Sunday, January 30, 2011

Instant Dinner Party Indeed! Pork Shoulder Ragu

We moved to a new apartment about six months ago, and this place was built for entertaining.  However, finding time to make food for company on top of my full-time job and part-time class schedule is not the easiest.  I've been hunting around the internet for some easy make-ahead recipes for entertaining, and I landed one day at the blog Dinner: A Love Story. Jenny and Andy post recipes that fit into a busy lifestyle, and Jenny is one of the co-authors of the book Time for Dinner and used to work at Real Simple, my favorite magazine. When they posted this recipe under the title "Instant Dinner Party", I was sold.

First, I had to get over my fear of talking to the butcher at my local store since there were only 8-pound pork shoulders out.  I love my pork, but 8 pounds was really going to be too much.  It turns out that he's really a very nice gentleman and cut down a roast to a more reasonable size for me.  On the other hand, he doesn't know how many ounces there are in a pound, but maybe he's more used to the metric system?

Anyway, we'll have to have a group of people over to try this soon because it is ridiculously easy.  Since the roast time is 3 to 4 hours but very little active cooking time is needed, this recipe is perfect for the weekend day you're home but not wanting to spend a lot of time cooking for company coming over later.  For this first time, I tried it out on just the husband and one friend.  I'm going to bet that my sister, who has been blogging up a storm, will be stealing this recipe very soon.

Pork Shoulder Ragu
adapted from Dinner: A Love Story
2 to 2 1/2-pound boneless pork shoulder roast
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small pat butter
1 large can whole tomatoes, with juice
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon hot sauce (optional)
Freshly grated Parmesan (optional)

1 to 2 lbs of cooked pasta (fettuccine used in picture)

Preheat oven to 325°F. Pat roast dry and then liberally salt and pepper all sides. Add olive oil and butter to large Dutch oven and heat over medium-high until butter melts. Add pork roast to pan and brown on all sides, about 8-10 minutes in all. 

Add tomatoes, wine, thyme, oregano, and hot sauce (if using). Cover, and put in oven. Braise for 3-4 hours, turning every hour or so. Add more liquid (water, wine, or tomato sauce) so that liquid comes to at least 1/3 of the way up the pork. Meat is done when it’s practically falling apart. 

Pull pork apart with two forks. Serve over pasta with the grated Parmesan on the side.

Yields: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: About 4 to 4.5 hours
Active time: 30 minutes or less

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Easy Sunday Brunch: French Toast Casserole!

My husband and I had brunch with our friends Sarah and Jack a few weeks ago, and they introduced us to the fabulous idea of French toast casserole.  It has all the yumminess of French toast without all the work of frying the individual pieces of eggy toast.  

There were a bunch of French toast casserole recipes on the internet, but most of them sounded like glorified bread pudding.  As usual, Cook's Illustrated to the rescue!  This recipe has the bread soaked overnight in eggs, milk, and cream just like regular French toast, and then the topping makes the outside sweet and crunchy. No syrup necessary!

French Toast Casserole

1 loaf (16-ounce) supermarket French or Italian bread , torn into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon unsalted butter , softened
8 large eggs
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter , softened
1 1/3 cups packed (9 1/3 ounces) light brown sugar
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 cup pecans, chopped coarse
1 cup slivered almonds

1.  Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Spread the bread out over 2 baking sheets and bake until dry and light golden brown, about 25 minutes, switching and rotating the baking sheets halfway through the baking time. Let the bread cool completely.

2. Coat a 13 by 9-inch baking dish with the butter and pack the dried bread into the dish. Whisk the eggs in a large bowl until combined and then whisk in the milk, cream, granulated sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Pour the egg mixture evenly over the bread and press on the bread lightly to submerge.

3. Make the topping by first stirring the butter, brown sugar, and corn syrup together until smooth, then add nuts.

4. TO STORE: Transfer the topping to an airtight container and wrap the dish tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate the topping and casserole separately for at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours.

