Thursday, February 26, 2009

Grilled Cheese

Quality grilled cheese has thus far escaped me. The name carries the negative connotation of Kraft Singles and Wonderbread. I can't sleep at night thinking about grilled cheese. Just the name conjures nightmares. I see myself cooking a grilled cheese on the stove top. Chemical odors enter my nostrils- certainly not the kind of pungency I want from cheese. I look out the window for a minute, and the next, the cheese is melting, but along with it, are the chemicals, which far outnumber the actual cheese. A puddle of chemicals forms at the bottom of the pan. The puddle grows until it overflows the pan. I jump back, but the synthetic flavors and colors are onto me. I run away from the stove top, but the puddle follows me. I grab my chef's knife in preparation for an epic battle: Nick versus factory cheese. I take a stab at it, but it overtakes me, virtually forcing itself into my mouth. I'm helpless, screaming in anticipation of what's to come... and then I wake up.
Luckily, I've found a cure. It's called "Red Hawk" and it's from Cowgirl Creamery in California. I had honestly never thought of using washed ring cheese for grilled cheese, until I prepared the grilled cheese at Lacroix which they make for brunch. They put prosciutto, Parmesan, and brie all on top of brioche, and, as I'm sure you can imagine, it's absolutely delicious. A few days later, I went to Philadelphia's premier cheese shop (Dibruno), and told the cheezer like I tell everyone,(good name for the man behind the counter eh?) "the stinkier the better". After sampling a few cheeses, I picked out Cowgirl Creamery's "Red Hawk," which is my new favorite cheese.
This is unbelievably flavorful and rich and unctuous. It's just so goshdarn good. I toasted it between two slices of Great Harvest Honey Wheat Bread, and my nightmares were replaced by wonderful dreams of taking baths in this stuff. Though if I did that, I would never smell good again.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Scallops, Creamed Mushrooms, Asparagus Puree

A beautiful, easy dish, elegant in it's simplicity. This dish never ceases to impress. I can see myself serving this to a girlfriend sometime, however I may find myself more obsessed with how the dish looks than the girl. But unlike many girls, there's substance behind the beauty. Meaty portobellos match bold scallops. Light asparagus puree rounds out the dish.

Dice some portobellos then saute them for 2 minutes in smoking oil. Add salt, then let the liquid that is released cook out. Deglaze with a few tbs chicken stock and reduce to oblivion. Add about the same amount of heavy cream and cook until thick and rich.

Meanwhile, blanch asparagus in heavily salted water until just tender, then remove to an ice bath. Puree the asparagus with just enough water to allow it to turn, and puree until smooth. Remove and pour into a strainer set over a bowl. Don't touch it for five minutes, to allow excess water to drain. Discard the water at the bottom of the bowl, then pass the puree through the strainer into the now-clean bowl. Finish by warming over low heat while whisking in a pat of butter and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Get a heavy cast-iron pan with vegetable oil smoking. Add your scallops that you've seasoned with salt. Sear on one side till nice and dark brown, then flip over and add two tbs butter, a few sprigs of thyme, and two crushed cloves of garlic. Tilt the pan so that you can use a spoon to baste the scallops with these ingredients. Baste for a minute or so, then remove your scallops.

Place a spoonful of puree down on your plate. Top with creamed mushrooms. Finish with a scallop on top. Be amazed at how easy it is to create a dish that looks and tastes this good, with such little work.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Eggplant Gratin

I came home to an eggplant on my kitchen counter. My mom said she would make eggplant Parmesan. I like when she does this- unexpectedly brings home an ingredient, saying that she will cook it, almost challenging me to do something better with it.
I peered in the fridge. Smoked mozzarella, Parmesan cheese, milk and cream caught my eye. Gratin was my immediate thought. Who says gratin is only for potatoes anyway?

I've written about preparing the potato gratin at Lacroix before, and I used the same technique here, as I did there to make the gratin, substituting the eggplant for potato, and using some milk (cause we had whole milk that we needed to get rid of) and some cream. Oh, and for all you control freaks out there, this isn't a measured out recipe. Before you can make a good gratin you have to get a feel for preparing it.
Two large eggplants
Lemons (for zest)
Mozzarella (grated)

I steeped (brought to a simmer then shut off) about equal parts milk and cream with 4 cloves of garlic, and about 10 sprigs of thyme. Meanwhile, I sliced my eggplant lengthwise on a mandoline and placed the slices in a buttered roasting pan. After each layer of eggplant, I poured a little of the now-steeped cream, grated some Parmesan and lemon zest, and sprinkled some mozzarella. I simply stopped when I ran out of eggplant. A great chef once told me that a gratin has the right amount of cream when you can press down firmly on the gratin, and just a little bit of cream will come up the sides. I baked the gratin in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes covered in foil. I then removed the foil and let it cook for another 30 minutes or until the eggplant was tender and the cheese on top formed a nice golden-brown crust. Let cool slightly, then enjoy.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pancake Mix

"This is the best idea I've had in years!" I proclaimed to a few buddies in school. Their eyes widened, probably hoping I had come up with something fun for the weekend, and I, uh, kinda had, if you share my idea of fun. "I made my own pancake mix!" Their eyes drooped in disbelief. "You mean like Bisquick?" one asked. "Uh well, I guess so but I mean without the artificial ingredients and all." They shrugged unimpressed. "When I'm making them pancakes Sunday morning they'll appreciate it a little more!" I thought to myself.

