October 27, 2011 Comments Off on chili

The girl announced a couple of days ago that we should make chili for dinner.  I knew she meant the stuff out of a can, so I told her that we could absolutely make chili, but we were going to do the real stuff.  I explained to her the critical differences between Texas and Cincinnati chili, and we agreed we’d go with Texas.  No beans.  Just meat and tomatoes, plus a whole bunch of secret ingredients for extra yum.  Nothing against Cincinnati chili, for those partisans amongst the readership.  We’ll get to it.

Today was a good day for it.  I had a whole slate of meetings that all got canceled, so I had planned on a day at home catching up on a couple of writing assignments.  2,000 words on the history of building technology in America.  That would keep me tied to the laptop, and I figured I could set up in the kitchen and monitor an all-day chili distillation.

I’d cheated, a little.  Bon Appetit had a big article on chili a couple of months ago, and I’d had my eye on this recipe ever since.  We had some dried ancho chiles leftover from our last pimiento mac’n’cheese.  The spice drawer is well stocked for exactly this kind of ingredient-heavy deal, and we had plenty of canned tomatoes.  All we needed was the meat.  And here’s where it got serious, fast.  Bon Appetit scoffed at the idea that you’d ever use ground beef in chili.  Texans use beef, for crying out lout.  So I followed instructions, went to the awesome meat counter downtown and walked out with two pounds of boneless chuck.  You cut that up into half-inch cubes, brown them in a dutch oven and then let them sit for a while.  Meanwhile, you brown some onions and garlic in the pot and chuck in a metric ton of ground ancho chile, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, and allspice.  With the new burr grinder sitting in its box, the old coffee grinder saw its first spice-grinding action.  Suddenly the kitchen smelled like hungry.

The beef goes back in, along with the secret ingredient–an entire bottle of Guinness.  This was the step that had convinced me, having enjoyed more than one Ale pie while living in London.  Add some tomatoes, put the lid on the dutch oven, set the stovetop to “stun,” and wait four hours.

“Something smells like chili,” O said when she got home (long story about rush hour bus route schedules and needing a ride from campus, but all’s well that ends well).  Too right, I told her.  What came out of that dutch oven at dinner time was a rich, black, potent sauce.  The chuck just about melted into the liquid, and all of it smelled great (OK, a little clove-y, it’s hard to measure stuff going into the grinder).  She was totally into it.  C was a bit intimidated; he tried a few bites and then nibbled around the edges, mostly nomming the cheddar cheese I offered as a topping.  O covered for him.  “It is a little spicy, Dad,” she said, like that was a bad thing.  And to an eleven-year-old palate, I understand it can be.  But they were both enthusiastic about future chili experiments; Cincinnati is next.

And me?  Well, it was definitely the best chili I’ve ever cooked, but since most of my experience involves cans in college that’s not saying much.


tandoori chicken

February 12, 2011 Comments Off on tandoori chicken

Basically, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.  I wasn’t, really.  We’ve been chugging along in the ‘try new foods’ department, it’s been about a week since either kid needed a mulligan, but the reviews have been inconsistent.  O’s default response to our entrees has been “not the best, but if it was eat this or starve I guess I’d eat this.”  It’s been the boy that’s been the real surprise–he’s gone after new stuff with some real fortitude, made some discoveries along the way, and handed over the title of fussiest eater in the family to his big sister.

So I really should have gone with a defensive move–maybe used the rest of the pork tenderloin but called it chicken, or done hamburgers again now that sloppy joes went over moderately well.  But this tandoori chicken recipe had been staring me in the face for a week or two.  I’ve still got a truckload of Garam Masala in the cabinet, and I thought if I could just get away with calling it Indian barbequed chicken, I might be able to slide it past.  I had a package of frozen drummies, so it seemed plausible, right?  The kids were skeptical but game.  “It will be awesome!” I said, in that voice that they now know means it might, just, not be awesome.  “Like barbequed chicken on the grill, but spicier!”  That, I think, lost them.

