August 28, 2006

A Good Steak

A good steak can be hard to find but, fortunately, it's pretty easy to make. I marvel at minor-league steakhouses that charge an arm and a leg for something that usually requires pretty much minimal preparation - and then often manage to do it badly or at least indifferently. I know that best-quality meat can be expensive, of course, but for goodness sake, do it right!

I don't cook steak all that often, though. I don't have the attachment to it as special occasion food, as some folks seem to, and it is a bit pricey for good cuts. I have had excellent luck with rib steaks, (and I make a mean flank steak) but this time, I decided to try the good ol' dependable strip loin, simply because I had never cooked one before.

I selected a smallish steak - the smallest that I could find, actually - since I was cooking only for myself. In the store, it seemed petite to the point of being teensy, but it really would have been big enough for two people to share, if they weren't being too greedy. Sadly, I ate the entire thing myself, and I'm not sorry one bit.

I followed Alton Brown's instructions, which have never failed me on the rib eye, and which apparently work wonderfully with any tender steak. A quick pat of butter in the vacated pan, while the steak rested, a slosh of red wine from my glass, and a smattering of parsley made an impromptu pan sauce, reducing to a syrup consistency in the time it took for the steak to recover its composure.

I had a side dish of Thai red rice (not pictured, sorry) and a salad with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, but almost any side dish at all would do just fine.

August 26, 2006

Herb exploration: Tarragon

Tarragon was not a frequent flyer in our household, when I was growing up. Consequently, my early exposures to it left me a little bit weirded out by its odd, licorice-y flavour, and I was never sure what to make of it - literally - so I never bought it.

After a few experiments, though, including one where I was slavishly following a recipe for Manhattan-style clam chowder (I'm not fond of clams, and had no experience cooking this dish, but it was as a treat for someone else), I ended up purchasing some fresh tarragon and adding it as prescribed. The effect, the change that was wrought in the soup, was phenomenal, and it warmed me to the use of tarragon in other dishes.

Because it is not one of my general repetoire, I've had to look around for uses for tarragon. Poultry seems to be such a natural match, that recipes abound for it, and that seemed like a fairly good place to start. With a fat bunch of tarragon, I cooked three meals in one week that featured the odd and woodsy little herb with the big flavour: Chicken tarragon, French style; Turkey burgers, Dawna style; and a ground-beef stroganoff to which it was a haphazard but welcome addition.

The Chicken tarragon had wonderful flavour, and represented the steepest part of the learning curve. I learned that I should have had the tarragon chopped and safely en mise before I got going, because the last minute frenzy to get it into the pan at the right time left rather longer pieces than would have been ideal. Still, the flavour was fantastically encouraging, and I'll definitely be making this again.

I also learned that the recipe I was working from was too skittish about reducing the sauce, and consequently, it was a little on the thin side, but that is easily remedied on the next round. Still, the steamed new potatoes and carrot coins were a wonderful foil for the creamy sauce, regardless of its consistency, and quite a pleasant change from the more complicated side-dishes that I sometimes feel compelled to make.

The turkey burger, however, was an unqualified success. I regret that I did not note down exactly what I did to it, but the method was fairly simple. Ground turkey, panko soaked in milk, an egg white, salt, white pepper, the requisite (and more finely chopped) tarragon, and a mere smidge of cayenne represented most of the ingredients. I cooked them on my indoor grill, and we ate them on toasted sourdough bread with tomato and cucumber slices and some cumin-laced yam fries. For once, I forgot about taking a photo until after we had finished eating, so no yam fries pictures - the burger shown above was one of the ones that was deliberately left over so that we would have some to take to work in our lunches the next day.

The stroganoff I failed to photograph entirely. It was a truly last-minute affair of ground beef with onion, garlic, the last of the now-aging tarragon, finely chopped, and sour cream. We had it mixed into farfalle pasta, with a green salad on the side. I hadn't decided to make the dish in order to use up the tarragon, it was more of a happy accident that I realized it would go well - and it did. I'll be sure to think of that, the next time I'm making a real stroganoff.

There is a French restaurant near my house that uses tarragon a lot. They put it in many dishes, from hollandaise (but not as a true Bearnaise) to omelettes to ratatouille. It is almost a signature flavour with their chef, and I'm starting to see why. It brings a delightfully unexpected, yet not overpowering note to the food that is not found anywhere else in the city.

Now, if only I could find that chowder recipe (long since gone, I'm afraid) and make it without the clams...

