Monday, July 16, 2012

On the Menu This Week

There's lots of great food on the Pinch menu this week. First up is tonight's dinner: Coriander Dry-rubbed Steaks with Avocado Salsa. I'm hopeful my avocados are ripe enough. If not, I'm going to morph the whole dish into kabobs using some gorgeous peppers I picked up at the market recently. Either one will be paired with summer greens, but I need to change up my vinaigrette routine a bit. I'm bored with my dressings.

Next I'm going to line up a summertime favorite: Sweet Corn Risotto topped with a piece of pan fried halibut. I've loved this dish since watching its creator, Anna Thomas, cook it up at the original Sur la Table in the Pike Place Market in Seattle. Cooking fish this way is quite simple: first, remove the skin and cut your fish into individual servings (I go for 4-5 ounces for all animal protein but your fishmonger will advise you to buy more). Sprinkle kosher salt and fresh ground pepper all over the fish. In a medium nonstick skillet, heat 1 teaspoon of grape seed oil for a minute or so. Add the halibut and cook over moderately high heat until browned, about 3-4 minutes. Flip the filets and cook for another 2 minutes or so.

Start preparing the fish when the risotto is about 10 minutes from being ready and serve it right on top of the plated risotto. You'll be busy at the end, but that's just how it goes with risotto. Remember, risotto waits for no man - or fish - so time things properly.

You can also make a simple tomato-herb salsa to toss on top (thinking tomatoes, parsley, shallot and chive, tossed with a smidge of olive oil and white wine vinegar) - just keep it simple and fresh.

Two light meals I'm going to make on evenings when we have evening plans that don't include dinner are Tabouli with Lemon Chicken and Gazpacho which I plan to serve with a side of Chipotle Shrimp. And later in the week will be Rick Bayless' Skirt Steak Salad, which will put to use those chipotle chilies leftover from the shrimp.

That's all.

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Three Tricks All the Pastry Pros Know

In a recent post I mentioned tweaks I employed on Flag Cake and Gougères to send them over the top. Here's that info:

Trick 1 - Soaking Solution
The easiest way to ruin a cake is by overbaking. But even if your cake isn't baked perfectly it can be brought back to life (within reason) with a soaking solution. This is a hot sugar syrup, flavored with a bit of liqueur, pure extracts, or citrus zest, brushed or squirted onto cake layers. It adds both flavor and moisture and really improves the whole of the dessert.

A soaking solution is made by boiling equal parts sugar and water and adding the liqueur or zest once the sugar is dissolved. For the average 8-inch cake I use about 1/2 cup each sugar and water and 2 tablespoons of liqueur. The solution needs to be hot when you brush it onto the cake, otherwise it won't saturate well. I use a pastry brush to soak my cake layers (just make sure your pastry brush doesn't smell like garlic or BBQ sauce) but you can even spoon it on, tho that method takes longer.

When I bake a round cake I routinely cut off the rounded top. The crumb that is revealed is much more porous than the cake top you've removed and snacked on. But if you are not brave enough to trim the top, just poke holes all over the cake with a toothpick and then saturate.

Oh, and you want to do this to a cake that is out of the pan already. Here's the order of operations:

1. Bake a cake
2. Let it cool 5-20 minutes
3. Remove from pan, transfer to a plate
*At this point, I always let my cakes cool completely, then chill in the fridge as trimming and frosting comes out way better on a chilled cake.*
4. Make soaking solution and brush on

Trick 2 - Crumb Coat
A crumb coat refers to a thin coating of frosting that is applied to a cake. After crumb coating, the cake is retired to the fridge to set. This process sets all the crumbs in place so that when you apply a nice thick coating of frosting you don't get any crumbs ruining the view. Here's photo of the crumb and final coat:

This recipe from David Lebovitz was really great. When I learned to make gougères in cooking school they were the sort where you made a choux pate, piped out rounds onto a baking sheet, topped the rounds with grated Parmesan or Gruyère, baked them, and then, when cool, piped into them a ham and Gruyère béchamel. They're quite good, but the béchamel is a wee bit heavy and so 1980. Quiche, brie and béchamel probably did more to usher in the aerobics era than Jane Fonda.

The Lebovitz recipe redeems the hors d'oevre in two ways: it brings it up to date (and offers suggestions for using other hard French cheeses in addition to or in place of Gruyère) and it simplifies the process by adding the cheese to the choux pate. Once the puffs are baked, they are ready to serve.

