Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The truth about shortbread

I've done significantly more cooking in the years since I left private practice to have a better lifestyle.  I went from studying and disassembling recipes to making up my own.  Take, for example, linguine puttanesca.  My first puttanesca (c. summer of 2003) was made using a no-cook recipe out of Gourmet magazine and I followed it to the tee, right down to the 1 lb box of dried linguine.  I was in my last year of law school and worked full time as an engineering analyst doing patent prosecution at a D.C. law firm.  The recipe was a quickie, promising a zesty bowl of linguine with puttanesca in just 30 minutes.

I still find puttanesca to be an easy sauce to throw together, though I cook it now, without a recipe and the contents often vary.  I also roll out fresh linguine which, if I have leftover dough from a previous night, takes about as long to roll out as it does to boil a pot of water.  People tell me I'm crazy to go to such lengths for a bowl of pasta, but I've become convinced that nothing is all that difficult to make.  I've dispelled more than one myth about the difficulty of preparing food for mysef, from European items like ravioli and canard a l'orange to Asian dishes like stuffed tofu and matar paneer.  And I've discounted my inability to bake cakes and cookies as attributable to my inattention to detail to things like how many cups of flour vs. how many cups of sugar go into them, or my tendency to forget that something's in the oven (out of sight, out of mind!).

Well, at a holiday party last week, I found myself nibbling on a shortbread cookie and wishing I could bake my own.  My friend Jenny tells me "Shortbread's easy.  All you have to do is mix flour, sugar and butter, and VOILA!  Shortbread."  So I decided that the instructions were simple enough that I figured I could pull myself together long enough to keep count of the cups of flour vs. cups of sugar and just give these "easy" treats a try.

Now, I'm not going to call Jenny a liar (that title is typically reserved for politicians and select members of the Colorado bar).  But I will say that she left out a few details.  For one thing, shortbread is not quick and easy as 1-2-3.  The dough needs to chill.  Twice.

And the dough does not particularly "come together" like they suggest in some of the recipes I've seen (Ahem, Contessa and Joy, I'm referring to you).  It just stays crumbly, especially after you chill it.  Both times.

And I must admit that I couldn't entirely help myself.  I fell back into my old habits and managed to not follow the recipe.  I misread what kind of sugar I was supposed to use, and then I mixed up the quantities between Contessa's and Joy's recipes.  And I sacrificed one batch in the oven.  That said, I still managed to make perfect shortbread cookies and sandwich them around some homemade dulce de leche with a recipe I borrowed from David Lebovitz.  The result was akin to the alfajores I'd had in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago.

In hindsight the trials and tribulations of shortbread aren't that bad.  But there are a few warnings I could have had in any of the instructions I'd received or recipes I'd read.  And I've got to believe that I'm not the first person to have figured out an easier way to roll out the dough.  Here, I'll attempt to give you a recipe with complete instructions and a few tips on how to make shortbread that you won't find anywhere else.

Shortbread cookies
Makes about 40 3-inch diameter cookies
1 3/4 c butter, slightly warmer than room temperature but not quite goopy
1 c powdered sugar + more for sprinkling (you must have the cornstarch content)
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 1/2 c flour
1/4 tsp kosher salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a large bowl, beat butter and 1 cup powdered sugar until smooth.  Add vanilla extract and mix well.  In a separate bowl, mix flour and salt.  Add flour mixture to butter and mix well.  It will make a crumbly mixture and it won't really come together, but make sure the ingredients are well-mixed.  Pour the crumbly mixture onto a clean surface and separate them into two lumps.  Gather up each lump into a ball and set the ball onto a piece of cling wrap.  Flatten the ball into a disk, wrap tightly, and chill for 30 minutes.

Prepare baking sheets by placing a piece of parchment on each one.  Take the dough out of the fridge and roll it out to a disk about 1/4" thick.  It will still be crumbly and it is easier to roll out if you do it between two sheets of cling wrap.  Cut the disk with a cookie cutter and place on the prepared baking sheet.  Chill cookies for 10 minutes, then bake for 10 minutes, till cookies are barely golden.

Dust with powdered sugar.  To send a message to someone that you really care, put a tablespoon of dulce de leche between two cookies before you dust them with powdered sugar.  To smite your enemy, give a powdered sugar cookie to them while they're wearing dark colored clothing.

