Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodness, gracious, great balls o' meat! (Part 2)

I have to admit to being mildly skeptical about this recipe, which is part of the reason that we didn't make it in the same week that we made all of our other meatball-centric meals. I'm a little wishy-washy when it comes to game meats; I like a little gaminess, but I've even had lamb that's been too strong for my tastes, and venison that has been hunted in the wild is much stronger than any farm-raised lamb. I was afraid that this dish, which used up the remainder of a windfall of free deer meat given to us by our old butcher last year, would be exceptionally gamey and unpleasant.

I am pleased to report that I could not have been more wrong.

This was, hands down, the best meal we'd made in weeks, and we are now mourning the fact that don't have access to more venison so that we could make this again.

I'm sorry to say that this was not our original recipe - J did some searching on the internet for meatball recipes using venison and came up with this one, which blended the venison with beef and had them served in a dried cherry and red wine sauce. I thought that sounded pretty good, though in addition to being concerned about the gaminess, I was worried that the sauce would be exceptionally sweet. I needn't have worried about that either - the sauce was a perfect balance of sweet and savory with just a hint of tang, the sort of flavor that just makes you salivate and crave another bite. And when paired with the ultimately mild but distinctive flavor of the venison, these were just about perfect.

J took charge of this recipe, and made a few small changes - his altered version is below. The recipe for my side dish, a warm farro salad with young kale and white beans that turned out to be the perfect earthy counterpoint to the sweet and savory meatballs, follows as well.


Venison Meatballs in Dried Cherry Sauce
Adapted from this recipe on, originally from Christmas with Southern Living, 2000

The original recipe was supposed to make about 4 dozen 1" meatballs. J halved the recipe and made them slightly larger, and we probably got about a dozen or so (which was far too much for dinner but meant we had leftovers that tasted even better the next day). You can make them any size you like - simply adjust your cooking time accordingly.

1/2 lb ground venison
1/2 lb ground pork
1 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
3/4 tsp ground allspice
1/8 cup minced onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 beaten egg
olive oil

1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped celery
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4-5 oz dried cherries (about 3/4 cup)
1 bay leaf
3 whole black peppercorns
1 sprig fresh thyme
1/2 cup Merlot
1 1/2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 cups beef stock

Place ground venison and pork in a large bowl with salt, pepper, allspice, onion, garlic, thyme, and egg. Mix with your hands, being careful not to overwork the meat to ensure a good texture once the meatballs are cooked. Shape mixture into 1.5-2" meatballs.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until just shy of smoking, then add the meatballs and sear well on all sides by occasionally shaking the pan to roll them around. Use tongs or a slotted spoon (tongs work better with larger meatballs) to remove the meatballs when they are nice and browned and reasonably firm - you don't need to worry too much about cooking them all the way through here, as they'll finish cooking in the sauce later. Place on a plate or in a bowl and cover with foil to trap them in their own radiant heat, as this will also help them to finish cooking.

Add chopped onion, celery and garlic to the pan and sautee them in the remaining oil and pan drippings until softened and barely colored - keep the veg moving to avoid burning the garlic. Add chopped garlic; cook 30 seconds. Turn the heat down a bit and add the cherries, bay leaf, peppercorns, thyme, wine, and balsamic vinegar, using a wooden spoon to scrape up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Bring mixture to a boil and reduce by half, then add the stock and reduce by half again. Remove from heat and discard bay leaf and thyme.

You want to blend this sauce to a smooth consistency, so use whatever method works best for you. We used our regular blender but if you have a stick blender you could also pour the sauce into a tall container and use that (next time, that's what we'll do - I hate using the regular blender for this stuff). Just a few tips if you use an electric blender: When you put the to on, make sure that one of the openings is fcing the pour spout so that there is a place for steam to escape, and place a towel over the top while you blend. Blending hot liquids can be an explosive ffair if you aren't careful, and once you've had searing hot half-pureed fod go flying around your kitchen once, you never want it to happen again.

Once the sauce is blended, you can push it through a wire mesh strainer if you like, but we didn't bother. Return the sauce to the pan and add the meatballs back in. Roll them around to coat in the sauce and let everything simmer together for a few minutes to ensure even heating and thorough cooking of the meatballs. If serving individual portions, these can be skewered on bamboo skewers or simply placed on a plate with n extra spoonful of sauce. If serving as a group appetizer or a party dish, pour all the meatballs and sauce into a chafing dish or large fondue pot to keep warm and provide toothpicks for self-service. They'll be the best sweet and-sour cocktail meatballs you've ever eaten.


Warm Farro Salad with White Beans and Young Kale

Young kale is paler green and has smaller leaves than the full-grown kind, and has a milder, slightly less bitter flavor. Use only the curly leaves, discarding the stems. If you can't find young kale, regular will work just fine.

I actually think that this would be equally good at room temperature or even cold, especially if dressed with a simple lemon vinaigrette after chilling, but as I haven't tried that yet myself you'll have to let me know how it turns out.

1/2 cup farro, rinsed and soaked in cold water for 30 minutes
1 1/2 - 2 cups chicken stock (standard ratio for cooking farro is 1 part farro to 3 parts liquid, but I always find I need slightly more, so I start with a cup and a half and add more later if necessary)
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp good extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup minced white onion
2 minced garlic cloves
2/3 cup canned white beans such as navy or cannelini, drained and rinsed
1 cup roughly chopped young kale, well rinsed
salt & black pepper
freshly grated romano, parmesan, prima donna (our choice, as usual), or other hard, salty cheese, optional

Place 1 1/2 cups of the chicken stock in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, then drain the farro and add to the pan. Reduce the heat to medium, cover the pan, and simmer until the farro has absorbed all the water and is tender but still slightly chewy, usually about 20 minutes. You may want to stir it around every so often to keep it from sticking. If you find that the farro absorbs all of the stock but is still a little hard, just add more stock a little bit at a time and continue to simmer uncovered until it is properly cooked. This may take some nitpicking, but you'll get it.

While the farro cooks, heat a bit of olive oil in a small sautee pan over medium heat and add the onions and garlic. Cook together, stirring frequently, until well softened and golden brown - we're going for some slight caramelization here. Add in the kale and white beans along with a tablespoon or so of water, reduce the heat to low, and sautee until the kale has wilted and softened and the beans are exceedingly tender. Set aside.

When the farro is cooked, drain any excess liquid that there may be in the pan (I never have any, but you never know) and gently stir in the kale and beans mixture along with the red wine vinegar, good EVOO, and salt and pepper to taste. Add some grated cheese if you like. We did like, and even added a few extra slices of prima donna to our plates to nibble between bites of meatball and farro - it worked. Really well. Cover the pan and remove from heat to keep warm, but not hot, until ready to serve.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Barefoot Bloggers: Pappa al Pomidoro

Well folks, here it is. The last Barefoot Bloggers recipe challenge for 2008. I've only been a member for 4 months, but I've had a great time trying out all of these new dishes and I can't wait to see what the new year holds for our little group. Happily, we're closing the year on a good note, as this was one of the best tomato soups I've ever made.

