Monday, February 27, 2006

Roast beef with caper/parsley sauce.

Posted by Picasa When I can't think of what to make for Saturday supper, I always default to Chris Schlesinger. Chris is the chef behind the East Coast Grill, my favorite Cambridge restaurant. He likes his food with a tropical flair - he'll take ideas from anywhere, but his heart lies in the Caribbean and Latin America, which appeals strongly to my boyfriend. John's culinary imagination is fired by hot, exotic places, and Chris is his favorite chef.

Now, my own culinary imagination is geared toward colder climates.
I am, at heart, a New England cook, who was raised on Fannie Farmer gingerbread, baked beans and hotdogs, and cod on Fridays, with a little Julia Child for food-fantasy. Ultimately, I don't think cooks can completely overcome their roots, and when I try to cook, say, Asian food - well, it tastes okay, but you can tell the only Asian food I ate for the first eighteen years of my life came from the good people at LaChoy.(In case you haven't heard, they make Chinese "swing American.") When I browse through cookbooks, I tend to get excited by recipes from cold places - England, Russia, northern France.

But, the hot-climate cuisine that I feel the most comfortable with is definitely Caribbean. (Why? No idea, unless it has something to do with the old rum/sugar/slave trade routes bringing an Island influence on New England cooking. Certainly I used ginger, allspice, and clove, those staples of jerk seasoning, long before I had ever heard of tarragon or fenugreek or anise.) I also tend to like the bold flavors of Latin American food.

So, Saturday I had a top round roast that needed cooking, and I turned to Chris (or, more accurately, to his book How to Cook Meat.) This cut makes a decent, if not earth-shattering roast, so I wanted to spice it up a bit. What I liked about this recipe is that it was a Latin recipe (Argentinian, apparently) that reminded me of something from a colder climate. The sauce is simple, just parsley and capers with a little oil and vinegar. It wouldn't have seemed out of place on an Italian table or a British one, for that matter. But the roast itself was rubbed with cumin, as well as salt and lots of pepper, and the recommended side was roasted sweet potatoes, so there was definitely an exotic edge. It was delicious, and the prep took about twenty minutes total, plus cooking time (about 1.75 hours, though I left it in too long. I think I need to calibrate my thermometer.) Recommended.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The neglectful blogger

Hi, folks. I know I've been pretty negligent about new postings. It's hard to come up with interesting posts about food when you're eating out of the cafeteria for every meal.

It's true: the world's most militant bring-you-own-lunch-er has been eating at the cafeteria lunch and sometimes dinner every day this week.
Breakfast, too, though that's a regular thing. I like to have my breakfast when I get to work, so I do tend to buy a bagel downstairs. But lunch! And dinner!

This is what I'm learning about American food for quick consumption (I'm not eating fast food, precisely, but wraps and steam tray hot meals and salads and such) - there's more fat in this crap than in your fanciest, creamiest, butteriest French food. I had a turkey club the other day that had more bacon than turkey. It was also slathered in mayonnaise. I now understand why Americans are so damned obese. Egads.

I had a "mandarin chicken salad." I was expecting the crispy wontons. (Nods to Margaret Cho fans.) But I wasn't expecting the peanuts to be seemingly deep-fried. I wasn't expecting the chicken also to be battered and deep-fried. I wasn't expecting the dressing to drown the handful of lettuce leaves that were tossed in to convince people that this was really a "salad" and therefore really healthful.

Here's the most shameful part: I had some perfectly good meals in the freezer. I did. But every one of those meals was...soup. Now, I love a good soup. Soup is my warming, tasty, frugal kitchen friend. But sometimes, when faced with yet another meal of soup, I can be overcome by what I can only call despair. So, every day this week, I left the soup at home, optimistic that perhaps today's lunch would be better, somehow. It never was.

So this weekend, in my limited time between doing research in the library and writing papers at home (and cleaning the house), I've got to find a way to make really quick meals for the week that I will actually take to work. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

I used the plate. For Martha's Hot and Sour Salad

Okay, so it's not the MOST exciting use of the plate, but I used it! For food that was edible!

