March 31, 2008

bouillabaisse & birthday cake

[ARGH. I forgot to post this b/c it had no photos. Lame. Posting now, a month late.]

My Daddy's birthday is coming up, and so i cooked dinner for my parents yesterday as part of his present. He's had bouillabaisse on the brain since a few weeks ago, when he had a disappointing one at Naked Fish, which i guess was to be expected, though really it's kind of an easy dish especially if you've got access to decent seafood. I knew I could do better, having made a version of it for a dinner party a few years ago, so I busted out the Joy of Cooking and got to work.

It turns out that the nice boys at the Whole Foods fish counter will give you a big plastic box full of the skeletal remains of a halibut, for free. It also turns out that this makes a huge amount of lovely fish stock once simmered for half an hour with fennel tops, leek tops, parsley stems, celery leaves and peppercorns. And furthermore it turns out that you can pick a big plateful of fishmeat off those bones when you're done, so even though I sent all the leftover bouillabaisse home with Dad, me & tallasiandude are gonna have our own yummy fish soup tonight, made with all that free fishy goodness. Extra-thrifty cooks, take note -- fish frames aren't just for stock; if you're not feeling fancy, you get the soup contents too.

I made the broth ahead, so that all I had to do was heat it up, chuck in the seafood, and toast the croutons. I used monkfish & halibut fillets, littlenecks, mussels, and some frozen lobster meat that Dad found on sale, and it came out great. For some reason, bouillabaisse always makes me feel like it's summer -- i think it must be the bright oranges and reds of it, or maybe it's that I don't eat much seafood (aside from sushi) in the colder months. Dunno, but it was a nice feeling in any case, what with the cold and the gray outside. (Quick note to self: the organic Italian bread from Whole Foods was particularly nice, because it has a finer, more uniform crumb than other kinds, which makes for a solid crouton to float.)

We had some little snacks to start (in which Dad discovered a deep and abiding love of marinated white anchovies, yum yum), and a green salad to end, and then we got on to the birthday cake course.

I have in the past had some, let us say, issues with layer cakes. At best, they usually look lopsided, like a 4 year old made them, and sometimes they just go horribly, horribly wrong, like the year that i used a fruity filling that was too runny, and between that and the overly-domed layers, the filling squirted out the sides, the layers slid around, and the entire cake ended up looking like a pile of vomit there on the cake plate. Not good. It's still a running joke in the family, that vomit cake. Therefore I am particularly happy to report that this year's cake went remarkably well, and wound up looking like an actual normal cake from start to finish.

All the recipes were from the 1997 edition of Joy of Cooking. I made the white cake recipe, and filled the layers with brown sugar frosting, and iced the outside with quick white icing I (the easy one, where you beat together powdered sugar, butter, and a little milk & vanilla). The cakes came out relatively flat, and the filling and icing all tasted good, not that it's likely to go too far wrong when you mix butter and sugar, and because both icings were relatively stiff and dry, we maintained structural integrity. And then I put some purple Peeps on top, nesting in coconut. Awww. [Note: arty photo at top is of the cake, plus the fabulous spray of white orchids that my father grew and brought over, and in the foreground, the Cumulus dessert plate my brother the glassblower made and gave me for Christmas last year.]

This was the maiden voyage of my new bright-orange KitchenAid mixer, purchased with wedding-gift dollars, which has been sitting decoratively (it's ORANGE, whee!) on the counter since we got it. I bought two bowls for it, which is totally the way to go, because then you can just cruise through all the cake making tasks without washing anything. I think maybe its super-ultra-mixing-power kind of overmixed my cake, because it was a little bit denser than I was expecting, or maybe i overfolded and crushed the whipped egg whites, but it's all cool -- it tasted good, it wasn't dry, and now i know what to expect from the big orange beast.

Posted by foodnerd at 06:17 PM | Comments (0)

March 23, 2008

Chicago: Hot Chocolate

We took C out to Hot Chocolate, since he'd never been there, and we love it, and J&D also love it, and it was just a lovefest all around.

