Thursday, December 20, 2007

we don't need no water, let the m-f'er burn

I had such big plans for this blog at year's end - there were supposed to be massive amounts of cookies, a buche noel for my parents' because it's our traditional Christmas dessert, and above all, a massive 4-day cassoulet.

Except I started a grease fire in my oven, and in doing so, destroyed the thermostat, so no baking until we cough up the $330 required to fix it.

Let's back up a bit. A couple months ago, my co-worker Dana saw the making of a cassoulet on an episode of No Reservations, and forwarded the link on to me. Always up for a challenge (and a dinner party), we set a date for him and his girlfriend to come over to our house for a feast.

It was kind of an ordeal to track down all the ingredients, but I finally had Gelson's special order duck legs for me, and got pork belly with attached pork rind ordered from Marconda's Meats in the Farmer's Market. After much research, I found white Coco beans at Monsieur Marcel (also at the Farmer's Market) to use as a substitute for the Tarbais beans.

Day 1
Easy enough. Rub duck legs with salt. Check.

Day 2
Problem. Soaking beans in water was easy enough, but that whole baking duck legs covered in duck fat in a casserole dish was an issue. Meanwhile, our power had also gone out due to the torrential downpour we were getting, so I was already making dinner (seared filet mignon, mashed potatoes and hashed brussels sprouts) by candlelight.

All of a sudden, I noticed a lot of smoke filling the kitchen. At first, I thought it was just from the searing meat, but it didn't subside even after I turned that burner off. I ended up turning everything off, and peeked into the oven, where I found flames shooting up from the oven floor.

Crap. While Matty's holding the oven door shut, I call 411 for a non-emergency number for the LA Fire Department. I get transferred to "311," which the mayor explains to me via recorded message is the LA City Services hotline. After I get the same message in Spanish, a guy finally picks up:

Guy: Hi, this is James. How can I help you?
N: Hi James. I have a grease fire in my oven. Can you tell me how to put it out?
J: Um, hold on a minute.
911: 911, what is the address of your emergency?
N: Oh, no. This isn't an emergency. I have a grease fire in my oven, and I just want to know what I'm supposed to put on it to put it out. I would have Google'd it myself, but our power is out.
911: Well, I think you just put water on it.

Um. I'm pretty sure you don't put water on a grease fire. Splattering, anyone? Finally, after telling me how calm I sounded (thanks), he tells me it's baking soda.

I go back into the kitchen to Matty to relay the news to him and got myself ready w/ the baking soda, but at this point, the smoke had subsided a bit and the splattering/burning sounds were dying off. We decided to just let it burn itself out while we ate cold steak and mashed potatoes. The brussels were a no-go because they hadn't cooked by the time I had to turn off the oven.

I'm not going to lie - I cried a little over dinner. I mean, do you know how expensive duck fat is? And a lot of had burned away on the bottom of my stove.

After dinner, the fire had burned itself out, and the stove had sufficiently cooled for us to peek in and check out the damage.

It's going to be one hell of a cleaning job; however, the duck was cooked to goddamn perfection! The Pyrex was a little worse for the wear, but whatever. Stuck it in the fridge to hang out for the next day.

Day 3
The most time-consuming part for me was separating the pork belly from the pork rind. After that, everything went smoothly - the beans came out delicious.

Then, I turned on the oven to preheat. By the time I needed it, it was still cool. Weird. Our pilot light was still on. Did a little online research and figured out that the fire had destroyed the capillary line, which is connected to the thermostat. So, no baking was going to happen. Shed a couple more tears over that one.

Ended the day chilling the beans, meat and bean liquid separately.

Day 4
Whatever. I had already sunk a lot of money into this dish, so I was going to see it through. As soon as I got home from work, I threw everything back into my 7-qt. Dutch oven, and just let everything (including the duck legs) simmer for an hour and a half.

It turned out wonderfully. I'm sure it would have been extra delightful given the 3 hours of low-temp baking that was called for, but I think this was an excellent compromise. I loved the beans, duck is my favorite fowl anyway, and the meat still managed to melt in your mouth.

