4 Courses for Valentines

February 21st, 2012 :: 8 comments :: permalink

Every year on February 14th, people frantically run around trying to find the perfect gift to tell someone how much they love them. There was a time that I was turned off by the commercialism of Valentine’s, and with good reason. Come February, we are bombarded with advertising telling us to buy flowers, cards and trinkets. I started to change my tune in the last few years and decided to take the day as an extra opportunity to show someone that I care. Instead of buying something though, I try to do or make something. My first Valentine’s Day with Dustin was 8 years ago. I cooked him spaghetti and veal meat balls. Although the meal was delicious, that was also the day I learned what veal actually was. This year, I decided to bring the cooking tradition back and made a 4 course meal. I started by dressing up the coffee table as our faux dining area and decorating the room with pink accents. Making the pom poms that I hung over the table was probably the most time consuming thing I did all day, but it really added that last little Valentine’s touch.

After decorating, I finally started cooking. My menu was on the heavier side, so I started with a salad. I am a huge fan of adding warm elements to a salad. Otherwise it can be pretty boring. This is a simple recipe which calls for toasting almonds and cranberries in a dab of butter. Served right after cooking, these warm additions completely change the dish.

I always try to know what is in the food I’m buying, so one day while grocery shopping I took out my iPhone and started looking up the ingredients in a bottle of salad dressing. After a while, I was grossed out and I’ve been making my own salad dressing ever since. Can’t say I miss the bottled stuff at all.

My next course was pasta. I gathered my ingredients: Pine nuts, Parmesan and Pecorino Romano Cheese, garlic, and a lot of basil. This is a really quick sauce recipe that you can store in the the fridge for 3-4 days or freeze for up to 6 months. I grated the cheese then wilted the basil in boiling water for a few seconds. I boiled garlic in a separate pan for 2-3 minutes to soften it and reduce the intensity of its flavor so it didn’t dominate the sauce.

While I used a food processor, I think a blender would also work if one has some extra patience to make sure the contents circulate properly and don’t over-blend at the bottom. The original recipe technically called for an immersion style hand blender so that is clearly an option as well. I topped off the pasta with extra Parmesan. I love Italian food because if done well and with fresh ingredients, a few simple steps can yield a huge punch of flavor.

The meat course was next. This was my first time cooking quail. I found the uncooked miniature stature of the bird to be somewhat alarming. I had seen pictures of it cooked though, so I hoped for the best. I chopped mint leaves, added them atop the pint sized birds, drizzled on some honey and added salt and pepper. I broiled the quail until golden brown, which turned out to be about 5 minutes on each side.

Dustin said that the couscous, combined with the sweetness of the raisins and crunch of the pine nuts, was the perfect balance to the quail. Although I’ve been a vegetarian for a while, I still remember which flavors work with certain meats. I’ve never eaten quail before, (which has a slight gamey smell to it, much like venison) so this was a bit of a shot in the dark. I’m glad all the flavors worked well together.

Siting at our coffee table was surprisingly comfortable. I made fresh mojitos, which turned out to be more rum than anything. That probably added to our relaxing dining atmosphere.  I think our dog (Mia) enjoyed viewing everything in such close proximity too.

Moving on to the final course: Dessert. I made a chocolate mousse. I worried about using raw eggs, so I bought my usual organic free-range eggs, but made sure they were from a local farm in the hopes that they would be fresher and somehow safer. I added boiling cream to some chopped chocolate. After whisking for a few minutes, everything melted together and I let the mixture cool. I was on a tight deadline so I probably didn’t let it cool as much as I should before I added my egg whites. The main thing to avoid here is cooking the egg whites when they are added to the cream and chocolate. The recipe I was working from then called for a whipping cream siphon charged with a gas cartridge to fluff the mouse.  Since I don’t have one of those, I relied on our mixer’s whisk. As a result, we had more of a pudding than a mouse, but it tasted great.

 

Still on the dessert course, I was in the mood for something on the lighter side. Dustin had made waffles and poached pears the day before, which also yielded a large amount of sweet pear flavored syrup. To poach the pears, he combined Moscato wine, a simple syrup of sugar and water, cinnamon, honey, and a split vanilla bean and seeds in a saucepan. He added whole peeled pears and simmered everything until the pears softened. I’m hungry just writing about it. Once the pears were completely cooked, they were removed from the syrup and everything was allowed to cool. The syrup left in the pan after this process was fantastic so we saved every drop of it. Fast forwarding back to Valentine’s Day night, I toasted our homemade waffle from the day before and topped it with fresh whipped cream (mixed with a bit of powdered sugar), the pear syrup, and almonds.

Cooking 4 courses was a lot to take on in one night, but they turned out great. Dustin appreciated the effort and returned the gesture with a cute handmade card and the gift of a nice clean kitchen.

