Friday, October 17, 2014

I gave up; chocolate

I gave up, and I'm not sorry. 

In theory it would have been easy to write 31 posts about comfort food.  I have so many ideas.  In fact, it would have been easy to write three or four posts a day and have them pre-scheduled to appear - for example, during the weekend we're traveling to a friend's wedding.  (Note that that has not happened yet.) 

But these good intentions were displaced when I realized that I have ebola I apparently just don't care enough. 

There's no point making elaborate apologies for my failures to post things on this blog.  It's not like I have a giant readership that would be really sad if I stopped writing.  Heck, people who do have a significant readership go into radio silence for far longer than I have.  Granted I was supposed to write 31 of them, but I've already published, what, eight posts this month?  That's not bad!  Especially if you want to read about food.  (It's not necessary to respond to that.) 

But, I do have a (very small) consolation prize. 

Remember when I wrote that I (accidentally) discovered a way to make super-dark chocolate ice cream that didn't even require an ice cream maker for churning? 

That was really good ice cream.  If you recall, the point was basically that it was so thick it was a solid at refrigerator temperature; therefore, it could not be churned.  And that viscosity came from the extremely high fat content, so it was fairly creamy when frozen.  However, churning does add a certain je ne sais quoi to the texture of ice cream - specifically, it makes it creamier.  (OK, so, I do know quoi.) 

Since that time, I have been on a bit of a mission to figure out how to make ice cream that has the same flavor (namely, uses Baker's chocolate instead of semi-sweet or even dark chocolate), but doesn't come out so thick it can't be churned.  I was concerned that dropping the fat content too low would take me back into the low-budget ice cream territory where it's no problem to churn the stuff, but it isn't entirely worth eating anyway, because it's more like ice milk.  (No offense, but that's an inferior product.  No point making something that costs $10-12 per half gallon in ingredients if it's not totally decadent.) 

Anyway, I've done some (tasty) trial and error, and I think I have the proportions down. 

So without further ado...a super-outrageously-chocolate-y ice cream recipe you can actually get into the ice cream maker. 

Start with

2 4-ounce bars of Baker's chocolate (the zero-sugar baking chocolate stuff)

and beat them persistently with a hammer before ever removing them from the package.  Pour out of the package into a Pyrex-type bowl and add

1 cup of heavy whipping cream

and put the bowl in the microwave for two minutes on high (YMicrowaveMV).  Meanwhile, pour two cups of 2% milk into a 2-quart (or similar) saucepan and put it on low heat.  Then, separate

6 egg yolks

(reserving the whites for another recipe) and mix them with

1 1/4 cups of sugar

with a fork.  Fetch the chocolate out of the microwave and stir gently with a spatula until homogenous.  Turn off the heat under the milk before it gets to (let alone past) simmering.  Add portions of first the chocolate and then the milk to the eggs, stirring thoroughly after each addition, until entirely combined. 

Pour the entire mixture back into the saucepan and set over low heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture has a ring of tiny bubbles and begins to steam visibly (it will also noticeably thicken).  Then add

1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Stir, then put the whole mixture in the fridge for 8 hours or until it has become well and truly as cold as the refrigerator.  At that time, you can feed it through your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.  Note that my ice cream maker (the KitchenAid attachment) requires freezing the "freeze bowl" for at least 15 hours before use, so if yours is similarly picky you actually want to start that part of the process first.  After churning, put the mixture in the freezer for about three hours before first serving.  Enjoy! 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

apple goodness

Before we moved to the DC area, some delightful friends (whom we miss!) gave us a lovely and thoughtful going-away present, which included this beautiful piece of pottery: 

On the bottom, it has a somewhat unusual stamp:

My fastest apple dessert recipe, and just as tasty as the fancy pies. Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

roast beast

Almost as much as hearty soups and homemade bread, dropping temperatures put me in the mood to toss a giant hunk of meat in the oven. There are lots of delicious things to roast.

You could roast a leg of lamb (mmmm...lamb).

You could roast a chicken (though I'm lousy at that).

You could roast a duck (I've done it, but it's definitely not an everyday occurrence).

You could roast a whole fish (haven't done that - I find it easier to broil fish, but then again I've never bought a whole one).

But I want to talk about roasting that's EASY.  In my experience, there are two things that are really easy to roast.

The first is pork loin. Specifically, a half boneless pork loin. All of those attributes are important: if you want an easy task, you want a boneless cut. You want a loin, not a tenderloin; tenderloin is delicious (and I love it for the grill), but it's much smaller, and more expensive. And you want half the loin: the whole thing is nearly three feet long and a pain in the neck to work with - even if you're feeding a huge crowd, you might find it easier to work with two half loins than a whole one. (Obviously, if you want to feed lots of people and use two half loins, you could cut a whole one in half. But if you want to buy it ahead of time, you better have a ton of space in your freezer!)

