Monday, March 30, 2009

Fine Bread

Fine bread is a wonderful late medieval/early renaissance treat. I have found recipes for it in The Good Huswifes Jewell by Thomas Dawson (1596) and The English Housewife by Gervase Markham (1615). I've been playing with this recipe for nearly a decade, trying to figure out what combination of ingredients, oven temperatures, baking dishes, and techniques give me the best result.

Fine Bread in The English Housewife by Gervase Markham (1615)
Take a quarter of a pound of fine sugar well beaten, and as much flour finely bolted, with a quantity of aniseeds a little bruised, and mingle all together; then take two eggs and beat them very well whites and all; then put in the mingled stuff aforesaid, and beat all together a good while, then put into a mould, wiping the bottom ever first with butter to make it come out easily, and in the baking turn it once or twice as you shall have occasion, and so serve it whole, or in slices at your pleasure.
Unfortunately, this recipe is missing a little important information, such as temperature, baking time, and quantity of aniseeds. So I researched and experimented until I got a recipe I liked.

Fine Bread
1/2 pound of unbleached white flour
1/2 pound of white sugar
4 eggs, well-beaten
1/2 tsp to 1 tsp of aniseeds, bruised (or gently crushed -- enough to crack, but not pulverize)
1 tsp melted butter

Sift together the flour and sugar. Add the aniseeds and mix. Add beaten eggs and stir until the ingredients turn into batter. Note: At one point, the ingredients will seem like there isn't enough moisture in the egg to moisten all the flour and sugar. Stir for another minute and it will combine into batter.

Put melted butter in the bottom of the baking dish, making sure the bottom is coated. Add the batter.

Bake at 400°F (260°C) until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. The baking time is influenced by the material of the baking pan; metal pans bake quickest and clay pans take a bit longer.

The fine bread is not quite as sweet as the recipe would make it seem. The aniseed provides a nice flavor without being too overwhelming (though the amount could be increased for a more intense flavor). The seeds soften during the baking so there isn't an unpleasant hardness or crunchiness when they are encountered.

The fine bread tends to harden into a biscotti-like texture as it ages. I'm not a huge fan of the change, but others have found it quite lovely.

I've substituted ground cinnamon for the anise with wonderful results.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Chicken in Buxom Cream Sauce

I just couldn't figure out what else to call it.

On her way home from work, Julia called to see what I wanted her to get from the grocery store. She wanted chicken in some sort of cream of something sauce and wanted to know if there was anything else I needed. Well, actually mushrooms and cream of something (mushroom) sauce. I had everything else I needed.

I know a lot of people turn up their noses when someone suggests using a cream of something soup as a base for a sauce. I find it saves me a lot of work and hassle; I don't spend hours cooking the cream sauce and risking burning it. Campbell's soups are consistent, so I know how thick and creamy the end product will be. I also know that I will be adding so many other flavors that the base soup won't necessarily be recognizable.

One of my standard chicken in cream of mushroom sauce dishes uses dijon mustard; I don't make it like the recipe the can. I start with cutting up the chicken, sauteeing mushrooms and onions, browning the chicken, then deglazing the pan. But this weekend I ended up watching America's Test Kitchen and it gave me an idea: sharp cheese!

Chicken in Buxom Sauce
1 whole chicken breast cut into 1/2 pieces
3 tablespoons of Worchestershire sauce
1 large white onion, chopped (I only had a half, so that's what I used. I prefer more)
1 lb crimini mushrooms, sliced
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
1/2 tablespoon horseradish sauce
2 cans of cream of mushroom soup
1 cup dry white wine
1 to 1-1/2 cups of water
1/4 to 1/2 cup shredded romano cheese
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons dried garlic
4 medium handfulls egg noodles (good thick noodles, not wimpy curly ones)

Marinade the chicken in the Worchestershire sauce. The chicken should be coated with a little pooling in the bottom of the bowl.

Over high heat, sautee the onions and mushrooms in the canola oil until they carmelize and a dark brown crust begins to form on the bottom of the pan. Once the mushrooms and onions are done, pull out of the pan and set aside.

Drain the chicken, reserving the fluid. Brown the chicken well. Remove chicken and deglaze with half of the wine. Turn the heat to medium low.

Blend the mustard, horseradish, cheese, pepper, remaining wine, and reserved Worchestershire sauce. Add to deglazing wine in skillet. Stir in the cream of mushroom soup until well-blended. Stir in water slowly until blended. Return chicken, mushrooms, and onions to skillet. Stir well.

Stir sauce frequent to prevent burning. Simmer for 30-60 minutes or until sauce has thickened.

When cooking the noodles, add the salt and garlic to the cooking water. Drain thoroughly.

Serve the sauce over the noodles.

