Saturday, August 27, 2011

melt me slowly down

Years ago, when my friend Mandi and I worked together, we spent almost an entire day discussing the chocolate cream pie she grew up with and the one she makes every Christmas.

I must admit, I'm a sucker for pudding. I mean, custards in general (pudding, ice cream, creme brulee, etc.), but pudding especially. There's that bit of nostalgic charm of childhood that can be made instantly grown up with the substitution of more gourmet ingredients - in this instance, 70% cacao Ghirardelli chocolate. And there were so many recipes to choose from. Had I not been out of town the week prior to this party, I would have obsessively tested out every one - varying egg yolk quantity, cooking vs. not cooking the egg yolks, folding either version of the pudding into whipped cream, etc. Luckily for my waistline, I didn't have that kind of time so ended up picking the America's Test Kitchen one - if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me.

Frankly, I can't tell you how the pie tasted as a whole - I only saved myself a couple spoonfuls of the pudding refrigerated separately for QA purposes. I suppose I could have spread it an Oreo, but I was too lazy. And speaking of Oreos, are there enough varieties out there? I nearly had a panic attack in the snack aisle - do I get the original? They have double-stuffed, but the recipe said the ratio of cream to wafer would screw up the crust. Ooh, peanut butter Oreos? Maybe those would be good!

The pudding though, was magnificent. Smooth and rich, but not too sweet. I might actually back up on the cacao content next time and just use the 60% - that 1 oz. of unsweetened chocolate goes a long way.

Chocolate Cream Pie
from The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook via Leite's Culinaria

For the crust
16 Oreo cookies
2 T. butter, melted

For the filling
2 1/2 c. half-and-half
1/3 c. sugar
pinch salt
6 large egg yolks
2 T. cornstarch
6 T. butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
6 oz. 70% cacao bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 t. vanilla extract

For the topping
1 1/2 c. heavy cream, chilled
2 T. sugar
1/2 t. vanilla extract

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Pulse the cookies in a food processor until coarsely ground, about 15 short pulses. Then let the machine run until the crumbs are uniformly fine, about 15 seconds. With the machine running, pour the butter through the feed tube and process until the mixture resembles wet sand. Transfer the crumbs to the pie plate.

2. Press the crumbs into an even layer on the bottom and sides of the pie plate. Bake until the crust is fragrant and looks set, about 15 minutes. Transfer the crust to a wire rack and let cool for about 30 minutes. The baked crust can be stored at room temperature, wrapped tightly in aluminum foil, for up to 2 days.

3. Bring the half-and-half, half of the sugar, and the salt to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.

4. As the half-and-half mixture begins to simmer, in a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks, the remaining sugar, and cornstarch together until smooth.

5. Slowly whisk about 1 c. of the simmering half-and-half mixture into the yolks to temper. Then slowly whisk the tempered yolks into the simmering half-and-half mixture and reduce the heat to medium. Whisking constantly, return the mixture to a simmer and cook until thickened and a few bubbles burst on the surface, about 30 seconds. Off the heat, whisk in the butter, then the chocolates, and finally the vanilla until completely smooth.

6. Pour the warm filling into the baked, cooled pie crust. Lay a sheet of plastic wrap flush to the surface of the filling to prevent a skin from forming and refrigerate until the filling is cold and firm, at least 3 hours.

7. Just before serving, whip together the cream, sugar, and vanilla in a chilled bowl until soft peaks form. Spread the whipped cream attractively over the top of the pie. The pie, without the topping, can be refrigerated, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, for up to 1 day. The cream can be whipped and refrigerated separately from the pie, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, for up to 2 hours.

Friday, August 26, 2011

after the heat

It's too hot to think. And that's probably why I decided to turn on the oven to roast the corn for this salad. Which didn't really do much to the corn - the husks barely even browned at all. Next time, raw kernels are going straight into the brown butter.

For visual effect, I topped the arugula with the corn-crab mixture, but for the rest of corn season, I'll just be tossing the greens in with everything else and eating it straight from the mixing bowl. So, so good.

