"No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize." - Julia Child

Monday, February 22, 2010

Squidgy eggs: EggWatchers!

All of you know how much I love eggs, and I've talked on here before about how one of the first things I really learned how to cook properly was eggs. Well, behold! EggWatchers!

This website helps you properly prepare a boiled egg. It's quite adorable! The graphics are really cute. I also love that the site uses the word "squidgy" to describe the state of the egg's innards, because it's a pretty perfect word to describe eggs in that particular state of doneness. It also times how long the egg should stay in for. Not that I keep my computer in the kitchen or anything, and not that I don't already know how to boil an egg, but it's still pretty charming nonetheless. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Snow day chili

Yesterday was a snowy, wintry day, and I was fortunate enough to have taken the day off to give myself a four-day weekend, so I got to spend the day curled up in fleecy pants at home with my boo. There's something about snow that just says, "Spend the day slow cooking something," so I decided to make chili con carne. (Jeremy was fantastic enough to go out in the afternoon to get a few things to help make the chili. I think he was excited to wear the new winter coat I got him for Valentine's day. Well, that and the prospect of dinner was exciting too.)

I've never actually made a chili with beef before, so I was nervous that it wouldn't come out quite right (I attribute this to my perfectionist tendencies), but I shouldn't have worried, because when has Mark Bittman ever led me astray? It was quite delicious, and I like the fact that you can sort of vary what you put into chili according to your mood and tastes. Having a pot of pinto beans simmering on your stove with an onion for two hours makes your house smell warm and homey and good. We put together the final product in my lovely Le Creuset (the perfect place to slow simmer anything), and each of us had two helpings. I topped each bowl with a little ancho chile sauce (which adds a nice, smoky spice), a dollop of plain Greek yogurt (which I use in my kitchen in place of sour cream), some shredded cheese, and a handful of chopped green onions. Perfection! Warm and comforting on a chilly, snowy day. I think it might become my go-to meal for cold, nasty weather days. Next time I'm going to try it with ground turkey.

What's your go-to meal on cold days? Or what meal do you most like to slow simmer to perfection in a big pot of scrumptiousness? I am betting that all you folks out there with slow cookers are in your glory season right now.

Also, yesterday was Fat Tuesday, so here's hoping you got yourself a doughnut or some King Cake to celebrate the occasion. J and I shared a Boston cream doughnut in honor of the occasion, and it was awesome.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Date night pork chops

Valentine's Day! A perfect excuse to eat extremely decadent food and more chocolate than anyone should consume in a 24-hour period. This Valentine's, I made chocolate chip pancakes using heart-shaped pancake molds, and also some thick-cut bacon. Jeremy took me to the New England Aquarium to visit the penguins. Then we made a lovely dinner of pork chops and braised endive with ham.

Pork chops! When I was growing up, my mother—ordinarily a good cook—absolutely butchered pork chops, turning them into thin, tough, gray things with a greasy brown sauce. So I grew up hating pork chops. Now I realize that it's because the pork she used was too lean, and the chops were too thin, and she probably overcooked the hell out of them, which many people tend to do with pork. In fact, pork is safe to eat when it reaches about 150 degrees F, because any potential bacteria have long been killed off at this point and the meat will still be tender and moist. Mark Bittman does it again with his recipe for sauteed pork chops, which includes 8 variations. We chose the garlic sherry chops and they were scrumptious!

When choosing chops, definitely get thick-cut chops that are about an inch thick. These will cook better and are far more satisfying than thin ones, which get tough and overcooked. Also make sure to select center-cut loin chops; avoid shoulder or blade chops and loin-end chops.

Let the chops come to room temperature (about 20 minutes or so), then trim them of excess fat. You will want to leave a thin layer of the fat around the edges, but sometimes it's a bit thicker in spots, so you can trim that away before cooking. This recipe is for 4 chops, but you can just as easily make two. It's flavorful, delicious, and pretty easy—a perfect meal to impress company or a significant other.

Mark Bittman's garlic-sherry pork chops

2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine (we used some chardonnay)
1 tsp minced garlic or 2 tbsps minced shallot, onion, or scallion (we used scallion)
1/2 cup chicken, beef, or vegetable stock, or water, plus more if needed

For finishing the sauce:
1/2 cup not-too-dry sherry (we used oloroso)
1 tbsp additional olive oil
1 tbsp minced garlic
Juice of 1/2 lemon

Sprinkle the chops with salt and pepper. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat for 2 or 3 minutes, then add 2 tbsps olive oil. As soon as the first wisps of smoke appear, add the chops and turn the heat to high. Be careful, as there will be some splattering. (A splatter screen will come in handy here.) Brown the chops on both sides, moving them around with tongs so they develop good color all over. This whole browning process shouldn't take too long, perhaps 4 minutes but preferably less. (If the pan splatters too much while you're browning, turn the heat down just a bit, but it should remain pretty high.)