I stumbled upon this easy-roasting project when I found half pork loins on great sales during my student days. In the intervening years I've learned a few things about making it easy.

First of all, you want a piece of even diameter so it cooks evenly. Secondly, you want almost no fat on it EXCEPT that you want a nice even fat cap, about 1/8" thick, completely covering one side. When you roast it, that will be the top; and as it roasts, the fat will slowly melt and baste the meat, so although it's a fairly lean cut, it will be very moist.

Now, about how to roast it. You want to roast meat with a marinade, of which there are three essential components. The first is FAT. A coating of fat will seal in the meat's moisture as the outside cooks. This could be olive oil, melted butter, duck fat - whatever. The second is ACID. The acid will help to start breaking down the meat a bit. You could use vinegar, lemon juice (or another citrus), or even a very tart yogurt. Finally, you want any seasonings you'd like to start infusing into your meat. (At this stage, salt is optional - I would say it's better to wait to add salt until the very end.) So, at the simplest level, the marinade could include just oil and vinegar - that would be effective, but it wouldn't add any extra flavor. And remember, I go for more is more. Of course, that doesn't have to mean more work. If you think about it, salad dressing has all the ingredients (fat, acid, and seasonings). I consider golden Caesar dressing a go-to marinade for all applications - it somehow pairs perfectly with beef, pork, chicken, fish, AND vegetables. I always have a bottle on hand. If you have a few extra minutes, you can make a marinade from scratch. My go-to marinade consists of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, minced garlic, and freshly-ground black pepper and rosemary. (If you don't have a mortar and pestle, you can chop up the pepper and rosemary with a chef knife.)

I also have a variation on marinade for pork loin specifically: just a rub of oil and herbes de Provence, or even dried oregano and oil. Simple, but delicious.

The traditional method of roasting meat is to start by browning all sides in a skillet in some fat. This searing locks the juices in and prevents the whole piece of meat from drying out during the roasting time, because once the outside is cooked, it won't bleed its juices any more (unless it is cut). But as is foreshadowed in my insistence on a fat-containing marinade, I take a different approach to that. I no longer remember where I read this tip, but I follow it religiously: whatever the rest of the roasting instructions, I start every roast with 15 minutes in an oven preheated to 500F. Then I drop the temperature to the regular roasting temperature (generally 325 or 350 degrees), and give it the rest of its time. About 22 minutes a pound is standard for pork loin (though those first 15 minutes are really equivalent to 22 minutes in view of the higher temperature).

Probably you should use the USDA guidelines on internal temperature to make sure the pork is done, but I'll be honest: I go exclusively by color (which requires either guessing that the meat is done until after it's rested, or cutting it to check doneness BEFORE it's rested, which is a no-no: a roast should sit ten minutes at least after coming out of the oven so that the juices can re-absorb and don't all just run out when it's cut. But I do it anyway, and then smoosh the meat back together to re-close the gash). For a pork loin roast, I want the center to be MOSTLY greige, but in the very middle, I want to see a blush color. Once the whole roast is greige, it's too dry.

So one day I got to thinking: it's too bad that there's not a cut of beef with the virtues of the pork loin. Something without a ton of tough connective tissue that requires long cooking. And without a lot of fat ribbons that need trimming - with the whole diameter of the roast just plain meat. With a nice fat cap for self-basting. Not with a lot of fine marbling to keep it tender, since that's really expensive beef - just a plain, not-super-tough cut with a moderate diameter, so it roasts fairly quickly and doesn't get tough.

Then one day in the grocery store I noticed eye of round roast on sale and realized that I am an idiot. It's beef straight through (no fat to trim out of the middle). It's not too big around. It's not all marbled like a pricey rib eye - but it's a light red color, not too tough (compared to, say, the dark red of a chuck roast, which has to be cooked for hours to be tender).  And while eye of round roasts are cut less uniformly than than pork loin roasts, you can find one of fairly even diameter and with a nice even fat cap. One caveat: if you like your beef well done, this cut may be too tough by the time it's finished. I eat my beef medium-rare, and this roast cones out perfectly. (Not as tender as a rib eye, say, but plenty tender to be delicious!)

I'm not sure this comes through, given the length of my musings on this topic, but you could make either of these with less time actually working than it takes to read this post. A few minutes to slather the roast with marinade and pop it in a roasting pan (while the oven preheats); a few seconds to change the temperature from 500F and then reset the timer. It's ridiculously easy.

And if you want the rest of the meal to be equally easy, you can skip the roasting rack by setting your roast on a pile of winter vegetables (in fact, any vegetable that can handle a long cooking time). I recommend small cubes of potato (3/4"); large cubes of onion (1.5"), NOT slices (onions burn a LOT faster than potatoes); halved Brussels sprouts; and cubes of squash, turnips, or carrots (or all of those). Add a drizzle of oil and salt and pepper. I buy bags of frozen butternut squash, turnips, and Brussels sprouts, so this is barely more complicated than pouring bags into the bottom of a large roasting pan. I'd ballpark it at a pound of veggies per pound of meat, but if you like lots of veggies you could make a separate potato dish (or another starch - or no starch) and just fill the bottom of the roasting pan with the other veggies.