And there it is, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about shortbread.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Moules et frites are finger foods

I  love going out to eat with friends and sharing the meal, family style.  Everyone picks something, then we pass the plates around, so everyone gets to try a little bit.  And I'm pretty willing to try just about anything on anyone's menu... except for the mussels.  They're just such so easy to make.  Still, I let my dining companions order them if they wish, and rarely explain why I never do.  I also never partake in this order because I believe they're finger food, so it might leave fellow diners aghast to see how I eat them.

Now and again, I host a moules et frites night and, in my home, mussels are finger foods.  Fellow diners are not required to eat them the way I do, but they certainly can't be embarrassed by it.  Nevertheless, I always manage to convert a few people to my method* because it's nifty, and who doesn't like eating with their hands now and then?

When using my method, I get a little exercise for my mussel muscles.  Lightly gripping the shell with my first two fingers and thumb, I snap the two sides of one shell together like mini-tongs to deftly extract the tender meat out of another shell.  If there are veggies in the preparation, then the shell-tongs work well for eating those as well.  Then, to drink the broth left in the bottom of the bowl (assuming it hasn't already been sopped up with bread or french fries), I separate my mini-tongs into two separate little soup spoons and drink the broth from the shell.  Slurping is optional.

As to the ease of preparing these succulent treats, in the time it takes to fry one basket of thickly cut frites, you can steam enough mussels for four.  Here's how:

Steamed mussels
(serves 4)
4 lbs mussels (if you're friendly with your fish monger, he might pick out the heavier ones for you)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 red/orange/green peppers, thinly sliced.
3-4 sprigs each of thyme, basil, parsley
3/4 c. Belgian ale (or other tasty liquid.  See details below.)
lemon wedges (optional)

If you haven't got beer on hand, white wine or a mixture of water and liquor (I've even tried vermouth) will do in a pinch.  If you're not the drinking type, chicken or vegetable broth will also work.
Prepare the mussels by scrubbing them under cold water and debearding them.  Rinse and set aside in a colander to drain.

In a large, heavy pot, heat the oil over high heat.  Saute the onions till tender, about 4-6 minutes.  Add the peppers and saute for 2 minutes.  Meanwhile, tie the herbs together with some kitchen twine to make a bouquet garni.  Toss the bouquet garni into the pot and stir around for 10 seconds.  Working quickly, pour the mussels into the pot, pour the beer over the mussels, and drop the lid on the pot.  Let it steam for 5-7 minutes, depending on how hot your burner is and how heavy your pot is (hotter burner/heavier pot 5 minutes, cooler burner/lighter pot 7 minutes).  Resist the urge to open the lid to check on it before 5 minutes.  The mussels need to steam continuously to open up nice and wide.  If this is your first time, open the lid just enough to take a peek and see if the mussels are all open.  If they're not, drop the lid back on and let steam for another minute or two.  When the time's up, open the lid, take in the fragrance, and give them a stir.  Serve, sans une fourchette.  Some people like lemon wedges for their mussels.  I just use them to help clean my fingertips.

* I owe "my method" to a Belgian friend, Lesly, who taught me how to do it years ago in Washington, D.C. at my own moules et frites night.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What to do with a quail egg if you manage to sneak it past TSA

When I was in San Francisco, I marveled over the panoply of foods one could find throughout the city.  Including varieties of eggs I'd never seen before -- and I've been around the world a bit.  I shared with my sister and my twin (two different people) that I had recently discovered (and rejoiced) a place to buy quail eggs in Denver.  Confused by the chaos in the kitchen, my twin asked, "How are you gonna get the quail eggs past the TSA?"  Forgetting that I had the quail eggs in my kitchen in Denver and wouldn't need to bring them on the plane with me, my sister followed on with "Do raw eggs count as liquids?"  Which then begged the question, "How many quail eggs fit in a 3.0 oz container?"

Setting aside these profound questions, my sister wanted to know, "What do you do with a quail egg even if you manage to sneak it past the TSA?"  Well, Lucky Duck, here's your answer: fry it and place it, like a crown, on some fish.

As long as it takes to preheat the oven and roast some fish is all it takes to do that.  I've been known to serve egg with fish before, because I love the combination.  So when I got my hot little hands on the quail eggs, I had to see if they'd give me the same joy.  They did.