Reduce the heat to medium. Carefully add the wine and garlic or onions and cook, turning the chops once or twice, until the wine is mostly evaporated, about 3 minutes. (Oh, the smell! Cooking wine with aromatics = scrumptious perfume!) Add 1/2 cup of stock or water, turn the heat to low, give everything a good stir, and cover. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, turning the chops once or twice, until they are tender but not dry. When they are done, they will be firm to the touch, their juices will run slightly pink, and the interior color will be rosy at first but will turn pale quickly. (Cut into one if you're at all unsure, or use a meat thermometer to make sure they're 150 degrees F. We tried to use mine, but it appears to have broken after just one use. Awesome.)

Remove the chops to a platter and let them rest. Add 1/2 cup of sherry and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the liquid is reduced slightly. Add 1 tbsp olive oil and 1 tbsp minced garlic and continue to cook until the sauce thickens and becomes a bit syrupy. Add the juice of half a lemon, and a quarter cup of minced parsley (we didn't have this on hand and it was just fine without it). Taste for seasoning and pour some sauce over each chop. Revel in the deliciousness! 

I'll add the recipe for endive soon. But definitely try these chops. They are easy and delicious, and we're definitely going to have them again soon, perhaps trying one of the variations in the book.

Here are the pork chops with the braised endive and ham. NOMS.

For dessert, we each had one of Trader Joe's Reduced Guilt Brownies. I am not a big fan of baking mixes, but TJ's does have excellent brownies and they're probably the only brownie mix I'd ever use. But I had to get the Reduced Guilt ones because you can make them individually with yogurt. Just add 2 tbsps of mix to 1 tbsp of low-fat or fat-free vanilla yogurt and stir in a small microwaveable container (RAMEKINS to the rescue) for 45 seconds. For being reduced guilt, they are really quite good! They remind me of those Betty Crocker Warm Delights desserts, only delicious instead of craptastic.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Baked eggs

My love of all things Mark Bittman is pretty obvious all over this blog, and is also evidenced by the fact that whenever someone asks me what my favorite cookbook is, I say, without hesitation, "How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman." I love him and this book because it was the first resource I turned to in order to learn to select and prepare food properly. His book taught me how to properly cook a scrambled egg and how to turn Brussels sprouts from a stinky, soggy mess into something crisp and divine. But the reason I love him the most is because he taught me how to make baked eggs.

Baked? EGGS? Yes, my friends. YES.

I too had no idea what these were until I perused the section on eggs in his book. In his book he discusses how baked eggs (also known as shirred eggs) have fallen out of favor, and he rightfully says he has no idea why. Baked eggs can be made in casserole form but since I just eat two, I prepare them in ramekins, which are small, porcelain custard cups that can be purchased in varying sizes. I love ramekins. They are the perfect place to stash small things, place cold eggs when allowing them to come to room temperature, and are essential to making things like creme brulee. Plus, you can move them from freezer to fridge to oven to microwave. I love multi-taskers in the kitchen! As your blogger, I advise you to make haste to a kitchen supply store and pick up at least 2 of these for your home, if not 4... or 6.... or 8.... you get the idea. They are not expensive and might run you two bucks each. So if you like eggs, get yourself some ramekins and make this recipe. (In a pinch, very small tea cups could also be used. Not large mugs, but smaller ceramic tea cups. Or you can use a bigger Corningware or Pyrex dish, as I mention below.)

The beauty of a baked egg is that you can really make it with any accompaniment you want. Put some cream in the bottom for a luxurious texture. Tomatoes are glorious. Throw in some cheese. I recently made spinach-parmesan baked eggs and wanted to cry, they were so delicious.

Preheat the oven to 375. While it heats up, put a frying pan on medium heat. After a few minutes, add a generous dollop of olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add a passel of fresh baby spinach leaves (this recipe, by the way, is a perfect way to use up spinach leaves that are just past the peak of freshness but not yet gone bad) and stir constantly. Once they have begun to darken and wilt, add a clove or two of minced garlic and a pinch of salt. Stir until the leaves are dark and wilted and the garlic is fragrant. Remove from heat and place the spinach in a bowl or dish.

