Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Kitchen is Calling Me...

By Xani

After the successful shopping trip to Wegmans the other night, I was excited to get in the kitchen and cook. Spending so much time on the road means I am rarely home to spend time in the kitchen, not to mention I never go shopping for food so very often to the cupboard is freaking bare! So with the exception of Sunday night feasts, I've been doing very little cooking, and it makes me antsy-- I want to get back in the kitchen. People who don't like to cook don't understand this at all. I remember watching Bobby Flay's Boy Meets Grill once, and he was doing his usual pre-show thing where he's walking around NYC, just purchased all his ingredients from some really cool little market, and he says something like "I've got all this energy; I want to get in the kitchen and cook." I told a non-cooking friend about that statement and how much I identified with it and she was like "um, yeah. I NEVER feel like that." But I think you other cooks out there know how I was feeling, and so I got down to some cooking…

First I threw together a batch of Chickpea, Tomato and Feta Salad. This isn't so much cooking as is it mixing a few ingredients together, but still. I got to chop things, pour things, crumble things—also this is one of my go-to recipes and I'm happy to be sharing it with all of you! Its so easy and delicious, and even though I don't keep the pantry nearly as well-stocked as the BCD parents, the ingredients in this dish are a few that I might actually have on hand. I will often throw some of this together to have in the fridge for an easy snack, or pack up some in Tupperware to take to the office for lunch. This time, I had picked up some beefsteak tomatoes at Wegmans so I chopped up those instead of using cherry tomatoes. Also, I used French feta cheese because it is my favorite (creamier and slightly less salty than other types I have tried)! Put the tomatoes, drained chickpeas, crumbled feta and chopped fresh oregano in a bowl, add lemon juice, olive oil, and a little salt and pepper. Stir. That's it!

The next recipe I tackled required more actual cooking. Eggplant Parmesan Stacks caught my eye in this month's Martha Stewart Living magazine. It seemed like a nice, simple summer dish, and the baby eggplants at Wegmans were just too cute!

Step one of the recipe was to slice the eggplant into rounds, season with salt, and fry them in olive oil until soft and golden:

Meanwhile. I started a simple tomato sauce in another pan by lightly sautéing some chopped garlic in olive oil, then adding chopped tomatoes and cooking them until they begin to break down.

Then I added this lovely pile of fresh herbs (oregano and basil):

You know you are jealous of my mad chiffonade skillz!

With the sauce made and the eggplant fried, it was time to assemble. Layer a slice of eggplant, then tomato sauce, then thinly sliced fresh mozzerella, then grated parmesan. Repeat. I only made my stacks two layers tall (Martha says three) because I was afraid they would collapse!

Next they went in the oven for a few minutes to melt the cheese. When they came out, they looked like this:

Final plate (with crusty bread):

Overall this was a fun dish to make, satisfied my need to putter around in the kitchen, and was very tasty. My only issue with it is that it claims to be "light, summer cooking" yet it required the use of two burners, two pans, and the oven! Not exactly what you want to cook on a hot day-- and boy has it been hot lately (thank goodness for central a/c!). Any readers out there have easy, low-heat cooking ideas they want to share?


Wegman's and its Bounty

by Xani

So the other night Erin and I made a pilgrimage, of sorts. We got in the car and drove 20 miles north to Wegman's in Hunt Valley, MD. Depending on your location, you may or may not be familiar with Wegman's grocery stores (oh, but its so much more!). They just opened one in the Baltimore area a year or so ago, but the New York based chain has locations in Virginia, Pennsylvania, etc. Its, like, the best grocery store ever. What makes it so great? Well, first they have an extensive selection of high quality products: awesome fresh produce, dozens of cheeses, lots of ethnic foods, etc. The prices are comparable to other "normal" grocery stores (as opposed to way overpriced like Whole Foods or speciality/gourmet stores), and Wegman's is very clean, the staff are friendly, and basically because of all these things, its worth the trip!

Oh, also making it worth the trip, is the food court/prepared food section that makes it easy to roll lunch/dinner into your shopping experience. EP and I went in the evening, after work, and we were both famished. So, first stop: food court. Wegman's food court (like the rest of the store) has a large selection including sushi, Chinese food buffet, salad bar, sandwich shop, pizza, crab cakes... I could go on and on. We picked up a slice of white pizza and a few wings, as well as an Italian cold cut sub.