Here's exactly what you do with a couple of quail eggs if you manage to sneak them past the TSA.

Quail Eggs, Spinach, and Sea Bass
(serves 2)
2 quail eggs
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2/3 lb fillet of sea bass, cut in two
1 small shallot, minced
1 tsp dill, minced
1 tsp chives, minced
1/2 tsp parsley leaves, minced
 1 bunch spinach, washed and trimmed
1 clove garlic
salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides of fish.  In a small bowl, mix shallot, dill, chives, and parsley.  Coat salt with the herb mixture.  Set the fish in a baking dish and drizzle 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil over the fillets.  Roast for 10-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish (though, as Joe Bastianich once told me, "Sea bass is the most forgiving fish" so you need not worry incessantly about overcooking it).

About 5 minutes before the fish needs to come out of the oven, saute the garlic in one tbsp olive oil for 1 minute.  Saute spinach till just wilted, about 2-3 minutes.

In a small frying pan, heat the last tbsp olive oil over medium-high heat.  Drop the quail eggs in and fry till the whites become opaque.

Set the fish on the plate, topping each fillet with wilted spinach, and a fried quail egg.  Drizzle with the juices from the fish pan.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Encouraging the fast food world to bring us better fries

About four years ago, I heard a piece on NPR wherein the NPR journalist attempted, but failed, to create a stir by interviewing a Sierra Club muckety-muck about Walmart's green initatives.  Everyone (who can afford to shop elsewhere) likes to get moralistic about how Walmart doesn't treat its workers very well and Walmart buys from manufacturers that use child labor and Walmart is killing the environment and Walmart eats babies. 

So when Walmart said, "Look everyone, we're implementing green initiatives," everyone was skeptical.  Said NPR journalist called up said Sierra Club muckety-muck for comment.  The woman at Sierra Club surprised us all by saying, "Well, great!  Let's encourage their commitment to corporate greening by spending some money there."  The rationale was that irrespective of whether Walmart's green initiatives were motivated purely by their desire to stop harming the environment or for marketing purposes, it was important to encourage their green initiatives with our pocketbooks, so that they would continue to engage in them.  If we doubt their green efforts, then they have no motivation to engage at all.

That point stuck with me.  I think about my consumer power often, when it comes to shopping, eating, and spending money in any way.  And so, when Foodbuzz was offering gift certificates for Wendy's new natural cut fries, I was skeptical, because as a supposed foodie, I'm supposed to snub fast food joints.  But then I thought, "Sure, why not?  If fast food joints start making better fries, I should partake."  I signed up, and as part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker Program, I received two gift cards for Wendy's and I headed out to try these fries.  It also didn't hurt that there was a chance to win $500 for participating.  [Pick me, please.]

Last Friday night, I stopped in at a Wendy's and ordered a small natural cut fry with sea salt.  Sure enough, Wendy's was serving up fries with the skin still intact (my favorite kind) and they actually tasted like potatoes in the very first bite.  I wouldn't say that they were at all comparable to frites of steak et frites or moules et frites, but they were definitely a step up from your standard fast food fries.

Since I've been comparing them to some sort of fine food, I'll share with you Mr. Rose's take, when I brought him to a Wendy's two days later.  "When you dip these fries in a Frosty, the salty and sweet is kind of like that melon-prosciutto carpaccio thing you get at fancy restaurants."

Note to Wendy's: I don't, personally, think your fries and Frosty combo rises to the level of melon-prosciutto carpaccio, but I like the fact that your fries taste like potatoes.  And thanks for the gift card.  Mr. Rose will be back to taste test your fries dipped in all your other menu offerings.

Happy Place: San Francisco

I love Colorado, the state that I call home.  Colorado's been good to me.  In fact, I've been known to say "Steamboat Springs is my happy place" for the fact that there's perfect champagne powder blanket over that quaint ski town.  I've also been known to say "The Little Man is my happy place" for the fact that it's a giant milk can, lit up at night, that dispenses the smoothest, creamiest ice cream on a hot summer night.  So it's true.  I actually have many happy places.  But they're not limited to Colorado.  There's also a special place in my heart for San Francisco, California.

What's not to love about San Francisco?  You can't spit without hitting a farmer's market.  A good farmer's market.

Persimmons, dangling form a rope.

Dried figs, apricots, and cherries of several varieties.

