Thursday, November 29, 2007

Snow Peas with Orange Liqueur

Snow Peas with Orange Liqueur

I've said before that I'm not a big fan of Paula Deen. But I caught a show in which she made a very tasty Steak Diane that I liked a lot. In the same show, Ms. Butter made a snow pea recipe that also looked interesting, and I'd filed it away for one of those occasions in which I had snow peas I wasn't sure what to do with. That occasion arrived when I bought a bag of fresh snow peas at Trader Joe's without a specific plan for them, a new no-no in my Recipe Directed Shopping Strategy.

Once I'd committed to making the snow peas, I realized I didn't have two essential ingredients: fresh mint and, of all things, orange liqueur. It's in the title of the recipe for Pete's sake, yet I managed to miss it. Fortunately my husband can stop by Safeway on his way home from work, though a bottle of Grand Marnier isn't usually on the emergency grocery list.

Paula calls for frozen snow peas, but I can't abide by them. The whole fun of snow peas is their crunchiness, and the defrosting takes the spunk right out of them.

The recipe calls for boiling the snow peas for a minute in sugared (? don't know why, but I did it) water, draining, then adding the other ingredients until they're all warm. The initial boiling worked great, much better than my usual saute preparation. The peas were bright and crisp and irresistable. The rest was easy to combine, though I wondered about a full quarter-cup of orange liqueur.


My husband immediately said, "That's too strong!" on his first bite -- but to my surprise, he meant the mint. What mint? The orange liqueur just about knocked me down, and in a good way. I loved it, simple but with a nice variety of flavors. The water chestnuts were a nice crunchy companion to the peas, as well as a perfect canvas on which to present the (~burble~) hefty punch of the liqueur.

I think the recipe could do well with half the mint, a little less butter (this is a Paula Deen recipe, after all) and probably a third of the liqueur, but what's the fun in that?

For the record, my kids got broccoli instead, as I'm not sure it'd even be legal to serve this to minors.

You want to get someone's attention with vegetables? This is the way!

!!! Addendum: I apparently didn't pay enough attention to the recipe, and missed one essential little digit: 3. As in, three 10-oz packages of peas, not one. No wonder I thought you could use one-third the liqueur! Note to self: read the darned recipe!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Pan Seared Red Snapper

Pan Seared Red Snapper

I bought some snapper today on impulse, thinking I could try a recipe I'd picked up at a supermarket some years ago. And I could have, if I stocked tomato juice in my pantry. Rats.

So, back to my new BFF, and I quickly came across a simple recipe described as "gourmet taste on a tight schedule." I'm all about that. Well, the tight schedule part, anyway.

It was easy and quick to prepare and cook, with all common on-hand ingredients and no surprises embedded in the instructions ("marinate overnight"....doh!).

Some reviewers said they cut back on the ginger and later thought they didn't need to. I didn't cut back on the ginger, and actually later thought I even should have grated some fresh ginger into the marinade.

Quick marinade.

Saute in nonstick pan. Forgot about the instructions to add the rest of the sauce. The second round (not all the fish fit in this pan) worked better since the pan was hotter.

I'm the world's worst food photographer, so this looks awful, but with asparagus and brown rice, it was a good combination.

The reviews? My husband thought it was "so-so." I thought it needed a little salt, and even sneaked a little on his plate after the fact (though he likes flavor he won't put salt on anything), but that didn't do it. My sons didn't complain and ate a fair amount, which is a rousing chorus of approval coming from 3- and 5-year-olds. I thought it was indeed very tasty, and that the marinade and method of cooking kept it nice and moist and avoided the rubbery texture I too often get with snapper. I'd make the pan hotter next time though.

Net result: a keeper, especially as a base method for future mods.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Parmesan Pine Nut Crackers

Parmesan Black Pepper Crackers

The keen observer will notice that the title of this post and the above-named recipe are not identical. There's a reason for that. I saw Ina Garten make Parmesan Black Pepper Crackers on an episode of Barefoot Contessa, and thought, now that's out of control. Baking your own crackers?!

