Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas dinner

This year's Christmas gathering was a little smaller than usual with Laura, Mitch, and Midori all back in Chicago. Normally, Laura and I do most of the kitchen work on holidays, but this year I put my mom to work as sous chef. On Christmas day, my parents had their friends, the Mike and Liza Morell over for dinner. I don't remember my parents being big wine connoisseurs when I was back home, but I suspect those to may have something to do with the increasing quality of the wine that they consumer. One of their sons is a vintner and the other a chef, so its a real foodie family.

The Christmas menu included flank steak stuffed with olives, pine nuts, and currants, braised escarole with fried garbanzos and garlic chips, mustard crusted, roasted fingerling potatoes, and a beet salad with arugula and goat cheese. The first two dishes come from a Tom Douglas cookbook that I got for Christmas a couple years ago. An online recipe can be found here. A couple notes about the recipe: unless you like things very rare, cook for a couple of extra minutes. As you can see from the picture above, it's pretty much black and blue in the middle. I like it this way, but I suspect most people don't. Also, frying the garbanzo beans is a bit of a pain in the ass if you don't have deep fryer. One approach might be to toss the garbanzos in olive oil and salt and than place on a cookie sheet under a broiler, shaking frequently, until they crisp up. I'll try this if I ever make the dish again. The potato recipe was pretty good, but the crust burns easily and it is a bit heavy on the mustard, so you probably need a bit less mustard and you need to toss the potatoes around more than the recipe recommends. The beet salad was the one orginal thing that I made for this meal. Or, at least, I wasn't going off of someone else's recipe. Its really simple, and quite tasty. Here's the recipe if you want to try it at home.

red beets (I think I used two large beets above)
orange (juice and zest...remember to zest before you juice)
taragon (optional)
good quality olive oil
red wine vinegar
kosher salt
coarsely ground pepper
goat cheese

Cut the tops off of the beets, clean them off, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper and wrap them in foil. Cook in the oven at 375F until soft. This should take an hour or so. After an hour, you can unwrap the foil a bit and poke the beets with a pairing knife. When its done, the knife will slide in with minimal resistance. It could take as long as two hours....I really can't remember.

When the beets are done, let them cool a bit, then rub off the skin and dice to the desired size. To rub off the skin, just use a big wad of paper towels. This will allow you to get going while the beets are still hot and will keep you from staining your hands red.

In a bowl, toss together the beets with about two tablespoons of roughly chopped tarragon, the juice from half of an orange, a teaspoon of orange zest, and a dash or red wine vinegar and olive oil. In a separate bowl, whisk together about one tablespoon of the juice from the other half of the orange, a teaspoon of red wine vinegar and a bit of olive oil (start with one or two tablespoons and adjust to taste), and salt and pepper. Toss this vinaigrette with the arugula (only use a little bit, you don't want to drench the salad) and arrange it on a serving plate with the beets and goat cheese.

You can make the beets well ahead of time, and at the last minute, dress the greens and combine the ingredients.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Thanksgiving '07

Thanksgiving was a bit earlier than usual this year, and Abby and I completely forgot about it until about a week beforehand. Luckily, enough friends were around to fill the table on such short notice.

Abby went overboard making the place settings. Here's the table before...

and after...

The menu included two types of cranberry sauce
Two types of stuffing
A 17.5lb turkey

a bunch of other stuff...
and four different desserts
At the end of the evening, Aiden treated us all to a little concert.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Weekend at the Cape

Normally, birthdays entail a late night out in some place like Central Square, but Jon took things a step further this year and organized a weekend retreat to Cape Cod. Evidently, surfing in the U.S. is not just a West Coast OR summer thing. There were quite a few people braving the cold November waters off of the Cape.
Jon was very excited to get out of the city.So, excited, in fact, that he was stuck in a permanent victory double fist pump, or whatever you want to call that pose, for most of the weekend. Here we are, several hours later, at dinner....still excited to be here.
Dinner was a big batch of seafood stew using all of the best products that the Cape had to offer.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Mac 'n cheese

