Friday, February 29, 2008

Good, easy, and fairly healthy comfort food

Asking my mom for a recipe is always an exercise in ambiguity. Her favorite measurements are some, a good amount, and a little. So it took me a while to get this one just right, even though it's basic.

For two people, I poach one or two chicken breasts in either stock or water. When it's done, I let it cool enough to work with and then I shred it into hearty pieces. I make up a biscuit batter (I haven't found one that I love yet, so I choose a different one every time) and preheat the oven to whatever temperature the recipe recommends.

Then I saute an onion in a pot, then add broth and cut up potatoes. It doesn't really matter whether the skins are on or off. Wait a minute, I'm getting pretty vague here and starting to sound like her. So when the potatoes are inching towards ready, I add green beans and whatever other vegetables suit my fancy, throw the chicken in to warm it up. I thicken it with flour or corn starch, then put it in a casserole dish (for two people I use the little square one), and then scoop drop biscuits and place them around the top of the stew. Into the oven to bake the biscuits, wait until the tops are golden, and there you have it.
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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The chard taco experiment

I don't remember how I first found this approximation of a recipe on the Bunny Pie blog, but it struck my fancy, so I printed it out and filed it away for future use. Well, the future was last night, after I took my new bicycle down to Monterey Market (walking, I never realized just how completely downhill it is one way and totally uphill it is on the grocery-laden way back) and picked up tomatillos, chard, and though it wasn't mentioned in the recipe, a sweet potato for good measure.

Since the recipe I was working off of had no measurements (she wrote it down as she was watching Rick Bayliss' show on PBS), I'll summarize my version here. I took 10 tomatillos and roasted them in a 350 degree oven for an hour. I should have used more, say 20, and left them in the oven for closer to 40 minutes. Ah yes, and at the same time, I roasted a garlic clove. When everything was nice and soft and golden-topped, I let it cool for a bit and then threw it in the food processor along with a canned chipotle pepper (I happened to have opened a can of the chipotles in adobo sauce to make a delicious, junk-foody chicken taco filling just a few days before) and a bit of the adobo sauce, and made salsa.

Next, I chopped and grilled a yellow onion, then washed and removed the thick spines of two bunches of swiss chard, then rolled the leaves together (Whenever I do this some part of me pretends I'm rolling cigars. Or dolmas.) and roughly chopped it before adding it to the onions and wilting it. I tossed in a bit of salt at the end, and then assembled the tacos.

But I'm forgetting the sweet potato! It wasn't in the recipe, but I thought as long as I was making a chard-based taco, which is already a little unusual in my book, that a little thinly sliced sweet potato might be good. And it was! My mom is always going on about how well sweet potatoes cook in the microwave, so I called her and asked her how to do it. She said wash, poke, then put it on the potato microwave setting. I didn't have that setting, so I put it in for five minutes, which worked perfectly.

So then I heated corn tortillas, laid down a foundation of the chard-and-onion mixture, balanced a few thin slices of sweet potatoes on top, added the salsa and a bit of sharp aged cheddar, and (pronounced a la Mr. Dyson, inventor of the Dyson vacuum, in those commercials where he details making thousands of suction-losing prototypes before getting his first-vacuum-that-doesn't-lose-suction version right) I had it! I was surprised at how good it was: hearty, savory and a little sweet, slightly spicy, and texturally complex.
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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Family-style at Walzwerk

For Kathryn's birthday, we went to the Tactile Dome (fun, but also scarier than I remember from my visits as a wee lass), and then to the East German restaurant Walzwerk. If you've got 10 or more people, you can preorder a family-style dinner that provides a ridiculous amount of food (not a true cultural experience, I suspect). Bratwurst, Sauerkraut, and braised red cabbage aren't really my thing, so I've always assumed that I just don't really like German food, but getting to try so many things in one sitting meant I actually found stuff I liked, and would eat again.

