Friday, March 28, 2008

on weekend cook-outs

I’ve had a crappy work week.

But I will not let that dissuade me from having an extraordinary weekend. Because tomorrow, we are hosting a cook-out for a bunch of people (half of whom I don’t know – but that’s fine because one must meet new people!). There’s a bit of rain in our forecast, but I hope that a) weather.com is lying, or b) it can rain early if it wants to but not later! And this is why:



See? I plan on doing a whole lot more of that this weekend. Let me tell you what the cure-all to a bad day at work is: being greeted at the door with a shot of whiskey by your S.O. and then promptly being placed into a hammock to stare at birds and trees and new Spring growth.



On the menu for tomorrow: grilled pork tenderloins, two ways; Stick Meat (chicken satay with peanut dippy sauce); grilled asparagus; bananas Foster; mini crab cakes (okay, these aren’t done on the grill, but hey. I’ve a hankering for crab cakes and the mini ones always go over really well at parties); etc, etc... There will be more food; but I’m having a brain fart as to what is on the menu, because right now I’m dealing with a bitchy Project Manager in Salt Lake City who is about to soon feel the wrath of me (and my figurative foot up her figurative ass), and it’s all I can do to envision myself 5 hours from now emulating the picture below. I sincerely hope you all have a fantastic Spring weekend.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

not remotely food related

The scene: 6 pm this past sunday. we were just about to sit down to Easter dinner; the boy was at the grill pulling off the asparagus, and I was in the dining room doing busy work (probably pouring a glass of wine). the phone rings, and i ask Mr. B to answer it as he's closest to it.

a few seconds of conversation ensue, and by the time Mr. B hands me the phone, he has a puzzled but amused look on his face.

Me: hello?
Mom: Mais, who eez that? was that your LOVER?
Me: um.

needless to say, mom didn't really believe that Mr B was in fact NOT my lover, that his wife was standing right next to me, that we were about to sit down to dinner with them, and that it's kind of normal for people to NOT have lovers when they're married. she was totally baffled by this.

also, it was midnight in france and she was pretty shnookered by the time she called, which explains the ridiculous conversation.

sheesh.

Monday, March 24, 2008

pho part 2... um, maybe not

okay so we never got around to eating pho this weekend as I thought we would. instead: we ate some cheap mexican food, bought and assembled a picnic table, strung up a hammock between two trees (thanks for the hammock, mr and mrs b!), lounged around in said hammock, slept a lot, torched and baked a ham, served the ham, painted my nails, watched "Pride and Prejudice". okay, okay: that last one, i'm the only one who did that (i'm also the only one who painted my nails. the boy has been out of his goth stage for, oh, 20 years maybe?). the boy isn't much into period pieces and i was in just that kind of mood.

i'd post pictures of our Easter feast, but they're on the camera at home. some other time maybe.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

pho part 1

It was about a year ago that I introduced the boy to pho. I wasn’t quite sure if he’d like it. In retrospect, this was a dumb thing to think, because as he put it so eloquently and manly, “It’s got meat. What’s not to like?”.

Pho is my go-to meal for when I’m feeling under the weather or not feeling so hot in general, and is especially therapeutic if one is suffering from a hangover (I think of it as the Bloody Mary of foods). The closest pho to our house is actually not really close (I think it’s about 10 miles); but on a weekend dealing with surface street traffic, it can take a while to get to. We usually frequent Pho Mimi Noodle house, which is located in the same plaza as the Super H in Duluth; but they’ve since opened a Super H in John’s Creek which is closer to home, so we don’t shop regularly in Duluth anymore. There are no pho places anywhere in Alpharetta or John’s Creek, so when the yearning for pho gets to us, we have to trek it to Duluth.

Last week, while the boy and I were watching the season premiere episode of Top Chef which we’d DVRed, we got to talking about pho and our longing for pho, and what we could do to make it, which prompted me to post a question on the Serious Eats message board (we got some good responses). Saturday morning while watching nonstop news coverage on TV of thunderstorm and tornadic activity in the area, and totally bored out of our skulls, we started to make the broth. We followed this link provided by Serious Eats reader malenky (thanks!) and pretty much followed the recipe exactly except for at the end (which I’ll get to in a minute).

Since there was threat of hail, and the winds were high, and there was a tornado on GA400 which was trekking along la-dee-dah down the highway and then jumped into Lake Lanier, I was not about to turn on the grill to char my onions and ginger outside; so I charred them on the stovetop. If you are going to do the inside grilling route, it’s best to stand there and keep an eye on it, even though it will take a while. The onion skins were flying straight up into the air and all over the kitchen, and I really didn’t want one landing on something flammable, so I stood there and kept an eye on it.