I didn't feel like going to the store, and when looking through the fridge and pantry trying to figure out what I could whip up, I noticed a box of elbow macaroni tucked away on the pasta shelf and decided that mac & cheese would be a good option. It's been years since I had last made this dish, and I had enough other ingredients to round out the dish. Mac & cheese is a great, classic, unhealthy dish, that you can put all sorts of little variations on, and I decided to make two versions, based on the ingredients at hand. Since I had just made a big southwestern dinner, a southwestern mac and cheese was obvious. I also had some Spanish chorizo - very different from Mexican or Portuguese chorizo - and manchego in the fridge, which I used to make a Spanish version. To make mac and cheese, you start with a bechamel sauce (flour/butter/milk), melt a lot of cheese into it, mix in the cooked pasta, sprinkle bread crumbs on top, and finish in the oven. On top of that basic recipe, you can do pretty much anything you want. For the southwestern mac, I used cheddar cheese, jalapenos, garlic sausage, and topped it off with some left over red pepper sauce. I had meant to add some chipotle puree to the cheese sauce, but I completely forgot about it, which is too bad since that was the main leftover ingredient that got me thinking about a southwestern mac and cheese. The Spanish version had the chorizo and a manchego-safron sauce. I thought the Spanish one was better, but I'll have to try making the southwest version agian, this time with the chipotle.

Mesa menu

I often buy cookbooks, look at them, and, at most, cook one or two recipes from them. That's not to say that they are useless. They do, after all, provide a lot of great ideas, but still, it would be nice to use them a bit more. So, when I got my latest cookbook, the Mesa Grill cookbook, I figured a dinner party would be a nice way to knock out a lot of recipes at once. I was able to make an appetizer (corn pancakes with mango serrano crema), a soup (pumpkin soup with chipotle), an entree (spice rubbed pork tenderloin with bourbon ancho sauce and a smoky red pepper sauce), and a dessert (molten chocolate cake with dulce de leche). I also added a couple things of my own: an apple and manchego salad, cheddar and jalapeno polenta, and spicy garlic kale. Here are some pictures of the food.

A dinner party would not be complete without great company, and Eliana, Sebastian, Jon, Katrina (first picture below), Suzanna, William, Melissa, and Dino (second picture below), ably filled that role (they also all did a great job of bring some great wine to the table).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Orrechiette with Sausage and Rapini

I make this dish fairly often. I've always used boxed pasta for this (I think the DeCecco is the best of the widely available pastas), but this time a tried to make pasta from scratch. The ingredients for orrechiette are flour and water. That's it.
After kneading the dough and letting it rest for a while, roll it out into tubes, cut it into disks, and shape them into little cups. I found that the dough puffs up quite a bit while cooking, so its best to cut the disks as thin as possible (unless you want think chewy pasta, which isn't necessarily a bad thing). The other ingredients in this dish are olive oil, garlic, sausage, red pepper flakes, and rapini. Stem the rapini and cook the leaves and florets by placing them in water and bringing it to a boil. When the water starts steaming, the rapini is done. Cook the sausage separately in olive oil with garlic and a dash of red pepper flakes.

Once the sausage is mostly cooked, add the rapini along with some of the water used to cook the rapini. Combine the mixture with the pasta, let it cook for a while so the pasta absorbs some flavor, serve with freshly grated parm, and enjoy.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Roasted Pork Ragu with Tagliatelle

