Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Grandma's Spaghetti and Meat Balls

Occasionally I get a real pang of nostalgia for my grandmother's cooking.

Grandma lived with her son, Frankie, my uncle, in the downstairs apartment of our house in Fells Point. My immediate family - Mom, Dad, and my brother - and I lived upstairs. While Mom made dinner most nights, Grandma occasionally gave her the night off by cooking for the house. By the time I came along, Grandma had stopped making more complicated Polish specialties like gołąbki, pączki, krusciki, and pierogi, and pared her culinary repertoire down to a fairly limited number of things - smothered pork chops, kotletyplacki - most of which were cooked in a heavy cast-iron skillet. Some things she made in a big, white, enameled stock pot. Among these were her rosółszczaw, and spaghetti and meatballs. The latter also required the skillet and was one of the few dishes she made that used more than one pot.

My Uncle had rather plebian taste in food. The only time we ever ate Kraft Macaroni and Cheese was when he requested it. He also liked to eat canned shrimp sautéed in butter with lots of chopped onions. It was incredibly salty and screamed out for an accompaniment of rice or other starch, which occasionally was mac & cheese, but was most often merely buttered rye bread from the giant loaf we always had on hand. My Aunt Stasia's spaghetti and home made meatsauce and meatballs was too fancy for Frankie, but he loved Grandma's plain Jane version. I did too. There was something very comforting in her seven-ingredient recipe, and on a recent evening, I recreated it.

Although she normally used ziti and occasionally rigatoni, we always called it "spaghetti."

Grandma's Spaghetti and Meatballs

1 lb ground round
vegetable oil
2 onions, chopped
4 tablespoons of butter
1 6-oz can tomato paste
1 lb box ziti

Form ground round into balls the size of a quarter. Fry in vegetable oil until dark brown on all sides. Set aside.

Grandma used a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, so her
 meatballs were even darker than this.
In the same pan in which you cooked the meatballs, sauté onions in butter until translucent and very slightly browned.  It's very important that you use all 4 tablespoons of butter and lots of onions - these are the major flavor components for the sauce.

Stir in tomato paste and cook for a minute or two. The sauce will be very thick.

While onions are cooking, cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain and place pasta back into its pot.

Pour sauce over pasta. Add meatballs. Mix well over low heat until everything has a thin veil of tomato paste. Salt generously.

Yeah - told you it was simple. Simply delicious. It's all about the onions.

Sure, you can get fancy and add cheese or basil or whatnot, but it won't be my Grandma's pasta.

Grandma and me, circa 1966.
I usually sauté things in olive oil, so when the onions hit the butter, it immediately took me back to my childhood, when most meals started out exactly that way - onions cooked in butter. And when I added the tomato paste, it just smelled so right. As I ate it, I was able to revel in a little bit of my childhood, something I'll never recapture time-wise, but can always remember with food.

Thank you, Grandma.

Monday, August 30, 2010

And the Answers to The Questions Are....

Thanks to everyone who entered my blogaversary contest! The winners were picked randomly (literally from a hat) and notified by e-mail. I'll be sending out the prizes as soon as I can pack everything up/get my ass to the post office (or, more accurately, get Mr Minx to take everything to the post office). It might take a week or so, so be patient!

In the meantime, here are the answers to the grand prize questions:

1. What is my favorite Chinese restaurant? Grace Garden
2. What ingredient ends up in my cooking most often? I was thinking mushrooms, but those of you who guessed onion or garlic are not wrong. And it only seems like I cook with bacon a lot. :)
3. Who is my least-favorite Food Network personality? Guy Fieri, hands down!
4. What country are my forebears from? Poland
5. What is the Minxes' go-to special occasion restaurant? Roy's Hawaiian

Hopefully we can do the same thing in five more years' time!

Meatless Mondays - Korean Scallion Pancake

If you find yourself with a surplus of leftover or frozen vegetables, scallions in particular, Korean pancakes, or pa jun, are a quick and delicious way to use up some of your plenty.  (You can use meat and seafood, too!) The pancake itself is pretty simple - eggs, water, flour, and veg; what makes the dish sparkle is a tangy/spicy vinegar-based dipping sauce.

