It’s been far too long since I’ve posted a new recipe on this blog. I apologize. Turns out adding a baby to your daily routine really throws you off your regularly scheduled programming. Dominic is sleeping as I type this, but Lauren informs me that he has just woken up. I can hear him whimpering, which means he’ll be reaching full lung participation in about two minutes. Oh the joys of parenthood…
And it is a joy. Cooking takes a back seat to being a father. If I have to cut some corners so I can finish a bit quicker, then so be it. Every now and then I find some time to make a nice meal for Lauren. After all, she spends far more time with Dominic than I do. Don’t get me wrong, the little man has my full attention when I’m not in the kitchen, and I do what I can to alleviate some of the load for Lauren. Having a nice meal is a great way to say thank you. That’s what comfort food is all about.
People always gravitate to comfort food after a hard day’s work because it relaxes you for those ten minutes of indulgence. And this meal isn’t exactly comfort food, at least not in the traditional way that meatloaf is, but it’s pretty close. Lauren loves comfort food. In fact, I think she has asked me several times in the past few weeks for meatloaf, and for some reason I have failed to deliver. I promise I’m a good husband most of the time. So how do you tell someone thank you for all that hard work? Make’em a nice meal. Make’em comfort food. Or if you’re like me, make’em comfort food with a twist, like pork chops and applesauce (pronounced “pohk chawps ‘n applesahhhs”).
Pork Medallions with Apple-Potato Hash
4 Pork Medallions
4 Pieces Thickly Sliced Applewood Smoked Bacon
Tbspn Finely Chopped Rosemary
Course Ground Black Pepper
2 Tbspn Olive Oil
Preheat over to 375.
This one’s easy. Wrap the pork in bacon, and use kitchen twine to secure the bacon to the pork medallions. Season the top and bottom generously with rosemary, pepper, salt, and garlic. Heat a medium frying pan to medium-high heat. Add olive and cook the medallions on one side for five minutes. Turn and cook for another five minutes on the other side. Remove from stove and place in oven. Let cook for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest for 5 minutes. Watch how hot your stove burns. You might need to adjust the heat and the cooking time. The one thing you don’t want is to dry out the pork.
All proteins will become terribly dry when overcooked, but pork and chicken are the worst culprits. Sometimes beef is a little forgiving, and while fish will also easily dry out, it’s one of those proteins that is easier to gauge when finished. I’m convinced that gravy was discovered because someone didn’t know how to properly cook meat, so in order to mask the dryness, the cook covered it with sauce. What a wonderful invention! Gravy is both delicious and useful for fixing those cooking mistakes.
Random side note: potato chips were also an accident. A customer continually complained about the thickness of his fried potatoes, so the cook cut the potatoes as thin as possible and quickly fried them just to make a point. Potato Chips! That’s the story according to Saratoga Springs, NY anyway. Sometimes kitchen accidents are a wonderful thing.
But there’s no gravy here. I love pork chops smothered in gravy as much as the next guy, and I especially love my pork chops a la ketchup (catsup?) just like Mom and Dad used to make’em, but we’re being nontraditional here. Depending on the thickness of the medallions, they should be just right–no sauce necessary.
2 Large Granny Smith Apples
2 Medium Sized Russet Potatoes
1 Tspn Lemon Zest
1 Tbspn Lemon Juice
1 Tbspn Butter
1 Tbspn Honey
1 Tbspn Brown Sugar
Peel the apples and potatoes (save the apple peels for later). Shred the potatoes and apples using a cheese grater or food processor. Be sure not to shred the cores and seeds and keep the apple shreds separate from the potato shreds.
Heat a large skillet to medium heat and melt butter. Add the potatoes and season with salt. Stir occasionally to avoid clumping and sticking to the pan. In a small mixing bowl, combine lemon, honey, brown sugar, lemon zest and whisk well. Once the potatoes start to brown and become tender, add the apples and lemon-honey mixture. Stir to combine all the ingredients in the skillet and cook for 2-3 minutes (the apples do not take long to cook, and you want the apples to maintain some crunch for texture).
