Thursday, October 29, 2009

Colossal Chili Fail

As my father so affectionately put it, "How the hell do you screw up chili?" I am chili-cursed. Seriously.

No, there are no pictures. Yes, it was that bad. I don't know what went wrong, but - oh, man - did it go wrong. Every time I try to make chili something invariably goes wrong. And not just, let's-throw-some-junk-in-there-and-fix-it wrong. Irrevocably wrong. Grrr.... argh.

Rather than use one of my mother's handed-down chili recipes, I thought I would try my hand at this Bon Appetit recipe. Why? I don't know. I am masochist? Obvi. So, I whipped up this disaster over the weekend to my acute disappointment. Note: I made this recipe more or less as written. I did make a few minor substitutions, but nothing that should have altered the overall flavor of the dish. Or so I thought.

The overall appearance upon serving was a little disconcerting; my immediate thought was, "This is chili. It ain't always pretty." But, secretly, I knew. I knew as Boyfriend and I tried our first bites and a heavy silence enveloped the apartment. I have to give bonus points to the boy for waiting until I pushed my own bowl away (and had emitted several grumbly curses to myself) before he gave off any obvious signal that it was inedible. Good boy.

But seriously, does the god of chili have it in for me? The first time I tried to make chili, I inexplicably doubled the amount of chili powder called for in the recipe. Hot. At the time, I managed to balance it out enough with extra tomatoes, black beans and anything else that was in arm's reach and vaguely complementary to chili, so that it was cool enough to eat, but the story doesn't end there. A few months later, I tried to make this chili again (with the appropriate amount of chili powder) and it was ... just ... missing ... something. Unfortunately, I didn't write down what I added to my first attempt, which apparently were the key ingredients to making it delicious. Of course.

When all else fails, do what you should have done in the first place: listen to your mother. Mom has given me not one, but two tasty, fool-proof chili recipes. Have I made either of them? No. Knowing my penchant for screwing up chili, did I decide to go with the tried-and-true favorites, which have been served at our and our family friends' tables for 30 years? No. I had to give over to my hubris. I was high on my braised pork patties and eager for more glory. And what did I end up with? Funky meat glop, that made a disturbingly familiar thhh-plop sound as I spooned it into the garbage bin.

Now I have guilt.

Poor Boyfriend had to wait all day, smelling the deceptively appetizing aromas emanating from my beloved dutch oven, Rosy, only to be robbed of dinner and many successive and anticipated leftovers.  Mac 'n' cheese anyone?


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Cookbook Review: "Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean"

If you happen to find yourself planning a trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts any time soon, one of the many fantastic places at which you should eat is Oleana. My family and I went here last year and the meal we shared ranks as one of my all time most mind-blowingly awesome meals. To this day, I have no idea what I ate, but whatever it was, it engaged all five of my senses in a complete full-body experience.

So I decided to buy the cookbook. Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean. 

For weeks I have been dying to try anything from this book; it is so neat. The book is organized by flavor combinations rather than courses. Given the increased likelihood of my spectacular failure when dealing with new flavors, I opted for the galette of tender pork with cumin and cider, which looked like the exact, right amount of effort for a Sunday afternoon cooking adventure. Armed with all the ingredients and a brand-spanking-new dutch oven, I set to it.

[Love note to my dutch oven: Hi, Gorgeous. Look at you, with your inviting, burnt red enameling. How could I resist? You idly glance over at me from the stove, like a giant cat dozing on a warm radiator. Well, hello. I just know we are going to have a long and filling relationship of meats, stews and casseroles. Welcome home. Let's try not to make the other cookware jealous].