I did how the recipe suggests and parboil the bones – I didn’t take a picture of this step because it was pretty foul-looking actually, with all that scum bubbling on the surface. Later, after rinsing the bones, scrubbing the stock pot, and replacing the water and bringing back to a simmer, I chucked in all the other ingredients and that unmistakable enchanting aroma wafted out of the pot. I guess it must be the star anise. On its own? Too licorice-y. Floating in a vat of beef stock? Perfect.

After several hours of this, the pho was perfectly clear, and we tasted it. The boy determined that it wasn’t “beefy” enough, and although I protested, he chucked in a spoonful of veal demi which immediately made the pho broth darken. It did render it more beefy (nice description, I know, but that’s exactly what it was, More Beefy), but that clearness was gone. We strained it and it’s now resting, waiting in containers in the fridge. I’ll probably freeze most of the broth before we get around to actually using it, which won’t be until this weekend.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Lysa's chocolate-raspberry cheesecake


My sister in law Lysa is a cheesecake queen. she’s so good at them that she even sells them to a little café near her in the Raleigh suburbs. i don’t think she follows a recipe anymore; just opens her pantry and bases the flavor of her next cheesecake by what she has available in her kitchen that day.

For those of you who don’t bake, I’ll let you in on a leetle secret: cheesecake is really easy to make. Ridiculously easy, even. I feel that way about most straightforward baking, whether it’s a batch of cookie dough or a simple cake. But I usually don’t tell this tidbit of info to the recipients of my baked goods, because the few times I have, the responses I get are rolled eyes and moans of, “Oh whatever, baking is hard, you’re just making that up”. So I keep mum about it now. The finished result is so good that I can see how it is hard to believe that it’s easy to make. A lot of people don’t have patience in the kitchen anymore, hence the prolific array of “ready-to-eat” products that are available at the grocery stores nowadays. And in the case of cheesecake, I saw an ad the other day on tv showing a tub of ready-made cheesecake filling, and all one has to do is to scoop it out into a ready-made crust and call it a day (not that I’m knocking ready-made crusts, because I buy those on occasion. However, I am knocking ready-to-eat cheesecake filling. I don’t even want to know what’s in the ingredient list).

Like all good things (crème brulée, beef short ribs, good ol’ suthun barbecue), cheesecake takes time, as it really needs to chill in the fridge for a good long while before digging in. Didn’t Hannibal Lechter say, “All good things to those who wait” ? you know it baby.


Lysa’s Chocolate-Raspberry Cheesecake

Turn your oven on to 350 degrees F.

For the crust:
one sleeve from a package of chocolate graham crackers
3 to 4 tablespoons of melted butter

put the graham crackers into a ziplock bag and seal shut. grab your rolling pin and roll it over the crackers until they've been obliterated into smithereens. alternatively, you could park your butt in front of the television (in my case, "Goldeneye" was on, and I’m not about to miss out on some Sean Bean eye candy), and beat the ziplock bag with your rolling pin. this is great fun and a great source of stress-relief. be careful not to bust open the bag, though.

put crumbs into a large bowl and add melted butter. stir until well mixed, then dump into a Springform pan (i believe that the one i use most often is a 9-inch one. i've also got a 12-inch one i rarely use), and press the crumbs all around the bottom and up the sides about a half inch or so. make sure you really get it pressed in well - use the back of a spoon or the underside of a ramekin to press it all down evenly. bake for 8 to 10 minutes; remove from the oven (don't turn the oven off!) and let cool while you're making the filling.

For the filling:
4 bars of cream cheese, at room temperature
1 heaping tablespoon of flour
1 cup sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
5 eggs
one small bag of frozen raspberries, thawed
one cup of chocolate chips

Put one bar of cream cheese, the flour, and a couple of tablespoons of the sugar into the mixer with the paddle attachment and beat until totally creamed together. (If you don't have a stand mixer, you could do this with a handheld mixer. absolutely. having said that, i don't know how i ever lived without the Big Red Bitch). Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.

put the rest of the cream cheese into the mixer with the remaining sugar and beat until creamed together, stopping often and scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Add the vanilla, and then on low speed add the eggs one at a time. (you could use 4 eggs here - you don't necessarily need 5 eggs - but Lys says that it makes a richer batter with one extra egg, so if you want a super-rich cheesecake, use 5 eggs). when it all is incorporated, measure out about a cup and a half of the mixture into a small bowl and set aside.

Melt the chocolate chips whichever way you find best works for you (i put them in a Pyrex bowl into the microwave for one minute). stir until they are silky, then add that to the small bowl of mixture and mix well. set aside.

