31 August 2009

Just Ask

I'm going to try very hard to keep this post from sounding like a your-mother-told-you-so speech. But really, she probably did tell you this already, at least mine did.

Just ask. That's it, my advice for the week. The reward was a fabulous meal shared with fantastic company.

Nathan and Leah came over for dinner on Saturday, something that used to scare me given their farmer, foodie and wine-knowing status, but it is nothing more than a fantastic treat. In preparation, I made a trip to the farmer's market. I bought a few veggies, keeping in mind what Nathan would be bringing from his own farm and then set out to buy some locally-raised lamb. The gals at the booth were offering samples of their delicious lamb. I tried. I liked.

Then, I asked about the marinade. I watched one of the women write it down for another customer. Parsley, cilantro, cumin, onions, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. Easy enough. Then I asked her how long, and she said the recipe called for 30 minutes, but she had the best results with three hours. Well, what a great tip, especially given she makes the recipe weekly, and she wants something that highlights her meat at its best. I would take her advice.

Later that afternoon I headed down the street to pick up a bottle of wine and thought about dessert on my walk. I wanted to grill a couple of peaches, but I needed to do something with them to complete the dish. Because of a few dietary restrictions with my crowd, I couldn't incorporate gluten or refined sugar into my dessert. I thought some rosemary whipped cream would be delicious with them. Then, after thinking it through in my head, I realized I wasn't sure how to impart the rosemary flavor (via some kind of steeping method) without killing my chances of getting the cream to whip. So, I stopped by Mint Tea, a cafe down the street, to ask the cook in the kitchen how he'd go about doing this. I knew he'd know more about milk proteins than I did, and I was right. He said heating the cream would probably kill my chances of getting a nice fluffy result. So he suggested I steep the herb in just a small amount of cream, only bringing it up to about 120 degrees. So that's what I did. After grilling the peaches, I topped them with a dollop of the rosemary whipped cream, a sprinkle of rosemary for garnish and then a drizzle of honey. It was pretty darn tasty.

The dinner turned into one of those where we just had bowls and platters filled with salads, grilled squash, eggplant, lamb and potatoes that we passed around the table. It was fun, relaxed, delicious and too simple to feel stuffy. What a perfect night. So perfect, in fact, I didn't stop to take a picture until the whole thing was over. I had a mountain of dishes, but I didn't care. Doing them gave me time to reflect on how much fun the evening was.

Asking how to prepare something doesn't make you a bad cook. It makes you a smart cook. There are very few -- if any -- dishes and cooking methods that haven't been tried before. Let someone else's experience and knowledge lighten your load. And, most of us are happy to share. Ask the butcher how to cook the meat. Or your friend who makes delicious pies for her crust recipe. And your neighbor whose husband loves to garden, ask what she does with all those tomatoes he grows.

I hope you find a way to make the best of what's left of the summer season. Its ripe bounty, outstanding weather and playful attitude don't last forever.

And if you're not sure what to do, just ask.

24 August 2009

For the Love of an Onion

Sometimes when I hear someone say they don't like onions, I pause for a second, thinking of all the terrible ways onions are served. There's the huge, half-inch-thick rings of red onion on a backyard burger, those teeny tiny ones on McDonald's burgers and the dehydrated flakes you can buy next to spices in the grocery store.

If someone makes a judgment of their onion likability based on one of those variations, I cringe. It would be kind of like saying you hate compact cars because you'd only seen the Ford Fiesta. There are far better versions out there.

This is the exact moment for which the caramelized onion was created. It's amazing what just a little bit of heat, oil and love can do for the plain old onion. The texture turns soft, and the once stiff curls of white, turn golden and limp, as if they'd worked a hard day and just melted into the couch with a drink in one hand. A light dusting of salt added while they cook heightens the notice-me factor, transforming onions from a condiment to something you might just sit and eat right there, straight from the pan without giving it a second thought. Then, you will think, "Who on earth could hate onions?"

I'll tell you how to make caramelized onions, and I don't mind a bit if you just eat them from the pan. But, if you'd like to share, the possibilities are endless. Add them to salads, your mac' 'n' cheese, atop your pizza, on a sandwich, in an omelet, a pasta salad or mashed potatoes. Mix them with goat cheese and spread on crostinis or dollop onto grilled peaches. Sweet, subtle and a little indulgent, they transform any everyday dish into something worth making again.

How to caramelize onions:

Caramelize is a verb and adjective you'll hear frequently regarding cooking. It basically means to cook something slowly so that the sugars have a chance to percolate, browning as they come to the surface -- hence the name, caramelize.

To caramelize onions, slice any variety of onion (except green onions or scallions). If you're not sure how to slice an onion, click here, for a video tutorial. Since caramelized onions are about a quarter of the volume of whole onions, shoot for more, not less. Estimate that one, baseball-size onion will equal roughly a quarter of a cup of caramelized onions.

