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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"Prime" Rib

I can't believe that the holidays are basically over! Where is the time going? I'm sitting here in my in-laws house in Illinois, enjoying a beautiful white Christmas (never mind that it only became white Christmas day). What I love about spending the holidays with my husband's family is the splendid chaos of so many family members packed in one home on Christmas day. Going along with that is the cooking. Because we live so far away, my husband and I can never host Christmas day, which I would very much enjoy, but at least I can help with the fixings.

A couple of years ago, my in-laws decided they wanted to try a prime rib for the first time. I was charged with figuring out how to cook this expensive piece of meat without ruining it. Since that initial attempt, I have since made this dish four or five other times, always with great success. For a large meal, you can't beat it. It can be a bit pricey, but - if you can afford it - I recommend giving it a try.

Now, if you noticed, I put prime in quotes in the title of this post. That was not an accident. Meat is graded by the USDA as prime, choice, or select. A rib roast (basically uncut rib eye steaks) that you find in the grocery store will typically be choice graded. Prime is usually reserved for restaurants and the like. If you can manage to arrange to get an actual prime rib from your butcher, all the better, but choice (or even select) are still fine cuts of meat.

The other thing that I think is especially important for prime rib is the spice rub on the outside of the meat. It wasn't until I got married and moved east that I first came across restaurants serving prime rib without any kind of herb or seasoning rub. It just ain't right, let me tell you. Now, I like the taste of the meat itself as much as the next gal, but prime rib really is all about that outer edge of flavoring. That's why - in my experience - the end cut is such a highly requested cut in restaurants.

The good news is that the seasoning rub is so easy to put together. You can either rub the garlic into a paste like I show in my creamy garlic salad dressing post or you can use a food processor. Either way, the idea is to end up with a nice, thick garlic and herb paste that you can then smear all over the meat. It doesn't have to be a heavy coat to grace your roast with fabulous flavor.

Place the meat in a pan, fatty side up. If the roast has the bones still in it, it is best to leave the bones on for even cooking. However, I like to cut the meat off the bones before roasting and then tying them back to the meat for cooking; it makes it much easier to serve once done. In this case, we had a boneless roast.

Be sure the meat is at room temperature (or close to it) before placing it in the oven. This step also helps the meat to cook evenly. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Just as a warning here: if your oven is dirty, it may smoke a bit. Also, be prepared for the potent aroma of garlic! When this baby gets in the oven, the air will be perfumed...

Roast at 450 F for 15-20 minutes. Then, reduce the heat to 350 F and continue cooking until the roast reaches 130 degrees in the very center. This will mean that the meat in the very middle will be rare and the meat will be increasingly done as you work toward the outside. Everyone can have the meat at the doneness they want! Be prepared to provide 20 minutes per pound of roasting time.

If no one at your table appreciates rare meat, then leave it in longer and shoot for an internal temperature reading of 145. If you want to reheat the meat or change its doneness like the restaurants do, then cut a slice and dip it into hot au jus. A good restaurant never puts its prime rib on the grill or griddle.

Here's what it will look like when you pull it out of the oven. This was an eight pound roast. If you compare the before and after pictures, you can see just how much the meat shrinks up. But, you see all that browned crust on the outside? That's food paradise, there. As the cook, be sure to take your commission and savor the first few bites by yourself.
Let the roast stand for 10-15 minutes before slicing. This is a great time to use all those fabulous juices (and, yes, maybe even some of the fat) to make some gravy, but that is a posting for another day. Slice and serve! Be prepared for your guests to think you should be elevated to sainthood!

"Prime" Rib
Yield: Variable, herb rub below will easily cover an 8 pound roast

2 TBS minced garlic
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp dried whole thyme leaves
1/2 tsp dried parsley
3-4 TBS olive oil

rib roast (minimum 4 pounds), prime, choice or select grade

Mince garlic and add salt and smear with the edge of your chef knife to form a paste - OR, use a food processor to blend all ingredients. If you use a processor, try not to over process as having a blend with small pieces of the ingredients is preferred over a smooth paste. Mix the remainder of the ingredients with the garlic paste and stir to mix.

Place roast in a shallow pan (pan with 1 inch sides is best), fat side up. If the roast has bones, cut the meat away from the bones and then use kitchen twine to tie the roast back together. This process allows for even cooking and then easy serving when the roast is done. Smear the meat evenly with the herb paste. Be sure to coat the ends of the meat, too.

Place roast in a preheated 450 degree F oven for 15-20 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and continue roasting until reaches desired doneness inside. Measure in the middle of the thickest part of the roast with a thermometer. I like to pull it at 130 degrees F for rare. Pull at 140-145 for medium rare. Allow 15-20 minutes per pound cooking time.