5. TO SERVE: Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Unwrap the casserole and sprinkle the topping evenly over the top, breaking apart any large pieces with your fingers. Place the casserole on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until puffed and golden, about 1 hour. Serve immediately.

Yields: 6 to 8 servings
Active time: 15-20 minutes
Total time: 15-20 minutes of prep, overnight soak, one hour of baking

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dim Sum at Home: Shu Mai

First blog pic with our new camera!
We bought a new camera last night to replace the one that died after the soup incident.  My husband has been jabbering on about all the wonderful new features our Canon PowerShot S95 has. I'm sure the myriad of settings will come in useful eventually, but all I care about is that I don't have to take food pictures with my camera phone anymore!  Woohoo!

Anyway, I knew when I changed my blog name to incorporate dumplings as a nod to my Chinese heritage I would probably have to make some dumplings at some point.  So, this is my first stab at steamed dumplings (shu mai), which is probably one of the most popular dim sum dishes.

When I told my sister I was going to start with a Cook's Illustrated (CI) shu mai recipe, she balked.  "You're not going to use a Chinese recipe?" she asked.  Well, to be fair, I didn't have a family shu mai recipe handed down to me, and none of my current Chinese cookbooks had a recipe for shu mai.  Plus, I like that the CI team tries many different variations on a recipe to optimize flavor, and I trust that they would try to make their recipes taste as authentic as possible.

My husband and I agreed that the flavors were pretty much spot on in this CI version of shu mai. I only left out their recommendation of cilantro due to my husband's severe aversion to the herb and my feeling that it didn't quite belong in shu mai to begin with. I admire the other things the CI team did to tweak the recipe.  They used gelatin to try to recreate the succulent texture lard usually lends to the dish, and instead of MSG they used a combination of soy sauce, cooking wine, and rice vinegar to add flavor to the filling.  The pork ribs I got were pretty lean, and while my shu mai weren't dry, maybe next time I'll use some fattier pork for a juicier dumpling with better mouthfeel.

Shu Mai (Steamed Chinese Dumplings)
adapted from Cook's Illustrated September 2010

2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon unflavored powdered gelatin
1 pound boneless country-style pork ribs, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 pound shrimp, peeled, tails removed and halved lengthwise
1/4 cup water chestnuts, chopped
3/4 ounces dried shitake mushroom caps (about 5 large or 10 small), soaked in hot water 30 minutes, squeezed dry, and cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon Chinese rice cooking wine (Shaoxing) or dry sherry
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 package yellow, round wonton/dumpling skins
1/4 cup carrot , finely grated (optional)

1. Combine soy sauce and gelatin in small bowl. Set aside to allow gelatin to bloom, about 5 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, place half of pork in food processor and pulse until coarsely ground into approximate 1/8-inch pieces, about ten 1-second pulses; transfer to large bowl. Add shrimp and remaining pork to food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped into approximate ¼-inch pieces, about five 1-second pulses. Transfer to bowl with more finely ground pork. Stir in soy sauce mixture, water chestnuts, mushrooms, cornstarch, sesame oil, wine, vinegar, sugar, ginger, salt, and pepper.

3. Working with 6 rounds at a time, brush edges of each round lightly with water. Cover remaining rounds with wet paper towel to prevent drying out. Place heaping tablespoon of filling into center of each round. Pinch wrapper creating a fold on opposite sides of filling.  Rotate wrapper 1/2 turn and pinch wrapper again.  Make a total of 8 pinches and then squeeze sides against filling, shaping dumpling so that top of filling is exposed. Transfer to parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with damp kitchen towel, and repeat with remaining wrappers and filling. Top center of each dumpling with pinch of grated carrot, if using.