I like to serve pa jun with some Korean-style pickled vegetables. This time I chopped up some cucumber and tossed it with a bit of Korean red pepper flakes, and generous dashes of soy, vinegar, sugar, and sesame oil.

Korean Scallion Pancakes

2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups ice water
2 eggs
1 cup scallions (light and dark green part), cut into inch long pieces
1 cup roughly chopped vegetables (I used raw corn, cooked edamame, raw mushrooms, and blanched green beans)
vegetable or canola oil for frying

In a large bowl, combine the flour, water, and eggs, stirring with a fork until the batter is no longer lumpy. Add the vegetables and stir to combine.

Over a medium flame, heat 1/2 teaspoon of oil in a large sauté pan. Spoon in some batter, spreading to make a 6" circle. Cook about 2 minutes per side, until each is lightly browned and dry and a bit crisp. (For some reason, the pancakes never really get uniformly brown or dark.) Continue this step until all batter is used.

Serve with dipping sauce. Serves 4.

Dipping Sauce

3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoons agave syrup
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
Big pinch of Korean hot red pepper flakes

Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl. Let rest for a few minutes to blend flavors.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Empanada Party!

Well, not really a party since there were only three diners, and the empanadas themselves didn't have all that much fun, what with all of the teeth involved. But hey, we humans had a good time.

In the past, I've made empanadas with supermarket brand all-ready pie crusts. They work fine, but the dough is fragile and soft and doesn't make for particularly pretty turnovers. This time, I used actual empanada dough. Mr Minx had purchased a bag of Goya Mini Discos some time ago and it languished in the freezer until I found them after a bit of re-organizing. The little discs of nicely resilient dough just needed to be defrosted, rolled out a bit, and filled. While the recipe on the bag called for frying, I popped mine in the oven for 15 minutes at 350º.

I had some leftover seasoned ground lamb that I had used for preseason-football-watchin' nachos earlier in the week, and I also made a chicken filling and a really simple veggie one. (When I say "simple," I mean it: 1 cup diced, cooked parsnip; 1/2 cup cooked, squeezed-dry, spinach, salt to taste.) Each empanada also got a pinch of grated Kraft Mexican four cheese blend.

They'd never give Max's Empanadas a run for their money, but they were pretty good and made for some convenient lunches over the next week.

Chicken Filling
3 boneless skinless chicken thighs, sautéed or poached until cooked through, cubed or shredded
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
5 dried apricots, diced
1 tablespoon dried cranberries, chopped
1 4.5 oz can chopped green chiles
1 tablespoon ketchup
8 pimento-stuffed olives, chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped nuts (I used cashews)
salt, pepper, red pepper flakes
1 hard-boiled egg, chopped

Heat a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the oil. When hot, add the onion and cook until wilted and beginning to brown, 5 minutes. Add garlic and stir for a few seconds, then add all of the remaining ingredients except cilantro and nuts. Cook about 15 minutes until dried fruits have softened and sauce is somewhat thick.

Stir in chicken. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Before filling empanada shells, taste chicken for seasoning and add salt and pepper and red pepper flakes to taste. Stir in cashews, chopped cilantro, and egg.

Makes a lot of tiny empanadas.

Empanada Sauce
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
4 green onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons sugar
dash salt

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Allow to sit at least 2 hours so the flavors can meld. Serve as a dip with empanadas.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Top Chef DC Episode 11 Recap

We're thankfully coming down to the wire here with season 7 of Top Chef! Only six cheftestants left, which means another four weeks before I am freed from this torture. It doesn't help that I already knew who would be eliminated this week, and next week. On with the show....

The cheftestants also seem to be ready for this season to end. Ed is actually cracking up. Somehow he managed to obtain a long yellow dress belonging to Tiffany and decided to wear it to bed one night. Though they are friends, Tiffany is a bit grossed out, especially after Amanda suggests that she count her underwear in case a pair is missing.

We also hear Kelly tell us for the umpteenth time that she wants Amanda to go home. And Inigo reveals that he's a bit insane: when he was younger, he would pray to famous chefs at a candle-lit shrine he set up in a room in his home.