1 Cup Balsamic Vinegar
1/8 Cup Brown Sugar
2 Tbspn Apple Juice
3-4 Apple Peels
In a 1 quart reduction saucepan add all the ingredients. Stir well. Bring the mixture to a boil, and then reduce to medium and let simmer for 10 minutes. Reducing liquids can be tricky. It’s all about the consistency. How thick do you want the sauce? Ideally, you want to reduction to coat the back of a spoon, like cough syrup. The problem is, when the reduction is hot, it’s still very runny, so it’s hard to tell what the consistency will be like when it’s cool. Watch for how much liquid has evaporated out. I would reduce the liquid down to a fourth of its original size. If you want a syrupy consistency, which is what I like, then aim for 1/4 the original liquid. But, if you want a runny reduction, then reduce it to half the original liquid. Be careful. If you boil this down too much and too fast or too hot, then you will ruin the vinegar and you’ll have to start over.
Honestly, I’ve messed up my fair share of reductions, whether it’s balsamic vinegar or some other reduction I was working on. In fact, just the other day I was making a pomegranate reduction for creme brulee and had to do it twice. You can’t be afraid to mess up in the kitchen. Remember, sometimes kitchen mistakes create something wonderful (think potato chips).
The picture at the top of this blog says it all.
Start by placing the hash down on the plate. Remove the twine from the pork and place one medallion directly over the hash. If you have a squeeze bottle, then funnel the balsamic reduction into the squeeze bottle and make any design you’d like. If you have some spare apples, cut a few thinly sliced wedges and place on top of the pork medallion. If not, use a spoon to drizzle the reduction around the plate and serve.
Don’t forget to try new twists on old favorites. Don’t forget it’s OK to mess up. And most importantly, don’t forget to say thank you to those you serve. Lauren deserves a great meal, and so do all the people you love too.
Wednesday night is indoor soccer night. Whenever Lauren finishes a game of soccer, you can bet she doesn’t want to eat something heavy; the same is true if she eats before a game of soccer. Case in point: heavy foods do not make for a good meal before or after a lot of physical activity. Sometimes, it’s best to keep things light and fresh.
I’ve already written about preparing your food without a heavy hand in previous posts–less is often more. If you want to go light, fish is an easy go-to protein; but, don’t think that fish is your only option. Many proteins have deliciously light preparations. Beef? Try carpaccio with an arugula salad. Chicken? Grill up some tenders with fresh lemon and thyme. Pork? Crusted tenderloin medallions with julienne green apple and zucchini. You get the point. Our most recent Wednesday soccer night brought us butter poached halibut with lemon-dill creme fraiche, saffron infused couscous, and a cucumber-pickle salad.
Butter Poached Halibut
When my mother was reactivated from the naval reserves after September 11, the house felt a little empty. My two older brothers were gone (Ryan was living in Utah, and Randy was in Paraguay; my mother was sent to Pensacola, FL for training and deployment), which left two lonely guys in a house with nothing to do. My father has always done most of the cooking in the family, not because my mother can’t, because I think he just enjoys it more. This means no mushrooms and no fish, because Mom hates those two things. When she left, Dad decided we were going to start eating fish. Nothing too fancy mind you; simple breaded fish with a squeeze of lemon or tartar sauce goes a long way (of course, we’re going to take a step further with this recipe, but don’t think you have to eat it this way). Normally, Dad would make the standard American dinner entree: main dish with one or two sides. With Mom gone, and the house feeling a bit empty, he just kept things simple. We ate fish fairly often, which was fine by me, because I like fish quite a bit. This dish reminds me of those days. Things were quiet; things were simple; dinner for two.