Roasted Corn + Crab Salad
Serves 2 as a main, 4 as a side

2 ears of corn in husk
4 oz. cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
1 large shallot, diced
4 oz. crab meat
2 T. butter
1/2 lime
salt and pepper
red pepper flakes
3 oz. arugula

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Roast both ears, still in husk, for 15 minutes, flipping once halfway through. Set aside to cool.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the cherry tomatoes, shallot and crab meat.

3. Heat the butter over low heat in a 10" skillet and let brown slightly. When the corn is cool enough to handle, discard the husks and cut the kernels from the cob. Add the kernels to the skillet and cook undisturbed for 3 minutes. Flip and cook for another 2 minutes, undisturbed.

4. Scrape the skillet into the crab mixture and squeeze the juice of 1/4 a lime over it. Toss thoroughly. Add salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste.

5. In another medium bowl, toss the arugula with the remaining lime juice. Divide the arugula among plates and top with the crab-corn mixture. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

all i can manage

I'm hoooome!

I promise I'm not trying to average a week between posts. It hurts me more than it hurts you. But a last-minute trip meant 7 days away from my kitchen, and while it was an awesome, super productive trip, I was jonesing for my stove. My hotel room in Chicago came with two burners and a dishwasher. Had it included a stocked fridge, I might have whipped up an omelette or something just to get rid of the itch. I'm surprised I haven't popped into catering to see if they need any help in the back.

But tonight, after having landed at 3:30a in the morning and spent truly the most surreal day of my life in the office, I could barely see straight at Trader Joe's. I knew I wasn't going to be able to do much more than boil water to make dinner, but I wanted more than a sandwich, so I put together a BLT Pasta that combined the best parts of my tired little world.

The B was applewood-smoked bacon, the L some wild arugula, and the T fresh sliced heirloom cherry tomatoes. The original recipe called for roasted tomatoes, but it's too hot to live, much less turn on the oven, so this fresher version was the way to go tonight. It definitely didn't lose any richness for it - the sauce was carbonara-influenced: eggs and plenty of ground pepper. I used 4 whole eggs, but it made the dish a little soupy, so for a thicker sauce and more concentrated flavor, I'll use only yolks next time - the recipe below reflects that.

BLT Pasta
Adapted from Serious Eats
Serves 3-4

8 oz. orecchiete
4 slices bacon, diced
4 egg yolks
1/2 lb. cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered if large
4 oz. arugula
4 T. grated Parmesan plus more for serving
salt and pepper to taste

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta according to package instructions.

2. Brown the bacon in a small skillet. When done, set on a paper towel-lined plate to drain.

3. In a large bowl, beat the yolks. Add tomatoes, arugula and Parmesan and stir to combine.

4. When the pasta is done, drain and immediately add to the egg mixture, stirring quickly to cook the eggs and wilt the arugula. Season to taste and serve immediately with additional Parmesan on the side.

Monday, August 15, 2011

on your birthday

Happy belated birthday, Julia Child!

Now, Mondays are usually reserved for Los Feliz Din Din A Go Go, but when I heard it was Julia's birthday, I had to celebrate. And how to ease the pain of missing out on the Lobsta Truck? Why, make Lobster Americaine, of course.

I didn't think Julia would steer me wrong, but I have to be honest, I was terrified about a couple things.

1. Would the lobster overcook in the oven?
Well, I solved that problem by deciding that it was entirely too hot to turn on the oven, much less for the 20 minutes that I was sure was going to turn my lobster into rubber. For the number of tails I was cooking (2), 5 minutes on the stovetop at very low heat seemed to do the trick.

2. Would I singe my eyebrows off lighting the lobsters on fire?
Luckily, I would never find out. There was no cognac to be had, so I subbed in brandy. I tried lighting it, and it did ignite a very low flame for about 5 seconds, but that was it. Which led me to the next fear:

3. Since the brandy didn't really burn off, would the sauce be off?
I mean, I was already adding vermouth to the sauce. Was it going to be too unpleasantly alcoholic (yes, there is such a thing)? Turns out the tomato was a great balance, and while the sauce did smell powerfully strong while simmering, the taste was completely mellowed out by the time the last tab of butter was added.