2008's final challenge, Pappa al Pomidoro, was chosen by Natalie of Burned Bits, and is an easy and delicious tomato-basil soup thickened with hearty ciabatta bread. I am a total sucker for tomato soup (its almost embarassing but I even love Campbell's tomato soup) and am always excited to try a new recipe. Its the sort of warm, satisfying meal that is ideal for chilly winter nights, and this one was no exception. What's different about this tomato soup is that where I would normally want a grilled cheese sandwich or a small salad to go with, this soup was hearty and filling enough to make a perfect dinner without accompaniment.

I managed to stay pretty true to Ina's recipe this time around, only really taking liberties with the garnishes, but I'll get to that soon enough.

Making the soup really couldn't be simpler. It begins with a flavor base of onions, garlic, carrots and fennel, which are sauteed in olive oil until softened and just beginning to take on some color. Then, the secret to this soup's thick, velvety texture is added - cubes of fresh ciabatta bread. We found some roasted garlic ciabatta at the store, and the extra hit of sweet garlic flavor made the finished product even more complex.

After allowing the bread to cook and toast slightly in the oil, a big can of crushed Italian plum tomatoes (mine had garlic and basil added) gets poured into the pan, along with some good red wine, chicken stock, and fresh basil. Once combined, the soup now simply needs to simmer for 45 minutes until everything is soft and the flavors are melded.

While the soup cooks, there's time to prepare some over-the-top garnishes. Ina instructs you to toss together more cubed ciabatta with cubes of pancetta, whole fresh basil leaves, and seasoned olive oil, then spread the mix on a baking sheet to toast in a high-temperature oven. I decided to get a little creative here, and instead of using diced, thick-cut pancetta, I bought some thin-sliced pancetta and roasted them flat on the baing sheet to create pancetta crisps. The fresh basil was cut into a chiffonade before being tossed with the bread and EVOO as directed, and 10 minutes in the oven yielded blackened basil strips clinging to crunchy, golden brown, aromatic croutons. I tasted one after they cooled a bit, and was hard pressed not to keep munching on them afterwards - they were the best croutons I've ever made.

Once the soup had cooked for a sufficient amount of time, I decided to go against Ina one more time and buzz everything up with my stick blender rather than leaving it rustic and chunky, because I just love a silky smooth soup. I guess I really just like the way all of the flavors combine when everything is blended together. Once blended I stirred in a handful of shredded asiago; Ina calls for parmesan, which I have no doubt is delicious (because when is parmesan cheese not delicious?) but we were buying asiago for other meals that week and decided it wasn't worth buying a whole extra block of cheese. The sharp flavor of the asiago really worked well though with the other savory flavors in the soup.

To serve, we ladled the soup into bowls and topped with an extra sprinkle of asiago, a handful of basil croutons, and two pancetta crisps. And man oh man, was it GOOD. The soup was savory and ever so slightly sweet, velvety and hearty, with a bit of creaminess from the cheese (I think a drizzle of cream added at the end would really throw this over the moon) and really would have been great all on its own. But honestly its the garnishes that made it so special. The crunchy garlicky croutons and toasty basil and the pancetta crisps crumbled over the top before eating made for exciting textural contrast in every bite, with the occasional burst of porcine saltiness. Seriously, incredibly delicious.

And believe it or not, this soup tasted even better the next day as leftovers for lunch.

This just might become my go-to tomato soup recipe, especially for entertaining. Its so easy, yet the garnishes and smooth texture make it impressive enough to serve to guests. Its even festive for the season, all red and green!

I'm considering making a big batch of this soup and jarring it, so that I can have delicious tomato soup anytime I want. I could probably eat this stuff every day. Thanks, Natalie, for choosing this fantastic recipe!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Homemade Membrillo, Pork Roulade

I love membrillo (quince paste) and have seen other bloggers make their own, but assumed I'd never have access to the fresh fruits to try it myself. As such, I'm not sure I can adequately communicate my excitement when I discovered fresh quinces at Iavarone on our last shopping trip. I think I considered it for all of 5 seconds before picking out three firm, unblemished fruits and dropping them into our cart. Homemade membrillo would be mine, after all!

That afternoon I took myself away to the kitchen to deal with my quinces. A quick search online taught me that quince were similar in texture to apples, but harder and drier, and had a tough core and skin that must be removed. This was an accurate description, and the fruit was easy to peel but difficult to cut. With a little elbow grease I managed to get all three fruit cored, sliced, and diced, and into a large saucepan they went along with some cold water, a squeeze of fresh lemon, and about a cup and a half of white sugar. From here it was easy - I just cooked the fruit over medium heat until it softened and turned a dull red, which I must say took a lot longer than I expected, close to an hour and a half. The fruit never really broke down, so when it was done I took my stick blender to it to create a smooth, slightly grainy paste. The flavor was lovely, sweet and floral and aromatic, but subtle. I poured it into a tupperware container, and after sitting in the fridge overnight it had stiffened properly into a firm, sliceable block of membrillo.

There's something really beautiful about this stuff, isn't there? Shiny and jewel-like with that lovely knobby texture on the surface, it spreads like a jam but can be cut into cubes or slices with ease. Its sticky, mind you, but I don't mind getting a little messy for something this tasty.

Now, the obvious thing to do with membrillo is to eat it with a good manchego cheese, perhaps some marcona almonds, a few water crackers. But, J and I being who we are, we had to come up with something more interesting. We had a bit of prima donna cheese in the fridge (because when do we not?) and a small pork tenderloin, and after a bit of thought came up with the idea for a quince-glazed pork roulade filled with grated prima donna and herbs.

I took a knife to the tenderloin and used a lengthwise accordion cut to create a large, thin, flat surface with the meat. A 1/2 cup or so of the membrillo was warmed up on the stove with an equal amount of water and a sprig of fresh rosemary, and kept on the heat long enough to infuse the glaze with a subtle evergreen aroma. I seasoned the pork with salt, freshly ground black pepper, a sprinkle of garlic powder, and some chopped fresh rosemary, then spread a thin layer of the glaze all over the meat. I grated some prima donna, about half a cup, and piled it near the middle of the meat, leaving an inch or so around all the edges to try and prevent leakage during cooking. Then a quick roll and tie with some butcher's twine, and it was ready for some heat.

The roulade was seared on the stovetop first, then placed in the oven at about 450 degrees to roast. I brushed it with the glaze 3 or 4 times as it cooked, creating a golden brown sticky-sweet crust.

Meanwhile, J made some simple panko-crusted zucchini slices but cutting two small zucchini into 1/2" slices, seasoning with salt, pepper, and paprika, and dredging with egg and light, crisp panko crumbs. They were lightly panfried in some vegetable oil and then left to drain briefly on some paper towels as I removed the pork from the oven and set it aside to rest and let the juices redistribute and the filling firm up a bit.

Once untied and sliced, the pork retained its shape to yield lovely spiral slices with a thin layer of sweet and savory cheese filling. To plate. we dolloped each serving with a bit of the remaining membrillo glaze and a bit more freshly grated cheese, with the fried zucchini alongside.

