Monday, November 9, 2009

Just Keep on Ruhlman

I'd like to start by saying that I quite hope that I didn't make Brett as nervous as he implied. Interestingly enough, it was actually the first time he had ever cooked for me. I have to say that I was impressed. He cooked a stellar meal, managed to show me a good time and Wooster and really introduced me to the greatness that sage would help a meal attain. Thank you, Brett. Aces all the way. Let's do it again soon.

Yes, I know, I already spoke of Michael Ruhlman. So why, then, am I revisiting him so soon? The answer? I just picked up a copy of The Elements of Cooking. I'm not exaggerating when I say that Mr. Ruhlman ignites my passion for cooking more than any chef out there. Period.

The Elements of Cooking is important in exactly the same way as Ratio. Ruhlman doesn't give you the blueprints to a great meal. A step by step guide full of recipes ensured to "Feed Friends and Satiate People" this most certainly is not. It's a foundation on which incredible things can be built. Without that foundation, nothing will stand.

Naturally, Ruhlman covers everything in this book. Stocks? Check. Eggs? Check. Cookware? Check. Salt? Check. Wait, salt? What needs to be said about salt? A lot. If I didn't already love Michael Ruhlman, his writings on salt would have made me. I feel vindicated by what he wrote, that, as Thomas Keller said, salting is the most important skill for a cook to have. I am glad to say that I actually realized this years ago. Undersalted food is bland, no matter how many other spices are included, and oversalted food can be inedible. Sorry is the cook that doesn't recognize the importance of using salt properly.

Anyhow, I HIGHLY recommend this book. No matter whether you're an old hand or just delving into the world of cooking. Proper mastery of the basics is essential to attaining any level of culinary success.

Fall-ing in love again...

As long as I can remember, autumn has been my favorite season. This is for a number of obvious reasons. Spending all day raking leaves in the yard into a HUGE pile so that you can decimate it with so many different ways to jump into it. Good quality time with family (over food of course). Carving pumpkins, a tradition I still continue to this day and one which often will yield some delicious pumpkin puree for later use. But of course, the best part is the baking.

Now, you can tell I've been watching what I eat because it has been such a long time since my last Blog entry. I guess I just don't think many people will find reading about grilled chicken, broccoli, and brown rice to be all that intriguing. But now that summer is over, it's time to reward myself for the hard work... and reward is quite the word for it. There are so many goodies to have, it can be mind boggling. Pumpkin pie, spice cookies, hot cocoa, apple cider(mulled, of course), even on occasion candy corn, and so many more. It's the one season that my neighbors can't complain because I make the whole building smell like my mom's kitchen at Thanksgiving; you would have to be a communist not to love that. Now, when it comes to baking for autumn the primary ingredient of the season is obvious to anyone who grew up anywhere the leaves change... That ingredient: Pumpkin.

In the more than a decade since I've been experimenting with food I've used the pureed gold in so many different ways. Baking is obvious, but I've also used it in pastas, soups, sauces, kebabs... the list can go on and on. I've truly come to know Pumpkin as a delicious, extremely versatile, and wildly popular kitchen staple. But when the equation comes down to Autumn + Pumpkin + Oven, there is only one answer as far as I'm concerned and it isn't pumpkin pie (no hate mail, please). We are, in fact, talking about the uber-delicious, ultra-unhealthy, wholly irresistible Midwest treat... The pumpkin roll.

There's something about the flour and fat, the sugar and spice, the cake-y and the creamy that makes this delicacy downright addictive. Add in a cup of coffee and some good friends... and it's all over. Personally I could eat about a yard of the stuff myself, but I wouldn't recommend this. When you read the recipe, you'll see why.

P.S. If you wish to make your own pumpkin, I'll direct you to this eHow article that shows you how simple and easy it is to make from scratch. How to make pumpkin puree.