4. Cut piece of parchment paper slightly smaller than diameter of steamer basket and place in basket. Poke about 20 small holes in parchment and lightly coat with nonstick cooking spray. Place batches of dumplings on parchment liner, making sure they are not touching. Set steamer over simmering water and cook, covered, until no longer pink, 8 to 10 minutes. Serve immediately.
Yields 35 to 45 pieces
Active time: About 90 minutes (maybe I'll be faster next time)
Total time: About 100 minutes

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Not All Recipes Are Amazing

Thanks to my new year's resolution to do weekly menu planning, I've been cooking a lot more. I've really enjoyed it as cooking is a nice way to unwind after a hectic day at the hospital. While I putter around the kitchen and prep the ingredients, I talk with my husband about our days.

With menu planning has come inspiration to try new recipes, and I've been trying a lot of them. Some have been great, but there have been some misses in the kitchen over the last two weeks that I thought I would share.

1. Giant Cheesy Popovers.  There will never be a more beautiful picture of a something I baked but didn't love. They didn't taste bad, but I wasn't wowed by the flavor.  I will give two thumbs up to my new Chicago Metallic popover pan, though.  According to a Cook's Illustrated review, the open design maximizes heat transfer, which is crucial to high-rising popovers, and boy, did those popovers rise!!!  I was so excited that I tried to wake my husband saying, "Honey, my popovers are rising! Come look!"  He was not as excited as I was.  I'll keep looking for a popover recipe worthy of my new pan.

2. Cauliflower and Potato Curry. I thought cooking Indian food would be a great way to add vegetarian dishes to my repertoire, but this recipe was missing something.  Quite a few reviewers doubled or tripled the spices, so maybe I'll try that next time.

3. Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins.  This week's muffin snafu is not the recipe's fault as I've made it a few times before with great results.  I forgot about the baking powder!  I didn't realize it until the muffins had already been in the oven for five minutes.  I took the pan out of the oven, scooped the batter back into the bowl, added the baking powder, remixed, and refilled the baking cups, and then put them back in the oven.  The muffins didn't taste bad, but they were definitely denser than usual.

I'll definitely keep trying new recipes as it's fun for me.  However, this week my night classes start, which will put a dent into my cooking time.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Winter Melon Soup: The Soup That Killed a Camera

Winter melon soup before camera died =(
This food blog has had its first casualty.  While taking pictures of this soup, our camera fell into the bowl of soup.

I'm still getting used to using our mini tripod, and now I've learned my lesson about keeping an eye on electronics when close to bowls of liquids. I wonder if this has happened to any one else. A quick Google search says no.  The camera can actually still take blurry pictures but the LCD screen doesn't work anymore. *sigh*

It is a small consolation that the soup was delicious, really delicious.  I had never bought winter melon before or even seen one except in restaurant soups.  I was worried that I would get the wrong melon because there are no English labels at my local Chinese grocery and usually no one who speaks English.  Luckily, I read somewhere that winter melons are usually sold by the wedge since the whole melon can be up to 50 lbs, so I picked from the only melon wedges at the store.  Bingo! Maybe in the future I will try this vegetarian version but I thought the bits of ham and dried scallop really added different layers of flavor to the soup. Since the melon itself doesn't have much flavor by itself, it soaked up the broth flavors.

As reviewers on epicurious note, don't substitute fresh scallops for the dried scallops; it would be better to skip them if you don't have them.  Lucky for me, my mother-in-law brings gives us a bag when she visits, so I usually have some around.

I skipped the original recipe's soaking process for the dried scallops and just threw them in near the end. I was also too lazy to skim off the fat, but I probably would if company was coming.

Broth with chicken and veggies taken by camera phone
I made this soup a few days ago, and tonight I shredded the boiled chicken and added that plus some watercress to the leftover broth.  It was as yummy as the original, but the picture is not as clear since it was taken with my camera phone.  Hopefully we'll have a new camera in the next few weeks!

