Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Oatmeal-Kiwi Cookies

Dried Kiwi

Until recently I'd never seen dried kiwi. I didn't know it existed, let alone that it could be pretty good. What would be better, though, is if I could make it into a cookie...

Oatmeal-Kiwi Cookies

After a little brainstorming, I came to the conclusion that oatmeal cookies would be the best vehicle for these little dried disks. I chopped up the kiwi and rehydrated it a bit in some warm apple juice. This trick always makes raisins and other dried fruit more plump and flavorful. I used a family oatmeal cookie recipe as the base and simply replaced the raisins with the dried kiwi. Sadly, I will maintain the cookie recipe as one of my family secrets, but believe me they're very simple and very delicious. Using kiwi in this case made for a lot of surprised looks at work. Most people, like me, had never thought of using kiwi in a cookie like this. I'm tempted to get a whole slew of dried fruits and make cookies out of them all.

Asian Pizza?

Have you ever tried to make a weird meal on a whim just to see what would happen and if you could pull it off? That was the inspiration behind Asian pizza. I decided that pizza innovation has not often crossed into the realm of Chinese and Indian food. Sure, you can get Thai chicken pizza (very delicious, don't get me wrong), but I haven't seen much in the way of decent Asian flavors outside of a peanut sauce. Here's my lengthy and convoluted path to creating this wonderful International fusion.

Five-Spice Beef

Thanks to Lynne Rosetto Casper, I finally understand the keys to good stir-fry. There are still some shortcuts I've used that the purists will argue undermine the results. First of all, I don't use a wok. I have too many pots and pans to worry about storing a wok. Instead I have a large, deep saute pan. For cooking, I do use vegetable oil as it has a higher smoke point and does not alter the flavor of the food. For the five-spice beef above, I started by cooking my aromatics (ginger and green onion) in oil just until fragrant. After removing this from the pan, I wiped out any excess oil. Beef has it's own fat that will render to lubricate the pan and prevent sticking. I rubbed the beef with a fair amount of five spice powder and put it in the hot pan. I kept the beef in near constant motion to make sure it browned but didn't have a chance to overcook or cook unevenly. Once the beef was cooked, I returned the aromatics with equal parts oyster and soy sauces. After cooking to heat it through, I removed it all from the pan. The part that helped the most in all of this was preparing absolutely everything in advance. I'm pretty bad about chopping one ingredient while others are cooking, often to my own slight detriment. But this time I cut, seasoned and measured out every ingredient and had it on hand when I needed it. This made the stir-fry itself take less than 5 minutes total.

Since I love variety, I also prepared an Indian chicken salad for topping another pizza. This salad combines curried chicken with red grapes and cumined chickpeas. I did omit the yogurt in the chicken salad for fear that it would curdle or burn during baking.


Now for the full assembly using store-bought pizza dough. While the Indian chicken salad was sufficient for a pizza, the five-spice beef needed a medium (aka sauce). I quick sauteed some green onion shoots and whisked together a sauce of teriyaki, soy, hoisin, sesame seeds, and sesame oil. After spreading all the ingredients, I sprinkled the top with mozzarella cheese. It was difficult trying to think of a neutral cheese that would pair with Asian ingredients, but mozzarella worked well in this instance. After baking the pizzas in a 425 degree oven for about 30 minutes, I pulled them out and let them set up a bit before slicing. As a final touch on the Indian pizza, I put some of the cucumber raita right on top of the pizza (seen in picture). The chicken was well spiced and the cool yogurt of the raita counterbalanced any spice. The five spice beef, on the other hand, was sweeter with touches of anise. Both were quite marvelous in my opinion. Maybe I could sell the ideas to a pizza franchise...

When Life Gives You Cherries...You Make Cherry Scones

Every year my mom goes to Michigan and sends me a care package of whatever local goods that she finds. This year, among many other goodies, I received dried Michigan sour cherries. These aren't like Craisins or any of the other sweetened fruit bits; they're the real deal. Tart, chewy and just plain wonderful. Now what to do with these new treats?

