Saturday, January 31, 2009

Barefoot Bloggers: Easy Sticky Buns

I am really not on the ball with my blogging this month, and I'm barely coming in under the wire with this last Barefoot Bloggers challenge. I think that's a pretty good sign that I just wasn't terribly excited for these recipes.

This one in particular - Ina's Easy Sticky Buns, chosen by Melissa of Made by Melissa - was nearly a disaster, because yet again I decided to change up the recipe rather than trusting to Ina's instruction and experience. Lesson learned, folks - sometimes, you just have to follow the recipe, because chances are the person who wrote it knows more about food than you do.

This is probably a great recipe if you follow it, and really is a much easier way to make warm, gooey, sweet sticky buns. I may try it again at some point and actually do it right. Where in a standard sticky bun recipe you would need to make a yeasted dough and let it rise, these only require a package of frozen ready-made puff pastry. They are both easier and faster to make, and yield a lighter, flakier roll.

The mis en place is refreshingly simple: raisins (I used a mix of raisins, dried cherries, and dried cranberries, plumped up in a bit of almost-boiling water for 5 minutes), butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, pecans, and puff pastry. And to prep before assembly, all I needed to do was mix together some of the brown sugar and some cinnamon for the insides of the rolls (I used turbinado sugar here), and cream together some softened butter and brown sugar with a big handful of chopped pecans for the outside (I kinda just wanted to eat this stuff by the spoonful).

That's all there was to it, and then it was time to assemble the rolls.

I laid out one of the puff pastry sheets on a cold, clean board and brushed it all over with melted butter. The pastry then got a generous, even coating of my cinnamon/sugar mixture, followed by half of my plumped and drained dried fruit, arranged as evenly as possible, leaving about a 1" border all around to insure clean rolling.

Time to roll! I folded the long edge up over the filling, then gently but tightly rolled the whole thing up away from me on the board, and carefully sealed the edge with my fingers.

About 1/2" of each end of the roll got trimmed away, and then I sliced it into 6 even pieces. Set these aside, then moved on to the second sheet of pastry for roll number two.

Now, here is where I deviated from the recipe in a way that nearly ruined everything.

See, Ina instructs you to divide the butter/brown sugar/pecan mixture among the 12 cups of a muffin tin and then place the rolls on top to bake. This seemed like a bad idea to me - I was anticipating that the sugar would weld itself to the pan and make the rolls difficult to remove, and probably create a nightmare of a cleaning job afterward. So, in my infinite brilliance, I decided to reverse it and put the rolls on the bottom and TOP them with the butter mix.

This, my friends, was a mistake.

Puff pastry rises, and sugar tends to burn when it's exposed to high heat for long periods of time. And, well, butter melts. So about halfway through the cooking time, the butter and sugar had liquified and was being pushed out all over the pan by the puffing pastry, and the sugar-coated pecans were getting rather too dark. By the time the pastry was cooked all the way, well, I had one heck of a mess. Sugar everywhere and burned nuts on every roll. Blech.

I managed to salvage them by scooping up the runny sugar and spooning it back over the rolls, and picking off the darkest of the nuts. Thankfully, the rolls came out of the pan with relative ease once they'd cooled slightly, so no problems there.

I tried one once they were cool enough to handle, and it really wasn't bad. A little too toasty, perhaps, but not bad. They certainly didn't look very good though, and frankly I would've been embarrassed to show them here. So I did what every improvising baker does who needs to hide an ugly product - I covered them with icing. :)

See, they don't look so bad, do they?

And I guess they must've been alright to eat, too, because they disappeared in record time when I brought them into work the next day.

But yeah, never again. I promise Ina, when it comes to baked goods, I'll never doubt your wisdom again. At least, not when it comes to technique. Flavorings are still fair game. :-p

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Negimaki - Beef & Scallion Rolls

One of the reasons I love Japanese food as much as I do is its inherent simplicity. Most of my favorite dishes call for just a handful of ingredients, and achieve their delicious success through the perfect balance of salty, savory, sweet and tangy. Negimaki, the much-loved staple of most Japanese restaurant appetizer menus, certainly falls into this category.

We recently decided to try making these tasty beef and scallion rolls at home using a bit of surplus beef roast from our Sunday dinner. I didn't look at a recipe, but just trusted my instincts and my previous experience with restaurant negimaki to put these together. Overall, they were pretty darn good, but I know some things I would do differently next time.