On to the TC Kitchen: this week, the guest judge is Top Chef Masters two-timer Rick "Sustainability" Moonen, so a fish-related Quickfire comes to mind. But no! It's another ridiculously-themed challenge in which the cheftestants must be inspired by old food-related idioms. A bonus: the winner of the challenge will have his or her dish offered to customers of Schwan's Home Service.

Padma bids the cheftestants to choose one of several phrases from which to be inspired.
Love the props - a big stick o' meat and camouflage-print fabric.
Although oysters and clams would have worked too.

Kevin chooses "bring home the bacon," Tiffany chooses "spill the beans," Inigo takes "bigger fish to fry," Ed takes "hot potato," Amanda goes for "big cheese," and Kelly takes "sour grapes." Which seems rather appropriate for Miss Crankypants.

The chefs have an hour to prepare their dish. During this time, Ed thinks it's a good time to trash talk Amanda, who is running around looking for pepper mills and towels.

Meanwhile, Inigo seems to know something the rest of us don't know.

Time's up!  Padma and Chef Moonen return to taste the idiomatic dishes. Padma think's Ed's gnocchi with spring veg is a "lovely Spring dish," probably the biggest compliment she's ever given during a Quickfire tasting, when she's usually giving dirty looks and picking offending fish bones out of her mouth. They also liked Kevin's bacon three ways, although Inigo thought he missed the directive of the challenge. What? Inigo is on crack.

Dishes that were not as well received were Amanda's leaden mac and cheese and pork chop, and Kelly's chicken breast with the odd combo of grape sauce and brussels sprouts.

Rick Moonen wanted to lick Kevin's plate clean, but in the end the win went to Ed because his dish was probably more easily frozen.

For the Elimination Challenge, the cheftestants have to form one team and create six dishes to serve at a high-end concession stand before a Washington Nationals baseball game. Inigo is enthused because he's a big baseball fan and he's part Dominican. Which brings to mind, "baseball been berry berry good to me."

First, the chefs have a little pow-wow about the food. Kelly tries to take control of the situation, which annoys Tiffany and Amanda. And me.

After determining their dishes, the chefs take 30 minutes to spend $2000 at Whole Foods - not a difficult thing to do if you're a fan of cheese, believe me.

Then it's back to the TC Kitchen at the Hilton for three hours of prep.

Amanda wants to think outside the box and do something totally dangerous and stupid new and exciting by making tuna tartare. She decides that she should do all of the tartare-izing ahead of time because she doesn't know how much space she'll have for it at the ballpark kitchen. She asks Inigo for help on the best way to chop the fish, and he advises her. Everyone else thinks she's an idiot for doing so because he'll probably sabotage her.

Ed is trying to make several hundred fried thingamawhatsits and is running around and yelling at everyone.

Later, back at the house, the cheftestants discuss the upcoming ballpark situation. Who will take orders? Inigo volunteers because he feels Kelly is being "strategical." Which in DC is the use of "strategery." And we know that sort of thing only leads to unnecessary "wars."

The next day, he thinks better of it. He can't cook and expedite at the same time so tries to change the system to a new sort of clusterfuck by suggesting that everyone take their own orders. Kevin goes ballistic and yadda yadda zzzzzzz His anger management classes are obviously not really working for him. I want to punch his face in.

Eventually, Inigo decides to trust Ed to prepare his dish while he concentrates on order fulfillment. Mostly to shut Alpha, Jr. up, I'm sure.

While this is all going on, Tom Colicchio comes in with three tree-sized members of the Nationals, Adam Dunn, Matt Capps, and John Lannan. I gave up on baseball when that fucking fucktard Peter Angelos bought the Orioles in 1993 and proceeded to run my home team into the ground, so I have no clue who these dudes are or if they are any good. (Nats suck almost as hard as the Os, so I'm guessing no.) They wander through the kitchen area and Amanda desperately tries to flirt with them while hiding the fact that her tuna tartare has turned a scary shade of....grey. Inigo tells us he could have helped her with that, by telling her to mix the fish with some oil to prevent oxidation, but she's competition, and he's a douchebag.