2 Halibut Filets
1 Stick unsalted butter
1 Tblspn lemon zest
Pinch of salt
In a medium frying pan (preferably non-stick), melt the stick of better over medium heat. Salt the halibut and place skin side down in pan. Sprinkle the lemon zest over the halibut and let the fish cook for 2-3 minutes. Lower the heat to medium-low and begin spooning the hot butter over the filets. Continue this process for 4-5 minutes. Carefully flip the halibut filets over and let cook for an additional 2-3 minutes. Depending on the size of the fish, this should cook each filet so it is flaky and moist. Cooking times always vary, especially with varying stove-tops, so be sure to check fish while it is cooking.
Lemon-Dill Creme Fraiche
Creme fraiche is sort of like the French version of sour cream (or the French version of mascarpone). It has a firmer texture than sour cream and it’s a bit tangier. It might be hard to find in your local grocer–here in Utah, Harmon’s has it located in the deli section with the specialty cheeses and meats–but you can easily use sour cream or mascarpone for this refreshing sauce as well.
3 Tblspn Creme Fraiche
1 1/2 Tbslpn fresh dill, roughly chopped
1 Tspn lemon juice
1 Tspn lemon zest
Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and mix to combine. Don’t whip the cream too much, or it will lose its texture and could potentially become clumpy. If it does, add a little lemon juice to lighten it up again.
The little salad is mostly a palette cleanser, so you don’t need to make tons of it. It’s nice to have something off to the side of your main dish that you dive into every now and then just to refresh the dish and then go back for more of the main entree.
1 English Cucumber (seedless)
1 Dill Pickle
1 Tspn Champagne Vinegar
1 Tspn Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Pinch of salt
You actually only need half the cucumber for this recipe, but feel free to use the whole thing if you want more. Also, you want a dill pickle that has a good crunch to it. I use Clausen’s Kosher Dills, but Vlasic dills are just as good. You don’t need to peel the cucumber. Start by cubing half the cucumber into 1/4 inch cubes. Do the same for the pickle. Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and mix to combine.
Couscous comes in various forms, but for this recipe we are simply using instant couscous found in most grocery stores (real couscous would require a lot of steaming and more time). I was first introduced to couscous when I was living in Trapani, a small city in western Sicily. African culture influences Sicilian culture quite a bit, which is why Sicilian cuisine often infuses more spices and bolder flavors. However, when it comes to couscous, the Sicilians like it pretty plain. Usually, Sicilians serve couscous with fried fish. They fry the fish whole, fluff their couscous, and then pour some fish broth over the couscous, for a little added flavor. It’s a meal all by itself, and it’s delicious. I wanted to marry memories of my father’s fish with memories of Sicilian couscous, so I decided that a little saffron would boost the flavor without over-complicating the dish.
A quick word about saffron: it’s expensive and bold. You don’t need to use saffron in this dish, but it adds a sweet and earthy flavor to the couscous. Use it sparingly, as it is expensive, but can easily take over a dish if used too abundantly.
1 Cup Moroccan Style Couscous
1 Cup Fish or Chicken Stock
1 Tblspn Butter
Pinch of Salt
Pinch of Saffron
The directions on the couscous package usually explain fairly easily how to prepare couscous–we’re just adding an additional step with the saffron and replacing the water with stock. Melt the butter in a small pot and combine with stock. Add salt and saffron. Bring liquid to a small boil and add couscous. Stir to combine and remove from heat. Immediately cover and let sit for 5 minutes. Uncover and fluff the couscous with a fork. It should be light and fluffy.
Plating is simple for this dish. Add a spoonful of couscous on one side of the plate and drizzle some of the butter that the fish was cooked in over the couscous. Place one halibut filet over the couscous and add a dallop of creme fraiche to top. On the opposite side of the plate, add a 1/4 cup of cucumber-pickle salad.
Fresh. Simple. Tasty. Eat it after a physically exhausting day. Eat it if you’re making dinner for two. Eat it because it’s good. Enjoy.
