Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sully’s Test Kitchen – T Day Edition

Hello! I’m back, and just in time to report on some T Day cooking!

“Sully, where the F you been??”

I been busy. Deal with it.

So it was Thanksgiving the other day and I wanted to create an epic dish. There’s something incredibly satisfying about cooking a meal that takes longer to finish than a “Godfather” Movies Marathon. So I started reflecting on my options and decided to do a Coq au Vin, or, literally “Rooster in Wine” (I’ll be using a chicken though). S’French and junk.

Now, you may be saying, “Wait a sec Sull, you’re not going to do a turkey??” And to that I respond, Fuckin’ A right I’m not doing a turkey. Turkey can kiss my ass. The End.

At its core, this dish is a chicken stew, probably a descendant of peasant cooking. The main ingredients are first sautéed in the mother of all flavorings, The Holiest of Holies, Saint Bacon Fat. (I know it seems like cheating but why else do you think French food tastes so Goddamn awesome?) Then, it’s marinated in wine and cooked slowly over low heat for several hours. I mean, unless you do this with piles of shit, it is impossible to screw up. Heck, even with actual shit it would probably still taste decent because… bacon fat.

So: start with a hunk of this stuff called salt pork. It’s similar to bacon in that it’s usually from the pork belly but it’s not smoked or cured, which you don’t want anyways because you want to keep the flavors clean. You then have to blanch the stuff (boil in water for a few minutes) to draw out the salt so you can be in charge of your own seasoning destiny. So right there, with just this first ingredient, you have to subject it to a 4 step process (boil water, blanch, remove and shock in cold water and dry off) before you can even start using it. Oh, and it has to be cut in lardons (1 inch by 1/8 inch strips). And we haven’t even done any cooking yet! Jesus Christ.

The lardons get sautéed to render their love juice, until they’re nice and brown and crispy. Remove from the pan. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DO NOT THROW THEM AWAY! If you do, I will feel it deep in my heart and a piece of my soul will die. Plus, they’re going to come in handy later on.

The rest of the prep work isn’t all that exciting. You gotta peel some pearl onions (which are tiny, white, round, pains in the ass to peel – if you give ‘em a quick blanch it will help loosen the skin), quarter some mushrooms and chop up your standard mirepoix – carrots, onions, celery. Season the chicken and lightly dust with flour. The ingredients then get divided into 2 camps: those that get the glorious bacon fat treatment and those that are added to the marinade for flavor. They breakdown thusly:

Glorious Bacon Fat Treatment (of love):

Pearl onions



Flavor Department (necessary, but boring):




Garlic (few cloves)

6-7 thyme sprigs

1 bay leaf

The boring stuff can be rough chopped and thrown in your Dutch oven. Yawn.

The other stuff gets sautéed, in the order listed above, in magic flavor juice until golden brown and delicious. You may have to intermittently add more fat to the pan, like a pat of butter, or bacon fat, if you happen to have any lying around, which I do, because that is how I roll. You also need to be aware that every time you lift the lid off the pan, it’s going to be like ‘Nam, if ‘Nam was fought on a battle field of molten hot grease spitting everywhere. And don’t even THINK about cleaning up until you’re all done. As long as frying is going on, your stove top is going to be coated in more oil than the Deepwater Horizon. Except way tastier.

When all the frying is done – and this step is crucial, listen up - deglaze that pan with about a cup of grandma’s brandy. Scrape up those burnt bits on the bottom, kids; that there is the money shot. It may look like scorched crap but that crap is the stuff of pure flavor concentrate. It’s the point of doing all of this and if you throw it away, another piece of my soul will die and let’s face it; I don’t have much left of my soul to throw around, so please remember to deglaze. It also makes cleaning the pan easier.

Chicken goes in the pot. Pearl onions and mushrooms get stored with the lardons in a separate container – that is going to be the garnish. Dump a bottle of wine in the pot (pinot noir, preferably), add chick stock until everything’s submerged and cover. Refrigerate. You are now 75% done with this ridiculous dish. Open another bottle of wine for imbibing but leave grandma’s brandy in the cupboard. That shit is vile.