Winter Melon Soup
adapted from Gourmet Magazine via epicurious

For broth
1 (3- to 3 1/2-lb) whole chicken
1 bunch scallions, halved crosswise
2 oz ham steak
1 (1-inch) piece peeled fresh ginger, smashed
10 cups water
1 tablespoon salt

For soup
Dried scallops, handful
1 (2-lb) wedge winter melon
2 oz ham steak, sliced into thin matchsticks
3 scallions, thinly sliced

1. Make broth: Rinse chicken inside and out, then stuff cavity with scallions, ham, and ginger. Bring water with chicken and salt to a boil in a deep 7- to 8-quart stockpot or pasta pot, then reduce heat and cook at a bare simmer, uncovered, skimming off froth occasionally, 1 hour. Remove and discard chicken. Let stand 5 minutes. Skim off fat.

2. Cut off and discard rind from winter melon. Remove and discard seeds, then cut melon into 1/3-inch cubes (about 5 cups). Add melon and dried scallops to broth and gently simmer, uncovered, until melon is transparent, 20 to 30 minutes.

3. Stir in ham, scallions, and salt to taste just before serving.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chicken with Mushrooms in Oyster Sauce

A friend gave me Nina Simonds' A Spoonful of Ginger back around 2003, and I go to it when I want an Asian recipe that is simple and comforting.  The book is based on an Asian philosophy of food as health-giving, balancing yin and yang.  I'm not sure how much I buy into that philosophy, but I'll admit that there is something about these recipes that makes me happy.

This recipe is probably my favorite in the book because my version has very little hands on time, making it workable for a weeknight. I've cut out a bunch of steps including marinating and roasting the chicken before simmering it.  This time I made it true to the original recipe, but I didn't think it made any difference in the flavor. It seems like a waste to heat your oven all the way up to 475 degrees just to pre-roast the chicken  for 15 minutes.  It looks like this cookbook is going to be re-released this April, and the pre-order price is only about $10! I wonder if there will be new recipes!

Chicken and Mushrooms in Oyster Sauce
adapted from Nina Simonds' A Spoonful of Ginger

3.5 to 4 pounds of dark meat chicken parts (thighs, legs, or wings)
10 dried Chinese black mushrooms

Braising Sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Chinese cooking wine
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 chicken bouillon cube
3 tablespoons oyster suace
3 tablespoons rice wine or sake
1.5 teaspoons sugar
6 slices of fresh ginger
About 1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon of cold water

1. Place mushrooms in 1.5 cups of water and microwave for two minutes. (I use my 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup.) Steep for 10 minutes until soft. Then remove stems and cut caps into thirds.

2. Mix braising sauce together in a small bowl. Place chicken and mushrooms in a Dutch oven along with braising sauce.  Heat to boiling and then reduce to a simmer for 45 minutes.  If the sauce hasn't thickened, add add another teaspoon of cornstarch dissolved in a tablespoon of cold water.  Serve over rice and vegetable.

Yield: 6 servings
Active time: 10-15 minutes
Total time: 70 minutes

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Pan-Seared Thick Cut Ribeye Steaks

It's a blessing and a curse to learn how to cook the restaurant food I love.  It's a great feeling to know that I can save myself some money and prepare food at home, but sometimes I go to a restaurant and don't want to order anything because the price mark up terrifies me!

Well, this recipe has pretty much guaranteed that I won't be ordering steaks at restaurants anymore.  I learned the basics of cooking steaks from Alton Brown's cookbook I'm Just Here for the Food. I basically patted the steak dry, liberally salted it, rubbed with oil, and seared both sides.  However, I remember Cook's Illustrated publishing a recipe that had you put the steaks in the oven first and then sear claiming that you got a crisp sear with a greater percentage of even pink meat inside, and less grey meat adjacent to the seared surface. Helen Rennie, whom I took a cooking class from once, posted about this cooking technique again recently at Beyond Salmon reminding me how much I had been wanting to try it.