Then I came across a similar recipe in a most wonderful book, Simple Soirees by Peggy Knickerbocker. I'd heard about this book via my favorite way of finding books, by hearing an in-depth interview with the author on an NPR show. I didn't mean to get my own copy, but it was an accidental extra after a shipping snafu forced me to find it in real life in time to give it as a gift to my foodie in-laws. And now, I see that I made a great choice, as it's a beautiful book filled with classy, and overall simple, recipes.

So I made the Simple Soirees version of the cracker, with a few changes as per Ina Garten's recipe. In deference to the copyright issue, I'll describe the differences between the recipes. They're much the same, though Ina's recipe uses roughly half the ingredients, adds chopped thyme and, of course, black pepper. Peggy's recipe adds a dash of cayenne pepper, which I couldn't taste at all. The biggest difference is that Peggy's recipe calls for a lot more parmesan cheese, plus the nice decorative touch of the pine nut in the middle.

Ina also calls for a lower baking temperature and more baking time; whereas Peggy's called for higher and less (Ina: 350 for 20 minutes; Peggy: 400 for 8 minutes, with a note to watch for burning).

I mostly followed Peggy's recipe and baking instructions, though added Ina's chopped thyme. The logs I rolled out were too small in diameter, so I ended up with lots of small crackers, but this had a good side-effect. I had to bake them in 4 batches, and so got to experiment with oven position and different baking sheets. The crackers that got baked when the oven was hotter, and lower in the oven, got crispier and I think were better.

I brought them as an appetizer to the potluck Thanksgiving we attended, where they were overshadowed by lots of other appetizers, and they weren't popular. I insisted my husband try one, after persuading him that they weren't cookies, but he thought they tasted too strong. My sons were disappointed that anything cut from a log weren't cookies.

All was not lost however: they were a resounding success with my 13-month-old. She's the most free of influence from expectations ("it's a cookie, blah!" "it's not a cookie, blah!") in the family, and as 13-month-olds are notoriously difficult to feed, I'd say this ends up being a win. But the real test would be on my foodie in-laws.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Spicy Beef Curry Stew

Spicy Beef Curry Stew

Beef stew. Nice concept. Especially since stew meat is pretty inexpensive compared to most other beef.

Hoping to make something in the slow cooker that was flavorful, I searched for "beef curry" on and came across this altogether reasonable-looking recipe. Curry, fresh ginger -- now we're talking. (I glazed over the jalapeno, I can't imagine even touching one.)

So I prepared the stew at night, tossing in some cut-up red potatoes, and started the slow cooker on Low the next morning. The house smelled great when I got home from work.

But that was the best it ever did. My sons tried it only under duress, meaning, I won't make them anything else to eat unless they really try something. And they did try, and they really didn't like it. I'm not surprised; so far they've never liked anything with curry. But I have to keep trying.

My husband, who stiffens visibly at the mention of any traditional American beef stew ( a holdover from his Midwestern upbringing), made an effort, but it was still too Dinty-Moore-ish (my term) for him. The sauce did have that distinct "beef stew"ness to it, despite the very present ginger and curry. Maybe it's the beef broth, I don't know. In any case, he ended up supplementing his dinner with an old bachelor standby: Ramen and Tyson chicken. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree: my older son earned himself some TJ's chicken nuggets as an alternative.

Too bad, it's a nice idea, and easy to make. But I need a new angle on "beef stew" if it's ever going to fly around here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Steak Diane

Steak Diane

I have a high tolerance for kitsch. Goofy, silly TV -- a guilty pleasure. Especially on Food Network, which is perfect for the quick hits of entertainment that is all I can fit into my life. But even I can't take much of Paula Deen. The over-the-top syrupy, exaggerated accent; silly childish way she almost flirts with her sons, the contrived laugh and dull comments.