Day 2 – The Reckoning

Pre-heat oven to 325. Place the Dutch oven in your (wait for it)… oven for 2 – 2 ½ hours. Go watch the Lions get their asses handed to them. Again. Pull pot out of the oven. Remove the chicken to a heat safe container. At this point it will be completely falling apart and tender as hell. Cover and place in the still-warm oven until the sauce is done. Strain out the rest of the crap and retain the braising liquid in a sauce pan. Reduce liquid to about 1/3 and throw in your lardon/onion/mushroom garnish to heat through. The liquid should, by this time, taste absolutely incredible; an intense combination of chicken, roasted veggies, bacon and wine. Add a nice sized pat of butter if you want to feel extra French and pour everything over the chicken. Serve with egg noodles. Accept ravishing praise and blow jobs for the awesome food you have just prepared. You’ve earned it.

Notes to Self Section

This is a really fantastic holiday dish as long as you have time to prep the night before. The flavor is deep and complex, and it frees you up during the day to do other important things, like drink, and watch your boyfriend cook all the other courses. I can’t think of anything to substantially change about this recipe; those wily French pretty much have it down: brown in bacon fat, marinate in wine, cook low and slow, reduce to condense and then punch yourself in the face with the rich, silky flavors. Ain’t no turkey that can pull off this shit.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Get Your Paneer Here!

So we bought a huge thing of beautiful organic baby spinach from Costco. Huge. Like, 5 pounds. It was like a bread box stuffed full of lovely, tender baby spinach leaves. Given how a handful of spinach basically cooks down to the size of a pea, I suggested we pick it up.

A week later, we still hadn't made a dent. The clock was ticking. How to use up so much freaking spinach? I'll tell you how: palak paneer.

Palak paneer is an Indian dish that is often labeled interchangeably with saag paneer. The difference, according to my research, is that saag refers to a dish that can use several types of greens, usually mustard greens, in addition to the spinach, whereas palak is just spinach. Look at that - you learned something about Indian cuisine today! Yay you.

The paneer part is cheese. It's a very light cheese, on par with a farmer cheese or queso fresco. You can buy this cheese in specialty shops but every recipe I read lamented the quality of the frozen paneer when compared to fresh so I decided to get a little crazy and actually make my own paneer.

I know what you're thinking: "Sully, you made your own cheese? No way!" And I would say, you are correct, there WAS no whey because I drained it all off! Hahaha!! I would then duck the shoes and lamps being thrown at me.

But truly, it is a deceptively simple process. Since cheese is almost always store-bought, it's easy to think that it must be difficult to make at home, or require special tools. I am here to tell you that neither is true. This is how I did it:

Slowly boil 1/2 gallon of whole milk. (Or more if you want more cheese - I found this to make the perfect amount for a 4 person meal.) If you have a dutch oven or heavy bottomed pot, I highly recommend using it since that will help heat the milk the evenly and cut down on the possibility of scorching. Also stir it frequently. If the milk does scorch (which mine admittedly did), it won't harm the final cheese but it is a pain on the ARM to scrub off the bottom of the pot after wards. Seriously. Take my word on this. So - bring the milk to a boil and when it starts foaming up, remove from the heat and immediately add around 1/4 cup of lemon juice or white vinegar and stir. It will take about 20 seconds and then you'll see the milk separate into the curds (the milk solids) and whey (the milk liquids) - a sight that always makes my heart drop since it is usually the sign of a failed dish, i.e. "broken", but this is actually exactly what you want. No need to stir a lot, just enough to get the separation going and then drain into a colander lined with cheese cloth. It'll be hot (hot hot, hotter than hell), but do your best to pull the sides of the cheese cloth together and squeeze out moisture. At this point you can twist up the cloth to make a ball a little bigger than a tennis ball. Grab a sheet pan and something really heavy - I used my cast-iron dutch oven - and stack it on top of the cheese ball on the sheet pan to press it (bind it). You'll need to leave it like that for a few hours. There will be moisture around the sides of the cheese from being pressed but you can leave it there, it won't harm anything. And there you go! You made cheese! Yay you again!