Remove roast from the oven and let rest on the counter for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Baked Black Bean Dip

The first thing I want to do is challenge you to try saying "Baked Black Bean Dip" five times in a row! Now that's a tongue twister. Fortunately, who cares if you can say something when your mouth is busy downing some of the best chip dip around.

This recipe is in honor of my recently horrible diet. I figure by the week's end, I've hit all of the food groups, even if I don't within a day. Last night's dinner was a huge plate of broccoli. Tonight, it was this dip with chips. Well, maybe a lot of this. I feel a little roly-poly...

... but it was worth it! So tasty!

I've been fiddling around with some new ingredients lately. I bought my first jar of crema mexicana last month and tonight was its second use. I also recently purchased some queso fresco, which despite having talked about it before, was used in my kitchen for the first time tonight. That is some good cheese. And when they talk about it being a "crumbling" cheese, they ain't a-kidding. It was so fun! See how it's so beautifully crumbled on top of this dip that's ready to go in the oven?

When it came out, it had melted, but had not lost its integrity (which I appreciate since I'm rather fond of integrity). It has a great flavor, but even better, I love the texture. It's a bit... I'm afraid to say chewy because I don't want you to get a negative connotation. But - dang it, it was chewy, and I mean that in the best sense possible! The bits of cheese were my favorite part of this concoction. It's so velvety and flavorful with these great bits of chewy cheese in it.

I must warn you, though; I think if you are planning on serving it at a party, you might want to bake it in two smaller dishes so that you don't end up with a fight at the dip bowl!

Baked Black Bean Dip
Yield: approximately 2 1/2 cups of dip

1 - 16 oz can of black refried beans
1/2 cup crema mexicana
1/4 cup salsa (drained of excess juice)
1/2 cup crumbled queso fresco (divided)
2 TBS shredded cheddar

Mix the beans, crema mexicana, salsa, and 1/4 cup of the queso fresco thoroughly in a bowl. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a shallow 10-inch round baking dish (or other similar sized dish) with cooking spray. Spread the bean mixture into the dish and smooth out with a rubber spatula.

Sprinkle the top with the remaining queso fresco and the cheddar. Bake in a 350 degree F oven for 25 minutes. Be sure to let cool five minutes before serving. If desired, you can garnish the top with sliced olives (before or after baking) and sliced green onions.

NOTE: If you do not have queso fresco, you can substitute mozzarella cheese. If you do not have the crema mexicana, you may substitute sour cream. Also, be aware that most beans are very salty and pre-seasoned so no additional salt or seasoning is necessary. If the beans you are using, however, do not fall in this category, you can add salt, garlic powder, and cumin to taste.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Oh la la... can it really have been almost two weeks since my last post? And Christmas - is it really only fifteen days away? WAIT! Stop the clock! I haven't been able to do anything yet. Christmas shopping? Uh, nope. Christmas cards? Ditto nope. Holiday decorations? Hmmm... does hanging a wreath on the front door count? Oh my goodness! How about holiday baking - my favorite part of the holidays? Not a darn thing. Not one single little cookie. It's positively depressing. Unfortunately, those darn priority things are getting in my way. Grrrr.

The worst part about the whole deal is what I've been eating for dinner. In the last week, the closest I have come to cooking was boiling up a packet of ramen. Other dinners this week have included canned soup, frozen burritos, and a bowl full of salad greens. Fortunately, while my mom was visiting over Thanksgiving we cooked a few things, so on these recently rare occasions when I have a few extra minutes, I at least have something to share with you. Please bear with me as I make it through the rest of this school year... believe me, lately, I would much rather spend the time with you than continually trying to convince my students that the purpose of my class is to prepare them for life, not to simply give them another 'A' they haven't earned. But - I digress - this is a cooking blog for crying out loud!

So, let's cook! I am not a marshmallow fanatic, but I like them reasonably well in certain applications and occasionally as a snack. I always wanted to try making homemade marshmallows and I rather enjoyed the process. As far as the product goes, they really don't differ that much from the store bought. In fact, in a blind taste test, I'm not sure I'd be able to tell the difference. The good news is that with homemade marshmallows, you can play with flavorings, colorings, and shapes. How fun! Of course, I'm not going to talk about that today. Since it was my first go at the things and I needed a baseline from which to work in the future, I just made plain ones.

It starts with unflavored gelatin. This type of gelatin requires "blooming" before you use it. All that means is that you mix it with a little cold water to soften it up. Here it is in the bowl of my mixer looking funky.

The next step is to heat up a sugar syrup on the stove. It gets heated to the soft ball stage, or about 240 degrees F.

