Saturday, June 28, 2008

Custard: From the jaws of defeat

Cooking with eggs, beyond the average breakfast preparation, scares me. Eggs require a gentle touch and gentle heat. If you master that, you can make fantastic souffles, meringues, custards, butter creams, hollandaise, and mayonnaise, among other things. I've got meringues and mayonnaise figured out but the others are tough. I have made butter cream successfully only once. Hollandaise? Forget it. My trouble is that I get too hasty. These sauces with egg require patience that I struggle to summon. Pouring hot liquid drop by drop into beaten egg yolk is boring.

Anyway, I decided to try a custard (the runny type not the set type) because it is a necessary requirement for the iles flottants (floating islands) I'm making for a dinner party chez moi tonight. Floating islands are light puffs of poached, sweetened egg white, aka meringue, swimming in a pool of custard with toasted almonds and spun caramel for garnish.

Custard is also great on just about any fruit or cake or pie. I'd even eat it w/ cereal for breakfast.

Here is the recipe for runny custard:

8 large egg yolks (save the white for a meringue or souffle)
2 c. plus 3 T. whole milk
2 c. heavy cream
6 T sugar
1 vanilla bean scored lengthwise and seeds removed

Put the egg yolks and 2T sugar in a standing mixer and whisk until the eggs are pale yellow and creamy. I just let the Kitchen Aid run while I do other things.

Meanwhile put the milk, cream, sugar and vanilla seeds in a saucepan. Bring almost to the point of simmer and then turn off. Slowly ladle small spoonfuls into the eggs. I keep the mixer running. Go SLOW or the eggs will scramble. Once it has been incorporated, put the entire mixture back into the sauce pan and heat gently over low heat for a couple of minutes until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Whisk often, using a wire whisk. Once finished, put the saucepan into a cold water bath with ice to stop the custard from cooking. Keep whisking.

I ran into trouble when I put the custard back on the stove top. The gas was too high so I could not get the custard cooled down quickly enough to stop the cooking. I was aghast to see little curds begin to appear in my beautiful custard. Quickly I strained the custard through a fine mesh sieve a couple of times into a bowl. Then I whisked like mad with the bowl surrounded by ice. Thankfully my custard was saved, and it taught me the lesson I already knew: be patient and do not rush. It is a valuable lesson for life in general, and I do need reminding.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The best greasy burger

In a hurry and craving a greasy burger, I stopped at the drive-thru chain Cookout in Graham, NC, off of I-85. My hairdresser recommended Cookout for a burger and shake fix. I'd never been so I figured I'd give it a try since it had to be better than Burger King or Mickey D's, the only other options I could see off of the highway. There is one in Durham on Roxboro Road.

I ordered a bacon, cheddar burger with grilled onions and a peach shake. The burger actually looked like real hamburger. It was slightly pink. Grilled onions and bacon make everything better! It was great for a fast food burger! I cannot wait to go back to try the burger with chili.

Cookout also features milkshakes in many flavors. I opted for the peach shake. What a great thing to do with frozen peaches! YUM!

Next time I will try the fries with cajun seasoning.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Peach crisp

The peaches I picked up from a fruit stand by the BP where University Dr. turns into Lakewood were small, soft, sweet, and almost too good to cook. My idea of heaven is to eat a peach so perfect that I don't even notice or mind the juice running down my arm and dripping off my elbows.

I ate two for lunch, then peeled and cut the rest for a peach crisp. I like fruit crisps better than cobblers. Something about the crunchy topping and the soft, sweet fruit makes me happy.

Basically this crisp recipe works w/ any fruit. I made it w/ apples too. When I was doing some apple experiments, this was my favorite recipe. I thought I would see how it worked with peaches. Success! The only difference is that I like toasted almonds as the nut in the topping for peaches. With apples, I like toasted pecans. Walnuts are good too, but this is the South. We eat pecans.

Peach (or any fruit) crisp:

Preheat oven to 375F.

2lbs peaches, peeled and sliced
1/4 c. sugar
1 1/2 T lemon juice

Combine the fruit, sugar, and lemon in a bowl. Set aside.

In a food processor combine the following until it looks like sand:

6 T white, all purpose flour
1/4 c. white sugar
1/4 c. light brown sugar
1/4 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/4 t. salt

Add 5 T cold butter cut into 1/2 pieces. Pulse in the food processor until it resembles coarse corn meal.

Add 3/4 c. chopped almonds (or other nuts, toasted or not) and pulse five or six times. Don't let the mixture stick together. It should still look like crumbs. Chill for 15 minutes.

