Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bartending with JG: The Second Trimester

JG's been spending a lot of time in the lab lately.  He says his research is going well, but the other night he came home rather frustrated because the computer he was using to run his experiments died and he was going to have to take some time away from his actual research to calibrate a new one.

The man needed a nice drink.  Martinis and Manhattans have always been our friends, but the recent infrequency of hard alcohol consumption in our apartment had left the bar a little understocked.  We had no gin, so the martini was definitely out (we don't believe in vodka martinis here).  We had rye whiskey but no sweet vermouth or Angostura bitters -- and at this point I think JG might have been on the verge of saying something unkind about our hybrid.

BUT we did have Peychaud's and a blanc vermouth we'd randomly purchased a while back because it was unfamiliar (verdict: possibly sweeter than sweet vermouth).   JG made himself a new drink he calls "The Second Trimester." It's not quite the same as a Manhattan, but it's still tasty.
[Yes, I tasted it and it was delicious.... I couldn't put a recipe up I haven't tasted, could I?]

A note about the cherries. I think maraschino cherries are foul and always omitted them from my Manhattan.  Then, ~5 years ago, I happened to have a Manhattan at a place called The Pegu Club in Manhattan and they served it with the most wonderful, dense, dark, richly flavored and not-too-sweet amarena cherry.  It took me a bit of research to figure out what they were  -- a small preserved sour cherry from italy -- and even longer to find them in a specialty store but they are _so_ worth it. [You can easily order the pictured Fabbri brand online, but they're a little sweeter.] Their flavor is wickedly decadent.  If maraschinos are The Monkees, amarenas are The Rolling Stones, know what I'm sayin'?

Recipe:  The Second Trimester [or 2nd Tri]

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Sign of Spring

Yes, it snowed all day today in Yankee Land, but I'm feeling perkier than my last post.  Why?

My rhubarb is sprouting!

Surely this snow -- and the forecasted snow on Wednesday and Thursday -- is almost the end of it...


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Carbonara-esque Fried Rice in 10 minutes or less

bMarch is my least favorite month in Yankee Land.  A few warm (50+) days melted the remainder of our 7 feet of snow and made everyone think spring was imminent... but today it never got above 39 and snow flurried all afternoon. [Actually, I appreciated the snow. If it's gonna stay cold, it may as well snow.] I mean, I love my jaunty red thrift-store puffy coat, but I'm getting tired of wearing it, know what I'm saying? 
These plants are all supposed to come back to life "in the spring"
My real problem is that it's so gray without the white snow or green trees. The trees will start budding in a few weeks and blooming in another month, but I'm not supposed to replant my fire escape until after the last freeze in May. [I think greens like arooogula can start sooner, since back in Texas they're a winter crop.] My poor kitchen herbs are all leggy and dying to get away from the grow light and back in some real sun [and I brought half of them from Texas with me, so they know what they're missing.] Sigh.

Anyway, my winter malaise doesn't inspire creative or complicated cooking.  To wit:  Carbonara-esque Fried Rice 

I think I've mentioned leftovers fried rice is a staple at my house, but this time I didn't have anything but the [brown] rice left over.  I did, however, have some prosciutto that was a little on the dry side, so I diced a few slices and pan fried them in a teaspoon of olive oil 'til crispy while I nuked some frozen peas for  a minute to warm them up*, then stirred still-cold rice in with the meat and let it sit for ~ 1 minute, untouched, to let a crust to form, stirred it, let it sit again, stirred in the peas and let it sit long enough for me to beat a couple eggs in a bowl and pour it over the top.** 

Stir until the egg is no longer runny [but not dry] dump in a serving bowl and top with some cracked black pepper and maybe some hot sauce.

Note: A real carbonara would have some kind of hard cheese like pecorino or parm grated into it, and the eggs would be added off heat to make sure it stayed creamy... and there's nothing wrong with either of those things as far as I'm concerned. 
You could add frozen peas with the cold rice, but the peas can get a little starchy where they touch the pan directly too long, and I'm just not a fan of starchy green peas unless I'm turning them into soup.

** That may be an excessively long sentence, but that's how the recipe works: once you start you just keep going 'til it's done.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Toasted Mushroom-Avocado Sandwich aka "The Gandalf"

So there's this place in Houston called The Hobbit Cafe.  [It was The Hobbit Hole when it was located in an appropriately hobbit-like old house, but it moved well before my time.]