First of all, I'd use a more tender cut of meat, and try harder to get each slice to an even thickness - J and I both took a turn with the knife, but neither of us were able to get good, clean slices. It would probably also help to be cutting the slices off of a full roast, rather than the small piece we reserved. I'd marinate both the beef and the scallions in some soy sauce and sesame oil, and possibly just a bit of sugar, before rolling. And I would cut the scallions to fit the width of each piece of beef, rather than cutting them into uniformly-sized lengths and then piecing everything together on the roll.

For now though, here is my recipe. Feel free to try it as written, since they were quite tasty, or make your own adjustments. Just remember - keep it simple!

Negimaki - Beef & Scallion Rolls
4-6 slices of beef, somewhere in the neighborhood of 4x6", cut or pounded to 1/16" thickness (you could always simply ask your butcher to cut some beef scallopine style, if you don't want to mess with this yourself)
1 bunch of scallions
black pepper
sesame seeds
toasted sesame oil
soy sauce

Condiments - sweet asian-style chili sauce, wasabi, soy sauce, , sriracha, teriyaki sauce

Trim the ends of the scallions, then quarter lengthwise to get something that resembles long blades of grass. Now cut them into approximately 2" lengths. Divide equally into as many portions as you have slices of beef.

Lay a slice of beef out on a clean plate or board with one of the shorter sides closest to you and season lightly with salt, freshly-cracked black pepper, and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Place one of your portions of scallions on top of the beef, about 1" in from the narrow edge closest to you and arranged across the full width of the meat, with all of the scallions lying parallel to each other. Now fold the exposed edge of the meat over the scallions and roll up as tightly as you can without pushing out all the scallions. Use some butcher's twine to hold the roll together, wrapping it around the center and both ends. Set aside and repeat the technique to make the rest of your rolls.

Season the outsides of the rolls with a bit more salt and pepper and a drizzle of soy sauce and toasted sesame oil.

Heat a griddle or large frying pan on the stove until very hot. Add a small amount of vegetable oil, then the rolls. Sear very well on all sides - it shouldn't take more than a minute or two on each side - then remove to a plate or board to rest briefly. Drizzle on a bit more soy sauce and sesame oil if you like.

Use a sharp knife to slice each roll into three pieces, then cut away the butcher's twine. Serve standing on-end with your choice of condiments - teriyaki is pretty traditional, but I found I liked them best with some sweet and spicy asian-style chili sauce, while J preferred wasabi and sriracha (as pictured).

We made these into a meal with an incredibly simple stir fry of baby bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, onions and red bell peppers, seasoned with just some soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, garlic and black pepper. This was shockingly good, and far more than the sum of its parts, much like the negimaki themselves.

Its a difficult thing to remember at times, but sometimes simple really is best.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Barefoot Bloggers: Banana Sour Cream Pancakes

I know I'm late on this. Like, really late. Shame on me. But better late than never, right?

To tell the truth, I didn't even tackle the first of this month's Barefoot Bloggers recipe challenges until after the date it was supposed to be posted. This was partly due to my having nearly forgotten to check this months challenges in the first place, and partly because when I saw what they were, well, I just wasn't thrilled. Its all sweet stuff this month, and the Banana Sour Cream Pancakes that were chosen by Karen of Something Sweet by Karen didn't appeal to me much at all.

You see, I can't really eat bananas, at least not when they're fresh. Everytime I've ever ingested bananas in any form other than baked goods I've ended up with terrible stomach cramps, and even if I absolutely LOVED the flavor of bananas (which I don't) it wouldn't be worth putting myself through the agony that would come afterward. So, as a general rule, I stay away. I might have the occasional banana nut muffin, but that's about as far as I go.

I thought for a moment that maybe, because these were pancakes, the bananas would be cooked enough that I'd be able to eat them. But then I looked at the recipe and saw that we were supposed to add fresh diced bananas to the pancakes while they were on the griddle, which meant they wouldn't cook much at all. Then we were supposed to top them with MORE fresh bananas after they were cooked. Nope, couldn't do it. I would've spent my entire Saturday paying for my breakfast.