Oh by the way - I know marinade is technically something you soak meat in over time, not something you just slather on meat right before it goes on the heat (the sense in which I've been using the word).  But I think you get what I'm saying, yes?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

it's time for squash bisque

It's soup season. It's also winter squash season. Best not to fight it.

This is one of many recipes I consider easy not because it takes ten minutes to make, but because all of the steps can easily be fit in around other things - a bit done tonight and some more tomorrow; a step while you're going the dishes and another while you turn over the laundry. I recommend approaching such recipes (including most of my soup recipes, curry, sauces from scratch, etc.) this way - it makes them fairly effortless, but if you try to get them all done at one go it will take hours and you won't get maximum efficiency out of that time.

So there's a lot of little projects; assemble them as convenient for you.

One project: split a butternut squash (or perhaps two acorn squash) down the middle. Put them cut-side down on a foil-lined baking pan, and pop them in the oven at 350 for 45 minutes, or until they're the texture of mashed potatoes and you can remove the seeds from the inside and the skin from the outside with gentle pressure from a spoon. (As to the opposite of gentle pressure - I found it's easiest to split squash with serious force from a meat cleaver, but you can also make a starting incision with the point of a knife and then drop it from a decent height until it splits all the way, if you don't have a cleaver.

Another project: meat is definitely optional in squash bisque, but I recently made a batch with chicken that I really liked. You could also try bacon; beef; or maybe some canned lump crab? (I tried salmon at one point and the salmon flavor was totally lost - not at all how it tasted in my head.) So, prepare your meat. I find that if you're going to put meat in soup, it needs to be 90-95% cooked when it goes in UNLESS the cooking period for the soup is multiple hours, in which case the meat could go in raw. (For example, you could put raw chicken and raw squash in the slow cooker overnight; I think the texture would be less nice, but it would be fewer steps.) Assuming you're using my puttering-around-the-kitchen method rather than a crock pot, you might bake two chicken breasts (with a little oil or salad dressing so they don't dry out) and then cut them into cubes.

The main project: cut 1 large or 2 small onions into large dice. Saute them in butter or oil until clear. Toss in a teaspoon of minced garlic and saute briefly. Add the flesh of the baked squash. Next I added a quarter cup of white wine (optional). You need about two cups of liquid. Chicken broth or water and chicken bouillon are solid options. Most recently I used a pint of heavy cream, which was delicious. Of course, two cups of milk (or a combination of milk and chicken broth) would also work. Stir up the whole mess. You also want to add a REALLY big handful of fresh herbs. I used basil, lemon thyme, and oregano, since that's what I've been growing. Any of those by themselves would probably work, too, and dried oregano would also work. I think the flavor of rosemary would also be great - but not the texture. If you want to grind your rosemary, though, sure. And a bunch of fresh or frozen (thawed) spinach would be good too. Wait to put in your herbs until the squash and liquid have gotten hot; then, after you stir them in, take an immersion blender to the works. (That way you don't really have to cut the herbs.) Stop pureeing when it looks attractive to you. If your meat is 90-95% done, add it now. If you cooked it completely, season first.

Taste: it will probably need salt (or soy sauce) and pepper, and it will need acid. Lemon juice or balsamic vinegar both work well; if you want to keep the crazy orange color, avoid the balsamic (and the soy sauce). A whole pot of soup will really soak up seasonings, so add a decent amount, taste, then add more. Now, if you've done chicken broth and no dairy up to this point, you need dairy (IMHO). I like to add some sharp cheddar and a handful of bleu cheese - enough to really taste it. (I LOVE bleu cheese, and the squash can really handle the flavor.) I did not add any cheese to my latest batch, since it already had all that heavy cream. You can stop there, but you can also turn up the heat, in a variety of directions and degrees according to your taste. I'd say at least a moderate amount of paprika is a conservative choice. You could go for cayenne pepper instead if you want serious heat. And you could aim for curry (or garam masala), for an eastern flavor; or cumin, for something a little more Mexican; or Cajun seasoning, if that's your favorite. Feel free to put your nose in the spices and ponder which direction you'd like to go. Whichever way you go, keep tasting and adding more - you'll be surprised how much it takes to make a pronounced difference. Once you're happy with the flavor, add your meat if you cooked it fully to begin with. Then put the lid on your pot, turn the heat to low, and let it commune with itself for 20 minutes or so. By then, your ability to fend off the swarm of hungry people will be wearing thin, and you might as well eat it.

Even better with fresh homemade bread - more on that later.

