Saturday, November 27, 2010

HoHo Hello Holidays!

Okay, blah blah blah, the turkey's been cooked, eaten, and it's leftovers have been made into various forms of sandwiches, soups and casseroles. Now, it's time for holiday baking. The first holiday party of the season is coming up in a couple weeks and I am definitely making a recipe for red velvet cake balls I found on Bakerella.

I think I'll make them into lollipops so no one has to deal with chocolate fingers at the party and I might add a little something, like a chocolate center or or a dusting of crushed peppermints over the chocolate to make them just scream "merriment!"

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Some Stuffed 'Shroom Starters

I love parties. I really really love catered parties. I really really really love catered parties with passed hors d’oeuvres. My hands-down favorite bite-sized starter is the stuffed mushroom. I literally can’t get enough of them. At special events, it’s so hard to maintain a prim and proper appearance when my fingers are twitching, my mouth is watering and my eyes are darting around the room in search of the mushroom girl, zoning in on the door the servers are popping out of, their fully stocked serving platters balanced easily on their upturned palms.
So, when I finally catch one emerge, I “run to the bathroom” or “go over to talk to blah blah blah” then ambush the server, attempting to distract him or her with my wit as I rob them of their cheese-filled earthen delights. And, as so often happens when one is fueled with free white wine, my attempt at charm fails to shine through, the server stares at me blank-faced and everyone at the party sees me popping more than my fair share of appetizers into my beak thus igniting a blush on my cheeks that mimics the hue of a third degree sunburn.

But last night, I set myself up with the sweet luxury of open indulgence. I had a bunch of leftover mushrooms and a big ol’ hunk of gorgonzola, so I decided to make myself and my roommate a nice little appetizer. 

First, I cleaned the mushrooms and removed their stems and set the oven to 350 degrees. Then, I threw some butter in a pan and tossed the mushroom tops in for a couple minutes. After they were all evenly coated, put them hole-up on a cookie sheet.

To make the stuffing, I diced some onion and garlic up finely and chopped the stems of the mushroom. After heating up a little bit of oil, I added the onions and let them sweat down until they were translucent. Next I added the mushroom stems, let them soak up some of the oil and added the garlic. I cooked this for a minute or so, then crumbled in the gorgonzola. I turned off the heat but kept the pan on the burner to melt the cheese as I sprinkled in breadcrumbs and drizzled in some hot sauce. When the ingredients were all incorporated, I put a small spoonful in each mushroom and sprinkled with parmesan. They went in the oven for 30 minutes and came out so tasty!

Next time I’ll sprinkle the tops with breadcrumbs because, while the crunch was nice, the saltiness of the parmesan was a little overpowering. But the best part? Mike doesn't love mushrooms, so I got to enjoy a little more than my share :) Mmm!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Boston's Best Burger?

Every year, Bostonians anxiously await Boston Magazine's "Best of Boston" nominations for the best of everything in the area. We trust the magazine's opinions as though they are the truth handed down directly from the heavens, decrees of superiority determined in benevolence by the gods of judgement. I think we're all playing the part of the small fool because, in reality, the "Best of Boston" hoopla is most likely a revenue generating stunt for the mag, albeit a genius one, that produces superlatives based 30% on taste/quality and 70% on advertising dollars. It's a clever little trick, making it seem like they're cluing us in on a townie secret... Like, surprise, the best steakhouse is Grill 23! The best bakery is Flour! The best Italian is Strega! Okay, okay I'm being a cynic... and (yipes!) a hypocrite because, this year, I totally fell for their "best burger" choice...

After a friend kept insisting that the nod to Sel de la Terre's burger was so so so true, claiming she experienced a taste of mouth watering beefiness from her boyfriend's burger even though he surprisingly ordered his well done, a request that caused her a great deal of panic and anxiety and left her thinking "... is he really the one? Can I be with a man that orders beef and asks for all the juicy fatty goodness to be cooked out?" That is, until she asked for a bite. Even after this burger had been left on the griddle well past the pink medium center she prefers, she said the meat just melted the minute it hit her tongue and, full-mouthed, she stood right up and stepped up on her chair, waving the burger in her hand, and declared "Waiters, waitresses, servers that only bring over the wine, cooks, dishwashers, hostesses, fellow diners, this is the best burger I have ever had!"