I also made some ghee yesterday but I'm not going to get into that process - that would be a whole other blog. I found a really great step-by-step process here. I succeeded after burning the crap outta my first batch. Ah well. It got done eventually.

On to the palak! I read quite a few recipes before settling on my approach. Most included a step to blend the spinach although there were a couple that insisted the correct approach was to cook the spinach for 40-45 minutes to break it down. I discovered my wand blender in the basement while looking for some microphones (don't ask) and took that as a sign: blended it shall be. I also have to add that a wand (stick) blender is one of my very favorite kitchen gadgets and I highly recommend them to anyone who makes a lot of soups or sauces. They are as effective as a blender but faster and easier to clean up - unless of course you really enjoy taking apart the whole friggin' blender and dealing with those mean, rat-teeth blades but... I don't. Some people like that kind of thing but I'm not one of them. I'm not judging. Much.

The prep is fairly intensive since there is some grinding that needs to happen in addition to the usual slicing and dicing. You will need: 1/2 of an onion, diced small; 1 medium ripe tomato, blanched and shocked, then skinned and mashed to a puree; 1/4 cup of roasted cashews (3-4 minutes in the oven @ 350) cooled and ground; and finally a paste of ginger, garlic and spices. I used garam masala, coriander and cumin. Cilantro and cayenne pepper are also appropriate; this part is very open to interpretation. Use 1/4 - 1/2 tsp of each and bust out your mortar and pestle and a little elbow grease. (Or recruit your boyfriend as he passes through the kitchen for a beer. Everyone has their own methods.) If you don't have a mortar and pestle, finely mince everything with a chef's knife while alternately pressing and smearing the mixture on your board to break it down. But seriously, consider picking a M & P up; they're not super expensive and they are wonderful multi-taskers (as Alton would say).

Some recipes blanch the spinach first but I opted for the saute method to infuse more flavor. Use a fine dice of a green chili if you want some heat or if you're cooking for kids (as I was), use garlic instead. In a large saute pan, heat some oil (I used olive) and toss in some minced garlic (I LOVE garlic so I used around 4 cloves - adjust to your tastes) and right when it starts to brown, add the spinach. I mean, really pile it in there. I used at least half of the Costco box. Cook it down until it's a nice dark green and completely wilted, 5 - 10 minutes. Then remove from heat and either blend or pour into a bowl and wand-blend with a pinch of salt. Set aside.

In that same large saute pan, heat about 2 T of ghee on medium high heat and saute the diced onion until golden brown. Add your paste and saute for a couple more minutes - now you'll really start filling up the house with awesome aromas. This is where I did something that was not mentioned in any of the recipes I read: I deglazed with white wine. This helped to pull up the bits of paste and onion that cooked to the bottom of the pan. Pour in maybe a half a cup and use a wooden spoon to scrape up all that baked on goodness. Let it reduce to burn off the alcohol and then enter the final stages of the dish by adding in the tomato, ground cashew and pureed spinach. Reduce heat, stir and let everything warm through.

So now I bet you're wondering, "But Sully, where did that cheese go?" Well, I'll tell ya where it went - it went in my belly! But seriously - this is the point where you can add it in. After it's been pressed for a few hours, just unwrap and cut into 1" square chunks and that's it. You can fry them in some ghee until golden brown or use them as-is. I fried mine in ghee but didn't find that it added all that much and will probably skip that step next time.

Throw in the cheese and also feel free to add water or some kind of dairy product to thin the dish if it's too thick. It shouldn't be too runny, but it should have some moment. I added some heavy cream because, helloooooo everything tastes better with cream in it, but you can also use water, yogurt, sour cream or half and half. Just mind your temperature if you use sour cream or half and half - if you let it boil, it will probably break and this would be the bad kind of dairy breakage. Nice low heat, cover for a few minutes, stir and voila - you have made a lovely Indian spinach curry! Yay all of us! Serve over basmati rice or with pita bread or naan.