The dish turned out awesomely. The sauce was everything I wanted, creamy and savory. While strongly flavored, the mustard, horseradish, and cheese harmonized beautifully. Unfortunately, I had a couple too many irons in the fire while cooking dinner to think about serving a veggie with it. When serving a side vegetable, it needs to be strongly enough flavored to stand up to the strong flavors in the sauce. I recommend steamed broccoli or Brussels sprouts; green beans are too weak and carrots may be too sweet.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thai-stye Curry

A couple of days ago, Julia and I went to a local little bistro. When the weather is nice, we really try to walk to it. When the weather is nasty, we drive the four blocks, particularly when the sidewalks on the route aren't clear of December's snow.

Back on topic, Picabu Bistro is a trendy little place that specializes in trendy cuisine. Julia finds the flavors a little on the sharp side for her tastes. Don't get me wrong: I really like their food. In fact, I like their food enough that I've asked for one of their recipes (not the one here, though).

When we went there this week, I had a cup of their coconut curry soup. The soup was intense and spicy in the way that all good curries are without being too hot. I even discovered a way I like toasted coconut! But, I'm glad I only got a cup of the soup; a bowl would have been too much.

Well, the curry soup gave me a craving for Thai-style curry this week.

Thai-style Coconut Milk Curry
2 tablespoons of canola oil (I prefer a neutral-flavored oil for this)
1 large white onion, diced
8 med-large crimini mushrooms, sliced
1/4 head cauliflower, divided into florets
1/4 to 1/2 lb carrots, cut into thumb-sized pieces
1 med-large green pepper (red or yellow will work as well) cut into thumb-sized pieces
2 small zucchini (squash or one of each will work as well)
1 broccoli crown, divided into florets
1 tablespoon of rice vinegar
12 to 16 oz shrimp, 70 to 110 count (I prefer the shrimp bite-sized, but larger will work. Chicken or beef can be used instead)
2 to 3 tablespoons curry powder (I make my own blend)
2 14 oz. cans of light coconut milk (I use Thai Kitchen brand. If you want a richer sauce, use the non-light version.)
A couple of pinches of salt
15 oz brown basmati rice (white rice would work as well, but I prefer the whole grain)
6 cups of water
several strands of saffron

Combine the rice, water, saffron, and little salt to make rice. I use a rice cooker because rice is the one thing I can't seem to get right in the kitchen.

Heat the oil in a large pan over medium heat until a piece of onion sizzles when added. This can be done in a large (5 qt) saucepan, but I prefer a wok. I find the vegetables cook more evenly.

Add the onions and mushrooms and saute until onions are turning clear. Add the cauliflower, carrots, and pinch of salt and saute until the cauliflower and carrots begin to soften. Add remaining vegetables and saute until done (I prefer just a little crunchiness to my veggies). If using a saucepan, the vegetables will need to be turned frequently to heat evenly.

Add the shrimp, coconut milk, and curry powder. Stir thoroughly to combine. Heat until shrimp is cooked.

Serve over rice.
Yes, this is more food than two people will eat in one sitting. The curry makes amazing leftovers -- for dinner the next evening or for lunch. I don't really know how to cook for two people; I cook for five.

I love the interplay of the greens, oranges, yellows, and reds in the curry. They are so bright and festive and make me think of spring and summer coming. The combination of the shrimp and coconut milk makes the curry so luxurious and making me feel like I'm spoiling the two of us.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Pot Roast

I love my Dutch oven. It's heavy and bulky; it has gravitas. The natural sheen of the cast iron is wonderfully earthy and warm; I think it contributes to the ambiance of any braised or roasted dish.

Yes, my waxing poetic about my cast iron Dutch oven means that I made dinner in it. Pot roast, to be specific. And it was excellent, a little touch of sweetness, a hint of acid, and lots and lots of umami. Carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, and onions dancing about the roast like dancers around a May pole. Okay, maybe I got a little carried away with that last one, but my point still stands.

I've had several people ask what kind of beef roast to use in a pot roast. Any thick roast will do, but I have a fondness for London broil. It's not too fatty and the grains of the meat aren't too long. Sirloin, round, or chuck will work as well, but beware of excess fat marbled into the meat.

There are many philosophies of pot roast. Some recipes call for dredging the roast in flour, searing it in the pan, then adding the vegetables and fluids. Others call of plopping all the ingredients into the pan and stuffing it in the oven. Which method I use depends greatly on my mood.

I've made pot roasts using the roast in one piece and I've made pot roasts with the roast cut into chunks. Either method will work; cutting into chunks will cut the cooking time a little.

I cut the vegetables different sizes. The onions are diced, the mushrooms are sliced, the baby carrots are left whole, and the potatoes are cut into bite-sized chunks.