My goodness, this was good. The combination of flavors - salty, tangy, sweet, herbaceous - was just fantastic on the mild tender pork. The meat itself could have used a brining period prior to cooking, and next time that's what we'll do, but the concept behind the dish was definitely sound. The slightly sweet, crisp zucchini slices made a nice fresh-tasting foil to the richness of the meat, and all together it made for a fantastic meal.

And the best part is, I have plenty of membrillo leftover to enjoy. I wonder what else we can make with it?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Goodness, gracious, great balls o' meat!

Sorry. I couldn't resist.

The meatball is, I think, a vastly underrated thing. Most people think of meatballs as only those things you have with spaghetti and red sauce to make a meal more substantial, or perhaps as the little bite-sized morsels served with sweet-and-sour sauce at new year's eve, or in gloopy brown gravy over egg noodles that somehow get away with calling themselves "swedish". Usually made of beef and with far too few seasonings, quite often lacking pleasing texture or moisture, we're all familiar with the mediocrity of the standard meatball. But does that mean they can't be really, truly GOOD? I don't think so.

I also don't believe that meatballs should be relegated to the dishes above. Ground meat (or chop meat if you're from on Long Island or New Jersey, apparently... I haven't been a New Yorker long enough to hear that phrase without a certain confused tilt of the head) is endlessly versatile, refreshingly inexpensive, and usually quite tasty when its of high quality. When you start with a pound of ground meat - be it beef, pork, chicken, turkey, some sort of game, or a mix of two or three - the possibilities are practically infinite.

That's why last week we decided to devote an entire week of dinners to the humble, forgotten, oftimes-abused meatball. And 4 meals later, we've barely scratched the surface.


Meal #1: Chicken Koftas Avgolemono

I know, I know, here we go again. But hear me out. This was my brainchild, being still enamoured with the Avgolemono Soup from a month or so back and craving those flavors again, but wanting to mix it up a bit. I knew when we decided on this meatball week experiment that I'd want to do something Greek, and this dish sort of just tumbled out on a whim. Apparently the idea had merit, because J declared it a definite addition to our future dream restaurant menu.

From Wikipedia:

"Kofta ... is a Southeastern European, Middle Eastern and South Asian meatball or dumpling.

In the simplest form, koftas consist of balls of minced or ground meat — usually beef or lamb — mixed with spices and/or onions. The vegetarian varieties like lauki kofta, shahi aloo kofta, and malai kofta are popular in India, as is kofta made of minced goat meat."

Traditional beef or lamb koftas (often made in cigar shapes rather than spherical ones) are delicious in their own right, and deserve a post of their own later this year when the weather gets warmer and we can grill them properly. But for this meal, to remain faithful to the original Avgolemono that was my inspiration, I knew that chicken would be the proper choice.

Each of the components of this dish are simple, but as there are several the prep was a bit time-consuming. First, the meatballs were made with ground chicken that was seasoned with oregano, garlic, lemon zest, crumbed feta, a tiny drizzle of honey and a goodly amount of salt and black pepper. We use the Alton Brown method for cooking, and a pound of chicken yielded a dozen two- or three-bite koftas. While those baked away, I boiled some orzo in chicken stock fortified with a bay leaf and extra black pepper, prepped some baby spinach, carrots, garlic and onions for the sautee pan, and whisked the juice of a lemon into an egg in preparation for the sauce.

The carrots, garlic, and onions were sauteed until just softened, then the spinach was added and cooked until it just started to wilt. By this time the orzo was done, and I drained off the remaining stock in the pan into a bowl to use for the sauce. Finally, when the meatballs were done and resting out of the oven for a few minutes, I made the sauce by adding the hot stock to the lemon-egg mixture slowly, whisking constantly to temper the egg, then heating the mix gently on the stove to allow it to thicken.

To serve, a bed of orzo was laid down on each plate, topped by a generous helping of sauteed spinach, a trio of keftedes, and a few spoonfuls of sauce drizzled all over. Finish with a sprinkle of crumbled feta and some chopped fresh parsley, and you've got yourself a meal.

The flavor of this dish was outstanding, and the meal felt quite healthy with the lean chicken and good green spinach. I know that the sauce needs some work, as it never got to quite the consistency I wanted, and a few bits of egg curdled while it was cooking and needed to be strained out before serving. I think with some tweaks here and there and a good reliable recipe (next time, I'll write it down), J is right - this just might have a place on the menu if we are ever able to open the little cafe we dream about.


Meal #2 - Almond-crusted Asian Meatballs with Vegetable Stir Fry

Think of these as dumplings without the wrappers and a with a bit more attitude. We've made similar things before with sesame seeds that have come out terrific, but I'm a bit of an almond fanatic so when J suggested the almond crust as something different, I was hardly going to argue.

The meatballs were made with a mix of pork and beef and seasoned with soy garlic, onion, ginger, dry mustard, sesame oil, and a bit of sugar. Before dropping them into their individual muffin cups to bake, each ball got rolled around in some finely-chopped toasted slivered almonds to make a crust. Word to the wise - although the meatballs might seem rather fragile when you're working with them, you really want to press the almonds in there so that they stick. J made these and found that when he tried to be more gentle on the meatballs, the almonds all fell off as they cooked - where they'd been pressed more firmly into the meat, they seemed to adhere and get nice and crunchy as we'd imagined they would.

We ate these with a simple stir fry of sugar snap peas, carrots, green bell peppers, and onions in a basic sweet-and-salty brown sauce, which is hard to screw up and always tasty. The meatballs themselves were tasty but seemed a bit on the bland side - next time we'll up the seasonings by at least half. And my previous comments about the almond-crust aside, the bites were the almonds really got attached to the meat and got super golden-brown and crunchy were absolutely delicious and had great textural contrast. If we can get the crusting technique down next time, I think they'd be insanely good. I'd hate to suggest that they could replace J's current signature Asian meatballs for a party appetizer but, well, I think they could.


Meal #3: Curried Turkey Meatballs with Chana Masala

I've been looking for an excuse to make my new favorite chana masala recipe recently, so when J suggested an Indian-style meatball I jumped at the chance. Turkey may seem like an odd match for curry seasoning, but really, it works. Its distinctive earthy flavor was a really good base for all those aromatic spices.

J made these as well, using his own homemade curry powder blend as the main seasoning base and adding a bit of garam masala, sugar, and extra salt and pepper to round out the flavor. Nothing fancy in the cooking step here, just form and drop into the muffin tin to bake, so they were especially easy. I made the chana masala almost exactly the same way as last time, but upped the veggie quotient with some cubed zucchini in place of the potatoes, and it was just as good as I remembered.

This was definitely another winner. The best part was scooping up a bite of chana masala with my fork and spearing a piece of meatball on the end and eating it all together - the meatballs may have tended a bit toward the dry side, so the moisture from the tomatoes and onions and squash really improved the texture, and all of those great Indian spices blending together made for an intense explosion of flavor unlike anything in Western cooking. Quite exciting, really, for a weeknight dinner.


Meal #4: Italian Sausage Ball Pizza

I don't actually have any photos of this one, which is a shame because it was really, really good. Like, almost I-can't-believe-I-made-this good. But, well, because it was so good, we ate it before it even occurred to me to take pictures.