And I suppose I should mention here that my sister contends I overcomplicate things, and her squash soup is easier and healthier with just a few ingredients - I believe she uses just the onions, the garlic, the chicken broth, and the squash, and salt and pepper. To which I say: if less is more, imagine how much more more must be.   

Monday, October 6, 2014

delicious beverages

I don't drink alcohol. But that does not mean I fail to appreciate the delightfulness of a special treat in liquid form. My variations just tend to involve a bit more sugar :). 

Since we've just had our first few actually cold days, and I'm about to start laying in a supply of whipped cream for the season, it seems like a good time to share some of my favorites. I take particular comfort in enjoying things special to each season. In the summer I consume my body weight in lemonade (preferrably pink), and for a special treat, I'll mix up my own strawberry lemonade (a half-gallon of Minute Maid lemonade, the yellow kind this time, plus a third of a pound of strawberries, washed and trimmed, and go after it with an immersion blender). 

But this time of year, hot beverages are definitely the ticket. 

The stores all have cider in (and on sale!), and that probably is my favorite hot beverage of all. It seems impossible to believe that all that deliciousness is pretty darn healthy, too. But then again, all food is good for you, in the proper context. 

I have a few other seasonal favorites I like to fix up as well. Starting in the morning: my version of a chai latte. First you get the water boiling for tea. Then you take your chai tea bag (my favorite is the Twinings one in the red box, but that's a grocery-store brand - if you have access to an authentic imported one, don't let me stop you). Pour just an inch of boiling water into the cup - just enough to cover the leaves in the tea bag. Then find yourself something to fill five minutes (putting away the dishes?  Fixing some cereal?) while it steeps until it's nice and dark. Then, fill the cup with milk. (I buy 2%, so I use that. Whole milk would be nice, too. I think skim would be pretty weak, especially since there's already water in it.)  Then I microwave it until it's good and hot (with the tea bag still in) - two minutes, in my microwave. 

Feel free to get distracted by another bit of puttering in the kitchen and let the tea bag steep for a few more minutes in the milk. When it's starting to get some color, get it out of the microwave, remove the tea bag, and stir in a teaspoon of brown sugar - whether scant, level, or heaping is up to you. Top with a nice head of whipped cream (the canned stuff is actually dairy, and though it's hardly all-natural, I'm not ready to whip tiny batches of heavy cream for each beverage), and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Perfection!  

Then there's the evening option (at least, in my kitchen). Fill a mug with milk and pop it in the microwave for one minute. Once it's warm, add a wee spoonful (a quarter teaspoon?  More than a small amount is difficult to dissolve unless you want to break out a saucepan) of cocoa powder, and stir vigorously. Stir in half a teaspoon of sugar, and check to see whether you need more. Then comes the secret ingredient: just 1-2 drops of Mexican vanilla (so good, and easily four times as strong as the American vanilla extract that baking recipes are based on - adjust accordingly).  Then another minute in the microwave, and then, of course, cover with whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon. 

I confess, while I used to make cocoa from scratch almost daily, two winters ago I became totally spoiled by Trader Joe's mint hot cocoa. So delicious!  A little under-sweet if you ask me (I add sugar - and, of course, whipped cream), but the perfect balance of chocolate and mint. It seems exorbitant at $5 a can, but the fact that a single cup of cocoa at a coffee shop costs almost that much really puts it in perspective. 

And I can't discuss the topic of comforting hot beverages without mentioning my favorite tea on the planet: Loyd's plum and cinnamon. We get it at an imported food store that I visit anyway to get kabanos (I sound like a crazy grocery spender in this post, so I have to add that I buy almost everything on sale and refuse to pay for organic. These are a few little indulgences, true, but my grocery budget is pretty strict, I swear). I have no idea where a normal person could buy this (I have never seen it anywhere else), but if you find it, try it. You won't regret it (unless you hate tea, in which case, I really can't help you). 

Put on something snuggly, and take a minute to sip and savor something delicious!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

the little dipper

I seem to have missed yesterday. Oops. I will make up the day - 31 posts, I promise!

I wanted to share another favorite dip recipe. I pretty much make this one every time we host a party (along with a pan of brownies!) and it usually gets finished (and when it doesn't, I have the leftovers as a snack). It's super-easy. I may even have shared it here before, but it definitely merits inclusion in the month of comfort food.

You will need:

-package of frozen chopped spinach
-brick of cream cheese
-medium onion
-shredded cheese
-package of imitation crab or salad (teeny) shrimp

Mostly thaw 8-10 ounces of frozen chopped spinach in a deep-dish pie plate in the microwave. Meanwhile, mince a medium-sized white onion. Dump the onion in with the spinach (once it's thawed). Chop up 4 ounces of imitation crab (which is not really crab - but it is really fish!), or, if you want to be FANCY, 4 ounces of salad shrimp - spending money on larger shrimp is pointless, you want them in small pieces).