Pot Roast
I will indicate the various options in italics.
1 to 2 pounds of beef (The beef roast can be whole or chunked)
6 to 10 medium potatoes (depending on taste), cut slightly larger than bite-size
1/2 to 3/4 pound of baby carrots, whole
1 large onion, diced
1/2 pound of mushrooms
1 large sweet potato/yam (if you use a yam, cut down on the number of carrots or the pot roast will be too sweet)
2 cups of red wine (if you don't want to use wine, use beef or mushroom broth and a couple tablespoons of balsamic vinegar)
2 to 4 tablespoons of chopped garlic (to taste)
1/2 cup of flour
1 teaspoon of salt
2 tablespoons of olive oil
freshly ground pepper to taste
water, enough to cover vegetables and meat

Preheat oven to 250°F (120°C).

Heat oil in Dutch oven on the stove top. Add onions and saute until they are translucent. Remove from pan.

Dredge meat in flour and 1/2 of the salt. Brown meat in Dutch oven. Remove and deglaze pan with 1/2 of the wine.

Add meat, vegetables, remaining wine, and seasonings to pan. Add enough water to just cover. Place in oven for at least two hours. The longer the pot roasts cooks, the more tender the meat will be.

Remove from oven. Pull meat out and cut into chunks if the roast was done whole.

The meat was so fork-tender that I almost didn't need to cut it into chunks. The potatoes were soft and silky in texture. I could go on and on about how each element of the pot roast worked, but I'll leave that to you.

For best results, serve with fresh, warm bread, butter, and the remainder of the wine in the bottle.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Straightening out the blog

I have been trying to update the blog once a week and have actually been succeeding. However, you can't tell that from the time stamps on the blog. I just discovered that the initial save date (of my rough draft) was the date it was being published under, not the date I finalized it. I've since gone back and fixed it.

I'm so, so sorry.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Fried Chicken

Julia, being from the South, likes fried chicken. Not the stuff you get from KFC, but really good fried chicken. And it just so happens that I have a kick-butt recipe for it. (Modest, aren't I?)

I start with the standard milk wash. Sometimes I use buttermilk; usually I use 2% milk. Then I dredge it, dunk it in an egg wash, then roll it around in bread crumbs. Pretty boring. I have two tricks that take boring fried chicken to the next level.

First, I like to spice it up! The key to tasty chicken is to build the flavor in layers. You want spices in the milk, in the flour, and in the bread crumbs. I use salt (of course), freshly ground pepper, garlic, sesame seeds, paprika, cayenne pepper, and Tabasco sauce. Sometimes I add cumin and coriander. I will warn you right now that the amounts below are approximations. How much of any given spice I use varies based on my mood. In general, I like a fairly garlic-heavy fried chicken and a fairly light hot peppery chicken.

Second, I use Panko bread crumbs. I really like the texture they give the fried chicken. They are really, really crispy, and taste great. I find regular crumbs are a little flat both in texture and taste.

Fried Chicken
2 chicken breast halves
2 cups of milk (enough to cover the chicken)
4 to 5 tablespoons garlic powder
3 to 4 teaspoons salt
1 to 2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons sesame seeds
4 to 5 drops Tabasco sauce
1 to 2 teaspoons paprika
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon cumin (optional)
1 teaspoon coriander (optional)
1/2 cup of all-purpose flour
2 eggs
1 to 1-1/2 cups of Panko bread crumbs
1 to 2 cups of canola oil (enough to fill your skillet about an inch deep)

Cut the chicken breast into pieces. I like break it into four pieces -- two thick and two thin. I'll start the thick pieces before the thin and get them to finish about the same time.

Put the milk, Tabasco, 1/4 of the salt, 2 teaspoons of garlic, and 1/3 to 1/2 of the remaining spices, except the sesame seeds. Mix well and add the chicken. Let sit for a minimum of 15 minutes.

Grind half of the sesame seeds into powder. In a second bowl, add half of the remaining salt, all of the remaining spices to the flour. The flour mixture will be very spice heavy.

Beat the two eggs and place in a third bowl.

In a fourth bowl, add the Panko bread crumbs, the remaining salt, and the unground sesame seeds. I don't add powdered spices to this because they tend not to mix in well.

Begin heating the oil at medium high. Dredge each piece of chicken in the flour, coating well, dip into the egg wash, then dredge in the bread crumbs, coating well. Once the oil is hot enough that water dances, start adding the chicken, thickest piece first. Once the first side browns lightly, turn the chicken over. Once the second side browns, turn over again. Continue frying and turning until each piece is done. If the chicken is left on a side too long, the side in the oil will get overly brown before the inside is done.

Once a piece is done, place on a rack to drain. Let rest for five minutes.
The chicken is wonderfully crispy with a nice nuttiness from the sesame seeds. The Panko bread crumbs get a deep golden brown without getting oily. By putting most of the spicing in the flour, the spices retain their punch without burning or turning bitter.

I like frying the chicken in canola oil because the oil has a relatively high smoke-point and is neutral in flavor. The flavor of the chicken and spices really shine through. The key to keeping the chicken breading from burning is to turn the chicken frequently once it has gotten brown.

I often serve the chicken with mashed potatoes or oven-fried potatoes and a steamed veggie like broccoli. The veggie makes me feel virtuous, like I'm eating healthily.