Christmas money

After about 12 years and an estimated  4387 Espressos or espresso-based beverages, My DeLonghi espresso machine is kicking the bucket.  I bought it on clearance at Sears for about $100 which was a lot of money to me back then.  I think it's fully amortized though.  Actually, it's still funcioning fine and I think it could be fixed if I could buy the requisite part.  It's the gasket that goes between the filter holder and the machine.  It pisses hot water all over everything any time I try to make an espresso.  Where as those 4 bars of pressure used to make a cooridinated and well-rehearsed assult through the precision selected and ground coffee rendering that sweet sweet nectar, now it's total chaos.  Some portion of those 4 bars of pressure is making a forced retreat only to be ejected onto the countertop.  A dicipline problem.  Hardly acceptable.

To repair or not to repair, that is the question.  Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to procure the appropriate gasket and repair the aged espresso machine when it is already weary and requires a step-down transformer to use in France since it works on 110V or to put it to sleep and invest a couple hundred quid in one of those new-fangled jobbies.

There's a Promotshuuuuuuuuun going on!

The thing is, I don't think I want to be married to their high-tech bar-coded beverage system.  I want to at least have the option of grinding my own beans.  On the other hand, this machine does tea and hot chocolate (flavored) and tons of other stuff that I'll never use.

This requres further thought.

x-posted to my journal

The good thing about end of summer

is the sales you can get on outdoor cooking gear. The bad thing, waiting to be able to use them.

I LOVE barbeque. Grilling is also a great way to cook but I don't use the two interchangeably. Grilling is a direct heat/high heat method of cooking. It makes good steaks, tenderloins, chicken bits, fajitas and amazing asparagus. Barbeque is low heat, long time and smokey. It's primarily for big fatty cuts of pork, beef brisket and ribs from either animal (though I prefer pork) Oh! and the occasional smoked chicken.

The problem was the size of my "Q" rig. I had a very nice Brinkmann water smoker. It could make some amazing meat but just not very much of it. I was pretty much limited to half a brisket, a pork butt or one chicken. Everything else was just too big.  This becomes a problem when you think about the time investment. Assuming I'm working on some pulled pork, I'm looking at an hour prep on the day prior and a solid 9-10 hours of tending the fire. See, here is the catch... that's the amount of work involved to make 1 lb of pulled pork (average yield of a 4-5lb butt) or 10 lbs. of pulled pork. So if I'm going to put in ~10 hours of work, I might as well have a party or enough pork to last me through the winter.

So when Gander Mountain kept dropping the price of their Char-Broil Silver Smoker and over the weekend we picked it up. It's in the garage in pieces and hopefully this weekend it will be ready for a run... I might have to get a rack of ribs, just because I can.

A Crock

I want to become a crock pot / slow cooker god.  The other day I made split pea soup using this recipe. I got up about 45 minutes early for work, threw everything in the cooker and at 7PM there was dinner.  I made some croutons.  The Marital Support Unit was quite pleased with the outcome (she said it was a tad too salty).  The polliwogs scarfed it down without complaining.  I got to thinking....

The crock pot is a pretty cool way to cook as long as everything doesn't turn out soggy and tasteless like my Mom's beef stew.  First of all, I don't have to do any real cooking when I get home from work.  Secondly, since drinking and cooking seem to go hand in hand with me, I'm less likely to become inebriated before I even sit down at the table (I'm not a 7AM drinker yet). 

The problems are many:  First, all of the recipes I find say say hi for x-hours or low for x-hours and my cooker has three settings, hi, med, and low.  If you arrive at the moment when dinner is supposed to be dinner and it's not yet, it's hard to catch up when stuff has been cooking all day.  On the flip-side, I also tried to make ribs one time and I ended up with bare white bones floating in a kind of ultra-fatty barbecue-flavored soup.  A little experience has lead me to believe that the three settings on my crock pot are actually:

nuclear meltdown, normal, and pilot light / placebo. 

After five or so attempts, I'm just starting to maybe get the hang of this but not really.  I'm wondering if there's a standard temperature for high and low crock pot cooking and if I could measure mine....

