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

Redemptive Granola Bars

It’s hard to imagine today, but there was a time when granola was healthy.  It was just a few years ago that granola was regarded as a “weird” food, one that was shunned by the mainstream masses.  If you wanted to buy some, you’d have to go into a natural foods store to find it – one of those places that also sells healing crystals, vegetarian dog food, and bread products with as much umami as styrofoam.  Granola was seen as “just” health food, or at the very least something that only people from California would eat.

At some point, the Powers That Be seized upon the realization that they could sell granola bars at the supermarket if they made a few special additions here and there – you know, to make granola more compatible with the average customer’s palate.  Shoppers would perceive that they were engaged in a healthy diet choice (it is granola, after all) but in order to get them truly on board with the concept, the brands started adding chocolate, and additional sugar, and all manner of preservatives.  Some preservatives were added to keep chewy granola soft, others to keep crunchy granola from going stale.  The end result?  You can’t find a mass-marketed granola bar that’s truly healthy.  In fact, if you check the nutritional panel on a typical box of granola bars, you’ll find that some brands are really no better for you than most candy bars.  If truly healthy granola is Anakin, then the bars that contain chocolate chips, added sugar, and overly-sweetened yogurt fillings are Darth Vader – twisted, evil, and full of empty calories.

Instead of feeling down about this whole corrupted granola scenario, I decided to make my own.  It is incredibly easy, and the best part about making your own granola is the fact that you know everything that goes into them.  The base ingredients are cheap, widely available, and good for you.  If you want to tart them up with less-than-healthy components, or go completely overboard with additional healthy ingredients, it’s completely up to you.  The important thing is this – you have full control over what you’re eating.

The basic concept of any granola bar recipe involves mixing a combination of dry ingredients (primarily oats) with some form of gooey liquid sweetener to bind it all together (without the binding, you just have granola, no bar).  Press the mess into a dish, bake until set, then store in an airtight container.  I am presenting the master recipe here, but I hope to experiment a little more and come up with some truly unique combinations later.  I’m still tinkering – the bars are not as soft as I would like, and maybe this can be resolved just by dialing back how much time they spend in the oven.

The Best Food Blog Ever Master Granola Bar Recipe uses a combination of oats, nuts, and dried coconut for the dry ingredients, and honey, peanut butter, and brown rice syrup for the wet.  One of the things that you’ll notice about this recipe is that there is no white sugar – by using honey and brown rice syrup, you still achieve the desired sweetness but in a way that is slowly digested and avoids sugar crash.  Also, the ingredients are very forgiving, so long as you maintain approximately the same volumes – if all that you have on hand are raisins, you can use all raisins.

The Best Food Blog Ever Master Granola Bar Recipe

2 cups oats
1 cup mixed nuts, chopped (see note about salt, below)
1 1/2 cup raisins, dried cranberries, and dried cherries
1 cup shredded coconut (low fat version, if available)
1/2 cup wheat germ or flax seeds

1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup brown rice syrup
1/4 cup peanut butter (natural, if available)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt (omit if using salted nuts)

Set your oven to 350°F. Line a baking dish (a square one for thicker bars, or a rectangle for thinner ones) with foil or parchment paper.  Get a rubber spatula ready.

Bake the oatmeal, coconut, and nuts together on a sheet pan for 15 minutes, until visibly browned.  You’ll know by the toasty smell that’s coming from your oven.

While the dry ingredients are toasting, mix the wet ingredients in a measuring cup, making sure to stir thoroughly to incorporate the vanilla and salt throughout.  Set aside.

This next step is best done in a stand mixer, but if you don’t have one you can also use a handheld mixer or a quick stirring arm.

Transfer the hot mixture to a bowl and stir in the wheat germ or flax seeds.  Pour the wet ingredients over the warm dry ingredients and mix together, then add the dried fruit and mix for a few seconds more.  Using the rubber spatula, press the mixture into the pan.

Bake at 300 degrees for 20 minutes.  I am still tinkering with the baking time – I have been baking the bars for 30 minutes, which yields a harder texture than what I would like.

Lift the granola slab out of the pan and let cool completely, then cut into bars and store in an airtight container.

November 23, 2009   Comments

Rising to the Occasion – Lancaster County Corn Souffle with Gruyere

I’ve never made a souffle before.  What I knew about souffles was what everyone knows about souffles – that you have to tiptoe around the kitchen and make as little noise as possible, lest you cause the delicate, puffy concoction in the oven to collapse.  I think it’s this one notion that keeps more people from trying their hand at making one.

Well, it was the end of August, and the supermarket had this immense island of corn, going for something ridiculously cheap.  I had wanted to incorporate summer corn into the menu for the engagement party, but I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to approach it.

I picked up eight ears of corn and pored through my library.  I found this recipe for corn souffle back in issue #13 of Saveur (and found online here).  I tried to scale the proportions of the ingredients to make a souffle that would fit into a larger dish, but, as it turns out, when it comes to whipping egg whites, you can’t just multiply ingredients to come up with a bigger portion.  I had enough souffle batter to fill one large dish and two smaller ones.

After popping everything in the oven, I was curious about this whole souffle thing, so I turned on the oven light to see how they were coming along.  The tops of each souffle were rising steadily, and quite impressively, and the melted gruyere was forming a nice, brown crust.  And, to dispel the myth, we made no attempt to maintain a quiet environment in the kitchen during this time – people were coming in and out, dishes were being washed, and other recipes were being prepared.  Yes, they will deflate once you poke a serving spoon into them, so if you’re going for presentation, you may want to hold off and serve at the table.

In the end, the souffles were amazing.  The larger of the souffle dishes turned out a little underdone, but the smaller ones were perfect.  As a whole, the dish was a perfect way to highlight the freshness of local summer corn, and definitely something I am eager to repeat next summer.  Until then, I’m looking for more souffle recipes – they’re cheap and easy (like all egg dishes) and can be varied to suit what’s available.

September 11, 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