Suddenly hoards of hungry baseball fans show up and start ordering Kelly's crabcake BLT and Tiffany's meatball sandwich. The judges enter and order one of everything.

While fish guys Moonen and Eric Ripert didn't want to eat Amanda's tartare, Tom compliments her vegetable accompaniments, saying they were well cooked. They think that Kelly's crabcake had too much salt. Tiffany's meatballs are a big hit, but Ripert thinks they are difficult to eat. Ed's fritters are crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside and very good. Kevin's chicken is moist. And Inigo's sandwich has nice heat, but too much bread.

And now it's time for lots of commercials and the Fakeout scene:

Inigo is sprawled on his bed (wearing black velour pants that he probably won from Kenny during an arm-wrestling match), chatting with his fiancée on the phone. We find that they haven't spent much time together, but they talk for hours every night. And that she's Russian. Earlier in the season, we saw a photo of Inigo with his toddler-aged child, who appears to be Asian. So unless his fiancée is from Siberia, he's apparently a man-ho. /fakeout

Nope, not from Siberia....
The cheftestants are in the stew room, where Kelly is telling them that she still feels sick during judging even after all of these challenges. Padma slumps in and tells them that the judges want to see all of them. All winners? or all losers?

Once before the judging committee, there's a heated discussion about Inigo and his decision to expedite/change of mind/re-decision to cooperate. But then Tom calls them to order to discuss the important thing - food. Ed's fritters and Tiffany's meatballs are the favorite dishes of the day, but Ed's is most impressive and gets the win. Not only is he awarded a copy of Rick Moonen's "indispensable kitchen tool," Fish Without a Doubt, he also gets a trip to Australia, courtesy of Hilton.

Tiff and Ed are dismissed, leaving the other four to be picked apart by the judges. The complaints seem fairly minor -  Kevin's chicken is bland and his fries were soggy; Kelly's sandwich was too soft and needed a better vegetal crunch from harder lettuce or a slab of tomato; Inigo's sammy was too bready and sweet; and Amanda's tuna was gray.

In the end, Amanda's ugly fish was her downfall, and she was sent home. Much to Kelly's pleasure. And just about everyone else's too, I would imagine. Me, I don't care one way or the other. I guess, if I was forced to pick the person I'd most like to win, it would be Ed. Or Tiffany, but she doesn't make it to the final four. <---spoiler, highlight at your own risk.

Next week: NASA and Buzz Aldrin!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Jack's Bistro

I've been wanting to check out Jack's Bistro in Canton for a couple of years now. I'd add it to my short list of places to visit during Restaurant Week, but Mr Minx never seemed to be interested. This time, however, there was interest, possibly caused by the term sous vide that featured prominently in two entree offerings. Finally an opportunity to try this technique that we've been hearing so much about!

According to their Web site, Jack's doesn't take reservations for small parties, so Mr Minx and I made sure to get there early one evening to guarantee a table. Wise decision, as there were several other parties interested in eating before 6pm. Immediately upon entering the corner rowhouse in which Jack's is located, I was confused. There's a vague hipster vibe to the place, but it's a bit muddled. Exposed brick walls were decorated with pseudo-retro 60s prints, and the B-52s were playing on the sound system when we came in. The servers all wore somber black, but the very effusive hostess didn't seem dressed for the occasion. What does this have to do with Three's Company, the 70s sitcom that inspired the restaurant's name? Or the very slick-looking black-and-white logo? 

Absolutely nothing. With logom on the menu, a Swedish street snack comprising a hot dog, shrimp salad, and mashed potatoes in a tortilla, let's call Jack's Bistro eclectic.

Chef/owner Ted Stelzenmuller was one of my fellow judges during a recent battle of the Mason Dixon Master Chefs Tournament. (Although I could see him through the pass, I didn't alert him to my presence.) After hearing his critique of other chefs' food, I was curious to see what he could do with similar ingredients. With that in mind, I made sure one of us ordered the sous vide duck breast.

But first, we started off with a cocktail and a beer - the Camden, made with rye and orange, and a Brewer's Art Ozzy.