Grab your microplane (another must-own item if you don't already have one) and grate yourself a generous couple of tablespoons of fresh parmesan cheese. Don't even try to get away with using that powdery sawdust that comes in a can. BLASPHEMY. Once you start using freshly grated parmesan you will wonder how in fuck they can pass that canned shit off as edible. (My father rightly says that the Kraft parmesan smells like feet. Real, fresh parmesan has a tangy, salty, beautiful smell and in no way resembles powder when it is grated.) A wedge of fresh parm will keep in your fridge for weeks, because it's an incredibly hard cheese. Just wrap it in plastic wrap and stash in a small plastic container. My parm has been in the fridge since January. It had a spot or two of mold on it, but a little mold never killed anyone. The beauty of parmesan is that you can easy trim off any moldy spots with a sharp knife. It doesn't affect the taste of the rest of the cheese.

Grease the inside of two small ramekins with a little butter or olive oil. Divide the spinach into the bottom of each cup, then top with a layer of the parmesan. Carefully crack an egg into each ramekin, being careful not to let the yolk break. The yolk and white should completely cover the spinach-parmesan nest at the bottom of the cup.

Take a metal or glass oven-safe pan and place the ramekins in it. A square brownie pan is perfect for this purpose as the ramekins will fit snugly within (see photo below). Carefully pour hot tap water into the pan so that it comes up the sides of the ramekins just past the point where the egg is in each cup. This warm water bath will help the eggs cook evenly and will prevent brown, overcooked edges.

Bake them for about 12 minutes. You want to remove them from the oven when everything looks just barely set. The whites should be white and the yolks should be pale. The hot ramekins will continue cooking the eggs, and you want them to be just a tad firm, but not so firm that the yolks won't be scrumptiously runny. Carefully remove the ramekins from the pan and set them on a plate. Sprinkle the top of the egg with just a pinch of salt.

These are best eaten with a spoon, so you can savor every last bit. The yolks stay gloriously runny once you pierce them, and the whites are soft. The whole thing is like an unshelled soft-boiled egg, but with glorious treasures at the bottom. The spinach with parmesan was gloriously but not overly salty and a nice mix of textures. The yolk mingles beautifully with the wilted leaves and the whites melt in your mouth. Seriously. These are THAT GOOD. They are an easy, hearty, and luxurious dinner, and would go well with a silky, cream-based soup.

Behold! The glory of the baked eggs, straight from the oven.

If you don't happen to have two small ramekins, but have one of those circular Corningware or Pyrex dishes, just prepare the dish with both eggs in it in your larger round dish. I just really like preparing each one separately because come on... how adorable are those ramekins?

Try this and then tell me how OHMIGOD good it is.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Heartful of cookie love

I love this article, written by an academic, about how she likes the bake because it's the best way for her to express her affection for others.

She talks about how she and her sister used to bake cookies for her mother on nights when she worked late. It made me think about myself when I was young. I used to do the same thing myself. I loved to bake cookies, oddly, because my mother wasn't really into baking and she never once made cookies. But somehow I was really drawn to cookie recipes, probably because they are relatively simple in terms of technique and relatively quick to bake. And also because, let's face it, who DOESN'T love cookies?

One of my favorite recipes was peanut butter blossoms, a recipe I found in a Pillsbury cookies magazine my mother had probably gotten free as part of a supermarket promotion or something. I remember how much I loved those cookies (even though I made them without the kisses on top, because they were the one ingredient we didn't have just sitting around the house), and I also love how much I enjoying tricking my father into eating them. He hates peanut butter, but yet he ate these cookies every time I made them and said they were good, every time. I guess no one can resist a cookie.

I still enjoy making cookies. I've got some baking books and am enjoying going through them and trying new flavors beyond the usual chocolate chip and oatmeal. I recently made some chocolate gingerbread cookies that were amazingly delicious and took them to a party where they were a big hit. Like Therese Huston in the article, I find that making cookies is like an expression of what I feel inside, a little circular externalization of my emotions. They are a great way for me to nonverbally bring a little comfort and happiness to my friends and loved ones. All cooking, I think, is an expression of love for others, but there's just something about baking that really gets to the heart for me, these little sweet bits of love.

Is there a certain food you like to make that encompasses your love for your friends and family, a food that expresses what you feel inside in an edible way?