To make this mix, I used the pancake recipe I always use but multiplied the dry ingredients by 5, then added them to a large jar, and shook the heck out of it. Now the reason for making your own mix is convenience, and I didn't want to have to measure out 2 1/3 C and 2 teaspoons of dry mix every time I wanted pancakes. I saw that the ratio of dry to buttermilk is almost 1:1, so I tried the recipe using 1 cup of mix and 1 cup of buttermilk, and just using 1 egg and 1 tbs butter. I know the ratios are a little off from the original recipe, but it worked great.

To try to make the pancakes just a little more tender, I tried mixing the melted butter with the flour before adding the rest of the wet ingredients. I wanted the fat to coat the flour so that the flour would develop less gluten once the other wet ingredients were added. It definitely worked. These pancakes came out very tender. My sister proclaimed them "The best pancakes I've ever had." Whenever she likes a food that I make, I see it as an accomplishment.

I made extra pancakes, then froze them in separate plastic bags so that my sisters could toast them and eat them for breakfast. Sometimes I'm just in the mood to use my cooking for the forces of good.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Snack tomorrow

Just made my mid-morning snack for school tomorrow; popcorn popped in bacon fat then tossed with truffle salt. I'd take that over your standard apple anyday, though it may in fact, do the opposite of keeping the doctor away.

Truffle Salt

I've been making my own popcorn for the past month ever since I realized how easy it is, and how much healthier it is. America's popcorn pioneer should consider changing his motto to "if my popcorn doesn't cause you to die early from heart problems, my name's not Orville Redenbacher." In my opinion, all you need for great popcorn is oil and salt.

Expanding on that notion, I've been looking for interesting salts to try on my popcorn. I took a cue from Michael Ruhlman and purchased this truffle salt. What I expected to be overpriced, bland and boring, is in fact fragrant and flavorful. It's delicious on popcorn, but that's just the beginning. I've been sprinkling it on this rich, triple-cream cheese to give it a little more kick, and it's absolutely delectable on eggs. I see a new egg nickmuffin in the near future.


Ever since they began using it at Lacroix, I've been really into Harissa. It's quite spicy, but Harissa isn't all about the heat. It has extraordinary flavor as well. This creates a type of culinary conundrum for me. Whenever I have some, my mind tells me I want more, it just tastes so good, though my burning mouth begs me to stop. My mind almost always prevails. I stop just as I begin to breathe smoke out of my nose.
I've been eating Harissa with almost anything. My breakfast in the morning may be eggs topped with harissa, my lunch, turkey, bacon and harissa aioli* and my afternoon snack, harissa with peanuts. It's really a continuous supply throughout the day, and if I'm really feeling naughty, I'll just take a spoon and dig right in. But right now I'm just training my tongue to handle the heat. Essentially, I'm raising my smoke point.
* I made the harissa aioli by whisking a heaping spoonful of harissa with about a 1/2 tsp mustard, a grind of black pepper, a small squeeze of lemon juice, 1 small minced clove of garlic , and an egg yolk, then slowly drizzling in olive oil while whisking, to form an emulsion. I stopped when in tasted right.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fats and flavors

I'm tickled by all the possibilities that arise from the concept that I brought up 2 posts ago, about infusing fat with flavors (in that case it was basil infused butter for cookies). The fact that fats are particularly good at absorbing aroma molecules is excellent leeway for producing unique and interesting flavors in baked goods and candies and the like. I'm dreaming of the endless possibilities as I type. Mint chocolate fudge? Cinnamon caramels? Brown Butter Sage cupcakes!!!!???? Geeze I need a test kitchen.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Flank Steak Sous Vide

Flank Steak cooked at 131 degrees for 24 hours before being quickly seared in a smokin hot cast-iron pan.

Incredibly tender, infinitely flavorful, nuff said.

Friday, February 6, 2009

More Cookie Experiments

Listen, if you're sick about me talking about cookies, I'm sorry. They're my obsession right now and I'll stop talking about them once I stop doing my experiments.