German pretzel with cheddar/smoked beer dipping sauce, to die for. Bowl got licked.

Green salad with pears and goat cheese, very nice. Spinach salad with duck salami, extremely nice. Wedge salad with thousand island and crabmeat and lardons, frigging perfect. YUM.

Somehow some breadsticks with herbed butter showed up for free. Also tasty, particularly since the butter seemed to have some green garlic in it.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese baked inside brioche and served with roasted turnips and sauteed kale was just dreamy. Normally I wouldn't order something so theoretically mundane, but we'd had dinner at Custom House the previous night (more on that to come), and I felt like something a little less insane, particularly given the chocolate madness I knew was coming. This cheesy little morsel is worth giving up the exotica for: the brioche is dark brown and almost nutty, the cheese just stinky and melty enough, and the vegetables keep it all from getting too out of hand.

Lamb with krema kase and flatbread: this i thought was tasty, but perhaps a bit salty. It's a bit like gourmet gyros, which is perfectly fine, but not the best thing on this menu.

Roast chicken was lovely, though I only had a bite of the perfectly crisp, salty skin. Nothing left on the plate once D got through with it.

Braised short rib with brussels sprouts was moist, tender and delicious, though i've not been feeling much in the mood for braised meats of late.

Mac and cheese was actually slightly under-awesome this time, lacking some indefinable thing that has in the past pushed it from yummy to mind-bending.

Dark chocolate hot chocolate: yum. Half-and-half with espresso: mocha yum, vroom vroom.

Warm chocolate souffle cake with salted caramel ice cream and pretzel continues to be the perfect dessert. Be still my heart.

Sorbets were amusing, since we ordered coconut and passionfruit, but received spiced pear (excellent) and something quite odd but definitely not passionfruit. When we mentioned it to the waiter, he checked for us, and it turned out the kitchen hadn't been happy with their passionfruits and made kumquat instead. To make up for that, he brought us two more, a green apple and a blood orange, both good, but that blood orange was best of show, mmmmmmmm.

At that point we were so full we were waddling, but we still managed to get up to Metro in time to see a middle-aged X rock a house full of middle-aged punks.... which was totally awesome. \m/

Posted by foodnerd at 08:42 PM | Comments (1)

March 21, 2008

Chicago: Noodles at Marshall Field's

[this post has been waiting a MONTH for me to get off my keister and upload the pictures that go with it. sigh. better late than never, i suppose.]

(in the Seven on State food court)
(312) 781-4483
Hours: Mon - Sat 11am to 4pm, Closed Sunday

We needed a quickie lunch in the loop before heading to the airport, so i went to this website which lists out a huge lot of loop restaurants. It was quite useful, and we thought this japanese noodle shop might not suck too bad, and it was within a few blocks of the hotel.

Turns out the ramen is delicious! Good quality noodles, tasty broth (we had shoyu) and the moistest, most flavorful slices of pork we've ever had in a bowl of ramen. Slightly smallish bowl, but not everyone has the vast noodle-eating capacities of tallasiandude.

I ordered a braised-pork fried rice, which was also delicious, tasting strongly of the wok's heat and of white pepper, with fresh bits of bok choy and egg and carrot and shiitake and bean sprout, and more lovely moist soft pork.

Posted by foodnerd at 12:04 PM | Comments (0)

March 12, 2008

kitchen notes: oden & ma po tofu

Just a couple of notes to self:

- A while ago, i made some oden using the dried flavor packet you can buy at the Japanese markets. It was pretty meh. Today, i had some daikon to cook up, so i used another of the packets in a medium pot of water, but i amped it up with maybe 1/4 cup shoyu, a big splash of sake & a bigger splash of mirin. MUCH better.