I did not take pictures of the finished dish a la minute because, um, I forgot. But this is a pretty pic of the leftovers which I can guarantee you, will taste better today than they did last night. And, oh hey! There's the postcard for the new Factory show, "1985" in the back ground! How the heck did that get in there?!

Notes to Self Section
I already mentioned not frying the cheese and then I would also like to try adding a pinch of nutmeg (yes, nutmeg) to the sauteed spinach before blending it. Nutmeg and spinach play very well together and I'm curious about how that flavor might develop through the dish. I suspect it would be very interesting and tasty. I also might try topping this with some whole roasted cashews or fried garlic chips to add some texture. We added a can of garbanzo beans but everything was still soft soft soft. I would also add a pinch of salt to my cheese to hopefully impart a little more flavor.

Overall, I give the dish 8 out of 10 Rics. Extremely flavorful and full of options, it's a little labor intensive but now that I know what I'm doing, it'll go faster next time.

So, the next time some one asks you the musical question, do you want to know a secret? You can whisper, "It's paneer."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Here's the Rub: Coffee on Steak

So the steaks got made and the grill got used. It was... ok. Not my favorite of all time. Here's the rundown on the rubdown:

I pulled the steaks out and let them warm up to room temp for about an hour. They looked lovely.

Meanwhile, I assembled the rub which ended up something like this...

1/8 c. chili powder
1/8 c. ground coffee
1 T each paprika & Lt. brown sugar
1 t each Mustard Powder, S & P, Oregano, Coriander, Cinnamon, Garlic Powder, Cayenne Pepper and Thai Red Curry paste.

...and looking like this:

Couple tips about applying rubs: bring the steaks to room temp and then brush first with a little olive oil - this will make the rub easier to spread with your hands and stick to the meat. I also recommend dumping the rub on from the bowl as opposed to dredging the meat so you can save any unused portion without worrying about it being contaminated by the raw meat.

I applied the rub and let it rest on the meat for an hour. Meanwhile, I sliced the sweet potato and carrots into "steak fry"-esque shapes before piling them on a plate and drizzling with olive oil (for the record, you will NEVER see me refer to olive oil as EVOO on here. I could shoot Rachel Ray for that) and hitting them with some s & p. I also dusted with a bit of cumin because it seemed like a good idea. A word on that...

Many times I do things while cooking that simply strike me at the time as being a good idea. I think this comes from building experience and your 'kitchen intuition' as I call it. I attribute the development of mine from working on the line in a kitchen, where you are called upon to multi-task at an incredible level. An order comes up and you throw the meat on the grill, pull out the pans you need for the sauce, the vegetable, grab what you need out of the refrigerator, unwrap stuff, throw stuff in pans, broiler up or down, check the meat, oil hot/butter melted yet for sauce? Tongs here, taste there, towel on your shoulder, plates warming in the over, check the meat! Veggie done yet? Reduce the sauce, hit with alcohol, flambe, plate warm? Turn the meat! Taste sauce, season, toss veggies, season, pull meat to rest, grab warm plates, make it look pretty, pile it on, garnish, clean the edges and get it out the door.

And that's just one entree. You're usually doing at least two of these at a time.

You only have to forget something and ruin a dish once or twice to start the mini-alarm clock growing in the back of your mind that will go off - ping! - when you need to pay attention to something. It's like one of those capsules you put in water and in an hour you have a 3 foot dinosaur. You evolve. You think on your feet and adjust as you go and make it work. You start looking at things as they cook and getting ideas. You start to trust yourself. It's pretty cool.

So I say, if you have an inkling in the kitchen of something that might work, give it a shot.

Now what the hell was I talking about? Oh yeah! The steaks! Well, the steaks were still resting so I moved on to figuring out what the heck to do with the Insanity Peppers Mark has growing in the backyard. I got an idea to roast one with some garlic and shallots in olive oil in a little hobo pack.

