Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas success!

On Saturday, December 22nd, I seated and served 20 people in my small, midwestern home for an early Christmas dinner. Other than spilling part of a bottle of wine, the dinner was a complete success.

How did I do it? Mostly, I followed the advice of my previous blog post.

One, I delegated. I was only making the meat--turkey and lamb--and some dinner rolls. Each family member brought side dishes, salads, or desserts. My family was extremely gracious and helpful in making sure there was enough to go around.

Two, I kept clean-up to a minimum by using plasic plates and silverware. I found some nice looking stuff at the local warehouse store that didn't look paper-plate chintzy. I also rented some 8-foot tables to seat everybody, from a local rental company. I got 2 tables and 25 chairs delivered, set up and picked up for under $100--money well spent. I also used green disposable tablecloths, which complemented the red place settings nicely.

Three, I did a lot of the prep work and the cooking in advance. I brined the turkey and marinated the meat a few days before. I set up the tables the night before. I set the tables early in the morning. The meats were cooked nearly an hour before the first guest arrived. The roll recipe I used was also largely done in advance. All I had to do the day of was let the rolls rise, then bake them at the last moment.

I did break my rule and tried two new recipes, rather than one new recipe, for the event. I'd never cooked a leg of lamb before, and I'd never done homemade dinner rolls. However, I had a superb marinade for the lamb, and a good recipe in a cookbook that I trust. I also had kitchen thermometers in both meats, to make sure that I did not overcook them.

I did make a bit of an error with the thermometers, though. For both the turkey and the lamb, the thermometers said the meats were done when they still needed a good half hour to an hour more of cooking. Now, I know that each oven is different, and that cooking times in recipes are just guidelines. However, my cooking times were coming up a good 45 minutes to an hour short of the times in the cookbooks. Something was definitely off, and it was either the recipes, or the thermometers.

This is where having confidence in your recipe comes into play. I knew that I could trust both recipes, and that the cooking times shouldn't be more than 10 or 15 minutes off of what was listed. So, I reasoned, I must have made a mistake when placing the thermometers; I must have placed them too shallow. I jiggled the thermometers to place them a bit deeper into the meat, and, lo and behold, the internal temperature went down a good 20 degrees.

It's also about your confidence as a cook. Even if I wasn't so sure about the recipe, I would still have checked the thermometers, jiggled them a bit, or even pulled them out and put them in a different spot of the meat, to see what the problem was. If my second readings had told me the bird was done, then I'd have pulled the bird, even though the recipe may have given a longer cooking time.

The dinner rolls were more of a wild card. However, the recipe was from Cooks Illustrated magazine, another source whose recipes I trust. Rolls are also similiar enough to breadmaking--and I've done enough breads that I felt fairly confident with them. And, with all the other side dishes coming, if the rolls did not work out, no one would miss them. I confess, I was not 100% sure about the rolls until after they came out of the oven, and I palmed one and ate it under my breath. I still had time to shuffle them to the garage if they weren't any good. Thankfully, the rolls were lovely.

A huge thanks to my family for their hospitality and for coming out to my house, some of them for the first time. And a big thanks to my husband, who did a lot of the final cleaning and running to the store for me that day. It was a little stressful to plan, but the execution was beautiful, and the cleanup was a breeze.

Versatile meat marinade
Adapted from from Cooking New American by The Editors of Fine Cooking (The Taunton Press, 2004).

I got this marinade from a Splendid Table Weeknight Kitchen E-mail, and adapted it for my own use. I've used this marinade with great success on beef and lamb. It would also be good for a pork tenderloin. It's probably too strong for chicken, but you could try it, so long as you don't let it marinate too long.

2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds, crushed lightly
Pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Juice and zest of one lemon
Juice and zest of one orange
Sprigs of cilantro or mint

Lightly crush coriander seeds with a mortar and pestle, or by nesting a smaller glass inside a bigger glass and pressing gently but firmly. Stir all ingredients together, except for the cilantro or mint, until well blended.

If you like, reserve a few tablespoons of the marinade to drizzle over the meat after it's cooked. Reserve it before you add the meat.

Put your meat (beef, lamb pork) into a zip-top bag or shallow dish, and add marinade. Bruse the herbs by rolling them roughly between the palms of your hand like you are warming up your hands on a cold day. Add some herbs to each side of bag. Marinate for at least a day, two would be better, turning at least once. I like to turn it every few hours--before work, then after work, then before I go to bed.