Using a heavy-bottomed pan (
not non-stick), add about a tablespoon of olive oil per medium onion to a medium-hot pan. Once the oil ripples, add onions. Shake the pan about just to create a single, even layer of onion. For best results, don't overcrowd the pan; they will just steam and not caramelize. Reduce the heat to a medium low and leave alone. Seriously, don't poke and push around with a spoon. Just leave them. Cook something else, read the paper or drink a glass of wine. Push them around just once or twice when they begin to brown, so they get evenly cooked. The process will take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour depending on how thickly you've sliced your onions and just how many there are in your pan. Lower the temperature if they begin to burn.

Once cooked, use them immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a couple of days. The onions can be pulled out and either reheated quickly in a skillet or used room temperature.

17 August 2009

Perfect Pork

Today I'm finally going to get around to telling you about that pork I mentioned last week. Before that, however, I have a few things to share. None of them are terribly exciting, but seeing as if I have a fantasy that thousands of you log onto your computers every Monday just to see what I have to say this week, indulge me.
  1. I saw Julie & Julia this weekend. I read the Julie book a couple of years ago. It mostly ticked me off that I didn't think of it first, reinforcing the idea that any blog is nothing more than unpublished writer's haven (except of course if you're Julie Powell and you get a book deal followed by a blockbuster movie deal). The movie, however, was lots of fun, especially the half about Julia.
  2. I made the potato salad from last week again last night. I just wanted to mention that this batch seemed to soak up more dressing that last week's. I did use a different potato variety, but it, too, was a low-starch type. Please note that if your potatoes look a little dry, give 'em just a bit more dressing love. I'd hate to lead you astray with this lovely salad.
  3. When I was back home last month, I spotted a book on my mother-in-law's shelf that I knew I had to read: Heloise's Kitchen Hints. I borrowed it, promising Janet I'd return it to her some day. I've been reading bits of it before bed each night. While there are some outdated bits of advice like, say, baking cakes in coffee cans (I mean really, who buys coffee in cans these days?), I've got to say there are more than a few handy tips. Like how to dry lettuce before the salad spinner became a ubiquitous kitchen tool -- the washing machine on the spin cycle. I tried it myself this weekend, and it worked like a charm. (My salad spinner was a casualty in the don't-put-cheap-plastic-on-the-bottom-rack-of-the-dishwasher war.) Wash your greens, wrap them gently in a large kitchen towel or pillowcase. Then spin away. Genius.
OK, the pork. This is more of a cooking technique than a recipe. I love cooking those huge hunks of pork, the cheap cuts, often going by names like shoulder, butt and picnic. They can be somewhat intimidating, just a huge lump of flesh, and, if not cooked properly, they seize up and turn so tough that it just might break the glass on the window you try to heave it through.

That point when it's really tough is typically when you might begin to curse yourself for overcooking the meat. But this cheap pork thing is tricky. The meat does get icky tough, but then, you cook it longer and it relents, yielding to the slightest pressure from the back of a fork. It's done when you can make it look like this just using your hands.

Given my love for huge chunks of pork, I've cooked them in the slow cooker, on the stove top, in the oven and on the grill. Some methods work better than others. This method, produces the best results given it takes so little work. You get tender pork that still has enough structure -- something I can't seem to get from the slow cooker methods.

Here's what you need to know:

(Just one second. Remember I said this was easy? It is. It just looks like a long description. For those of you out there who are more visual like I am, just look at the picture below.)

Sprinkle about two tablespoons of kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper into a dry roasting pan. Shake the pan a bit to evenly spread the salt and pepper. Take the meat (dry, please) and roll it in the pan, so that every cranny of it gets a little salt and pepper love. Set aside. Take two strings of kitchen twine, at least 12 inches long and lay them parallel to each other about four inches apart. Then, take a heap of herbs such as oregano, rosemary, thyme and parsley and pile them in a layer atop the twine, running perpendicular, probably about eight to 10 inches wide. Then place your seasoned pork smack in the middle of the herbs, positioned so the stems of the herbs are running lengthwise with the meat. Next, using the kitchen twine as your guide, roll the pork slowly, pulling the herbs around it as you go and tie the twine to secure. Then wrap the whole thing tightly in foil, place it in that roasting pan and pop it into a 325 degree oven. Set a timer for an hour and a half. Depending on the size of your cut, it could take longer. Once the timer goes off, check the meat. If it does not easily yield to a little pressure, it's not done. Wrap it back up, put it in the oven and check it in another 40 minutes or so, continuing to cook and checking every so often until it's done. When it is done, unwrap the foil, cut the twine, and remove and discard the herbs. Pull the pork into chunks and serve. Delicious.

And just in case you have leftovers, you could add some saucy sauce and make it look like this. Enjoy.