I think I'd definitely like to try it again with oven time, but I don't think I'll be making duck confit again anytime soon.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

so sick

So sometimes you decide to go on the baking spree of your life. And then you wake up with a wicked sore throat, and over the course of the day, your sinuses end up exploding. All this on top of not being able to find the Christmas present your boyfriend's cousin (whom you got in the family Christmas exchange) specifically asked for.

So then you're inspired to make some fudge. And put Maker's Mark in it.

I found the same recipe countless times, so to save you the trouble with the link, here it is reproduced.

Maker's Mark Fudge

2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 14-oz. can condensed milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 c. Maker's Mark

Combine chocolate chips and condensed milk in a large bowl and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Microwave for 3 minutes. Stir until smooth. Add vanilla extract and Maker's Mark. Stir to combine.

Transfer to 8x8 pan that's been lined in parchment (or my preference, foil). Refrigerate until firm. Cut into appropriately-sized pieces. I'll leave that up to you. :)

Half a batch has already gone to our friend Marco, the other half is bagged and waiting for Jay. Another batch is cooling in the fridge to be divided between our friends Chris and Brandon.

It's dangerously good. I suppose you could substitute any alcohol you like for the Maker's Mark. I realize not everyone is a whiskey girl. :P I think if it make sense in a chocolate liqueur bottle, it's fair game.

On to less sinful, but no less delicious Almond Apple Bars that I found on Alpineberry.

I haven't tasted these yet, but as you can see from the photo SOMEONE has. While I was busy "testing" some fudge, Matty decided to "test" these bars. He didn't say a word for a while, and then, "Wow. These are so good."

Good enough. I was being apple-specific for our other friend Chris, who (as noted here) loves apple pie. I saw him out last week, and he asked me if I was doing any Christmas baking. When I responded with an "Of course," he said, "Well, you know where I live." Santa will be making a delivery tomorrow.

And then, after said marathon (which also included some Crystallized Ginger Cookies for Jay's wife Reba that I haven't had time to take photos of and weren't that photogenic anyway), I decided to make some real dinner.

This would be the Tofu and Peas Braised in Curried Coconut Milk from How To Cook Everything Vegetarian. It was really good, and the spice was perfect for opening my sinuses back up. I added some diced sweet potatoes and quartered crimini mushrooms for a little more substance, and served it over brown basmati rice. Next time, I would add more curry powder - I had unfortunately run out just as I had reached the amount called for. Considering all the liquid that goes into it, the curry powder really gets lost. I ended up adding some garlic powder and chili flakes to up the hotness a bit.

I've just had my Theraflu, so I'm waiting for it to knock me out. I really wish it weren't Monday tomorrow, although I suppose it's better I'm sick now than next week.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

it's beginning to look a lot like christmas

I had intended to bake a variety of cookies and assemble goodie bags with lots of different ones, but then it dawned on me that meant I would have to do a lot of baking all at once. And, everyone's schedule is so different that I would be giving some people weeks-old cookies, and we can't have that. To solve both my problems, I decided that I would just give each friend one bag with cookies personalized for them. First up, Jeff + Marcela.

Marcela: She loves pistachios, so when I saw this recipe for Pistachio Dark Chocolate Crisps at Epicurious, I immediately bookmarked them for her.

These are the easiest cookies known to man. No need to scoop & drop or roll & cut. Just minimal mixing and then spreading and sprinkling. They basically came out like a crispy chocolate chip cookie with pistachios. I also love that it's just a great canvas for any variety of toppings. This will definitely go in the repertoire and get tricked out differently every time.

Jeff: He likes meat. He's the biggest barbecue advocate I know. He reads a bacon blog (I'll have to ask Matty for the link - Jeff forwarded it to him). When I saw these Bacon Chocolate Chip Cookies at Never Bashful With Butter, he was the first person I thought of.