Put the chopped fishies and the brick of cream cheese into the pie plate with the spinach and onions and mash together with a fork. (You could also add a dash of Old Bay if it makes you happy.) Sprinkle about four ounces of shredded cheese (I usually use something mild, like Monterey Jack) on the top, and pop it in the oven. Half an hour at 350 degrees is about right, but the recipe isn't fussy - if you already have the oven on for something else, you can bake the dip at whatever temperature. Just remove it when the cheese on top has turned gold.

Serve with tortilla rounds (since they're sturdy - the big "restaurant-style" tortillas will break if you try to scoop the dip with them), sturdy crackers, pita chips, or baguette rounds. Gluten-free, low-carb, and contains all the food groups (except carbohydrates)! But most importantly - easy to make, and seriously delicious. Perfect for throwing together for a football party.

(I came up with this modest "recipe"  all by myself, but I'm sure someone else had already thought of it!)

Friday, October 3, 2014

an extraordinary ordinary sandwich

Today I'm going to tell you how to make something you don't need anyone to tell you how to make - except that you do, actually need someone to tell you this, and you don't even realize it.

Some of you make this sandwich (or a similar sandwich) regularly, and you know exactly what I mean - the extraordinary poetry of this entirely prosaic thing.  Some of you probably remember this sandwich (or a close analog) from childhood, and you think you've outgrown it, and that I've taken leave of my senses.  I haven't.  On this point, at least.  Listen closely.

If you're like me, you have a great appreciation for a good sandwich.  In an ordinary week, you might eat quite a few sandwiches.  Many of them might even be good.  But it will be much less regularly that you experience the sandwich at the peak of its existence - the telos for which the form sandwich was created, if you will.  The end toward which it strives.

And that is the toasted sandwich.  Crispy on the outside, faintly buttery, warm on the inside, and gooey with just the right amount of cheese.  The grilled cheese sandwich is a classic in this genre.  The grilled ham and cheese is an absolute standby (and a staple in my household - my dear husband is a grown-up person, and still seems to find a particular happiness in having me make him a nice toasty warm grilled ham and cheese sandwich.  I think I could make a gourmet meal that was less thoroughly appreciated).

But particularly extraordinary - and particularly underappreciated by today's aspiring home gourmet - is that staple of yesteryear: the tuna melt.

I know what you're thinking.  Tuna salad sandwiches and tuna noodle casserole and suchlike fare were a cross you bore in the name of your mother's grocery thriftiness during your childhood, and you aren't going back there any more than you're going to force your family to drink powdered milk.  But I must exhort you to reconsider. I tell you, you don't know what you're missing.

First of all, my family was on a tight budget too, and therefore my mother, like yours, probably bought the cheapest tuna available.  This is a mistake you must avoid.  Of course I only buy canned tuna on sale, but if I am patient (and buy a bunch when there is a sale), I can get all of it for $1 a can.  But I will not compromise on one point: it has to be solid white (or albacore) tuna.  This kind:

Because I'm afraid everything else just tastes like a tin can.  I should also note that Julia Child has something or other to say about canned tuna in water being totally inferior to tuna in oil, and the woman usually knows what she's talking about, but I think tuna in oil is totally gross (I might have had it once as a child by accident), so I only ever buy it in water.  Your mileage may vary.  So you have to start there.

Now, in case you've spent your entire adult life boycotting tuna due to some misbegotten manifestation of childhood trauma telling you that it's anything other than absolutely delicious, I will remind you how to make tuna salad.  You need to cut up some onions.  If you're using white or yellow onions, remember that they're very sharp when raw, and mince them fine, unless you have asbestos-mouth, in which case, go ahead and eat a whole onion as a snack - knock yourself out.  (Red onions and scallions are somewhat less hot.)  You don't need a lot of onion for a single can of tuna:

And, as you see, you don't need a lot of mayonnaise, either.  If I were making an ordinary tuna salad sandwich, I would use more than that, but I short it a little when I'm making the grilled version, because the heat tends to make the tuna salad a bit melty. (Celery is also a classic ingredient, but I try to keep it simple. But by all means add more vegetables.) These photos are way too poor to get a good look, but the final mix is a little on the dry side:

But there's no risk of the sandwich being dry, because it will have all sorts of yummy melted cheese.  Now, before you mix your tuna salad, you drain the tuna water into the dog's (or the cat's) food bowl, and said animal goes nuts.  Here's Bailey, who polished off the tuna-infused kibble in about ten seconds, and is assiduously polishing the empty bowl in case she missed any:

She would be mortally offended to hear that there's anyone who turns his nose up at tuna.

The next step is important: you have to meticulously administer butter (or margarine - I use the spreadable stuff so I don't gouge holes in my bread when I use it at refrigerator temperature) equally to each and every molecule of the bread:

And you will notice that I flipped them so that they were mirror images, and would align perfectly once I got the sandwich assembled.  This is not overkill.