The hot syrup then gets poured slowly into the softened gelatin with the mixer on low. Be sure to use the whisk attachment. Once the syrup has all been added, the speed gets cranked up until a magical transformation occurs.

It turns a beautiful white, glossy color and expands significantly in volume. It only took about 7 minutes in the mixer to get a nice, thick marshmallow cream.

While the marshmallow is beating, prepare a couple of cookie sheets with parchment and then sprinkle with the cornstarch/powdered sugar mix. I used a little strainer to get an even distribution. Don't be stingy with the powder or you'll regret it later. You can never have too much, but believe me - you can definitely have too little.

Once the marshmallow cream can stand on itself like shown in this picture, turn the mixer off and remove the whisk.

Spoon the cream into a pastry bag either with the tip cut out or use a large, round tip. You could simply line a rectangular pan with the parchment and powder, but I like the whole marshmallow shape too much. Pipe the cream into rows on your sheet. I found it's best to make them on the small side unless you don't mind them having a slightly oval shape, as the large ones tend to flatten a bit under their own weight.

Refilling the bag can be a bit tricky. In the future, I might simply use a new disposable bag for each refill. It's a pretty sticky situation...

When you have finished piping out the rows, sprinkle them again very generously with the starch/sugar powder mixture. Let them sit out for a few hours to firm up.

There are two ways to go about separating the little buggers. I tried the scissor method first. It was fine, but the scissors tended to goop up more quickly that I have the patience for, so I ended up using the secondary method.

Ah... now this is more like it! The pizza cutter worked like a gem. Just be sure to use plenty, plenty, plenty of the powder to keep from ending up with a crazy, sticky mess!

Hey, look! It's a marshmallow! As I cut them up, I tossed them around in a bowl with more of the sugar to cover all sides. I then placed them in a colander to shake off the excess.

Be sure to store them in an airtight container. Because they are mostly sugar, if you keep them air tight, they will last for weeks... which is good, cause I'm not ditching them after just a few days with all this effort!

Oh, and let me tell you about the hot chocolate application. Here is where I might actually be able to tell a difference between store-bought and homemade. The homemade ones seemed to melt differently - and in a good way. Yup, they were worth the work after all!

Yield: about a half-gallon container of small marshmallows
Adapted from Alton Brown's recipe

3 packages unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup ice cold water

1/2 cup water
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp table salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract (or any other flavoring you choose)
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup corn starch

Place the gelatin and the 1/2 cup of cold water in the bottom of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk.
In a small saucepan, mix together the other 1/2 cup of water, granulated sugar, salt, and corn syrup. Outfit the pan with a candy thermometer. Turn on the heat to medium high and cook without stirring until the mixture reaches soft ball, or 240 degrees F. Remove from the heat.

Bring the pan of hot syrup over to the mixture and add slowly while mixing at low speed. Once you have added all the syrup, increase the speed to high. Mix on high until it gets thick, shiny, and white, and can stand up on itself (see picture above). This step took me about 7 minutes. Add the vanilla and whip just until well mixed. While mixing, prepare a couple of baking sheets with parchment and a liberal sprinkling of the cornstarch and powdered sugar mixture.

Spoon cream into a pastry bag with a round tip (or with the end cut out). Pipe into 1/2 - 3/4 inch logs on the prepared pans. This is a sticky procedure, so be prepared! When finished, sprinkle the top sides completely with the powdered mixture.

Set the tray aside for a few hours to firm up. Use a pizza cutter to cut into small marshmallows. Dip into a bowl with the starch/sugar powder mixture to completely coat all sides. Remove excess by shaking marshmallows briefly in a colander.

Store in an air tight container for at least a month.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Belated Thanksgiving Wish

I hope that everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving and was able to spend time with family and friends and able to enjoy great food and fellowship. We had a small gathering here, just me, my mom, and my husband. But it was an unexpected bonus, as we had been working under the assumption that the hubby was going to have to be out of town over the holiday. It is nice to have family near at the holidays, isn't it?

We decided that this year, minimalism was an okay thing. For dinner itself, we only served three dishes, just like I do for my meals throughout the year: a meat, a starch, and a vegetable. We also decided to be a bit unconventional with the meat this year. We roasted a duck. It was a great choice, because with only three people, we could reasonably feed our "crowd" with only one bird (note to self... ducks are small!). We boiled it first to render off some of the fat and then finished it in a really hot oven to brown. We also put together a nice sour cherry, red wine, and orange sauce to go over the duck. It worked out really well.