In my last post, I mentioned a great meal that Abby and I had at Lupa, one of Mario Batali's restaurants. One of the dishes was something that I made fairly often, but the other dishes, while simple, were not things that I had ever made before. They were really good, so I thought I would see if I could replicate them at home and add them to my regular rotation. The two dishes that I made, the roasted pork ragu with tagliatelle and the brussels sprouts with Pecorino, have a couple great things going for them. They are easy to make, the ingredients are fairly cheap, and in the case of the ragu, you can make up a huge batch and freeze portions for future use. I didn't have any recipes to go from, but the brussels sprouts were really really simple and there is more or less a standard way of doing things that applies to a ragu. Ragu is sort of like stir fry in the sense that there is a method of cooking and a few ingredients that form the backbone, but beyond that there are infinite variations. All this is to say that my versions turned out to be pretty good interpretations of the Lupo version.
For the brussels sprouts, you'll need the following ingredients: brussels sprouts, peccorrino cheese, pepper, olive oil, and salt(optional). Since there are so few ingredients and no cooking involved, it is really important that you emphasize quality. Get your sprouts from a place that has good produce, splurge a little on the cheese and the olive oil, and make sure the pepper is freshly, and coarsely ground. The Pecorino actually adds a bit of saltiness, but if you like more, add just a pinch of kosher salt.

To prep the sprouts, cut them in half lengthwise and then finely slice across. You should be going for something about 1/8" to 1/16". Put the shaved sprouts into a bowl and add as much freshly grated Pecorino as you like. Grind a couple turns of the pepper mill over the sprouts, drizzle with olive oil, toss, and taste. Adjust the cheese, oil, and pepper until you find a balance you like. You don't want to add to much olive oil. Just enough so that you can start to taste it, but you don't want the salad to be wet. The main function here, aside from adding a nice olive oil flavor, is to help the cheese stick to the sprouts.

The ragu is slightly more complicated, but only slightly, and while it takes a long time to cook, the actual prep time is pretty low.

2 lb pork butt, pork shoulder, or any similar cut.
1/4" slice of pancetta
2 average sized carrots
2 stalks of celery
1 large onion
4-5 cloves garlic
1 large can whole San Marzano tomatoes.
2 bay leaves
~ 1 cup wine (whatever color you have on hand)
~0.5 c milk
red pepper flakes
1 small head radicchio
fresh tagliatelle

1. Preheat the oven to 350F

2. Heat up about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large dutch oven and brown the pork shoulder on all sides. You can cut it into a couple large chunks before doing this. You should let it brown on med-high to high heat on each side for a couple minutes. Resist the urge to move it around to early. Bits will stick to your pan if you mess around with the meat too early. Once it is sufficiently browned, it won't stick any more. That's one easy way to tell if something has seared long enough.

3. Chop/dice/mince the onions, celery, carrots, garlic, and pancetta. They should be about this size
You want everything to be small enough that it eventually all melts together. This is just a matter of preference though. By the time this is all done, all the flavors will be so cooked together it won't matter, so it will change texture and appearance, but probably not taste.

4. Remove the pork and add the onion/celery/carrot/garlic/pancetta mixture. Turn the heat down to medium, add a pinch of kosher salt and let everything cook down for 5 or 10 minutes.

5. Add a splash of wine to the mixture, let it cook down a little, but the pork back in the dutch oven, and place, covered, in the oven. The main purpose of adding the wine at this point is to keep all of the vegetables from scorching.

6. Open up the can of tomatoes and break apart all of the tomatoes by hand. You could just put them in a blender, but squishing them up by hand leaves little chunks that give a nice texture to the finished product.

7. After about two hours, take the dutch oven out, remove the pork, and after letting it cool, break apart. The easiest way to shred the pork is to go at it with two forks and break it apart until everything is shredded into fairly small chunks.

8. Return the shredded pork to the dutch oven, add about a half cup of milk (preferably not skim) and cook everything down. Add the tomatoes and their juice, the bay leaves, a pinch of red pepper flakes, a pinch of salt and some black pepper.

9. Cover and simmer on the stove top for a looooong time. I let it simmer for about 7-8 hours. If you have a slow cooker, you could just throw everything in and set it on low before going to bed, it'll be done in the morning.