Preheat your oven to 375F.
Grease and flour the edges of a large Jelly Roll Pan, then line the bottom of the pan with wax paper.
Then in a mixing bowl stir together 3/4c Flour, 3/4t cinnamon, 1/2t cloves, 1/4t ginger, 1/4t nutmeg, pinch of fine ground black pepper, 1/4t salt, 1/2t baking powder and 1/2t baking soda.
In a large bowl, mix 3 eggs, and 1c sugar together until smooth. Blend in 3/4c pumpkin, and continue to blend until smooth.
Slowly add the dry mixture to the pumpkin mix incrementally until all of the dry is incorporated into the wet mix.
pour out onto the prepared jelly roll pan and bake for 14 to 16 mins. remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before moving ahead. My aunt actually will roll the cake at this point to ensure that it doesn't crack when you roll it later. I've found that this isn't truly necessary if you're careful when rolling later.
Make the filling by creaming together 1/2c softened butter, 1pkg cream cheese, once smooth, slowly sift in 1c powdered sugar and 1 1/2t REAL vanilla. (actually, for mine, I use a vanilla bean) stir until smooth and creamy.
Use the wax paper to help you roll out the cake, peeling it off as you go. Work slowly so as not to break the cake. Once rolled you can wrap in plastic wrap and store the cake or you can plate it, dust it with powdered sugar, and serve it to unsuspecting guests(or eat it all by yourself... choice is yours.)

Feel to experiment with the combination of layouts, you can see above that the last one I made was actually square. I've even been known to make this as a trifle, adding candied walnuts between each layer. You can feel free to do this in as many configurations as you like, just don't blame me if your pants don't fit properly later...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A most esteemed guest of Honor

I've double checked my cabinets, selected an ideal wine, picked a recipe from the season that is tried, true, and the most popular by a longshot. I've dotted my "i's", crossed my "t's", and justified every shortcoming in the preparation. The menu has been reviewed more times than I can count. I've attended to every possible detail in the manner of a true kitchen savant... so, why are my palms still sweating?

The Answer: Shane is coming for dinner.

As the co-conspirator in the shenanigans of this blog, one of my longest-standing and best friends, and (most important for both aforementioned facts) an amazing cook, I felt more than a little pressure to get things right. I may have exaggerated the details surrounding this pressure a bit. As a matter of fact, I think we decided on the menu last minute the day before and I went grocery shopping with only an hour before his arrival. But you get the idea, there was pressure.

Shane has been one of the more outspoken critics of my diet, and so I decided it would be best to prove that I don't mind shaking off the healthy eats occasionally. After some discussion, I made the suggestion for butternut squash ravioli. I'm glad this dish was the winner because I had made it a few times this year and invariably, it has gotten rave reviews.

I like ravioli because for an intimate gathering it can be a main dish and for larger gatherings it can be an hors d'œuvre eaten with toothpicks. Anyone who knows me or continues to read this blog understands that versatility in food is very important to me. I like the freedom of being able to adapt a dish to the specific logistical needs of my guest list. In this case, the meal was playing out to be a "Greatest hits of 2009" sort of meal. Summer Salad, Good white wine, and great ravioli.

Now, butternut squash ravioli is great, but in this dish, the sauce is center stage. The flavor is unparalleled, thanks to my favorite ingredient to put in, well, almost anything: Butter. To ensure that the dish doesn't disappoint, I personally make sure there is a hefty amount of the stuff in this dish. To take it a step further, it's clarified to ensure that we're dealing with only the tastiest, most artery-clogging part of the heavenly spread. The original, Galloping Gourmet version of Graham Kerr would be so proud. Pair this with the aromatic and savory flavors of toasted pecans, sage, portabellas, and Parmesan cheese and you have a meal that is nothing short of Food Therapy.

To make the dish, I start by toasting 4T of chopped pecans in a sautee pan with a pinch of Kosher salt. right when you can smell them, remove from the heat and set aside. Then, melt about a 1-2T of salted butter in a sautee pan and brown at least a cups worth of portabella mushrooms and set these aside as well. then in a wide-bottomed saucepan or skillet, melt 1c of salted butter. once melted, and before the butter begins to boil, remove from heat and gently skim the whey protein off the top to clarify the butter. Add at least 6-8 perforated sage leaves and 1/4c hot water and place back on med-low heat for a minute, and then simmer over low heat to keep the mixture warm. Prepare enough ravioli to serve the number of guests (Average is about 6-8oz per guest). When the ravioli is ready, serve the ravioli on a heated plate. Add the pecans and mushrooms to the butter sauce only shortly before serving. Spoon the sauce over the ravioli, and garnish with fresh sage leaves. Top with a healthy (or unhealthy if your glass is half-empty) amount of shaved parmesean cheese.