I actually liked this salad a lot, though the boyfriend thought it was too much work for something "not transcendent." This may be the first recipe I've ever used from Martha Stewart. I confess, blushingly, that I adore Martha Stewart. Maybe not Martha the gal, who is distinctly scary, but Martha the style-brand-concept. I love the look of her magazine; I love the food photos; I love how absolutely amazing the staff of MS Living can make the worst junk look. I'm sold on the whole deal. But it's just never occurred to me to make the recipes.

This is a salad from a recent issue. I gave it to the boyfriend because he loves salads, and salads with Asian flavors particularly. Also, I had to make it because the picture in the magazine showed the salad on a plain, square, white plate! Clearly, this was a sign. Anyway, the dressing was a bit bland, despite the presence of fish sauce, lime juice, and fresh ginger, so himself was disappointed. But I liked it even without the dressing, because the combination of grapefruit and mint is one of my favorites, and the crisp mildness of the Napa cabbage set those flavors off well. It stood up well, too. Left naked, it was nearly as fresh tasting Monday afternoon as it was Saturday night. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, February 12, 2006

I shouldn't have bought the plate.

I bought a nice plate. You see, I love my red-bandana-patterned plates, they're cheery and bright and my favorite color red-red-red, but unfortunately, they don't make the best food backdrop for pictures. They have too much presence. I had been wanting a new plate for some time now - just one, something plain, sleek and modern, for pictures. So I indulged myself with a nice oversized white square plate from China Fair, just the thing.

That's where things started going wrong.

You know how put pressure on yourself over little things, and suddenly you can't do stuff that you can usually do with your eyes shut. Like, um, cook? This weekend consisted of one cooking failure after another, and I blame the damned plate.

Saturday night I decided to make a dish from Chris Schlesinger, the wonderfully talented chef from the East Coast Grill in Cambridge. He's my boyfriend's favorite chef, so I figured I would make something special for pre-Valentine's (Valentine's Day itself I will spend sitting in a deeply boring reference class, thank you very much). I had a lamb shoulder roast in the freezer, so I chose a recipe for - get ready - Mustard-Crusted Roasted Lamb Shoulder in a Rosemary Jus with Tomato Ginger Confit. Now, that's a fab-sounding dish, don't you think? Me, too. I put aside my principles about out-of season tomatoes (California-grown, what isn't this time of year) and made the confit, which consists of chopped onions, minced fresh ginger, and whole cherry tomatoes, roasted in the oven until the onions start to caramelize, then the whole mix combined with brown sugar and lemon juice (I subbed lime). That was perfect.

I also roasted the shoulder in the mustard crust, and made the jus, which included balsamic vinegar and red wine as well as the rosemary and pan drippings, and that jus was also fab.

But the roast....There was something wrong with the roast. I had been a little skeptical about roasting a shoulder anyway, thinking it would be tough. But I trusted Chris, who has never before led me astray. And the meat was good, really good, tender and deeply flavored from the mustard/salt/white pepper coating.

But there was barely enough meat on the 4 pound shoulder for two people.

I had bought this lamb from the same farmer who had sold me a couple lambs last year. She was very nice, but a bit flakey. Unlike the beef man and the pork guy, the lamb lady (as we call her), never seemed to have it together. She forgot about parts of order; her whole lamb seemed to be missing some parts and have extras of others. And I think her butcher was drunk.

Maybe it's me. I've never made a lamb shoulder roast before. But this was the weirdest roast I've ever seen. It was all bones and cartilage and fat. There were ribs and what must have been the upper part of the leg bone and whatever the sheep equivalent to the scapula is. Between the bones there was a tiny amount of meat. Cutting it into presentable slices was impossible. We hacked at the meat and finally resorted to tearing with our fingers. I was very unhappy, because the sauce and the confit and the flavor of the meat were all fantastic. But the roast itself was a mess.