I decided that if we were making meatballs all week, we really ought to do something Italian. But I wasn't about to make spaghetti and meatballs - as a matter of fact, I didn't want regular meatballs at all. But SAUSAGE balls, now that I could get behind. But we didn't just buy sausage - we made it, fresh, from just some ground pork and spices.

Bet you didn't know it was that easy, did you? Well, it is.

A pound of ground pork mixed up with a generous amount of garlic, onion, black pepper, salt, and most importantly, fennel (we used fennel pollen because we didn't have any whole seed, and since we were making the sausage mix the day of rather than ahead of time, it would ensure a more pervasive fennel flavor) created a pretty authentic-tasting Italian-style sweet sausage. The mix was formed into slightly flattened balls and seared in a pan this time around, then sliced to make a more easily distributed pizza topping.

The pizza itself was built on some whole wheat dough I'd been saving in the freezer, starting with a thin layer of J's homemade marinara, a sprinkle of shredded mozzarella, some pieces of brie, and the sliced sausage. Into the oven on the pizza stone at the highest heat we could get for maybe 5-10 minutes, and we had a bubbly, melty pizza with a golden brown crust.

The sausage was perfect here, with just the right amount of savory spice. The creamy brie and mozz complimented it really well, and although the crust was more chewy than crispy, the whole wheat flour gave it a pleasing texture. And with the dough made ahead of time, we were able to make the whole meal in about 25 minutes. Can't really beat that!

We have one more meal planned that we never got around to making, which we have high hopes for - venison meatballs in cherry sauce. If it comes out as good as I expect it will, I'll be sure to share it with you. But in the meantime, I highly recommend that you give the lowly meatball a bit of thought, and a chance to elevate itself beyond that boring plate of pasta. Its a blank slate upon which fantastic meals can be built, and deserves a second chance at your table.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Barefoot Bloggers: Coq au Vin

I've been gone for awhile. I know. I'm terribly sorry. Did you miss me? Because I've certainly missed this little blog of mine.

We returned from our trip out west almost two weeks ago now, and since then I just haven't had much worth talking about in here. I failed you utterly by neglecting to take pictures of the small Thanksgiving feast that J and I made on the eve of our departure, and then added insult to injury by completely forgetting to pull out the camera on Thanksgiving Day. Its really a shame, too, because where our little feast for two was slightly sophisticated, creative, and involved a bit of experimentation, Thanksgiving dinner with J's parents was unfussy, down-to-earth, and simply delicious in a very classically American way. Both were great, but sadly, a Thanksgiving post will have to wait until next year.

Aside from that, we've cooked very little recently that's been interesting. The holidays are rather kicking our rears, in terms of money, energy, and creativity, so we've sort of just been plugging along for the time being. But, the Barefoot Bloggers march on, unhindered by the coming of Christmas craziness, and I have a new recipe assignment to share with you today.

Bethany of this little piggy went to market chose Ina's recipe for Coq au Vin for the first December challenge, and I was very excited to see it. Coq au Vin is, as the name suggests, a braised dish of chicken and red wine, and is one of those classic dishes that I feel like every cook worth their himalayan pink sea salt ought to be able to make, and I don't know if I've ever even eaten it before. Its been on my "to try" list for quite awhile, and I love it when the BBs give me an excuse to knock something off of that list.

That being said, I suspect I may have screwed this recipe up with my typical substitutions and omissions, because the end-product was entirely underwhelming. Tasty, to be sure, but nothing special. I feel guilty saying that we probably wouldn't make this again since I didn't really follow the recipe, so maybe someday I'll give it another shot and actually follow the directions letter by letter, but I suspect I may just revisit the Coq au Vin thing with another recipe.

But, I digress. Lets start at the beginning, shall we?

Ina's recipe begins with chopped bacon sizzling away in a dutch oven. We didn't do this, which may have been our first mistake - I tend to discount the flavor of bacon as nothing but salt and smoke when cooked in a dish rather than on its own, but obviously its more than that, and the liquid smoke I added to the braising liquid in an attempt to compensate really didn't do the trick.

Instead we went right ahead to searing the salt-and-peppered chicken pieces in some oil instead of the leftover bacon fat we would've had if we'd followed the recipe. We used chicken thighs instead of a whole chicken broken-down, and here I think was another mistake in judgement. A) We didn't make it to Iavarone this week and couldn't get those great Bell & Evans thighs, so we had to use some sub-par supermarket chicken instead, and B) I didn't get the chicken out of the freezer early enough and did not have time to brine it, which is not called for in the recipe but which always, ALWAYS improves chicken's flavor. That aside, J got quite a nice sear on the skin, and it was all I could do not to tear the skin off of the thighs, finish cooking it in the pan, and then scarf it down, because lord do I love crispy, salty poultry skin.

After the chicken had been properly browned, it was removed from the pan and the vegetable flavor base was added - thinly sliced onions, carrots cut on the bias, and a few minced cloves of garlic. These got slowly sauteed to soften them and bring out the natural sugars to caramelize a bit.

Now here comes mistake number three: Ina calls for brandy or cognac to be used to deglaze the pan. We drink neither, and so we have neither, and I was not about to buy a whole bottle for one recipe. So, I substituted sherry. And its not that it tasted wrong in the finished dish, but I just can't help but wonder how different it might have been with the brandy/cognac instead.

I scraped up what bits of brown had collected in the pan with the sherry and let it cook off almost entirely before adding back the chicken pieces. Then, in went a heavy cup of red wine and chicken stock, and since I had to use a cabernet sauvignon in place of the requisite burgundy - it is shockingly hard to find around here - well, that was probably mistake number four. A couple of sprigs of thyme and a sprig of rosemary for extra herbal flavor went in on top, the cover went on, and the whole thing went into the oven at 250 degrees for about half an hour.

While the oven did its thing, I sliced up a whole package of baby bella mushrooms and sauteed them in some melted, unsalted butter with just a bit of salt, pepper, and worcestershire sauce, and somehow I even managed to screw this up. I salted them too early, and ended up with a whole crapload of liquid in the pan. Normally I know better than that. I think my cooking mojo must've phoned it in that day or something, because really, this more than anything else was just pathetic. I should never be draining half a cup of liquid from a pan of sliced mushrooms at this point in my cooking life.

When the mushrooms were cooked, all that was left was to mash some flour into some butter to create an instant clump-free thickener for the stew when it came out of the oven, and then all we could do was wait.

After 30 minutes in the oven, the chicken was still very pink in the thickest parts.

Truthfully, I wasn't surprised. Half an hour at 250 for chicken on the bone just didn't seem like it could possibly be right, even if you are intended to finish the cooking on the stovetop. If it wasn't enough for me with only three pieces of chicken in the oven, how in the world could it work for an entire bird's worth?

So, I turned the temp up to 300 and put it back in for 15 minutes, and this time it looked like it was cooked correctly. Out of the oven and back on the stovetop, where the herbs got removed and the mushrooms and a handful of semi-thawed frozen pearl onions got added to the pan. Let that bubble away for a few to heat up the onions, and then in went the butter/flour mash. Stir stir stir to help melt the butter and thicken the sauce evenly, cook a few minutes more to eliminate any potential for floury flavor, and dinner is served.

Not very pretty is it? Its hard to make any sort of stew really look attractive... thick brown gravy makes even the tastiest dish look like dog food. And honestly, it was tasty. Could've used a bed of egg noodles or a heel of crusty bread to sop up the gravy, but that's neither here nor there. What it wasn't, was exciting. It wasn't revelatory. It wasn't anything I didn't feel like I'd eaten a hundred times before. Would any of that had changed if I'd actually followed the recipe? Well, maybe, but who's to know. All I know is that next time I feel the hankering for a stew with red wine and mushrooms (and, well, bacon), I'm making beef burgundy. Because that's basically what this was, sans beef. And I think the beef is better.

Its ok Ina, I still love you. I'll blame this one on my insatiable need to tinker. We're still cool.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Barefoot Bloggers: Mexican Chicken Soup

Hi folks! We're away on vacation, visiting J's parents in the wilds of Wyoming for the Thanksgiving holiday. I actually wrote this post almost two weeks ago, because I knew we'd be gone when it was supposed to go up, and I didn't really want to think about it in the days leading up to our departure.

Wyoming isn't exactly known for great cuisine, but I know we'll be making one hell of a Thanksgiving dinner with the folks, so I'll be sure to embarrass myself and take lots of pics to show y'all when we get back. Hope everyone has a fun-and-food-filled Turkey Day!

This week's Barefoot Bloggers recipe is Ina's Mexican Chicken Soup, chosen by Judy of Judy's Gross Eats. As far as I can tell, this is basically just Ina's riff on a chicken tortilla soup, but I certainly can't find fault with that - I love soups, I love tex-mex flavors, and unsurprisingly, I loved this recipe.

I have to admit, I kinda screwed up a bit on this because, well, I didn't read the entire recipe all the way through before we did our grocery shopping last weekend. Shame on me. I totally missed that the corn tortillas were not, in fact, intended to be baked or fried for the tortilla chip garnish mentioned at the end of the recipe, but were actually supposed to be added to the soup as a thickener. Since we usually skip the chips when it comes to Mexican soups and chillis, I didn't buy the tortillas. And then I pulled up the recipe on the night we were going to make this, and realized my mistake. Whoopsie!

Luckily, I had a box of quick-cooking polenta in the pantry, and figured that a few tablespoons of that added in near the end of the cooking time would basically accomplish the same thing as the tortillas added near the beginning - it'd thicken the soup, give it some really interesting texture, and infuse a bit of subtle corn sweetness into the final flavor. And in the end I think it worked just fine, and both J and I really enjoyed it just the way it was. Unfortunately that means I can't really weigh in on the success of the recipe as written, but I think the food gods will forgive me just this once.

Aside from that one little foible, I pretty much made the recipe as written with just two small changes. I used dry cilantro instead of fresh, because I just can't bring myself to buy fresh cilantro anymore unless we're going to be using it in every meal for a week. Its impossible to get anything but a bunch the size of my head around here, and every single time we buy it we end up have to throw half of it out because we can't use it fast enough. Given the price of fresh herbs, I just can't keep letting that happen. Also, I substituted a long hot chili (a serrano, I think?) instead of the 2-4 jalapenos that Ina's recipe calls for, mostly because I'm a total wuss and that much jalapeno would probably kill me, but also because we had this other chili lying forlornly in our vegetable drawer and I wanted to use it up before buying more. It actually ended up being the perfect choice, because it definitely added some heat, but not enough that I needed a loaf of bread and a handkerchief to get through the meal. Got my sinuses to open up a bit though, that's for sure.

I guess I should also include the fact that we used some of the leftover chicken from the roast bird we made the weekend before instead of roasting fresh chicken breasts just for the soup, but that's kind of a no-brainer as far as I'm concerned, and all it basically changed was the amount of time needed to make this soup from start to finish.

Unfortunately, my other screw-up was forgetting to bring my camera and tripod into the kitchen while making this, so I don't have a bunch of photos of the raw ingredients and prep work to share this time. Honestly though, this recipe is so easy, I doubt you need the photographic help.

The technique is basically the same as almost every other soup I make - sautee the base flavor ingredients (in this case a standard mire poix with the hot chili and some garlic added in) in some olive oil at the bottom of your soup pot until they are softened and beginning to brown a bit. Toss in your liquid ingredients, herbs and spices (chicken stock, canned tomatoes with their juice, and some cumin, coriander seed, and dry cilantro) then bring to a boil and let 'er rip for awhile to get the veg nice and soft. Give it a taste for seasoning - I found it needed a bit more of both cumin and coriander for my tastes, and I threw in a splash of red wine vinegar for a bit of balancing tang. Then add in the chicken, followed by about 1/4 cup of quick-cooking polenta, which I added very gradually while stirring constantly to avoid clumps. Keep it on the heat for another 5 minutes so that the polenta can rehydrate and thicken the soup nicely, making sure to stir once in awhile to keep things from sticking on the bottom. Once its done, ladle it into some bowls and top with a dollop of sour cream (I spiked ours with a bit of fresh lime juice) and a sprinkling of cilantro. Couldn't be easier, really.

We enjoyed our soup with a double-decker quesadilla made with these fantastic multigrain tortillas from Mission and some fancy Sargento shredded cheese (2 varieties, one with seasoning and one without), which is frankly one of my favorite things in the world to make and eat because its so easy its almost stupid and well, is there really anything better than tortillas stuffed with gooey, melty cheese? I don't think so.

All you do is heat up a large, flat pan on the stove (we use an old, warped griddle pan that desperately needs to be replaced but still does the job) and brush one side of one tortilla with some melted butter or vegetable oil. Put it on the hot pan, lube-side down, and top with a decent sized pile of one kind of cheese, spreading it around to make an even layer. Top the cheese with a second tortilla (no oil or butter needed here), then top that with a second kind of cheese. Finished with a third tortilla, again brushed with butter or oil and this time placed lube-side UP so that when you flip it, the oil will come in contact with the pan. Weigh down with a flat pot lid or a plate to help the bottom tortilla get nice and crisp and brown and to help the cheese melt, and let it sizzle away for a few minutes. Check after 3 or 4 to be sure its not burning, but don't flip it until you see plenty of golden toastyness down there. When you DO flip, do so carefully in case there is cheese in that top layer that isn't quite melted yet and the thing doesn't stay together - you really don't want shredded cheese flying all over your kitchen. Trust me. Now put the pot lid or plate back on top of the quesadilla and give it another 2-3 minutes to crisp up on the second side. When its done, just cut it into wedges with a pizza cutter or a big, sharp knife (a chef's knife or santoku works well) and serve. The wedges make absolutely awesome dippers for this soup.

I would totally make this dinner again. I'd make it all the time, in fact. Its hot, spicy, hearty and comforting, and a really nice change from a regular bowl of beef-and-beans chili. And, well, anything that gives me an excuse to make quesadillas is just fine in my book.

