Sunday, May 23, 2010

Everyday Yumminess: Perfect Strawberry Shortcake

When I little, my birthday cake every year was Strawberry Shortcake. I think this was due in part to my aversion to the (nasty) sweetened coconut that decorated so many kids' cakes, but also in part to having a June birthday, when strawberries are irresistible. My mom can maybe chime in in the comments to let us know if it was also due in part to the love of a certain cartoon character... (Cool-Emily hopes not, but Dork-Emily wouldn't be surprised...) I'd never made Strawberry Shortcake before, but I'm planning to make it for friends next month and figured I'd better practice. I turned to Smitten Kitchen, because the good blogger over there has yet to let me down, and this recipe was no exception... The best part is that it's a super-simple food processor dough, so even a reluctant baker like me can succeed easily. The only odd thing about the dough is the use of hard boiled egg yolks rather than eggs. I guess this is to keep there from being too much liquid? I don't know, but the shortcakes rocked, so apparently it works...
Into the dry ingredients go some cold (Amish) butter and some (optional) lemon zest. I used a bit more zest than was called for, and ended up with a really nice lemon accent that I do not regret...
A little cream is added, and a bit of pulsing transforms the mixture into a dough...
The dough is patted out into a 3/4" - 1" thick round which you're supposed to cut into wedges, but which I cut into little circles instead.
The recipe produced about 6 pretty rounds and 4 janky ones (from where I pushed the extra back together... tasted great, but didn't rise as prettily when they baked...). After chilling for 20 minutes, the cakes are brushed with cream, sprinkled with a little sugar, and tossed in the oven.
After rising and browning, they're good to go.
Check out this lovely interior:
That's some high-quality baking right there. Heh. Anyway, all that remains is to slice up some strawberries, to be tossed with lemon juice and a little sugar, and whip some cream...
With minimal effort (which was a requirement after the kitchen fiascoes that preceded it...), you have yourself the perfect summer dessert...
(I added a little strawberry coulis in that second picture since I didn't let my strawberries macerate for as long as I would have liked...) I almost didn't make this because I was so tired and cranky by the time I was ready to start the prep, but I'm really really glad that I did... and that I have ample leftovers... So very good. Light, delicious, summery... If you've got strawberries sitting around that need an application, I highly recommend this one...

Sunday Cookbook Adventures: More Rick Bayless Mexican Food

An intense craving for Mexican food hit me recently. I realized this most clearly while reading Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," when every time I read about some poor starving person eating beans and tortillas (amidst the blood and gore) I was like "Ooh! Tortillas... Mmmmmm...." Stanley says that makes me a weirdo, but we'll check back with him when he re-reads the book after not having lived near good Mexican food in 4 years... Anyway, when I want to make Mexican food, I tend to turn to Rick Bayless, so I cracked open Mexico One Plate at a Time looking for some new awesome taco recipe and maybe something to do with the beautiful Blood Farm flank steak in my freezer.
For the tacos, I decided on Mexican-style Zucchini Tacos since it seems to finally be summer and zucchini screams "Summer!!!" to me. The only flank steak recipe in the book is Grilled Flank Steak with Tomato-Poblano Salsa, so I decided to go with that... and it turned out to be the first Epic Fail of my cookbook adventure endeavors... Let's start there, shall we? You start off by roasting all of the salsa ingredients (which will also become marinade ingredients). There are poblanos (which I charred on the grill),
tomatoes (charred under the broiler, as instructed, then peeled and cored),
and onions and garlic (oven-roasted without any oil or seasoning, as instructed).
At this point, I was looking forward to the dish. Simple, clean flavors. How can it go wrong... right?
The tomatoes, onions, and garlic are puréed, then added to the diced roasted poblanos. About a half cup of this is added back to the blender to be pureed with balsamic, olive oil, a little sugar, and some salt to become the marinade. The marinade tasted pretty decent, so I added the flank steak...
I hadn't been so sure about the salsa from the get-go, and the more I tasted to try to see what I needed to tweak, the more I realized that nothing could be done to save it. It was absolutely nauseating... as in, I literally thought I was going to throw up if I didn't get that taste out of my mouth. The smell became too much for me, too, and I decided to toss the whole batch. (Such a waste of pretty chiles and tomatoes... Sigh...) I opened the bag where the steak was marinating and (even though I knew the marinade tasted fine) the aroma was reminiscent of the nasty, nasty salsa, so I decided to rinse all of the marinade off and soak the steak in cold water to get any extra ickiness out while I made an emergency grocery run to start over. I have no idea what happened here. I followed the recipe to the letter, and the ingredients were all used elsewhere without problem. I had some garlic issues (I threw away several cloves because they had a "corked wine" aroma when I smashed them), so I wonder if maybe one of the bad garlic cloves snuck in? When I was making pico de gallo later, the warm (it is summer) room-temperature chopped tomatoes had a smell that called back to the salsa to the extent that I started to get a little nauseous again, so it could have just been some crazy reaction to the lightly-roasted tomatoes? I have no clue, but I will not be making this again to find out. If anyone out there tries this recipe (after this ringing endorsement...), let me know if you have better luck. Blech.