The recipes I used this night were based on some I found in  “The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adria”. I love the step by step imagery in this recipe book and it’s entirely likely that we’ll be purchasing our own copy soon. I’m a very visual person and this book’s style of presentation is extremely easy to follow even though many of the recipes are new to me.

The poached pear recipe is based on one by Giada DeLaurentiis, found here.

The waffle recipe Dustin used is different from the one we’ve previously mentioned on Chickypea and can be found here.

Experience Alinea

February 14th, 2012 :: 4 comments :: permalink

I mentioned Alinea in a post about Next a few weeks ago. It was the first restaurant started by the Next team and has built an enormous reputation in the restaurant world for its cuisine and dining experience. We were lucky enough to dine at Alinea on Valentine’s Day a couple of years ago, but after reading the founders’ book, “Life, On the Line,” about the origin of the restaurant and the head chef’s uncanny battle with tongue cancer, Dustin got the urge to go again. We made reservations and 2.5 months later, we got dressed up and headed back to what many consider one of the top-rated restaurant in the country.

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Salmon Eggs Benedict -vs.- The Tempeh Egg Muffin

February 8th, 2012 :: 11 comments :: permalink

Out of all the meals in the day, breakfast is possibly my favorite, though dessert at any meal is pretty high up there too. When we go out for breakfast, Dustin often gets an eggs benedict with either crab or salmon. I have fewer options. I’ve been a vegetarian off and on for 10 years and have slowly found ways to add protein to my diet without using faux meat, which is a good transitional product, but can have a lengthy ingredient list.

We decided to cook everything from scratch for this one, even the muffin.  If you want to save some time, buying muffins from the store will of course work too. Dustin is more of a planner than I am and likes to set all his ingredients out before we start cooking. I’m more of a spontaneous cook, but it does save time to organize all of one’s supplies. After getting some yeast started, flour, bread flour, salt and milk went into the food processor. After a few minutes in there, the dough stuck together as planned. So much easier than doing it by hand. I’ve tried.

Following a couple of rises, I cheated a little and used a cookie cutter to make semi-perfect circles. The dough continued to expand while I waited for my cast iron skillet to warm up. After several minutes on each side in the skillet, the muffins turned golden brown. I know it’s not polite to gloat but these were so much better than the muffins you get from the store! We ate the first one without any toppings while it was still warm from the stove.

Dustin poached the eggs for his benedict in lightly boiling water with a splash of vinegar. I’ve always been a little grossed out by eggs, but it was cool to watch them cook this way. It was super easy too. After watching the movie, “Julie & Julia“, I thought it would be more difficult.

Switching to my vegetarian option, I used my cookie cutter again to cut out my tempeh patties and to mold my egg whites into a circle while they were frying in their pan. Most people are not aware of tempeh unless they’ve been a vegetarian for a long period of time. It comes from cooked and slightly fermented soybeans and, unlike tofu, it is very firm. A huge plus is it has a lot of protein and calcium and is low in fat and cholesterol. For my own peace of mind, I look for non-GMO tempeh and organic veggies to avoid any potential issues that have been raised lately regarding GMO products.

I loved the way both dishes came together. It was interesting to compare the presentation of the casual benedict to the perfect stack of bread, egg, and  tempeh in the sandwich. Both indeed have their place of course, so we’re hoping to experiment like this some more in the future.

In the end, everything came together and photographed well. Maybe too well…I was too hungry to experiment with angles and lighting when it came time to shoot the final photos. Deeelish.
Toppings
I topped my vegetarian muffin with a pan seared tempeh patty, salt, pepper, tomatoes, egg whites, and micro greens. I drizzled balsamic vinegar and olive oil on top. The eggs benedict was a muffin topped with wild salmon (supposedly caught the day prior), salt, pepper, sauteed garlic, a poached egg and hollandaise sauce. Dustin said he will use a blender instead of a mixer for the hollandaise next time as he felt it was under-whipped and separated too easily. I think there is a lot of room in both of these recipes to experiment with different flavors and taste. We just added what we like. Dustin thought dill might be a nice addition to the salmon benedict. I’m thinking Thai chilis and/or avocado might be a nice addition to the sandwich.

See full recipe.

 

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Sketch it out at Atomic Sketch

February 3rd, 2012 :: 2 comments :: permalink

Every month, local artists gather together at Green Eye Lounge for an event called Atomic Sketch. Some people sketch and sell their art, others doodle, and some just come to hang out. I was reluctant to go, since I’m not always comfortable in the bar scene, but I went to support my friend Adam. I ended up feeling inspired to sketch more for myself and a little ill from one too many rum and cokes.

It would personally make me nervous to have people watch me sketch so intensely, but Adam seems to thrive on it. As I watched, he quickly finished drawing a picture I dubbed “Meow Cat.”