I'm a little scared of pre-packaged bacon bits (I don't know why), and I was too lazy to make my own, but I've been curious about Vosges' Bacon Bar for a really long time, and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to finally try it.

After calling all over town to find one (they always had it at our precious Alcove, but go figure - when I'm actually ready to buy it, they're out), I couldn't wait to get home to try it. So I didn't. I broke off a piece right there in the car. It didn't taste very bacon-y to me at all. My first thought was that it tasted a lot like a chocolate-covered pretzel - there's definitely saltiness and a bit of a crunch, but it wasn't immediately porky.

Anyway, so I made a half-batch of Lis' Mexican Double Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies, subbing the Vosges bar for the dark chocolate and leaving out the cinnamon and pepper. And you know what? They turned out really well. Sweet, salty, rich goodness - any meat-eating/non-kosher girl's godsend for PMS. Don't know if I'd make it again because they're a really indulgent treat - one will go really far, so I wouldn't know what to do with an entire batch. But if we ever have a meat-themed party, this will definitely be going on the menu.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

i want too much

I'm surprised I'm still able to type and not in a massive food coma after tonight's dinner. It's hard to eat light, though, when all you've had to eat all day is a terrible brat at the Rose Bowl Flea Market (and maybe two Coconut Toffee Almond Crunch Cookies for breakfast). It's also cold, and I've been waiting to make this since last week.

The chili was awesome. I used the chocolate variation (instead of the espresso version) from (guess where?) How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, and at Matty's insistence, de-vegetarianized it with some ground beef. I used a square of Scharffen Berger bittersweet (72%) chocolate because I couldn't figure out why I needed to chop it. I just threw it in the pot and let it melt. The chocolate flavor was not at all strong - it just ended up tasting liking a mellow mole chili, thick like all chili should be. I was a little bummed when I realized I didn't have any sour cream, but it was still great sans garnishes. Next time, I'll be broiling up some polenta, or making some polenta fries to go with this. I just forgot to pick some precooked polenta up at the store, and I was way too lazy to make my own and wait for it to set up.

I had never tried to make fried chicken before, and two splatter burns on my wrist later (and one on my palm for good measure), I have decided to leave it to the professionals. I used Ina Garten's recipe, and while the chicken turned out pretty decently, I don't think I can justify the effort in the future. That being said, I still inhaled two pieces of chicken that have led to my current state of near unconsciousness.

we go together

I am going to end up making so many of these Chocolate Peanut Butter Munchies this Christmas. And for the rest of my life, for that matter.

Cookie #2 for the goodie bag list. I had my fingers crossed for this one - Matty's dad is a big peanut butter fan, and since I'm hoping to have at least one cookie especially made for each person's goodie bag, I really wanted these to be his special ones.

Needless worrying on my part - they were so fantastic. Like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup's cookie cousin. I ended up with 24 cookies - might have been a little indulgent about the size of each, but hey, can you blame me? :P Jennifer said she wished she hadn't flattened the cookies as much before baking, so I took that to mind, and only pressed them out a little. I just used the palm of my hand as opposed to a glass dipped in sugar, but only because I was out of sugar (I know, who does that?).

I've packed some away for Matty and the band, and the others will go to the RO reunion. That is, if they last through tomorrow in my office fridge.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

here come the butter baby

I think I first came across these Coconut Toffee Almond Crunch Cookies via Slashfood, and then saw that review seconded at another food blog, so I finally had to try it. Given how obsessed I am with pre-planning (Thanksgiving, anyone?), I'm surprised I haven't tested more recipes already for my Christmas goodie bags.

This was the first one. Super yum, guys. The recipe yields loads of cookies - I got 48. And E is totally right - you're going to have to try to not eat all of these in one sitting. They're super buttery and chewy with a lovely crunch from the almonds. The first three batches of 12 came out super flat, and that's really the one disappointment about the cookies - I was hoping for a little more to bite through. The last batch of twelve did end up much higher, but I can't figure out why. They weren't any bigger than the other ones. I did, however, not hear the timer go off because Matty had some music going, and I have no idea how much longer they were in the oven than the other batches. Luckily, they didn't burn - just a little crispy.