Cherry Scones

My record with many doughs sucks. There's no nice way to say it. I often fail to make the doughs for pie crusts and biscuits. My guess is that I've either been too slow and let the butter warm up, or I have over-worked the dough. So I set out this time to be quick and to keep everything and chilled as possible. From what I understand, keeping the butter cold prevents it from fully melding with the other ingredients. That way the butter bits can release steam during the baking process and make the product tender and flaky.

I used a recipe from Gourmet Magazine for cherry scones. I did use my food processor to cut the butter into the flour since 10 seconds of blending vs. 5 minutes of blending by hand would mean less heating. The dough in the end was still a little dry and could have used a bit more cream, but in the end it did not really matter. The scones came out tender and flavorful, especially when studded with the tart cherries. They ended up making the perfect breakfast treat for my lab. I'm hoping this represents a turning point in my ability do deal with doughs, but we'll just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cape Cod

Some of the members of my lab and I had a conference in Cape Cod to attend last week. Here are some of the food highlights of the trip.

Philly Cheesesteak

We attempted to fly into Providence, RI, but Philadelphia was backed up from some rain, meaning we had to kill about 5 hours in the airport. What better to do than to get a Philly Cheesesteak? These sandwiches were actually pretty good as far as airport food goes. Juicy beef mixed with some soft onions and peppers, all swimming in melted Cheese-Wiz. Don't get disgusted by the flagrant use of sprayable cheese. It's part of the cheesesteak's charm. You can also get provolone if you're not up to the neon orange stuff.

Steamed Clams

Lobster Roll

While on the Cape, we did a mild bit of traveling and eating around the various towns. At the Lobster Claw in Orleans, MA, we had a decent lunch. We started with some steamed clams, all of which had that weird foot sticking out. Some were a little sandy, but most were good, especially when dipped in the drawn butter or the clam broth. For lunch, some of us tried the quintessential lobster roll. Unlike what I had envisioned, the lobster roll comes in a hot dog bun that looks like it's a cousin of Wonderbread. It is, however, stuffed with large pieces of lobster in a light mayonnaise dressing. The point is to give the lobster the body of a salad without losing that wonderful sweet brininess. Some of the lobster rolls didn't have a ton of lobster flavor, but others were fine. Be prepared to pay a pretty penny for these pretty petit portions.

Fisherman's Platter

In our hotel in Hyannis was the Hearth n' Kettle. With no means of transportation at our disposal, we made the best of one of our evenings off and dined at this restaurant. To be honest, the food was pretty decent considering it was a hotel eatery. The lobster bisque was good but not overbearingly heavy. The fish was a fine choice too, but the dish that garnered the most attention at our table was the Fisherman's Sampler, seen above. Consisting of fried haddock, scallops, shrimp, clams, onion rings, and French fries, this beast of a plate was only tamed by the joint efforts of four grown men. This had to be the best deal for the money on the entire Cape. Just the sheer poundage on the plate and the poundage gained from eating this monster are worth the money.

Cape Cod was a lot of fun. Small fishing areas mixed in with yuppie high-class lifestyles makes for an interesting touring destination. I did not get a chance to see any Kennedy's, but I did get to eat some delicious seafood.

Pressed Chicken with Squash & Tomatoes

One thing I was taught about making burgers was never to press on them while they're grilling. Pressing them squeezes all of the juices out into the grill and makes the burgers tough and dry. But now I'm attempting a recipe that does just that: presses meat to release its juices. The only difference is that this time I'm putting those juices to work.

Pressed Chicken

This recipe comes from Gourmet Magazine. The main idea is that you press your bone-in chicken while it cooks with either a heavy skillet or a brick. This makes all of the chicken's juices go into the pan, so you can use them to make your sauce, which in this case consists of yellow squash, tomatoes, garlic, and marjoram. I was quite pleased with this dish. The chicken came out moist, especially with the nicely chunk tomato-squash sauce. The flavors were simple, but robust nonetheless.