The Packing:

The Package:

Into the toaster oven for 1 hour at 400 degrees. I wasn't sure right then what I was going to do with the finished product but ultimately settled on mincing and mixing it with mayonnaise as a dip for the fries. The spice level was perfect!

Finally, the grill was unsheathed and fired up. On with the fries...

...and then the steaks...

Steak Fries and Meat!

Steak Fries and Meat and Captain Beyond!!

And finally, the finished product:

Much to my (our) dismay, the steak wasn't as tender as I thought it was going to be. The rub itself was wonderful - very rich with an even spice level that wasn't overpowering. The fries and mayo were also very tasty but mismatched for the meal. Overall, it was just too heavy.

Next time, I'll try a more tender cut of meat (probably a Filet) and pair it with a green veggie (I'm thinking Chinese broccoli or asparagus) and a light, citrus-y sauce (probably a beurre noisette hit with some orange juice).

I give the meal 6 out of 10 Rics.

Next time, I will get the best of my rub. What?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Blogging Well; Eating Better

A blog. About food. Why not?

So here I go.

This is as much for me as you. Weeellll... actually probably more for me. Fact is, I love cooking and will cook something complicated from scratch given the time and inclination. I will try a recipe and then tweak it and then leave it for a while and then forget what I did and maybe go back to it some day - but maybe not - so I thought, well, heck, why don't I blog about it which will 1) keep track of my exploits and 2) hopefully amuse and/or educate those I know about food and cooking.

If you know me reasonably well, you will know that I am a fairly hard-core foodie. I loooove me some good food and quality ingrediants. My very first job in Chicago was in a kitchen - which was a position I had absolutely no business getting. A friend of mine (actually of Mark's) was a waitress at this place (the long gone Club Macanudo in the Gold Coast) and she wrangled a position for me there. The chef hired me and quit shortly there after. (Which is why, I suspect, he had no problem hiring me with absolutely NOTHING in the way food servce on my resume.) When the restaurant manager realized that he a new hire coming in that he didn't know at all, he asked my friend about me and my skills and she, God bless her, vouched for me all the way. You can imagine the surprise in the kitchen on my first day when one of the prep cooks told me to julienne some vegetables only to recieve a blank look from me. My education started immediately.

I will leave the Macanudo story for now... I am sure I will be coming back to my experiences that often but, suffice it to say, that was the beginning of how I learned to cook.

Now, on to more important things. Namely, the 2 beautiful grass-fed, dry-aged, New York strip steaks I have waiting in the fridge. Mark mentioned maybe experimenting with dry rubs that include coffee and that was all I needed to spark inspiration.

I started my research the way I always do: by googling a bunch of recipes to see how they differ from each other. I like seeing how intepretations will vary from pro chef to home cook to region. I will then usually pick a recipe that catches my eye or come up with a synthesis. Today's rub will be a synthesis using a coffee rub by Bobby Flay that I found on as the base. I'm toying with the idea of using Thai spices (I'm thinking red curry paste) instead of his ubiquitous ancho chilies... we'll see how I feel. With it, I plan on grilling some sweet potato, sliced home-fries style (something I'm planning on serving with a dinner next week, so today I am experimenting with it) along with some grilled carrots (cuz we have some) to bring some sweet balance to the what I'm expecting will be a rather heavy, spicy steak. To top the steak, I'm thinking perhaps a chili creme sauce using one of the INSANELY hot peppers we have growing in the back yard. They're way too hot to serve as a side (I tried one last week and half my mouth was numb for an hour - and I'm no wimp when it comes to spicy) so I'm rather determined to figure out a way to use them.

Mark is working on mini-chocolate souffles for dessert.

This could be very, very good.

On a bummer note, I'd prefer to grill everything out back on the Weber but it keeps raining. I can pan-fry the steaks if need be but I'm really hoping the weather will pass... Mark doesn't have a cast iron skillet (I know, for shame) and mine is back at my place. The curse of separate house holds! I will keep looking skyward and, in the meantime, pull out my lovely steaks and get started...