimney full of charcoal for the first time in the spring, where the dusk temperatures still dive down low enough to warrant standing closer to the grill to warm up.  After a winter that saw the accumulation of over 40 inches of snow over the span of four days, the onset of afternoons filled with bright sunlight and daylight that lingers ever longer into the dinner hour brings a sense of hope and renewal.

Grilling is almost a natural reaction to those times when I don’t feel like cooking.  When the kitchen is clean, and I don’t want to disturb its serenity by breaking out all manner of pots, pans, and plates, I grill.  Likewise, when the kitchen is dirty or cluttered – again, with those pots, pans, and plates that were all called into the service of some multifaceted meal, I grill.  For me, grilling distills cooking down to its primal elements – meat and fire.  Really, what else do you need?

On the occasion of discovering perhaps the most perfect butcher shop in all of Chester County, we came home that day with a perfect Delmonico steak – well marbled throughout with streaks of fat.  The shop in question, Country Butcher in Kennett Square, sells USDA Prime cuts that are locally sourced and grass-fed, along with a good selection of cheeses, oils, and other food items.  Out of respect for this grand specimen of beef, I treated it simply – a little bit of olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt and ground pepper, and a rubdown with a cut garlic clove.  Having never tried a steak from Country Butcher, I avoided masking the true flavor of the beef with overly aggressive sauces and seasonings.

Having had grass-fed beef in restaurants, I was already familiar with how outstanding a good steak can become if treated well.  But I had always attributed a greater portion of the responsibility to the chef than to the farmer that raised the cow and the butcher that sourced it and sold it to the restaurant.  As it turns out, the steak was one of the best home-prepared dinners that we’ve ever had.  I can’t take any credit for it – all I did was throw it onto the grill, stand there for five minutes, and flip it onto the other side.  More tender than any other home-cooked Delmonico, with an unexpected depth of flavor, it rivaled the quality of some of the top-dollar, triple-digit dinners that we’ve had in downtown Philadelphia.  It was that good.

April 22, 2010   Comments

Valentine’s Day, Party of Three

This year was our first Valentine’s Day as parents which, contrary to what most would believe, was actually quite liberating.  Instead of trying to nail down reservations for dinner at one of the few establishments that don’t mandate the selection of a “Valentine’s Day Menu”, we had made absolutely no plans up until Friday night, two days before the actual day.  I knew that we were going to stay home and that I was going to cook a nice meal – I just hadn’t really given thought to what I was going to make.  For inspiration, I had to reach back into my memory, and ended up completing a circle that had started quite a long time ago.

Almost sixteen years ago, I took my wife (who, at that moment, went by the title of ‘long distance girlfriend’) to New York City for the first time.  I remember that it was still cold, so it may have been this time of year, and it may, in fact, have been a Valentine’s Day trip.

Wanting very badly to make a good impression, I sought out a place for dinner that was, by reputation, romantic, and after some degree of research, decided on One If By Land, Two If By Sea in Greenwich Village.  After breezing right past it, we fumbled around looking for the door, until finally the piano player motioned at us through the bay window and pointed at the entrance.

The setting, an 18th century carriage house, was warm and inviting, with darkly wooded dining rooms lit by the soft glow of vintage chandeliers.  It was the perfect date restaurant, made even more so by the fact that we were seated at a table that overlooked the garden outside, coated white by a layer of freshly fallen snow.  We both ordered the Beef Wellington, a decadent concoction of medium-rare filet mignon, foie gras, and mushrooms, served wrapped in a golden puff pastry crust.  At that time, One If By Land had been known as one of the few dining establishments that served Wellington as an individually wrapped serving of filet.  The meal was excellent from beginning to end, with course after course of outstanding food, attentive service, and all of the pomp and circumstance of an evening that was slightly out of a college student’s budget range.  But it was worth every cent.

At some point after that experience, after we had gotten married, I had tried my hand at making my own Beef Wellington.  The fact that I don’t really remember how it turned out, though, means that it must not have been very well executed.  But, years later, having accrued a bit more kitchen wisdom and experience, I decided, quite on a whim, that I’d try revisiting the recipe, this time as a Valentine’s Day dinner at home.

A classic dilemma facing every cook who attempts a Beef Wellington is timing.  The pastry crust must be baked to a perfect crispy brown, yet the beef must not be allowed to cook much further than medium-rare.  If I remember correctly, this was my downfall on my first attempt – while the pastry had turned out perfectly, cutting into the serving yielded gray, overcooked filet.