On the side you can see some okra that has been steamed, then sauteed with ginger and green onion. Before making this, I thought okra was only used in gumbo and fried, but there's a lot to be said for this whimsical-looking vegetable. Also on the side is a potato salad with a Dijon mustard base with sliced radishes, onion and sugar snap peas. All of these vegetables came directly from my local neighborhood CSA, and both sides were different spins on the usual fare.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Orange Cream Star Cookies

Now that I finally know how to pipe (thanks in no small part to this summer's cooking class), I can truly appreciate how such an easy technique can make one's culinary creations go from nice and homemade to beautiful and professional. Until I made this recipe, all the piping I had done was with frosting. But now I can see how piping can make anything look downright fancy.

Orange Cream Stars

This recipe comes from Fine Cooking Magazine. The cookies have a cream cheese base, incorporating butter, sugar, orange zest, egg yolk, vanilla, and flour (read rich, rich, sweet, flavor, rich, flavor, structure...from all that you know they're good). After preparing the dough, you put it into a large piping bag fitted with a large star tip. In a similar manner to making decorative stars for cake decorating, you squeeze out these stars right onto the parchment-lined baking sheet. The dough is quite thick, so your hand may be tired by the end. I also ended up with far more than the 36 cookies that the recipe claims, no small feat in my kitchen where somehow a substantial part of every cookie dough never makes it to the oven.

The frosting is a decently standard buttercream with orange juice and zest mixed into it. A dollop of frosting is applied to the underside of each cookie. The end result is a bite-sized marvel. Nearly flawless in shape unlike most drop cookies which can be rather amorphous. The soft buttercream pairs with the crunchy cookie, both of which pack a good orange punch. Maybe it's a good thing this recipe made a boat-load of cookies, because everyone I served them to was picking up a few at a time.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

George's Diner

George's Diner

I've driven by George's Diner on Hillsborough Rd. multiple times and have always been intrigued by it. The restaurant has that old-time 50s/60s-style diner feel to it, with some modern Greek-American overtones. Small LPs and pictures of stars and starlets of that era are on all of the walls. The menu features breakfast, lunch and dinner all day (24 hours all day), with some Greek favorites mixed in.

French Toast & Grilled Cheese

At diners I love to try their pancakes or French toast. You can always find both at any restaurant that claims to be a diner and they are just classic dining-out breakfast foods. Plus they give me a handle for how seriously the cooks take the food. This French toast was pretty good. Not as much as I was hoping for and not the best I've ever had, but it was pretty standard. We also tried the grilled cheese which was disappointing. When I make grilled cheese at home, the bread takes on a crispness from the application of butter and heat, which also serves to melt the cheese. George's version, however, had very dry bread, making the sandwich a little difficult to eat. It seems like they toasted the bread first then somehow melted the cheese by the way all the moisture was lost from the bread. Overall, this brunch meal was a bit sub-par. There are a few other breakfast restaurants/diners that are definitely worth more of my time.

Sea Scallops with Cherry Tomatoes

Sea Scallops with Cherry Tomaotes

Tomato season was in full swing when I made this recipe. From my CSA, I was receiving two pints of red and yellow cherry tomatoes on a weekly basis. Tomatoes have many, many uses in cooking. Ask any chef who regularly cooks Italian or French food. One of my favorite ways to use cherry tomatoes is to simply saute them, which is what I did here in this dish with sea scallops.

After dredging the scallops in cornstarch, I cooked them in a saucepan until they were browned on both sides and just cooked through. I then put some minced garlic and 1 pint of cherry tomatoes in the hot pan. With some moderate stirring, over time the tomatoes brown on the outside while simultaneously deflating, releasing their juices into the pan. This savory tomato juice is the base of the sauce, to which I added some chicken broth, basil, salt, and pepper. I didn't overdo the spices in this because I wanted the dish to really focus on the tomatoes and one of their quintessential pairings, basil. Using some cornstarch dissolved in cold water, I thickened the sauce a bit, then added the scallops back in until they were heated through. I plated the saute with some couscous on the side. One problem that I often find with cherry tomatoes is that, when raw, they can gush their sour guts in your mouth as you eat them, which is not that appetizing. But allowing them to caramelize and reduce down in the pan, their flavor became more condensed and less bitter. The scallops, while good, played second fiddle to the tomatoes in this dish, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

CSA Update

My community supported agriculture (CSA) shares are running out at the end of the month. They I'll actually have to go buy vegetables on my own or something...