Now if you're inclined, you can make the pasta yourself, but I find that my pasta is only marginally preferable (if not a second place) to those I've found in little mom and pop groceries in Bloomfield, or at the West Side Market in Cleveland. In this case, the store-bought version was what we used.

If this recipe is to be the main dish, you might want to add a little Lipitor to your dessert. In this case though, we had the Caramelized Bananas at City Square Steakhouse downstairs from my apartment... the next day, I had to reacquaint myself with the treadmill; which is a price I was more than happy to pay.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Ratio For Success

Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio is simply the best cooking book I’ve ever picked up my life. Yes, it’s a cooking book, but not a cookbook. In some ways, Ratio is the anti-cookbook, advocating the eschewing of recipes and the absolute necessity for personalizing the food you make. Ruhlman argues that if you learn the basic relationships of ingredients to one another, you can become a better cook, and a cook that isn’t afraid to experiment. Also, the power of being able to whip up a batch of bread or shortbread cookies without referring to a recipe is amazing in ways that I can’t even begin to describe.

The book aims for giving you the capacity to make good bread, biscuits or pate a choux. Yes, good. Ruhlman gives you the basics, the rules, the ratios. The reader learns them, becomes comfortable with them and eventually takes license to play around with things. The book aims for good, and asks you to, in time, go for great.

I could tell from page one this book would resonate and change my cooking life. I’m not ashamed to admit that I got a bit teary-eyed when beginning to understand the power that Ruhlman was bestowing upon me: the power to create. I felt a wave of emotion; a feeling akin to, I’m convinced, discovering the lost city of Atlantis or the tomb of some lost Egyptian Pharaoh. I find the spoils of this discovery to be, however, much greater.

As the information I read crystallizes, I become excited at the prospects. I can decide how dense or airy I want my baguette, boule or ciabatta to be; I can add extra ingredients to anything and understand how to alter the liquid, fat or flour content to compensate; I can show up anywhere, toss away the package of Pillsbury and make a an impromptu dessert with a 3-2-1 pie crust; I can cook.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Dressing for Success

So, I've spent all weekend trying to decide if I should write on a certain topic for this blog entry. I waned over the prospect of preaching about what I thought was one of the easiest aspects of a meal to prepare. Then, I had a sort of epiphany; with endless combinations and many faux pas to be made, there was actually quite a bit that needed to be said about one of the most overlooked parts of a meal, the salad. More specifically the garden salad, as opposed to a dessert, pasta, or other non-greens forms of this dish.

Generally, each time I prepare a full meal I include a basic salad in the menu, but I especially love to get creative for the times when the salad actually is the meal. This was the case this past evening when I had some friends from work over for a late dinner. I was told that my cooking had been touted as wonderful(a fact that I cannot refute in good conscience) and that I was not to disappoint. With that in mind, I raided my refrigerator and got to work.

When engineering a salad, getting creative does not mean getting overly complex with your ingredients. The best thing to do is to focus on one aspect of the salad, and pair everything to work with that particular element. I tend to start with the dressing and work out from there. In this case, we're discussing my favorite: Honey Ginger Vinaigrette. It's tart, a little sweet, bold without being overpowering, and it's the perfect match to a well built summer salad.

Now, I don't like to preach (heh heh), but if there is one thing I can impress upon you it is that you should ALWAYS make your own salad dressing. Nothing is going to give you exactly the result that you are looking for unless you make it yourself. Perhaps this makes me a control freak. Perhaps I am okay with this fact. Regardless, it is such a shame to pair together prime ingredients only to serve them with some prefabricated dressing that has been sitting for days on a store shelf. If you'd like to make the dressing that I used in this case, the recipe will follow my rant. Just so everyone knows, I'm not above using bottled dressings, I just don't normally serve them to my guests.

The salad in this case was based on mild field greens (spicy greens like arugula would fight with the dressing.) and baby spinach. To complement the nice bite of the dressing, I picked some nicely ripe strawberries and quartered them. Then I added halved sugar snap peas and candied pecans to top the dish and give a little bit of a crunch. To complete a nice flavor trifecta, I add some (and by some, I never mean a small amount) crumbled Amish blue cheese for a rich finish. When building a salad, keep in mind that the components of the salad should each bring something unique in the taste department to the table, so to speak. If you pair things that each bring the same flavor genre to the salad, it will only confuse your guests palate and leave them unsatisfied. Last, I added some diced grilled chicken breast because this was, after all, the entire meal. Make sure if you're grilling this chicken to either let it cool completely, or wait till the very last minute to add it to the salad, hot meat and cool greens tend to not get along after a short period of time.