I'm just glad Matty's leaving to play a couple shows with Tristan Prettyman - I can send a couple with him so I don't get tempted having them around the house. The remainder will be a contribution to a potluck for a reunion with the alumni of my college a cappella group, Reverse Osmosis.

Next time, I think I'll try chopping up Heath bars instead of just the Heath Bits o' Brickle. Adding chocolate - can you imagine? Just that much closer to heaven.

rubber soul

I think this is the first How To Cook Everything Vegetarian recipe I haven't been thrilled with. And it wasn't the recipe's fault.

I made the Pasta Fritatta for breakfast this morning, and I think I may have overcompensated for my experience with runny fritattas because what I ended up with was just a touch rubbery. Everything was simple enough, and I could have easily avoided this problem by just checking the oven and removing the skillet when the top had just set instead of blinding relying on the 10-minute instruction while downloading Christmas cookie recipes, but I didn't.

Hopefully, I'll have lovely cookie stories for you soon, but for now, all I have is a sad wedge of blah breakfast. Good thing I'm going to my parents' for lunch in two hours. :)

Monday, December 3, 2007

fast as you can

Dinner was on the table in less than half an hour today. That NEVER happens unless I'm nuking something. And considering how good this was, I may be making it every time I'm in a time crunch.

I was going to pair these Mussels with Coconut Curry Sauce with some leftover orzo, but Matty had brought it to work for lunch, so I ended up boiling up some pesto tortellini.

While the water boiled for the pasta, I scrubbed the mussels. When the pasta went in the water, I started sauteeing and simmering the sauce, then cooked the mussels. Matty was at the table going through mail (read: bills - that's all our broke asses ever seem to get around here!), and stopped to say, "Whoa. What is that? It seriously smells so good." And not that he's not always supportive of my cooking/baking habit, but it's warming to get a stop-in-your-tracks reaction.

Back to work. I "blanched" broccoli in my favorite way - florets go in a colander, pasta gets drained over them, pasta gets rinsed to cool. Everything is left to drain while I transferred the cooked mussels into a large bowl. The pasta and broc got tossed with some olive oil and salt, and voila - dinner for two in less than 30 min. I am unbelievably proud of myself.

The mussels turned out so well. The sauce was perfect. I had expected something much richer because of the coconut milk, but it was surprisingly light. If it wasn't warm, I would even go so far as to call it refreshing. We had about a cup or so left over, so I'm saving it to drizzle over the leftover tortellini for lunch tomorrow, and then use the rest of it to make couscous.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

to lighten up

After having blown it out at our friend Jeff's birthday dinner last night at Spark Woodfire Grill, where I had the largest piece of tiramisu I have ever been served at a restaurant, I didn't even want to think about the Bittman Espresso Black Bean Chili and Ina Garten's Oven-Fried Chicken (via Amateur Gourmet) that I had planned for dinner tonight.

Matty wanted nothing but salad, but I still maintain salad is not cold-weather food, so I compromised with cooked veggies. And I've always loved the idea of having a meal out of sides (or appetizers, or desserts :P).

I had been thinking about blue cheese broiled tomatoes since our waiter last night read it off as a side for one of the specials. How hard could that be, right? Slice tomatoes into thickish slices, top with crumbled blue, broil until melted and browned.

Accompanying that was a variation on the Superfantastic Brussels Sprouts that I'm now obsessed with. How far we've come, right? I had some leftover kale, so indulge me in reciting the recipe back to you:

Kale and Brussels Sprouts in Apple Cider Gravy

Serves 2

half bunch of kale (about 6 leaves)
5 T. salted butter
6 oz. brussels sprouts
1 cup spiced apple cider, divided (I got mine from TJ's, but any ol' apple cider or juice will work)
2 T. all-purpose flour
1 t. Dijon mustard, or to taste
salt to taste

De-rib kale and chop into 1-inch wide pieces. Melt 1 T. butter in a medium frying pan. Add kale. Saute for 1 minute, then add 1/4 c. apple cider. Cover and cook for 4 minutes. Transfer kale to a medium bowl.