So the dinner was decent-- better than what you would get in a mall food court, for sure. We were glad to have resisted the Chinese Buffet since we always get that and we wanted to try something new. Most importantly it gave us the energy needed for our shopping extravaganza (and the willpower not to buy EVERYTHING in the store)!

Erin and I did our usual shopping technique: wander aimlessly through the store, picking up things that may or may not be in our lists, forgetting to pick up important items on the lists and needing to go back for them, etc. Some aisles/areas of the store we had to go back to three or four times. Basically we are THE MOST inefficient shoppers ever (to our parents' dismay; they are professional grocery shoppers. Mom is the Queen of grocery shopping, and has the layout of at least a half dozen local stores stored in her memory, along with the location of every product. Dad puts his own special spin on shopping with his Master Shopping List, broken down by location, category, amount, etc. They've got it down to a science!). But, we have a good time! Some highlights of the shopping trip include:

Broccoli Forest

Adorable mini-peppers

Truffles on lock-down (at $400/lb, it makes sense!)

Hummus Heaven

Wide selection of Jewish foods (including a Wall of Matzoh!)

After a couple hours wandering around the store we had a full cart and most of the things on our lists crossed off. I had picked up lots of basics (to refill my barren fridge and pantry) as well as a bunch of ingredients for a some Martha Stewart recipes I had a hankering (?) to cook (post coming soon!). Erin got plenty of food to get her through the week, at least until the weekend when we shop again for yet another Summer Party! Stay Tuned!


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

New Fruit

This is a 'plumcot' (combination of plum and apricot). It has a tart taste like a plum but looks like an apricot. I put the penny in the shot for scale- could anything be cuter?? I love tiny foods! X

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Little Late, But...

by Xani

As many of you know, I've been busy lately. Work has had me out on the road for the majority of the last few weeks! I try to do moblogs or actual posts from wherever I am, but its not always possible. The good news is, its not too late for me to share an old(er) food experience with you, dear Reader.

You might remember a couple weeks back I was in Lake Charles, Louisiana. In addition to great donuts and the discovery of kolaches, Lake Charles also had a very good steak restaurant. It was recommended by several people, including our point of contact for work and the bartender at the hotel lounge. Many recommendations usually equals good dinner so off we headed to Hunter's Harlequin Steak and Seafood.

We arrived at Hunter's and found the setting lovely-- it appeared to be in a old converted house, and had soft lighting and white tablecloths. It seemed like the kind of place that was going to have good steak.

We started with some wine (very decent Oregon Pinot Noir) and salads (Hunter's makes their own dressings, and I had their blue cheese, which was very good but not as good as Mom's!!).

Next came the steaks: My co-worker Mike and I both ordered the "Supreme" NY strips, and AJ ordered filet with a crab topping (the strip vs. filet debate rages on-- I will fiercely defend my choice, any potential guest bloggers want to step up and tell our reader's why filet is "superior"?? I see a no-holds-barred battle coming soon!). Look at these steaks:

Now that is a piece of meat (even if it is a bit on the rare side, even for me!). Along side is a massive loaded baked potato. This is what a steak place should be-- great steaks, massive carb-loaded sides, good red wine, and good company. I cant forget to mention our friendly and awesome waiter Jordan, whom AJ forced to be in a picture with me!

Finished up, we had FANTAAAHSTIC desserts: strawberry-topped NY style cheesecake, and some kind of a baked fudge thing that I SWEAR tasted like cereal. But in a good way.

When I'm on the road, I'm in a strange town, a strange hotel room (some stranger than others!), and I'm working hard all day long. At the end of the day, a good meal with good company makes me feel right at home.


Monday, June 25, 2007

[Say in zombie voice] Must Follow Food and Wine Magazine's "Chef's Advice for Home Cooks."

Food and Wine had this article giving some helpful tips and suggestions for home cooks. So of course we were drawn to one particular idea:

What ingredient should home cooks try?

23% said pork belly. "Americans have this love affair with bacon. Pork belly is where bacon comes from and is more versatile." —Jose Garces, Amada, Philadelphia

Bacon, but more versatile?? Sign us up!

BCD Dad had picked up these beautiful pieces of pork belly at the local Asian mega-food store, and about 3 hours before dinnertime we set to work. Of course we decided we need an extra challenge, in addition to working with a brand new ingredient, so we decided to splice together three different pork belly recipes, all from unknown and unchecked Internet sources, two of which were UK sources so they conveniently had all their measurements in metric and temperatures in Celsius. Awesome.