I enjoy watching chefs on TV. There’s something about watching other people cook that fascinates me. Anyone can follow a recipe, but it’s the subtle differences in how you work in the kitchen that really makes things interesting. Why do chefs hold a knife the way they do? Or a whisk? Some chefs have multiple towels in the kitchen, each serving a separate and unique function (I try to keep three towels at all times: one for wiping my hands when working with food, one for wiping down counters, and one for drying my hands after washing them). How do we really evaluate the performance of a chef? The food of course. Is it delicious? If yes, then the chef must be good, right?
Bobby Flay once said when he hires a new chef, he has that chef do one thing: cook an omelet. He didn’t say anything about making delicious food. Cook an omelet. Why an omelet? Because it’s so simple. Can you do the simple things? Can you make the simple things taste good? It’s nice to have a fancy meal; it’s nice to make it look fancy. It’s even better when it tastes as good as it looks. Bobby Flay wants to know if you can take something so simple as an omelet and build complex flavors. I can respect that.
The other night Lauren and I had some baked chicken, which I then shredded and combined with a basic chicken broth , rice, and boiled vegetables. Simple, but good. Italian cuisine taught me one thing: keep it simple, then learn to build complex flavors.
I remember sitting around the dinner table in Italy, listening to the Italians go on and on about how Americans don’t know how to cook because we use too many spices. Too many spices! “Too many things on the plate,” they would tell me, “a tomato should taste like a tomato, period.” Italians don’t compromise when it comes to cooking. “Fai cosi, non cosi, ma cosi, punto!”
“Do it like this, not like that, but like this, period.” That’s what Italian grandmothers taught me. They know Bobby Flay is right when he says he wants to see how well you can do the basic things. In Italy, if you can’t make tomato sauce, you don’t eat. I spent five months learning how to make a basic tomato sauce. Five months. Five long months. And you know what I learned? Tomato sauce is pretty complex stuff, unless you know how to do the basics.
Eight years later and I am still applying those basic cooking techniques Nonna taught me in Italy: learn to do the basics, then build complex flavors.
It doesn’t get more basic than meatloaf. It’s meat. It’s in the shape of a loaf. What else do you need to know? Americans have been eating this giant meatball for years. Everyone has a meatloaf recipe. The TV dinners in aisle 9 have a meatloaf recipe. Thanks Hungry Man. I have several myself. I like this one because it’s exactly what I love about taking something so simple as meatloaf and making it special.
Meatloaf with Mashed Potatoes and Brown Gravy
First, don’t make your meatloaf with beef only. Use a mix of pork and/or veal. But do make sure that beef is your primary protein–it should taste beefy. Combining the beef with other ground meats will help keep the overall loaf juicy and tender. No one wants a dry piece of meat. For this recipe, I’m only using ground pork, but if you don’t mind adding a few dollars to your meal expenses, feel free to add a little veal as well.
1 1/2 lbs Ground Beef Chuck (80% lean)
1/2 lb Ground Pork
2 Large egg yolks
1 Tbspn Salt
1 1/2 Tspn Ground Black Pepper
1 Tspn Garlic Powder
1/2 Tspn Dried Thyme
1/4 Cup Grated Parmesan
1/4 Cup Panko Bread Crumbs
1/3 Cup Plain Bread Crumbs
Learning how to make a mirepoix was one of the best things I ever learned how to do in the kitchen. A mirepoix is a mixture of celery, onions, carrots, and sometimes an added aromatic or fresh herb. It is one of the basic flavor building compounds of many great tasting dishes, including one of my absolute favorite dishes: braised short ribs. In this recipe, I use a basic mirepoix, chopped very fine, to incorporate into the meatloaf for a greater depth of flavor.
1 Large Yellow Onion (finely chopped)
3 Celery Stalks with leaves (finely chopped)
2 Medium Carrots (cubed)
2 Large Garlic Cloves (minced)
1 Tbspn Tomato Paste
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
Bring a large pot to medium heat and add the olive oil (technically, this is more of a soffritto, since we’re using olive oil, whereas the French mirepoix uses butter). Add the vegetables and reduce to medium low heat. Let the vegetables sweat for 10 minutes and then add the garlic. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and stir. Add the tomato paste and stir. If the vegetable clump together too much, reduce the heat to low and add a few tablespoons of water, one at a time, until the mixture stirs easily. Remove from heat and set aside.