On to happier things. Let's talk about Zucchini Tacos. I went off-recipe in two places here. The first was in choosing to grill my corn before cutting off the kernels (because grilled corn is delicious).
I grilled the corn at the same time as I was charring up my poblanos. I guess I technically went off-recipe there, since Bayless says to do it under a broiler. I find that the grill is much more efficient for a large number of chiles (especially when it's already fired up for the corn) and the grill is always a better idea than the broiler on a day where you're running the air conditioner in the kitchen...
The charred skins come off easily, after which stems and seeds are removed.
The next ingredient is zucchini. Zucchini is one of those ingredients that I never give a second thought to most of the year, but find myself seriously craving on hot, sunshiny days...
The zucchini is diced and set aside with sliced roasted poblanos, grilled corn kernels, and cilantro, to be added with some crème fraîche as the dish finishes cooking.
Before we get there, some lovely tomatoes are pulsed in the food processor and set aside.
The second place I officially went of recipe was to substitute pork fat for vegetable oil (because pork fat is more delicious than vegetable oil). I assume "vegetable oil" was just a typo, anyway, where Bayless intended to write "pork fat," so I was more correcting an error in editing than actually changing the recipe... Some onion is sautéed in the pork fat until starting to brown.
Garlic is added and cooked briefly, before the tomatoes are added in and cooked for a few minutes.
This flavor base (as Bayless calls it) can be prepped in advance, with the remaining ingredients added and the cooking completed just before serving. (By the way: This flavor base is the exact same set of ingredients as the part of the salsa that was so disgusting, they're just prepared differently... I have no idea what happened there...) I was working on a back-up plan for the Epic Fail above during this time, so I'll just show you the finished taco filling, which has been sprinkled with a little Mexican queso fresco:
Dished up with homemade corn tortillas, this is totally awesome. I loved the creaminess that the small amount of crème fraîche brought to the sauce, and the zucchini was perfect with the poblanos and corn. I was a happy camper again, almost forgetting about that other dish that I'm not going to talk about any more...
I love having a grocery store 1.5 blocks away so that when a kitchen emergency hits you don't have to go sit in traffic. I always prefer to get produce at Russo's, but my local giant chain store will do in a pinch. I decided to do sort of a carne asada treatment of my flank steak, marinating in lime, garlic and salt,
before grilling to perfection...
I don't think I've ever cooked flank steak before, but this was really good (and way easier than what I was originally attempting). As long as you slice against the grain, it's actually pretty tender, and is definitely a good red meat for tacos.
I also picked up some pico de gallo fixins to have on my steak tacos...
Along with those homemade corn tortillas (which were perhaps what I was craving most of all) and a nice fresh batch of horchata, this is exactly what I was in the mood for.
I will definitely be making the zucchini taco filling again, maybe to serve with grilled shrimp or some other non-steak protein... Overall, I'd actually call the end result of this day of cooking a hard-to-improve-upon success, even if there were some trials and tribulations (and ingredients in the rubbish bin) along the way. This should definitely sate my Mexican food cravings for a while, so I can go back to reading my book without tortilla-longing getting in the way...

Bunnies!

So, the kitchen bunnies are apparently taking a stand against the use of a dryer when I do laundry. I guess they're just thinking of the environment, but it's a bit annoying. They generally do this by blocking the door to the dryer side of the laundry closet while snuggling, but Charley also took it upon himself to sabotage my dryer yesterday, finding a way to get behind it and then tearing the outlet hose to shreds. Well played, sir. A little duct tape got it back in working order for now, and they returned to their less active protests almost immediately. (That's the air conditioner that they're lounging behind. They don't seem opposed to electricity that is used to keep them comfy...)
When I gently try to open the door, they move millimeter by millimeter out of the way, looking really confused and annoyed (especially Pedro on the confusion side of things) and I feel like a monster... Brats.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Everyday Yumminess: Perfect Caesar Salad

