Monday, February 28, 2011

Day one: The Feast begins... with sabotage!

Dear Muzgaash of the Tower [that’s my oven’s Orc name from a generator I frequent],
It really sucks that you are trying to ruin my carefully planned meal itinerary, especially when you know how important it is to me. I worked on it all day Friday.  I even missed the first ten minutes of General Hospital—a sacrifice that led to confusion and suffering. Mostly because I didn’t know Brenda was in the limo when the bomb went off and I had to find out from stupid whiny little Molly. BTW, I told you it was Sam in the wreckage. You are home all week, you should have seen this coming. The Balkan left clues. And why didn’t you tell me Franco was going to be back? Not cool.
I bought you a new temperature gauge so we could communicate better, and a meat thermometer to take the pressure off of your work. You still undercook my joy and overcook my patience. 
Please try to be better. 
Very truly yours,
I wrote the above letter to my oven today.  I made pork chops as per the Master Plan for Sunday lunch and after Martha Stewart’s prescribed 16 minutes at an alleged 425°, the chops were still basically raw. They had to go back into the Mordor’s minion for another ten big ones, thus leading to overbrowning of their delicate breadcrumb crusts.
It was my first pork chop experience as a homecook and I didn’t love it.  Maybe because after the drama was over, the chops weren’t all that fantastically delicious. Pork has a sweetish flavor on its own, and I think the apricot jam glue that held the crumby crust in place over-sweetened the dish. A side of radicchio slaw (based on a smittenkitchen recipe) added some much-needed balance with its heat, oniony tang, and bitter crunch.  I will say, the multigrain crust was pretty bangin’—like a coat of stuffing, soaking up the juices from the meat on one side and crisping nicely on the other.
We put the icing on the cake of Day one: The Feast begins with, well, cake… that had no icing. Pretty appropriate, actually, because the pork wasn’t “the cake” that could be iced. So “the cake” became the real cake, and we missed the proverbial icing.  Anyway, who needs icing when you have molten chocolate? OH WAIT. Muzgaash vanquishes all oozy joy from the land of Welivehere and the cakes were significantly less molten than anticipated.  Still pretty good. I ate two… Don’t look at me like that—Alex ate three.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

This week, we feast

I like to visit the cows at the zoo. A lot. By “a lot I intend to explain both how much I like doing it and how frequently. As a service to the city, I visit the cows all winter to check on them and make sure they are okay.  Alex helps me because he says it is my destiny. Everyone knows that the zoo-folks milk the cows at 10 am.  It’s a well-known fact.  There is an eraser board sign about it.

We were up north yesterday, visiting the green city market and picking up the porkchops I ordered from city provisions, when I realized how close to ten it was.  Perfect! Let’s go see the cows getting milked.
Imagine my surprise when we roll up at 10:08 am to find Tina and Amarette unhooked from the milking apparatus, and Lyla already back in her stall, chomping away on alfalfa. Are you telling me it takes eight minutes to milk three cows, zookeeper lady? Because I think that is bullshit, pun very intended.
I was upset, but Amarette got real sassy with the Lady Keeper (she’s on edge because of baby Ginger—Amarette, not the Lady Keeper (poor parenthesis placement)) and that made me feel better.

So we continued on our way, off to hit two more grocery stores to finish getting groceries and prepping for Day 1 of my Master Plan. Oh, what’s that? I forgot to tell you how I made a detailed meal itinerary for this week and I’m calling it the Master Plan (sub titled, “This week, we feast”)?  Well I did. And it is awesome. I will be updating about its progress all week, so feel free to get really pumped about it.
I was going to up my crazy by becoming an extreme couponer. But I can’t coupon. It’s just not for me. I did look into it this week after watching “Extreme Couponing” with Alex because he “needed a break” from the housewives. It turns out that couponing is not for the sort of people who are very picky about their brands and go to four different grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and delis to get fresh local produce and proteins.
Couponing was out, so extreme planning was in. In defense of my crazy, I had kind of a weird week. To put it in perspective: I considered drinking my emergency Oberon—the last of its kind until the end of March.  

...None of this is making me sound any less crazy.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Alex likes eating: hamburgers!