The only thing I did differently was to use a little water to shape the puffs before baking. If you aren't an expert with a pastry bag, the choux rounds can be a bit misshapen. A simple fix is to dip your fingers into a small bowl of water and then gently smooth out the choux rounds before topping with cheese and baking. I'm pretty sure I learned this trick in cooking school, but maybe it was from restaurant work. Anyway, you can see the difference in the lower photo. The rounds in the front have been smoothed out a bit.

And there you have it - three tricks all the pros know.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Several Things You Cannot Dispute

Once upon a time we caught a production of A Year with Frog and Toad, a musical based on the children's books written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel, the same genius behind Mouse Soup. Thank goodness for children. Where would we be without these stories?

The production, in fact the inaugural production of the Chicago Children's Theater, was really magnificent. We returned home with the CD (the writers of the musical, brothers Robert (music) and Willie Reale (lyrics) won the Tony in 2003 for Best Original Score) and some of those songs still dance in my head.

In Act I, Snail, the show's only character with a job, sings a lovely tune about delivering a letter. "I'm the snail with the mail, I deliver without fail..." This is a tough act to follow, but the brothers Reale pulled one outta a hat with Getta Loada Toad, which concerns Toad's anxiety about being seen in his bathing suit and counts among its stanzas this gem:

"Four things you cannot dispute:
Bamboo comes from a bamboo shoot
Rutabaga comes from a rutabaga root
Bananas are the funniest fruit
And Toad looks funny in a bathing suit!"

Aside from all the catchy rhyming, I really appreciate the simple observation of the banana as funniest fruit. Bananas have a silly name, a silly shape, and that whole shtick with the slippery peel. In fairness, the banana is also the most dependable fruit. It's good on an empty stomach, more satisfying than a Snickers, and folks who find themselves exhausted from gnawing away at beef jerky and protein bars must certainly appreciate - when consuming a banana - mastication without temporomandibular dislocation.

But the banana flavor is a different story. What happens inside the peel needs to stay inside. When I was a kid I had to take banana-flavored medicine for asthma (sucks to that banana-flavored asthma medicine) and I still harbor mistrust of pharmaceuticals. A fifth indisputable fact: a single banana Runt can spoil a perfectly good day. Or, put to music:

...Bananas are the funniest fruit
But a banana Runt will make you boot.

And this brings us to Smarties, my second-favorite non-chocolate candy. We had a boat-load Smarties leftover from assorted parties and I have one roll left in my secret stash. One of my favorite things about Smarties is that there's not a gross flavor. Just now I opened a roll and there were a whole bunch of yellows which, in the case of many other candies, would be a grave disappointment. I know, usually yellow = lemon. But Laffy Taffy, Runts, and Now and Later have each slipped their nasty banana candies onto the market and now I get nervous every time I see yellow in a candy wrapper.

That's all.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Summer Food and Nightcrawler

I haven't been cooking much lately  - just enough to pass along a few recipes from the past month. The Barefoot Contessa's Flag Cake (our version is pictured here) was a big hit, as were David Lebovitz's Gougères. I'm looking forward to trying out Mark Bittman's Sigapore Chili Lobster sometime soon. For that adventure - which will involve live lobsters - I've already secured co-council. I've been watching re-runs of The Good Wife and have found legalese as fun to throw around as Italian. Prego!

When TGW first debuted I assumed they'd never find me in their audience. This was for the same reason I planned to never watch Big Love:  there's just not enough lifetime waking hours to spend any of them wrapped up in adulterous dramas. I'm not sure if it's more surprising that I watched a multiple seasons of Big Love or that I found myself rooting for those dear polygamists. With TGW, it's all about Kalinda and Eli. The last time I saw Alan Cumming was as Nightcrawler in X-Men 2. I'm half-expecting him to pounce into Alicia's office, long tail flying, only to dissipate into a cloud of midnight blue smoke.

In between reruns I've been answering a flood of emails concerning picnic food. Here's what I've been suggesting:

Fresh Corn Salad
Three Bean Salad
Roasted Red Potato Salad
Avocado Salad
Potato, Dill, and Cucumber Salad

Main Courses
Flank Steak Sandwiches
Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps
Summer Chicken Salad
Pan Bagnia
Chilled Soba Noodles

More soon on tweaks to the Flag Cake and gougères to really send them over the top.

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