I considered taking a pass on this one, but then I thought about it and realized I probably could make these so they'd be safe for me to eat, if I adjusted the technique a bit. I thought that if the bananas were mashed up into the pancake batter as they would be in banana bread or muffins, they'd have a much better chance of cooking completely than if I was basically just searing some banana chunks into one side of the pancakes. So that's what I did.

My bananas were somewhat less than super-ripe, so they were a bit of a challenge to mash, but I managed with some good old-fashioned elbow grease and a particularly sturdy fork. I used a hand mixer to beat in the eggs, sour cream, sugar, lemon juice (didn't have actual lemons so I just squeezed in some juice from a bottle... blasphemy, I know) and vanilla, but held off on adding the milk because I knew that the mashed bananas would add a fair amount of moisture on their own and didn't want to end up with batter that was too runny. Instead I just mixed in the dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking powder, and some cinnamon and black pepper for a little extra oomph) and then added milk a small amount at a time until the batter looked more or less the way pancake batter should.

As I heated up our new cast iron griddle pan on the stove and let the batter rest, I considered topping alternatives. I could've just stuck to plain maple syrup, but I figured I'd already gone totally off the map with the pancakes themselves, I might as well try and be creative with the topping. I had some raw shelled almonds in the freezer, and thought that maybe a spiced toasted almond syrup would be a good match (although obviously walnuts would have been a better choice).

I quickly chopped up about a half cup of whole nuts and tossed them into a shallow frying pan on the stove to toast over low heat. By the time they were nice and golden brown my griddle was hot, and it was time to deal with the pancakes, so finishing my topping would have to wait.

My first set of pancakes didn't work out so well. I greased the pan with a bit of butter, then tried to use a ladle to dish out the batter. Only then did I realize that it was actually much too thick because I couldn't get the batter out of the ladle! I employed a silicone spatula to empty the ladle, and then realized that the ladle created much too large a portion, so the pancakes were way too big to cook correctly. This fact was made even worse because I hadn't allowed the griddle to heat up enough to cook evenly, so the parts of the pancakes that were in the middle of the pan burned, while the outer parts barely even set. Too thick batter + too much batter + improperly heated pan = three strikes, you're out. Batch number one ended up in the garbage.

Ugh, waaaaaaaay too thick.

I wiped down the griddle to start fresh, put it back on the heat so it could actually get fully got, and added some more milk to the batter so it'd be easier to portion and pour. And thankfully, the second batch and every one after that worked just about right - it was still a little tricky to time because the batter was still a bit thick, but I managed to make it work. Each batch of finished pancakes went into the oven which was heated to its lowest temperature to keep warm while I finished the rest.

There we go, much better.

The pancakes were taking just enough time to cook to give me time to finish off my topping, so I put the pan with the almonds back on the heat, added a handful of dried sweetened cranberries (never been a huge fan of dried fruit, but I LOVE dried cranberries, because unlike most dried fruit they aren't sickeningly sweet), a small spoonful of ground cinnamon and a generous amount of pure maple syrup.

I let this just warm up and thicken a bit while I finished off the pancakes, and by the time they were done the cranberries had plumped and absorbed some liquid, the syrup had thickened a bit, and the nuts had candied themselves. I added a squeeze of lemon juice to finish it off, and plated up our breakfast.

These were some seriously dense pancakes, but tasty. The banana flavor was mild, but definitely recognizeable. Honestly though, I think the topping was the real winner - crunchy nuts, chewy tart cranberries, and lightly spiced real maple syrup would make for a sweet and slightly complex finisher for any pancake recipe. I'm actually envisioning a topping with even more add-ins - pumpkin seeds, walnuts or pecans, perhaps some dried apricots or cherries - and calling it a trail mix topping. I think it'd especially be good over some buttermilk buckwheat pancakes for an earthy flavor contrast.

Truthfully, I think these probably would have been great pancakes had I made them according to the recipe. And they might be worth making as directed, but with a different fruit - some sort of berry, perhaps, or some peaches (perhaps with some cream mixed in with the warm maple syrup). But even having mangled the recipe as I did, they were quite a tasty breakfast, filling and warming. And, my alterations accomplished what they were supposed to - the bananas got totally cooked, so, no tummy troubles later!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Why yes, I CAN, in fact, cook fish.