Well, slight exaggeration there, but she did like it enough to convince six of her girlfriends to all order the burger on our recent trip to Sel de la Terre. So seven burgers were brought to seven girls accompanied by rosemary fries, each a little different - some without pancetta, some medium, some medium rare, but all absolutely delectable. I don't think I partook in any conversation until my burger was completely gone. It tasted like a sirloin burger met a filet au poivre and they had this wonderful little cheese-covered, bun-encased love child. I could probably have eaten the burger with nothing but a knife and fork and been just as happy.

And so, hats off to you, oh worthy editors and advertising sales persons of Boston Magazine. Good call on your "Best Burger" nomination for Sel de la Terre. I humbly applaud you.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

LeFtOvEr MaNiA!

When you open your refrigerator door and find it bloated with stores of Tupperware, to-go containers, tinfoil-wrapped mystery items and enough veggies to feed a small, weak vegan army, it’s time to get creative. Although I have to confess that sometimes I indulge in a little excess-food purge because it feels so good to act uber American just not need things, I am trying to force myself to live by my grammy’s wise words, “waste not want not.” And so, last night was a leftover mania at my apartment.

I remember when I first really started cooking back in college,  I’d try to make use of the food I had in-house but my concoctions would always be semi-edible disasters like provolone-lettuce-and-mustard roll ups or pasta tossed with olive oil and chopped up pepperoni. My culinary instincts can’t be all to blame, my fridge was pretty lame and most everything was white and either dairy or starch... or beer. And so, my attempts at frugality would end up with me tossing my creation in the trash and sheepishly ordering delivery from Pita Pit (then calling my parents to whine and ask for more spending money).

I’ve come a long way since those days. Long gone are the ill-fitting ripped jeans, horrid highlights and hangovers nursed with yellow Gatorade until the figurative pre-gaming bell rung. No no, now I’m sophisticated, mature, I wear aprons. And now even just a few glasses of wine manage to turn the next morning into a pulsing fog. Plus, my fridge is better stocked and my leftover creations have seen serious improvement.

For example, last night, after surveying our shelves, I put together a dinner of soup, pizza and calzone. Not too shabby if I do say so myself.

First I used my leftover stock, meat and pasta from my Soup Challenge First Test Batch to make some chicken soup. It’s not very complicated - just cook down onions, carrots and celery until the onions are translucent, then add stock and some water, chicken, a good amount of coarse salt (the key to good soup) and pepper. I added in a few dashes of basil and oregano too. Then, I brought it a boil for a few minutes and turned it down to simmer, adding the cooked pasta. I let it simmer on the stovetop for a while to keep warm and let the flavors really settle in. We topped it off with a little fresh parmesan for a nice start to our catch-as-catch-can meal.

Then, I had frozen some leftover dough from the last homemade pizza night so I let two doughs thaw and planned out pizza pour moi and calzone pour homme. I love making homemade pizza and calzones - the trick is to use a pizza stone. They aren't expensive, I've probably already used mine fifty times and they give you that crispy crust that you just won't get using a baking sheet or pizza pan.

First, the pizza. I made use of a few onions that were sitting around by caramelizing them. Again, pretty simple – just melt butter into some olive oil (about a tablespoon per onion) and then let the onions cook on low for about an hour. Sprinkle with salt ten minutes in, but other than that, just keep stirring and they’ll do the work themselves. I sautéed a few mushrooms in some butter and white wine and drizzled the rolled-out dough with balsamic glace, then topped it with the onions, mushrooms, some leftover chicken from my dinner out with  my parents the night before, and chunks of gorgonzola cheese. Popped it in the oven for 15 minutes and finished it off with a few more drizzle of the glace.

Next was Mike’s calzone. He's a buffalo chicken calzone nut, so I heated some chicken fingers up, then tossed them with Frank’s, laid them on the dough and layered blue cheese and mozzarella on top. I folded up the calzone, sealed it with water and coated it with olive oil and popped it into the oven. I’m pretty sure that the calzone was a success because he “forgot” to give me a bite of the end piece with some blue cheese like I asked… ;)!