August 20, 2006

A Tangle of Prawns

I have a great fondness for easy dinners, despite my appreciation for elaborate or difficult food. This particular dish was a second go at Nigella's Lemon Linguine, which she explains is simple enough to make even when "the thought of cooking makes you want to shriek." I've never been afflicted with that malady, personally, but I have occasionally wanted to "lie down in a darkened room" instead.

Happily, simple and easy dinners can often be made with things you've got literally lying around in the pantry/freezer/fruit bowl. I have reduced the ratio of pasta to sauce from Nigella's recipe, and added some garlic-butter-sauteed prawns (I confess, from a package of individually frozen, pre-shelled, cooked prawns) to relieve what I had previously found to be a dish more suited as a side than as a main course. This absolutely did the trick.

Lemon Prawn Linguine
Adapted from Nigella Bites

serves 4

1 lb. dried linguine
2 egg yolks
1 cup freshly grated parmesan
2/3 cup whipping cream
zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons butter, divided
parsley, to taste, chopped
1/2 lb. precooked frozen peeled prawns
1 - 2 cloves crushed garlic

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add a good pinch of salt and the linguine, and cook until just barely al dente. Drain, reserving about a half-cup of pasta water.

While the water is coming to boil, and while the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce: In a large, slightly warmed pasta-serving-sized bowl (rinse with hot water), stir together the egg yolks, cream, most of the cheese, and the lemon zest and juice. Don't beat too vigorously, just combine nicely. Chop some parsley and reserve it until the end.

Rinse your prawns under hot water, and toss them in a non-stick pan with a tablespoon of butter and a crushed clove or two of garlic. Allow them to simmer gently until warmed through. If they are done before you need them, turn off the heat and let them sit in the pan.

When the pasta is drained, add back into the cooking pot, and add the other tablespoon of butter. Stir about until the butter is melted and lightly coats each strand of pasta. Gently tip the pasta into your serving bowl with the sauce, and stir about until the sauce is evenly distributed. If it is looking too dry, add a little of the pasta water until it becomes slick again. Repeat as needed, if needed. Add the prawns and their garlicky juices, and stir about. Add the parsley for a final little toss. Serve at once, topped with ground black pepper and the last bit of parmesan.

August 16, 2006

Indoor grilling

I've never owned a proper outdoor grill. Mostly, the succession of apartments that I've lived in since I finished school wouldn't allow for it, either space-wise (tiny balconies) or financially. The house that I currently live in has a nice, big deck... well, actually, it has a big deck that's not that nice. It's weirdly shaped and one corner is falling down - literally - and the landlord (who claimed he was going to fix it in July) still hasn't shifted himself to do anything about it. I would be hesitant to put anything that had both fire/heat and weight out on it.

So, I have an indoor grill instead. Not a George Foreman, because my flinch-factor wouldn't go that high, but a sensibly oblong Hamilton Beach model that unhinges itself to be either a flat-grill surface, or clam-lids to become a two-sides-at-once kind of grill.

I am told that indoor grills never give you grill marks, but this is obviously untrue. What I have learned is that you need to preheat the little devils for at least 15 minutes, rather than the five minutes suggested by the manufacturer, and that a combination of open-lid/closed-lid works best to ensure even, rapid cooking that doesn't simply steam away the lovely striped char and leave you with dented, pale food.

The chicken above was my first use of the spice rub I gleefully reported receiving earlier this summer. I have little information as to what is actually in it, but it is certainly delicious, and while the chicken breast that I cooked with it wasn't as fabulous as the one that was cooked for me in Gibsons (on a real, proper, outdoor grill), it was certainly up to the task of tasting terrific.

Using spice rubs is fairly new to me, and I think I was a little too hesitant with the quantity needed here, so next time I will be sure to be more generous. I'm also contemplating using it on baked pork tenderloin, which has become one of my favourite affordable cuts of meat.

August 13, 2006

Breakfast at home (Zucchini Fritters)

Much as I adore going out for breakfast, I usually make some sort of effort at a breakfast at home at least once on the weekend. It often starts with a smoothie, just to fortify us with enough strength to beat eggs for a frittata or slice peppers for a breakfast quesadilla.

We are both savory-breakfast junkies, so it is no wonder that most of of our breakfasts at home are at least somewhat eggy. Today's breakfast was a sort of happy accident - I had picked up a zucchini to make my Zucchini Fritters "sometime soon" and by chance had some leftover Dijon-Dill sauce in the fridge. The urge to make some sort of Benedict-like breakfast was overpowering. I was quite helpless against it! I modified the fritter recipe to use spices that would go more harmoniously with the dill and mustard sauce, using a mixture of thyme, oregano, white pepper and a pinch of cayenne. I heated the leftover sauce (an emulsion of mayonnaise, sour cream and dijon) with a little pinch of cornstarch, to keep it from separating, and treated it like a faux-hollandaise.