This Paired with the Dressing, which is a simple vinaigrette of (about) 1/4c balsamic vinegar (the good stuff), 1/4c of Extra Virgin, a healthy dash of white pepper and kosher salt, about 1/4t of ground horseradish, 2t of Dijon Mustard, 2-3T of Clover Honey, 1T fresh chopped ginger, and 2 cloves of fresh chopped garlic. Now I usually recommend that you mix all ingredients EXCEPT the olive oil about an hour in advance to allow the flavors of the garlic, ginger, and pepper to infuse, then whisk in the olive oil before serving the salad. In keeping with what Shane pointed out in his post, PLAY WITH THE PROPORTIONS! If you like a more tart dressing, use less honey and oil, and add more ginger. Something smoother? Up the garlic and honey. I'm going so far as to say that it is your job as the chef to not just follow a recipe as is if you know that your guests tastes differ from the composition.

Now, I'm not guaranteeing that your guests will not feel gypped when they hear that all you are preparing is a salad. Most people think of salads as boring entities, meant to tide you over and give a cook more time to prepare the main courses. They might ask if they should "bring something" or even say they can't come. Just remember that if there is one thing I can guarantee, it's that with the proper thoughtful attention to detail, they will never doubt your culinary decision again.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Much Ado About Mushroom

So I think the general format here is going to revolve around Brett primarily posting recipes and anecdotes, and me maybe highlighting one of the ingredients he used in the recipe. Be on the lookout for my cooking philosophies as well. It’s a fluid format for now, so work with us and allow room for future changes.

Ownership of cooking is an important concept to me. Take recipes you see here, omit some things, add others. Double the onions, halve the peppers. Create food you and your friends and family want to eat. Look at Brett’s first recipe, he talks about “a bit” of this and “some” of that. If you’re putting chopped tomatoes in a measuring vessel to make sure you have exactly ½ cup, you’ve missed the point and the fun. Naturally, I’m talking about non-structural elements here, if we post a cake recipe, you can’t arbitrarily use less flour.

How do you accomplish this style of cooking? Through tasting. Taste the ingredients, taste your sauces, taste your finished product. Never let anything go out of your kitchen without a final taste.

Portabella Mushrooms

Brett’s first recipe hit upon one of my favorite ingredients. Mushrooms truly are the love’em or hate’em ingredient. So why am I highlighting such a controversial ingredient? Simply, mushrooms get a bad rap, meld well with a variety of flavors and at least deserve a second chance among anyone that thinks they don't like them. I suspect many of the mushroom haters were chagrined as children when their parents denied them the privilege of pepperoni on pizza and were served canned white mushrooms instead. Cook mushrooms from fresh, and I'm sure you'll find a much more agreeable flavor and texture.

On the other side of the coin, those of us that admire the fungi simply can’t get enough. For us, it’s a lucky thing that mushrooms have so many different applications. They can improve a salad or a steak, get sautéed with chicken or stuffed with crab, or even become the stuffing themselves. All these applications and I haven’t even mentioned the psychoactive properties of some varieties.

The Portabella is, of course, the steak of mushrooms. It’s large, meaty and simply delicious. As such, I love leaving Portabellas whole letting their texture shine through. Do this: Marinate some whole portabellas for a few hours in a mixture of balsamic vinegar, olive oil and black pepper. When they’ve marinated, throw them on the grill, season to taste and cook until done. When are they done? When they are cooked to a texture you like. I’m sorry, that’s the answer. Eat the mushroom just like that. Not looking forward to a big mushroom for dinner? Grill some olive oil brushed ciabatta along side your mushrooms and make a sandwich with goat cheese and baby spinach leaves. Don’t like goat cheese? Use feta. Don’t like feta? Use blue. Don’t like any of those? Stop pretending you like cheese.

Go out, buy some mushrooms and experiment with them. They’ve got myriad applications and are guaranteed to help you feed your friends, satiate your neighbors and expand your cooking horizons.

Date night with the Crew.