Put the fruit in a deep dish pie plate. Add the crumbs on top. Cook for 40 minutes. Then turn up the heat to 400F and cook another 10 or 15 minutes until the crisp is browned.

Serve w/ ice cream.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Cherries jubilee

The array of summers fruits in season makes me so happy! I have been having a lot of fun experimenting with cherries. They cook so well. The only downside to cherries is the need for a cherry pitter. It can also be used for olives. I like kitchen gadgets so I don't mind having a utensil that I pull out for only a short time every summer. I have learned to put it to good use on olives too.

I've tried two variations of cherries jubilee, a sauce of cooked, sweetened cherries set alight with brandy and poured over ice cream. The recipe couldn't be simpler. For the variation, I substituted red wine for the water. It makes the sauce even richer and more elegant. I also used some vanilla sugar that I had on hand. Whenever I use vanilla beans, I save the pods and put in a glass jar with sugar. It imparts a delicate vanilla flavor to the sugar. Given how expensive vanilla beans are, I like to get the most out of them.

2lb sweet cherries, pitted ans stems removed
1 c. water or red wine for the variation
1/2 sugar or more according to your taste
1/4 c. brandy

Cook the cherries in the water over medium low heat for 20 minutes. Stir in the sugar. Allow to cool to warm. Put ice cream in the bowls. Pour brandy over cherries and set alight with a match or a grill lighter. Once the alcohol burns off, pour the sauce over the ice cream.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A picnic and my Ethiopian food fix

I spent the past weekend hanging out with my family in Kansas City. That's in Missouri, if you recall from an earlier post. There is one in Kansas too, but it's a smaller town.

On Saturday, we went to my dad's farm where we had a huge feast with several family friends. We ate fried fish, fried frog legs, potatoes, and numerous salads and desserts. The fish was white bass from a lake in Missouri. It was great! The frog legs suffered from being battered and fried. They were too tough. Frog legs require gentle treatment like a sauté.

After waxing loudly and repeatedly about how much I miss Ethiopian food since the closure of the Queen of Sheba in Chapel Hill last year, my family finally relented and agreed for dinner on Father's Day at the Blue Nile in the market district. Happily my dad really likes Ethiopian food. We ordered a ton of stuff. Everyone adored the beef and vegetable sambusas, savory, pastry turnovers. I ate and ate wanting to taste and savor everything several times. I am still not hungry. The beef tibbs and beef watt were simply fantastic. My favorite dishes though are the vegetables.

If I ever feel hungry again, I am going to figure out something new to do with a package of shrimp from the coast that my friend brought me.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Catfish at Federal

Catfish can be fantastic or it can taste like mud. Fortunately, the fried catfish special currently on the menu at Federal is very tasty. It is lightly battered, served over creamy grits with smoked cheddar and topped with a tasso gravy. Tasso is smoked, Cajun seasoned pork. The smoked cheddar in the grits was an inspired idea. I am going to try that at home the next time I fix cheese grits.

I heard the tuna special was fantastic but it was off the menu before I could get there, so keep your eyes peeled for that too.

Run to Federal before they take the catfish off the menu!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Three ways with peas

Cook with Jamie, my current cookbook reading, has a section dedicated to peas. It took me until my adulthood to appreciate the humble pea. Now that fresh peas are in season, these recipes are perfect. I've not tried the one with mint yet, but it looks very tasty. I've tried the other two with frozen peas. These recipes are for Matt who loves peas.

I. Braised peas with spring onion and lettuce
This one is a traditional French recipe.

Slowly heat a knob a butter and glug of olive oil in a pan. Add 1t flour and stir around. Slowly pour in 1c. vegetable or chicken stock. Turn up heat and add 6 spring onions that have been trimmed and finely sliced. Add 14oz fresh or frozen peas. Add 2 little butter lettuces that have been sliced. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer, covered, for 5 minutes or so. Squeeze juice from 1 lemon over peas. Serve drizzled with a splash of olive oil.

II. Buttered peas with bacon
Everything is better with bacon!

Cook 4 handfuls of fresh or frozen peas in boiling water for 3 or 4 minutes. Drain, reserving some cooking liquid. Fry 5 slices of bacon, remove from pan and crumble into small pieces. Reserve 1-2T bacon fat in the pan. Add the peas to the pan but turn off the heat. Add a knob of butter, juice of a lemon, salt and pepper to the peas. Add a splash of the reserved cooking water. Sprinkle crumbled bacon over the peas and serve.