CSA - 9/1/2009

One of my more recent shares included cabbage, two types of apples (gala and ginger gold, both similar to yellow delicious), turnips, cucumbers, onions, beets, potatoes, and yellow squash. Britt Farms is currently signing people up for next year's growing season. Payments are not needed until 2010 and if you pre-register, you will receive a free cookbook compiled by the farmers' and customers' recipes. Not only do you get fresh veggies every week, but you'll have new and interesting ideas for how to prepare them. I have greatly enjoyed this year's CSA. Having a box of widely varied and wonderful fruits and vegetables on a weekly basis has been a great way for me to eat a little healthier, not to mention helping out local economies. I guess the only drawback is that I have to buy a couple's share, meaning I either have to eat twice as many veggies as the average person, or some of it goes to waste. I think I'll try to find someone with whom I can split next year's deliveries. But all in all this is a wonderful opportunity.

Other parts of the food world are also trying this model out. Recently, a group of people have started up Walking Fish, a community supported fisheries (CSF) project. They are currently sold out, but I have the feeling more and more people will start to follow suit by offering their meats, fish, produce, honey, flowers, herbs, milk, etc. using this model. Word on the street is that milkmen have made a comeback as people are becoming more interested in where their food comes from. Backyard farms are on the rise. Local laws that ban owning some livestock are being overturned. It seems the locavore movement (the foodie craze of eating only locally-grown food) has made it to our backyards. I find this movement particularly amazing because this is how rural American and European communities have worked for centuries. We're on the verge of coming full circle, but this time around I feel we truly appreciate having a handle on understanding where food comes from.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Beaufort Grocery Co. - Beaufort, NC

I visited Beaufort, North Carolina, recently to help out with my school's ethics retreat for students in the biomedical sciences. I had to go last year as a student, but this year I was a TA, so I had some more free time to go explore Beaufort proper. I was tired of our boxed lunches, so I set out to find a decent restaurant for my midday meal.

Beaufort Grocery Co.

I chose to eat at Beaufort Grocery Co. The front of the restaurant looks a little small. I was expecting only a handful of tables, but the building itself is deceptively large on the inside. And with the lunchtime crowd that was present, they can use all the tables they can get. I was greeted by the hostess is poised next to a refrigerated display case containing deli meats (they claim to be a local deli in addition to a restaurant) and 4-5 high-crusted pies and delectable-looking cakes. The inside looked like a dressed up version of the usual seafood town eatery - fish art on the walls, wood paneling on the walls and sails hanging on the ceiling. But they did not try to make it too modern. There was an inherent coziness to the place with table cloths showing vines bearing many fruits and kitchen towels as napkins.

The menu had awesome choices. A few salads, but the main options were sandwiches and at least 5 of them looked very good. I had to enlist the help of the waitress to decide, and I ended up ordering one of the specials instead of anything on the menu.

Tuna Sandwich with Sweet Potato Chips

I ordered the ahi tuna sandwich special. At first, I was admittedly underwhelmed by the size of the sandwich. I think living in the South has skewed the way I look at portions, though, because the sandwich was plenty of food to satisfy. The fish was cooked through but it was just done, leaving the meat perfectly succulent. It was topped with a Moroccan spice blend (warm spices like cinnamon, cloves, etc.) and dried apricots, figs and raisins, all showing off their powerful flavors with just a hint of spiciness. A touch of feta was added to add a note of saltiness amongst all the sweet toppings. The bread was ciabatta with a soft center and crunchy edges. Everything united into a positively wonderful experience. On the side was a kosher dill pickle and some sweet potato chips. The chips were fried until they had some crispiness to them, but they still retained some soft texture. Seasoned with sugar and cinnamon, they were the perfect pairing for the sandwich.