While I could give up the turkey or ham at Thanksgiving without any remorse, I just couldn't do without dressing. I put together a stuffing using bread cubes from some left over potato wheat bread I had in the freezer. I sauteed a bunch of aromatics and mushrooms, added herbs, a fair amount of butter, and some chicken broth. I like stuffing that is fluffy and moist on the inside and crunchy and golden on the outside. This stuffing fit the bill!

The last item I made was an old standby. I love peas with caramelized shallots. I should have taken a picture of them last night, as they were much prettier than what you see below (an older photo from when I didn't really know how to use my camera properly yet). I love caramelized shallots because they give a sweet, full flavor to a sometimes pedestrian vegetable.

We finished the evening off with a non-traditional dessert. My mom wanted to taste my cornmeal crust, so we made small blueberry tarts. They were so delicious. We made six so we each had one last night and now we each have another waiting for us today. I can hardly wait! So often, a crust is simply a vehicle for the filling. What I love about this cornmeal crust is it really is the star of the dish. I added a little lemon zest to it this time as well. It is sweet and delectable with a slight hint of lemon and a nice je ne sais quoi from the cornmeal.

This had been an interesting week of cooking... some of which was successful, some not. We made marshmallows, which were delicious. I attempted to make some mozzarella cheese for the first time, but I kept forgetting to come in from our yard work at the proper times and it failed. Fortunately, serendipity took over and I found the end result was a great base for a spreadable cheese. I'll have to see if I can recreate that serendipity to develop a real recipe to post. We really enjoyed the spread on crackers. Lastly, I also tried to make yogurt. It's a really simple process, so I was a little miffed when it didn't seem to come out quite as thick as it should... until I read the date on the carton of yogurt I used as a starter. I guess I don't always use plain yogurt as often as I need to! The carton "use by" date was in late September! Oops! I think I can still use the homemade yogurt for cooking, however, so all is not lost.

While I am starting to come to the sad realization that my week of relaxation is coming to a screeching conclusion (I'd better get my red pen in gear soon to finish grading papers), I will try to start posting some of the recipes I made this week that worked great. I hope food brought you and your family closer together this week, too. Happy belated Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mincemeat Handpies

Hard to believe I almost forgot to post these little gems! While I love these with mincemeat in them, they would be great with any other kind of fairly firm pie filling you can think of. Mini-apple pies? Oh yeah. Mini-berry pies? Splendid. The trick is keeping the right ratio of pie to filling.

To be honest, I think I got the ratio off a bit on this batch. You want to be sure to roll the crust thinly enough so that they aren't too doughy. The trick is finding where that line is. Shoot for about 1/8 of an inch and fiddle from there.

I typically use a traditional crust, but you could use any pastry crust adaptation you want. You could even use my Whole Wheat Pie Crust for an added nuttiness. I used the mincemeat I canned last year. I would love to post how to make it, but I would have to do it without any pictures, because that batch made a dozen quart jars... I won't need to make mincemeat for at least another two years! However, any store-bought mincemeat works, or you could easily cook a filling that is very mincemeat-like. My Ice Cream a la Pie recipe is pretty close.

The other thing I love about these little pies is that they freeze so well. One day of making these little pies, and you'll be able to enjoy them for many days to come. Simply bake them! No need to thaw first. I just bake them at a slightly lower temperature than when they are not frozen. Also, it helps to place them in the oven when you first turn it on so that they warm up with the oven.

Making the pies is fairly straight-forward. Roll out the dough until it is nice and thin. Again, go for thinner than what you see here, as I thought this batch turned out a bit crusty. I use a 3-inch biscuit cutter to cut the rounds out.

I place them on a parchment lined cookie sheet and spoon a small amount of filling into the middle. I use my #100 disher (about 2 tsp). Have some egg wash handy (one egg yolk beaten with 1 TBS of water) and brush the edges of the bottom crust.
Place the other crust over the top. Now, sealing takes a bit of practice to get a motion that will work for you. The important thing is to try and get any large pockets of air out. Seal the edges of the pies with the tines of a fork. Brush the tops with the egg wash and then sprinkle with sanding sugar (regular sugar works fine, too). Lastly, using a toothpick or cake tester, prick a few holes in the top to allow the steam to escape.

Bake in a 400 degree F oven for about 15-20 minutes, or until they are nicely browned. If you want to freeze some instead, freeze them unbaked on the baking sheet until they are nice and rigid. Remove from the sheets into a freezer container. I have used both zip top bags and plastic containers; both work well. When you are ready to serve the frozen pies, simply place on baking sheets and place in the oven right as you turn it on. Use a slightly lower temperature with frozen pies - about 375 degrees F. They will take slightly longer to bake, but they will taste just like they did on the day you made them!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Maple Blueberry Topping

I am currently enjoying a wonderful week off from work. My mom is visiting as well and we are enjoying our time in the kitchen. Today we are sitting down and making a list of the items we want to make this week so we can go to the grocery store. Of course, to properly focus our minds on such intense tasks requires sustenance.