The second but far from the last problem is finding good recipes.  I really wanted to make tasty bean dishes from actual beans, the kind you put in bags that you throw and stacks of cans to win crappy stuffed parrots that were assembled by Chinese child laborers, not the kind that was put in a can by an underpaid union worker with a room temperature I.Q.  It seems like the vast majority of bean dishes I find on the netz call for pre-cooked, pre-canned beans.   Kinda defeats the purpose doesn't it?  I want recipes that are Martha Stewart fantastic and not just of the soup-esqe order!

The other problems are probably minor and will surely work themselves out with practice.  If you love your slow-cooker, I'd sure like to hear your crock.

Is anyone else watching Top Chef?

I was just curious since I was watching a rerun of Episode 7: Guilty Pleasures and as I watched the QuickFire Challenge I thought of the PERFECT entry and I thought it might be a fun intellectual exercise to discuss what we would lay out if faced with these tasks.

The challenge in question was; within 45 minutes create the ultimate "mix-in" for Coldstone Creamery's vanilla ice cream. Watching some of the wild things they came up with made me realize that depending on the depths of the pantry, I would give someone a crushing.

Mascerate a fairly large amount of dried cherries in Herring cherry liqueur (a cherry brandy) or something similar. Take some walnuts, blanch them for twenty seconds or so, just enough to get out the REALLY excessive tannins. Drain, toss with a tiny bit of salt and pop em in the oven (watching them relentlessly). Start a small amount of sugar up in a sauce pan to make a light (in color and flavor) caramel. Dump the walnuts in and stir to coat, pour em out on a Silpat and try to get them as close to individually separated as I could so they could cool. Take an immersion blender to the cherry mixture, heat and flame the mixture, set aside to cool. Start chipping on a block of the darkest chocolate I can find and sift to get out the dust but make no effort to uniformity. I want pieces ranging from mini-chip size up to fairly large chunks. At the last possible moment mix the chocolate pieces and the candied walnuts in with the cherry mixture.

Assuming I could execute it as well as I think I could, I'm betting it would beat peach cobbler.

As simple as it gets

We just got a Wegmans in Harrisburg and last night I finally got around to the dry aged, prime NY strip steak. Since we are trying to lose weight, my wife and I split the steak but the flavor made up for it. We had rain so I couldn't go 100% Fred Flintstone on it but a cast iron skillet that's been heated until it almost glows produces a very nice sear indeed. I seasoned the steak an hour before cooking, let it come up to temperature for the last half an hour. I added a little olive oil and unsalted butter to the skillet and gave it 4 minutes and 30 second per side and a 5 minute rest. It was a textbook perfect "rare" that was devoured so quickly that I have no pictures.

Potato and Zucchini au gratin

This is how I sliced the tip of my finger off with my new Mandoline. Until I did that, the dish was vegetarian. Seriously (although I did, seriously cut myself through misuse of the mandoline slicer) This is a good dish and it's mostly easy.

Approximately 3 zucchini
Approximately 8 potatoes
Approximately 2 tbs of olive oil
Approximately 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
Some herbes de provence (or other blend, but I recommend that it has at least some basil in it)
Salt and Pepper
about a cup of grated Emmental, Comte, or Swiss
1/2 cup of milk
1/2 cup of sour cream

Begin with about three Zucchini and and about 8 potatoes depending on their size and the size of the dish you want to make. I wash and peel the Zucchini leaving stripes of skin (preferably zucchini skin, not human skin) in place (for looks really) and peel and slice the potatoes; the thinner the better (that's where the mandoline truly shines). Coat the bottom of a casserole dish with olive oil and spread the chopped garlic around in the oil. 'Shuffle' the potato and zucchini slices and arrange them in the casserole dish.see photo oneCollapse )
Potatoes actually take a long time to cook in the oven so I've found that the easiest way to deal with this is actually the best even though it feels like cheating: Cover the casserole with plastic wrap and microwave it for about ten minutes while you preheat the oven to about 375 degrees. You can, of course, skip the microwaving but it makes it go faster, assures that your potatoes will be done, and reduces the risk of burning the cheese.

Salt and pepper the veggies and generously sprinkle on the herbs. Mix the cream with the milk and pour it over them. Cover the casserole with the grated cheese and bake it at 375 for about a half hour, much more if you skipped the microwave step.