Its a crying shame that J managed to get all the leftovers, because I could really go for a bowl right now.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Why We Don't Go Out For Thai

Consider, for a moment, the plight of the peanut-allergic American. If you don't have to worry about dying from accidental contact with this particular legume, you probably don't even realize how much it's used in everyday foods. Cereals, snacks, candies, and convenience foods often contain things like peanut flour or peanut oil when you'd least expect it. Even those which do not intentionally include peanut products in their ingredient lists will frequently carry that potentially life-saving warning, "Manufactured in a facility which also process peanuts." While this means that your granola bar probably does not contain, nor has it come in contact with, a peanut or its byproducts, it also means that it MIGHT have, and you'd just better not take the chance.

Then there's fried foods, which have at least a 50/50 chance of having been cooked in peanut oil, and sometimes its almost impossible to tell. I often wonder how many unaware folks with peanut allergies get sick every year from innocent trips to Chick-Fil-A. (Because yes, they fry just about everything in peanut oil, and the warning signs in their restaurants are notoriously small and easy-to-miss. I had a close call there myself a few years back.)

If you don't have to think about it, you probably don't realize just how dangerous the world can be for someone with a severe peanut allergy, and how limited the options become when you really take every step possible to keep yourself. And no matter how hard you try to protect yourself, there is still always the slight possibility that, under the wrong circumstances, you just might get hit with an allergy attack seemingly out of nowhere due to a chance encounter of your purse with a peanut shell on the ground.

And possibly worse than all that is the fact that it is damn near impossible to go out for Thai food.

As you may have determined, I am one of those unlucky 1.5 million Americans whose bodies cannot process the proteins in that beloved of all "nuts", the peanut. I've learned as I've grown up how to best avoid accidental ingestion of the evil little beans, and know to be very careful when eating out or trying new foods. However, in my younger days I was sometimes a bit more reckless than I should've been, and it was during those years that I first discovered Thai food.

I suppose I was lucky. There were a lot of Thai restaurants in New Haven County in CT, where I grew up, and I went to at least three different places where I was able to enjoy untainted Thai food, probably due to some extreme care and consideration by the restaurants' chefs and servers. Through these visits I learned to love Thai cuisine, its unique, fresh, and vibrant flavors, colors, and textures, and I became a regular customer to the restaurant closest to home, craving their food constantly between visits.

And then I moved to NY, where there must be a thousand Thai restaurants to try. And it was then that I had my first bad experience in a Thai restaurant, one which must not have taken such impeccable care in keeping their kitchen clean and their peanut products quarantined, because despite having ordered a dish that I knew full well should contain no peanuts whatsoever, I had a reaction and was sick for days.

Since then I have not set foot in another Thai restaurant, other than the one back home that I know is safe.

Just try to imagine not being able to go out for your favorite kind of food because, well, it just might kill you. I probably don't need to spell it out, but I will: IT SUCKS.

But, not being one to take my eating limitations lying down, I resolved that I simply had to be able to make my own Thai food at home, where I knew it would be 100% safe for me to eat. And after introducing J to my beloved "safe haven" Thai restaurant in CT and turning him on to the stuff, he was more than willing to take on the challenge with me.

Since then we have made several soups, stir fries, and noodle/rice dishes from various cookbooks and online recipe sources, some more successful than others but all of them better than no Thai food at all. We will continue to experiment until we have a retinue of reliable, delicious, and authentic (as close as possible, anyway, working within the no-peanuts limitation) recipes that we can turn to whenever we feel that particular, special craving that no other food can satisfy. But for now, the one recipe we've come back to time and time again has been this, my favorite Thai noodle dish and one of my favorite things to eat, ever: Pad See Ew.

A relatively simple dish of wide rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese broccoli or gai lan, egg, and thin strips of chicken or pork with a sticky, sweet soy sauce, pad see ew is a popular lunchtime street food in Thailand. It is hearty and incredibly flavorful, and like so much of the Thai cuisine I've tasted, incredibly well balanced. Sweet, savory, peppery, and tangy flavors meld together into a truly perfect sauce, binding the tender chicken, soft eggs, crunchy broccoli and chewy rice noodles into what I can only describe as the ultimate noodle dish. Seriously, I could eat this stuff every day for a week and not get bored with it. It is amazing to me that such a simple dish with such basic ingredients can taste this good.

The recipe I follow for this dish is slightly non-traditional, but it achieves the same flavor that I fell in love with back in CT, and for that I don't mind breaking the rules a bit. I always use chicken and have never had it with pork, even though I'm pretty sure that pork is the standard protein in Thialand. I also use regular-old broccoli florets instead of Chinese broccoli or gai lan, because frankly I have access to neither. It doesn't matter. Because really, the star of this dish is the noodles; wide ribbons of chewy, starchy goodness that soak up all that delicious sauce and become almost unbearably addictive. I bet you won't be able to stop at one plate.


Pad See Ew
Adapted from a bunch of recipes that I can't really remember all mashed up together; technique adapted from Pim's Pad See Ew for Beginners.

If you can't find fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, or dark sweet soy in stores near you, try ordering them online from any of a number of Thai ingredient suppliers. That's what we did, and unless you cook Thai every day, they'll probably last you a good long time.

12oz flat, wide dry rice noodles
1 large boneless skinless chicken breast, sliced thinly (you could substitute pork or even tofu here if you wanted)
2 cups broccoli florets (one large crown should do fine)
1 egg
6 cloves of garlic, smashed and minced

2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tsp toasted sesame oil

1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
3 tsp dark sweet soy sauce
2 tsp rice wine vinegar
1-2 tbsp white sugar
1/2-1 tsp black pepper

Vegetable oil for cooking (Choose something with a high smoke point like safflower or grapeseed oil or, if you aren't allergic like me, peanut oil. I won't even bother giving a measurement because it depends on too much - the seasoning of your wok, the type of noodles you use, how hot your stove gets, etc. - just be aware that you will probably use a lot.)

30-60 minutes before you intend to start cooking, mix together the ingredients for the marinade and pour over the slices of chicken in a large bowl. Toss around to coat each piece with the marinade, then cover with plastic wrap and let stand until you are ready to cook.

Place the rice noodles in a dish and cover with hot water (I bring my tea kettle up to just shy of the boiling point) and let stand long enough for the noodles to become pliable. You'll want to move them around every so often with a fork or tongs to keep them from sticking together and forming one giant noodle clump. 5-10 minutes will probably do it, depending on how hot the water is. Just don't let them get soft or mushy, or you'll be setting yourself up for failure later. They need to be able to finish cooking in the wok. Once the noodles are pliable, drain them in a colander and rinse well with cold water, then let stand to drain completely.

Make sure the rest of your ingredients are prepped and ready to go - cut up your broccoli florets and put them in a bowl. Do the same with the garlic. Scramble the egg in another bowl, adding a touch of soy sauce if you like. Finally, make the sauce, whisking all of the ingredients together to help the sugar dissolve. I used the full 2tbsp the last time I made it and felt it was a little too sweet for my tastes, so next time I'll cut it back to maybe a heavy tbsp, but season it according to your tastes. Same goes for the pepper - I like a lot, but use as much as you like.

