Monday, February 28, 2011

Having a bad bread day...

I like to have fresh home-made bread when I can. It just adds something to any meal, even if the bread is just a side item rather than part of the main event.

That said, I'm also not a very good baker. I understand the concepts, but I don't think I quite have the touch to do it right all the time- I can still whip up a loaf of bread from scratch and have something edible, but the subtleties sometimes go wrong.

So my solution was the ubiquitous bread machine. It takes most of the grunt work out of the process. It may not be perfect for every type of bread, and it may limit you to making loaves, but it can do something I can't when it comes to baking- consistency - it always mixes and kneads the dough for the same amount of time, in the same manner, always rises at the same temperature and amount of time, and always bakes at the same temperature and same amount of time. Plus, it lets me fire and forget- so I can set it up, then get back to helping my wife keep the kids from destroying the house.

It lets me focus on getting the measurements right, and not worry about not kneading enough etc. Since it's more consistent than I can ever be, I can try out minor variations on bread formulas and know that the difference in results is due to the change in recipe, and not due to me being lazy about kneading, or messing up the timing when a certain toddler needs daddy NOW!!!!

So I have a few tried and true breads I do in my machine on a semi-regular basis, and I sometimes try something new or some variant. It usually does a great job, and we end up with a good, but  not always pretty, hunk of fresh bread.

Today is different. Today is a bad bread day! The garlic-herb Italian bread I set up last night smelled great, but is terribly sunken in the middle, and has a slightly weird texture.

I assumed that the main mistake was that I did my measurements while I was very tired, and probably screwed something up (like using a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon, or vice versa...) because I wasn't paying attention.

Wrong. I set up another bread (basic french bread) this morning to act as consolation for last night's failed experiment. It's mostly done baking right now, and it's sunken in the middle. Sigh. I guess my batch of yeast is losing it's potency- that or I just need to pay more attention when measuring out ingredients.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Quest for the Perfect Grilled Cheese Sandwich - Part II

Grilled Cheese on home-made wheat bread, with white american and salami

Grilled Cheese is one of those things that  just resonates with some deep dark part of your brain- even a poorly made grilled cheese still triggers something that says "this is good"

So, in my quest for a perfect grilled cheese, I've found that the quality of the bread has a huge effect on the quality of the sandwich. A good quality home-made bread, or a store bought artisanal bread adds a new dimension of crunch and texture that you just can't get with standard bread-in-a-bag.

Today's wheat bread came about as an accident- I started making a more typical french bread in the bread machine when I realized that I didn't have enough all-purpose white flour to finish the job. Luckily, I had plenty of whole wheat flour, so I ended up with a 50/50 mix.

French-Style Whole Wheat (Bread Machine)
1 3/8 cup water
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 cups all purpose flour (or bread flour)
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tbsp sugar
2 tsp active dry yeast
(optional herbs:
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp parsley
1 tsp basil)

Put all ingredients in your bread machine in the order recommended by the manufacturer, use the machine's french bread setting (not the whole wheat setting!) And select medium or dark crust if your machine lets you choose. This dough seemed to have difficulty coming together- so I needed to add 2-3 tablespoons of additional water to get the dough to come together and form a nice, mostly smooth ball during the first few minutes of the bread cycle. Once you get the dough ball to form up with enough moisture, let the bread machine run its course. When finished, allow to cool and slice as needed.

To revert this recipe back to the bread I used in my previous grilled cheese post, simply use 4 cups of all-purpose flour instead of the "2 and 2" mix. You will find that using all white flour means that you won't need to add as much water to get the dough to come together- and may not have to add any at all.

Take two nice hearty slices of your finished bread, spread a liberal amount of softened butter on one side of each slice. Set the bread, butter side down, into a hot pan or flat-top grill. If you immediately hear a little sizzle- the pan is hot enough. Lay 2-3 slices of white american cheese on top of each slice of bread.

