November 30, 2007

Alone in the Kitchen

Earlier this year, I read Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. It's a collection of essays about cooking & eating alone, the things people only cook for themselves. So, it made me think about the things I make when I'm alone.

My solo cooking is often repetitive...I'll find something I really like, then cook it again and again...for months at a time. After a while I'll stop cooking it all together. Like potatoes and eggs. For such a long time, I ate that almost everyday for either breakfast or lunch. It was nearly ritualistic. I'd pour frozen hash browns (the chunky kind, not the shredded kind) into a dry, non-stick pan and cook them until they thawed. Then, I'd drizzle them with olive oil. When they were brown and crunchy, I'd sprinkle them with Emeril's seasoning & dump them onto a plate. That got topped with a couple of eggs, over-easy. I mixed it all together before eating it.

Of course, that was before I did South Beach for about a year. Now, potatoes & eggs are a rare treat.

Another dish I'd make a lot was pasta with peas: frozen peas sauteed in butter with herbs de provence, then poured over spiral noodles & topped with parm.

I've also gone through a toasted pumpernickel & cheese phase, a buttered noodles phase, a white rice with soy sauce phase, a saltines with mustard and cheese slices phase, a ramen noodles phase (I'd boil water with the seasoning packet, crush up the noodles, then add them to the broth, turn of the heat, & let sit for 5 minutes), a hard-boiled egg phase (with the yolks slightly undercooked), and this summer a fried eggplant phase.

My favorite solo meal, though, is a soup-for-one that I call Bean & Greens: In a medium saucepan, saute a small onion (chopped) in some olive oil with a bit of fresh garlic, then add a can of reduced-sodium chicken broth, a can of cannellini beans, (I also sometimes add a handful of whole-wheat macaroni when the broth boils), and either a handful of spinach or a small chopped zucchini. The soup gets topped with grated parm. It's quick & makes just enough for one big hearty bowl.

Sticky Toffee Pudding, Two Tries

A few weeks ago, I went to another Novel Cuisine class at Kitchen Conservatory; this one was for Tom Schlafly's book A New Religion in Mecca: Memoir of a Renegade Brewery in St. Louis. The author himself was there, and Anne made foods inspired by the menu at the Tap Room, Schlafly's brew pub. I was there mainly to see how their signature dessert, sticky toffee pudding, is made.

When you get the dessert at the restaurant, it's dark, thick, and moist. K.C.'s version was light and cakey. Apparently, the key is to chop the dates (Dates! Who knew!) in a food's what, I guessed, gave the pudding its dense, rich texture.

At home last weekend, I followed the Tap Room's recipe for the cake exactly. Still, what came out of my oven was more like a cake than a "pudding". I topped it with K.C.'s caramel sauce recipe: 1 cup water & 1/4 cup sugar, melted until golden then whisked with 1 cup of warm cream.

This first attempt at caramel was not spectacular. For some reason, it was lumpy. Either the cream curdled or the sugar crystalized. Either way, I was really disappointed. It tasted fairly good, but it wasn't at all the same at the Tap Room's.

I had a good amount of cake left, so I took it to the winery for Ron's birthday on Wednesday. This time, I followed the Tap Room's recipe for caramel: 1 pound of dark brown sugar melted with 1 pound of butter, then whisked with 1 teaspoon of vanilla and 1 cup of cream.

Oh. My. God. This was it! The caramel was thick, creamy, & smooth. At the winery, we heated each piece of cake, then cut an X in the top to help the warm caramel soak in. We were very generous with the sauce. Once properly soaked, the cake becomes dark and moist...exactly like that at the Tap Room.

I was so happy...and so was everyone else. Which, let's be honest, is really all that matters when you are feeding your friends.

An Oysters & Champagne Kind of Thanksgiving

About the only thing that really makes me giddy around the holidays is drinking champagne. I love it. I simply cannot be depressed with a glass of bubbly in my hand...the slighly sweet nectar that tickles my nose, sipped from a delicately long-stemmed flute. Pure joy.

So, in an act of indulgence, I bought oysters and champagne for lunch on Thanksgiving. My friend shucked a couple dozen, which we ate with a mignonette sauce I made...champagne vinegar with finely chopped shallots, lemon zest, salt & pepper. It was absolutely delicious. We even mixed the leftover sauce with olive oil to use as the salad dressing.

Then, with our turkey dinner, I made a baked oysters in lieu of the planned oyster dressing...a rich butter-and-cream laden casserole that is perfect for a holiday meal. This turned out to be everyone's favorite.

Scalloped Oysters
(adapted from Paula Deen's recipe)

1 pint of shucked oysters in their liquor
2 cups coarsely crushed crackers *
1 cup dried bread crumbs, Italian style
3/4 cup melted butter
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh lemon thyme
salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together crackers, bread crumbs, and melted butter. Place half of the crumb mixture in the bottom of a buttered 9x9 casserole (or similar size).

Cover it with the oysters & their liquor, arranging the oysters in a single layer.

Season the cream with nutmeg, salt, pepper. Pour it over the oysters.

Mix the remaining crumbs with the fresh parsely & lemon thyme. Sprinkle on top of the oysters.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until lightly browned.

* Paula Deen uses saltine crackers. I used all of my random last-of-the-box crackers, a combination of butter, wheat, sesame, & water. Any crackers would work, I'm guessing.

November 12, 2007

Make that FIVE new recipes

I've been hoping that the weather will finally cool and it will feel like winter. I am ready for heavy sweaters, boots, warming fires, and belly-filling comfort foods like soups and stews and casseroles and pastas.

No such luck. Although it was gray and rainy today, it was still 70 degrees again. In mid-November. This just isn't right.