Waiving my novice flag high, here, I'll admit that I have never worked with a multiple pound cut of pork before. I was nervous, but it wasn't too difficult once I decided to go all-in in cutting it up. Then I rubbed the pork down with a ton of salt, garlic and cumin and braised it in cider for several hours.  The worst and best part of braising is the smell. At first, all I could smell was the garlic and cumin, mostly because I was smelling myself. Having worked both into the meat somewhat vigorously, I inevitably rubbed it well into my own skin. Not that I have a problem with that. After about an hour of braising, the warm, spicy smell of cider began to waft through my apartment. YUM! I took the meat out to cool before I ripped it apart and reformed it into patties for pan frying. Believe it or not, I used to be afraid of touching raw meat and chicken. Embarrassing. Really. However, I have come a long way; I really enjoyed pulling the pork apart with my fingers, separating out the fat and other bits. Ah-ha! My inner germophobe knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, let me tell you!

I also tried my hand at the dolmas, which is just a grape (or other) leaf, stuffed with rice or other deliciousness. These little Swiss chard rice bombs were frakkin' amazing, despite the fact that I haven't quite figured out Swiss chard. Swiss chard has so much going on flavor-wise, but the leaves are huge. Every time I saute rather than blanch it, I feel like I am fighting lobsters into a pot. The giant leaves loll out the sides like legs or giant tongues trying to escape my skillet. "Ged in there!" ( I suppose I could tear/chop them up a bit, but where is the drama in that?) The dolmas, which were filled with spicy rice with onions, garlic, red pepper paste and a hint of mint, were surprisingly easy to make. I served everything with a side of greek yogurt to complement the spicy rice. Highly recommended.

Although a lot of the recipes in this book are somewhat labor intensive and certain ingredients may be difficult to find, (Hence my going with recipes that included ingredients with which I was already familiar.), it will be a great addition to my library, especially as my skill improves. So if you're looking to branch out into some exciting flavor combinations from Europe and the Mediterranean, check out this book.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Food Notes from My Sick Bed

Activity in my kitchen came to a screeching halt last week when I managed to contract not only strep throat, but the flu as well. Before I got sick I had all sorts of different post ideas in mind, which I no longer have time to develop in full. In the interest of purging my head of these buzzy bees, I thought I would do my own little weekly blog roundup, made up entirely of my mental cranberry stew of half baked reviews, recipes and Theraflu induced-reveries.

Art and Soul. As I mentioned, my parents were in town a few weeks ago. The first stop on my parents foodcation in D.C. was Art and Soul. For me, the meal began and ended with the lamb loin hoecake. Everything was delicious, but this little plate was so packed with flavors, from the tender lamb to the sweet pickled onions and cucumbers and light dressing. It was like a heavenly gyro. When the food gods want a gyro, they call out for one of these hoecakes.

Founding Farmers. Apparently, I am the last person in the D.C. area to know that this restaurant is awesome. I ordered the mixed grill (fried chicken, bratwurst, pork ribs and cole slaw), so I could sample as many meat dishes as possible as well as a side of mac 'n' cheese. Extravagant, I know, but as my favorite foods go, mac 'n' cheese is right up there with bread pudding. And I had heard things about this mac 'n' cheese. This mac 'n' cheese is the best mistake you'll ever make. Holy Mackerel! I wanted to bury my face in the stuff. Whew. Also, the pot roast was singular is its unique depth and subtle sweetness which we couldn't quite place (anise? allspice?).  All of our portions were big, so come hungry.

Finally, I continued my love affair with Fall. I had hoped to whip up some true Oktoberfest fare, with beers, brats and sauerkraut. Yum! Sadly, all I could muster was was a Pumpkin Bread Pudding and some pumpkin beer. I substituted dried cranberries for the raisins, but I didn't even get around to making the caramel sauce. The morning after I baked the pudding, I was hit and hit hard by the flu. I only tried one piece before my convalescence. Unfortunately, I can't really remember much beyond that other than it was pumpkiny. After that, I was on a strict diet of oatmeal, oatmeal and bread for days.

