Thursday, March 31, 2011

Little baby meatballs simmering away...

The other day, as I was working on [looking at] a mountain of homework, I blithely turned on the TV to pretend for a minute that I had nothing to do. Rachel Ray appeared before me, breathily explaining everything I needed to know and oh, so much more about making meatballs the size of small cantaloupes.

Now, I know that a lot of people have become truly anti-Rachel Ray since she lost her vocal chords and her husband cheated on her (how does that work?), but here is my stance on it: bitch knows her way around a pack of ground beef.

Rachael Ray attends the 1st Annual New York City Wine & Food Festival Burger Bash hosted by Rachael at The Tobacco Warehouse in Empire, Fulton Ferry State Park, Brooklyn, NY. Photo copyright by Anthony G. Moore / PR Photos.

Seriously, think back to the climax of every single episode of 30-Minute Meals. It's not when she finishes the 10-pound casserole and eats it all in one bite. The actual high point of the show comes long before that, and everything else that follows is just a side note, an afterthought.
The actual climax always comes when she is making her inevitable burger.

All the seasonings have been thrown into a bowl. Breadcrumbs, what-have-you.
The ground beef is showcased in all its squishy glory.
The flimsy piece of plastic that once separated us from the scary disease-ridden Play Doh Spaghetti Factory of raw meat is sent fluttering away as a mass of beef smacks the bottom of the bowl, a string of its congealed spaghetti mold falling askew.
just when you think you're about to be contaminated through the TV by the giant package-shaped lump of E. coli and pink brains,

that's when Rachel Ray rolls her sleeves up, looks dead into the soul of the camera, and shouts like a Drill Sargent, "Get in there and get messy!"

At which point she thrusts her bare hand right into the thick of the bowl. You hear a squelch as the meat loses its shape, bending to the will of her calloused and methodical fingers.

That's the point when I realize that I've seen everything I wanted to see for the whole rest of the episode, get up and find the remote. No sprinkling of arugula on a finished plate could fascinate my imagination as much as watching the process behind the Rachel Ray Burger, where you have a stocky brunette woman with meat hands screaming at you, "Get!--Messy! These mini burgers are going to be about a half a pound each!"

God, I love America.

Anyway, I bought a pack of ground beef thinking I could do something with it this week. I wasn't super stoked about the whole meal being a meatball bigger than your head (I mean I was super stoked about it until Katie stepped in as my powers of reason). How about good, ol-fashioned spaghetti and meatballs? Katie did all the hard parts with the diseased meat mashing while I stayed in the refuge of the stove and made the sauce. Besides, my favorite part is dumping herbs and spices and stirring the pot, saying, "È squisito! Buon appetito! Torno subito!"

A word to the impatient:
I am in no position to talk about Italian cooking, but I am in an excellent position to use a can opener, so here is my super fast semi-homemade sauce recipe:

Dice an onion and brown it in expired olive oil.
Meanwhile, coarsely mince at least 6 cloves of garlic and throw them in while the pan is still smokin' hot. Stir.
Add at least a tablespoon each of Kosher salt, cracked black pepper, thyme, powdered oregano, and basil. Keep stirring and add a dash of red pepper flakes to wake it up.
Add a can of tomato paste gradually, spoonful by spoonful. Often times it doesn't want to stir in, but tomato paste can be deceptively overpowering so be very careful and keep tasting/salting as needed.
Stir in 1/4 cup of cooking wine and just the slightest bit of brown sugar until it dissolves.
Open a can of diced tomatoes, dump them in, and bring it back up to a boil. If water needs to be added, do it now and gradually because you don't want to water down your sauce like I did on accident!
You're supposed to simmer tomato sauce for 8 hours so that all the sugars come out, but if you're like me you don't really start cooking dinner until you are already hungry. So.

At this point you can place the meatballs, raw, into the sauce. Don't stir them, or they will smash! Cover, turn heat to medium-low, and let them cook for 40 minutes. Make up some pasta! Buen appetito!

Now, I'm no Paul Newman, but I'm pretty sure with a little bell pepper and mushroom my spaghetti sauce could be a pretty good competitor when it comes to getting the job done.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

In search of the perfect grilled cheese

Despite what I said in the earlier post about adults who will order a grilled cheese in a restaurant, this is a sandwich that is very important to me. Mostly because it's so versatile, filling, and a tasty staple snack for any time of year. I think the assumption is that once you're old enough not to eat off the kids' menu anymore, it's because now you must know how to make your own grilled cheese whenever you want. This isn't necessarily true. Humans do not have this kind of instinct when it comes to hot things over a flame. Like with fried eggs or toasted marshmallows, there is serious technique involved that must be learned over time.