To prepare, I reviewed quite a few recipes for Beef Wellington.  Some of them only required you to pan-sear the filet mignon, to develop a crust on all sides, before wrapping it in pastry and popping it into the oven.  Others, though, had you precooking the filet mignon to very nearly serving temperature, so that you would end up wrapping a near-presentation worthy log of beef in pastry, with only the required amount of time in the oven to ensure that the pastry was fully baked.  I ended up taking methods and ingredients from one recipe and melding them with techniques from another.  For the preparation of the beef, I decided to go with the latter method, and roasted the tied bundle until an internal probe thermometer had registered the meat as rare, around 125 degrees, then cooled it down to room temperature with a quick stint out on the deck, covered by foil.  This is the only legitimate use for a deck in winter – as a large walk-out cooler.

Having no foie gras on hand, I instead crafted a mushroom duxelle, which was as simple as spinning some mushrooms, shallots, and thyme in a food processor, then sauteing the mixture in olive oil until most of the moisture has cooked out of it.  It takes about ten minutes, after which you set the duxelle mixture into a fine sieve to allow even more liquid to escape, and to let it cool to room temperature.

Using store-bought puff pastry, I laid a frozen sheet on a plastic mat that we use for rolling and measuring pie dough and waited for it to thaw.  Once I could easily unfold it without risk of breaking it, I rolled it to about half of its original thickness.  Assembly was fun – wielding a rubber spatula, I smeared a small bed of duxelle onto the pastry, arranged the filet mignon on top, topped it with Dijon mustard and more duxelle, then carefully enclosed the puff pastry around it, sealing the seams with beaten egg.  Carefully sliding the probe thermometer into the center of the Wellington, I popped it into the oven, set my timer, and waited.

Since I had already precooked the beef, there was no guesswork involved as to when the Wellington was ready.  I only had to wait until the internal temperature of the meat had risen to my desired measure of doneness, about 130 degrees or so for medium-rare, and by that time the crust had puffed and turned golden brown.  Still, even with all of these safeguards, I was nervous slicing into the finished product.

I took my sharpest blade and held the golden package with one hand as I took one sure swipe down the center of the Wellington.  Seeing the rosy red interior of the beef, I knew that I had found my new Beef Wellington recipe.  I sliced the Wellington into thick slices, about an inch, letting them fall forward onto a spatula like a Stonehenge of culinary goodness.  A quick pan sauce of capers, cream, mustard, and brandy was just enough to send the dish into overdrive.

So that night, with the baby napping on the couch beside us and with a bottle of red wine to celebrate the occasion, my wife and I celebrated our first Valentine’s Day as a threesome.  And you know what?  I think I enjoyed it even more than an evening in New York City.

(Note: I need time to write up this recipe, since it’s a hybrid of a bunch of different sources, but as soon as I do, I will update this post.  Promise.)

March 4, 2010   Comments

Beef Short Ribs Braised in Stout Beer

We returned from our beach house vacation to 50 degree weather.  One of the few good things about colder weather is that it puts stews, braises, and richer meats on the menu.  I found a good set of boneless beef short ribs at the supermarket, which were originally intended to be prepared in a red wine sauce until I remembered that we had a cache of stout beer.

I’ve modified this recipe from Epicurious to account for the smaller amount of short ribs.  I also decided to do the opposite of a slow cooker and instead used my pressure cooker, which enabled me to complete the dish in under an hour.  The result was exceedingly tender chunks of beef, immersed in a thick sauce that was made slightly sweet by the stout and the spices used in this recipe.  You’d be surprised that you don’t need many short ribs to make a meal, since they’re very rich – one, or at most two, per person.  I served this over roasted potatoes, but the next time I’ll be sure to have some egg noodles on hand.

Beef Short Ribs Braised in Stout Beer

1 lb beef short ribs

2 Tbs brown sugar
1/2 Tsp paprika
1/2 Tsp curry powder
1/2 Tsp cumin
1/2 Tsp black pepper
1/2 Tsp salt
1/4 Tsp mustard powder

Olive oil

1 onion, 1 carrot, and 1 celery rib, chopped

1 bay leaf

2 or 3 cloves of garlic, chopped

1/2 cup broth (chicken or beef)

1 bottle stout beer

1 small can of tomato sauce

Pat the ribs dry with a paper towel and set aside.  Combine all of the spices in a bowl and shake to mix thoroughly.  Rub all sides of the beef ribs with the spice mixture and set aside, uncovered, in the fridge for about an hour (skip the resting period if you lack the time).

Take a pressure cooker and set it over medium-high heat.  Add a splash of olive oil, and when it’s hot and shimmery, add the short ribs and brown for 1 minute per side (watch to make sure the spice mixture doesn’t stick and burn).  Remove the ribs to a plate, and add another splash of oil to the pot.

Throw in your onion/carrot/celery mix, along with the bay leaf.  Stir that up and let that cook for about 3 minutes, or until the onion looks softish.  Throw the chopped garlic in, give it a stir, and let that go for a minute or two.