Trim and halve brussels sprouts. Melt 2 T. butter in the same pan. Add brussels, cut side down, and cook untouched for 2 minutes. Add 1/4 c. apple cider. Cover and cook for 3 minutes. Transfer brussels to bowl with kale.

Add 1/2 c. apple cider and 2 T. to the same pan. After butter melts, add 2 T. flour and whisk for about 1 minute. Add mustard and whisk to incorporate. Add more cider if you'd prefer a thinner sauce. After the sauce has been whisked into the desired consistency, pour over veggies and toss. Salt to taste.

It was the perfect amount of food (with a little Brie an Cambozola to anchor). I'm dreaming about that chili and chicken for next weekend, though. :)

Saturday, December 1, 2007

fight on

Today was arguably the most important day of the year. My USC Trojans against our cross-town rival, the UCLA Bruins. The Rose Bowl was riding on this game. I've been obsessed with USC since I was in middle school, and spent 4 amazing years there.

I've been lucky enough to be able to be a football season-ticket holder with 3 great friends, Christina, Paul and Elmon, for the last couple of years. Tailgates are always a special occasion, whether it be massive amounts of wings from Hoagies & Wings, using a shopping cart as a picnic table or getting surprisingly drunk on Absolut Mandarin and soda from our tailgate buddy Tim's strong pour.

So, last game of the season. Bragging rights for a whole year if we win (especially since my co-worker Dana is a UCLA alum - it makes work easier when we win :P).

We got to campus by 10a for the tailgate, and that was a little too early (even for us) to be eating wings, so I made some breakfast things - Tartelette's Jam Coffee Cake and a Spinach and Cheese Strata from Epicurious.

I'm obsessed with that jam coffee cake. I've made it three times now (for Matty's parents and for Thanksgiving brunch), and it's awesome each time. The only thing I can't manage to do is to get that ring of jam to stay in the middle - it always seems to end up at the top of the cake. This time, instead of a bundt pan, I baked it in a football-shaped pan to celebrate the game as well as Paul's sister's birthday. I even iced it with some squeeze icing to make the laces, etc. However, I was in a rush and hadn't had time to cool the cake, so the icing basically melted into nothing. Christina insisted on taking a picture anyway, so I'll post it when Christina emails it to me.

It also took a little extra time to bake because it didn't have the convenient hole in the middle to spread the heat. It also baked very unevenly - after the normal hour it takes, the middle was still super jiggly, and by the time the middle tested done, the edges were kinda extra crispy. Still tasty, though. :)

On the savory side, the spinach and cheese strata was just okay. It was super convenient to have been able to assemble everything the night before. I didn't have a 3-quart casserole pan, so I put it in an 8x8 casserole dish (2 quarts). Here's what it looked like after the first 55 minutes of baking):

Awesome, right? Unfortunately, the middle was still super-custardy. I peeked underneath the plate, and it was still mostly liquid. I baked it for about another 15 minutes, and after that still did not produce any visual change, I got fed up and scraped the entire thing into a 13x9x2 casserole dish and popped it in for another 15 minutes. I was hoping for a strata more like the delightful one I had at Sunset Junction'sTown & Country Cafe - a structured cube of eggy goodness that you could just pick up and eat if you wanted, but I got more of a fancy scramble with bread in it.

So, the changes I would make: a) sub diced taters for the bread, b) add maybe twice as much spinach (and I had already used 12 oz. of fresh spinach as opposed to the 10 oz. frozen that was called for), and c) bake it in a goddamn 13x9x2 pan. Maybe the smaller pan/extra depth is why it took extra long to cook properly.

Whatever. It was sufficiently baked, and I was late, so away we all went - me, my casserole dish and my cake tote. Great game, we won, and now I've got fingers crossed for tickets to the Rose Bowl game on January 1st against Illinois. :)