And if that didn’t, the holy reek of curry that must have hit them when they came in from a snowball fight outside definitely set their skeptic’s phasers to kill.  That, and the fact that on top of the stove was a saucepan full of peas.  “I hate peas,” said C, “just so you know.”

“No worries,” I said.  “Just try these.  I’ll butter them up really good.”

The tandoori was a simple but effective recipe.  Salt and spice the chicken like a dry rub, let it marinate for half and hour, then coat it with yogurt and more of the garam masala and chili powder.  Bake that for 25 minutes (I put the drummies in for a bit less), let them cool, fire up the broiler, and then char them for ten minutes.  They came out just this side of blackened, smoking hot, and filling the house with clouds of curry and cumin.  I had the leftover macaroni and cheese waiting in the microwave.

But the kids tried them.  Took one bite.  Took two.  And they absolutely loved them.  Loved the curry, loved the masala, loved the heat of the chili powder.  “Better than barbeque, Dad,” said O.  And as I was picking my jaw up off the floor, C chimed in that the peas were excellent, too.  “Must be a different recipe,” he said.  Um, yep.  That’s it.  I’ll make this one from now on.  O went back for seconds, and C polished off two whole drummies, which is more or less a protein record for him.  Both want to have them again.  Soon.  We’d better do it quickly, though, because I think it’s going to take a couple of weeks for the house to air out.  It smells gloriously like the end of a Friday night pub crawl in London around here…

Two for two.  The ever elusive two thumbs up.  Would not have guessed that tonight.

sloppy joes and smashies

February 10, 2011 Comments Off on sloppy joes and smashies

Just a bit proud of this one.  We had four of the sandwich buns left over and slowly getting stale.  I figured we had to do one sandwich meal.  Hammagas?  Done it a couple of times.  Not interesting.  Tuna melts?  Ha!  Then I ran across a good-looking sloppy joe recipe (are there any bad looking ones?)  And I realized that this should work–C likes hamburgers, sort of, but he really, really likes ketchup.  What is a sloppy joe but a hamburger soaked–no, steeped–in ketchupy goodness?

He was freaked when I suggested sloppy joes.  The name conjures up goopy textures, which he hates.  “Don’t worry,” I said, “you like everything in them.  Here, take a look at the recipe.”  He did.  Meat, ketchup, tomato sauce, garlic, onion, and…

“Brown sugar?”


He was sold.  The girl was less than enthusiastic, so I told her we’d make smashies, too.  These are an awesome Cook’s recipe.  Parboil some red potatoes, let them cool, then smash them onto a baking pan, douse them in olive oil and thyme, stuff them back into a hot oven, and roast them for half and hour.  As you can see, they’re ugly, but tasty.  (I should have used smaller ones–these didn’t parboil all the way through and fractured instead of smashed.  A subtle distinction, and one that escaped the kids’ notice, but the idea is to have roasted skins and mashed centers.  I’ll try again).

Both kids liked the smashies, which was no surprise.  And the boy loved the sloppy joe, which was nice.  “Definitely doing this again, Dad,” was the verdict, and he almost finished a whole 1/4-pound sammie.  The girl?  Desert island.  Rats.  I thought I might go two for two.  But I had made an error in strategy.  This afternoon, we did homework at Stomping Grounds, the more foodie cafe in town.  The deal with the kids is that they can get something to eat and drink while we do homework, and they did.  The boy got a grilled cheese sandwich and a fruit cup.  And O?

A full Nutella and banana crepe (which she gamely let her brother try), and a cup of “O’s hot chocolate,” which is made from heavy cream, bitter chocolate, and a good pound or two of sugar.  The waitress actually looked at me to make sure that combo was alright.  I have to say, it got her through her homework pretty quick, but it maybe, just maybe, spoiled her appetite a bit.

Movie night last night was Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster.  Tonight?  O picked Animal Farm. George Orwell is her new favorite author.  She loved this book and is in the middle of 1984. Her brother was skeptical, but we’re only halfway through and he’s already figured it out.  “The animals are just as bad to each other as the humans were to them,” he said.