Before cooking, wipe meat off to remove the coriander seeds and any bits of herbs that are hanging on. Cook meat in your standard way, whatever that may be.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

My Precious...

Santoku (San-TOE-Koo). noun. A general-purpose kitchen knife originating in Japan. The word santoku loosely translates as 'three good things' or 'three uses', a reference to the knife's multipurpose use with meat, vegetables and seafood. (From Wikipedia)

And it's mine, all mine! My Precioussss...

This was a Christmas gift from my parents. My parents are incredibly cool. Just look at this baby. Look at it:

The sleek, polished dark wood handle. Damascus folded steel. Elegant yet functional blade. And Alton says Shun knives are the sharpest he's ever seen. How can you not fall in love with this knife?

It's not my fault that I tend to covet kitchen gadgets like some girls covet shoes. It all started when I worked at Williams-Sonoma over a summer. They actually teach you a bit about good kitchen equipment, stuff like why 18/10 silverware is a good thing, and why you don't ever want to use knives on glass or porcelain. You've got to believe the hype so you can better sell the product, after all, and a 20% employee discount helped, too.

Yes, My Precious Shun may be somewhat extravagant and unnecessary, but so are Jimmy Choos. And let me tell you from personal experience--I'm talking several knife scars on my left index finger here--a sharp knife makes chopping and slicing easier, and safer. I never really plumbed the depths of my cooking ability until I got my first good knife--a Henckels Professional S--four years ago.

A good knife doesn't have to be an uber-knife like the Shun, but it must keep a sharp edge or you must be willing to have it professionally sharpened at least once a year.

Check archives of Cooks Illustrated or Consumer Reports for recommendations on good buys at a reasonable price.

For the nonce, my lust for elite kitchen gadgets has finally been sated. I started with a Waring Blender, got the Kitchen-Aid stand mixer of my dreams (black with flames painted on the side) and now my precious Shun.

Excuse me. I've got to go chop something.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Holiday cooking rescue guide

"'twas the night before Christmas
and all through the house
The turkey was burning
And so was my blouse..."

Just some quick last-minute tips for those of us who are a little fearful that our Christmas meals won't come out quite right.

1. Relax. Take a deep breath. It will all be ok. Put on some music that you like while you are cooking, something to chill you out and calm you down.
2. Delegate. I had 20 people in my smallish house for christmas. I did the meats, and everybody else brought the side dishes. Took a lot of the stress off my hands.
3. If you can't delegate, use shortcuts. There's lots of great prepared foods out there, especially for desserts, that work really well. There's even great roasted chickens at most grocery stores. Take the garbage out, and no one will be the wiser. Your family will probably want to help in some way. Let them.
4. If you have time, do a dry run. I cooked my first Christmas turkey two weeks before Christmas, to make sure everything came out OK. A good thing I did, too, because it took more than twice as long to thaw as the package said it would.
5. Don't do more than one new recipe. Go with old standbys for most of your meals.
6. Read through the recipe several times before you start. Look for anything that is confusing to you or doesn't make sense.
7. "Mise in place" is your friend. Have everything cut and measured before you start. You can do this well in advance for most things, and you won't run frantically around the kitchen as much.
8. Have a backup plan. That way, if your item doesn't come out, you can have something to serve to your hungry guests. Frozen ravioli may not be traditional, but it's filling, can feed a crowd, is easy to make, and pretty much everybody likes it. Also, Find the number of the Chinese place nearby that will be open on Christmas Day. If things are unsalvagable, give them a call.
9. Don't start drinking until affter the bulk of the cooking is done. Okay, maybe a beer or one glass of wine, but no more. You may think that drinking will help to relax you, but drunk cooking is sloppy cooking, and leads to injury and disaster.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Cooking Goofs for the Soul - Contest

(Update: Some great goofs coming in. I've decided I can't decide on a winner, so I'll be putting up a Poll. Look for that soon!)

I'm working on a blog post about how to recover from cooking goofs, just in time for the Christmas season. In the meantime, I'm going to run this blog's first ever contest!

Submit to me your worst cooking frack-up in the "Comments" section of this blog post. The person whose story I like best will get a dozen sugar cookies, from yours truly, mailed to their home! You have until the end of 2007 to comment. Multiple embar...entries encouraged.