By the way, you'll notice that I'm using bread that was hand stone ground by illiterate native women who practice tribal religion from 100% organic high-fiber extra-virgin gravel fermented in the gullet of free-range chicken, in order to accomplish a colonic cleanse under the guise of having dinner.  Like so:

Uhhhhh no.  I've had the whole colonic cleanse thing (and anyone who clicks a link with that name has no right to complain about what it leads to, for the record), and I find it to be about as far from comfort food - or comfort, or food - as imaginable.  I eat vegetables (not pictured here), and lots of dairy, try to keep a reasonable limit on the junk food, and avoid anything allegedly edible that tastes like construction material.  That is healthy enough. The above bread is my go-to bread and pretty much the only one I buy (though I also make bread from scratch reasonably often), for one simple reason: it makes the very best sandwiches, period.

What other qualification could be relevant?

Anyway, depending on your stove, you may also want to pre-heat the pan.  My usual grilled sandwich pan is a Calphalon one, which, on the one hand, never sticks; on the other hand, it is very slow to heat on my stove, but then suddenly overheats.  You have to watch it like a hawk or it will burn your grilled sandwich.  This is probably because it's a snooty millenial pan that only wants to be used for egg-white omelets.  On this most recent occasion I used a lovely copper pan from the thrift store, which heats beautifully, and you can even tell when it's done heating because it smells hot.  The old ways are always better.

Anyway, once your pan is hot and your bread is buttered and your tuna salad is mixed, you put down one slice, butter-side down; then you carefully cover it with a single layer of Swiss cheese.  You could also use another highly flavorful cheese, like extra-sharp cheddar, or maybe Havarti, but absolutely nothing bland (as a snack I like Muenster and Monterey Jack and mozzarella, but you don't want any namby-pamby cheeses for a grilled sandwich. You need something with serious personality).  Then you carefully spread your tuna salad over the cheese.  Half the mixture you prepared will make one perfectly fine sandwich (and surely you know someone else who would love to rediscover this magical goodness with you!), but if you're really hungry, you can pile the whole bowl on just one sandwich, and make sure to eat with a napkin on your lap.  Also, wash your hands first so you can lick your fingers with impunity.  (You're welcome.)

Then, of course, the second slice goes on top.  Here you may be able to see that the cheese is just starting to melt:

Turning it is where the real precision work comes in.  Depending on your stove and how high you have the heat, it will take from two to five minutes on a side.  You'll be able to smell when it's overdone (unless you like your grilled sandwiches slightly black, in which case wait to turn it until you can smell a faint burning), but it's ready to be turned when you slide a spatula under the corner and it easily lifts up because the bread has become crisp.  Before that, it will start to collapse if you try to turn it, so if you see the collapsing, give it another minute and try again.  I managed this one perfectly, if I do say so myself:

The second side is a bit mangled, but you don't need to see that.  So there you have it - the tuna melt you didn't know you'd been missing all these years.

I made one of these for my mother-in-law (and one for me) the last time she visited; I don't often get to share them, because my husband (like my FIL, in fact) doesn't like seafood in general, or tuna salad in particular.  So it was a real treat to get to sit down and enjoy my gooey tuna melt with someone else.  She said it was "luscious," because, of course, she has excellent taste.  Really, it almost seems too indulgent to be food for a Friday, but we're Catholic, and by golly, it's tradition.

I hope you love it, too.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

perfect box brownies

I felt silly even as I wrote the title of this post.  I am claiming to have 31 days' worth of great ideas/recipes/suggestions for comfort food, and the second day I want to talk about how to make something that already comes pre-mixed

And I see that point. 

But here's the thing.  Although I am an enthusiastic baker, and I make some very labor-intensive things when I have time (such as, oh, let's see, the truffle recipe that takes 14 hours), probably the thing I bake the most often is brownies.  Truffles and truffle torte are maybe more delicious depending on my mood.  But for a truly comforting (and also extremely delicious) dessert, in my opinion, brownies and chocolate chip cookies are tied for first place, and brownies are more versatile and faster.  So if you make dessert, you have to master brownies. 

And for many years, I confess to you, I had not.  I was the sad person who at work pot-lucks would scarf down the brownies made by others, ooh-ing and ah-ing over their moistness, their denseness, their fudgy-ness.  I followed the directions on the box faithfully, and my brownies were a crumbly, dried-out, crusty-edged mess.  They were inadequately delicious. 

Then one day I decided that I would not be a victim of inadequately delicious brownies.  In the great dessert crisis of our time, I could no longer remain passive.  Never again would I withdraw from the oven a pan of sad, flat, dried-out brownies.  It was time to fight back. 

First I undertook a meditation on my brownie priorities.  After reflection, I concluded that a good brownie is very moist; very thick; and almost raw in the very center.  (I understand that there are people who prefer the crustier "edge" brownies, and I try not to let it disturb me.) 