Basically we were using the technique from recipe 1 (score pork bellies, fry skin side down, braise in liquid), the aromatic rub from recipe 2 (which didn't have the scoring and fry step), and the braising liquid from recipe 3 (more interesting than the others). As you will see, it all gets very complicated...

First step, score the skin of the bellies. This was harder than we thought, Xani tried 4 different knives before going back to her favorite cleaver and just forcing it to cut those lovely diamond patterns. Meanwhile, Erin was putting together the aromatic rub. The ingredients included brown sugar, star anise, black peppercorns, cilantro, cinnamon, cloves, and salt.. We used the mini food processor to grind that into a fairly fine paste, then rubbed it into the scored skin.

Then, they went skin-side down into hot oil:

After a few minutes, the skin was crispy and brown

Next, we prepared the rest of the ingredients for the dish. Because we were combining various recipes, this got confusing. But in the end, we ended up making a braising concoction made with soy sauce, water, star anise, sugar, rice wine, Szechuan peppercorns, garlic, ginger, orange peel, cinnamon sticks, and honey. We also threw some sliced scallions, sweet potatoes, and onions into the pot, put on the cover, and brought the whole thing to a boil. Then, into the oven (after some quick math to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit!) for a couple hours until everything was cooked through and the pork was falling apart.

While that was cooking we got started with the really important stuff: cocktails.

We had some fresh mint in the house so we had to make Mojitos! Xani had just observed the technique they use at Little Havana (um, she was doing "research" at Happy Hour on Friday?), so she attempted to replicate it: muddle fresh mint and sugar in a little bit of club soda, then add rum, pour over ice, and top with another splash of club soda. The verdict? While refreshing, the mojitos were a bit strong/not sweet enough for some people. So, we'll re-adjust the formula next time...

As we are slaves to Food and Wine we also used a recipe from the July issue for our side dish, Asian Style Spicy Coleslaw. Dad and Erin prepped this dish the day before by cutting a TON of veggies (2 kinds of cabbage, carrots, peppers, cilantro and mint) and mixing up the dressing (peanut butter, lime juice, garlic, sugar, fish sauce and Sriracha). All that was left to to before dinner was toss everything together (had to use the largest bowl in the whole house!) and let it sit for a little while.

"That's a lotta slaw!"

"We're gonna need a bigger bowl."

While the pork bellies finished braising and the slaw marinated, we threw together a quick first course. Sticking with our Asian theme, we made some "pot-sticker" dumplings. These come frozen from the Asian store, and you can get them with many different types of fillings. They are simple to prepare if you follow Dad's method: put frozen dumplings in a hot pan with a little oil (make sure they are in a single layer). Do not mess with them! Let them cook over medium heat for a few minutes until crispy brown on one side (you are allowed to check one to see how brown they are, but otherwise NO TOUCHING!). When sufficiently brown, add chicken broth (about 1/2 a cup) and immediately cover the pan. Leave them to steam for 3-4 minutes. They will come out PERFECT. We served them with some Soba noodle sauce and wasabi paste- an excellent starter.

Finally, it was time for the main course. We removed the pork bellies from the braising liquid, along with the potatoes and onions (which were extremely soft and flavorful after all that cooking!). Then we took out the pork (also very tender) and strained the braising liquid to serve it on the side. Everything was great-- the meat and cooked veggies had a wonderful, sweet and savory taste. You could definitely taste the star anise but it was not offensive. The meat itself was very rich and tasty, and not as greasy as you might expect. However, these were essentially giant slabs of bacon we were eating, so there was quite a bit of fat left uneaten (one lucky dog got a few bites!). One slight disappointment was that the skin, which we lovingly browned, was no longer crispy after all that time in the braising liquid. But it was tasty, and one of the recipes mentioned that if you cooked it incorrectly the skin would be chewy and horrible, so I guess we did it right!

After cleaning up the giant mess we had a little dessert. Some Vietnamese-style iced coffee (strong brewed coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk) and a little ice cream.

Gellie wants a sip...

Thus it seems Food and Wine did right by us this time. Pork bellies are delicious and fairly easy to work with. The slaw was great: the tangy, spicy dressing over crunchy veggies was a perfect compliment to the richness of the meat (also we made SO much slaw that both of us brought leftovers for lunch today!). Overall, a successful and enjoyable meal. Thank you Food and Wine!! Send us free stuff!

Happy Eating,

X & E

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