Sunday. Determined to salvage the dinner, I put the leftover bones in the pot to make stock. I then thaw some lamb stew meat, slice some onions, cut up a few potatoes. I sauteed the onions, removed them, and browned the stew meat, but again I was a little horrified by my meat. This stew meat is more than half fat. It had also been cut into chunks of greatly varying size - hacked, really. I put the onions back in, poured over the lamb stock and the remains of last night's jus, plus a little wine, and simmered away, adding the potatoes after the meat had cooked a while and finished with rosemary and black pepper. The stew was okay, nice and flavorful, but really, really fatty. I decided that I'm finding a new source of pastured lamb.

Okay, that should have been enough. But I had to go and make chocolate mousse.

Now, I consider mousse a personal speciality. I've made mousse without a recipe, just estimating the eggs and chocolate and so on, and had great results. Maybe I should have stuck to the estimation method. But no, I had to try a new recipe, from Francois Payard.

The recipe is probably fine. I just should never have 1) tried it while grumpy and tired and 2) cut it in half. Rule of thumb - don't cut a recipe in half if it calls for sugar syrup. There is no way to get your syrup to a precise temperature if there's only 1/2 inch of the stuff at the bottom of the pot. I burned the sugar. I started again. Meanwhile, I had taken the melted chocolate off the hot water, because I need the smallest pot for the syrup, so the chocolate was getting colder and colder. When I mixed the chocolate into the eggs, the whole business stiffened up, and I was left with all sorts of textural problems when I tried to fold in the whipped cream. Frankly, the whole thing was a waste of good chocolate, though we ate it, because unless actual burning is involved, anything made with chocolate and whipped cream can only be so bad. (The boyfriend called it "tapioca mousse" and proclaimed it delicious.)

So no pictures. Blame the plate.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Growing season

Growing season has begun, at least for those people who live in somewhat warmer climates or have cold frames or greenhouses. I remember that having a garden made the winter so much more bearable. There were decisions to be made and plans to make, and you could just feel the crocuses and snowdrops underground, waiting for showtime. My current apartment doesn't have access to a yard nor a porch nor even a fire escape. Winter seems very, very long.

So I press my nose up against the computer screen and look with yearning at the pictures posted by everyone who is planting seeds. I have just one thing to say: don't tell me to keep a a pot of herbs on my windowsill. I hear that a lot: "If you can't have a garden, you can always have a pot of herbs on your windowsill!" No, you can't. Not if you have cats who destroy plants with a patented combo-method of eating and knocking over. Not if your south-facing windows are under a tree. I've killed enough pots of rosemary for one lifetime, don't encourage more carnage.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Cacciatore, marengo, and polynesian

I was making a chicken dish the other, just pulling together what I had on hand: some mushrooms, a little celery, a can of tomatoes, some wine, onions. I browned the chicken pieces, then remove them from the fat, sauteed the vegetables, added the chicken back, plus the wine and tomatoes, covered and cooked slowly. I was halfway through the dish before I realized I was making chicken cacciatore.

Party dishes in the seventies usually meant chicken, browned in oil, then cooked in some sort of liquid (unless, of course, you want to stuff the chicken). The variations were endless, of course. Want to be all Polynesian? Use pineapple juice. Italian? Tomatoes, of course. French? White wine and mushrooms. Hungarian? Tomatoes, paprika, and finish with sour cream. You get the idea.

The pineapple juice was canned. So were the tomatoes, which was reasonable. So were the mushrooms, which was not. The cut-rate ingredients, along with complete disregard for authenticity in the naming, sent these dishes into disrepute in the eighties. It was with some abashedness that I told my boyfriend I had made chicken cacciatore for dinner, even though chicken cacciatore is apparently a perfectly legitimate Italian dish. (I don't think you can say the same for Chicken Polynesian). Cacciatore apparently means hunter's style. Maybe the hunters were finding mushrooms while they were out hunting. I don't know.

Anyway, I shouldn't have worried. My boyfriend was raised in an anthroposophist community in England: he has no sense of this sort of American suburban cooking or the snobberies around it.

Besides, there's nothing shameful about chicken cacciatore or marengo or mexicaine, except in certain cases the names. The method of cooking is simple fricasee, the ingredient list is flexible, and the results are usually pretty good. A little retro action never hurt anybody. Just skip the canned mushrooms.

(By the way, how the heck do I do accents? It's making me crazy.)