That sustenance today took the form of my best ever pancakes. While these pancakes are very good with plain old syrup, they are extraordinary with blueberries. I like to spice up my blueberry syrup with a little extra flavoring.

The idea for this sauce came one day when I made these pancakes. I served them with regular maple syrup and a traditional blueberry sauce so each person could choose their favorite topping. I decided to use a little bit of each on mine and was blown away by the combination of blueberry and maple. This sauce cooks up very quickly, so you can make it while you wait for the pancakes to cook. Oh, and it is also wonderful on ice cream.

Maple Blueberry Topping
Yield: about 2 cups topping

2 cups of fresh or frozen blueberries
3 TBS sugar (or to taste depending on your berries)
2 TBS corn starch
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup real maple syrup
2 tsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp lemon zest
dash cinnamon
dash nutmeg

Mix all of the ingredients together in a heavy sauce pan over medium to medium-high heat. Heat, stirring regularly, until the mixture is thick and bubbly. Let cool slightly before serving.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Cheddar Cheese Sauce

Not everyone loves broccoli the way that I do; for those of you who prefer your broccoli with a bit of adornment, this sauce is the way to go. As easy as it is to make a real cheese sauce, I'm not sure why anyone would make one of those fake cheese sauces.

Sorry, folks, as far as I'm concerned, Velveeta is just not cheese. My husband loves the stuff though. Out of love for him, I suffer through the humiliation of having that yellow box in my shopping cart. I've been trying to break him of this habit ever since we got married... but, alas, I guess when you grow up with the stuff, it holds a special place in your heart. However, this sauce tastes great regardless of your affinity for those processed cheese sauces. This sauce is smooth and creamy. It's got a sweet edge from the shallots and and a tangy edge from the sour cream. It's a great combination. And you can make it in the time it takes to steam your favorite vegetable.

It starts with butter and shallots. Saute over medium heat. This just may be my favorite smell in the whole-wide world. It's completely different from the smell of sauteing onions or garlic, and it is perfect. Let them go until they are nice and soft.

Then add the flour and stir until the flour is all moistened. Add the sour cream and combine until smooth; then add the milk. Keep the heat around medium and stir regularly. Add the nutmeg and pepper. When the mixture begins to thicken, turn off the heat and add the cheese. Stir until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth. Lastly, taste and add salt as needed to season. If you want to add a special twist, add a small splash of cognac. Yowza!

The last point to remember is to let the sauce stand for a couple minutes before serving so that it can finish thickening up a bit. If you serve it immediately, it will still be a bit thin and will not stick to the vegetables as well.

Cheddar Cheese Sauce
Yield: about 1 1/2 cups sauce

1 TBS butter
1 TBS minced shallot
1 TBS flour
1 TBS sour cream
1 cup milk (whole milk is best)
sprinkle freshly grated nutmeg
dash of ground white pepper (or black)
2/3 cup grated cheddar cheese
salt to taste (cheese is salty, so go easy)

Saute the shallots in the butter over medium heat until they are nice and soft. In this case, you do not want them to brown too much. Add the flour and stir until it is completely moistened. Add the sour cream and stir throroughly. Then add the milk and stir until smooth. Add the nutmeg and pepper. Stir regularly over medium heat until the sauce just reaches a boil and begins to thicken. Remove from the heat and add the grated cheese. Stir until it is melted and the sauce is smooth. Taste and season as needed with salt. Let stand 3-4 minutes before serving so that the sauce can thicken slightly.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Maple Glazed Bacon Bits

A while ago I posted about pancetta and how I like to keep it handy for cooking with. While I do love pancetta, I have recently decided that I really am an all-American gal, because, deep down, cured pig just ain't the same without that smoked flavor. So last time I was at the market, I specifically looked for some of the thickest cut, hardwood smoked bacon I could find.

When I am cooking with bacon, especially as small pieces, I think thicker is better. When I make bacon to eat as strips, I like it thinner as I am all about the thin, crispiness. I specifically bought this thick-cut bacon to cook with. I'll use it as the base for soups. I'll use it in fried rice. Oh! And don't forget about pasta carbonara! There are any number of recipes in which bacon is a useful, flavorful addition. But sometimes, it's a star in its own right. These little bacon bits are divine. Crispy and salty, smokey and just slightly sweet. They are the perfect addition to any salad and a darn sight better than those fake bacon "bits." (Bits of what, I'm not sure - it sure isn't bacon!).