- Tonight we made the Ma Po Tofu recipe from the Pei Mei cookbook volume 1. I didn't bother deepfrying the tofu first, nor did i have the required pork -- all i had was some fresh shiitake. So i just put a bunch of peanut oil into the big skillet, added the garlic & shiitake, fried them a while, then added some more peanut oil (a bit too much really) and the tofu. Then i added the spicy bean paste and soy sauce and let it all fry up for a while. Last went in the chicken broth, which i then set to boiling down. I ground the black pepper on top of the tofu and let it sit there to add flavor. The cornstarch slurry went in just at the end, when the broth was reduced but still entirely liquid. This came out VERY nice indeed, spicy and rich and with a bracing hit of fresh black pepper. The shiitake add a sweet flavor that is entirely lovely, and i would recommend this substitution for any vegetenarians wanting to make a Ma Po Tofu. I like the flavor of this at least as much as any restaurant version, and it goes together in a flash, presuming of course you have spicy bean paste in the house. Which you all should -- it's yummy and has a multitude of uses.

1 package tofu, cut in large cubes
sm package fresh shiitake, cut chunky
4 sm cloves garlic, cut rough
several tbsp peanut oil
2 tbsp spicy bean paste
2-3 tsp soy sauce
sprinkle of salt
1 cup chicken broth
lots of fresh ground black pepper
2 tsp cornstarch + 2 tsp water = slurry
chopped green onion (i didn't have any)

also it specified to drizzle sesame oil on each serving, but since i overdid it a little on the peanut oil, i skipped it. And yes, we ate it up without taking photos. sorry, y'all.

one other note: though it's not super spicy and has no szechuan peppercorns, and therefore perhaps is not strictly speaking an authentic szechuan recipe, the recipe from Pei Mei is very tasty. I may try goosing it a little szechuan-style next time, to see what happens.

Posted by foodnerd at 07:10 PM | Comments (0)

March 09, 2008

bacon club eats

The delights at Bacon Club run the gamut from subtle scones to insane desserts to the bacon-wrapped classics. Everything was good, some things were great. We are full. Note to self: Miller High Life is the perfect beer for Bacon Club.

The photographic evidence:

hunter bacon (raw smoked/cured bacon from the russian shop, very chewy & salty and lovely on a vimta cracker), and choco maple bacon bites

did i mention, choco maple bacon bites? holy crap. yum. crispy bacon, with maple cream made with maple syrup and bacon fat cooked & whipped, and topped with a roasted cocoa bean from the Dominican Republic.

crustless fluffernutters with bacon. Elvis-rific.

Korean braised pork belly (braised plain with garlic) with salty sesame sauce & scallions

brussels sprouts with bacon & hot pepper flakes

my bacon cups with mac & cheese on the left, arancini with asparagus & bacon on the right. The bacon cups with mac-cheese did in fact work well -- they were tasty and popular, and even the shaggy and tiny ones held their filling well. We filled them before we left home, then ran them through the oven to heat through and crisp the last flabby bits of bacon.

arancini (mmmmmmmm)

tomato-bacon soup (also nice as a sauce for arancini)

bacon-pepper-cheese scones

bananas foster with bacon & pecans

bacon flavored toothpicks

lentils with carrots, celery, onions with slab bacon

artichokes & mushrooms with pancetta & lemon

artichokes with mustard, wrapped in bacon and broiled -- this is a really tasty thing, and probably quite easy... i may steal it for my next party

borscht with bacon... i didn't actually try this last one, as its maker arrived with it long after I had already stuffed staggering amounts of bacon down my gullet

Also, special bonus recipe from our lovely Bacon Club hostess: for bacon caramel popcorn, cook equal parts B-grade maple syrup and bacon fat to the hard crack stage, mix with popcorn, crisped bacon pieces and pecans. She said that 2 cups each syrup & bacon fat was enough for 10 cups popcorn. Let me know if you try it before i do.

Posted by foodnerd at 10:51 AM | Comments (2)

March 08, 2008

bacon club

We have some friends who came over for Chow & Chow, and we got to talking about other forms of gastronomic excess... which led us to discuss their ongoing potluck series, Bacon Club. You see where this is going, don't you? Heh.

Bacon Club involves a number of pork-fat-loving folk gathering together, each with their own bacon dish, and consuming all those bacony treats and compatible alcohols in one evening of porcine delight. Obviously we were not going to miss this.