Add all of your liquids at this time – the beer, the broth, and the tomato sauce, and stir up the bottom of the pot to get all the sticky stuff off and into the goop.  Add the ribs to the sauce, turn the heat up, and lock the pressure cooker lid on.

Bring the pressure cooker up to pressure, until the excess steam steadily escapes from the valve.  Reduce the heat to medium, or to the point where the pressure is maintained, and cook for 40 minutes.  Rapid-release the pressure, taste for salt, and serve.

October 23, 2008   Comments

Anatomy of a Meatball

A good meatball begins as a tried-and-true recipe, either passed down through family lore, or traded with a neighbor, or copied out of a cookbook, catalog, website, or magazine.  It gets made, to exacting proportions, over and over, until the dish fits comfortably like a worn pair of jeans and your body and mind go on autopilot when you’re in the kitchen.

One day, based purely on a shortage of this ingredient, or an abundance of that, the meatball recipe gets a dash of improvisation, and evolves.  You add something that you hadn’t thought of adding before, or add a little less or more of something else, or substitute one ingredient for something else, and not only did you still end up with meatballs, they were better, because they were no longer someone else’s recipe, they were your meatballs.

Tuesday was spaghetti and meatballs night.  These are my meatballs.

In its most basic form, a meatball is a lightly blended combination of one or more types of meat, bread, some dairy, and various herbs and seasonings.  Beyond the meat, bread, and dairy, your greatest potential for customization comes in the seasonings.  What I am listing here is what I did on Tuesday night, which was largely dictated by what was on hand and what was growing in the garden – your mileage will definitely vary based on the unique riffs that you take off of the main tune.


Here’s my list of ingredients.  The recipe is highly scalable, so go crazy with your bad self.

1.5 lbs ground beef, 80% lean
1 slice bread
2 eggs
4 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
1/4 cup milk
1/3 cup grated parmesan
Bunch of herbs, 1 1/2 tsp salt, bunch of ground pepper

Olive oil for frying


Useful items – flexible spatula, high-sided frying pan, tongs

You Want The Sauce, Too?

28oz can of chopped or crushed tomatoes
More garlic, chopped
Oregano, or some other herb
Red wine


The Meat

Most recipes call for a blend of beef, pork, and veal, which contributes to a more delicately textured meatball than if you use just one kind.  Most times, I am too lazy or frugal to hunt for ground pork and veal, so I use beef exclusively.  The most important rule is this – the more fat in your meatball mix, the better the meatballs.  I tried using 95% lean beef one time, and the results were horrible – dry, crumbly, rubbery meatballs that absolutely refused to absorb any sauce.  I always use 80% lean; if you’re concerned about the fat content, realize that a lot of fat will be poured out and not end up in the finished dish.  Then again, if you are really worried about fat content, you shouldn’t really be eating beef anyway.

Eggs

Rule of thumb, one egg per pound of meat, erring on the egg side.  So, I had a 1 1/2 pound pack of ground beef, so I used 2 eggs to make the meatballs.  Lightly beat the eggs with a fork before adding them to the mix.

Bread

Some recipes call for soaking bread in milk, others call for bread crumbs.  I don’t see a difference in the end results – I like to give a slice of bread a brief spin in the food processor to make it into crumbs.  So long as, in the end, your bread has formed a pasty mush with your liquid, you’ll be fine.  You could probably get away with canned crumbs provided they are not too old and dry.

Dairy

I’ve seen recipes that use plain yogurt, and others that use milk.  Again, for reasons of expediency, I use milk because it’s what’s most commonly on hand.  I’ve used yogurt before, and you really can’t taste it in the end result, so the purpose of dairy is really as a moistening agent here.

The Extras

Here’s where you get to have fun and customize according to what you like, what’s on hand, or what seems to be a good idea at the time.  Beyond the usuals of salt and pepper, the variations of herbs and spices that you can add to a meatball recipe are really flexible.


My personal taste enjoys a lot of garlic, and a nice hit of grated parmesan, so, at least to me, those two add-ins are essential to my meatball recipe.  I generally chop about three or four garlic cloves into the mix, along with 1/4 to 1/3 cup of grated parmesan.  When I went out to the garden, I snipped a handful of italian parsley, some thyme branches, and a bunch of oregano.  After rinsing these clippings, I roughly chopped the parsley and thyme and tossed them into the bowl with the rest of my dry ingredients (bread crumbs, salt, pepper, parmesan, garlic) and gave the whole thing a good toss.  I reserved the oregano for the sauce.


To this bowl, I then added about 1/4 cup of milk, and the two beaten eggs.  Using a whisk, I stirred the contents of the bowl until I had a uniform mixture, then folded in the ground meat using my hands.  At this point, I put the bowl into the fridge so that it could firm up a bit – if you’re pressed for time, you can skip the chilling.