When the cheese looks like it is beginning to melt, take about 4 thin slices of your favorite salami, and give them a quick sear on the grill or pan on each side- just enough so the slice get a little color- this should barely take a minute, so keep an eye on it. When done lay half the salami on one slice of bread, half on the other, and continue to cook until the cheese is nicely melted.

Check the underside of the bread, it should have a nice dark brown crust on it- let it sit on the grill another minute or so if it's not browned enough. Once done, assemble your sandwich and enjoy!

You'll get a decent crunch out of this bread. The inner bread has a more grainy quality than the all white flour version, which is nice, but doesn't offer as much textural contrast as the white bread does. Honestly, I think the white bread actually forms a better crust. This wheat bread does have a nice flavor to it, and the grainy quality is grainy in a good way. You get the creamy feel of the cheese, and a little of that salty and slightly acidic bite from the salami that comes out when you grill it and let the cured fats render out. Tis made a good sandwich, with a moderately good crunch, and a nice balance of flavors.

Basic Chicken Cacciatore

Chicken Cacciatore over brown rice with home-made wheat bread

The essence of comfort food is deceptive simplicity. Take a seemingly simple dish such as this one, and realize that there are literally thousands of minor variations on it that still capture the essence of what a Chicken Cacciatore is. The wonderful thing about most comfort foods is that, when done well, a slight twist to some detail can produce a great variant on the dish, but still retain all the things that make it a "comfort food".

For tonight's dinner, I went with a very straightforward Chicken Cacciatore - I do not claim that this is the essential version of the dish upon which all others are built, but it is the essential version in my own personal food experience. For me, that is chicken on the bone slowly braised in a tomato sauce with sweet peppers and onions. My version takes a few minor shortcuts to save time (I would love to do the tomato sauce completely from scratch- but the demands of the household mean that I usually need to use good quality  canned tomato puree augmented with some fresh tomatoes. I also did not have wine on hand, but actually like the results when I use a small amount of Balsamic Vinegar in it's place- a trick I commonly use when I actually have time to make sauce from scratch.)- so this recipe is tuned for the average home cook rather than the high-end gourmet. Depending on your preferences, it can be served over rice, over pasta, or on it's own.I recommend having a hunk of a good rustic bread on hand to help mop up the leftover sauce.

The base recipe is similar in concept to France's Coq au Vin. In many traditional versions, mushrooms are one of the stars of the show - however, the version I learned from my family never used them- and I've seen just as many versions of dish with mushrooms as there are without, so it is a matter of preference.

About 12 pieces of chicken (I prefer to use legs and thighs- 12 pieces is about as much as my largest saucepan can handle)
Black Pepper
2 Small Onions (or 1 large onion) - chopped or sliced into half-moons
4-5 Sweet Bell peppers (I prefer to use green ones for the color, but I end up going with whatever color pepper looks fresher at the market- this week the red peppers looked great, so I went with it) - clean and cut the peppers into strips about two inches long and 1/4 inch wide.
approx 2 Tomatoes (diced)
1 large can (28oz) of Tomatoes (pureed or crushed)
About 3tbsp olive oil
1 pinch chili flakes
about 2-3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2-3 cloves garlic (minced)
Herbs: (no exact measures, start with 1 tsp of each and adjust to taste)

Heat up a large saucepan with the olive oil (pan should be large enough to hold all the chicken and enough sauce to cover it). Season the chicken with a little salt and pepper. Brown the chicken until it has a nice brown sear - you do not need to cook the chicken through, just get good color on the surface, it will cook through when we braise it later. Do not crowd the pan or the chicken will not brown- split the chicken into two or three batches. Set chicken aside. The chicken will take a while to brown - use the time to chop/mince your onions, peppers, garlic and tomatoes. Make sure to leave any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan- this is flavor that will add nice depth to your sauce.