Heat the oven to 325F.
Bring all the raw meatloaf ingredients together in a large mixing bowl except for the panko bread crumbs. When mixing the meat to combine all the ingredients, do not press down with the palms of your hands and then close your fingers as if to make a fist. This will mash the meat and make it tough. Instead, use your hands the same way you would fold in egg whites to a batter. Add half the mirepoix and combine slowly. Then add the remaining mirepoix and combine. Place the meat mixture into a bread baking tin. You might have experience with making meatloaf by forming it into a loaf on a baking sheet with parchment paper–don’t do that with this recipe. The mirepoix adds a lot of moisture to the meat, so it won’t hold its shape very well uncooked. Do not mash to meat into the tin, pat it lightly, and then sprinkle the panko bread crumbs on top. Bake in the oven for about 1 hour, or until the internal temperature reads 160 degrees. Remove and let rest for 5 minutes.
What is more satisfying than creamy mashed potatoes smothered with gravy? I prefer Golden Yukon potatoes for their creamy texture and golden color, but russet potatoes are always a favorite.
6 Medium Sized Golden Yukons (peeled, cubed)
3 Sprigs Fresh Rosemary
3 Sprigs Fresh Thyme
1/4 Cup Heavy Cream
1/3 Stick Unsalted Butter
1/4 Cup Milk
Salt and Pepper to taste
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Generously salt your water. Wrap the rosemary and thyme in cheesecloth and tie off with kitchen twine. Add potatoes and sachet (cheesecloth with fresh herbs). When potatoes are fork tender, remove sachet and drain potatoes. Do not rinse. Place the potatoes back into the pot and place over very low heat. Add butter and milk, and begin mashing. Add the heavy cream and continue mashing. The low heat will help remove any excess moisture from the potatoes as you combine the other ingredients. Mash until you reach your desired texture.
I start most gravy recipes with a basic roux. A roux is a mixture of flour and fat, usually butter, to thicken a sauce. It is used to thicken some of the French “mother sauces.”
For the roux:
1 Tbspn Flour
2 Tbspn Butter
2-3 Cups Beef Stock
1/8 Cup Heavy Cream
1 Tbspn Worcestershire Sauce
1/4 Tspn Garlic Powder
1/4 Tspn Onion Powder
Salt and Pepper to taste
Over low heat melt the butter and then add flour. With a whisk, combine the flour and butter. You should get a yellow pasty looking mixture (see picture above. Warning: the above picture was used to make a large pot of gravy, so I used much more butter and flour). If you want thick gravy, add a little more flour to your roux. If you like your gravy thin and runny, then 1 tbspn is plenty. Combine the other ingredients and stir. Let simmer over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Salt and pepper to taste.
To plate: Place a generous amount of mashed potatoes in the center of the plate or bowl, ladle gravy over potatoes, place 1 slice of meatloaf directly over the potatoes, add a small ladle of gravy over meatloaf, and garnish with fresh or dried parsley or chives.
Cooking simple never tasted so good.
One of my coworkers suggested this today: Raffle off dinner with Lauren and Nathan for $1 a ticket.
Since we have over 100 people just in our IT department, he’s sure that he can sell at least $60 of tickets, then cross his fingers that he and his wife win the raffle. Funny idea.
I wouldn’t mind having CERTAIN people over, and having the groceries paid for. Can I secretly veto if certain people win? There are just some coworkers that you might not want to know where you live. Just sayin’…
I’m leaving town for a few days, leaving Chef Guapo behind to watch the cat. Hold on to your seat until next week and then the two of us will try and post a meal or two for your viewing/reading pleasure.