POPEYE WOULD BE PROUD!

We’re eating spinach, well we ate spinach about a week ago but due to certain events and the kids being sick, I haven’t had time to blog about it. I made Martha’s Creamed Spinach recipe and it came out pretty good. I was surprised how much spinach shrinks down though, the recipe called for 2 ½ lbs of it for 4 servings. At some point my 10 quart pot was filled with spinach leaves but within minutes they shrunk down to barely fitting in a 2 quart pan.

The recipe was very quick and easy to make. The only tedious task was removing the stems from all the spinach leaves – all 2 ½ lbs… wow! What a pain in the ___. After removing the stems and washing the spinach several times, you place it in a large pot and cook over a medium – high heat for about 3-4 minutes until all the leaves are wilted and bright green. You drain the liquid and let the spinach cool. Cooling it took about 10 minutes so this would be a good time to get started on another aspect of the meal or clean up your work area.

When the spinach cooled enough I squeezed out the liquid from it and chopped it coarsely. The next step is to make the bechamel sauce. A béchamel sauce is a white sauce used in French and Italian cooking which is made by whisking milk into a roux (equal parts of flour and butter). The important thing to remember is not to let your roux brown too much before adding the milk (you don’t want to burn it), wait until there are bubbles on the surface and the color has slightly darkened.

When the sauce was done I added the spinach and a pinch of nutmeg. The final product was delicious and creamy and hearty. It would have gone great with the wiener schnitzel I made a few weeks ago or a steak with some herb butter. Although it was just a simple spinach dish, it is one that I know I will make over and over for my family and will probably not even need a recipe for it. Easy Peezy – Thanks Martha!

Mommy Tip: The spinach lasted about 3-4 days in the fridge but you can make larger batches and freeze them for future use. Also, you can run them through a food mill and serve to young babies (I did for my 8 month old) but you might want to mix it with some rice or barley cereal to thicken it up since the milling extracts a lot of liquid from the leaves.

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CHICKEN AND VEAL AND PORK, OH MY!

Our dear friends Gina and Rene were coming over with their 2 sweet boys since I’d promised to make them a  Martha –style dinner. On the menu, Perfect Roast Chicken, Weiner Schnitzel and Chocolate Chip cookies. I went with the 2 meat dishes because I was unsure how many people a whole chicken would feed and I wanted to make sure no one left hungry. Turns out one meat dish would have been enough but the Wiener schnitzel ended up saving the day.

Preparing the chicken was easy, I had to wash it really well and completely dry it inside and out. I had to make sure no water was left in the cavity because it would steam the chicken and therefore lose the roasting flavor and effect. Roasting means cooking the chicken at a very high temperature so that the skin is nice and crispy but the meat remains tender and juicy. So, I had to stick my hand inside the bird and dry it. Once I did that I seasoned it with salt and pepper and then stuffed it with garlic, lemon slices and rosemary. Then, I rubbed the skin with about 2 tablespoons of butter. The coolest part was having to truss the chicken. Trussing a chicken means tying it with kitchen twine to help it hold its shape so it can cook evenly. The illustration in the book was very clear and I had no problem with this step. I put the chicken in the preheated, 450 degree oven and had to wait just under an hour for it to be done.

While that was in the oven I cleaned my work area a bit and began to prepare for the wiener schnitzel. The recipe was for veal cutlets and I was conflicted about using it because I DO NOT eat veal. I highly disagree with the raising and butchering practices of these young calves and while I’m not going to preach about it, I personally decided years ago that I do not want to eat veal anymore. However, I feel that for the sake of this project I have to stay true to the recipes so I did buy about a pound of veal and a pound of pork, just to mix it up a bit and keep the cost down. I have to take a moment here and mention that veal costs $12.99 per pound!! Holy &*#^%!!!! That’s a lot of money!! When you compare chicken breast at about $2.99 a pound, it’s hard to imagine paying that much money on a regular basis – another reason not to eat veal, but I digress.

The Wiener schnitzel was pretty simple. You make 3 ‘stations’ to dip the meat in and then place it in a pan of hot oil. First, you dredge the cutlet in flour, then eggs and finally bread crumbs. When the oil is thoroughly hot you fry the meat for a minute or two on each side. One of the few problems I had was that I left my first piece of meat in for a bit too long and it got a little overcooked, but after that one I got the hang of them and the others came out pretty successful. Another little problem was that towards the end of the process the oil was slightly dirty and dark brown. I think the loose pieces of bread crumbs that stayed in the pan had begun to burn and I didn’t know how to combat the problem. I think now that a good solution would have been to dump the old oil and start fresh about half way through, but I was rushed because it was almost time to take the chicken out of the oven.