To prepare bacon to be useful for cooking, I open up the package and freeze the strips individually. This allows me to easily grab out however many strips I need at any moment. They thaw so quickly this way that you can pull them out and use them right away. I love convenience! Be sure to line the tray on which you plan to freeze your bacon with parchment so that you can easily get the slices apart once they're frozen. Later, I remove them from the sheet and place them into a zip top bag. Voila! Bacon is at the ready for a shot of flavor anytime!

To make the bacon bits, cut the bacon strip into small pieces. You can do this while the bacon it still frozen; it'll all come out the same in the end. Place the pieces into a skillet over medium heat. You want the heat low enough that all of the excess fat can render out before the pieces get too browned. Stir periodically, adjusting the heat if necessary.

When the bacon is just about done and is nicely browned and completely rendered (required if you want a crispy bacon bit), drain off as much of the excess fat as possible, turn off the heat, and then add a small dollop of real maple syrup. Don't go overboard, here. You want them to have a slightly sweet, maple essence, not become a sticky gloppy mess! Keep the bits moving for a minute or so and then let them cool completely in the pan. In this case, you do not want to remove the bits onto paper towels to drain because the sugars will cause them to stick to the paper. If you want, when draining the fat, you can pat them with paper towels to sop up the extra grease, but once the syrup is on there, paper towels are anathema. Once they are completely cooled, sprinkle over your favorite salad and enjoy their salty, sweet crunch!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lemon Ricotta Tarts

I made lasagna last week. It seems that I bought too much ricotta cheese, but I had less than a cup left over. I know, I know. Why didn't you just add it to the lasagna? Because I'm weird about ricotta in lasagna. I like it to be there, but I don't like it to be too there. Thus, the left over ricotta. So, then the quandary began... what do you do with less than a cup of ricotta cheese?

I really like cheesecake. I love the decadence. I love the creaminess. I love it's slightly tart edge. It is the one dessert I will regularly imbibe in at a restaurant. Earlier this year, I made mini-cheesecakes from some homemade cheese I had in my fridge. Tuesday, I decided I needed to try using that left-over ricotta to make a cheesecake-like dessert. You know why I thought this was important? Have you ever compared the nutritional information on the side of a tub of ricotta to the info for a brick of cream cheese? You should. And then you will make this tart and congratulate yourself for a job well done. While these tarts are not as creamy as a cream cheese cheesecake, they are just as delicious.

I made these guys two ways. I made a couple of four-inch mini-tarts using the cute little pans you can find almost everywhere nowadays. I also made a dozen of these adorable little one-biters. I love mini-muffin tins. However, I really should finally throw away that old pan I have that pretends to be non-stick. Every time I use it, I grumble about what a bald-faced liar it is. Regardless, they still came out reasonably attractive and darn delicious!

The first step, of course, is the crust. I went with the requisite graham cracker crust. It's just the right thing to do. I pulsed the crackers in my food processor and then added the sugar, butter, and the lightest hint of cinnamon. Mix together and then divide amongst your baking vessels. I have this cute little wooden tamper that was a wedding gift, but fingers and spoons are pretty useful, too.

Bake the crusts in a preheated 400 degree F oven for about 7-9 minutes, until they are slightly browned. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. Turn the oven down to about 335 degrees F. Mixing the batter together is really easy. The "hardest" part is using a fork or whisk to fluff up the egg white. I went just shy of soft peaks. The most important thing is not to forget the lemon! These tarts have such a great lemon flavor. It's subtle but distinctive. Distribute the batter evenly between the tarts.

Bake in a fairly cool oven for about 20 minutes for the mini-muffin tin size and about 30 minutes for the four-inch tart size. Remove them before they brown. They are done as soon as a tester comes out clean. By the time these would start to brown, they would be over-cooked and be a bit dry. We don't want dry cheesecakes! I like mine chilled, but you can serve them at room temperature if you want. Just be sure to let them cool completely before trying to remove them from their tins or the graham cracker crust will fall apart on you!

Lemon Ricotta Tarts
Yield: 24 mini-tarts or 4 - 4" tarts

7 full graham crackers
3 TBS sugar
sprinkle cinnamon
3 TBS melted butter

2/3 cup ricotta cheese
2 TBS Creama Mexicans (or creme fresh or sour cream)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla
zest of one small lemon (or half of a large one)
1 TBS fresh lemon juice
1 egg yolk
1 egg white, beaten just shy of soft peaks

Process the crackers in a food processor or bang into crumbs in a plastic bag. Add the sugar and cinnamon, stir to evenly distribute. Add the melted butter and stir completely. Divide the crust evenly between your pans. Tamp the crust firmly down. Bake in a preheated 400 degree F oven for 7-9 minutes, or until the crusts are just lightly golden. Remove from oven and let cool slightly.