“Yup,” said his sister.  “George Orwell thought that humans would be as bad as they could get away with to each other.”

Holy crap.  That girl can have a Nutella crepe any day she wants one.

iowa skinny–homemade

February 8, 2011 § 3 Comments

Yeah, baby.  That’s a genuine Iowa Skinny, made with love.

After the sojourn to the Suburban this week, I was determined to repeat the experience for the kids.  They’re Iowans, for crying out loud.  They must eat–and love–the official state sandwich, right?  OK, ok, they must try the official state sandwich.

Cook’s Illustrated included the pork tenderloin sandwich in its American Classics issue a couple of months ago, and after figuring out fried chicken, I thought this would be pretty simple.  The only catch was that we didn’t have a meat hammer, which we solved this weekend at the mall.  The kids and I tested out every meat hammer Williams-Sonoma carries (OK, both of them), and agreed on the cheaper, heavier, far more intimidating one.  (Who buys an aluminum meat hammer?)

The recipe was pretty simple–slice a tenderloin into quarter pound chunks, beat the bejeezus out of the chunks until they’re flat, then dredge them in the now tried-and-true flour/egg/Panko assembly line.  The only difference is that Cook’s suggested that in this case the egg dip be about half mayonnaise.  I hate mayonnaise.  Freaking hate it.  But we had half a jar left over from the cole slaw experiment a couple of weeks ago, and I was tired of seeing its grotesque, pale creamy self in the fridge door.  So I chunked the rest of it in, beat it with the egg, and got dippin’.

Cook’s typically replaces a soak in the deep fry with a shallower pan, so what comes out is more like a scallopine than a real fried anything.  That usually works fine, but I screwed up slightly and didn’t pound the cutlets as thin as the recipe assumed they would be.  So they didn’t totally fry on the sides, and I had to stand them on their ends with the tongs to get them crispy all the way around.  They were also just a bit underdone in the middle, so next time I’ll beat them even more senseless.

Verdict?  The kids ate them, but they fell into the “if I was on a desert island…” category.  So they’re really Californians (seriously–they were alarmed when I told them we were out of tofu tonight).  Still, O said she wants to have skinnies again soon.  Not because she was a huge fan, but because next time I told her she could swing the meat hammer.

Oh, and yes, the buns were homemade.  You had to ask?

world’s greatest mac’n’cheese recipe, part quatre

February 4, 2011 Comments Off on world’s greatest mac’n’cheese recipe, part quatre

The boy was in high spirits when I picked him up today.  Friday, of course, but I also told him that, snow or no snow, we’d find a way to get up to the Mall of America this weekend so he could spend his Lego gift certificate.  He had some good snow fort time at recess, and was relieved to find that today’s film in Sex Ed–er, sorry, Genetics–was just about puberty, not about childbirth.  That comes next week, apparently, and he’s planning to break his leg the night before.

To top things off, his sister had a middle school party tonight, so it was going to be man night.  Mac and cheese.  His joy knew no bounds.

“YO, ‘SUP, PEEPS?” he shouted to his sister when he walked in the door.  Pretty street for a blonde Iowa kid, I thought.

I popped a fresh loaf of baguette in the oven this afternoon, so we had that as a side.  By now, both of us know the master mac’n’cheese recipe by heart–boil the pasta a minute less than the box tells you, make a mean besciamella sauce (that’s what he’s doing, above), and then sprinkle the cheese in so that it melts.  Once the sauce thickens, pour it on the mac, sprinkle some bread crumbs with parmesan and butter on top, and bake it at 350° for 20 minutes.

We went with Cook’s Illustrated’sFoolproof Mac’n’Cheese” again, but we both agreed that its besciamella was, to put it simply, weak sauce.  It uses evaporated milk and calls for shredding a block of American cheese, instead of the drier slices, and both of those help make a creamy sauce that holds together.  But we had agreed it was lacking something, and when we made the far more complex Epicurious recipe for lasagna bianca, we knew instantly what it was.  That sauce used bay leaves and tons of nutmeg, but it was based on cream and butter–no evaporated milk.  So we hybridized, bumping up the spices but keeping the stabilized dairy.