Martha says to take out the roast when the thermometer reads 165 degrees when placed in the meaty part of the thigh. You then leave it on the counter for about 10 minutes to let it finish cooking, and to allow all of the juices to distribute evenly. If you cut it too soon, you will lose all the juices and parts of your chicken will be very dry. Well, I did just that – at least I thought I did – but when I started cutting, it was obviously undercooked. How embarrassing! It looked great, and smelled great, but it wasn’t edible. Unfortunately, I had to stick it back in the oven for a few more minutes. I was so disappointed because I did everything right (so I thought) and everyone was watching me and it just wasn’t a fun moment. Luckily Gina and Rene (G&R from now on) are very good friends and were very cool and encouraging about it. It’s nice to have friends that support you even when you’re not at the top of your game, because I could have gotten really discouraged at that moment but their attitude brought me back to reality – I am learning to cook and it is quite a process, I won’t get things perfect every time. Sometimes I have a hard time remembering that.

So once the chicken cooked a little longer and I dipped the wiener schnitzel in warm butter (to enhance the flavor) we were ready to eat. G&R (haha Guns n’ Roses) brought a garden salad and amazing cheesy potatoes to dinner – Thank you guys – so I didn’t have to  worry about preparing anything else which was great because at this point I was relieved to be done.

Here’s how it all came together: The veal schnitzel was very tasty and tender but the pork cutlet was a tad bit chewy (overcooked?). The butter really helped bring out the flavors of the breadcrumbs and the meat. It was a very successful dish and I would make it again and again. As for the chicken, after the whole ‘disaster’, it still came out juicy and tender and delicious. I forgot to mention that I had to deglaze the pan and make a sauce/gravy, and that was very tasty. All together, with Gina’s Potatoes – I was in heaven. In fact, all the adults sat around with food comas while the kids ran amuck in the house (for a few minutes at least).  A little bit later I baked Martha’s chocolate chip cookies, and we put vanilla bean ice cream in the middle to make little sandwiches. That was heavenly and I’m salivating thinking about it now – the soft, fresh cookies with that cold sweet ice cream. YUM! I won’t go into details about the cookies now but at a later time you will get a full breakdown of the recipe and process (pretty simple).

So I guess I’d say dinner was a success and not because I made a perfect meal, but because I had a small failure and I allowed myself to use it as a learning experience. I learned that I need to take my time, not stress and have fun. Next time I will Check the chicken’s temperature at several spots and take it out about 5 minutes later. I had a great time and although I was momentarily discouraged, I am now excited again to do my next recipe.

Until Then!

MOMMY TIP: Using chicken breast for the wiener schnitzel is an easy and tasty variation on every day chicken dishes. Make sure you get the breast thin enough so that it cooks all the way through but doesn’t burn on the outside.

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Egg Whites are NOT Egg Yolks!!

Happy New Year!!!

I hope everyone had a safe and fun evening. Let’s hope for a fantastic 2011, filled with health, happiness, love and good food for all of us.

I started my new year (and this project) off with a bang and made a ‘fancy’ meal for my parents and husband. We received 4 Filet Mignon Steaks as a Christmas gift and I decided that it would be the perfect opportunity to really dig in to the cookbook. For an appetizer I made broccoli soup (with homemade chicken stock), the main course was grilled steaks with compound butter and grilled veggies. Lastly, I made creme brulee for dessert. Overall the dinner was great and I received positive feedback, but there were definite flaws and it could have been better. It wasn’t Martha standard, but considering I’m a total newbie – not too shabby. I learned that mise-en-place (organizing and preparing your ingredients prior to starting a recipe) is very important and should always be used. Also, I learned that reading a recipe at least once before starting it is invaluable. Each recipe had its own challenges and lessons as well:

 

BASIC CHICKEN STOCK (p.41) – Lesson 1.1

You may ask yourself why make a stock when you can buy one at the market for a few bucks? Why spend ALL that time and effort? Well, let me tell you that when this stock was done I loved it so much that I put it in a little cup with some salt and downed it like it was a shot of heaven. It was the most delicious broth I have ever tasted – so yes, there is a difference. A huge difference. Making a homemade stock is worth every minute of your time, but I’m sure in a pinch you can use store-bought stock as well.

The recipe calls for 5 lbs of assorted chicken parts (backs, necks, wings) but I didn’t know where to get any and didn’t have time to save my own so I used leg quarters which seemed the most bony.  I think technically my creation was a stock/broth hybrid, since I also used a lot of meat but hey I had to do what I could under the circumstances. The recipe was easy to follow and made about 10.5 cups. I used 4 cups of it for the broccoli soup and stored the rest in the fridge in an airtight container.

 

Mommy Tip: If you’re cooking a chicken and have enough left over bones/carcass you can throw them in a pot and make stock to have handy or you can save up your chicken parts in the freezer until you have enough to use. You can store the prepared stock in the fridge for 3 days or freeze it for up to 3 months in an airtight container or freezer bag.

 
Basic Chicken Stock

Leg quarters used instead of necks, backs, wings.

Basic Chicken StockMirepoix: French name for a combination of onions, carrots, and celery used as a flavor base for many dishes.
Basic Chicken Stock
The finished product – Basic Chicken Stock.