Being home for nearly two weeks straight while J had to work basically everyday but Christmas and New Year's Day, I pretty much took the reigns for dinner almost every evening. This tends to be the arrangement when one of us is home and the other is at work, and is rather a change from our usual well-established kitchen roles: J takes charge of the meat, seasoning, prepping and cooking whatever protein we happen to be eating that day to follow the concept of the meal we have planned, while I'm generally in charge of sides, usually vegetables and the occasional starch.

I rather enjoy shaking things up myself - it gives me the opportunity to flex my culinary muscles, cooking entire meals and preparing things that I normally wouldn't, with plenty of time to experiment and really do things right. I also get to enjoy the satisfaction of serving a hot, homemade meal to someone I love every day, which makes it a win-win situation as far as I'm concerned. Of course, it also makes things more challenging, because no mater what I plan to make, I succeed or fail all on my own. And when it comes to cooking fish, I just don't have enough experience yet to be confident of success when I'm the one responsible for it.

That's why I was so proud of this salmon dish - I made it all on my own, and it came out just about perfect.

This meal combined two of my favorite things ever in the world of food - salmon and noodles - with something that is one of my least favorites, prepared in a new way - cucumbers - to create a surprising and satisfyingly successful dinner on a chilly post-holiday weeknight.

Early in the day I peeled a whole cucumber in stripes, then cut it into a pile of thin slices with my brand new mandoline (a Christmas gift from J - he certainly knows the way to my heart!) and tossed the slices in a marinade of soy, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, and rice wine vinegar. The soon-to-be pickles went into the fridge for the rest of the day while I took care of some things on my to-do list.

Late in the afternoon, it was time to start dinner. The salmon came as a steak with the spine and pinbones still in-tact, which meant I had to figure out how to remove the bones and create two thin portions - not something I've ever done before. But with a little searching online and a lot of intuition, I was able to separate the flesh from the spine with a long thin paring knife, the closest thing we have to a proper boning knife, and then remove the remaining pinbones with a pair of tweezers. I used a paper towel to pat away excess moisture and create a slightly tacky surface, then pressed the top of each fish portion into a mix of ground wasabi-soy almonds and panko. Finished with a gentle brushing of olive oil over the top, they were ready for the broiler.

I knew that the fish would cook quickly, however, so I let it sit and come up to room temperature while I started work on some noodles. I sliced an entire green bell pepper into thin ribbons with my mandoline along with most of a package of white button mushrooms. These went into a hot skillet with some warmed safflower oil and a bit of minced garlic and were sauteed until softened and browned in places. I made a simple sauce from some soy, sesame oil, jarred minced ginger (don't really like buying that sort of thing, but we never use fresh ginger before it goes bad) black pepper and sugar, and tossed the veggies and sauce with some flat lo mein noodles that I'd boiled to al dente in salted water. When the fish went under the broiler, I tipped the whole mess back into the skillet and stir fried it until the sauce was absorbed and the noodles took on bit of crispness around the edges.

The fish was golden brown and crisp on top and just cooked through in the middle within 5 or 6 minutes, at which point I removed it from the oven and took my pickled cucumber salad out of the fridge. Onto each plate when a heap of the stir-fried noodles, then a portion of salmon, and finally a tumble of the thin cukes on the side. At this point I was pretty pleased, as everything LOOKED more-or-less how I'd hoped.

But as usual, the proof was in the taste, and I think I won this battle. The fish was just right, flaky and tender with a lovely crunch from the nut and panko crust. The noodles were slightly sweet and savory, with soft sweet peppers and tender earthy mushrooms in every bite. But the cucumber salad was the real revelation for me - normally I pretty strongly dislike cucumbers in their natural form, and I was suspicious of any pickling recipe that required less than a couple of weeks in boiling-water-processed jars to transform their flavor. But this method made a shocking transformation in very little time, yielding still-crisp cucumber slices with a salty, tangy flavor that was damn-near addictive. I honestly think I could eat cucumbers every day if they were prepared like this.

Aside from being a tasty meal, this dinner proved to me that if I trust my intuition and remember everything I've learned by watching J in the kitchen, I can probably manage just about any meat or fish preparation. I just have to put my mind to it and stay confident in my skills.