Then I made a searching and fearless culinary inventory of my errors to date.  I had baked the brownies in a pan roughly similar to that described on the package.  I had used a standard Teflon-coated metal pan, as I believed other home bakers did.  I had attempted to decrease the baking time in order to make the brownies more moist, and ended up with slop.  I had failed.  And the definition of insanity would be to continue these efforts and hope for a spontaneously improved result. 

I extended my reflections to baking triumphs and losses past.  In one memorable experiment in my teen years, I had decided that chocolate and peanut butter cookies would be the best kind of cookie, and the rest of the world must simply have overlooked that fact until I came on the scene.  So I found a chocolate cookie recipe in one of my mother's cookbooks, and added what I considered to be a suitable amount of peanut butter.  She came along when I'd got them in the oven, and politely inquired as to my methods.  She did not have a particular talent for allowing her children to learn from their mistakes; but in this case she employed the Socratic method masterfully, encouraging me to spell out what I did and didn't change from the recipe, and what I expected to happen.  I was very proud of my restraint: I had only added peanut butter.  She opined that I should therefore have subtracted almost an equal amount of margarine; otherwise, the cookie would never bake at all.  I professed this to be absolute nonsense - I had never witnessed a cookie that would never bake; perhaps the time would simply be longer - and I didn't believe in this fairy-tale unbakeable cookie. 

I probably don't have to tell you that my mother was right.  I was a stubborn child, and I finally gave in at about four times the recommended baking time.  At that point the cookies were still liquid - but as soon as they cooled they fused with the pan.  We spent the next several days chipping off shards of them with a butter knife for a snack (we were poor children, and not likely to turn down sweets, even if in a peculiar form), and I'm not sure my mother was ever able to use that cookie sheet again. 

There are several lessons here, but for purposes of brownie wisdom, the important one is that if you increase the amount of fat in a baked good, it takes longer to set; if you decrease the fat, it sets faster. 

My major problem was that by the time I had gotten the brownies to set (no longer leave streaks on a cake tester), they were overcooked. 

Another factor I knew would be relevant was the amount of water in the recipe.  Even if the amount of oil was decreased to allow the batter to finish baking faster, excess water would leave it soupy.  If I wanted to shorten the baking time, I was going to have to decrease the water too. 

Finally, my brownies were too flat.  The simplest explanation was that I was using a pan of too large a surface area, and I decided to try fixing that first. 

And, thus fortified by the fruits of my reflections, I embarked fearlessly on the Great Brownie Experiments.  I attempted various alterations of the oil and water levels.  I tried a few different pans.  I altered the cooking time and, on one occasion, the temperature.  I went through at least four ovens, though that is another story.  I even tried different brands of boxed brownies, because obviously, the most important factor in selecting a brownie mix is which one is on sale. 

I have arrived at what I consider to be the basic commandments of perfect box brownies; this was not a short or an easy road, but it is my obligation for the good of humanity to share the fruits of my journey with you here, that you may be spared some of this hardship yourself.  Your strength may then be devoted to other challenges, that the cause of the race may be advanced.  You're welcome. 

For perfect box brownies:
  1. Betty Crocker makes an excellent mix, but Pillsbury's is slightly better.  Duncan Hines's is inferior, and Ghirardelli is useless (I bought that one once because of the beautiful picture, and it didn't turn out.  Never again). 
  2. The only acceptable mix is the dark chocolate/fudge/darkest-and-richest-flavor as described by the particular brand.  The milk chocolate is inferior and shall not be used. 
  3. The classic large-sized clear glass Pyrex pan is the correct baking vessel for two full recipes (i.e., two boxes and attendant eggs, oil, and water).  For a single recipe, the correct baking vessel is the large circular "French white" Corningware baking dish with the tuxedo stripes that everyone who got married in the last decade or so registered for as part of a baking-dish-set (and I note that when you receive this set you should immediately open it and check that all the provided lids are the correct sizes, because they frequently aren't). 
  4. It is not necessary to oil the baking dish.  If the brownies are adequately moist they will be easy to remove.  Any residue that is not eaten by you with a fork the next day can be soaked in water briefly and then very easily removed with a sponge.  Also, Teflon is the devil. 
  5. The other reason not to oil the baking dish is because you can mix the entire recipe in the baking dish with a fork (you then lick off the excess from the fork, wash the fork, and use it to test for doneness after baking).  This takes box brownies from "very easy" to "embarrassingly easy."   
  6. Do not add an extra egg in hopes that the directions on the box offer an attractive alternative.  I don't know what "cakey brownies" is supposed to mean.  It should just say "bad brownies." 
  7. To get the correct texture, you do not need to change the oven temperature from that which is recommended.  (Using the "convect bake" option on a convection oven also doesn't require you to change the temperature, although I think my oven is sneakily doing that behind my back.)  You need to short the oil by about 10% (just eyeball this) and the water by about 20% (also eyeballed). 
  8. You do need to short the cooking time.  If your oven is accurate or cool, set the timer for five minutes before the shortest time listed on the box.  (If your oven is over-hot, make whatever time adjustment you usually need to, and then subtract an additional five minutes.)  Test with a fork every two minutes starting at the alarm.  Remove from the oven when the fork is almost but not quite clean of brownie. 
This precious knowledge forms the foundation of a competent home-baking enterprise. 