This is a new segment in which I ask my buddy to talk about something he likes to eat.  I bet you already figured that out, so let’s move on. My live-in high-shelf reacher is a burger-eating expert. Today he is sharing a little of his immense knowledge with you fine people, reviewing four of his most-recent burger experiences.  Keep in mind that this post is powered by Alex’s love of bacon-cheddar cheeseburgers, and his willingness to put up with my ridiculous questions.

Where am I? Old Town Social

Which word best describes this burger?

Discuss the accoutrement.
This burger is topped with cheddar cheese, thinly sliced pickles, one medium sliced tomato, and shredded lettuce, along with a fried egg. But the important part is the addition of a light, yet tangy, sauce which adds to the juiciness factor. (Editor’s note: This burger does not come with fries! Be sure to order a cone for the table.)

If the burger were a car, what would it be?
I would say, that if you get the burger with the fried egg on top, it would be a Cadillac. It has its refined additions, i.e. shaved lettuce and light tangy sauce (heated leather seats, power everything, feels like you are driving on a cloud), but it still has some balls (read: deliciously juicy meat flavor)—it has the big beefy V8 which can be called upon at a moment’s notice to toast some little Honda Civic at a red light drag race. American muscle beats import everytime!

What combination of unicorns and rainbows would you give this burger?
I would give this a solid 9 unicorns on a scale of 1 to 10.

Additional comments?
This is everything a good burger should be.

Where am I? Smoke Daddy

Which word best describes this burger?

Discuss the accoutrement.
This burger was topped with cheddar cheese and bacon, along with lettuce, onion, and tomato.

If the burger were a color, what would it be?
I think this burger would be green, since this color falls in the middle of the light spectrum.

What combination of unicorns and rainbows would you give this burger?
I would have to give this burger a 5, or possibly a 6, for the nicely cooked bacon. It wasn’t the best burger that I have had, but it also wasn’t the worst.  (Editor’s note: I told him to get BBQ. He didn’t listen.)

Additional comments?
This burger could have used more flavor.

Where am I? Gemini Bistro

Which word best describes this burger?

Discuss the accoutrement.
This solid burger is topped with the classic lettuce, tomato, and pickle. The entire apparatus is housed between a pretzel bun. (Editor’s note: Not that Alex ever gets them, but Gemini Bistro parmesan truffle fries make me forget that I don’t have a jet-pack yet.)

If the burger were a tool, what would it be?
I think this burger is most like the “jaws of life,” used by firefighters to pry car doors open when they need to rescue a person trapped inside.

What combination of unicorns and rainbows would you give this burger?
I would give this burger 8 rainbows.

Additional comments?
This burger has lots of flavor, which is complemented nicely by the pretzel bun, and if you come hungry you will leave happy.

Where am I? Nightwood

Which word best describes this burger?

Discuss the accoutrement.
This burger is served with everything that you would expect: cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion, and a pickle slice on the side.

If the burger were a movie, what would it be?
This burger is Field of Dreams or the Lion King—feel good movies that everyone knows and something you can watch again and again.

What combination of unicorns and rainbows would you give this burger?
I would give this burger an 8, a classic. Can’t go wrong.

Additional comments?
This burger is best enjoyed with a beer on the side.

Burger and beer at Old Town Social.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The boxing lesson

Tonight I made 60 cupcakes to help my dad and Peggy with the Tet party they are hosting tomorrow in honor of Vietnamese New Year.  While I creamed together sugar and butter for chocolate-chip buttercream frosting, I listened to Alex explain a boxing match to my four-year-old sister.
“The guy with the red gloves is trying to knock out the guy with the gold gloves.”
“To win. They’re fighting.”
“Are they friends?”
“No. That’s why they are fighting.”
“What are they wearing?”
“On their hands?”
“Those are gloves.”
“So they don’t hurt themselves hitting each other.”
“Who is going to win?”
“The guy with the red gloves… See, the guy with the gold gloves is getting tired, that’s why he’s leaning into the other one. He needs a break.”
“Who is going to get knocked down?”
“Knocked out.”
“Knocked down?”
“Knocked out.”