Take your thawed raspberries and add them to the original bowl. you may find that you don't need the whole bag; maybe only half will do. it's up to you. stir gently.
alternate adding raspberry and chocolate mixes to your cooled crust (there is no "right" way to add it, just plop it in and smooth it down later), then take a knife or even your spatula and make big swirly motions in the mix. bake in the oven for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until it doesn't jiggle like crazy when you shake the side of the pan. turn the oven off, but leave the cake in there with the oven door ajar (if your oven door won't stay cracked open, help it along with a wooden spoon) until completely cooled. this is supposed to prevent getting those massive cracks on the top.


Lys says to put a pan of hot water on either the bottom of your oven or on the oven rack directly under your cake so that the steam can help prevent cracking. I do this for bread, but this time for this cheesecake, it didn’t work. i took all preventative measures and mine cracked just the same. the recipient of the cheesecake in the pictures didn't mind, and you'll find most people don't mind at all. you could put the cheesecake into a water bath, and i've done that in the past, but make sure you wrap the pan in a double layer of tin foil before putting it in the water bath (do this before putting in the graham cracker crust), to ensure that water seepage doesn’t happen.

if you'd like, you could melt a few tablespoons of seedless raspberry preserves and brush that on top of the cooled cake. the cake then needs to be completely refrigerated for at least several hours to overnight before cutting into it.

Variation:

If you don't have a Springform pan and you just want to use a store-bought ready-made graham cracker crust, that's totally fine. the pictures don't show, but i made one of those as well to bring to a friend who just had a baby. if you are going to go this route, you need to halve the recipe: 2 bars of cream cheese, 1/2 cup of sugar, keep the flour, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, half bag of raspberries, 1/2 cup of chocolate, and only 2 eggs. bake for 40 minutes and leave in the oven with door ajar just like the original recipe.

In other news, we start yet another season of Top Chef, and like the other seasons, I don’t actually watch the episodes until the following evening. I am a very-early-morning person; and with this recent time change, I’ve been getting to work long before the sun rises. This Girl needs her 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night to be a functioning human in the morning, so watching Top Chef when it originally airs is out of the question. So I am avoiding all food blogs today, because I don’t want to be subjected to spoilers. Please don’t tell me!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

i left my heart in.... annapolis, maryland


so i'm chatting online with the boy yesterday afternoon, and he kept bugging me to find out exactly when i'd be leaving work, because he had some "special snack" for me that apparently needed to be timed exactly (lately at New Big Corporate, when i think i'll be leaving at 4, i actually end up having to stay until 5:30 because someone inevitably drags me to a meeting or something). i did in fact get to leave at 4, and i spent the drive home wondering what it was he was up to.

we had, until today, two really fantastically unseasonably warm and beautiful days, so we opened up all the windows in the house and fired up the grill. when i walked in the door yesterday, i could smell hickory smoke wafting through the back door. hmm, that boy, i wondered what he was up to?

turns out he was making a variation of Bobby Flay's Grilled Clams with Serrano Ham (go to books.google.com and type in Bobby Flay Boy Gets Grill, and it's on page 105. this is my new! favorite! online toy!) . Even though Mr. Flay doesn't say to use hickory chips, the boy threw some in the smoke box because he thought (rightly so) that the smokiness would lend itself well to the clam, and it did. He couldn't find any Serrano ham at the market, so we used regular ham lunch meat and drizzled on a variety of hot sauces (i used regular Tabasco, chipotle Tabasco, and Sriracha). these were a really light and wonderful snack (he made only a portion of the recipe, enough to sate me before dinner).

i was standing behind him when he opened the grill lid and revealed the clams, and both of us were hit at the same time with a briny smell; and i was instantly transported to another place, another time. we lived in maryland for 5 years until moving back to Atlanta in mid-2006 (the boy is from there). the boy worked in annapolis and i spent a lot of my free time there. we were married on a boat in the harbor. annapolis is the only thing i miss about maryland.

the feeling that overcame me was so overwhelming that i had to sit down and take it in.

then we took Mrs P on a walk and the whole time we kept talking about how much we miss that place, and how we'd like to retire there someday (if we ever retire, that is). the whole rest of the evening while we were sitting outside while the boy grilled us some dinner, i sat staring off into our supertall pine trees thinking about all the places i loved to frequent. Yin Yankee for the House of Yang crab soup; Sean Donlan's; Middletons for oyster shooters; and Armadillos. walking up Main Street tipsy on beer and trying to convince J not to pee on the governor's lawn. Sitting on the dock dangling my feet over the edge and watching the boat traffic go by. Good times.

today, back to reality. the gorgeous weather is now gone, and we're getting hit with a wall of thunderstorms. the grill is covered, the memories pushed back into the dark of my brain for another time.

so back to the clams. these would be really great to make for a tapas dinner party if you want your guests to interact with the cooking. have someone grill the clams until they're open (about 7 minutes), have someone else cut the ham, have yet another person gather various hot sauces together, have a couple of people assemble them. i think we will add this to our spring/summer repertoire, if only to have those fleeting selfish moments of another place, another time.