Saute the onions in the leftover oil and chicken fat until translucent- season with a little more slat and pepper. Add in the minced garlic, saute for about another minute, then add the bell pepper and the diced tomatoes, and continue to saute until the peppers soften and the tomatoes begin to break down.

Add in the can of tomato puree (or crushed tomato). Season again with salt and pepper to taste, and add the herbs and a small pinch of chili flakes. I do not measure the herbs exactly- I start with about a teaspoon of each and add more according to taste and smell. The tomatoes can vary in sweetness and ripeness, so I go with what my sense tell me to do. The sauce should have a distinct scent of basil when it's right, and the balance of parsley and oregano should be whatever your taste buds find most pleasing.  When it seems right to you, add in the balsamic vinegar- then taste and adjust seasoning again. When you're happy with the taste, add in a little extra water (about 1/4 cup) so you'll have enough liquid to cover the chicken and bring the whole thing up to a boil.

Add the chicken to the sauce, and turn them so they are covered. Reduce heat and simmer for at least an hour (longer is better! If I have the time, I'll let it go 2 hours or more!) I like to put the cover on the pan, but leave the cover offset so steam can escape so you keep the heat in, but still allow the sauce to reduce at a more controlled pace. Uncover for the last 15 minutes to let the sauce thicken up. Remember to stir the sauce periodically to help the chicken cook evenly, and to keep the peppers and onions from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Give the sauce a final taste and adjust seasoning one last time if needed.

Serve the chicken over rice or pasta. I like my chicken Cacciatore to have a lot of sauce, so have some good crusty bread on hand to mop it up! The chicken should be tender and practically falling off the bone. The sauce should have deep layers of flavor- the richness of the chicken and the garlic, sweetness from the pepper and onion, a little bright tang from the balsamic vinegar, and the floral flavor and scent of the herbs. This is a dish that is very rustic, yet refined when done right.

From this basic recipe, you can see how easily you can personalize it without sacrificing integrity- every Italian worth mentioning has their own personal preferences and ideas for making tomato sauce- you could use wine instead of the balsamic vinegar, add mushrooms, use a different blend of herbs, use more fresh tomato, make the sauce more or less chunky, etc. The possibilities are endless, and all are valid as long as you stick to the central concept of slow cooking your chicken in a hearty tomato based sauce.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Top Chef All-Stars

I've been an avid follower of Top Chef for some time now. The "All-Stars" edition of the show has brought together a lot of interesting personalities, very distinct culinary philosophies, and great guest judges.

The best part of this season is the return of Tony Bourdain as a regular judge- I'm an unrepentant fan of his Travel Channel show, his books, and his snarky commentary on everything.

Richard Blais is back, and he is probably my favorite to win, even though the competition is very tough this time around. That said- this week's quickfire was his to fail. The challenge was to make cookies, with the Cookie Monster and a few of his friends as judges. If you know Richard, there is no way he's going to make anything resembling a standard cookie- especially in a quickfire- since a loss means you don't get sent home- a chef like him is always going to push the envelope and do something a little out-there. Clearly they don't have cookies on the planet Richard is from. I'm sure his "not quite a cookie" was interesting, and clearly pushed the boundaries of what we think of as a cookie, but there's no way he's going to win out when the judges are probably looking for something more classic. He ends up in the bottom- I admire his creativity and vision, but he really wasn't going to win this one.

He did redeem himself in the elimination challenge- using only equipment and ingredients found in a Target, he made a not pretty, but good tasting dish, and ended up in the top. The win, however, went to Dale- who stuck to the basics and made something that I really like- a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup- grilled using a steam iron- which Tony Bourdain referred to as "great stoner food."

This is why I have a mild obsession with grilled cheese- it's a no-miss comfort food- even if it's done in college dorm-room style using an iron. I think that actually adds to the experience. Well done Dale. Score one for grilled cheese!

Of course, guest judge Ming Tsai couldn't resist cracking an "Iron Chef" pun. After his run on "The Next Iron Chef" I guess we should have expected it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Jucy Lucy - A Burger with the Cheese on the Inside.

The Jucy Lucy

This simple, yet tasty twist on the Cheeseburger is a local favorite in Minneapolis Minnesota- invented at either Matt's Bar, or the 5-8 Club depending who you ask. Being from the tri-state area, I never heard of the Jucy Lucy until recently while watching shows like Man vs Food that featured it. Since I'd have to drive about 20 hours to get the real thing, I just had to try making my own.

Since we're talking about a hamburger here- a simple american classic, you need to start with good ingredients- I recommend using 80/20 ground beef - (80% lean 20% fat) - because fat is flavor folks. Leaner ground beef is actually slightly more expensive, and is actually lower in quality and flavor. Besides, for the Juicy Lucy, you want plenty of rendered fat moving around and mixing with the cheese. For cheese, I wanted to keep it simple, and went with a decent quality cheddar. For the hamburger meat, you really don't need to do much to it- season with salt and pepper and mix it well. I like some onions with my burgers, so I added about 1/2 a minced onion. Beyond that, you could maybe add a dash of worcehestershire sauce if that's your thing. But really, if all you do is season your meat a little, you're ok- less is often more.

When I assemble my burgers, I like to work on a  counter top or cutting board lined with a piece of wax paper so I can easily clean up, and won't have to worry about meat sticking to everything.

The Jucy Lucy begins life as a pair of meatballs
To form a Jucy Lucy, start with two meatball sized wads of meat as shown above. If they fit nicely in the palm of your hand and you can close your fingers around the top without squishing it, it's about the right size, unless you have freakishly small or freakishly large hands. If you're unsure, just compare the meatballs to my knife in the photo above and make your best guess. This is not an exact science so you won't have to worry about the burger police coming to get you if your burger is a little too big or too small. Either way, after making a few, you'll get the feel for it.

Adding the Jucy Lucy's creamy center...
Take one of the balls an flatten it out. You'll want to make it a relatively thin patty- about half as thick as you want your burger. Again, the burger police aren't going to come and get you, but you should try to keep it thin. Put a nice hunk of cheese in the middle.

Making the top of the Jucy Lucy

Flatten out your second meatball to about the same size and shape as the first. This patty will go on top of the other- forming a nice thick burger with a cheesy surprise in the middle. Word of warning- when you put the top on the Jucy Lucy, make sure you work the edges of the burgers really well with your fingers when you meld them together- probably more than you think you need- ground beef seems to have this uncanny memory effect thing going on - when it hits the heat, sometimes the two pieces of beef, seemingly melded together will remember that they're supposed to be two different pieces of meat. When they start to cook, the two pieces will somehow reorganize and the seam will open up again- moral of the story, work the burger around until you can't find the seam... then work it some more- when this baby hits the heat, you don't want to have a run in with melted cheese flowing at volcanic temperatures... 

The Jucy Lucy is born- it looks like any other burger, but has a secret buried deep inside...
Once you've worked over and sealed up your burger as well as possible, you're ready to start cooking. I like the idea of using a flat-top grill pan for this, so I can get a nice sear on as much of the burger as possible. Make sure your flat top has time to heat up - you want the burgers to start sizzling the second they hit the grill.

By now the Cheesy Center is turning into something akin to Molten Lava.
You can cook the Jucy Lucy just like any other burger- keeping in mind that it is probably thicker than most burgers you're used to. You'll want to put the burger down, and not touch it until you have a nice brown sear. Then flip and leave it alone until that side is seared as well. Once you've got a good sear you can employ fancy tricks to make sure the burger cooks through- like dropping a metal bowl over the burger to act as a mini-oven- maybe even squirting a shot of water under the bowl to steam it a bit- whatever works for you.