VoilaCollapse )

This is a great side dish or a light dinner all by itself.

Wine: Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre, or dry Riesling

Drinking chocolate

I don't like the word, but I guess that's what you have to call it to distinguish between bar chocolate and hot chocolate. Here, we are talking neither about hot cocoa nor bar chocolate. Back when chocolate was a new thing, all chocolate was drinking chocolate so people would have simply called it "chocolate". It's about the oldest way to have chocolate and if one is truly into chocolate, done right, this will put you on the floor.

I make hot cocoa from cocoa powder pretty often and I've been known to experiment with its strength and what I put into it for sweetener. Chocolate that you can drink is a different experience though because the cocoa butter in the chocolate makes it so much more complex and rich.

I'd had it before in a couple of high-end restaurants but never took it seriously until a visit to Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. They make their own drinking chocolate product which you can sample at their shop for $4.50 or buy in a can and take home. Lots of other companies make preparations for drinking chocolate, but how hard, thought I, could it really be?

A lot of room for experimentation exists and I intend to continue to experiment with reckless abandon, time permitting, but here's something that I think works pretty well:

I started with 20 grams of dark chocolate, in this case, Poulain Noir Extra (47%). I chopped the chocolate and put it in my little stainless milk-steaming pitcher then melted it under the milk-steaming head of my espresso machine. I started with the valve just cracked open so as not to put chocolate all over God's green Earth. I stirred it a little to make sure that it was totally melted and smooth then added 5cl (2fl oz.) of 2% milk and steamed and frothed the ensemble under the milk steaming head. This gives me a concoction that is roughly 1/3 chocolate, 1/3 water, and 1/3 milk. My espresso machine is old and I think it lets too much water through when steaming. I was shooting for an espresso-sized serving but I got a watered-down 2 expresso-sized servings. I usually put a dash of Cayenne on top (it's very traditional). The whole one or two servings (depending on your steamer and how greedy you are) should have about 130 Calories.

If you don't have an espresso steamer or you don't want to deal with the mess, you can do this in the microwave, but it's not as good and you're in danger of scorching the chocolate: In a coffee mug, put the chocolate and about a tablespoon of water. Microwave on high 30 seconds, stir, microwave on high another 20 to 30 seconds. Stir well until you obtain a chocolate syrup. Now add the milk, stir, and microwave another 30 seconds. Here, if you want to, you can just drink it cool, skipping the final microwaving. The Ancients usually took Chocolate cold, I recommend trying it both ways. If you want the froth effect, take a wire whisk that's small enough to fit in your coffee mug and spin it between your palms like a Mayan trying to start a fire with a stick. After about 30 seconds, your milk should be fairly frothed.

I find that, using the microwave method, I end up with a little chocolate residue of un-melted un-dissolved chocolate. Not the end of the world, but a detractor to the overall presentation.

The De Buyer Mandoline

The one that's simply called La Mandoline

I bought a De Buyer Mandoline. I paid 120 Euros for it at an outlet store. It was an impulse buy because I live fairly close to the De Buyer factory and really didn't take the time to research and find out if I was getting any kind of good deal at all. I'd been thinking about getting one for awhile and had just returned from vacation which put me in a spending mood.

Even though cutting a variety of julienne / crinkled vegetables looked fun, I wanted it mainly for two things: An adequate method of cutting french fries, and a quick way to cube cooked red beets. Well, for the first part, the mandoline is great. You can make french fries that range from small and thin to tiny and skinny and it's quick and effortless. One caveat: it can never cut the very last slice, it... ejects it, or kind of. If it gets to the point where the slice is too thin, the food grabber can't push it through the blades. As for cubes, I think I've been had. The only place where De Buyer has published that the mandoline can dice food is on the outside of the mandoline box. There's no directions on actually making it happen. If it were theoretically possible, it would involve re-slicing each julienned slice perpendicular to the first cut but like I said, the pusher has to be higher than the blades. In short, I think it's impossible and I'm a victim of false advertising.

Am I happy with the mandoline? I don't know yet. I admit that it's very high quality, professionally constructed equipment. It makes short work of any slicing you'd want to do in huge quantities. The blades are like razors. Everything is dishwasher safe. So far, however, I don't think it was worth the layout of 120 Euros.