Reduce oven temperature to 335 degrees F. Mix the ricotta, Creama Mexicans, sugar, vanilla, zest, lemon juice, and egg yolk together gently. In a separate bowl, beat the egg white until it is almost to soft peaks. Fold it into the other mixture. Evenly distribute the filling between all the pans. You can fill them all the way up as this batter does not rise much at all. Bake the minis for about 20 minutes and the tarts for about 28-30 minutes. Remove as soon as a tester comes out clean. Let cool before removing from tins. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mint Chocolate Chip Ice "Cream"

The very first thing I have to say is, "Thank you, Ida." Ida was exactly what a hurricane should be to teacher in dire need of a day off. Just threatening enough to call school off for a day, but tame enough that when it's all said and done, everyone was just really happy to have a day off school.

Even though I had... I mean, have, plenty of work to do, work that I meant to start today, I couldn't help myself. It's been so long since I've been able to play around in the kitchen that when all was said and done, three different sweet treats were made and no school work was completed. That's OK. At least I'll have good snacks now while I work tomorrow!

The first thing I made today was mint chocolate chip ice cream. I am a die-hard fan of Breyer's Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream. I think it is hereditary because my mom suffers from the same affliction. Fortunately for her, she gets enough exercise these days that she is able to buy the stuff and not feel too badly... but when I buy it and eat the whole thing in less than a day I wind up not being able to button my pants. I simply cannot help myself when the stuff is around. I sometimes wonder if there's some narcotic in there that makes it so impossible to stop eating. I can't even be troubled to get a bowl out of the cupboard, for crying out loud. Anyway, I could go on and on about how afflicted I am, but instead I'll tell you the solution I devised to allow myself the satisfaction without the waist bulge.

I make my own using whole milk. Sure, it still has a lot of sugar in it. Sure, it's not a health food. But I can eat a scoop of it and be satisfied without feeling compelled to eat the whole carton. It's a good feeling, you know. And it's not because it's not good. It is. Again, I can eat one (you heard me, one) scoop and be happy. It's minty; it's chocolaty... it's pretty dadgum creamy for a treat that is basically an ice milk.

While there are a variety of ice cream makers/churns out there, these days I use my Cuisinart electric one most of the time. This recipe fits perfectly in it. You want to make sure to not overload the churn so that there is plenty of room for air to fluff up your ice cream. Air is one of the things that really makes it taste creamier than it might otherwise.

I mix all of the ingredients (except chocolate) in a mason jar with a sealing lid, shake it up and leave it in the refrigerator to come together for a few hours. During this time, if I happen by the refrigerator, I'll give it another shake. This time is necessary to allow the sugars to melt and the guar gum to become saturated. Once a few hours (or up to a couple of days) are up, pour the mixture into a prepared ice cream churn. Turn it on and let it go. The Cuisinart churn uses a coolant filled chamber that you place in the freezer so that you don't have to mess with ice and salt. A couple of tips, though:
  • I store mine in the freezer at all times so that it is really nice and cold when I want to use it.
  • I store mine upside down so that the coolant is frozen into the "top" of the container. That way, as I churn, the top of the chamber is as cold as the bottom.
  • Be sure the freezer you store it in is at least at zero degrees F. The colder it is, the more firm you can get your ice cream during the churning and the more air you can incorporate.

Here is what it looked like just a few minutes after I got started. I think it took my ice cream about half an hour to churn. Again, I like to let it go as long as I dare before I start worrying that the motor is getting too hot. Here's what it looked like when I pulled it out. Notice how it stands in ridges in the freezer.
While you can serve it immediately and it will taste divine, I like to let it ripen in the freezer a bit first. Homemade ice cream fresh out of the churn melts so fast it's a bit ridiculous. I like to put it in a plastic container and then I smooth out the top so that there is less surface area on which ice crystals can form.

A couple of hours is all it takes before it is really ready to go. However, as long as you were careful to let it run long enough to get a fair amount of air in it and used the guar gum, you should have a scoopable ice cream until it gets eaten up.

Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream
Yield: about 3 1/2 cups

2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla
1/8 tsp guar gum
1/2 tsp mint extract
2 TBS heavy cream
1/3 cup mini-chocolate chips

Mix all ingredients together except for the chips into a quart jar with a sealing lid. Shake for a minute and let sit in the refrigerator for a few hours. Shake occasionally, if possible.