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Devil Macarons

February 1st, 2012 :: 2 comments :: permalink

I consider the macaron to be the supermodel of cookies. The first time I had one was at Miette Pâtisserie, in San Francisco. We were staying right across the street and happened to discover Miette while walking through SF’s Ferry Building. I ended up eating an obscene amount of macarons on that trip. Although delightful to eat, these little devil cookies took a lot of effort to prepare at home. At one point we were ready to throw in the towel, thinking the cookies were going to be horribly disfigured. Luckily, it all seemed to work itself out through the baking process.

Making macarons seemed like a two person job. Dustin made the frosting while I worked on the cookies. This was our first time making frosting with raw eggs, so we really didn’t want to mess that up. Watching the eggs and sugar thicken in our mixer was amazing.  They changed from an odd light brown translucent color to a fluffy white bowl of delightfulness.

Everything is so precise with baking. I used the imprints of a miniature cup dipped in flour for a size reference when squeezing the batter out of a pastry bag.

We learned a lot about what not to do while making macarons, but even after our two mini-meltdowns, and almost starting over, they ultimately looked pretty good. The texture seems more fluffy than store bought macarons, and they just melt in your mouth. Next time we’ll be a little more generous with our all-natural food coloring in the hopes that we can get the cake and frosting colors to match. Even though the recipe isn’t easy, I think most people would have a good chance of coming out with a delicious product that doesn’t look half bad.

Ingredients

  • Swiss Meringue Buttercream
  • 4 large egg whites
  • 3 sticks (1-1/2 cups) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into tablespoons
  • 1-1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • Macaroons
  • 1-3/4 cup confectioner
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • all-purpose flour, for dipping
  • 1-1/2 cups (4 ounces) sliced almonds, finely ground, or almond flour
  • 3 large eggs
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 recipe Swiss Meringue Buttercream (increase vanilla to 2-1/2 teaspoons)

 

Preparation

French Almond Macaroons
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Sift confectioners’ sugar into a bowl. Whisk in ground almonds; set aside. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or nonstick baking mats (such as Silpats), and mark circles using a 1-1/2-inch cookie cutter dipped in flour.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment beat egg whites on medium speed until foamy; add salt. Gradually add granulated sugar 1 teaspoon at a time, until the whites reach medium-soft peaks. Transfer to a large bowl.

Sprinkle half of the sugar-almond mixture over the egg-white mixture. Using a large rubber spatula fold until just incorporated. Add 1/4 teaspoon vanilla and remaining sugar-almond mixture, folding until just incorporated. Firmly tap the bottom of the bowl on a counter or work surface to eliminate any air pockets.

Transfer mixture to a large pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain tip (such as an Ateco #806). Pipe mixture into marked circles on prepared baking sheet.

Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until macaroons feel slightly firm to the touch and can be gently lifted off the parchment (the bottoms will be dry), 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer parchment and macaroons to a wire rack to cool completely. Using a small offset spatula, carefully remove macaroons from parchment. Spread 2 teaspoons buttercream on the flat sides of the half of macaroons; sandwich with the other halves, keeping flat sides down. Refrigerate until firm, about 20 minutes, before serving. Filled cookies can be kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

 

Strawberry Macaroons Variation
Follow instructions for French Almond Macaroons, adding 4 drops of red food coloring to the egg whites just before you add the sugar-almond mixture (batter will be pink). For the filling, do not increase vanilla, and fold 1/3 cup strained strawberry preserves (3-1/2 ounces) into Swiss Meringue Buttercream after butter has been incorporated. Proceed with the recipe.

Chocolate Macaroons Variation
Follow instructions for French Almond Macaroons, sifting 2 tablespoons Dutch-process coca powder with the confectioners’ sugar. For the filling, place 5 ounces finely chopped semisweet chocolate in a bowl. In a small saucepan, heat 1/2 cup heavy cream until it just starts to simmer; pour over chocolate. Let sit for 1 minute; stir until melted. Let ganache stand at room temperature until thick enough to spread. Proceed with the recipe.

 

Swiss Meringue Buttercream
In the heatproof bowl of an electric mixer set over a saucepan of simmering water, combine the egg whites and sugar. Cook, whisking constantly, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is warm to the touch (about 160ºF).

Attach the bowl to the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat the egg-white mixture on high speed until it holds stiff (but not dry) peaks. Continue beating until the mixture is fluffy and cooled, about 6 minutes.

Switch to the paddle attachment. With the mixer on medium-low speed, add the butter several tablespoons at a time, beating well after each addition. (If the frosting appears to separate after all the butter has been added, beat on medium-high speed until smooth again, 3 to 5 minutes more.) Beat in vanilla. Beat on lowest speed to eliminate any air bubbles, about 2 minutes. Stir with a rubber spatula until frosting is smooth.

The Recipe is all Martha

 

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