August 29, 2010

International Bento (North America): Macaroni & Cheese

Moving right along in the world of bento, I decided to do one that was close to home. My home, that is. That means that the macaroni and cheese is home made.

I have two different mac and cheese recipes that I use. One is deluxe and decadent, involving eggs and multiple cheeses, and the other is somewhat leaner and absolutely quick as the boxed kind. The second one is a little more suitable for everyday (but maybe not every day) consumption. You can make it with whatever cheese you like, but I prefer sharp cheddar. This one was made with white sharp cheddar, which is not as picturesque, hence the smoked paprika decorative topping.

The rest of the bento is simple: some sliced zucchini and red bell peppers, and a few Rainier cherries for dessert. I removed the pasta to a ceramic plate to re-heat, since my bento is not microwave friendly.

Skillet Macaroni & Cheese
aka "Evapomac"

Serves 2
Total Time Prep & Cook: 20 minutes

1½ cups uncooked macaroni
¾ cup* canned evaporated milk**
2 cups water
1 tablespoon butter
½ teaspoon kosher salt (or ¼ teaspoon table salt)
½ teaspoon cornstarch
1 – 2 shakes of Tabasco sauce
1 ½ cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese
¾ cup grated Colby cheese (or Monterey Jack...or more Cheddar)

Bring the water and ½ cup of the milk to a boil in a large skillet or medium saucepan. Add the salt, butter, and the macaroni, and cook (stirring frequently) until the macaroni is tender and the liquid is reduced to a thin “sauce”.

Put the remaining ¼ cup of milk in a small bowl with the Tabasco and the cornstarch. Stir until smooth. Add to the cooked macaroni and stir until the sauce begins to thicken – no more than a minute or two over high heat. Turn off the heat and add the cheese, one handful at a time, stirring it in each time, and adding a little room-temperature water if necessary to adjust the consistency of the sauce as you go.

You can top it with some buttered, toasted breadcrumbs or parsley or something like that if you feel the need to be fancy, but really this is designed to be dumped into bowls and eaten in front of the television. Have a salad tomorrow.

Serves 2 people generously, or 4 people as a side dish.

*This is about ½ a 370 ml can. You can also use an entire 160 ml can, but add 2 tablespoons of milk or half-and-half with the cornstarch, to make up the difference

** don’t use sweetened condensed milk by mistake. Ew!

August 12, 2010

Spanish Pork Burgers

This was really, really good.

I'd made the Spanish Pork Burger recipe from Eating Well Magazine once before - well, once as burgers, and once as meatloaf, and I liked it. Finally having made it with pimentón de la vera (smoked paprika), and having vastly improved my burger seasoning skills, I absolutely love it.

What else did I do differently? Quite a few things, actually.

This time, I also used a smaller bun, a potato bun from my local supermarket's in-house bakery. It had a very, very slight sweetness to it that complemented the earthy lemon saffron mayonnaise (which sadly, is not visible in the picture, but is a delightful, vivid yellow), and the smokiness of the paprika. The lower bun-to burger patty ratio is generally more satisfying, I think. I didn't use Manchego cheese, this time, I simply used a nutty mozzarella that needed using up, and it was fine, if ever so slightly less Spanish. I didn't grate it, but simply laid it onto the pork patties in the grill pan.

That brings up another thing - the grill pan. This is definitely the right pan for the job - you get the slight char on the striped bits, without blackening the entire surface of the burger. It is infinitely more attractive, but also has a positive effect on the texture and flavour of the meat.

I also used the Piquillo peppers recommended in the recipe as opposed to regular roasted red peppers. I liked the firm texture and the flavour. I used them as a bottom layer between the mayonnaise and the pork patty, topped the pork with the cheese and then the sauteed onions, and then the toasted top bun. No other toppings were needed or wanted - they could be safely relegated to a salad on the side, and consumed leisurely after the burgers were devoured.

And devoured they were. I can hardly wait to have them again.

August 09, 2010

Fear of Frying #1: Southern Fried Chicken

I've always had something of a fear of frying. Not searing, or stir-frying, or tossing the perogies into a skillet with butter pan-frying kind of frying. You know. Frying. Deep frying, or at the very least, shallow-frying. I don't know whether it comes from a childhood immersed in 70's style health food obsessions, or simply the fact that my mother almost never fried anything. Maybe it's the waste of oil, the mess, and the general aura of guilt that seems to be evoked even by the word frying.

But, I do like fried foods. I like tempura, tonkatsu, southern-fried chicken, pakoras, fish and chips, doughnuts, and all kinds of delicious fried delights. So, I've set myself on a remedial course to learn how to fry without fear. First up: chicken.

I turn to the experts for advice, and in this case, I consulted Alton Brown's Fry Hard II episode of Good Eats, and the related cookbook. I learned that what makes southern-fried chicken "southern" is that it is shallow-fried in a couple of inches of oil which allow the skin to contact the bottom of the skillet during cooking, and is never fully immersed, which allows moisture to escape during cooking and prevents the crust from becoming a separate layer that simply peels off the chicken when you bite into it.

I dutifully soaked my chicken in buttermilk overnight, and seasoned up the pieces (all drumsticks, in this case) with the exact seasoning mixture he prescribes, right down to using smoked pimenton for the paprika, which is a variant mentioned in the Good Eats: The Early Years tome.

I tossed the pieces in flour, and allowed them the full recommended 15 minute resting time to allow the combination of flour and buttermilk to gelatinize and form the crust. This little nugget of wisdom appears in the book, but not the online recipe.

The frying itself was actually pretty easy: I laid the pieces gently into the preheated vegetable shortening (I used a frying thermometer to get the right temperature of 325 F), four legs per batch, set the timer, and watched in fascination as they cooked. Tongs to turn them over, and another short wait, then onto a rack placed over a tray to rest while the rest cooked up.

I confess that I was relieved that Alton had cautioned that the step he employs of seasoning the chicken with paprika prior to the flouring stage makes the cooked chicken quite dark, or I would have been afraid that I had burned it. As it was, I may have left the second batch in a little longer than strictly necessary - it was quite mahogany coloured - but every piece was juicy and delicious, and made me want to eat far far more than I ought.

As you can see above, we had our southern-fried chicken legs with mashed potatoes, chicken gravy (made from the de-fatted chicken drippings of chickens, aka "chicken gold", a little broth, and a flour/chickenfat roux) and, of course, coleslaw.

It turns out, the hardest thing about frying chicken at home is refraining from overindulgence.