March 29, 2010

A Birthday Meal Down South

Just back from a road trip to see friends and family down south. While there, I had a hunkering for a truly southern meal, and my good friends R & H in my hometown appeased me. With a birthday in our midst, we celebrated in style with a lightened-up version of a country favorite, Country-Fried Steak with Mushroom Gravy and of course, classic yellow cupcakes with chocolate buttercream. Good times were had by all, and we sauntered to bed that evening comfortably stuffed!

This is a keeper recipe I've had around since earlier days of subscribing to Cooking Light. I've done nothing to it except to try and make it at least once a year in order to stay in touch with my southern roots! You can use just about any type of mushroom for this, but the button mushrooms you see here make the best presentation. We served this with green beans sauteed in toasted almonds and olive oil with some cracked pepper and salt. Instead of mashed potatoes, I roasted baby red potatoes in rosemary, sage, oregano, garlic powder, and more olive oil, salt, and pepper.

As for the cupcakes, I polled before I arrived and knew to bring a recipe for classic yellow cupcakes with chocolate buttercream frosting. This is a variation from Cupcake Bakeshop by Chockylit, one of my all-time favorite cupcake blogs.

Classic Yellow Cupcakes with Chocolate Buttercream

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
8 tbsp (1 stick) butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup milk, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a separate bowl, sift first three ingredients together and set aside. In another bowl, cream butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, and mix well each time. Add dry ingredients alternately with milk in four additions (flour, milk, flour, milk) and mix until virtually no lumps (about 3-5 minutes). Add vanilla and stir to combine. Divide evenly in lined cupcake pan (1/2 to 2/3 full) and bake 16-18 minutes until golden or toothpick comes clean. Cool completely before frosting.

March 21, 2010

Cooking School: What's the Deal with the Easy-Bake Oven?

I have always been intrigued by this machine. I wanted one so badly growing up, but my mother was a purist and believed in the big bad oven and teaching us how to use it. She did borrow one from a friend's kid for a summer to appease my interest. I remember being so anal as to actually slice the cakes into perfect portions to give to my family. Yes, there is something so fascinating to young bakers about cooking food with a 100-watt light bulb.

Since spending time with my nieces this weekend, who just got one for Christmas, I've started wondering about it all over again. I simply need to understand how this stuff works with the simple heat of a light bulb! After much Googling, I learned that no one really can say how it works, except that it does. NPR went so far as to conduct a gourmet cooking face-off with two industry notables, Caprial Pence of PBS cooking show fame, and Oprah's chef, Art Smith. Wikipedia and both chronicle the efforts of the toy companies who've owned the Easy-Bake patent over the years. None of these resources really explain how a 100-watt light bulb can bake a wild mushroom flan. But it does! I would need to consult an engineer, but my best guess would be the ratio of heat to space. If you stick a light/heat source of that magnitude into a less-than-a-cubic-foot space, it'll probably cook anything!

I'm glad the Easy-Bake Oven is still around and entertaining kids across America. Hopefully, now that gourmet chefs' recipes can be executed in them, it will encourage wee ones everywhere down the path of culinary success. I hope to have that influence myself here in the coming weeks, as I've just accepted an opportunity to teach baking and pastry arts at a local youth center for the spring term of its after-school program. I won't be Easy-Baking, that's for sure, since the goal is to teach these kids really cooking and baking with a convection oven and electric stand mixer. But I'm very grateful for the opportunity to be a part of their learning process. I am truly enjoying my change in career, and I'm looking forward to helping Chicago youth choose this avenue right out of the gate!

March 14, 2010

Lamb Vindaloo--Woo Hoo!

Even though I grew up eating it at nearly every meal, I have only recently clued in to the fact that there is actually no such thing as a curry, according to The Food of India, an amazing text and cookbook that every Indian food connoisseur should have. The term comes from the Tamil word kari, meaning black pepper. Dishes are named for the amalgamation of spices used to make them (rogan josh, vindaloo), the cooking method (korma--in cream, or biryani--with rice), or for their main ingredients (saag--spinach, aloo gobi--cauliflower). Curry powder doesn't really exist in India either, with the closest thing being masala (a spice mix). There are hundreds of masala combinations, such as garam and Madras.