Maybe one day I'll even have the guts to tackle that roast beef that J's already mastered. But then again, sometimes its not worth messing with perfection. ;)

Friday, January 2, 2009

An Unplanned Holiday Meal

I know this is really late enough to be embarrassing, but I really wanted to share our Christmas Eve dinner with all of you, mostly because I pulled this one out of my hat all by myself and with basically no advanced preparation. Believe it or not, it is entirely possible to make a delicious and impressive holiday meal more or less on the fly.

See, when we did our meal planning for Christmas week, we did so with Christmas Day's shenanigans in mind but completely forgot about Christmas Eve until AFTER we'd done all of our grocery shopping. I think that J would have been fine with just eating one of our planned meals that evening, but I simply could not allow Christmas Eve to go by without something special on the menu. Luckily, my job gives me a lot of time off around the holidays and I knew that I would be home all day Christmas Eve, giving me plenty of time to plan the meal, make a grocery store run, and cook.

I spent most of my free time on Monday and Tuesday thinking about it. I knew I wanted ham, because that just screams Christmas to me, but I also knew that I didn't want to just buy a ham and bake it. Baked, glazed, spiral-sliced ham is probably one of the most delicious food inventions I can think of, but I wanted to do something different. Something creative. Something a bit more sophisticated. I had the time, I thought, so why not use it to my advantage and experiment a bit? Of course, I also didn't want an entire spiral-sliced ham sitting in the freezer afterwards, because after all, there's only two of us.

I knew I had some puff pastry shells sitting in the freezer, and for some reason that stuck in my mind. I suspect it was partly because I'd seen Ina Garten make a simple appetizer of deli ham and swiss folded up in a sheet of puff pastry on her show over the previous weekend, and I just couldn't stop thinking about how deliciously easy that would be. I wasn't quite satisfied with repeating that idea, though the pastry component kept knocking around my head.

Similarly, I got myself latched onto the ham and pineapple combination, which is nothing new for sure but is definitely always delicious. I had several thoughts on that - ham and pineapple skewers, perhaps, brushed with a sweet chili glaze and broiled until caramelized and crunchy on the outside. Or ham steaks dusted with cinnamon and ancho and pan-seared, topped with sweet and sour pineapple chutney. Or maybe a riff on Ina's dish, adding thin-sliced pineapple rings to the ham and cheese puff pastry filling, somewhat reminiscent of Hawaiian pizza. Nah, none of that really rang true either.

At the same time I was considering sides. I still had some kale leftover from the farro salad a few days before, and some prima donna cheese, and thought that the addition of a potato would make a pretty fantastic gratin. And of course, once potatoes came onto the playing field, there were ideas for her-roasted potatoes and mashers and croquettes to contend with. Even sweet potatoes starting kicking around in my head, vying for attention, crying about how a chipotle-lime sweet potato mash would be a killer pairing with that ham steak idea, or how some sweet potato steak fries would be easy to make if I already had the oven/broiler on for those skewers. And then there were green veggies options - sauteed spinach, salads, green beans, broccoli. About the only side I was sure of from the get-go was my mom's orange and maple glazed carrots, because I love them dearly and feel no Christmas season is complete if I haven't had them at least once.

So, Christmas Eve arrived, and there I was with two days-worth ideas for mains and sides and not a single, satisfying, cohesive menu among them.

That morning I sat down with some paper and a pencil and wrote out all of the ideas that I'd narrowed down from the masses, and started drawing lines and sketching permutations, exploring the potential of each possibility. And an hour or so later, after a bit of brainstorming and a new main dish on the menu, I was off to the store with shopping list in hand and a meal planned that was simple, festive, creative, and (I hoped) delicious.

And so it was.

Sauteed Ham and Pineapple w/Black Pepper-Brown Sugar Glaze
in Puff Pastry

Maple-Orange Glazed Carrots

Simply-Dressed Arugula Salad
(red wine vinegar, good extra virgin olive oil, dijon, minced chives, salt and pepper)

Potato and Young Kale Gratin
with Prima Donna and Fresh Chive

The meal may have tasted fantastic, but the most rewarding part was sitting down on Christmas Eve with the man that I love, and enjoying a meal that I'd put together from the ground up with all the love and joy of the season as the secret ingredient.

I hope that you all had a wonderful holiday season, and I have nothing but high hopes and good wishes for all of us in the year to come.