 

BROCCOLI CREAM SOUP (p.62) – Lesson 1.7

I used the chicken stock I just made in this recipe. It was very easy to execute but I had a problem knowing how much broccoli to use. Martha said to use one head of broccoli (1 3/4 pounds) so that’s what I bought – a head of broccoli. I think I should have weighed it at the store because the soup came out very light in color (wasn’t the vivid green they showed in the book) and I’m guessing it was because I didn’t have enough of the green stuff.  Flavor wise, it was good, but a bit bland and may have needed more salt and pepper. So I guess my lesson from this is to always follow the weight or measurements called in a recipe – don’t try to guess by size (especially if it’s your first run through it).

Broccoli Cream Soup
Broccoli Cream Soup.

 

COMPOUND BUTTER (p.166)

Basically, butter mixed with herbs and aromatics. I used 2 sticks of room-temperature butter and mixed it in a bowl with parsley, thyme and salt. You can use all kinds of combinations but I used those because they were in the main recipe. Once I mixed them I shaped them into a little cylinder by using parchment paper and the end of a cutting board. Put in the fridge for an hour and you’re done. I served the butter on top of the steaks and it was a hit.

Compound Butter
Compound Butter.

 

GRILLED STEAK (p. 164)

The recipe was for a porterhouse steak but had filet mignon as an optional substitute. The steaks were 8 oz each and based on the book I should have grilled them about 7-8 minutes on each side for a medium – rare steak. I did exactly that and they came out a little too rare. A little too bloody. I guess I should have either used a meat thermometer or used the finger test that my old friend Sheldon taught me (he is a former chef). You might be wondering what the finger test is and it’s kind of hard to explain but I will do my best. Basically, you touch your pointer finger to your thumb (same hand) and feel the fleshy part just below your thumb. The tenderness or firmness of that part is equivalent to what a rare steak would feel like when poked. Do the same with your middle finger and you have a Medium-rare steak, the ring finger is the same as medium cooked and the pinky is well done. Like I said, I did not use the finger test nor did I use a thermometer and I wish I had but I was stressed and trying to get the meal ready in time so I forgot. I guess next time I have to try and enter a more zen state of mind and not let things get me worked up so much that I forget the essentials.

The steaks were very tasty (even though i forgot to salt them), I think the compound butter really added to the flavor but also, the steaks were of good quality so you kind of can’t go wrong there, I think. I served the steaks with grilled zucchini, Yellow squash and raddichio. The radicchio came out a bit wilted and kind of fell apart. It wasn’t bad, and had that distinct bitter taste but I didn’t love it with this dish. I also made a croustini which I seasoned with vegetable oil and some parsley – it was delicious and a great addition to the meal.

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8 oz Steaks. Yum!

Grilled Vegetables
Radicchio, Zucchini, and Yellow Squash brushed with a vegetable oil and parsley mix.

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It all came together very nicely!!!

 

CREME BRULEE (p.472)

My favorite all-time dessert!!! Let me start by saying that it came out AMAZING! Everyone loved it and it was so easy to make. There are a few things that are worth mentioning though. I was shocked to find out that 1 vanilla bean costs $10.99 and that I had to use the whole thing for this recipe. I wonder if using vanilla extract would produce a similar effect or is that a no-no? Either way, it was fun to slice open the bean and scrape out the little seeds … smelled fantastic. The rest of the process was pretty easy, heat up the cream and vanilla and slowly add them to the eggs and sugar. Pour them into the little dishes (ramekins) and put them on a large roasting pan (I used a baking pan) filled up with water half way up the ramekins. This step almost messed me all up because Martha says to get the pan in the oven and then pour the water in after, but I put the water in before which made it really hard to carry to the oven without spilling the water into the creme brulee mix. I baked it for about 35 minutes, until it was set but still wobbly in the center. Chill for 2 hours and then brulee (to burn, in french) a layer of sugar on top right before serving.

I had some extras so my brothers and nephew joined us for dessert. The mixture of the crunchy warm sugar and the cool custard inside is delectable and heavenly. I could have eaten 10o of these and everyone else loved them too. Ok… here comes the embarassing part – ready?

The next day I’m sitting in my family room watching The Food Channel when it hits me — I USED EGG WHITES, NOT EGG YOLKS!!! How the hell did that happen?? The recipe says 7 egg yolks and my brain translated that into egg whites, wow! The weird thing is that the Creme Brulee was amazing, just like the real deal. How could that be? I guess I just discovered the lighter version, HAHA. I’m still laughing at that one today, what was I thinking? Anyways, I NEED to do a taste comparison now. Make the recipe with egg whites and with egg yolks and do a taste test. It’s just that my ‘diet’ version was so damn good that I can’t imagine there being such a big difference.

Creme Brulee
Just out of the oven.

Creme Brulee
Use a torch to burn a thin layer of sugar on the top.

Creme Brulee
Delicious Creme Brulee  (light version?)

To summarize the whole day, I loved starting this project in such a grand way by making all those dishes. I love that I slightly failed and I loved my successes. My perfectionism tends to hold me back sometimes so I was happy to see that my little failures didn’t bring me down. They actually made me more eager to learn and to improve. I am very excited to continue cooking through the book and even more excited to write about it. I hope you all think it’s worth reading about, would love to have you along for the ride.