I won't spare myself any embarrassment here. I'll share some of my worst cooking disasters, too.

* Served an inedibly tart apple cobbler at a dinner party.

* Dropped a creme brulee as I was taking it out of its water bath and putting it onto a cooling rack. Hot, liquid custard shrapnel splattered all over my wall and my couch.

* Accidentally made gummy, gross dumplings in a soup when I tried to thicken it by sprinkling flour directly into the soup as it was boiling.

* I burned two cups of onions to my favorite (and at the time brand new) saucier pan. We're talking near chemical adhesion. Better than teflon. It took two weeks of hot water and soap boilings over the stove, plus regular vinegar and baking soda scrubbings to get the pot back in working order.

*Put a whole 4 ounce can of chipotles in adobo in a chili I was making. It was so hot it was inedible. No amount of sour cream or cheese could tame the fire.

* Another kitchen shrapnel story. Chestnuts exploded when I tried roasting them in the oven. You're supposed to carve a big "X" into the skin so this doesn't happen, but apparently my "X" wasn't deep enough.

* Yet another kitchen shrapnel story. Spewed hot blueberry soup all over my mother-in-law's kitchen and my hand because a. the lid wasn't on the blender tight enough and b. hot liquids tend to expand when you puree them (the steam is still escaping).

Good luck!

Monday, December 17, 2007

And the award for Sugar Cookies goes to...

Me? Wow!

Baking a successful batch of sugar cookies is such an honor, and a surprise! I want to thank my mother-in-law. Without her guidance, and shadowing her a couple times as she made them, I wouldn't have been able to competently bake a batch of cookies.

I'd also like to thank the Children's Television Workshop, for providing the original recipe for Cookie Monster Cookie dough that my mother-in-law uses as her recipe.

I would be remiss if I didn't thank my mortgage lender, for getting us the loan for a house with a kitchen big enough to actually bake cookies.

Then there's Williams-Sonoma. Without having worked there, I would never have gotten exposure to the world of foodies. Also, the 20% employee discount helped me to afford kitchen staples that I wouldn't have otherwise.

And, last but not least, I want to thank my black Kitchen-Aid Professional mixer with flames painted on the side. It really came through for me when I needed it to mix up a double-batch of cookie dough, without seizing up or overheating.

You'll like them! You'll really like them!

Cookie Monster Sugar Cookies

3/4 c. softened butter
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
2 1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

Directions (note, you can also use a stand mixer or an egg beater to mix the dough.)

Put the butter into a bowl; measure and pour sugar over the butter.

Squish the butter and sugar together with a fork or pastry blender until totally blended.

Gently break open each egg, and pour each into mixture in bowl.

Measure and add vanilla; blend mixture with fork again.

Measure and add flour to the mixture in bowl. Measure and add baking powder and salt, and sprinkle each over the top of the flour in the bowl.

Mix it alllll together with the fork, or with Very Clean Hands ;-) Chill the dough for at least an hour (up to 3 days).

On floured surface, roll dough 1/4 " thick and cut into shapes.

Ordinary-sized cookies bake at 400 degrees F for 6-8 minutes.

Nom nom nom!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Hops Shortage! what to do?

If you don't drink beer, or you haven't heard, there's a pretty bad hops shortage brewing this year.

Read about it here

Some smaller breweries, regional breweries, the ones I love because their beer has flavor, may go out of business over this. Partly because prices are going up, and partly because they might not be able to get hops at any price.

For me, price is not as huge an issue. I like good beer, I'm willing to pay for it, and as my dad pointed out to me, the most expensive beer is, ounce for ounce, cheaper than a halfway decent bottle of wine.

But, before the brewmaster's start turning off their taps, maybe they should think about brewing without hops.

Now, now, hear me out. One, there's no requirement that beers sold in the US have to have hops in them. Unlike Germany, we have no Reinheitsgebot

Two, there is historical precedent for brewing beer without hops. In fact, Charlie The Beer Guy over at Speaking of Beer says that hops are very much a modern addition to beer--well, the 16th century, at any rate.

Before hops, the big preserving agent was Gruit. Gruit is basically a secret blend of eleven herbs and spices--well, a bunch of spices at any rate, and each brewmeister had his secret recipe.