And then appetizers. I vacillated between the poutine and the mussel salad, with the latter winning out.

Chilled Panang Curry Mussel Salad - Kimchi, mint and basil, Panang curry, coconut milk, roasted peppers, fried shrimp cracker 

This dish was an odd juxtaposition of Korean and Thai flavors, however both sides were successful. The curry could have been both hotter and fishier, but there was no mistaking the very Thai flavor of kaffir lime. The kimchi was nearly perfect to my tastes - more fresh than fermented - but it, too, could have been spicier. Each of the two elements would be a good introduction to Korean or Thai food for the novice.  Together, however, they seemed more competitive than complimentary.

Mac & Cheese & Chocolate - Shell pasta, 5 cheese sauce, dark chocolate

As suspected, this was mostly weird.  It is aptly named, however. This dish is definitely mac & cheese "& chocolate" and not "chocolate mac & cheese."

Despite its almost universal popularity, chocolate can't be added willy-nilly to just any recipe. Its distinctive flavor is sometimes hard to integrate, and it basically just sat on top of the pasta. While the chocolate was pretty obvious, the cheeses were a little more difficult to discern. The taste was pure cream, apart from a slight smokiness in the background. I would have liked the smoky flavor to be more pronounced - perhaps it would have allowed the dusting of dark chocolate to be better integrated.

By the time we finished the dish, the chocolate had melted and become part of the sauce. This worked a bit better, but overall the dish is mostly a novelty.

Bistro Crab Cake - Dijon and horseradish sauce, arugula salad, roasted fingerling and red pepper and onion

No complaints here. This was a solid, fairly traditional, crab cake with lots of crab and little binder. The fingerlings were perfectly cooked and piping hot, and the creamy mustard sauce was a pleasant accompaniment, although the crab cake was so good, it didn't need a sauce at all. I only wish there had been a little acid on the salad.

Sous Vide Duck Breast - White corn, sour cream sauce, arugula and cherry tomato salad

The duck was our very first taste of meat that had been through the process of sous vide. While visually gorgeous, the dish didn't thrill us. Duck is one of those very versatile proteins that can be eaten rare or long-cooked. It's fabulous seared, or roasted, grilled, or stewed. Duck is poultry, and has a similar texture when cooked to turkey or chicken, although I would say the flavor is unlike either. This particular duck breast, cooked sous vide, didn't seem very duck-like at all. In fact, the texture was terribly close to ham - squishy and pink all the way through. It didn't even taste like duck. And I like a crust on my meat, thankyouverymuch; if this is what sous vide does to it, well, I'll pass, thanks.

A crisp bit of skin might have helped, but we were denied that. The corn and sour cream sauce also didn't help. It was so bland, I had to taste it a few times to really notice any corn flavor. Mr Minx and I had some white corn recently that was completely flavorless, and once again I will wonder out loud why people in this region insist on eating this insipid vegetable.

The arugula and tomato accompaniment were fine, but a little too repetitious considering I had the same things on my plate.

Durian Creme Brulee - Traditional creme brulee made with durian fruit

Finally, we come to dessert, and the main reason I wanted to eat at Jack's during Restaurant Week: the durian creme brulée. Neither Mr Minx nor I had ever tried the stinking fruit and we were very curious. I half expected to experience the proverbial reek of gym socks when we walked in the front door, but alas, the odor was well-contained. So well, in fact, that raising the pudding to my nose and sniffing it gave no indication that it contained anything other than cream and sugar.

Our waitress described the dessert's flavor as being mostly like a normal custard but with a weird garlic/onion background, but, to me, the durian flavor was more akin to something rotting. Rotting in a somehow pleasant way. The more I ate, the more I liked it. Apart from somewhat runny custard (I'm a firm believer in chilling the custard after bruléeing, as well as before, to re-harden any melting), this was shockingly good.

Pink Peppercorn & Lavender Ice Cream - warm sugar cookie

And then we have Mr Minx's shocking pink dessert. While the first bite was rather like eating a bar of soap, the rosemary-meets-perfume-like flavor of lavender grew on us after several tastes. The fresh-from-the-oven sugar cookie, reminding me of a chip-less Toll House cookie, was dreamy.