So, MANY years ago I had my first ever experience going to the drive-in with some of my friends. I was instantly enamoured with this format, even though I loathe seeing movies in the theater. Anyone who knows me would realize that sending me to a place with a bunch of strange people with whom I cannot talk, where I have to sit still for 2 hours, and where my shoes stick to the floor is a recipe for disaster. The drive-in allowed me to do away with all of these attributes, I was in heaven.

Now, I've done the cheesy thing of taking a few dates to the drive in, but this is not my favorite use for such a great venue. Over the years I've taken advantage of the flexibility of the drive-in and had many a great night out with friends. I've come to the conclusion from all of my extensive research that the best recipe for a good time is to gather about 3-4 friends, pile them into a truck, pack a picnic basket full of goodies and head over to catch the latest double feature.

Last night, I had the opportunity to catch this perfect storm and gather my favorite crew from Woohattan and head over to Strasburg, Ohio to the Lynn Drive-In. This place was spartan, compact, and likely hadn't been updated for 30 years. I was again, in heaven.

For this adventure I packed a picnic basket (well... plastic bag in this case since I was running behind again as usual)for everyone to enjoy. If I look back at my treks to the outdoor screens, I notice that I've tried many things with which to fill the basket: Calzones, salads, even potluck style dinners. But by far my favorite is this recipe that I developed about 6 years ago specifically for a trip to the drive-in and I've been making it ever since. I call it a picnic sandwich, and it draws inspiration from a stuffed loaf, and a pita. It's perfect for this type of gathering because it's completely self contained, easy to transport and serve, and (the element I'm most concerned with) it looks unavoidably delicious. So unavoidable in fact that I may have to send one of my friends flowers to apologize for forcing her to break her diet. Sometimes when I make a dish, it looks phenomenal, but falls short of the taste mark. These are the dishes that are never seen again. The fact that I make this sandwich repeatedly for many occasions is a testament to it's ability to deliver on all fronts.

I start by heating a bit of olive oil in a deep skillet, in order to sautee some sliced portabella mushrooms. Once these are nice and tender, I add sliced roasted red and yellow peppers, a handful of roasted garlic cloves and if you like, Kalamata (or Black) olives, Diced oven roasted chicken, chopped fresh basil and oregano, black pepper and salt to taste. Reduce to low heat and allow to cook for a few minutes to allow the flavors to meld. Remove from heat and place in a bowl. Fold in a small handful of shredded parmesean cheese. Then in the same pan wilt spinach with about 2 tablespoons of water and sea salt. remove from heat when complete. Next take a whole loaf of bread. (here I used a round loaf of whole wheat house sourdough from Broken Rocks Cafe in Wooster) Slice lengthwise to creat a top and bottom half. Remove the soft bread from the middle of the loaf creating a cavity for the filling. fill the bottom half with the chicken mixture. Place a layer of sliced provolone cheese on top of this, and then top with the wilted spinach and place the top half of the loaf back on top. You should not be able to see the filling from the side. This actually does two things, keep the filling from spilling out, and retain the heat of the filling. Wrap the entire loaf in 2 layers of foil and place into a 325 degree oven for 15-20 mins.

Leave it in the foil to pack it, and bring along a bread knife to cut it. this will definitely impress each time you bring it along. Pair it with a wine or even better, a beer (but don't blame me if they kick you out for having alcohol.) and make sure to pack a bold dessert that stays together on it's own. This time around I made my mom's Peanut butterscotch Rice Crispies Squares (which I'm sure I'll eventually post the recipe for in a future blog.) for dessert to make for one filling meal that kept even my overactive mouth quiet for the movie.

My Very First Blog

So, I've finally caved in and started a blog. I've been against this concept for a while because I truly believe that no one has an interest in my mundane life.
Lately though, I've felt compelled to share some experiences that others might actually find useful. I've always had a love of entertaining, especially with food. I truly feel that there are others out there who might appreciate the love (and more importantly, the recipes) that I have for creating interesting foods for interesting social gatherings.
Along with my good friend Shane, who I respect immensely for his ideas, insight, knowledge, skill, and most of all his wit, we will hopefully be providing you with something that is not only readable, but interesting and entertaining.
Feel free to let us know what you think, make suggestions, tell your stories, etc.
Thanks especially to Shane giving my blog it's title, which for me is apparently too difficult to muster the creativity.