Peggy, who was making homemade broth for pho on the stove behind me looked up to ask a question of her own, “Who is Alex talking to?”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

In which I finally plug Celine Dion

As an editorial intern, I once proclaimed to my boss that my favorite food texture was crunchy. Crunchy? He asked. Oh yes, I replied and began listing my favorite items. Pizza crust, fried chicken skin, potato chips. He listened to my list with a keen editorial ear and pronounced his correction with a smile, “Crispy. Those are all crispy.” I opened my mouth to argue, but no words would do. He was right, of course, I had described crispy items, nary a single crunch in the lineup. I had been edited. I'm sure you’ll all remember when Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
Keep that in mind when I tell you that this tostada is perfectly crispy—I mean, flatbread crispy, with snappy edges that crackle with every bite. It is also five-ingredient, ten-minute easy. And tasty to boot!
Leftover tortillas, sharp cheddar, and meaty black beans are recycled from the man pie, while zesty tomatillo salsa verde provides fresh flavor.  The salsa really kills it—like Celine Dion singing the last chorus of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.”  Baby, baby, baby!

This is Alex thinking, “Wow, that’s zesty!”

Crispy zesty tostada
(Add chicken to beef it up. This “recipe” is more about the method than anything else.) 

Preheat oven to 400°.  Place tortilla on a baking sheet and top with about ¼ cup of cheddar cheese and ¼ cup of black beans.  Bake until tortilla is crisp, cheese is melted, and beans are hot—eight to ten minutes. Slice an avocado and toss it with salsa verde to coat. Top tostado with dressed avocado slices and drizzle with more salsa verde. Make as many as needed and serve hot.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Crave o'clock

Last week’s Top Chef made me hungry. To be fair, every week’s Top Chef makes me hungry. This episode made me crave BBQ.  I’m not normally drawn to Angelo’s food (probably because he can be such a double-o doosh sometimesrare for a Bravo show, I know), but that pulled pork sandwich said one thing to me, “Go eat a pulled pork sandwich.” My stomach reacted so positively to Angelo’s creation that the very next day, my quest for a pulled pork sandwich began.  I asked around at my office re:PPSs and one answer came from the Northsiders: Smoke Daddy. Even a vegetarian coworker agreed. I mean, if you can’t trust a vegetarian about BBQ, who can you trust?

Armed with my longing and my recommendation, I left work Thursday and braved the North-going traffic to Division. A bar by day and night, Smoke Daddy is dark and cozy.  The menu is limited, but it includes all the right stuff. Well, everything you need to BBQ your face off, at least.  Allagash white on draft doesn’t hurt my review, either.
Alex, the “aaahmbugaah” fiend that he is, baconcheddar-cheeseburgered it up (hey girl, half-off burgers on Thursday), while I kept my eye firmly on the prize. Pulled pork sandwich with sweet potato fries, please. Oh, and I’ll have that Carolina style. (Don’t let my hip new lingo intimidate you. BBQ pro here, just asking for coleslaw.)
I remember it like it was yesterday—maybe that’s because it happened last week—my first bite was spicy, sweet, and tender, with cool crunch from the coleslaw. That Smoke Daddy sure can pull pork. Each bite took me deeper into the porkbelly of the beastwich, the sticky sauce coating my cheeks. I was the BBQ version of Health Ledger’s Joker. Do you want to know how I got these scars?
Let's talk about the cookie. You know the cookie I’m talking about: the dish of hot, gooey, chocolate-chipped dough, melting a single scoop of vanilla. That cookie. Oh yes, it was perfection.

Lesson of the week: mid-winter BBQ hits the spot. 

Smoke Daddy on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 11, 2011

Battle lunch

There’s a mini-competition at my office about who has the best lunch each day. Those of you who have played games with me probably are thinking that this is a dangerous pastime—what with my rumored competitive nature. While your concern is touching, I’ll assure you that the 12:08 debate is harmless—we are simply giving props where props are due.  Last week, in no uncertain terms, my props were don’t.  I got beat everyday.  Cinnamon raisin toast is as delicious as it is unimpressive.