Here’s the cooking part.  Take a large frying pan, preferably with tall sides (the meatballs will tend to splatter) and heat a small amount of olive oil on medium-high heat for about three minutes, then turn the pan so that the oil coats the bottom evenly.


Wet your hands.  Take a 1/4 cup measure and measure out 1/4 cup of meatball mix from the mound, then plop it into your palm and roll it up into a meatball.  The mixture should form a loose clump that holds together, but is not bouncy-bouncy hard.  As you complete each meatball, place it carefully into the pan.  You should be able to get a decent number of meatballs going in a ring around the edge of the pan, and a couple more in the center.  Don’t crowd them.


After a few minutes, take a flexible spatula and shimmy it under each meatball, to separate it from the pan (don’t use tongs, you’ll rip the meatballs in half).  After loosening the meatballs, use the tongs to carefully turn them to cook the other side.  If you’re a perfectionist, you can repeat this process twice more, but generally browning them on two sides is enough to keep them from falling apart.  I’ve never done this in a nonstick pan, so maybe using one would enable you to skip the flexible spatula.

As the meatballs progress to a more done state, you can begin pushing the initial batch to one side of the pan to finish cooking as you form and place more meatballs into the empty space.  Don’t be overly concerned about overcooking them – they are large enough, and contain enough fat, to not dry out.  As the first batch of meatballs seem done, you can transfer them to a paper towel with the tongs as you finish cooking the rest.

After all is said and done, you should now have a lovely batch of meatballs.  At this point, you can let them cool completely and refrigerate or freeze them, eat them as they are, or finish them in some tomato sauce, as I have done here.

For the tomato sauce, I chopped more garlic, and set up my oregano and found myself some leftover red wine.  I drained all but a couple of tablespoons of fat from the pan and threw in the garlic, along with a little more olive oil.  When the garlic turned golden, but before it burned, I added the oregano and about a cup of red wine to the pan and scraped up all of the sticky meat leavings with a wooden spoon, then added a 28oz can of chopped tomatoes.  Let this come to a simmer, add the meatballs (turn them to coat evenly with sauce) and let the whole thing cook, covered, at a low simmer for about 35 minutes.

August 14, 2008   Comments

The Dry Run – Braised Short Ribs Over Polenta

We are hosting a dinner party for around ten people on April 26, and I’ve been menu-planning in my head ever since I first found out about it. The reason for the get-together is to celebrate the engagement of one of the couples in attendance, so I wanted to go a little further than your typical casual crowd food.

Last night, I did a dry run for one of the dishes that I was considering making for the dinner – braised short ribs over polenta. To make a long story short, while I can see tweaking this into a great dish, I think I’m going to continue searching for a better main course.

One of the problems that I ran into involved the translation of a recipe meant to serve several people into one that serves only one or two. I had bought about a pound of short ribs (three ribs, to be exact) and had seasoned them overnight with a mixture of salt, pepper, rosemary, and thyme. The next day (which was yesterday), I browned the ribs, added red wine, and then placed the covered pot into the oven to cook for the requisite two hours.

The original recipe, which I obtained from epicurious.com, calls for two bottles of wine and 8 or 9 pounds of ribs. I estimated, quite incorrectly, that two cups of wine were enough. As the evening wore on, the pleasant smell of roasted meat and red wine gradually turned harsher, and I checked on it just in time to save it from becoming a scorched mess. The wine had simmered away to nothing, but thankfully the fatty nature of the short ribs prevented them from burning. I added more wine and finished the cooking.

Following the recipe, I whipped up a quick batch of boxed polenta, and, taking a cue from a recent recipe that I saw in a magazine, added some gorgonzola and chopped almonds. As a final step, the short ribs are topped with a gremolata, which is a mixture of chopped parsley, lemon zest, and garlic. I’ve used gremolata before, as a finishing step to osso buco, so I was not hesitant to implement it here.

So, the end result is what you see here. The short ribs were very tender, with no hint of scorching at all, although you can see that simmering anything in red wine for two hours is going to turn it very dark. I was disappointed in the texture of the polenta, and vow never to make it from a box mix again. The gremolata could have benefited from being covered and cooked on top of the ribs for about five minutes, as the flavor of the raw garlic was a bit much. This is what I do with osso buco, and I should have carried the technique over to this recipe.

Ultimately, though, even though I know that these fixes would make the dish much better, I will not be making it for the dinner party for the simple fact that it is way too heavy for this time of year. Even after only one rib, I was completely stuffed, and I intend to serve about three courses at the dinner, plus dessert.

I could imagine this recipe for cold weather, but as the sun is finally up when we leave for work and when we get back home, and my tulip bulbs are blooming, it just isn’t the appropriate time of year to serve this dish.

The search continues.

April 14, 2008   Comments