Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Big Veggies, Big Problems

Problem 1: I think I got black pepper up my nose and I can't stop sneezing.

So anyway, cabbage sounds like a good idea, right? Especially a nice, fresh-looking Savoy cabbage with its seductively curly green leaves, waving to you flirtatiously in the vegetable market? And when you read about cabbage, it sounds like such an underdog people's hero kind of vegetable, feeding the peasants, growing even when nothing else will grow. Plus you can cook it in plenty of different ways: braised, stuffed, stir-fried, in soup, raw in a salad, etc. etc. 

But thank god for this versatility because, bringing me to Problem 2: A cabbage is a damn lot of cabbage.

I bought this particular cabbage two days ago. I cooked it in white wine with apples, red onions, potatoes, and pork in my new Dutch oven (!!!!!!!!!). The next night, I made Sautéed Ginger Beef and Cabbage. Today at lunch, I ate my cabbage in count 'em not one but TWO dishes. We're going out of town at the end of the week, and we've still got a long road of cabbage ahead of us. The picture above is the "after" picture.

But, since my English students keep cancelling their classes and I have leisurely, even endless, lunchbreaks, lunch today was an exercise in (1) eating cabbage, and (2) improving my food photography. Here are my results, and my recipes.

Cabbage Rib Salad with Creamy Miso Dressing, serves 2

I used cabbage ribs. You could just use regular chopped cabbage, but this is one way to use up the thick, crunchy bits that you didn't want to sautée in your dinner from the night before.

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
1 heaping cup chopped cabbage ribs
sesame seeds for garnish

1 teaspoon saké, soju, or other rice alcohol of about that strength (mine is 20%)
1/3 teaspoon miso paste
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon plain yogurt, crème fraîche, or sour cream

Place ribs on a plate, sprinkle shallot overtop. In a small dish, mix the dressing ingredients, then drizzle over salad. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Quinoa with Apples, Potatoes, Red Onions, and Cabbage, serves any number of people

This recipe is um, a bit looser, since as I mentioned it's mostly leftovers. But cooking approximately equal amounts of potatoes, apple, and red onion with some cabbage and pork in about an inch of dry white wine with ample salt and pepper in a Dutch oven for about an hour and a half yields a fruit/vegetable/meat-juice mixture whose leftovers are nice served over quinoa. Mine is actually half quinoa, half bulgur wheat, but who's counting?

So that's my cabbage story. The moral: avoid big vegetables before big trips. Oh, and I'll let you guess Problem 3.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Everybody loves... MASHED POTATOES

It's true. Everyone loves them. I've decided to start a feature on my blog where I take classic, everyday sort of foods that everybody loves and make them maximally delicious, either through my own cunning and genius, or through that of someone else. Today, it's sort of both. OK mostly the latter, but I had to get in the last word/ingredient. Today we're making mashed potatoes with JOEL ROBUCHON!!! *applause*

The principle behind Joël's recipe is basically butter. I've essentially learned that in cooking, if you want to make something maximally delicious, what you have to do is have the courage to add much more butter than you think is a good idea. Example: Grilled cheese. When I make grilled cheese, it's pretty good. When my boyfriend Clément makes grilled cheese, it's amazing. And do you know why? Because Clément is not afraid of butter. I have to admit I'm a little afraid. So I let Clément make the grilled cheese, I don't watch, and I enjoy them without ever knowing the quantity of butter I am actually consuming.

Same thing with MASHED POTATOES. Except I can successfully make those, thanks to Joël.

The other secret to perfect mashed potatoes is using the perfect potatoes, a concept I briefly discussed in my last post and which has recently changed my life. We used Bintje potatoes for their high starch content. Known as a "floury" or "mealy" potato, it's ideal for dishes where it is supposed to fall apart, be smashed, etc. North American potatoes that fit the bill are Idaho and Russet. Potatoes that you want to hold their form, such as for making potato salads, are known as "firm" or "waxy" potatoes, and their lower starch content makes them hold up better during cooking. Charlotte, BF15, Yukon, Red, and Fingerling are all examples.

So, to summarize, butter makes everything more delicious, and more butter makes it even more delicious; and, using the right potato for your dish is a revelation that will change your potato-cooking life, if it hasn't already.