Alfajores, aka The Most Delicious Cookie I Have Ever Eaten, South American shortbread cookies sandwiching dulce de leche and dusted with confectioners sugar. Get some. http://www.saborsur.com/
And the live entertainment at the farmer's market can't be beat.
One-man band.
And the seafood is cheap.  Dirt cheap.

So I went out for a quick visit to see my sister, who lives there (lucky duck).  It was a short weekend trip, so every minute counted.  She indulged me by letting me pause to touch, smell, and photograph every single bit of food that crossed our paths.  Case in point: street tacos off a truck.  In this case, we also stopped to taste.

Not that we don't also have these in Colorado, but this time it was a family experience.

Lucky Duck isn't an intrepid cook, but she's more adept in the kitchen than she thinks she is.  In just a couple of hours, we'd whipped up a mighty fine dinner, with the last minute assistance/company of my MasterChef twin, Azmina, who is much better at remembering to photograph food than I am.

I took full advantage of the fresh produce and seafood Lucky Duck and I came across throughout the day.  We had roasted dungeoness crabs, seafood risotto, and some fresh bread, among other tasty treats for dinner.

It was quite a feast, and none of it was all that hard.  If you want to see recipes, post a comment below and tell me what you want to see and I'll post a recipe in the near future, complete with more photos and instructions for the yumminess pictured above.  (You, too, can eat like we did, though you'll have to provide your own lively dinner conversation and sassy dinner company.)

It's only been a week, but I already miss hanging out with Lucky Duck and Azmina.  San Francisco is my happy place.  There.  I said it.  "San Francisco is my happy place" for the fact that there's good food and good company in abundance there.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

What to do if it rains British and you have duck confit on hand

Mr. Rose has an old friend, a British fella, who showed up to our wedding on about 2 days notice.  Let's call him Mr. B, fitting for a British fella.  Mr. B showed up in Colorado once again this week, this time with about 1 whole week's notice.  Make no mistake; we absolutely adore his surprise visits.  To me, they're just shy of drinking a glass of champagne and finding a diamond ring at the bottom of it.  Completely surprising and delightful, the memory of his surprise visits will always be galvanized in my memory.  And this time, he brought the Missus and the Junior.

I took a day off work to hang with the B's and brought them to some of my favorite sites around Denver.  First and foremost, breakfast burritos from Las Casitas and coffee from Common Grounds.  Then, Westminster dog park with my own girls.
Mrs. B, Junior in background, Margo Frances in foreground
It was a solid day of touring, stopping only to feed Junior some leftover pasta and bolognese (pasta made with the help of my newly acquired Kitchenaid).

By the time we got back to Chez Rose, it was about time for the Roses and the B's to eat as well.  Here's the quickie menu:
Artisinal boule and butter with truffle oil (thanks Kitchenaid)
French lentils and duck confit
Happy Cakes

I could go on about the butter and truffles, mycophile and proud owner of a new Kitchenaid that I am.  But this isn't the time.  I'm here to rave about the duck confit and the delicious meal that can be whipped together when it's raining Brits and it's time to eat. 

This meal made me realize that, about a month from now, when I'm making a list of new year's resolutions, keeping duck confit in my freezer needs to be on that list.  Here's why I'm excited... here's the recipe:

French Lentils and Duck Confit
(Serves 4)
1.5 c puy or french green lentils
2 c poultry stock
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 carrot, finely diced
1/2 rib celery, finely diced
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 tsp kosher salt
4 confit duck legs, room temperature
4 tbsp duck fat
1 tsp sel de gris
ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Heat oil in a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat.  Saute onion, carrot, and celery until tender, about 3-4 minutes.  Add lentils, stock, thyme, bay leaf, kosher salt, and 4 cups of water.  Bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer.  Let simmer, stirring occasionally, till lentils are tender, about 20-25 minutes.  Drain and set aside in a bowl.

In a cast iron skillet, heat 2 tbsp duck fat over high heat.  Place the confit legs in the skillet, skin side down.  Sear till the skin gets brown, about 2 minutes.  Flip the legs over, then place in the oven.  Let the legs roast till lightly browned and fully heated through, about 7 minutes.  Meanwhile, heat remaining 2 tbsp duck fat in a medium sauce pan over medium heat.  Saute lentils till re-heated.  Add sel de gris and stir. 

Serve duck legs on a small heap of lentils.