III. Minty peas
In Italy this recipe is generally served cold or at room temperature.

Put 4 to 6 handfuls of fresh or frozen peas and a small bunch of mint leaves into a cold pan. Bring water to boil in a kettle. Pour just enough of the boil water over the peas and mint to cover them. Put the pan on high heat and bring back to boil for 3 to 4 minutes until peas are tender. Drain in a colander. Put the peas and mint in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper and juice of a lemon or a dash of red or white wine vinegar. Cover the peas and mint with 1c olive oil and mix. Put aside for half an hour or longer for the flavors to blend.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Garlicky scallops and squid ink pasta

I love the dramatic contrast between black pasta and white scallops. My pantry is full of squid ink pasta that I picked up at Target, of all places. When my friend brought me some fresh scallops from the coast, I knew they were destined to marry with the black pasta. A while ago I tried these ingredients in a saffron sauce. This time I was looking for something with a good dose of garlic.

Jamie Oliver's cookbook Cook with Jamie provided exactly what I needed. He includes a recipe for making homemade squid ink pasta. Sounds delicious, but being a messy cook (one time my brother and I got chocolate on the ceiling of my mother's kitchen) did I really want to deal with squid sacks filled with blue-black ink? No.

So here it is:

1/2 lb or so of squid ink pasta
olive oil
8 or 10 large scallops, cut in half lengthwise and scored, seasoned w/ salt and pepper
1-2 red chili peppers, seeded and chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
a bunch of fresh, flat-leaf parsley
glass of white wine
2 T butter
juice from 1/2 lemon

Put the water on to boil for the pasta. While waiting for the water to boil, get all of the ingredients ready. Put the pasta in the boiling water and cook according the the package directions. When the pasta has 5 minutes left to cook, put two or three glugs of olive oil into a pan. When the oil is hot, add the scallops in one layer. Add the garlic and chili pepper. Turn the scallops over when they begin to brown after a couple of minutes. Add the white wine and reduce a little. Add the butter and reduce a minute or two longer. Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice. Serve over the squid ink pasta. Garnish w/ chopped parsley

This dish is super quick, very tasty, and great when it's too hot to turn on the oven.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A sort of beef daube

I picked up a couple of beef shanks at the farmers' market: nice, free-range, happy cows locally and humanely raised, fed, and butchered.

Beef shanks have to be cooked for a long while so they are falling-off-the-bone tender. I decided the lovely beef shanks needed to be prepared in the fashion that is a cross between a beef daube, usually chunks of beef, and osso bucco, the classic Italian preparation for bone-in veal shanks. Daube is a French beef stew made with wine, garlic, herbs and various other things.

I browned the shanks in a tablespoon or so of butter and removed them to a plate. Then I sauted in more butter (you could us olive oil) chopped onions, chopped carrots, and 4 or 5 cloves of chopped garlic until golden. I put the shanks back in the pan and added half a glass or so of red wine and I let it boil for a minute. Next I added enough water (you could use beef stock or something similar) for the liquid to come right up to the top of the shanks. I threw in a couple of sprigs of rosemary for good measure. Once it came to a boil, I turned down the heat to very low, covered the pot, and let it simmer gently for 2 1/2 hours.

I served the daube with some fingerling potatoes, also from the market, that I cut in half lenthwise and fried in olive oil. MMMM! Both were tasty.

Slow-cooked beef is my favorite way to eat beef. A long, slow braise can render the least expensive cuts of beef absolutely delicious!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Cherry frangipane tart

I spent a lot of time cooking this weekend. After spending a small fortune on almond flour (finely ground almonds) for the opera cake, I decided that I could absolutely not let the remaining flour go to waste. Being rather expensive and very delicious, it deserved a wonderful recipe that would highlight the delicate almond flavor. I found almost what I was looking for in this cherry frangipane tart recipe.

Frangipane is an almond paste made of almond flour, sugar, and eggs. It is commonly used in pastries with apples and pears in France. Since cherries are in season, I thought I'd give it a whirl with fresh cherries. I flavored the frangipane with 1T brandy and 1T vanilla. It was GREAT, if I do say so myself!

The recipe happens to be in metric so it allowed me to use my new scale that I bought to use w/ my French cookbooks. The scale turned out to be a cheap piece of work so I have to get something more robust. The recipe turned out well and looked gorgeous. Fresh, sweet cherries and the frangipane complimented each other well.

I did not like the pastry in this recipe. The crust turned out way too tough, almost like concrete. I really think pastry needs a bit of lard or shortening...and a bit of stay light and tender, so I will be using my favorite Cooks' Illustrated pie crust recipe next time. There really is no need to try other pie crust recipes!

I am going to experiment with finding a frangipane recipe in our imperial measurements. I am also looking for one where the texture is silky. I think that may mean using powdered sugar.