PB Mousse Cake

While I could have easily stopped eating after the sandwich, the desserts in the showcase by the front door looked too sumptuous to not try. I chose the peanut butter mousse cake which was a multi-layer extravaganza of peanut butter and chocolate: the bottom was moist, dense chocolate cake (decent but not an over chocolate flavor); a crunchy layer, possibly of mini chocolate chips; a chocolate mousse layer and a peanut butter mousse layer, both of which were light, creamy and packed with flavor; next was a thicker milk chocolate ganache as an outer layer to unify everything (not to mention adding architectural stability); to top it all off were some peanuts for a garnish. This cake was absolutely heavenly and, like a good glutton, I finished off almost the entire thing by myself.

After seeing how sparse the rest of Beaufort was on attractions, the Beaufort Grocery Co. is a shining lighthouse attracting visitors from all over to try their simply great seafood. So if you happen to be passing by Beaufort at some point, definitely stop in for a bite.

Homemade Iced Tea

When you live in the South like I do, tea is more prevalent at dinner tables than water or soft drinks combined (unpublished data). For those not familiar with the lingo, tea = iced tea = sweet tea in the common vernacular of this region of the US. You have to specify if you prefer a cup of hot tea or a glass of unsweetened tea. Otherwise, whatever you order will usually be sweet enough to hurt your teeth. Don't worry, that's how it's supposed to taste.

Personally, I don't like to waste a ton of calories on what I drink, so I usually stick to iced tea with lemon or water without lemon (if I wanted lemon in water I'd order lemonade). What is amazing is when you come across an unsweetened ice tea that has really nice flavor. About 5-10% of decent Asian restaurants (my own estimate, nothing official) make their iced tea with jasmine tea. It turns out there are two ways to add flavor to tea: make it sweet or make it with good tea. I decided to use up some of my growing stockpiles of loose tea and try my hand at some tea-craft.

Tea Set-Up

If you have tea in bags that you really like, then feel free to use them. I like to use loose teas which you can get in all sorts of ridiculous flavors. I have only tried this with black teas so far, but I'm sure it would work for green, white or any other color tea that you want to try. I prefer a tea with a great aroma. I thought of this method on a whim and it turned out pretty darn good. You will need water (not pictured), a container for the tea, tea, a coffee filter (preferably unbleached), and a stapler. Please, bear with me.

Tea Bag

To assemble your ad hoc tea bag, fill the coffee filter about half full with loose tea. Here, I've used a combination of black teas with orange-spice flavors. Make small, sequential folds along the top (possibly termed crimping) until you reach the end. Staple the last fold so that the tea does not float out into the water. Place the tea bag in a pitcher of water. Don't worry about the ratio of tea to water too much because you'll probably have the amount of tea in far excess of what you need. Lastly, put the pitcher with tea bag in the fridge for 8-16 hours. Some people leave the tea to steep in the sun (my family calls it "sun tea"), but I've heard warnings that this grows bacteria, so just to be extra safe, stick with the icebox.

Homemade Iced Tea

Here's the finished product. Be sure to remove the tea bag and to not let it steep too long for fear of making the tea taste a little off. This was probably the most flavorful unsweetened tea I ever had. I find that some teas smell good but lack on taste. This one, on the other hand, delivered in full an orangey cinnamon punch. I felt like I was indulging in a glass of sweet tea. Speaking of which, if you are hell bent on making this tea sweet, the easiest way would probably be to make a simple syrup (1 part sugar & 1 part water cooked in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves) then add some into the tea a little at time until you are satisfied with the sweetness. Alternatively, you could just steep the tea in the simple syrup after the sugar has dissolved and as the syrup cools back to room temperature. It would be faster and none of that excess water would get in your way. Anyways, if you have 5 minutes before bed, throw together a batch of iced tea and in the morning, it will be ready as soon as you are.