I grew up eating traditionally South Indian food, which is not the standard fare served in Indian restaurants. Its mostly vegetarian and includes things like dosa (rice flour crepe filled with a curried potato mixture) and idli (steamed rice cake served with a coconut or cilantro chutney). However, I have come to embrace North Indian selections such as vindaloo because of its combination of all my favorite Indian spices and its serious kick! You can make this spice mixture en masse and keep it around as a rub for just about anything (burgers, roasted chicken--you name it). But it is definitely worth slow cooking a lamb shank in some time. This was almost so good, we didn't want to eat it, for fear we'd be finished with it all too soon! Most of the ingredients can be found at your grocery store or Whole Foods, but if you live in the vicinity of a good Middle Eastern or Indian grocer, stock up on some of the exotics like cardamom pods and bay leaves. They're much cheaper for bigger quantities there.

Lamb Vindaloo

2 T coriander seed
1 T cumin seed
1/4 tsp black peppercorns
3-4 green cardamom pods
3-4 whole cloves
2 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 T turmeric
2 tsp salt
6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 inches fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 lbs lamb shanks, fat mostly trimmed
1 cup red wine
1 medium tomato, diced (or two roma/plum tomatoes)
1 medium Vidalia onion or other sweet onion, finely chopped
6 bay leaves
Fresh cilantro leaves

Lightly dry roast (no oil) coriander through mustard seeds over medium-high heat until fragrant (about 3 minutes). Grind these in a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder until fine. Mix with cinnamon, cayenne, turmeric, and salt. Add garlic and ginger and make a paste. Rub over lamb shanks to coat. In a large Ziploc bag or Tupperware, combine red wine, tomato, onion, and bay leaves. Place lamb in bag or Tupperware, seal, and shake to coat evenly. Marinate overnight in refrigerator.

Preheat oven to 275 degrees F. Empty contents of bag or box into oven-proof pot with lid. Cover and roast lamb shanks with curry mixture for 2-3 hours. (You can check at 2 hours and see if it's fall-off-the-bone tender; if not, leave it in for another 30 minutes to an hour). Serve over rice and garnish with fresh cilantro leaves. Serves 4.

March 4, 2010

Cooking School: Feeding a Crowd

Many apologies for the delinquency in posting anything new. I am working on a few ideas, but it's been a bit nutty sitting down to write these days. One of the things I often hear about from people is how difficult it is to plan multiple components to a meal and pull it all off at the same time. I must admit, I struggled with my efficiency in the kitchen until I went to culinary school, which in itself is an education on constant multitasking.

I recently took a cooking class at Chicago's Chopping Block, and the chef was so organized, he scared me. But in a good way! One of the things he pointed out is how in our minds, we think dessert should be done last. Well, that's the way we eat it, but when prepping for a party, you should actually do it first. It is typically one of those things that requires resting or rising a batter or dough, chilling something or the other, baking time, and cooling time. Probably the most time-consuming portion of the meal! So do it first and utilize the resting, baking, cooling, and all-around sitting-around-and-waiting-for-the-next-step slots in your schedule for other things.

Before you shove off, take a look at all your recipes and look for line items such as these, and when something is sitting around and doing nothing, do something else. If you need to bring things to room temp before working with them, then chop vegetables, shred cheese, or simmer or saute something in the interim. If something's gotta chill, then put something else in the oven during that time.

And it's OK to "cheat" with some prepared foods. Get the sliced mushrooms, canned diced tomatoes (no-salt-added versions are the best), shredded carrots or cheese, peeled and deveined shrimp--you name it. The possibilities are endless these days at the grocery store, as more and more food manufacturers are realizing you want to eat healthier and are less likely to buy preservative- and salt-heavy boxed meals but are more willing to buy prepped fresh food.

I recently put all the items in this picture together in 5-1/2 hours--enough to feed a party for 30. And I did this by simply starting dessert first and utilizing the downtimes for up times. You too can be this organized in the kitchen, and you will be ready for those guests, cocktail in hand, apron on the hook, and delicious food just waiting to be consumed!