Zucchini Fritters

Makes 6 fritters
Total prep and cooking time: 30 minutes

3 cups grated zucchini
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup breadcrumbs ~ I use panko
1/3 cup finely minced onion
2 teaspoons chile powder or southwestern seasoning
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup flour
oil for shallow-frying

Make sure that the strands of grated zucchini are not too long - I usually cut a slice into the zucchini lengthwise before grating. Squeeze the zucchini to release (and discard) extra liquid, and place the shreds in a medium mixing bowl.

Add the egg, butter, bread crumbs, minced onion, salt and chile powder/seasoning. Mix well with a fork, so that all ingredients are evenly distributed.

Using wet hands, shape the mixture into six thin patties. Dredge each patty in flour, patting it to remove excess flour. You can prepare in advance up to this point and hold the patties on a plate in the fridge, covered with plastic wrap.
In a medium skillet, over medium heat, heat enough oil to lighly coat the bottom of the pan. When the pan is hot, fry the patties in oil until a medium dark golden brown on both sides. Serve hot - for a tasty breakfast, place a poached egg on top of each fritter, and serve 2 per person.

I do confess that I wimped out on the eggs - they were simply steamed in little baskets, as opposed to being properly poached, but some mornings there are just only so many things you can keep in the air at once. A perfectly poached egg would of course be the preferable option, but I was willing to sacrifice that for convenience, today. Next time...

The fritters are a big favourite of mine, and something that I am prodded to make whenever the zucchini are heaped high in the produce stores. They are delicate - downright fragile before cooking - but not difficult to make, and they make a wonderful side-dish at any meal (or snack, I confess, with a little hot pepper sauce, or not, as you see fit. You can vary the seasoning to make them spicy, mild or assume compatible characteristics with any cuisine you choose.

They certainly don't need an egg or fancy sauce to show their little golden faces at the table. I do have a compulsion that must soon be addressed: I want to make these fritters meat-ball sized, and serve them with spaghetti and a light, fresh tomato sauce for a light veggie-based dinner. I'm convinced it would be a winner.

*This post was updated in 2017 to replace dead link to recipe*

August 09, 2006

Old Fashioned, New Fangled

I've always had a weakness for deviled eggs. Creamy, salty, a little bit spicy, and bite sized! Well, perhaps two bites if one is being excessively polite, or has unusually large eggs.

I don't make them that often, because it always seems that one should make them for a party platter, rather than as a late-night snack for two people to simply fall upon with hungry eyes and greedy fingers. Still, I often find myself too busy when I'm planning a party to fuss with the details that make a good deviled egg. So, sometimes I just have to make them anyway. The beauty of a deviled egg is that you can make as many or as few as you want. They are best consumed promptly, and one should be careful not to overcook the eggs, unless you enjoy the grey ring of doom around the yolk.

I would give you the recipe, if I had one. The problem is, I change it every single time I make it. Much depends on the contents of the fridge, you see. You can really taylor them to your tastes, though, whether your tastes run from caviar to Thai curry paste. This batch has green onion, parsley, ground mustard seed, mayonnaise, feta cheese, and is topped with aleppo pepper.

None survived the initial attack.

August 07, 2006

Looks Can Be Deceiving (Cherry Smoothie)

This is a cherry smoothie.

Unlike my previous, Bing cherry smoothies, this ones uses the ridiculously sweet Rainier cherries of the Pacific Northwest. It looks as though it should be a peach or apricot drink, because of its pale, golden, red-flecked appearance, but the only fruit in there is cherry. The rest of the smoothie is vanilla yoghurt, 1% milk, and a little lime cordial. Five minutes, tops.

I'm a big fan of smoothies for breakfast (or pre-brunch). These little darlings, though, are so incredibly sweet, that it feels more like dessert, or some particularly naughty snack. Full of fruity goodness, but startling as a breakfast food, particularly to someone who has severely cut back her sugar intake this past year.

I also tried a chocolate cherry smoothie, by adding a tablespoon of cocoa powder to the mix (for two). Still shockingly sweet, of course, still not really breakfasty, of course, but tasty - and not entirely unhealthy, really!

I think I'll save the rest of my Rainiers for dessert, perhaps simply pitted cherries doused in a little brandy, and go back to blackberries and raspberries for my drinkable breakfasts.