And it TOTALLY worked.  We got all of the creamy, gelatinous cheese sauce of the mac’n’cheese and all of the big flavor of the lasagna bianca.  I let the thing cool while I ran O to the middle school, and drove like a banshee to get back, because I figured it was going to be good.  When we cut into it, the knife made a nice sucking sound, so we knew the thing was going to be almost like pudding.  The crust, on the other hand, baked nicely and crisped well, so it had that ideal crunchy/creamy texture that we’ve agreed is critical to a good mac’n’cheese.  The boy even soaked up what little sauce ran out of his with the baguette, practically a sacrilege given how much he likes his meals separate.  (Have I mentioned that he has demanded a salad fork each night?  His one concession to proper etiquette…)

We only made a half recipe, but we’ll still have enough for Sunday when Iowa Skinnies are on the menu.  Meanwhile the girl was buzzing with excitement over the party.  She outlined her strategy for me.  “I dance for an hour until the pizza arrives, then I have like two slices of that and a Sprite, and then I dance for another two hours.  Maybe I take another soda break in the middle somewhere.”  Needless to say, I would pay to be a chaperone at one of these just to see that, but I have been absolutely forbidden from volunteering.

Harshing her mellow slightly this year is her status as a seventh grader.  “We have to make a special effort,” she told me in conspiratorial tones, “to show the sixth graders how to really party.”

dinner–the full roma

February 3, 2011 Comments Off on dinner–the full roma

So with a full snow day today, I figured we could experiment a bit in the kitchen.  The kids were totally up for it, but they suggested we work around the concept of pizza for dinner.  I said sure, but we didn’t have any of the really good Peter Reinhart dough left.  It needs to sit in the fridge overnight, so I figured we’d try one of the same-day dough recipes and see how it stacked up.  The boy and I (as you may have seen) threw down after lunch, putting together a mean ball of yeast and bread flour, and I started hacking away at it an hour or so before dinner.

I made one tried and true marinara–actually the overly spicy amatriciana sauce from the other night minus the bacon–and told the girl we were going to try the potato pizza again.  I found a country-simple recipe that basically said slice the potatoes thin (ahoy, mandoline!), douse them in oil and rosemary, throw them on the crust, and bake the hell out of them.  My kind of recipe, really.  Our lazy crust worked fine–less yeasty than the Reinhart version, but easy to work with and serviceable, at any rate.  The amatrciana worked out well, and the boy recognized the heat and said he really liked it on the crust.  He also went through two glasses of milk, so this seems a worthy strategy to keep in mind going forward.  O and I discussed the potato pizza at length.  It was closer, we agreed, to the most awesomest pizza ever in Rome, but it was still missing something.  She correctly identified the rosemary as the key missing ingredient from last time, and thought the potatoes should be thicker.  “It was really like french fries–actual french fries–on the pizza, Dad,” she told me.  “But it’s still missing something tasty.”  I know exactly what that is, actually.  Salt.  A. Ton. Of. Salt.  I went and got the little jar of sea salt that was a complimentary welcome gift for signing up at the food co-op, and told her to sprinkle away.  “Closer,” she said.

What the meal was really missing, though, was the crucial second half.  We made it a point to go out for a meal once a week or so in Rome, and we usually went cheap and cheerful.  Trastevere, the neighborhood we lived in, was full of good neighborhood pizza joints that catered to natives and to tourists who had ventured one ring out from the centro.  These trattoria were one step up from the sidewalk pizza storefronts, so you got bread, K and I could get wine, and we could sit for a while and watch the street go by.  And, crucially, we could go on a walk through the neighborhood afterward, ending up at one of our three favorite gelato stands, grabbing cones full of silky, custardy goodness, and sitting in the main piazza to eat them.