Pictured at the beginning of post, Chipolatas (homemade from Boucherie Risch et Cie Sté, 3 rue du Capitaine Ferber 75020 Paris) and mashed potatoes; pictured here, Tunisian-spiced pan-fried chicken, roasted carrots, salad with lemon yogurt dressing, and... mashed potatoes. Leftovers, what can I say.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Vegetable Adventures I, Part II: Pork Chops with Celery Root Sauce, Hashbrowns and Onion-Apple Compote

So, leftover celery root soup in my fridge was destined to become sauce on my plate. But sauce on what, you may ask? But you didn't really ask that, because you saw the photo and the title of this post. Very clever.

Anyway, I started off brainstorming with scallops. The idea of tender seared scallops with celery root sauce was making my mouth water. Then I thought about vegetables. I googled around to find some inspiration, but I ended up deciding on hashbrown potatoes. I thought a couple hashbrowns, some seared scallops, and some celery root sauce sounded like a fun dinner. But then I came home late and the fish market, which is not on my way home, seemed awfully far for something that was probably closed, plus Clément isn't a big seafood fan. Plus scallops are expensive. So I went with pork chops.

I wanted a little element of zing in the dish, as well, and while the dish appears visually to be a lot of stuff piled on top of other stuff, I really felt like all the parts worked well together. (All this in defense of my compote) The onion-apple compote was actually my favorite part, I think. And I liked the idea of revisited pork chops and apple sauce. The dish would even work well without the celery root sauce, but it was good too, and don't tell it I said that.

And so our dinner was born. And we ate it all, and licked the plate. Clément, who hadn't been a huge fan of the celery root soup, loved it as a sauce. Me too, but in fact I finished the leftover soup a couple of days later, and with a touch of heavy cream, I actually found it delicious. I think that means Vegetable Adventure I was a success.

I know now that celery root blends to a beautifully creamy consistency for soups and sauces, has a pronounced celery flavor, and pairs well with lemon, nutmeg, and apple. Another blog suggests vanilla bean as a pairing, and having explored this vegetable myself, I can concur that that would be fantastic. Celery root has a slightly sweet note to it where vanilla bean would chime right in.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Vegetable Adventures I: Celery Root Soup with Toasted Pine Nuts

Long live the blender! Aaaand, Clément's new camera!! (get a load of that image quality)

It's my current fascination to explore seasonal vegetables in an in-depth fashion. I want to know the texture they can give to a soup, the taste they have when by themselves. I'd like to understand exactly what kind of pairings and combinations are possible, and figure out exactly what I can do with the vegetables in question. My method is therefore to explore them through soup, using leftover soup as a sauce for meat, fish, etc. So, the first vegetable (or second, if you count the roasted peppers) that I attempted to comprehend was: celery root!

I had never done anything with celery root before a little over a month ago, when I caramelized it with other root vegetables to eat with Tunisian-spiced chicken. I realized at that moment that I really like it. This time I brought a brain-sized one, struggled to cut it up into chunks with my somewhat lackluster knife set (one day I'll have nice knives...), peeled it, and simmered it in some homemade chicken broth I had made the day before. I added sautéed shallots, then puréed everything. I seasoned with salt and pepper, tasted, and it was still missing something. I looked around a little on the internet for inspiration, and decided on lemon juice, which helped a lot. Then I remembered I had some pine nuts in the cupboard, which I toasted, and sprinkled on the soup with a dollop of crème fraîche and a dusting of nutmeg. It was not bad. It had a serious celery flavor, and the addition of some citrus and some nutty crunch was a nice complement. I honestly really enjoyed eating it. But I have to admit, today I used the leftovers as a sauce for some pork chops with hashbrowns and an apple-onion compote, and it was much better in this context. But that's another post...

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Poached Salmon Eggs Benedict

"What should we eat for lunch today?" Clément asked, in the middle of our Sunday morning coffee-and-farmer's-market-grocery-list ritual.

After a bit of fridge inventory, the answer appeared to be eggs. But eggs how? Eggs with salmon, Clément suggested. I love this combination, but we've already done scrambled eggs with smoked salmon several times, and I was in the mood for something different. We could bake the salmon and have a spinach salad with a poached egg, I offered. Maybe we could even try hollandaise sauce.

That was it. Hollandaise sauce!!! Lunch would be eggs benedict.