This week, certainly not motivated by losing last week, I decided to do better.  My inspiration came from a recent addiction to endive. Plus, I had some grapes in the fridge that I didn’t want to sour… Don’t read anything into that.
I made chicken salad.  Juicy, tart grapes, crisp celery, and crunchy walnuts tossed with chopped chicken, scallions, and a light mayo-based dressing.  Light and mayo? you ask? Question mark? Yes. I answer. Narrating. Because I don’t love mayonnaise, I don’t use a lot of it. It makes me feel uncomfortable in large doses. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll dip fries in aioli all day, I just can’t stand scooping mayonnaise out of the jar in my fridge.  This makes me sound strange, so let’s just move on.
Paired with sharp endive cups and followed by goat cheese–stuffed dates, this meal is good enough for your next ladies’ luncheon or fancy hat party (or just for eating at your desk out of tupperware).  It’s a real winner. I mean that in the least competitive way.

Fear of Mayo Have to Win Lighter Chicken Salad
(About three days of delightful work lunches (unless your boyfriend eats it all).)

2 grilled chicken breasts, chopped
1 cup grapes, halved
1 rib of celery, thinly sliced
1/2 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 oversized scoop of mayo (using a regular for-the-table spoon)
1 regular-sized scoop of country Dijon mustard
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix mayo, mustard, and lemon juice together at the bottom of a large bowl.  Add in chicken, grapes, celery, walnuts, scallions, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss to coat. Win (with grace). 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Man food.

Last week, despite my foray into broader flavor territory, we fell into a rut. More appropriately, perhaps, is that we were snowed into a rut. The rut's name was cinnamon raisin bread. Problem: We ran out of milk for cereal. Solution: cinnamon raisin toast with cream cheese. No lunch supplies on hand? Cinnamon raisin toast with butter. After our at-least-once-weekly, no-inspiration, delicious dinner of scrambled eggs and potato wedges, Alex needed a snack. Cinnamon raisin toast with nutella? He asked.  I don't see why not, I replied.

I could probably go on eating this way, as I did freshman year in the Warren Towers dining hall (what up Late Nite quesadillas?)... but my buddy has started to rebel. Probably because he's out shoveling all of the time.  In any case, I'm told he needs real food. Man food.  So here it is.
How about Sunday night dinner of steak and potatoes? 

It may be cheating (with its lack of originality), but this was the quickest way to prove to Alex that I heard his pleas for “real” food. My marinade was closer to a wet rub (oil, red wine vinegar, Worcester sauce, mustard, and garlic), but it did the job. Pat the meat dry, generously salt and pepper both sides to create a crust and pop it in a hot pan. This was, in fact, the inaugural use of my Christmas pan from Moopsie: a Calphalon Unison nonstick 12-incher. Not content with just cooking the meat, I also used the pan to caramelize onions (using the water-only method) while the steak marinated. Then I added the onions back to the pan (deglazing with more water to pull up the brown meaty bits) while the steak rested. I love one pan cooking, and this is the pan to do it in—it was able to develop a nice sear on the steak, while being gentle enough to keep the onions from sticking.
I sliced the steak and served it with potato salad (boiled red potatoes dressed while warm with a red wine vinegar, mustard, and chive vinaigrette). Juicy flank steak topped with sweet and meaty caramelized onions=better fuel for shoveling.
I think the best part of this steak was how easily it transitioned from Sunday dinner to Monday dinner.  Salad is not always considered manly... but steak salad is!  I dressed some lettuce with olive oil, orange juice, lemon juice, salt and pepper to serve as a bed for the leftover flank. Add slices of roasted beet and supremes of orange and this flavor-jammed veggie fix is seasonal and hearty. Goat cheese adds punch to the melody of sweet and salty toppings—man food is flavor food, after all.
Which brings us to Tuesday night dinner: what says “man food” more than Martha Stewart and pie? (This question was designed to fool you.)  Everyday Food’s tortilla and black-bean pie.  Beans, melted cheddar, and beer. Comida del hombre!
I did a little prep Sunday night, cooking dry beans according to Rick Bayless—simmer beans with oil and onion for two hours, add salt and cook for fifteen minutes longer.  Dry beans are cheaper than canned, but aside from the financial benefit, I like being able to manage my own salt content.  Plus I like how shiny dry beans are when wet.  It’s the little things.
Canned or dry beans, this pie is solid and filling.  The layers are dense and cheesy and just a little spicy. It’s like a round Mexican lasagna. 

