Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lots of Updates - 10.26.08

I've been staying busy busy for the past couple of weeks, so I haven't gotten around to updating the blog. But now I've found some time, so here's what I've been up to.

Shepherd's Pie

One of my pseudo-Scottish favorites, shepherd's pie is an easy casserole for entertaining friends or for a quiet evening at home. While boiling some potatoes for the top portion, cook ground beef in a pan, adding some onions, carrots and garlic. Once it's all cooked, stir in some flour to let it combine with the fat in the pan. Gradually stir in some tomatoes and beef stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Add Worcestershire sauce, sage, salt, and pepper, cover, and simmer for 25 minutes. While it's simmering, mash the potatoes with some butter, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Adjust the consistency with some milk.

Stir mushrooms into the meat and cook until tender. Turn the mixture into a shallow ovenproof dish. You can either pipe the mashed potatoes with a star tip (fancy version) or you can delicately spread them over the top of the meat mixture (time and energy efficient version). Bake in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. Let cool a bit, slice and serve.

Grape-Mascarpone Upside-Down Cheesecake

I wanted to make a slightly different dessert, so I opted for this grape and mascarpone upside-down cheesecake. You puree some grape juice concentrate with some grapes, then simmer this in a saucepan with some whole grapes, sugar, raspberry vinegar, and cornstarch, cooking until it is thickened slightly. Pour this into the bottom of a springform pan (this will form the bottom of the cheesecake, which will be served as the top). With an electric mixer, combine cream cheese and mascarpone cheese with some sugar and flour. Pour this mixture over the grape mixture and bake until the center is just set. Allow to cool completely, then refrigerate for 4 hours. When ready to serve, invert onto a serving dish and remove the springform pan. This dessert came out nicely balanced: not artificially grapey and not overtly sweet, which were my main concerns. The last thing anyone wants for dessert is a diabetogenic cheesecake that tastes like Dimetapp.

Mushroom-Rice Soup and Red Wine Steak

With winter at our doorstep here in North Carolina, I was in the mood for soup, so I wanted to re-make some mushroom rice chowder I prepared about 3 years ago. You start by cooking mushrooms, leeks, shallots, and garlic in a pan with butter until everything is tender. Add 4 cups of chicken stock, 1 cup of wild rice, marjoram, thyme, and pepper. Simmer, covered, for about an hour until the rice is cooked. Slowly stir in 1 cup of half-and-half, cream cheese or sour cream (depending on how creamy and fattening you want your soup). Heat soup through but do not boil. Serve in large bowls and savor the warmth and flavors at your leisure.

Since I'm such a fungi (fun guy haha), I continued the mushroominess and made these steaks with red wine and mushroom sauce. Salt and pepper the steaks, then cook them up in a saucepan to the desired doneness. When finished, transfer to a covered, oven-safe dish and place it in an oven set on warm. In the same pan, pour out most of the fat, and add 8 ounces of mushrooms and some shallots, and cook until tender. Add some beef broth and heat until boiling. Mix cornstarch into half a cup of red wine, then pour this mixture into the pan. Cook this mixture until the sauce is thickened and adjust the flavors with salt and pepper. Plate the steaks and spread the sauce on top. The version I made turned out rather bland, so additional spices and maybe a bit less cornstarch would help. It did look nice, though, with some chopped parsley on top.

Zucchini Bread

For a nice treat for my lab, I made some zucchini bread. I have made so much banana bread over the past few years, I decided to try my hand at zucchini bread. I got the recipe from Food Network and tweaked it a bit. After mixing together 3.25 cups flour, 1.5 tsp salt, 1 tsp nutmeg, 2 tsp baking soda, 3 cups sugar, and 1 tsp cinnamon (I also added to this 1 tsp of cardamom, a wonderfully warm and underused spice), I made the wet mixture: 1 cup vegetable oil, 4 eggs, 1/3 cup water, 1 tsp lemon juice, and 2 cups zucchini. To grate the zucchini, you can do it the hard way with a hand grater or, as I found out, you can do it the easy way with the proper attachment to a food processor. I grated 2 zucchini in 15 seconds. Mix the wet mixture into the dry mixture until just mixed together. If you want, fold in 1 cup of chopped nuts (I used pecans). Bake this in 2 loaf pans (I only had 1 regular loaf pan and 3 mini loaf pans) for about 1 hour (or 45 minutes for mini-sized) until a tester comes out clean. I did have a difficult time getting the loaves out of the pans, but after that they were fine. I also used a light vanilla glaze on the large one before I brought it in for my lab to devour like piranha. It had a wonderful spiced flavor to it and the zucchini was more for consistency than for flavor.

In the past couple of weeks, I went to the NC Renaissance Fair as well as the State Fair. I meant to document the wonderful foods at both, but was so excited that I only remembered my camera when I was halfway through gorging. At the Renaissance Fair, we enjoyed a turkey leg, chocolate-covered strawberries, sausage on a stick, hot cider, strawberry shortcake, and fried mac-n-cheese. At the State Fair, we had a soft pretzel, another turkey leg, fried cheesecake, mint chocolate chip ice cream, a foot long corndog, and, the best of the best, fried oreos and Reese's peanut butter cups. The oreos were good, but the peanut butter cups were out of this world. Our original intent was to eat all of the other fried goodness (including, but not limited to, fried pickles, twinkies, Snickers, and Milky Ways), but we did not find the right booths until we were already stuffed. Luckily we carried around our many and varied stuffed animals, so that might come near the number of calories we least if you fudge the numbers a bit.

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