The most important thing that distinguishes a good grilled cheese from a bad one is the balance of grease and crunchiness that develops on the exterior of the bread. Glistening and golden brown, the perfect grilled cheese leaves your fingers with a crumby sheen that turns any white napkin translucent after hand contact.
If you want your grilled cheese to be any good, do not mistake PAM for a reasonable griddle lubricant. I tried this one day thinking I was being smart, and the result was dry as sand. Don't get me wrong, I love toast, but it doesn't make the best vehicle for melted cheese. What you want in a grilled cheese sandwich has a certain set of criteria that shares almost nothing with nutrition.

The ideal pan lubricant for a grilled cheese sandwich, you may be shocked to learn, is butter.

There is no adequate substitute.
You may think you're being clever using something like Earth Balance Non-Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil with Natural Butter Flavor. But trust me, nothing else will deliver in quite the same way as butter. We are not reinventing the wheel, here.

Since I spent all my money on vacation, I need to revisit some of history's cheapest weeknight dinner options. Grilled cheese is one of the most reliable choices, and it's especially delicious when paired with Campbell's tomato soup. Furthermore, everybody knows that any combination of bread, cheese, grease, and tomato makes the best food-based accompaniment to beer, which is the real focal point on a Wednesday night.

In making mine, I looked back on all the best grilled cheese sandwiches I've ever had and took a hint from my high school's cafeteria ladies. They had no shame in their pudgy stomachs as they literally dipped the bread in oil before frying.

So here's what I did:
Microwave 3 Tbsp. butter in a shallow dish.
Heat a dry pan for a minute on medium as you construct your sandwich.
Best cheeses include: American, a mild Cheddar, or Jack. Something that's not going stay hard and crumble, but will melt like a gooey dream between the layers of bread.
Remove butter from the microwave just as soon as it has barely melted.
Dredge one side of the sandwich in the butter, and place it in the pan.
Watch the heat! You want it hot enough to create a nice crust on the bread, but not so hot that it cooks the bread without melting the cheese inside. A good way to fix this problem is to cover it with a pan lid, turn up the heat and flip early, especially if you're in a hurry to eat.
Don't forget to dredge the other side of the bread in the melted butter before you flip!
It's better not to butter both sides of the bread at once, lest it soak in on the top piece and get soggy.
Also, wipe the pan with a dry paper towel between sandwiches. The old butter will burn if it stays on the surface of the hot pan, and it will ruin your sandwich.

That's just a starting point! There are all kinds of things you can do beyond the basic grilled cheese , such as:
pan-sauteed veggies, roasted garlic, chipotle cheese, bacon, tomato, turkey or ham, spinach, arugula, onion.

Or, according to Denny's, mozzarella sticks.

Monday, March 21, 2011

How to eat?

I have been thinking about starting up a cooking blog for a while now, to eclipse my now-retired knitting blog. Knitting was the trend I jumped on in high school, and now that I am graduating college I am clumsily heaving myself onto the foodie bandwagon in the creative wake of yarn and fibers. I am eternally a creatively inclined person, relishing in finding artistic uses for the otherwise useless thing. This was fun with knitting, especially when the end product, no matter how technically austere, had an actual function that kept you warm. This functionality comes into play with my new-found love of cooking less out of boredom, as with counting stitches, and more out of sheer necessity. This year I moved into my first apartment with my first ever kitchen--(MINE!!!)--and I couldn't wait to get cookin'. We eat out a lot. Sometimes every day for weeks. We love restaurants from Jimmy Johns (dirt cheap) to Taco Bell (maybe just dirt) to Sushi (classy) to even classier things that I can't even spell or pronounce. But when they add up, meals that are not made at home are so spensive. As a matter of fact, groceries are pretty spensive too, but at least you get the pleasure of creating a meal from scratch using just a couple of knives and your noggin.

The question presents itself every single day:
How to feed yo self???!!?!?//

Every single day, I must come up with a different answer.
And sometimes it's the most elaborate but ill-planned feast that just turns out wrong.
Sometimes it's pizza.
Sometimes it's a decked out bison burger being brought to my table that I ordered twenty minutes ago. And sometimes...
just sometimes...

it's my own (edible) creation.