So it's quite surprising that I'd have caught a few minutes of Paula Deen making a steak recipe that I thought looked simple and appealing enough to try. Apparently "Steak Diane" is a well-known method that she simplified and adapted, and it's perfect for her since it involves a load of butter.

She calls for "beef tenderloin," which I asked for at Whole Foods, and was horrified to find that it cost $24.99 a pound! Not for my hapless experiments, thank you! I made do with a much more reasonably priced Angus Beef Tenderloin Filet at Trader Joes, for $10.99 a pound.

The recipe is very simple and doesn't call for any weird ingredients or steps or anything. That's my kind of recipe. It was quick and easy to prepare and cook, and the result looked great. Nice. Is it too much to ask that it taste good too?

I was stunned with result. YUM!!! The mushroom sauce is absolutely fabulous, flavorful from the worcestershire sauce, but not overwhelmed by it. I used flat-leafed Italian parsley (that's just what I had) and I thought it added tremendously to the appearance of the sauce. The meat itself....cooked in a butter bath, you pretty much can't go wrong with that, at least until it hits your arteries.

I served it with haricots verts and a potato medley (both TJ's freezer items). My husband liked it enough to eat more than half of what I served him, and my pickier son had all his steak (neither kid would have anything to do with the mushroom sauce). Still, in my house, that makes for a smash hit.

Maybe I just need to set up my TV's closed-captioning so that I can stand to watch -- without listening to -- Paula Deen again, because this has skyrocketed to my new favorite steak recipe. Maybe those deep-fried butter-laden Southerners know something about food after all!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lemon and Cumin Cookies

Lemon and Cumin Cookies

Many, many moons ago, I cut out this recipe from a newspaper and stashed it in a heap of other clippings, doomed to be forever lost in one of those "someday" organization projects that never happen. But somehow it extricated itself just in time for a cookie exchange party. I wanted an unusual recipe, and this definitely cut the mustard. Er, well, not mustard, but the odd spice it uses isn't far off.

I had some technical difficulties though. The recipe calls for the dough to be rolled into a cylinder, frozen, then cut into slices. Being an amateur at sliced cookie recipes, I have yet to find a way to prevent a flat spot at the bottom of the roll, making for elliptical-shaped cookies. I need to invent a gadget for that.

And try as I might, I can't make the rolls cylindrical, there's always tapering at the ends. I doubt there is a gadget for that.

Then being frozen, the dough too easily flaked off as I was cutting it. I needed a much sharper knife than I used at first. Finally, the gadget.

Mechanical issues aside, overall this was an easy and fun recipe, and made for a light cookie, if bland in appearance. But how would you know that since I failed to photograph the result before I gave them all away?

[Envision lightly-colored elliptical-shaped fairly flat cookies here]

And flavor? Tons. The plain appearance doesn't prepare you for the powerful and unexpected cumin, which doesn't mask, and indeed enhances, the lemon. Every lemon cookie recipe I've made has barely a hint of lemon, but this just about stands up and whacks you upside the head. They certainly make for an interesting and unusual -- and very grown-up -- combination.

(Indeed, I never thought I'd see the day when my almost-4-year-old son would reject any cookie. This kid crunches raw cauliflower for a snack, and devours baked dill tilapia. Kids don't get much more flexible than this one, and he didn't like it. Score!)

This is one for a special occasion. What occasion exactly, I can't say yet.

Mom's Zucchini Bread

Mom's Zucchini Bread

A regrettable name for an overall pretty good recipe. Zucchini bread is a lot harder to make moist than pumpkin bread, and while they share the same basic recipes, zucchini bread doesn't have pumpkin bread's "can't-go-wrong" basic characteristic. So I'm on a mission to find moist, chewy, no-milk-needed zucchini bread.

Overall this was pretty good. I liked that it called for a full 3 tsp of cinnamon and 3 tsp of vanilla. No sense scrimping on those!