It's quaint. There are Lord of the Rings drawings and posters and figurines, most of which are at least 40-years old, and the food is great and mostly healthy-ish... and named after LOTR characters.  Back when JG and I lived in Houston, we'd go there fairly often and split a "Gandalf"... a toasted sandwich of sliced avocado, mushrooms, and swiss cheese on whole-grain bread, served with a side of shredded carrots [though this was before I was particularly interested in healthy eating and we usually subbed potato chips for the carrots.]
There was a certain magical flavor in the sandwich not attributable to any of the stated components which elevated the whole thing to the sublime, and one day JG asked what it was.  The server went back to the kitchen and reemerged with a spice bottle labeled "Spike."  We'd never seen it before but promptly went to the grocery store and found it with the rest of the spice blends.  [It turns out it's like the MSG of hippie food, created by a natural foods advocate circa 1925 named Gayelord Hauser, whose dislike of white bread might have been greater than mine.]  It was indeed the key ingredient to recreating the perfect Gandalf at home.
JG and I had kind of forgotten about that lovely sandwich [It's getting close to 10 years since we lived in H-Town] but we made blue cheese turkey burgers with avocado -- on homemade buns -- the other day, and as the slices popped out the sides it brought back memories... so I picked up another avocado on my way home from work yesterday [there's one grocery store on the way that always has acceptable if not great avocados] and we made paninis for dinner on leftover buns.  In tribute to the Hobbit Cafe, I also made my spicy carrot slaw to go on the side [it's so easy and surprisingly good]... and it really was a much better meal than with chips.
It was a slightly odd dinner for a 30-degree evening, but it felt like spring in the kitchen.

Recipe: Mushroom-Avocado Sandwich: The Gandalf

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Jamaican Oxtails

JG pulled out this recipe from the NY Times a few weeks back, and I'd bought oxtails at the butcher shop across the way [which always has oxtails but rarely has turkey thighs] and threw them in the freezer so we'd be set when we decided it was time to proceed. It finally happened last Sunday, the apartment smelled amazing, and the flavor was quite good [if a little sweet for our taste]....

BUT... for some reason we actually followed the recipe on this one (well, I used a little less meat and twice as many beans) even though I was dubious of methodology outlined... and as a result I had to spend the better part of an hour scouring my enamel Dutch oven -- after an overnight soak -- and I'm afraid it'll never be the same again.

The problem was that I'm not really familiar with Jamaican cooking, aside from a few jerk chicken recipes. I have made blackened sugar before [it's the natural way to color dark rye bread], but because the particulars of the cuisine aren't totally familiar to me, I decided to trust the recipe and not my instincts. I didn't see any way we could effectively brown meat and aromatics in blackened sugar, but I thought, "Maybe I'll learn a wonderful new technique!" because I know the NY Times employs recipe testers verify these things... and I'm an incorrigible optimist...
... And it may well be that that is in fact how Jamaicans make their oxtails, but if so, I'd rank Jamaican restaurant dish washing as one of the worst jobs in the world.  We did not get our meat properly browned.  By the time the aromatics were only partially cooked, we started trying to deglaze for the love of our pot... to no avail.  When half of the sugar -- supposedly there for flavor -- turns to pure carbon that doesn't release when deglazing the pan,* I don't see how that benefits the dish or the cook. 
It was good though, and it introduced me to butter beans, which are huge and buttery [I think they'd be great in some kind of salad.], so I'm keeping the recipe... with these changes:

Steps 1-4:  Separately brown meat and veggies in oil, remove to large bowl, deglaze with ~1/2 cup water, scraping all the browned bits from the pot.  Pour deglazing liquid into the bowl and wipe cooking pot dry. Add brown sugar and blacken. Immediately add a couple cups of water, scraping to loosen from the bottom of the pot, then return meat, veggies, and juices to the pot.  Add additional water as needed to bring the water level 2/3 up the sides of the meat, then cook, covered, for 1 hour.*

Step 5: Omit sugar, substitute tomato paste for the listed ketchup (which has additional sugar or corn syrup)  After removing the thyme stems [our pepper disintegrated, but it wasn't too hot], let cool completely and refrigerate at least 4 hours or until the rendered fat solidifies enough to remove -- it'll be close to 1.5 cups of solid fat 
Step 6: Reheat with beans and serve with rice and pigeon peas [traditional] or green peas [colorful].

Leftovers: Shred any remaining meat [there's not a lot] into gravy and add additional butter or cannellini beans for meaty, brothy beans and rice.

Recipe: Simple Coconut Rice
We did make some pretty simple-but-good coconut rice to go with it by adding 1/4 cup unsweetened coconut flakes, chopped, to our regular brown rice recipe of:  2 cups short grain brown rice,  4 cups water and 1/2 tsp kosher salt, cooked ~50 minutes

*I actually thought, "Well, maybe since it's sugar it'll dissolve as it boils and this really is a wonderful technique!" but JG didn't think it was sugar anymore, just carbon.   He was right.

**If I hadn't had to clean the pot this time, I might have been willing to consider adding the sugar with the meat and letting it caramel as the meat seared, but I'll be playing it safe from here on out.