10. When you are ready to serve, simmer the ragu uncovered in a large skillet to help reduce the sauce.

11. Chop up some of the radicchio into square about 1" on each side.

11. Throw some fresh tagliatelle or pappardelle into a large pot of heavily salted boiling water. After about a minute, remove the pasta and add to the skillet along with a handful of radicchio (this adds a nice touch of bitterness to the otherwise rich pasta and ragu). Toss together in the skillet for a minute or two before serving. This last step helps the flavor of the sauce penetrate the pasta and should never be skipped.

A couple additional notes:
- This dish is much much better with fresh pasta. If you are going through the trouble of making this, you should go through the trouble of getting fresh pasta. In the Cambridge/Somerville area, Capone's in Union Square and Dave's in Davis Square are great options. I think Dave's is slightly better.
-Remember not to over sauce! The ragu should be an accent to the fresh pasta. The recipe above should make enough to sauce about 3 pounds of fresh pasta, which is probably enough for a dinner party of 8 or 9 and even more if this is a pasta course in a multi-course meal.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

New York Dining

After a one year excursion to the Fletcher school, Abby is officially in her "2L" year at Harvard Law. This means that she gets to spend a substantial portion of her fall semester being wooed by just about every top law firm in the country. After going to around 30 on campus interviews, she narrowed her choices down (but only slightly) and spent about a week and a half in DC and New York doing 1 to 2 interviews a day. While tiring, the nice thing about this process (besides having all of these firms make you feel really loved) is that they put you up in some pretty nice places. I spent last weekend in NYC since Abby had a gratis room at the midtown Hilton. Here's the view from her room by day (that's Cental Park in the distance):

and by night (that's a lot of energy being wasted in the foreground....some of these offices NEVER turn their lights off!!)

I was pretty famished by the time we got into town so we went out to a Korean bbq place, Won Jo, with Adam, who was also in New York for interviews, and Sarah. Most Korean bbq places I have been to use hot plates or a gas grill, but this place uses real charcoal. Before they serve you, someone comes by with a box of red hot coals that they put in the table grill.
After that we met Stefanie at a dive bar in the East Village and stopped by a really cool fry, or Pommes Frite, place before turning in for the night. This is the only place I've seen in this country where you can get fries with mayo, one of the best things ever to come out of Belgium, and I mean that in the best sense. I love fries and mayo. When Jack, Sam B and I went to the Netherlands, we ate nothing but fries and mayo for the whole weekend. One of the best things about this place is the way they make the tables. Perfect for holding fries.
The next night we were able to get a table at Lupa, one of Mario Batali's restaurants. It's run by Mark Laudner (he's the hip looking guy with glasses that is always one of Mario's seux chefs on Iron Chef) and specializes in casual Roman food.

I really really liked it. The place has a cozy front room with a bar and a more spacious back room. We sat at the bar since you have to make reservations pretty far ahead of time. Even to get a seat at the bar, we had to wait for about an hour and half, which was fine with me. Lupa is just south of Washington Square in Greenwich Village, and it was nice to have the opportunity to walk around the neighborhood. We got pretty hungry waiting though, so we stopped for a snack at a tapas place a couple blocks over. Of course, as soon as we were finishing up at the tapas place, the hostess at Lupa called us to tell us our seats were ready.
We started the meal with two antipasta plates: a salad of beats, micro greens and some sort of cheese (I can't remember exactly what it was) and shaved Brussels sprouts with Peccorino. For the pasta course we ordered the two specials they were offering that night. I had orrecchietti with sausage and rapini and Abby had tagliatelle with a roasted pork ragu. I make this orrechietti dish, so it was nice to see how they do it. Of course, Lupa's is better, but I really think the key difference is the homemade pasta. Italian food is pretty simple, so the key to making it well is getting really great ingredients and not messing them up. The final course was braised pork shoulder with prickly pear and braised escarole. I'll have to start making braised escarole. It has a great bitter flavor and is just coming into season.