A few errands later, we had two salmon filets, lots of butter, fresh parsley, and some bread. I chose something my local bakery calls pain des prés, or "prairie bread." I wasn't familiar with it, but the size and texture looked perfect. And indeed, when I cut it open, the inside was soft and would nicely absorb the sauce, but the crust was flaky, crisp, and substantial, and would keep the dish from turning out all spongy. Its interior also contained some slightly crunchy whole grains, which added a little extra something.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Things We Did and Didn't Do, the Former Being Pumpkin Fried Rice

In life, we are bound to have regrets. Using my leftover pumpkin from the pizza in my last post is not one of them. Forgetting to photo-document the show-stopping spread I cranked out last night, however, is.

So, first about the spread in question. The menu was:

Savory Cheese and Thyme Shortbread with Fleur de Sel, with the apéro

Seared Glazed Duck Breasts with Garlic-Roasted Carrots and Salad

Mini Chèvre Cheesecakes with Caramelized Pear Sauce and Fried Ginger

And I have not a single photo. So, let me describe. The shortbread cookies, or sablés as they call them here, had a delicate, buttery texture, with a little crunch from the grated parmesan, and the subtly floral, woody aroma of fresh thyme. They were perfectly salted, which has been my great battle in concocting this recipe (solution: use salted butter, and sprinkle a little Fleur de Sel on top of the cut cookies, rather than adding salt to the dough--you can't go wrong). Only complaint: the first time I attempted this recipe, I used big kosher salt, but too much, and I baked them at too cool a temperature, which made me have to bake them longer than I meant to. However, the crunch from the salt together with the slight crispness the longer baking time, plus I think a little more Emmental than this attempt, made a PERFECT TEXTURE. Seriously, the texture was unreal. Too bad they were too salty. Clément said they would take care of the humidity problem in the apartment. Ha ha. This time the salt was perfect, but the texture was a little too light and dry for me. Once I get them completely perfect, I'll be sure to post about them.

The duck was a homerun this time, thanks to these very clear instructions, as well as my own learning of the lesson that despite the fact the above recipe says to glaze immediately upon turning the breasts in the pan, YOU SHOULD NOT. The glaze warms up and dribbles down into the hot pan and burns, which is no fun for anyone. Rather, I glazed right after removing the breasts from the skillet, at resting time, and this time it went off without a hitch.

The cheesecake was a dream, if I do say so myself. I used this basic chèvre cheesecake recipe, but I didn't cook them in a bain marie, rather just cooking them in my silicon muffin pan. I also cooked them longer than the recipe suggested, so they could stand on their own, since this recipe was designed for little pots, and I wanted something firmer and freestanding. Then I just simmered pears in butter for a long time with a touch of honey until they were soft and sugary and I got a nice syrup. Then I added some lemon juice and zest to the pears for acidity, and voilà. I also discovered that frying ginger is a delicious idea, and it added a nice little crunch. I just have to practice my technique, it came out a tad overfried (read: we had some blackage).

But, alas, no pictures.

What I do have a picture of his today's lunch, so I'll talk about that now.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Roasted Red Pepper Soup, Pumpkin & Blue Cheese Pizza

Since I'm just starting to write this blog, I forgot to take a picture before we ate our soup. Also, I don't have a digital camera because I sold it a few months ago, so I took this photo with my computer... In short, my visuals are disastrous. But please, forgive me, and trust that my pizza was not actually pixelated.

What it was, though, was rather successful, especially for toaster oven material, as I have no Real Oven (You may be noticing a pattern here in my relationship to technology). Well, welcome to my life! I mean that, too, not in a bitter sarcastic kind of way. I'm glad I sold my digital camera! And I love my toaster oven! And really, welcome to my life.

We, my boyfriend Clément and I, just moved into a new apartment that has a toaster oven and a real live gas stove, not to mention a lot more workspace--a huge step up from the last one, where we had only hotplates, and where we cut our vegetables on the computer desk. We became old hats at poule au pot, pot au feu, and soupe du marché. Then came the pivotal event of buying Tout Robuchon and learning all those little skills I'd never picked up - when exactly to salt the meat, how to know which species of garlic is in season, how to make aligot (!), etc.

I profess no form of culinary expertise, but I do have my curiosity and my appetite to offer you, Reader, as well as a sound confidence that I know delicious when I eat it. I may not always achieve it, Dear Reader, but that's not what it's about, now is it?

Anyway, back to my dinner. Back in my vegetarian days, I remember loving Amy's Roasted Vegetable No Cheese Pizza because of that delicious, sweet sauce that I couldn't identify at the time. I now recognize it as probably caramelized onions and reduced balsamic vinegar, so that was the inspiration for tonight's meal. That, and with a a toaster oven, I can roast peppers (!) and make pizza (!).