I took a break from the whole "Cookbook Adventures" thing this weekend in an attempt to recover from the weekend before. I wanted simple, delicious comfort food, and realized that I was craving a perfect Caesar Salad and a nice grilled hunk of red meat (in my favorite form: the Rib-Eye). This is very much an Emily-and-Steph Classic. After we discovered that we freaking LOVED anchovies (which happened when we accidentally doubled the anchovies the recipe called for in this dish and were blown away by the deliciousness that ensued), the next logical thing to do was to start perfecting a classic Caesar salad dressing. It's so simple and, despite the seemingly-permanent (at the time) garlic breath it brings with it, it is still my favorite Caesar dressing I've ever had. The ingredients are pretty standard: Egg. Anchovies. Garlic. Parmesan. Olive oil.
The quality of anchovy makes a big difference here. My favorite are salt-packed Spanish anchovies that don't have any English words on the package, but these (from Russo's) were pretty great and easier to use since you didn't have to pull out bones and whatnot. You need 8 anchovy fillets for this recipe, along with 2-3 garlic cloves, an egg, 2 ounces of grated Parmesan cheese, and olive oil "to taste."
A couple caveats: You must use fresh garlic here. I sort of assume that if you're into food then you would almost never use jarred pre-minced garlic... but this dressing has no chance of being awesome unless you use fresh, so I thought I'd better specify. With the Parmesan, I have to mention that it's given as a mass instead of a volume because 2 ounces of Parmesan can be anywhere ranging from less than 1/4 cup to more than a cup, depending on how you grate it. Anyway... Throw everything but the oil in a blender to purée, drizzle in olive oil until you get the consistency and flavor that you want, season with fresh ground black pepper (and more garlic or anchovies if needed) and you're done. Sometimes we've been known to brighten it with a squeeze of lemon juice if it wasn't quite perfect at that point. For the croutons, I used Brioche this time (because why use anything else?).
My new-found love of Brioche has definitely helped me recover from the hostility I feel over not being able to find good sourdough bread in New England... (When I go back west, I'll probably get all hostile now if I can't readily find good Brioche... Heh.) Anyway, I decided to switch things up a bit from the way Steph and I used to do the croutons. I started by making some garlic oil by slowly steeping sliced garlic in a bit of olive oil over very low heat. I basically just put some oil in a pan with sliced garlic, turned the heat to it's lowest setting, and wandered away to do other things for about a half hour (maybe longer? I wasn't really paying attention...). When I came back, I had garlic oil.
The cubes of Brioche are tossed with this and seasoned with sea salt,
then sent into a 325°F oven until toasty and beautiful.
My house smelled insane as these finished cooking. This will definitely be my go-to method for garlic croutons from now on. I sliced a big, beautiful Blood Farm Rib-Eye in half so as not to have a pound of meat for dinner...The steak is (heavily, because it's just for me) seasoned with sea salt and black pepper, then thrown on the grill until perfectly rare, and plated up as my perfect Steak & Caesar dinner...
(Remember when I said that I may never grill a steak again? I totally lied... That is the power of Thomas Keller when he has you in his thrall... As perfect as Keller's pan-seared method is, I love the char of the grill and the complete lack of clean-up or oven-heating involved...) This meal was exactly what I needed, especially the part where it took no time at all to make. Further proof that weekend dinners don't always have to be a big production... We'll see how many times I have to teach myself that lesson before it starts sinking in...

Because I'm in the mood for a ramble, this is maybe an ideal meal to segue into something that I've been mulling over since last week's Kerala-inspired feast: I realize that I don't really enjoy cooking for people. I guess I should caveat that by noting that "people" means "people I'm not ridiculously comfortable with." I love to cook. I also love the food that I cook. The thing is, I have a very specific palate. While chefs like Thomas Keller have demonstrated to me the beauty of subtlety, I know when I make a dish that I refer to as "Emily-style," I'm usually referring to the fact that the flavors are intended to be a punch in the face. To me, the dressing in this post is the world's most awesome Caesar dressing, but that's the case because the garlic and anchovy are so intense that they almost burn your tongue. I wouldn't serve this salad to "people." I would serve it to my family (with a warning that they may hate it). I would serve it to Steph or to Mel (with no such warning, because they're Steph and Mel). That's pretty much it.

I feel like it's a strange thing for me to love cooking as much as I do, to love sharing food with friends as much as I do, but to have such... I guess "dread" is the word... about cooking for "people." I think my main issue is an (irrational?) fear of judgment. I know that whenever I cook for/with Steph (for example), even if the dish totally fails it will be something we ponder together and figure out how to tweak for the next time. I don't ever worry about the people who aren't included in "people" judging me based on my food. I hate when I'm cooking for somebody and they say "I heard you're a great cook!" because, honestly, I don't know that that's true. What I am is somebody who loves to cook, and somebody who loves the food that she cooks... When I cook for myself, I have so much fun playing with flavors and building the perfect Emily-style dish. When I cook for "people," I stress myself out trying to make something that they will like, and I lose a lot of the joy.

Maybe I need culinary therapy or something... but does anybody else feel this way? Or is it just a formerly-super-shy, OCD, crazy-lady thing?