Man food accomplished.

Tortilla and black-bean pie (from

4 (10-inch) flour tortillas
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large onion, diced
1 jalapeno chile, minced (remove seeds and ribs for less heat)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Coarse salt and ground pepper
2 cans (15 ounces each) black beans, drained and rinsed
12 ounces beer, or 1 1/2 cups water
1 package (10 ounces) frozen corn
4 scallions, thinly sliced, plus more for garnish
2 1/2 cups (8 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Using a paring knife, trim tortillas to fit a 9-inch springform pan, using the bottom of the pan as a guide. Set aside.

Heat oil in skillet over medium heat. Add onion, jalapeno, garlic, and cumin; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add beans and beer to skillet, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium; simmer until liquid has almost evaporated, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in corn and scallions, and remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper.

Fit a trimmed tortilla in bottom of springform pan; layer with 1/4 of the beans and 1/2 cup cheese. Repeat three times, using 1 cup cheese on top layer. Bake until hot and cheese is melted, 20 to 25 minutes. Unmold pie; sprinkle with scallions. To serve, slice into wedges.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Call it rustic, if you must(ic)

On Monday when the buzz started up about the big storm a’coming in, the first thing I did was check on my frail elderly mother.  Well, that isn’t entirely accurate—I checked on Mom after I checked on myself a few times.  Once I was secure, I gave mother darling a ring—“Mother darling, are you there? It’s me, your favorite daughter, I want to scam help you prepare for the big storm that’s a’coming in! … You need some essentials to make it through? Why, yes! I can buy you butter, half and half, and cheese.”  In fact, I had been planning to buy cheese myself, and now Moopsie’s credit card was involved. Free cheese for me! 
But what cheese did I want from my benefactor? I settled on Humboldt fog, a tangy goat milk cheese with a “ribbon of edible vegetable ash” through the middle.  Around the rind it is runny and soft, whereas the center is more characteristic of fresh goat cheese (albeit denser in texture and flavor). It’s like two cheeses in one. And it is delicious.

I secured the cheeses from Pastoral and made my way south.  Alex and I braved the local grocery, packed with hummus hoarders and pita pocketers, to ensure that my Moopsie got the milk products she needed.  Alas, before bringing the spoils back to the motherland, we became hungry and brought ourselves home. 
I stood in the kitchen, free cheese in hand, wondering what to do.  And then I made this savory pear tart.  A puff pastry crust heaped with firm, ripe red pears, sprinkled with caramelized shallots, and topped with a layer of crumbled fog.  Into the oven until the crust was crisp and the pears were tender, then garnished with chive and balsamic. 

Sometimes I get into a flavor rut, parmesan cheese tends to be the gateway drug. Or tomatoes.  Lately, I’ve been into mustard.  This tasty tart helped me break out of my slump and into a new harmony of flavors.

We brought a slice to Mom, along with her essential groceries, and chatted for a bit about how overhyped the blizzard would turn out to be.  At least we got dinner right.

 Savory pear tart

1 defrosted sheet of puff pastry
3 firm, ripe pears cored and sliced (if you want the tart to be flatter, easier to eat, prettier, etc.  maybe use two pears—or cut them thinner than I did and have more patience for laying them out)
Half a lemon
3-ish ounces of goat cheese
1 large shallot
1 teaspoon of sugar

Preheat oven to 400°.  Slice shallot thinly and sauté on low-medium heat until it is soft and beginning to brown.  Add sugar and a tablespoon of water to speed up the caramelization process.  Keep an eye on the shallots so they don’t burn, but generally let them be while you slice the pears.  
Slice the pears. Toss with lemon juice to prevent browning.  Roll puff pastry out on a floured surface to get rid of the perforation lines.  Prick the inside of you tart with a fork, leaving a border for the crust.  
Butter a baking sheet and transfer the pastry crust to the center.  Arrange the pears in the center of the crust.  Top with caramelized shallots.  
Crumbled cheese over the pears and shallots.  
Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Brush the pastry crust with a little bit of milk to help it brown (I didn’t want to waste an egg for an egg wash).  Bake for 20 minutes, until the crust is crispy and the pears are tender.  Optional garnishes: splash of balsamic (or more lemon juice) and chives.