It's tonight, and we are making bacon cups filled with macaroni and cheese. We'd recently seen the bacon cups on Not Martha and been exceedingly impressed, so of course they sprang immediately to mind. Those had been filled with lettuce and tomato, for a breadless BLT, but tomatoes are appallingly out of season at the moment, so we cast about for a more suitable filling. Mac & cheese seemed suitably excessive and decadent.

I never like most homemade mac & cheese, because it's insufficiently cheesy. So i surfed around, and my conclusion is that the inadequate cheese flavor is due to two things: use of mild rather than strong cheeses, and use of bechamel. The flour dulls the taste of cheese. Interestingly, a 19th century recipe involved only laying slices of cheese in layers with macaroni and baking till melted.

stove-top mac & cheese, smooth and cheesy like it should be

I found a few recipes without any flour, and it's easy enough to swap in whatever cheeses you like... so i settled on Alton Brown's stovetop recipe, with a bit heavier hand with the hot sauce and mustard powder and cheese (12oz instead of 10), and a bit of sauteed onion just for grins. This came out rather good, though tallasiandude thought it too sharply cheesy (sigh). Anyway, i think that i will stick with this as a basic template, and perhaps next time i will add a bit of prepared mustard to give it a little acid zing to balance the cheesy richness. Or swap in a little chevre for some of the cheddar, mmmm. Or perhaps even a little Velveeta, for that low-rent orange meltiness -- i used to make my grilled cheese sandwiches with one Kraft single and one slice of sharp cheddar, to get the best of both worlds. Those were frickin' awesome.

But back to bacon... the first few woven bacon cups came out perfect, though they took about 40 minutes to fully cook, but the last few batches have shrunk too much too fast and been done in about 20 mins. Part of it is that the different packs of bacon have slices of different widths, and it's harder to get it right with thinner slices, but the other part must be that the oven is now too hot. So we have a number of raggedy-ass bacon cup-slash-scraps, and a few that are tiny little thimbles, but perhaps once they are topped with creamy mac-and-cheese, no one will notice.

first cups

tiny cups, falling off the forms

ragged cups

Hmm, I've just now done another batch and they seem fine, and i think i've figured out the problem: one of my muffin tins is modern and flimsy, and another is vintage and heavy... and the problem was with the heavy old tin. As I was pouring off the fat from a pan that's been sitting out of the oven for 15 minutes -- the cookie sheet base was cool enough to lift up and pour from -- I noticed that the muffin tin itself was still hot enough to be uncomfortable to hold. If the inner support is hot enough to cook the bacon from inside at the same time as the oven cooks from the outside, that might be what's shrinking them up and popping them off the tins.


I'll post again once we're back from Bacon Club, with the final verdict and photos. Either way, it's awfully fun to spend a morning doing arts and crafts with raw bacon and then filling the house with the smell of crisped bacon. Yay.

BTW: we used 4 12oz packs of regular thin-cut bacon for this, which filled two large trays (maybe 25 cups). I made a whole pound of pasta rather than Alton's 8oz, and it seemed cheesy enough, but perhaps it would be saucier with less pasta. In any case, a drier, clingier mac-n-cheese was just the ticket for this application, as it stayed in the cups properly and didn't ooze liquid cheese through the holes in many of the cups when re-heated. Not that you need even close to that much mac-n-cheese; we've got 2/3 of the pot left for dinner tomorrow.

(PS: I don't seem to have any posts about Chow & Chow, and neither does tallasiandude -- we must have been too busy. This was a rather fun party in which we made a boatload of dumplings and other chinese dishes, ate them, and then stayed up far too late watching Stephen Chow movies. Recommended.)

Posted by foodnerd at 01:39 PM | Comments (6)

March 03, 2008

it's been said before...

...but i am not sure what my work life would be without Coke Zero. It's not a habit or a daily thing, but when one works on data verification until 11:45pm and gets up at 5:15am to catch a flight to a client site, and must still be lucid and presentable and, saints preserve us, personable for the entire afternoon -- it simply would not happen without a slow drip of the Zero.

Posted by foodnerd at 04:40 PM | Comments (1)