Winter was well underway at this time last year. In fact, during the first week of December there was a major ice storm that cut out power for a while. Then again, it did dip down into the 30s a couple weeks ago and is supposed to get that cold again later this week. So, who might actually be chilly enough in December to warrant getting my coats out.

Who says global warming doesn't exist?

Despite the unseasonably warm weather, I made soup anyway for dinner it wishful thinking...another batch of creamy potato & leek soup, this one with an addition of chicken broth, garlic, fresh rosemary, & fresh oregano.

And to go with it, some of Tyler's Ultimate caramelized onion toast...crunchy French bread topped with onions, anchovies, olives, oregano, thyme, olive oil, & shaved aged gouda. Really, really good...especially with a big glass of spicy red zin.

November 11, 2007

Playing Catch-Up: Four New Recipes in One Week

One of my favorite ways to waste time is to browse through cookbooks at Borders. I drink a pot of Earl Grey and fondle the newest culinary releases. Most recently, I took a gander at Nigella's new book, Nigella Express...which I see as a sexy, British version of Rachel Ray's 30 Minute Meals. What I like about Nigella, as opposed to that mousey Rachel Ray, is her extravagance, even with her everyday "fast" food. For instance, she includes a recipe for "Christmas in a glass"...champagne with a splash of gingerbread syrup. I not only want to drink A LOT of that during the holidays; I want to bathe in it.

I made one of her recipes, Mustard Pork Chops, for dinner on Wednesday: Brown a couple of chops in a pan with olive oil (I used bone-in chops), remove them from the pan, deglaze with some hard cider, add coarse mustard & cream, put the chops back in for a few minutes, eat with your fingers.

I've also been reading Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries, which is part cookbook, part diary, and part food porn. So many of his recipes have caught my eye...chicken patties with rosemary & pancetta, lentils with sausage & salami, baked onions with parmesan & cream, and many others. He cooks a lot of seasonal foods & local foods, so during the winter months there are lots of recipes for soups, stews, curries, and roasted squashes. On Thursday, I took a cue from Slater and roasted a small pumpkin. I ate the soft chunks of squash along side a wilted spinach salad with bacon, onions, pine nuts, & feta (a recipe I adapted from Tyler's Ultimate cookbook).

Last night, I made Slater's lemon pepper chicken wings, which are coated with fresh lemon juice, olive oil, loads of cracked black pepper, & sea salt before roasted until crispy. Talk about clearing up your sinuses. Wow.

November 1, 2007

My After Hiatus Return

Yeah, I'm still around. Just been busy with work is all. Not enough time to do any real cooking, let alone blogging. *sigh*

Anyway, my cooking project has been halted somewhat. I only have a few nights a week to cook and I am usually too darn tired to whip up some new recipe. So, I've been eating a lot of stove-top mac-n-cheese...always homemade now...last time with a bit of butter, cream, and Italian blend cheese. I'll never go back to that blue-boxed stuff.

I did do some baking for my birthday. I had been thinking about the s'mores cupcakes I saw on Cupcake Bakeshop for a while, wondering how to vary that idea....chocolate cupcakes with marshmallow frosting & graham cracker crumbs, or a graham cracker cupcake with chocolate filling and marshmallow frosting, or vice-versa....

I decided to experiment. I made the graham cupcakes from Bakeshop's recipe (minus the cracker crumb bottom), topped each cake with milk chocolate ganache, then a dallop of marshmallow fluff and some graham cracker crumb sprinkles.

Sounds good, right?

Sadly, they weren't even all that edible. The cakes were dense, with no real graham flavor. The ganache was too runny, and the fluff eventually spread instead of staying in a nice little dallop on top. They were messy, much like real s'mores, but weren't at all tasty.

So, I gave them to the students in one of my classes.

Then, I decided to bake myself a birthday cake. I wanted something yummy and pretty. I considered a flourless chocolate hazelnut cake (I wanted Nigel Slater's recipe, but couldn't find it anywhere), a multi-layered coconut cake, a maple cake I saw on I went with the maple cake. All together, there's like four cups of maple syrup in this recipe...the good this wasn't necessarily an inexpensive cake to make. Nevertheless, it was pretty good. The cake was moist and flavorful, and the icing was rich and sweet. I didn't like Martha's maple buttercream recipe; I didn't feel like cooking syrup to the soft-boil stage. So, I found another recipe online...a simple mixture of butter, syrup, and powdered sugar. So sweet. Almost too sweet. However, the sweetness mellowed and the cake was delicious with coffee the next day. My best friend, Sarah, helped me decorate the cake (really, she did all the decorating) and it was even a pretty cake...with whole walnut halves around the outer-edge and chopped walnuts sprinkled in the center. YUM.

I also made a pot of black bean soup last week. I started it in the crockpot, thinking the beans would cook up just like navy beans. They didn't. After like 8 hours, the beans were still crunchy. So, I dumped it all into a pot on the stove and boiled the hell out of them, adding onions, garlic, bay leaves, oregano, cumin, salt, pepper, tabasco, and some coffee stout. When the beans were soft, I pureed three cups in the blender and added it back to the pot. I ate the soup with sliced andouille sausage. The stout added a depth of flavor that made the soup very rich. All in all, I was pretty happy with my made-up recipe.

I do have lots of plans for cooking. I want to make mustard-glazed pork chops, roasted pumpkin, Tyler's ultimate warm spinach salad, baked mac-n-cheese, and lots of different soups, stews, and casseroles (yeah for cooler weather, finally!). From now on, I am going to plan on making new food for dinner on Wednesdays, my easiest day of the week.

Next week....those mustard & cider glazed pork chops I recently saw in Nigella's new book.