(For future reference, I will not post or talk about anything here that was made directly from a recipe. I think that's dishonest. Strictly original.)
Off the top of my head, here are the top 3 things I've made that I was most proud of:
-Bacon-wrapped scallops with bourbon glaze
-Pomegranate-mint lemon rind marmalade
-Creamy Indian spiced sauteed greens
And, for scale, my bottom 3 disasters:
-The time I tried to bake bread from scratch. Spent way too long on the dumb parts, got impatient where I needed the most patience, and ended up with a dry clump of hardened flour.
-Anything baked, really. My cookies aren't even good. And there's always that pernicious temptation to add food coloring to anything I put in the oven. Green cupcakes, anyone?
-This one time I was watching Chopped and got inspired, so I ran to the pantry and tried to make a dish before the episode was over. What I ended up with was a gluey, brown stab at Thai-Mexican fusion (a combination which should NEVER be attempted). Alex Guarnaschelli would have choked.

Speaking of Chopped, let me say that everything I know about cooking I learned from countless hours watching the Food Network. I watch a lot of the Food Network. I watch more Food Network than you watch TV. I like the cooking competitions with angry judges. I love watching the hoity-toity critics get a beautifully executed dish with but a touch too much salt and just stare down the trembling chef with their livid gaze. (I didn't realize that not everybody likes this kind of late-night programming so I am now careful to steer the Food Network discussions elsewhere when people bring up something awful like Guy's Big Bite.)

Let me give you a frame of reference for the stiff food criteria I'm going up against. I don't only cook for myself at home. I also cook for my girlfriend, with whom I cohabitate. She cooks, too, and she's shown me up multiple times. But if you know Katie, you know that she is very particular about her food. Not that she's a picky eater. She's not like one of those adults that brings shame upon their families by ordering the grilled cheese and smiley face fries because they dare not branch out beyond their childhood tastes. No, quite the opposite. She has asserted multiple times that she would eat anything if it were prepared well, including but not limited to a puppy sandwich, or the last panda on Earth.

That's the only thing: If it were prepared well. She grew up eating in all kinds of restaurants with her family, who has made good food and good livin' a priority over all other kinds of wealth. And that, I respect. They've taken me out to dinner more times than I can count, and only in my wildest dreams could I wrap my head around certain luxuries, like snails sizzling in butter, each one tucked into their little snail compartment in a snail pan. Or tender, juicy rabbit in a mysterious but robustly flavored sauce. Until your tongue has dissolved the crispy char on the most silken morsel of grilled octopus, you cannot understand.

But good ingredients are not cheap, and neither is the first or second or third try at something that you still don't have the technique for. I have been known to cry because I used the last of my laundry money to buy a new spice I didn't know how to distribute, or rare mushrooms that I would immediately ruin. (Then I have to wear stinky clothes for a week and can't afford to buy Ramen.)
So I guess I gotta start at the beginning. Simple meals, simple ingredients. You haven't earned the fancy stuff until you can prepare a classic dish well.
I'm hoping, with this blog, to chronicle my learning process as I figure out the ins and outs of doing just that. I have never made a dish that I thought was perfect, including a bowl of cereal I poured, so I am very serious about recording my self-criticism along the way so that I might learn from my mistakes.

So here ends my first entry, concluding with a cheap dish I can make that my girlfriend purportedly likes. (actually, she lovingly calls it "crack," which makes me very happy.) It's chicken tinga poblana:Shredded Chicken Tacos

Serves 4
Preperation time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 40 minutes

1 (1 lb) package chicken thighs
1 (14 oz) can chicken broth
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large white onion, chopped
2 jalepeno peppers, de-seeded and chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 (14.5 oz) can diced tomatoes, undrained
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, to taste
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1 lime
8 small corn tortillas, heated

Pour broth over chicken in medium-sized pot. Bring to boil and simmer 20 minutes or until done.
Sautee 3/4 cup of chopped onion, garlic, and jalepenos in a well-oiled skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally as onion browns.
Add Red Gold Diced Tomatoes, cumin, cayenne, and salt to skillet and stir.
Remove cooked chicken from broth into a bowl. Using 2 forks, remove meat from bone and shred thoroughly.
Add chicken and 1/2 cup reserved broth to mixture. Let simmer 15 minutes, occasionally stirring until liquid evaporates.
Finish by stirring in 1/4 cup chopped cilantro.

Scoop chicken into 2 tortillas apiece. Top with remaining onion, sour cream, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime.

En el taco: