December 26, 2009

Christmas Dinner

For the second year in a row I was the only one of my siblings to make it home for Christmas. While the holidays aren't quite as exciting when you're the only one home, it certainly has its advantages. For one, I get way more presents than either of my brothers. And isn't that what Christmas is about? Just kidding, Bobby and Kyle. I'm sure mom and dad gave you just as many presents as they gave me. You guys got ponies, too, right? If not you should be happy to know that they at least hung up your stockings this year unlike the last when mine was the only one dangling from the mantle.

Since there were only three of us around to eat Christmas dinner, we kept it pretty simple. I brought my pasta-making discs home, and my mom and I made an Italian dinner from scratch. Noodles, tomato sauce, meatballs, and a caprese-like salad were on the menu, followed by a chocolate tart and a mincemeat pie for dessert. Yes, you read that correctly. Three people and two desserts. That's just how we roll. If it were up to my dad it would have been three desserts and no main course. That's just how he rolls. And due to his running regimen he has no rolls.

When I was in Matt's hometown last week I picked up a deeply discounted copy of the Silver Spoon Pasta cookbook at their soon to be no longer B. Dalton, satisfying my several month long desire to add that book to my collection. I set out to make meatballs and sauce from recipes in the book, and I ended up tweaking and adding on to both dishes. For the meatballs I combined about 1/2 lb. ground beef and about 1/2 lb. ground pork with an egg, a handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, maybe 1/4 cup breadcrumbs, salt and pepper.

The fresh parsley was key to the tastiness of the meatballs. The original recipe called for a single sprig of parsley, but I used several. It helped to brighten the flavor of the little balls of meat.

The meatballs were first browned in a little oil over medium-high heat, and then the lid went on and they were transferred to a 350 oven for maybe 20-30 minutes until they were cooked through.

My mom's 30+ year old KitchenAid may be on its last leg, but it still managed to crank out all of these pretty noodles.


The sauce was diced tomatoes, crushed red pepper flakes, Italian seasoning, garlic, and salt. It was OK (and much better than it looks in this photo), but it could have been better.

My plate.

My mom and I wanted to add olives to the pasta sauce, but since we knew my dad wouldn't be thrilled we resorted to sprinkling them on top as a garnish. It was slightly weird, in part because they were cold and raw and in part because they were of the green, pimento-stuffed variety. Next time I'll plan ahead and buy different olives and cook them with the sauce.

The salad was grape tomatoes, fresh mozzarella balls, chopped artichoke hearts, fresh basil, vinegar, and oil.

I've been going through this awful phase lately where I haven't been very impressed with desserts, but this Mexican Chocolate Tart has completely changed my outlook on decadent, chocolate things.

The tart was incredibly easy to make, it looks elegant, it tastes delicious, and it goes perfectly with a dollop of freshly whipped cream.

I was going to post a picture of the mincemeat pie, but the amount of time it takes to upload a picture with this slow internet coupled with the fact that I don't like mincemeat held me back. Maybe next year.

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December 25, 2009

Merry Merry

Merry Christmas from me and my pretty new friend!

December 24, 2009

Pastrami Pockets

Yo yo yo and ho ho ho. After living in fast forward with two weeks of finals, two weddings in two days, two Dakotas in two days, and two Iowa cities in two days things have finally slowed down. Internet speed included.

During the two weeks of finals I did a minimal amount of cooking, and I took even fewer photos. These pastrami pockets were one of the few things that made it out of my kitchen that are worthy of posting. The day I discovered pastrami was a day my life changed forever. I've always been a fan of corned beef, but pastrami is like corned beef version 2.0. Upgraded and enhanced. When you sandwich it with good bread and some cheese, it's hard to beat. Or cheese, hot peppers, and pie crust, as the case may be.

I got this pie mold a month or so ago at Williams-Sonoma for about $10. Like many of their products it's a little unnecessary, but I really like the idea of serving a pocket of meat in the shape of a heart. If you're a kid, or just act like one like me, I would recommend this little gadget. You can still make pocket pies without one, though, so nobody has to miss out on the fun.

Pastrami Pockets
Makes about 8

1 recipe of pie crust
1/4-1/2 lb. thinly sliced pastrami
A few ounces of swiss or cheddar
Dijon mustard
1 egg

After making batch of pie dough and refrigerating it, place in on a floured surface. I used a wheat crust that I'd made a few weeks before and stuck in the freezer, but any kind of pie crust is fine.

Roll out the dough until it's fairly thin. Just kind of eyeball it and make a guess at how thin it has to be to get about 16 cut outs. You don't want it too thick or the dough will take away from the filling.

Stamp out shapes with the pie mold or use a bowl or cookie cutters to get an even number of pieces.

Place one piece in the mold and spread a little mustard or some kind of sauce up to about 1/4" from the edge. You can spread it much more liberally than I did in this photo.

Add some cheese.

Add a little giardiniera. I wish I would have added more than this to ensure a little spice in every bite, and I definitely will next time. I made a few pockets sans hot peppers because Matt isn't as into them as I am, so feel free to leave them out if they're not your thing.

Top it all off with a little pastrami. You don't want to go so overboard with the fillings that you can't seal the pocket, but don't skimp either.

You should brush the edges with egg wash before adding the top layer and pressing them together, but I completely forgot. It still worked out fine, but I'll try to remember that step next time. If you don't have the pie mold you can just use a fork to seal the edges.

Place the pockets on a parchment-lined baking sheet, brush with a little egg wash, and bake at 375 for maybe 15 minutes or until the tops are golden.

I heart you, pastrami.

Ham and cheese pockets are good, too. Just make sure you add some kind of sauce or they're a little on the dry side.

Peanut butter and Nutella pockets are a tasty dessert. I might even heart peanut butter and Nutella more than I heart pastrami. Yeah, I said it.


December 14, 2009

Run, Run, As Fast As You Can

Last night I took a break from (thinking about) studying for my last final to make gingerbread cookies. My mom always makes spice cookies around this time of year, which I suppose are pretty much the same as gingerbread cookies, except they're rolled into a ball and coated with sugar instead of being cut into the shape of a man. A man is so much more exciting than a circle, though, with one exception* that you will see later.

I used a recipe from Simply Recipes, and it turned out to be a cinch to make and produced quite tasty results.

The best part of the recipe, which I suppose is true of any cut-out cookies if you put your mind to it, is that you don't need any special cookie cutter. You can either make a stencil or, as I did, freehand it. I ended up with a few pretty freakish gingerbread people, but generally they turned out well.

Once you get bored with cutting out little people, you can cut out other random objects. I made letters, a dreidel, a crown, some blobs, an apostrophe and something even more exciting that you will see below.

Hog pile! Or Russian (gingerbread) dolls.

*Pac Man!

These cookies are decent on their own, but a big glob of frosting makes them even better. I had some leftover frosting from my last batch of these, which allowed me to focus my attention back on thinking about starting to study instead of on whipping up a batch of frosting. What a relief that was!

Update: A smear of Nutella on a gingerbread cookie is absolutely wonderful.

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December 12, 2009

Macaroni and Cheese

As much as I love cheese, I'm not a huge macaroni and cheese person. Sure, I ate my fair share of it when I was a kid, treasured shipments of Easy Mac when I was abroad, and still occasionally buy a box to keep in the cupboard, but to give you an idea of how infrequently I eat it I will tell you that a box of macaroni and cheese is good for at least two years beyond its expiration date. Slightly disturbing, but true.

My indifference to macaroni and cheese applies to eating it in restaurants as well as eating it from a box. I've had a few bites of Matt's mac and cheese from Joe's Garage, but I would never order it for myself because I would much rather blow calories on their fries with basil aioli. The same goes for Yum - I would choose their crispy fries with red pepper aioli over their mac and cheese any day. A few weeks ago, though, my mom, Matt, and I were eating at Nick and Eddie, and it turned out to be one of those rare occasions when mac and cheese sounded really good. To be completely honest it was the lobster that was mixed in with it more than the cheesy noodles themselves that prompted me to order it, but the bottom line is I picked mac and cheese over fish and chips. So basically, fries with good dipping sauces trump macaroni and cheese, but lobster trumps fries.

Although I have no problem going long periods of time without a dose of cheesy noodles, sometimes I do eat it more often than once a year. When I was home over Thanksgiving I went through the collection of old magazines that had been accumulating in the rack next to my bed, pitching a couple old copies of Vanity Fair and W before stumbling upon an issue of Saveur. It dated back to April 2005 (vintage!) and the theme was "American Artisanal Cheese." I still can't figure out how I had the good sense to buy it back then, but then I let it sit around for four and a half years before making use of it. When I saw the recipe for macaroni and cheese I knew I had to make up for lost time. It was my call to duty.

Macaroni and Cheese
From Saveur, April 2005, based on a recipe from Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating

1 lb. tube-shaped pasta
2 tbsp. butter
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 sprig fresh thyme
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 tbsp. flour
3 1/2 cups milk
2 tbsp. dijon mustard
1 lb. aged cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper
1-2 tbsp. coarse bread crumbs

Although the recipe calls for a pound of aged cheddar, I couldn't get myself to spring for an entire pound of pricey cheese. I went with a little less than half a pound of Dubliner and supplemented that with cheaper stuff. In hindsight it would have only set me back a few more bucks to just stick with the aged variety, but the combination of the two produced a perfectly acceptable result so I guess I shouldn't worry about it.

On a side note, I heard on NPR last week that most of the cheddar you buy at the store (like the variety on the left) is only a few months old at most. It came up in a discussion of a 15-year-old cheddar from Wisconsin that's selling for $50/pound.

Start by cooking your pasta until it's not quite cooked through. The recipe suggests cooking it for 6-7 minutes, the box of rigatoni I used said 14 minutes until al dente, and I cooked this for about 8-10 minutes. After cooking the pasta, drain it, rinse it with cold water, and drain it again. Set it aside while you work on the sauce.

As far as types of pasta go you can use penne, rigatoni, macaroni or any other tube-shaped pasta you like.

While the pasta is boiling, grate the cheese. I just kind of guessed with amounts. You need about 4 1/2 cups, and I probably had a generous 4 1/2 cups.

Have your onion, garlic, rosemary and thyme ready.

Melt a couple tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan over medium heat.

Add the onion, garlic, rosemary and thyme. Cook for several minutes until the onion softens.

While that's cooking, get the remaining ingredients ready. The only white-ish wine I had was a bottle of vinho verde that had been opened in my fridge for long enough that it had lost its fizz, and I don't think it hurt the quality of the dish.

Add the wine and cook for 2-3 minutes.

Discard the herbs and the garlic, and add the flour. Cook for one minute. I'm not sure if I overestimated the amount of time the wine was cooking or not, but most of the liquid had cooked off by the time I added the flour.

Slowly add the milk and then the mustard. The recipe tells you to reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, but I didn't have any kind of simmer to maintain after I added the milk. I guess I added it too quickly, so if you run into the same problem bring the mixture to a simmer and then reduce the heat.

Now we get to the exciting part - constantly stirring the mixture for 30 minutes! I suggest timing the cooking so this part coincides with an episode of Jeopardy. That way you can learn fun(ny) things while stirring. Did you know that another name for chewing tobacco is West Virginia coleslaw?

Go ahead and preheat your oven to 400 at some point in here.

After 30 minutes or so the mixture should be thick and creamy and will coat the back of a spoon. Here's a little tip: slippery rubber spatulas are not as good of a tester as an actual spoon.

Remove the mixture from the heat, and mix in 2/3 to 3/4 of the grated cheese. You're supposed to add a handful at a time and make sure the cheese is completely melted before adding the next handful, but I didn't read that part of the recipe until after I'd dumped a bunch of it in.

Season with salt and lots of freshly ground pepper.

Mix the cheese sauce with the pasta.

Pour the mixture into a large baking dish.

Top with the remaining cheese and the breadcrumbs.

Bake at 400 for about 25 minutes, or until the top is golden.

We ate this with pieces of roasted squash to make ourselves feel better about the extreme amounts of cheese.

The only thing I would consider doing differently next time is to bake it in a large, rimmed baking sheet instead of a deep baking dish to increase the surface area of the crusty top.

One more thing, if you want to do some of the work ahead of time you can do all of the steps through adding the noodles and sauce to the baking dish, and then stick it in the refrigerator until you're almost ready to bake it. Take it out while the oven is preheating, add the topping, and then bake it as you normally would.

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December 10, 2009

Life Lessons and Rotisserie Chicken

In the spirit of Christmas, I thought I would give you all a few tips on gift-giving. I know this is a food blog and all, but trust me, I have some very important advice to give.

1. Give people puppies. They're cute, and everybody loves them.
2. Tip number 1 has one very important exception. If you are my brother, give your wife a kitty. Seriously, JUST GET HER A KITTEN ALREADY!
3. Re-gifting is a perfectly acceptable practice. However, if you are going to re-gift, you might not want to re-gift to the daughter of the people who gave you the gift in the first place because she might tell the original gifter about her exciting new gift and the truth will come out. Even if several years have passed since the gift was originally given. I'm talking to you, Grandpa and Grandma! But thanks for the rotisserie (Mom and Dad). I really like it.

I suppose this post is a little more for the purpose of handing out gift-giving tips than for giving you ideas for using your George Foreman Baby George Rotisserie because let's be honest, I must be one of about 200 people that actually has one of these things. Right? I put it on the same level as the product hawked on my favorite informercial - that cooker that makes anything you could possibly want (Chicken breasts! Pancakes! Corndogs!), as long as you don't mind all of your meals being in a perfect half-moon shape. I almost made a crack about the Magic Bullet, but if someone re-gifted me a Magic Bullet I would totally use it. And don't get me wrong, I love my George Foreman Grill. But a rotisserie? A rotisserie?

Anyway, I thought I would show you what you can do with your own rotisserie, should one be re-gifted to you one of these days.

Start with a chicken. The recipe book that came with the rotisserie said that a 4 to 5 pound chicken will feed 4 people. I found this pretty shocking until I remembered the time in college when my friend Justin got drunk and woke up with two chicken carcasses on the floor next to him. Impressive, isn't it?

Select some sort of seasoning mix, spices or herbs. I used Pluto's Jerk Seasoning, which is totally awesome.

If you're interested in ordering your own, refer to the info on the label. Their jerk sauces are really good, too. Easy access to Pluto's products are one of the worst things about my brother and sister-and-law leaving North Carolina.

Anyway, rub seasoning or spices all over the bird.

I've always thought chickens look really vulnerable in this position, and I finally figured it out. It's the wings. This is the exact position we would have to be in during tornado drills elementary school - curled up on the ground with your hands over your head. This leads me to the age-old question: which came first, the chicken or tornado safety?

Truss the ol' bird.

Load it onto the rotisserie rods. I really couldn't think of a graceful way of saying that. Nor could I get a remotely decent photo.

Fire up the grill!

This is what I ended up with 45 minutes to an hour later. It cooked a lot faster than the instructions suggested. More importantly, it was really tasty.

The skin crisped up nicely, and the inside was tender and juicy. Matt and I ate some of whole pieces, and there were a ton of leftovers that we made sandwiches with.

I have a bone to pick with the wishbone, though. My brothers always laid claim to the wishbone when we were growing up, so now that they're not standing in my way you can be certain that I take advantage of that little bone. I let it dry out for a little bit, and when Matt and I broke it we ended up with two even pieces in our hands and the middle section flying through the air. Whaaaaa? Whose wish comes true if the wishbone ends up in three pieces?

Finally, here is something you can make should you not be one of the select number of individuals who owns a rotisserie. Cut a squash in half (this is a delicata), rub it with a tiny bit of olive oil (at least I think I did that), sprinkle it with salt, cumin, and a little cinnamon, and roast it in a pan with a little water loosely covered with foil at 350-400 until tender. It's pretty hard to mess up, and it tastes delicious.