I followed the recipe verbatim, forgetting that I'd planned to apply some reviewer's comments, like adding nutmeg and substituting in some brown sugar. I actually thought it was a little too sweet, or maybe had just a little bit too much of that white-sugar "bite," and that was with skimping on the sugar. Not enough, apparently. My mother routinely uses 1/3 the sugar a recipe calls for, but I'm not ready to go that far, since it can affect the texture too.

It made a lot, so I cut it into bite-sized pieces and left it out at work. It was gone within a few hours, but then, office scavengers aren't famous for having high standards.

In the absence of a superior mixture, I nominate Mom's Zucchini Bread as my favorite zucchini bread recipe. I sure wish I knew who Mom is though.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Shells with Crispy Pancetta and Spinach

Shells with Crispy Pancetta and Spinach

I caught the lovely Giada making this recipe on her show Everyday Italian. It's becoming one of my favorite cooking shows, since she does a lot of wonderful Italian cooking that's not pasta. This one, however, is. And I had an overbought 15-oz container of ricotta cheese looking for something to do.

Conveniently, Trader Joe's carries pre-cubed pancetta, though I didn't buy enough. Inconveniently, Trader Joe's doesn't carry grated asagio cheese, so I made do with TJ's Quattro Fromaggio, a mixture of parmesan, asagio, fontina, and provolone cheese.

The ricotta and spinach filling is flavored with nutmeg. Having little regard for exact spice measurements, my 1/4 teaspoon spilleth over, and I didn't think much of it. After all, I do that all the time when baking. But this isn't baking. POW! That packed a punch! The back of my throat is still buzzing. I have a new respect for nutmeg now.

I made the shells and filling, stuffed the shells, put them in a baking dish, and refrigerated them a few days ago. Then today, I made the cheese sauce and baked the whole dish. This worked well, especially for we newly anointed "working moms" who are relentless drilled to "plan ahead" "make a menu" "cook everything on the weekend." For the .01% of those moms who can actually do that, this dish works pretty well.

I forgot to take a photo until I'd already served some.

The tally? I believe it was well-received all around, though grating parmesan cheese with a hand-held grater over any food greatly increases its value to little kids. My sons claimed to like it, though they didn't eat much (though that could be because I was forced to leave them alone during dinner, and crawling under the table and clinking silverware and shouting at the top of their lungs and breaking every rule is far more compelling than Mom's good cooking). The real test came from my husband: he liked it!

Hopefully no one will notice that I used the same filling for a lasagna they're going to get later this week.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Pear Dutch Pancake

Pear Dutch Pancake

This recipe came with our weekly box of fruit from Frog Hollow Farm some weeks back. I highly prize my lazy side as one of my best virtues, so anything that says "pancake" and doesn't involve "flipping" is fine by me.

I've made this once before, and found it too gooey and sweet with 1/3 cup of honey called for in the recipe. This time, I dabbled just a little honey in, and not only did it stick to the pan a lot less, it was easier to eat -- and better, I think.

Cinnamon, on the other hand....I must have pretty weak spices, because recipes often call for a quantity I find negligible. A quarter-teaspoon of cinnamon? In a breakfast dish? With pears? That'd disappear in a mis-aimed sneeze! So I dumped in a few heaps of cinnamon, and it still wasn't too much.

First, saute the pears. These Bosc pears were very firm, so I sauted them for about 5 minutes.

Then pour the batter over the pears and stick the pan in the oven for 20 minutes, and sure enough it comes out puffy and very yummy-looking.

With the dearth of honey, there was glucotic (is that a word?) room for a sprinkling of confectioner's sugar on top. Which also looks nice.

Reviews from the fruit-consumers in the house (which does not include my husband) were good all around, though my 13-month-old used her pieces to investigate the pancake's suitability for projectiles.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Spicy Beer Marinade

Spicy Beer Marinade

I got this recipe from a rack of nice convenient recipe cards at an upscale supermarket. What the hey!

It was a perfect excuse to try out my third grill pan. This time, I went the inexpensive plain-and-simple no-frills generic cast iron Target route. Perfect grounds for experimentation.

First, the marinade. It calls for hot sauce, which I don't have and don't even know what it tastes like, or want to know. On a whim, I substituted ginger paste instead. I'm not sure that mattered, as the soy sauce became the dominant flavor.

Since my husband is something of a beer aficionado, we have plenty of beer around, but I had to be careful not to use something special. A lone Sierra Nevada Brown Ale was sacrificed, and he wasn't around to protest.

My ability to judge beef quality is unfortunately limited to price differentiation. For this, my steaks were "USDA Prime" sirloin, $10.99/lb at PW. They marinated a good long time and got lots of flavor, but were hard to chew. $10.99/lb is a good price point at TJs, but it seems I need to up the ante at other stores.

I didn't intend to marinate the steaks for over a day, but Life happened, so Plans didn't. It was a good lesson in how flavor can completely infuse itself into a steak. I forgot to set aside some of it for basting, but I don't think it needed it.

So I tested my new grill pan on the steaks, zucchini and eggplant. Once again, I was reminded of a few things about indoor grilling that apply no matter what the pan.

One: it splatters!

Two: it smokes!

Three: it sticks!

Splattering...I'll keep a splatter guard handy next time. 8 years of using my miserable island-mounted Modern Maid cooktop, I've never used its exhaust fan. Until now. I learned something about downdraft-type exhaust fans: they pull the flame toward them. My next kitchen will have a genuine range hood, with a quiet remote motor.

Sticking....Man O Man was this hard to clean! With a real grill, stuff drips down onto the coals and burns up there. With a grill pan, it pools in the bottom of the pan and then cooks on solid. No amount of soaking or scrubbing or prying or heating and doing it all over again did the trick. I had to put the grill pan away with stuff still very stuck to it, though I took a friend's advice and dried it thoroughly, then rubbed it with vegetable oil.

As I mentioned, the steaks came out very tasty because of the marinade, but tough because of the meat I used. I wonder if a different preparation would have overcome that?

The vegetables, I really like grilling vegetables, it's fast and tasty, doesn't splatter, smoke or stick, and the cleanup is a snap.

Despite the beer, my husband wasn't crazy about the marinade. (Kids had too hard a time chewing it to offer useful opinions, but they usually like steak.) Next time, I'll try the hot sauce.

String beans with shallots

String Beans with Shallots

As recipes go, this one is hardly a groundbreaker, but I saw Ina make it on Barefoot Contessa this week, and it involved two techniques I've seen several times now and was curious about.

One is using olive oil and butter for saute-ing. I forget exactly why, but it's something about olive oil for the high temperature, and butter for the flavor.

Two is blanching the vegetables. Tivo-deprived, my faulty memory vaguely filed away something Ina said about blanching would start to cook the beans and would bring out the color. (My son got a big kick out of filling a bowl with ice though!) The written recipe goes on to say that when you add the blanched beans to the sauteed shallots, just heat the beans. I think that's so they stay crisp, as I discovered with my slightly-soggy rendition.

I used fresh grean beans, not the haricots verts called for in the recipe. Ironically, we have a lot of haricots verts around here, frozen from TJs, and they're wonderful. Too wonderful. My family resoundly voted for the usual plain preparation of steaming frozen haricots verts (a staple in my emergency-dinner repertoire), over my blanching and sauteeing in olive oil and butter with shallots fresh green beans.

(As an aside, I do all my saute-ing in nonstick pans. All the cooking show chefs use stainless steel. Is this because there's a significant difference in the type of pan used for saute-ing? Or because they have sous-chef flunkies who do the cleanup for them? I am convinced on stainless steel for sauces, as Alton Brown said in his surprisingly informative show, despite the ultra-goofy format, "don't even think about using nonstick for a sauce!" Of course, I have yet to attempt a sauce. De-glazing, to me, is licking the sugar coating off a Krispy Kreme.)

I liked this, but I'll save it for next time we have critical mass of grownups.