I walked into Lacroix last Saturday and was immediately asked to make a few interesting flavors of cookie. I made brown sugar chocolate date cookies, kaffir lime-raspberry bitter chocolate, and mint white chocolate. To make the date cookies I simply substituted dates for nuts in my "ultimate chocolate chip cookie recipe." For the kaffir lime cookies I infused the butter with kaffir lime leaves before creaming with the sugar, then tossed in some dried raspberries and bitter chocolate. For the mint white chocolate I infused the butter with mint. For the kaffir lime and the white chocolate cookies, I used more white sugar than brown as to not skew the flavors of the other ingredients. The date cookies came out fine, the mint-white chocolate were delicious but overly sweet, and I overcooked the kaffir lime cookies.

This led me to further experiment at home. I didn't have any mint so I infused my butter with basil before combining it with sugar (half light-brown, half granulated), then proceeded with my basic chocolate chip cookie recipe adding a 2 tablespoons of lime zest to cut the sweetness substituting white chocolate for chocolate, and omitting nuts.

I found these incredibly delicious. The key is making sure the basil is really really infused with the butter. The basil flavor doesn't interfere, but rather compliments the white chocolate. It's really a wonderful thing.

Next I attempted a brown butter peanut cookie. I browned the butter then used a scale to determine water loss. I added milk to replace the water that evaporated during the browning. I proceeded with my recipe using all dark brown sugar but replacing roasted, salted, peanuts for chocolate.

These cookies were likewise delicious. The flavor was like rich peanut toffee and they were very chewy. They spread too much however. I should've added less liquid or more flour, or more egg or more baking soda, all of which reduce spread.

Another cookie post is definitely possible. I'm not bored just yet.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

25 random things about me (continued)

13. Alton Brown is my man crush.

14. Giada de Laurentis is my real crush.

15. I think I've made the joke "the stinkier the better" to anyone I've ever talked to about cheese.

16. Everytime I clean my plate, I make the joke to my waiter "just tryin to help out the dishwasher."

17. I wish I was Anthony Bourdain's son.

18. If Mario Batali gave me his pair of Crox, I would wear them everyday.

19. I have this ongoing debate in my head about whether my goal should be to try and make money, or if it should be to open up a small 5 table restaurant in Napa Valley and live a relaxed life.

20. My favorite fruit is avocado.

21. I aspire to create muffins comparable to the ones in my grocery store, but think that may be impossible, considering I've heard of 10 of the 30 ingredients.

22. Usually when people say that a food is too rich or too sweet, I have no idea what they're talking about.

23. If I had a spare $2,000, before I could go to a nice restaurant I'd probably spend it on one of those fancy espresso machines in Williams Sonoma. They just look so cool.

24. If I could go to any restaurant in the world right now, it would be Momofuku Ssam bar. I could really use some pork buns right now.

25. To be honest, I'm convinced that I can improve on my "Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie," but am overwhelmed by the amount of variables that come into play. I don't think I'll ever have the time to test all of them.

26. I wish I could play guitar really well. I have this fantasy of me and a few friends sitting on the beach at sunset with me playing guitar.

27. I'm not completely convinced that anything out of my own mind is real.

28. My favorite every day meal is scrambled egg on buttered toast.

29. I wanna get a moped license.

30. Junior year I plan on bribing kids to do my math homework with home-cooked meals.

31. I'm scared that one day my diet will have to change if I want to stay healthy.

32. I have a fantasy of getting trapped in Whole Foods for a week.

So that's a few more than 25, and I really wish that I could keep going, but I have to go. I'm testing another variable in my chocolate chip cookies.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

25 random things about me

I saw this on Dave Lebovitz's (Lebovitz' ?) blog and thought it was a great idea. I like writing these kind of self-assessment type things. They really make you think, and they teach you a lot about yourself.

1. You don't get all of me with this blog. You only get 25%.

2. I secretly hate it when I give someone food that I think is the best, and they tell me it's just good."

3. My digital scale and my 1970's KitchenAid mixer are my best friends, my digital thermometer- that's a love-hate relationship.

4. Sometimes I wish my family didn't read my blog- I could include some different content, if you know what I mean.

5. I like that my family reads my blog so I can get consistent feedback.

6. I sometimes wish that I could get in other people's brains so that I could verify that I'm smarter than them.

7. I get stressed out easily. Being around certain people stressed me out.

8. I want to start an underground network selling my cookies in school.

9. Once I make enough money from this network I'll drop out of school and move to Florida.

10. Bula Nightingale keeps asking me who Bula Nightingale is.

11. Top Chef pisses me off just as much as I like it. There's so many commercials it seems, and half the show is judging. I'll keep watching for Padma though.

12. I wish I could fast forward through the proofing process of bread making.

12 1/2. I'm currently reading East of Eden and as I'm reading, my mind drifts off to some fantasy that I'll write someday about the magnificent yeast of eden.

Next half to come tomorrow