And I must make one final note on the superiority of box brownies as opposed to non-box brownies.  It's like Aquinas's view on the best form of government: scratch brownies are the best form of brownies when the recipe is exceptionally virtuous, and the worst form of brownies when the recipe is bad.  And the recipe is not good most of the time: most scratch brownies are not nearly chocolate-y enough. 

I have identified one exception to this (there may well be others).  After eating the surpassingly delicious brownie at Le Pain Quotidien, I was convinced I had found the key to a scratch brownie recipe that would actually be better than the box mix.  I just had to find the recipe that Le Pain uses.  (No problem, right?)  I found one on the internet that professed to be said recipe, and it is, indeed, as magical as Le Pain's.  It is, therefore, better than box brownies.  But the ingredients are also more costly; the process is far more involved (if only because box brownies are so extremely easy); and the finished product is somewhat fragile and difficult to serve.  So for those occasions when one needs an even-better brownie, I make that recipe.  For all other brownie-warranting occasions, the not-quite-best box brownie, executed perfectly (as described above), is in fact the perfect brownie. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Comfort Food, Day 1: AMAZING DIP (GF)

So I decided that I would participate in the 31 Days challenge this year, as I mentioned.  (More information on the challenge, and lots more people's reflections to read, here.) 

I decided that I would write about comfort food.  Now, you may be thinking - the misfit is not a food blogger.  She doesn't even have any formal training in cooking!  It's true.  So let me offer you my qualifications.

I love to eat.  I guess that's actually my principal qualification.  I also love to cook and bake, but eating is definitely first :).  While I have developed somewhat more "expensive taste" as I age, and some of the recipes I make are actually quite involved, my real love - both to eat and to make - is the hearty and simple stuff.  (Not everything I mention will take five minutes, but none of it will require special chef-only skills, because I don't have those myself.) 

So obviously you'll have to form your own opinion about whether any of these ideas are worth trying in your kitchen.  I'll just tell you what I love - you can take it from there.  Which brings us to...


Today I decided to start with a recipe that, in my view, is magical.  Someone brought it to our work Christmas party last year and I think I had six helpings.  There were easily fifty different sweets and treats to choose from and they were all tasty, but I just found myself wandering back to this crock pot every few minutes.  I could tell the stuff was heavy and should be eaten in moderation, but I couldn't help myself.  And yes, of course, by that night I felt distinctly unwell.  That may not sound like an endorsement, but I think it gives you an idea of the deliciousness involved.  Of course any sensible person looking at the finished product could see that this is something to eat by the ounce, not the pound.  I have eaten it many times since, with some degree of restraint, and been fine.  That's the method I recommend. 

It has only three ingredients:

1 lb. ground pork sausage
1 10-oz. can diced tomatoes with green chilies
1 8-oz. package of cream cheese

First, make sure all your ingredients are thawed!  (I keep ground sausage and cream cheese in the freezer at all times for various reasons, including this recipe.)  Then, brown the sausage on the stove and drain the fat. 
Then, dump the sausage, the cream cheese, and the can of tomatoes (with their juice) into the crock pot.  It takes probably 90 minutes on low or 30 minutes on high for it to get all melted.  Stir it with a  wooden spoon once and you're in business.  Serve with tortilla chips or whatever you prefer (pita chips, bread, etc.).  With corn tortillas, it's gluten-free, of course. 
A few thoughts:

  • I have the smaller crock pot (the three-quart one that's round, not oval), and this fills it halfway.  Obviously double the recipe to fill the crock pot, or triple it for a bigger crock pot.  But one recipe is quite a bit of dip. 
  • I use savory (not hot) ground sausage, but if you like dips really spicy, you could use hot.  It has plenty of flavor even with the savory, though. 
  • I've substituted salsa for the canned tomatoes and that works fine.  You could also add heat with extra-hot salsa. 
  • I recently found Greek yogurt cream cheese and that's very nice in this, plus maybe a little healthier. 
  • Last time I made this, I added a can of (drained) black beans - just as delicious, and a little more nutritious! 

Of course, I received this recipe from a coworker (and I don't know where she got it).  But my goal this month is not the publication of original recipes.  (I have very few of those.)  I aim simply to let people know about food that's already out there, and is too good to miss.  And since football season is ramping up and the weather's getting colder, I figured this would be a perfect way to start October.  I hope you enjoy it!