The finished dish was a great balance of flavors and textures. The lobster came out perfectly (although a bit of a bear to wrestle with served in-shell). The sauce was both sweetly fresh as well as creamy - what a difference a little butter makes. Served with plain rice swirled with leftover shiso pesto, and a side of steamed green beans - what food trucks? In Julia, I trust.

Homard A L'Americaine
adapted from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Serves 2

2 lobster tails
1 T. olive oil
2 small shallots
1 T. cognac
2 small tomatoes, seeded, juiced and chopped
2 t. tomato paste
1/3 c. bottled clam juice
1/3 c. dry vermouth
2 t. dried fines herbes
2 T. butter

1. Split each lobster tail in half lengthwise.

2. Heat the oil in the skillet until it is very hot but not smoking. Add the lobster tails, meat-side down, and saute for several minutes, until the shells are bright red. Remove lobster to a side dish.

3. Stir in the shallots and cook slowly for 2-3 minutes until almost translucent.

4. Season the lobster and return it to the skillet. With the skillet over medium heat, pour in the cognac. Avert your face and ignite the cognac with a lighted match and shake the skillet until the flames have subsided. Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste, clam juice and vermouth. Bring to the simmer on top of the stove. Cover and simmer quietly for about 5 minutes or more, depending on the size of your lobster tail.

5. When the lobster is done, remove it to a side dish. Set skillet with it cooking liquids over high heat and boil down rapidly util sauce has reduced and thickened slightly. Add fines herbes and taste carefully for seasoning. Add the butter, stirring to melt.

6. Return the lobster to the sauce and bring to the simmer to reheat the lobster. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

even brighter than the moon

Last fall, I had the absolute pleasure of spending a week and a half in Eastern Europe. By far, the highlight was the gorgeous city of Budapest.

Okay, so I never saw anything other than the inside of my hotel room when the sun was out - thank you, night shoots. But my schedule meant I had an empty gym any time I wanted to work out to keep up with my half marathon training. And I never found the time to research, much less visit, any hole-in-the-wall local restaurants as I had intended to do. But I can't forget the gorgeous Chicken Paprika I ordered via room service.

I mean, I have no idea why it tasted so good. That crazy electric-hued sauce that's both creamy and fresh. Chicken breast that I wouldn't eat under any other circumstances. Spaetzle! What is that stuff? Just little niblets of dough, but they're the perfect vehicle to carry the sauce in perfect proportion.

After romanticizing all this, the Chicken Paprika recipe I found online was never going to be able to live up to my memory, but it was quite good. I more or less followed the recipe (and that's what's typed out below), but here are some additional changes I'd make the next time I wax nostalgic for Budapest:

- Use bone-in, skinless chicken thighs.
- Instead of browning the chicken first, I'd just make the sauce and simmer the chicken in it until done. I think this would make for less well-done chicken, and even better color.
- Invest in an immersion blender. I nearly colored my entire kitchen a gorgeous shade of burnt sienna when my blender exploded.
- Add a little more cornstarch to thicken up the sauce, although if I'm simmering the sauce long enough to cook the chicken, I may not need to. I definitely wanted it more gravy than sauce.

Chicken Paprika
adapted from The Epoch Times
Serves 4

2 T. duck fat
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 small onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
1 tomato, cut into small cubes
1 heaping T. paprika powder
1/2 c. sour cream
1 t. smoked paprika
2 c. chicken stock
salt and pepper

1. Heat the duck fat in large skillet and brown the chicken thighs. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.

2. In the same pan, saute the onions and garlic until transparent. Add the paprika, bell pepper, tomato, stir and add the chicken thighs. Add the chicken stock to barely cover and cook on low heat until tender.

3. Remove chicken from pot and add the sour cream to the sauce. Blend together either with an immersion blender or blender. Return to the pot and season to taste. Put chicken back into the sauce and bring slowly to a boil.

4. Serve with spaetzle, preferably, or your carb of choice.