Why can't the brewmeisters go back to gruit-based beers, rather than shutting off their spigots? Isn't the microbrew-drinking populace enlightened enough to be willing and able to forsake the ultra-hoppy beers in fasion right now, and try something unique, but no less tasty?

It'd be really cool to see them try.

There are a few of these old-school beers out on the market, like Fraoch Heather Ale from Scotland, which I've tried. I really liked it: It had some of the floral character of a wheat beer, but none of the wheatiness, which I sometimes find overpowering..

I also see that Dragonmead, a regional brewery, also has a Heather Ale, brewed with heather flowers rather than hops, on its beer list.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Apple Pie in a bottle: sweet, sweet success

I was at a holiday party last night, a potluck party, where I got to try some amazing food from a new group of friends. There were some scalloped potatoes to die for, redolent with chicken broth, rosemary, and cheese. A delicious cheesy, crunchy, crab dip. Two great salads--a tomato, mozzarealla and balsamic, and a spinach strawberry. Roasted vegetables. Smoked turkey. Edamame, steamed and sprinkled liberally with sea salt. Sweet and sour meatballs.

What did I bring? Apple Pie in a Bottle. Jayne's Apple Pie in a Bottle to be exact, a recipe I got from Big Damn Chefs. I was, ostensibly, testing the recipe for a recipe review I do for The Signal Podcast, but I was pretty confident in this recipe's ability to shine. The ingredient list includes: vodka, butterscotch schnapps, vanilla schnapps, apple juice, and spices. What's not to like?

This recipe is sweet, smooth, and very, very strong. It was quite the hit at the party. I made a double-batch, so I hope to have the leftovers at my Christmas party this year--I wonder how they'd be heated? Probably pretty toasty (pun intended).

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Leave fondue alone!

Do people make fun of fondue anymore? Really?

I don't think so. Most people have finally realized the truth of fondue: It's cheese melted in wine! If people want to shun it, fine: more cheese melted in wine for me!

Also, there is the social aspect of fondue. It's great for a party because it feeds a fairly large number of people (I'd say up to a dozen, comfortably), and it's a very social way of eating. For a three-course fondue meal (hot oil, cheese, and dessert) you can easily spend an hour or more hanging out at the table.

I've pretty much been a fondue fan my entire life, and was making fondue from my mom's fondue book from the 70's. So I've never thought fondue to be out of vogue. But here's my advice if you are throwing a fondue party.

1. Skip the hot oil fondue. Stick with cheese and chocolate. Deep-fried pieces of lobster and fillet might sound good, but you've got a lot of other issues to watch out for--like splattering oil, and raw meat which can cause cross-contamination. Also, if you really want to make the most of your hot oil fondue experience, you need to make lots of complex sauces and batters. It's a lot of work for a small reward, in my opinion. Besides, you can do lobster and filet in many other ways that aren't nearly as time-consuming.

2. Don't overdo it on the dippers or the fondues. Have maybe two or three dippers for each fondue. Even if you're serving a crowd, have only two cheese fondues, and two chocolate fondues, at most.

3. Buy most of your ingredients, vegetables especially, pre-cut, or in bite-sized portions. Most grocery stores have bags of pre-cut, pre-washed vegetables, and baby carrots are the perfect size to dip into cheese. You want to do as little prep as possible for the fondue.

4. Prep your ingredients before guests arrive, or ask them to help. Most everything in fondue can be prepared in advance, and then you combine it all right before you want to eat. Even if your guests aren't terribly handy in a kitchen, most people can chop things into large chunks.

5. Consider doing a non-traditional fondue. Traditional fondue uses swiss cheese and sauternes (a white wine). Most of my friends aren't fond of swiss. So our go-to fondue is cheddar based, and uses beer or hard cider as the alcohol. For dessert, a white chocolate or chocolate-raspberry fondue can be very nice.

6. Electric fondue pots are better. For cheese fondue especially, you need precise heat control. You can get away with a sterno fondue set for chocolate fondue, but you may need to blow out the flame if it gets too hot.

7. Borrow the fondue pots. If you don't have a fondue pot, don't go out and buy one right away. Almost everyone married from 1972 onward recieved a fondue pot as a wedding gift. And, sadly, they probably haven't used it since 1973. So ask your parents, aunt, or friends if you can borrow their electric fondue pot for the occasion.