You should now have a bowl of chicken in its marinade, a colander full of flexible but not-exactly cooked rice noodles, a bowl of broccoli, a bowl of garlic, a bowl of egg, and a bowl of sauce. Now get out your vegetable oil and a big wooden spoon or spatula, and make sure everything is within easy reach of the stove; its time to start cooking, and it's going to move quickly.

Place a large wok over high heat and preheat for at least 5 minutes to ensure the whole pan is heated evenly. Add a tablespoon or two of oil to the pan, enough that you can swirl the pan around and coat as much of the sides as possible. Let that heat up for just a few seconds, then dump in your marinated chicken and garlic. Keep the chicken and garlic moving around the pan by swirling the pan gently and tossing/stirring the meat with your wooden spoon or spatula, letting it cook on all sides without burning. You'll probably get some smoke and some spatter, so just be careful when you move the pan. Once the chicken is cooked and browned in places, remove it and the garlic back to its bowl. Wipe out the pan with a couple of paper towels and replace on the heat.

Now, the broccoli. Add some more oil to the wok, then dump in your broccoli and cook the same way that you did the chicken, though you probably won't need to move it around as much because it wont be as likely to stick as the chicken was. Cook until the broccoli is bright green and slightly softened but still crisp in the stems, and the florets have gotten brown and crispy in spots. Remove from the wok back to its bowl, and replace the wok on the stove. No need to wipe it out this time.

Drizzle some oil over the noodles in their colander and toss around gently so that all of the noodles are individually coated with oil, then add a bit more oil to the wok. This is where things can get tricky, as rice noodles tend to stick like crazy and will break apart and completely lose their structural integrity if they do, so although it goes against my usual healthy sensibilities, use as much oil as you need to keep that from happening.

One the noodles are coated and the oil in the pan is hot again, dump in the noodles and get them moving in the pan immediately. The longer they stay stationary, the more likely they are to stick. Stir fry them until they start to show crisp, brown spots. Now, this is the only part that I still have trouble with - move the noodles up the sides of the pan where it will be cooler, creating a well at the very bottom of the pan, and pour in the scrambled egg. Resist the urger to start shoving it around in the pan the way you have every other ingredient - the noodles at this point should be lubed up enough that they won't stick, and the egg needs to cook without being fooled with for awhile so that it can actually set up. You want to be able to break it into pieces once its cooked, not turn it into a coating for the noodles.

Give it just a minute or two until it looks mostly opaque, then get in there and stir to break it up a bit and toss it with the noodles. Now dump the chicken, garlic, and broccoli back into the pan, toss it all together, and finally pour in all the sauce. Do your pan-shaking/hot-food-tossing bit until everything in the pan is coated in sauce, the noodles have absorbed most of the liquid, and the heat has thickened up anything that's left, just a minute or two. You should get a bit more caramelization and browning during this step. Remove from the heat and serve immediately, with an extra shake of black pepper and a drop or two of soy sauce as a final flavor boost.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Barefoot Bloggers: Herb-Roasted Onions

Its that time again! Time for all the Barefoot Bloggers to roll up their sleeves, grab a wooden spoon, and dive into a new recipe from our muse, Ina Garten. This week's recipe is Herb-Roasted Onions, chosen by Kelly of Baking with the Boys.

I knew as soon as I saw the recipe selection that I'd want to have these onions with roasted chicken. We've never balked at roasting whole birds for just ourselves, but this past weekend afforded the perfect opportunity to have a few less leftovers as we'd planned to have another couple over for dinner on Sunday. And really, what could be better for a casual dinner party than roasted chicken and veggies?

We rounded out the meal with some more of those perfect crispy roasted potatoes and a quick gravy made from the chicken drippings, and if it wasn't the healthiest meal we've ever made, it was certainly one of the tastiest.

The onions themselves really couldn't be simpler, and for once I actually really stuck to the recipe. My only changes were a mustard substitution and using dry herbs instead of fresh. Otherwise, I followed Ina's instructions just about to a T. Aren't you proud of me?

You start with two red onions and one white - mine was an absolute monster, so even with 4 people we ended up with some extras that didn't get eaten.

Aren't onions beautiful? Especially the red ones. I just love their color, and the satiny-sheen of their papery outer skins.

You trim off the barest bit of the root end and peel each onion, then slice into thick wedges through the root - this keeps the wedges more-or-less intact when they roast. This was seriously the most difficult part of the recipe, because these were some POTENT onions and I had to walk away at least twice during the prep to keep the fumes from blinding me. Also, my cutting skills are lame and I missed the root on half my wedges, so my onions fell apart more than they probably should have. Ah well.

Next, the vinaigrette. Again, couldn't be simpler. Whisk together some mustard (I used a slightly sweet, whole grain variety), lemon juice, garlic (grated or minced), salt, pepper, and thyme leaves, then stream in some olive oil while whisking to make a loose emulsion. Dressing done.

The onions get tossed in the vinaigrette (being sure that every onion is completely coated) and, in my case, left to marinate for about an hour while we got some of our other dinner preparations done and got the chicken into the oven.

When the time to cook them rolled around, I lined my brandy-new Cuisinart stainless steel everyday pan (just bought a whole set of these pans and I LOVE them) with aluminum foil and placed the onion wedges in the pan in a single layer. Then the whole thing got shoved in the oven at 400 for about 40 minutes. I found that my onions gave off a LOT of water and didn't really brown or caramelize just by baking them in the time indicated, so I switched the oven over to broil for the last 5 minutes of cooking time and that did the trick.

When the onions came out of the oven, the extra vinaigrette left in the bowl got poured over top and I tossed them around with some tongs just before serving.

Aside from one person who doesn't like to just eat onions, I'd say this was a successful dish. For my case, I liked them, certainly, but I'm not entirely sold on the seasoning. I think I would've liked to switch out the lemon juice for balsamic vinegar, and added some sugar or honey to play on the onions' natural sweetness. I'd like to try a different herb, because although I love thyme on onions (and things like mushrooms) I think its getting a little played out. I'm not sure what I'd use in place of it, though. Chives perhaps, or maybe rosemary?

I also wish my onions had caramelized more fully, but all the liquid in the pan kept that from happening. I'm wondering about trying this at a higher heat next time, maybe 425 or even 450, so that they'll cook and brown faster and won't have time to get soggy.

At any rate, I do think I'd make these again - they look awfully pretty after they're cooked, all golden and red and crispy in places, and the big wedges really make a nice presentation alongside roasted chicken on the bone, rustic and pure in flavor and intent. There's just something about dishes like this, where a solitary ingredient is the star and the seasoning and cooking is simply meant to bring out the best of that ingredient, that really appeals to me. These are onions being everything that onions can be - sweet, pungent, soft and satiny smooth. And I love that kind of cooking. Simple, basic, unadorned and unimposing, just tasty and satisfying and even homey in a way.

I think I'd like to experiment with ways to use them in other dishes. I bet they'd be awfully tasty in a pasta dish with a bit of parmesan cheese, some mushrooms or greens, some olive oil and garlic. Or on a sandwich, thin-sliced steak with swiss cheese, arugala, and an herbed aioli. Or maybe even cut into thinner wedges and stirred into some mashed potatoes for an extra hit of flavor and texture. I think the possibilities for this dish are virtually endless.