The next morning we met Sam B, Jacob, and Rachel at Vynl. Jacob had just moved to New York that week and was getting used to his new job at a morning show that has him waking up at 3:30 every morning!
The brunch here is fine (I preferred the Eatery, which Sam took us to when Joe and I were in NYC over the summer), but the real standout feature was the decor, especially the bathrooms. The Elvis bathroom has a huge tile mosaic of Elvis taking up one wall, and Elvis songs are piped in to the room. I didn't get a chance to check out the Nelly bathroom cause it was occupied.

Later that evening, we capped off a weekend of food with the best meal yet. Alex and Jane (who probably know every restaurant in the city, if you ever need a recommendation) took us out to Nobu where we ordered just about the entire menu.
First, a couple things about this place:

I was pretty excited about going here. One of the best meals I have ever had was at Morimoto's in Philadelphia, and I had always wanted to go to the restaurant where he got his start in the states. Nobu's food isn't all traditional Japanese fare, so this may have been where Morimoto picked up some of the modern Japanese ideas that he is known for.

Also, the decor in this place is incredible. The most striking feature is the forest in the main dining room. I wish I had pictures. You might be able to see some on the webpage.

We ordered yellow tail sashimi with jalapeno, monkfish pate with caviar, scallop tiradito, sea urchin tempura, rock shrimp tempura, creamy spicy crab, black cod with miso, warm abalone and asparagus salad, and toro. For dessert, we had a coconut sorbet with jasmine tea icecream in the middle, an assortment of mochi, and a chocolate cake with shiso syrup. It would take too long to describe, so, suffice it to say, this was damn good. And, while the meal was great, the company was even better.

Braised lamb shanks

The last time I made lamb and flageolet beans, I didn't really like the way the beans turned out, so I decided to give them another shot for this dinner party. Turns out, no matter how long you cook them, the beans stay pretty firm. I guess that's one of the properties that set flageolets apart from more common white beans like canellini's. Instead of roasting a leg of lamb, I decided to go a little further down the leg and braise a bunch of lamb shanks. The one thing about serving a cut like this is its hard to really scale the portions. The shanks that Savenor's had in stock came in one size. HUGE. The plates looked like something the Flinstone's would eat.

My summer roommates, Andre and Justin, their new roommate, Dave, my downstairs neighbor, Katherine, and Elana and Stefan came over to help put down the massive amounts of food that I made. Here are some pictures from dinner.

For the first course, we had a trio of salads that I picked out of the Bouchon cookbook: chickpea and carrot salad, roasted beet salad, and celeriac remoulade. I really liked the beet salad and the remoulade. I don't eat celeriac or beets much, but it seems to be the season for them, so maybe I should change that. The chickpea and carrot salad wasn't great, partly because the chickpeas were a bit to firm, partly because the salad didn't have enough acid and was undersalted, and partly because the carrots should have been cooked a little longer. Even if the execution was better, I don't think the flavor profile was all that interesting.

The next course was cauliflower soup with chives and white truffle oil. I got this recipe from Amanda Gerke a few years back when she had a bunch of us over at her beach house in Jersey. Its really simple, really tasty, and I don't have any pictures. To make it, throw a bunch of chopped up onions and cauliflower in a big pot and cook with some olive oil until soft. Add vegetable or chicken stock and let simmer for a while. Puree the soup (an immersion blender is very handy here) then garnish the servings with finely chopped chives and truffle oil. White truffle oil is really strong, so you only need a couple of drops.

After the main course, Stefan provided a nice cheese plate for dessert.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Sharlene's second cooking lesson

At the beginning of the summer, Sharlene and I had grand plans to do a number of regular cooking lessons. One month into the fall, we got around to cooking lesson number two. This time around, she made paella. Here she is, looking like quite domestic.

And here is the finished product.
We made vegetarian paella that had artichoke hearts, tomatoes, red bell peppers, peas, carrots, and a healthy dose of saffron. We served the other components (chicken, chorizo, clams, mussel, and shrimp) on the side so everyone could mix and match according to their own preferences. You lose some flavor cooking paella separately like this, but the flexibility it provides makes it a great dinner party dish.