Kathryn is holding one of two giant plates of delicious and heart-attack-inducing cheese spätzle that came along with all the other salads, appetizers, and main courses that you get for a rather reasonable $20 a person. Other newly discovered favorites include Thüringer Salad, Matjes herring in sour cream with apples, onions and pickles, and a particularly good rendition of potato pancakes with chivey sour cream.

That's the second time I've been to Walzwerk, and again because I came as part of a larger group, we had to sit in the cold, linoleum-tiled, folding-chair-and-metal-tables back room, instead of the cozy and lively front. So family-style is sort of a trade off. Yes, you get more food choices, but the ambiance is maybe a little too authentic.
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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The menu

Here's the menu for Joel's birthday menu. Instead of gifts, people brought a wine pairing for each course:

Wild mushroom ragout on crispy polenta

So the first course was the rather addictive merguez tarts, and this pretty dish was the sit-down appetizer. The wild-mushroom ragout on crispy polenta with comte cheese was delicious and a good dish for a multi-course meal because, except for crisping the polenta squares and adding the last-minute seasonings to the mushroom ragout, everything could be done in advance. It was reasonably light and very flavorful, and it paired well with the La Crema Pinot Noir Alexis brought. And it was pretty fast to plate, so everyone got to eat it while it was still warm.

And I don't know what's going on in the photo with those forks. It happened in another photo too, and all I can say is I swear they started out in the right place.
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Roast beef tenderloin with port sauce

Nervewracking but worth it. I very rarely cook beef, so I wasn't feeling super-confident about turning a rather expensive piece of meat into a perfectly cooked main course, especially since the thermometer we had stopped providing accurate readings after we left it to monitor a piece of meat in the closed grill last summer. (As it turns out, you're not really supposed to do that. I know that now.) But, armed with a new thermometer and the promise of a delicious reduced port sauce, I attempted this roast beef tenderloin with port sauce anyway, and it was a smashing success.

In the photo, you can also see the mashed potato-and-celery-root quenelles I devised as a cunning way to do most of the prep work in advance but still end with warm food. Using the Cook's Illustrated mashed potato and root vegetable recipe from a few months ago, I cut out most of the cream (which would have made it too soft) and formed them into quenelles, which Alexis (of course) and I put on a parchment-lined baking sheet and brushed lightly with olive oil. Then, once the beef came out of the oven and was resting, I just popped the waiting quenelles in, and they were hot by the time we plated the main course.

And finally, I made haricots verts with herb butter from this Gourmet via Epi recipe. Monterey Market had some perfect beans for the job, and the herb butter was delicious (though the recipe made waaay too much and now I'm looking for other ways to use up the herby butter).
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Friday, February 15, 2008

Oscar speech

Six courses turns out to be a lot, logistically speaking. But everyone was really helpful, and the pacing of the meal ended up being good. Alexis came over way early and helped (and when there was no helping to be done, sneaked away and took a small nap), Joel also did a ton before the party, Alexis helped again in preparing the mushroom and crisp polenta appetizer, Matt and Alexis (I'm going to stop mentioning Alexis now, just assume that she helped the whole time) swooped in and kept everything going for the main course, and Frank pioneered the cheese slicing with fishing line technique and created a lovely cheese plate for everyone while Kathryn and Nathan foraged for glasses and put the beer out.
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Behold the cheese course and beer pairings

I only managed to get photos (thanks Alexis!) of some of the courses during Joel's birthday dinner, but I thought I'd post the ones I've got.

Behold the cheese course. With beer pairings.

In the foreplate, Humboldt fog, paired with a Saison Imperial Belgian Farmhouse Ale.

To the left, a Point Reyes Blue, accompanied by Chimay Grand Reserve (the blue cheese gave the Chimay a sweet taste!)

And to the right, a modest slice of Westcombe English Cheddar, alongside a Lagunitas IPA.

The only thing I hate about this photo is that there are two forks on the right side. Strange utensil placement haunts another photo I'll post as well. I can only tell you that when the table was set, everything was in the right place. I had no control over cutlery migration over the course of the night.
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