So, overall, the recipe needs some tweaking to suit my tastes, but is definitely one I'd go back to.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

SSD: The Standard Steak Dinner (TM)

Ok, so its not really a trademarked name. At least, I don't think it is. But believe me, it should be, because a steak dinner just doesn't get any more tasty, classic, or all around RIGHT than this. And once you've tried this, I can almost guarantee you'll agree with me.

The SSD is the only original meal that we've come up with in our almost 4 years of cooking together that we've consistently gone back to several times a year, and have never really had to change. Its part recipe, part formula, and all delicious.

The recipe part of it that never, ever changes is my original sherry steak gravy. "Gravy" is a bit of a misnomer here; there is very little about this recipe that resembles your standard brown, smooth, thick sauce that is usually served with roast beef or turkey. Instead, it is coarse and rustic with diced onion, garlic, mushrooms, and a goodly amount of bacon, with the gravy part being more of binder than anything else. It is sweet, savory, and peppery, a perfect companion for a thick, medium-rare steak, and I've barely changed the recipe since I made it the first time nearly 3 years ago.

The rest of the meal is just a simple formula, wherein the components follow a theme but are easily substituted and adjusted to achieve the same general result without getting old or tired. This formula is incredibly classic: a good cut of steak, simply seasoned with kosher salt and black pepper; a green vegetable; a potato dish. But I'm a big believer in the philosophy that if a thing ain't broke, you shouldn't try to fix it.

The beauty of it is the wide range of options available for each component. You could use a sirloin steak, or a ribe eye (as we did here) or even a filet. You could sautee up some broccoli or spinach or steam some snow peas, any of which could follow your particular favorite side dish recipe. And we all know how versatile potatoes are. Want a mash? Go for it. Scalloped potatoes your thing? We've done that too. Baked and stuffed? Roasted? Hashed? They all work. There's really just no way to break this meal.

But the sherry gravy is what ties everything together, each and every time. And we have never made this meal without feeling completely and utterly satisfied when our plates are clean.

We made an SSD earlier this week, upon realizing that it'd been several months since we last did so. This time around we used some well-marbled rib eyes for the steak, and combined the potato and green veg by roasting some cubed red potatoes and halved brussels sprouts together. And incidentally, if you think you don't like brussels sprouts, I absolutely recommend that you try them this way. I first discovered them last fall, having never actually tried them before and therefor being devoid of any of the normal negative connotations that most people have. And at first taste, I loved them. Slightly sweet and tender-crisp when cooked correctly, I often find myself craving them when the weather gets cool. And when they are roasted this way, their natural sugars concentrate and caramelize on the outside, much the way carrots or sweet potatoes do, and they become positively candy-like. Seriously, just try these. They aren't your parents' sprouts.


Eri's Sherry Steak "Gravy"

I have always used white button mushrooms in this recipe, because I like their texture and mild flavor. However, I recommend that you use whatever variety of mushroom that you prefer - I am sure it would be equally good with portobellos, creminis, or shiitakes. I'd even like to try this with porcinis... sometime when I don't mind potentially breaking a recipe that has been so completely foolproof for so long.

This recipe makes enough "gravy" to top two average-sized steaks.

1 tsp olive oil
1/2 a white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 slices fatty bacon, chopped
1/2 cup diced white button mushrooms
1 tsp black pepper (Believe it or not, I use preground pepper for this because the first time I made it, we didn't have a pepper grinder, and I haven't wanted to change the finished product. Feel free to fresh-grind your pepper, though I might suggest cutting back a bit as fresh-ground pepper is significantly stronger.)
1/2 cup strong beef stock (and I mean STRONG. I've always made this with beef stock cubes, using twice as much as the package directs for the amount of water. You could also use a demi glace, or homemade stock that you boil down to half-volume.)
1/4 cup sherry (the real stuff. Don't go using "cooking wine" in this recipe.)
1/2 tbsp brown sugar
1/2 tbsp worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp cornstarch (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a small sautee pan (not nostick) over medium heat until gently shimmering. Add the bacon and cook slowly to render out as much of the bacon fat as possible into the pan. When the bacon is about half cooked, add in the onions, garlic, and mushrooms, and sautee until everything is softened and the onions are translucent.

Crank up the heat to high for a few minutes to achieve some slight caramelization on the veg and develop a bit of fond (stuck on brown bits) on the bottom of the pan. Deglaze the pan with the sherry, then add the stock, worcestershire, pepper and brown sugar. Turn the heat down again to medium-low and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until the mixture thickens slightly and about half the liquid has boiled away. At this point, if you like a thinner gravy, you could use the gravy as-is. Or, you could thicken it by placing the cornstarch in a bowl, adding a couple spoonfuls of water or gravy liquid and stirring to dissolve, then adding the mixture back to the pan and stirring to combine. This will create a thick, velvety sauce to bind all the ingredients together.

Spoon the gravy over your choice of steak and serve hot.


Roasted Red Potatoes and Brussels Sprouts

This was the first time I've successfully achieved the crisp outside, fluffy inside roasted potatoes that most people dream about. I think that the pre-cooking step, the generous amount of olive oil, and the high heat in the oven were what make it work, and for once they were totally perfect. I didn't measure anything or keep track of time while I was doing this, however, so I'm making some guesses here. I will be retrying this method tomorrow when we have some friends over for dinner, so I will try to pay more attention and nail down this recipe.

2-3 large red potatoes, washed and cut into one-inch cubes
1 cup brussels sprouts, stems trimmed, outer leaves removed, and halved
4 cups water
2 tbsp + 1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp fresh-cracked black pepper
2 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp good balsamic vinegar

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Pour the water into a saucepan and add the 2tbsp salt and cubed potatoes. Bring to a boil and cook until the potatoes are about half-cooked, probably about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together the olive oil, 1 tbsp salt, black pepper and garlic in a medium-sized bowl.

When the potatoes have reached the desired level of doneness, remove with a slotted spoon to the baking sheet and allow to dry and cool slightly for 2-3 minutes.
Add the trimmed and halved brussels sprouts to the pan of boiling water to blanch for 2-3 minutes, or until bright green and slightly softened.

Once the sprouts are in the water, pour half of the seasoned olive oil over the potatoes on the baking sheet and toss with your hands until the potatoes are covered, then place the sheet in the oven. They will need at least 10-15 minutes on their own before you add the brussels sprouts.

Drain the blanched sprouts and add, while still hot, to the bowl with the remaining seasoned olive oil. Add the balsamic vinegar and toss gently to coat.

Remove the pan with the potatoes from the oven and flip gently with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula - you'll notice that the parts touching the baking sheet will be the most golden browned and crispy. You'll want to flip them like this over the course of their cooking time to ensure that all sides get evenly browned.

Add the brussels sprouts with their marinade to the baking sheet and spread out so that all the sprouts and potatoes are in a single layer. Return to the oven and continue to bake, turning every 5 minutes or so, until everything is nicely browned and crispy on the outside. For me, this took approximately 15-20 minutes. When they are done, remove from the oven and hit with a last sprinkle of kosher salt and black pepper while they are hot. Serve immediately so that they retain their crispness.