10 August 2009

Last-Minute Potato Salad

I planned on telling you about a great method for slow-roasting pork shoulder today, but I got sidetracked last night. I wanted to pull together a quick dinner that came mostly from the grill. The chicken and summer squash were perfect for the hot coals, but two large potatoes would need something else. That's when I remembered a great potato salad I had at the Garden State food cart in Sellwood recently.

Yes, I know I recently raved about Grandma Sarah's Potato Salad, and that one still is, indeed, my favorite. When you're in the creamy kinda mood. But sometimes I could do without the mayo hangover. This potato salad can be made in a matter of minutes, and it's somewhat deceptive. Don't get me wrong, it does look good, but it tastes even better than it looks. Using a less starchy new potato means that the vegetable holds its shape, and thinly sliced raw onions become soft thanks to the vinegar-based dressing. The key is to dress the potatoes while they're still warm -- an opposite from a mayo-based potato salad. The warmth means that the potatoes are opened up and ready to absorb the dressing. That means the potatoes aren't coated in a dressing, they're saturated with the dressing, soaking it up like a dry sponge dropped into a wet sink. Delicious.

The best part is that the cook time on this is about five minutes, the prep a little less and then the rest is just to let the salad sit for a bit to come together, save a few tosses. This is the perfect time to tend the grill, talk about the day or drink a glass of wine. That, is a perfect potato salad.

Last-Minute Potato Salad

2 large new potatoes
1/2 small onion, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 tbsp red wine vinegar
3-4 tbsp olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste
Chopped herbs such as rosemary or parsley

Cut potatoes into thick slices, roughly one-half inch. Steam potatoes just until tender. Remove from heat to dry for a few moments. While steaming, combine remaining ingredients to make dressing, whisking to bring the oil and vinegar together. Taste dressing and adjust seasoning as desired. Once potatoes are cool enough to handle, but still warm, pour the dressing over top of them. Using your hands, gently toss to coat potatoes in dressing without breaking them apart. Let potato salad stand for about 20 minutes, tossing every five or so minutes to continue to coat potatoes. Serve immediately or refrigerate.

Serves about two as a side dish. Double or triple proportions accordingly.

03 August 2009

Where will sorbet take you?

Last week when I wrote about grilling pizzas, it was hot. I now know I was wrong. In the days following that post the thermometer crept up to 107 outside. Inside our usually cozy Northwest home, sans AC, it was a whopping 90. In the mornings.

So the past week we were on a hiatus from using heat in the kitchen for anything. Well, I suppose that's not exactly true. I did boil pasta one night, and I used the slow cooker to make pulled pork. Oh, and the microwave steamer was my best friend.

Somewhere in there, I had to make a dessert for book club. A crisp, cobbler or pie would have done right by the fruit of the season, but they all took some heavy-duty fire power to bake them. And trying to keep it dairy-free for a friend ruled out an icebox pie. With four over-ripe peaches waiting for their hips to sag in the heat, I decided they must be part of my dessert plan. Then I remembered that gifted bottle of Prosecco collecting dust. My dessert would be Peach Sorbet.

Sorbet is one of the most deceptive desserts out there. It requires very few tools save a blender or food processor, demands practically zero effort and the reward is the ripe, sugary goodness of fresh fruit, frozen into thousands of ice crystals that walk the line between ice cream and Popsicle.

You will see some recipes call for an ice cream maker, but this method just uses your freezer. Try swapping your other favorite fruits for peaches -- nectarines, plums, berries, pears, melon. I even had a rose sorbet once that was to die for. The chef had hand-picked fresh petals that morning to make the palate cleanser. It tasted, I told the her, like I imagine some elegant and romantic French lingerie shop with plush velvet chairs, beautiful blue-haired shop keepers, and a window display any mother could walk by with her child.

A wonderful sorbet, I suppose, can take you just about anywhere.

Summer Peach Sorbet

3 Large, ripe peaches
1/3 cup Prosecco or other sparkling white wine*
Approx. 1 tablespoon sugar
1 medium lemon, juiced

To remove the peach skins, with a knife, cut through the skins, making a large X in the butt of the fruit. Add peaches to boiling water for about 1 minute. You will see the skins start to pull away from the crisscross cut. Remove peach from pot and, once cool enough to handle, gently rub or pull away skins. Pit the peaches and load the fruit into a food processor or blender (work in batches if needed). Add the wine, sugar and lemon juice and puree. Taste. Add more sugar if needed, based on the fruit's ripeness. Once mixture is done, pour into a shallow vessel. A plastic container with a lid is best, but a cake pan or glass dish works as well. Cover and place in the freezer. About every hour or so, remove the mixture from freezer and stir with a fork, pulling any freezing chunks on the edges to the inner part of the dish. After about four to five hours the sorbet will be ready to serve.

* The alcohol helps this dish by not allowing it to freeze completely. However, if you want to make an alcohol-free version, make a simple syrup with equal parts sugar and water instead.