Tonight is another make-use-of-stuff-we-already-have night so I'll be making baked rigatoni with sausage and fennel. Mmmm!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tall, Grande, Venti, TRENTA!

As a native New Englander, my caffeinated loyalty most certainly lies with the pink and orange, but, like a butt-guy whose wandering eyes venture up north when the view is just too good, I do enjoy a Starbucks bevvie once in a while. There's different ambiance in a Starbucks, one that makes you wish you didn't conform to cultural norms in the ironically uniform way that all the other societal rebels do, with black-rimmed glasses, vintage t's, skinny jeans and a iPhone from mom and dad. Well, either that or a big-sunglassed, big-pursed celebrity in full makeup who's running into the 'bucks for a venti carmel macchiato for herself and a venti non-fat, no-whip mocha for some unnamed character who is inevitably less famous or not famous at all and probably on her payroll, sitting in the parking lot calling the paparazzi with the big news that today in Hollywood, a reality TV persona is not going to suffer from a headache due to the lack of espresso. But hey, a girl's gotta get on the glossy Stars are Just Like US pages somehow.

Or a sextuplet?

Or a former presidential hopeful?

Okay, so whatever mold I feel the pull to fit when I go to Starbucks, I want to do it with a whole 'lotta fancy schmancy coffee drink in my hand. Now, we know Starbucks wouldn't be so lame as to name their sizes in English, oh, well, except the tall (which conveniently rimes with small, a little cheat I used when I was first starting out at S'bucks), they've got to go exotic with grande and venti. And, you can't just order latte with skim milk, you've got to follow the form. It goes as follows:
(iced) (size) (milk preference) (no whip) (number of pumps of syrup) (drink choice) 

There's probably more to it than that, but that's the gist of their counter-intuitive ordering system. For example, I order like so, "May I please have an iced venti non-fat no-whip three-pump mocha?" Which is much more complicated, although about the same length, as my Dunk's order, "May I please have a medium iced Dunkin' dark with skim milk and sugar?"

But, today at Starbucks, I was let in on a little secret. No, no, a huge secret. I stopped in before work to grab just an iced coffee, just like the man at the register next to me. I heard him order his drink the same way and I was sort of dreading the moment the first coffee was ready, like that awkward, "oh you take it," "oh no no you take it" exchange when you both really just want to slap the other one in the face as a distraction and then take the coffee and run. But, instead, both coffees were conveniently ready at the same time and, believe you me, there was no confusion about whose was whose. My venti was elfin next to his! Stunned, I turned to him and said "What is that?" And, with his simple response, he changed every Starbucks experience for me from here on out. He said "It's a trenta. A secret size. And, you're welcome." Still a bit in shock, I gave a meek thank you to his demanded gratitude and scurried away to my office, where I ran right to my friend's cube and exploded with the good news. Starbucks is now giving its people more, more, more!

Well, "give" probably isn't the best word to use. Maybe like, "Starbucks is now charging its people an disproportional amount for more, more, more!" Regardless, I'm thrilled. You can consider my order changed officially to "May I please have an iced trenta non-fat no-whip three-pump mocha?" Sweet java joy!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Soup Challenge: First Test Batch

Finally! After two days (four hours and 40 minutes of active prep/cook time), last night at approximately 9:30 pm I got to sit down to bowl of homemade chicken basil pomodoro soup. Now, this soup would normally make a quick meal but since I roasted the chicken and made my own stock I added hours to the process.

The background complexity involved in cooking is really amazing. Those unassuming little ditalini circles, basil flakes and chicken chunks floating in warm tomato soup are loaded with hours and hours of labor and thought. Yet, the flavors are absorbed with just a quick slurp and a swallow. That first spoonful runs through our mouth, adding a red flush to our cheeks and descending quickly to our bellies, spreading its warmth all the way to the tips of our fingers, right back to handle of the spoon it just left. And, during that second of detainment on our tongue, we soak up first the sweetness of the tomato, fresh basil and oregano then we're hit with the soup's murmur of acidity and slight saltiness before we get a subtle kick from that splash of hot sauce. Making this soup from scratch myself definitely made me slow my roll when it came time to enjoy it.

Overall, I'm happy with the way it came out, but I do have to make a few tweaks. Using roasted chicken and a homemade stock is a definitely must. The stock gave it a hearty freshness and the chicken chunks were moist and flavorful, but I loaded it up a bit too much on meat. This is good though, it means that my roast chicken can be stretched to be more than one meal (my mom is going to say "duhhhhhhh!" to that). I think I'll put just a cup of chicken in my next batch, instead of two whole breasts, much to the chagrin of my taste-tester, who loves a stew-like soup. I also went a little heavy on the pasta, so I'll limit that to one cup as well. The liquid-to-solid ratio in my soup was way out of whack.

And, while the hot sauce was a last resort because I by accident threw out my cracked red pepper in my Sunday night cleanup mania, I think it actually worked better. The heat of the sauce was more wholly incorporated into the soup than the red pepper flakes would have been. And, I'm going to pretty much double the fresh basil next time around. I use just a bit more basil than oregano and I don't think it stood out enough. But fresh basil, instead of dried, is absolutely the way to go.

So, tonight is the leftovers test and we'll see how well it holds up after being refrigerated and reheated. Now, I just hope Mike really did like the soup because there's going to a lot of chicken basil pomodoro in his immediate future. I'm going to have to go ahead and make another batch with my small tweaks next week! Once it's just the way I want it to be, I'll definitely share the recipe.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Soup Challenge: Step 1

Today officially marks my journey into soupville and I am not treading lightly. The first thing I needed to do was narrow down the variety of New England Country Soup I'm going to challenge. And, after much thought and deliberation, various polls and a good old fashioned eeny-meeny-miny-moe, I've decided on the chicken pomodoro. It's a light tomato soup with basil, rotini and chunks of chicken.

Side note: I love love love the New England Country Soup packaging. Instead of imprisoning their soups in a tin can, forcing us to struggle with saran wrap if we're microwaving, their soups are in easy pouches that take just a couple minutes to 'nuke and then let you cleanly pour the soup right into a bowl, preventing the scorching microwaved-bowl burn.

Ok, so back to the chicken pomodoro. In doing a little research I found that this is a traditional Italian soup, typically made with tomatoes and basil and served over chunks of bread. Now, while that sounds delish, I see why the pre-made soup doesn't have bread... I can't imagine it holds its integrity for very long and these pre-made soups have to last. No worries though, we can skip the bread and still get a tasty soup. I've put together my test recipe, keeping myself under 17 ingredients per contest rules.

One ingredient I'm definitely using is chicken stock and, since this contest is judged not just on flavor but also on nutrition, I'm going to go ahead and make my own. The best way to monitor the salt/fat content in your food is to make it yourself. So, right now I've got a little chicken roasting in the oven, filling our apartment with a hearty aroma of sage, rosemary and thyme.  Unfortunately, I can't follow the Julia Child method, which gives you an incredibly juicy bird but requires butter, butter, and more butter! I can, however, follow her technique - cooking the bird on each side and then breast-up for a totally even roast. I didn't skip the butter all together though - I did spread it on the chicken skin before I sprinkled it with S&P :).

After the chicken is done, I'm going to pop it in the fridge and make the stock tomorrow. Tonight, I've got a date with a hunk and some major pasta eating to do! It's pasta Monday at Cafe Portobello down the street. $9.95 for soup, salad and your choice of a pasta entree! So, to be continued...

Buttercup Bliss

This gorgeous piece of machinery is going to be mine in t-minus 9 days! 
Thanks to my wonderful roommate :)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

So You Think You Can Soup?

I just got wind of a souper challenge and I'm so excited.

Sorry for the cheese in that last sentence, but substituting "souper" for "super" when we're talkin' about that soul-warming mix of veggies, meat and broth is one of my favorite things to do. Literally! Like, if someone ran up to me in the street and demanded of me, "Molly! Name your top five favorite things to do NOW!" I'd spit out this list:

1.) Drink iced coffee
2.) Eat food
3.) Write
4.) Say "souper" instead of "super"
5.) Spend time with people I love

So am I forgiven for that hokey opener?

Yes? Okay, thank you, gracious reader.

Back to the issue at hand, the New England Country Soup Ours vs Yours Home Soup Challenge. This adorable soup company has challenged those that claim home-made to be the best-made to step up to the soup bowl. From now until January 1st, you can submit your recipe challenging any of their signature flavors, including:

New England Clam Chowder
Chicken Corn Chowder
Chicken Pomodoro
Yankee White Bean
Nana's Chicken Soup
Caribbean Black Bean
Sweet Chicken Curry

Basically, your soup needs to match up to the ingredient requirements, the number of ingredients allowed and follow the limitations (in the official rules). The prize? A summer-kickoff weekend away for two on quaint Martha's Vineyard in late May. Not too shabby!

I'm pretty pumped. Please note, I'm not saying confident. Not for a minute did I think "I've got this one in the bank." For one thing, these New England Country soups are good! And the other... the final judging will take into account how healthy the soup is and, I have to admit, I don't always cook with low-fat/low-cal in mind. But, I am trying to wean my newbie-cook self off the dependence on salt, butter and oil so this will be a good exercise. It's really hard though because things that are fatty and salty taste really good.

And, even though I've got a couple soup recipes in my arsenal, none of them match up exactly with the varieties we're allowed to challenge. So, it's prompting me to throw on the apron and dive ladle-first into a souper adventure in the kitchen.

Bring on the broth, I'm ready to start simmering!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Perfectly Poached Eggs

Yesterday, I got up and started to prep for my typical Sunday breakfast - homefries, fried eggs and some kind of breakfast meat. I always make my potatoes the same way - cut into chunks, boiled to soften them up a bit, cooled down with cold water and a short stay in the freezer, and then cooked stove-top with butter, oil, onions and packet of Sazón Goya (a magical little mix of spices that give the taters just enough color and flavor).

But, when I reached into the box to grab the little spice packet, all I found was a whole lotta nothing! So, I decided to mix it up a bit. Instead of cooking my potatoes on the stove, I sautéed the onions quickly in some butter, then added the butter and onions to the potatoes and tossed in some paprika, garlic powder and salt and cooked them in the oven at 375 degrees until they were nice and tender (about 50 minutes). Then, to finish them off, I quickly threw them into a pan with some olive oil because they got a bit dry in the oven. They turned out pretty good but, by accident, I went a little heavy on the paprika (not my fault, the top is broken because I dropped the jar when I was unpacking... well I guess that means it technically is my fault). So, I decided to counter the over-seasoning with a nice light poached egg.

In the past, I have sort of winged my egg poaching. I knew the basics - get the water to be just-about to boil and drop the egg in with a bowl or a ladle, then cook for 2-3 minutes and scoop it out with a slotted spoon. But, I have do admit I have struggled, always thinking maybe I was leaving the eggs in for too long or that restaurants cheat with fancy-schmancy poaching machines. Instead of trying my luck, I went ahead and did my research.

To perfectly poach an egg, I found a few guidelines that really helped and I never would have figured out if I just kept at it on my own... thank god for the internet!

Here are the keys to perfect poaching:
- Use about 3 inches of water (Previously I had just filled up a pot)
- Add 1 tbsp of vinegar to the water (enables coagulation)
- Heat the water to 180 degrees (this is, probably, the most important part. Its fairly hard to determine just what it means to heat water to just under a boil. I used my beloved meat thermometer to test the temp, waiting until it hit exactly 180)

As always, you want to crack the egg into a bowl first, ease it into the water, and remove it with a slotted spoon. Then place it on a paper towel and gently wipe off the excess egg whites and water.

I cooked my eggies for just over 2 minutes and they were adorable little white puffs. I put them over a bed of the potatoes, sprinkled a bit of S&P and, as I suspected, the runny egg yolk and soft egg whites countered the over-seasoned tots perfectly!