And those gelati looked and tasted just about like this.  Oh, heck yes, we made gelato today.  It took most of the morning to get the custard put together, and some serious hawk-like monitoring to make sure we didn’t overcook it.  But we did it, and it was superb.

Gelato is at the high end of the ice cream decadence spectrum.  Where sorbet is basically fruit and sugar, and ice cream is basically cream and flavor, gelato is custard and flavor.  So the prep involved four egg yolks, whipping cream, and pounds of sugar–I used the organic cane stuff we bought the other day, and it made a difference.  Cooking that is a bit of a challenge, because you have to basically pasteurize the egg without boiling it.  Fortunately, my CIA deep fry thermometer was up to the challenge, and I was able to keep the mixture right at 170° until it thickened up.  It sat in the fridge all afternoon, and then we broke out the ice cream maker (a perverse thing to do on a day with 7″ of snow on the ground and the thermometer stuck at 2°…) and whipped it into shape.  It needed a good freeze after that, but we all agreed the effort had been well worth it.  It was silky smooth, just eggy enough, and full of vanilla flava.  And it didn’t hurt that we splurged and bought Ghirardelli semi-sweet chips–a touch of San Francisco in our Italian.  Fortunately it made a bunch, so we’ll be eating this through the weekend.  (For those keeping score, I ran five hard miles this morning, knowing full well that this might be coming).

And the punch line?  When I went out to do some late shopping after dinner, the co-op had a huge barrel of blood oranges on sale.  We had these for lunch all the time in Rome–they were a staple at the neighborhood market and both kids loved their super-sweet juice.  I brought them home and said “look what I bought,” and O knew instantly.

“This,” she said, “is the Romiest day yet!”  And she nommed one of these in about thirty seconds flat.

More snow days, please.  This was awesome…

chicken milanese

February 1, 2011 § 2 Comments

Baby steps forward…I was reading through our Cook’s Illustrated Italian Classics last week and getting all sorts of nostalgic when I ran across chicken Milanese.  This was familiar, but not from Italy.  K made this a lot after we’d had veal scallopine in Florence (I think), but we made it with chicken since good veal is hard to get.  So it’s nice to know it has a name.

Basically, it’s fried chicken, but sauteed instead of deep fried.  A lot less work and cleanup, but a very different crust.  The basic prep is the same–three bowls with flour, egg, and bread crumbs–but they go in a shallow pan instead of the dutch oven, and the crust comes out lighter and less dry.

Cook’s had a few tricks that seemed to work wonders.  First, they suggested brining the chicken.  I’m a big fan of this, since it keeps the meat from drying out and is, I think, the key to good grilled chicken (I should add that other family members disagree…)  We used tenderloins instead of full breasts, which worked well since they’re pretty skinny and cooked quickly.  This saved having to pound or roll the chicken breasts flat.  The second trick was to fully dry the chicken after brining–sandwiching the chicken between thick sheets of paper towels, pressing them to squeeze water out, and letting them sit for ten minutes.  They also called for drying the cutlets on a wire rack after breading, which ensured that the crust was nice and dry.  As a result it soaked up the oil in the pan well, which fried the crust all the way through.  Finally, they called for adding oil to the egg mixture, which helped adhere the crumbs to the meat.

There’s parmesan in a true Milanese, and I added some, but didn’t want the kids to notice so I kept the amount small (have I mentioned that I’ve also snuck broccoli slaw into their salads?).  The results were really good–light, crispy crust, but not as dense or as tough as deep fried chicken, and the meat was juicy all the way through, as you’d expect with the brining.  A bit of lemon and fresh grated parmesan on top, and a bed of whole wheat pasta with oil, and it was a popular meal.

Movie night tonight.  Two DVDs showed up from Netflix–Treasures of the Sierra Madre and The Simpsons Movie. You can guess which one I sold heavy, which one they picked, and which one I was sort of secretly glad to watch.  We’ll watch Bogie tomorrow, since schools have been called off and we have a real, full snow day to relax and enjoy.  “Badges?  We don’t need no stinking badges!”  Indeed…

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