Coming up: I try my hand at a couple Eastern Mediterranean-inspired meals from my new cookbook: Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Spicy Soba Experiment

I love pasta. Love. It. I could eat pasta everyday for the rest of my life and die bloated and happy. But, sigh, pasta does not reciprocate my feelings, forcing me into erratic encounters with these comforting carbohydrates, usually when I feel I "deserve" some pasta after a hard day at work or several successful dieting days. Rather than dieting and binging, I have been trying to find tasty recipes for healthier pastas. I have even experimented with tofu substitutes, such as House Foods Tofu Shirataki noodles, which aren't bad, if you know how to dress them.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, Mark Bittman showed me just how easy it was to make a satisfying soba salad. Having braved the squishy, slipperiness of Tofu Shirataki noodles, I was confident I could tame the sometimes tricky soba.

I knew I wanted to do something with fresh ginger and garlic. No-brainer, right? That is like saying, "Gee, maybe I'll try a recipe with tomatoes and basil." Obvious, I know, but we are taking baby steps, here, people. Baby Steps. I also had a hankering for some mung bean sprouts, which are so satisfying to munch. (Somewhere in the back of my mind, I can hear my dad saying something like, "muncho bean sprouts." Not sure where that is coming from). Finally, I walked down to my local Whole Foods and saw some snow peas, also of the satisfying munch variety, and decided I had rounded out this recipe pretty well.

Spicy Soba Noodles

Makes 4 servings.

8 oz. soba noodles
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp creamy peanut butter
1 1/2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp rice vinegar
1/2 tbsp sriracha
about 1 cup snow peas
about 1 cup mung bean sprouts

Cook soba noodles according to package, rinse with cold water until cool. Set aside. Heat olive oil in a small pan over medium heat. Add ginger and garlic and saute for about 1 minute. Transfer to a large bowl. Add peanut butter and honey and mix until melted. Whisk in next four ingredients. Add noodles and toss to coat. Add snow peas and toss again. Let the mixture cool until it reaches room temperature, tossing occasionally so that sauce evenly coats noodles. Add mung bean sprouts, toss and serve. (I would have liked to top each serving with chopped peanuts, but I didn't have any on hand).

The fresh, crunchy veggies and spicy sauce make this dinner an excellent candidate for lunch box leftovers. (Note: I originally used one whole tablespoon of sriracha, but as my boyfriend told me between sniffles and gasping breaths, that may have been too much. You may wish to go with the half tablespoon or even less. My feeling is that as long as the heat doesn't overwhelm the other ingredients, a spicy dish isn't hot enough unless I have a couple of sniffles, [clear out those sinuses!], but I always err on the side of spicy).

Coming up: a huge weekend of dining out with Mom and Dad at Art and Soul, Founding Farmers and others.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Pistachio Bundt Cake, Just Like Mom Used to Make

I have to admit, I don't know the genesis of this recipe, but it is an instant favorite with everyone who tastes it - and it is so EASY! My mom started making it when I was in high school. I couldn't say whether it was a recipe from the Milton Junior Women's Club or a recipe from one of her co-workers, but it is so moist and light that everyone will want to know your secret.

Pistachio Bundt Cake Recipe

1 box white cake mix
2 boxes instant pistachio pudding mix
4 eggs
1 cup club soda
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp almond extract
2 squirts green food coloring
1/2 cup chopped pecans

1 cup powdered sugar
1 tbsp softened butter
2-3 tbsp skim milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour bundt pan. In a large bowl, beat together first seven ingredients. Fold in nuts. Transfer to bundt pan. Bake for 55 minutes. Mix together 3 glaze ingredients and drizzle over warm cake.

When I was a younger I was a tom-boy (and a cynic); I assumed that women's clubs were brain-washing social institutions for stay-at-home-moms seeking to increase their numbers through assimilation and quiet judgmental-ism. More often I  sought the company of nerdy males, with whom I could safely and adequately debate the finer points of Star Wars and Star Trek lore.

As a grown woman, I now realize the merits of shared wisdom and friendship that these organizations embodied. I often wish I could find a modern equivalent with friendly female gastronomes who could impart their learned kitchen customs. Until then, I'll have to make-do, pilfering tried-and-true recipes from my mother's Junior Women's Club collection.