Unless you have a heat-proof digestive system, you should probably let your Jucy Lucy rest for a few minutes before diving in. You've been warned, don't blame me if you get third degree cheese burns! You'll still want to eat it while it's hot though (just not volcano hot!)- the cheese and the melted fat will get to know each other and meld together into something gooey and, well just plain good. Just watching the cheese slowly run out of the open wound where you just took a bite is entertaining in itself.  It's a gooey, beefy sensory experience.

Add a few basic sides, and Jucy Lucy becomes a good meal you can probably talk the kids into eating.
I served up my Jucy Lucy on a soft bun, and no toppings except for a little ketchup. Add some  fresh oven-baked potato wedges seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic, and a fresh green salad (lettuce, snow peas, carrot slivers, tomato, and some leftover minced onion) with your favorite dressing (Balsamic Vinegar and Olive Oil for me), and you have a complete meal.

Lessons learned- I probably could have flattened  my burger halves more- my burgers came out a little on the thick side (but were still delicious). I probably also should have used two slabs of cheese per burger- they were cheesy, but could've gone to the next level. As I mentioned before- you really need to make sure you seal your edges very well. My first two had no visible seam, but still pulled open on the grill (but not so bad that I had a burger meltdown)- so keep working the edges beyond what you think is enough.

So the idea of a stuffed burger opens up worlds of possibilities- different cheeses, things like grilled onions and garlic, and, of course, bacon. Explore at will, but keep in mind to respect your ingredients, and not go too crazy changing too many things at once- the original is a classic for a reason- it's good, very good. Respect that as you experiment and you'll have a lot of great burgers as your reward!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Rotini With Sausage and Broccoli

An easy, but satisfying pasta dish that anyone can make.

Rotini Pasta with Sausage and Broccoli
Rotini with Sausage and Broccoli
The essence of any pasta dish is it's simplicity, and the quality of the ingredients. Often the less you do with it the better. This dish is based on three main elements, each prepared simply. When combined correctly, they make something more than the sum of their parts.

Rotini with Sausage and Broccoli


1 lb Dried Rotini Pasta

1/2 lb Broccoli (frozen or fresh - fresh is better, frozen will still work)

4 (approx) links of Sweet Italian Sausage

2-3 Tbsps Extra Virgin Olive Oil

2 Tbsp Salt

Black Pepper (to taste)

1 clove garlic (minced)

1Tbsp Dried Parsley Flakes (optional)

1 Pinch Red Pepper Flakes (optional)

Grated Parmesan Cheese

Timing is everything with Pasta so you'll want to prep your broccoli and remove your sausages from the casing first, then start a large pot of water boiling for the pasta, then start making the actual sausage and broccoli condiment- your water should get to a boil around when you've finished the bulk of your work.

Step 1- Prepare your Broccoli and Sausage for cooking - If you are using fresh broccoli you'll need to cut it into bite-sized pieces, and blanch them in boiling water for about 1 minute and set aside. If you are using frozen broccoli, it is probably already in small of enough pieces, you'll just want to defrost it in the microwave before you begin. For the Sausage- remove the sausage from the casing and break it up into small pieces.

Step 2- In a large pot bring at least 2 quarts of water to a boil (you do not have to measure the water exactly, just take a pot big enough to handle the pasta and fill it about 3/4) You'll want to add at least a tablespoon of salt to the water (conventional wisdom says it should taste like seawater- I usually opt for less). While waiting for the water to boil, you can continue on with the recepie.

Step 3- Take a large saucepan (non-stick) over medium-high heat- coat the bottom with olive oil (about 1 tbsp) When hot (you should see the oil shimmer slightly) add the Sausage. Let the sausage brown on all sides. Remove sausage from pan and set aside on a paper towel to drain. Pour off any excess oil/
grease left in the pan but leave any of the brown goodies you find on the bottom.

Step 4 - Put about a tablespoon of fresh olive oil in the pan (enough to coat the bottom) and bring up to medium heat. Toss the broccoli in the oil, add salt and black pepper to taste and saute until it softens and begins to brown- add in the garlic, and add remaining oil if the broccoli looks dry (it should have a light coating of oil). Continue to saute about another minute.