Mr Minx went so far as to say this was his favorite dish of the night. But then he doesn't like ham.

So, Jack's Bistro. Interesting. Eclectic. A couple of pretty good dishes and a couple that had unreached potential. And sous vide duck. Despite the duck, I'd go back to try some of the items from their non-Restaurant Week menu, like the ground bacon burger, the poutine, and maybe even that hot dog with shrimp salad on top.

Jack's Bistro
3123 Elliott Street
Baltimore, MD 21224

Jack's Bistro on Urbanspoon

Jack's Bistro

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Compost Cookies

When I was in New York in April, I stopped by David Chang's bakery, Milk Bar, to pick up a couple of their lauded cookies. The "compost cookie" that I had read so much about was tooth-achingly sweet and had a weird gritty texture from crushed breakfast cereal. Fail.

Although the cookie did not impress me, I thought I'd try my hand at baking them after discovering that the recipe was online. And my cupboard was chock-full of miscellaneous add-ins like white chocolate chips, cinnamon chips, a plethora of dried fruit, and about nine boxes of cereal. It seemed like a good way to get rid of last Christmas' left-overs before I started thinking about baking for this year's winter holiday.

Christina Tosi's recipe, as presented on the Regis and Kelly Web site, admonishes bakers to portion the dough then refrigerate it for a minimum of one hour before baking. Lacking the fridge space for baking trays and dough balls, I refrigerated the entire bowl of sugary goodness for about three hours. The first batch resulted in cookies that spread into a massive greasy mess, a uni-cookie, one which required refrigeration in order to achieve some sort of vaguely crisp texture.

It made a fine ice cream topping, but that was not my goal.

After that disaster, I froze the remaining dough, thinking that extreme cold would definitely help.

A few weeks later, I decided to attempt a two-cookie batch in the toaster oven. I set the temperature and the timer for the required 400º and 11 minutes. About eight minutes later, I removed two quite burnt specimens. They were, however, the proper size and shape. After letting the oven cool slightly, I tried again, this time ending up with two flat puddles, a near repeat of the very first try.

A week later, I went at it again, this time photographing the results. After 8 minutes in a toaster oven set at 350º, I had cookie-shaped cookies, albeit with very uneven coloring.

So why were the cookies such a failure each time? This clever blogger deduced that Tosi's recipe was for a professional kitchen with snazzier ovens. And that the flour should be increased by about 1/2 cup. While the home version seemed less cloyingly-sweet, they were overly greasy, which an increase in flour might alleviate. I had a suspicion that the dearth of flour compared to the amount of butter and sugar called for would create the spreading cookie issue, so I overcompensated by adding more than the required 1 1/2 cups of starchy add-ins (like pretzels and cereal; I used Cocoa Krispies, corn flakes, 2 crumbled Wheatabix biscuits, and dry oatmeal). Still, I could not overcome that problem.

While I like the idea of using a multitude of ingredients in a cookie recipe, I'm thinking this isn't the recipe for me. I should continue to experiment with a standard chocolate chip cookie recipe, maybe one with slightly more butter and sugar than the typical Toll House version, but not as much as the compost cookie recipe. Does anyone have suggestions?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Dining Out for Life

Please remember that one month from today, September 23rd, is Dining Out for Life, an annual event that raises tens of thousands of dollars for Moveable Feast, the organization that feeds homebound people with HIV/AIDS and breast cancer.

All you have to do to support this worthwhile charity is to dine out at one of over forty participating restaurant on September 23rd. All restaurants will be donating at least 20% of their sales from that evening to Moveable Feast.

For more information, and a list of participating restaurants, go to http://www.diningoutforlife.com/baltimore.

Fumetto #1 - Semi-Ho Made with Sandra Lee

Since my Next Food Network Star recaps seemed so popular this season, I thought I'd start a new series of shorts based on Food Network programs. I'm calling them fumetti, Italian for "cartoons" and the original term used to describe photos with word balloons.

First up, Sandra Lee. Please to enjoy.