Pour the milk mixture into a prepared ice cream churn. Churn until the ice cream is thick and stands in ridges as it works it way through the paddle. Remove the paddle and fold in the chocolate chips. Decant into a quart-sized plastic container. Smooth out the top, cover, and place in the freezer to ripen for at least a few hours before enjoying.

Oh, and what else did I make today that I'll be posting in the coming days, you might ask? Mincemeat Handpies and Lemon Ricotta Tarts coming right up!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Moo Shu Pork

I really love this dish. One of the things I've found about figuring out how to make my favorite ethnic dishes at home is that when I go out to eat I can now broaden my horizons instead of feeling compelled to order the same thing time after time. Now I can make my favorites at home and fulfill that craving before I go out. Since I learned how to make chicken tikka masala at home, for instance, I have since learned that I also enjoy vindaloo and dal, among others.

Moo shu pork is one of those classic Chinese dishes that I always figured was too complex to make at home, but as we saw yesterday, those little pancakes are not nearly as hard to make as one might think! The filling is actually quite simple and straight-forward. While I initially made this dish using a recipe out of a magazine, I was so disappointed in the flavor that I decide to start over from scratch. The resulting sauce was the right mix to get the taste I wanted... and there are only five ingredients! Multiply the ingredient amounts by whatever amount you want. The amounts listed below should cover enough vegetables to easily serve 3-4 people. The sauce goes much farther than you might think and I've found that you really don't want too much sauce in this dish. The last consideration is to be sure not to overcook the vegetables, which can happen fairly quickly. You still want the cabbage to have some bite to it.

Speaking of cabbage... so I sliced up a bunch of cabbage and grated a bunch of carrot to make the majority of my vegetable mix. I also sliced up some onion fairly thinly, sliced green onions, and some mushrooms. In this first attempt, you can see that I was using plain old mushrooms. They worked out fairly well, but later I realized I had a more traditional ingredient in my pantry and went with it instead.

Here is that more traditional ingredient. Again, regular mushrooms work just fine... or you could leave them out entirely. The filling ingredients are really flexible - use what appeals to you! (In fact, you can easily make this a vegetarian meal by leaving out the pork.) These dried black fungus strips, though are a cinch to use. I placed small handful in a bowl of warm water for about ten minutes to rehydrate them. Then I rinsed them well under running water in a small colander. They were then ready to use.

Along with the vegetables is a decent quantity of minced garlic and ginger. Yum!

You may not think so, since I forgot to take a picture of it, but the eggs are a very important part of this dish. Get your pan nice and warm, add a little oil or butter, and gently scramble the eggs. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Turn the heat in your pan up to high, add a small amount of oil and cook the pork strips until just done. Remove them from the pan and set aside with the eggs. Let the pan heat back up and saute the vegetables in a little bit more oil. Make sure the pan is hot before adding the vegetables. Remember, over-cooking is to be avoided here at all costs! Stir regularly to cook the vegetables evenly. When the vegetables have little bit of color and are just slightly tender, turn off the heat and add the sauce. Stir to distribute the sauce and then add the egg. Lightly toss and then serve wrapped up in Chinese Pancakes. I like to use a little plum sauce with mine.

To wrap them up, place a small pile of filling in the middle of the pancake. Be careful not to use too much filling or you will never be able to wrap it up neatly.

Wrap like you might wrap a burrito. Fold one side over and then wrap the ends in. Lastly, roll over to close. Serve immediately.

Moo Shu Pork
Yield: filling for 8-12 pancakes

3 large eggs, lightly beaten
4-8 ounces thinly sliced pork tenderloin

4-6 cups of shredded cabbage
1 cup shredded carrot
1/2 cup finely sliced onion
1/2 cup sliced green onion (green parts, too)
1/4 cup dried black fungus strips, soaked and rinsed
1 TBS minced garlic
1 TBS minced ginger

1 TBS Hoisin sauce
1 TBS soy sauce
1 tsp rice wine (not vinegar)
1 tsp brown sugar
2-3 drops toasted sesame oil

Shred the vegetables but try to keep them from getting too fine. Toss the vegetables together to evenly distribute the ingredients. Mix the sauce ingredients together in a small bowl or cup; set aside.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add a little bit of oil. Cook the eggs until they are gently scrambled. Remove from the pan and set aside. Turn up the heat to high, add a little more oil - if needed - and cook cook the pork just until it's done. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Add another dollop of oil and let the pan heat back up. When the pan is nice and hot, add the vegetables and stir regularly to help them cook evenly. When the vegetables are just slightly browned and slightly softened, remove them from the heat and add the sauce. Toss to coat and then add the egg and pork. Gently stir to mix. Serve wrapped in Chinese Pancakes with plum sauce, if desired.
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