Step 5 - Add the Sausage back into the pan with the broccoli, and the parsley and red pepper (if desired both are optional). Toss everything together until mixed and everything is lightly coated in oil. Leave everything in the pan over low heat (stirring occasionally) until the pasta is ready.

Step 6 - By now, the pasta water should be boiling- drop in your pasta and cook until al dente (cooked through but still firm in the middle) - the timings listed on the box for most premium brands of pasta are usually accurate, less expensive brands tend to give timings that leave the pasta overcooked - so use your judgment and taste a piece of pasta before what the box recommends just in case! We will cook the pasta a little more with the sausage and broccoli mixture, so it's OK if the pasta is a touch undercooked. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the pasta water then drain the pasta.

Step 7 - Check your Sausage and Broccoli mixture if it looks dry add in a little of the pasta water, about 1 teaspoon at a time until everything looks moist again and has a little liquid at the bottom of the pan. Put the dranied pasta in the pan with the Sausage and Broccoli and toss it together for about 1-2 minutes.

Serve Immediately! Top with grated cheese and/or parsley as desired.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Quest for the Perfect Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Something so simple- cheese, bread, butter, maybe a slice of meat or tomato- yet the combination is magical. Grilled cheese is one of the most basic piece of american food culture, yet universally recognized as a great comfort food. It's simplicity opens up worlds of possibilities for variations, and ideas to elevate it beyond the basic "sliced white bread from a bag, plastic wrapped cheese, etc" (and even in it's most basic and crude forms, it is still sublime and comforting in it's own special way. I am on a mission to explore the possibilities, and see if there is such a thing as a perfect grilled cheese...

Home-made bread made with a little rosemary and sage
White American Cheese
Mild Provolone
Unsalted Butter

The home-made bread, I feel, elevates this sandwich- the denser texture and the great crunch it deveops when grilled makes each bite a real sensory experience- wonderful mouth feel.

The bread is a basic french bread recipe with a few dried herbs added, made in a bread machine so it makes nice oversized slices. I butter the slices on one side, then lay them butter side down onto a flat-top grill pan over medium heat. As the bread starts to grill, I layer on my cheese- a slice of provolone on each side, then a slice of white american. Don't move or fuss with the bread- watch the top slice of cheese- when it melts and begins to lose form, the bread should have a perfect crunchy golden-brown color. Take peek underneath- if the color looks good, you're done, assemble the sandwich and enjoy. If not, it should be very close to done by the time cheese melts, and you shouldn't need more than an extra minute depending on how hot your flat-top is and/or the moisture content of your bread.

As you bite down, you'll feel that great crunchy texture first, then the softer (but still slightly firm) inner crumb of the bread, followed by the creaminess of the cheese. Store-bought "bagged" bread just doesn't hold up- it will get good color, but the layer of crunch is thin- the inner portion of bagged bread usually is too soft to stand up well to the grilling and the butter and usually ends up mushy. The cheese is always just right though- and is even better if you purchase quality cheeses and/or use an interesting combination of cheeses. Just upscaling the bread alone brings out worlds of texture in this simple, classic comfort food.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

8 Steps to a satisfying meal

One - Standing Rib Roast

Two - Salt, Pepper, Herbs, Olive Oil

Three - Seasoned and Trussed

Four - Slow Roasted

Five - Carved

Six - Plated

Seven - Served

Eight - Ate

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Grilled Chicken Breast with Lemon Garlic Herb Butter

Simple and tasty - season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper then grill. Saute minced garlic, rosemary, and parsley in butter with a dash of lemon juice. Drizzle the garlic butter over the breasts as soon as they come off the grill - the butter carries the flavors of the garlic and herbs into the meat, and helps it stay nice and moist. It's simple quick, and flavorful.

The butter sauce means that the chicken will retain it's moisture- so the leftovers reheat well, and make a great lunch the next day.