After declaring that one of my new year's resolutions is to eat less meat, it's ironic that my first recipe post is about steak, but continuing to eat meat for me is about eating higher quality meat that was raised with respect in smaller quantities.  This recipe definitely honored the meat as it tasted fantastic, and together we shared a 12 oz steak for a special occasion.  Although it was a little more work than my usual steak regimen because I was taking the pan out of the oven frequently to check the steak's internal temperature, the end result was worth it.  With some practice, I'll become less nervous about the timing as what was in the recipe was pretty accurate.  The smile on my husband's face after reminding him about last week's steak is a telltale sign that this recipe is a keeper! 

Sorry that the picture doesn't really show off the inside of the steak. It looked so good that I didn't have the patience to spend time futzing with the camera. I was hungry!  Check out the wonderful picture Helen posted when she first wrote about this cooking technique. Looks delicious, right?  The original recipe had multiple pan sauces to change up the flavor, but it really didn't need it.

Pan-Seared Ribeye Steaks
adapted from Cook's Illustrated May 2007 with help from Helen Rennie at Beyond Salmon

Boneless ribeye steak (at least 1-1/2 inches thick cut into 4 to 6 ounce pieces)
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 275 degrees. Pat steaks dry with paper towel. Consider tying steaks with twice make whole piece an even 1-1/2 inches thick. Season entire surface of steaks liberally with salt and pepper. Place steaks on wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet; transfer baking sheet to oven. Cook until instant-read thermometer inserted in center of steak registers 90 to 95 degrees for rare to medium-rare, 20 to 25 minutes, or 100 to 105 degrees for medium, 25 to 30 minutes.

2. Heat oil in 12-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over high heat until smoking. Place steaks in skillet and sear steaks until well-browned and crusty, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, lifting once halfway through to redistribute fat underneath each steak. (Reduce heat if fond begins to burn.) Using tongs, turn steaks and cook until well browned on second side, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes. Transfer all steaks to wire cooling rack and reduce heat under pan to medium. Use tongs to stand 2 steaks at a time on their sides. Holding steaks together, return to skillet and sear on all sides until browned, about 1 1/2 minutes. Repeat with any remaining steaks.

3. Transfer steaks to wire cooling rack and let rest, loosely tented with foil, for 10 minutes. Serve immediately.

Keeping the blogging in the family!

While I was trapped at my sister's house for a few extra days in the post-Christmas blizzard, we spent a lot of time cooking together and realized we get a lot of our recipes from similar sources.  I was taking pictures of her food when she started asking if I was going to start blogging about our joint effort meals.  Well, I guess she started her own blog to keep me from stealing all her recipes for mine.  Check out my sister's blog at Yum Yum for the Family.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Food Resolution: Menu Planning!

It's the new year which means it's time for some resolutions. Besides my yearly resolution to floss more, I tried to think of what I could do to make my life better this year, and I think I found it--weekly menu planning!

I've had Jennifer Ford Berry's book Organize Now! for about a year. It's a great book, but I haven't made much progress beyond the first two chapters. The first two chapters really ask a lot because they focus on organizing your mind and then your schedule. For someone like me who has trouble saying no and somehow thinks that I work better when I have too much to do, those are hard tasks for me. Basically, the book says I need to start planning better so I don't feel so harried all the time. Since food is such an important part of my life, I think weekly menu planning will not only help me plan my time better but will help me with my other following resolutions:

1. Eat healthier. I take night classes twice a week, and without forethought, I end up eating something ridiculously fattening from the hospital cafeteria (ironic, yes?) and my husband eats take out burritos. Even if I have time to cook, I often don't have what I need in my pantry. Hopefully if I plan ahead, I'll be able to buy what I need and do some cooking the night before my class so I'll have something healthy and homemade to keep my brain awake during class.

2. Eat more vegetables, less meat. I don't think I can ever give up meat, but I've read Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman and would like to decrease the amount of meat I eat for my and the environment. However, trying to make a balanced vegetarian meal without tons of eggs and cheese is a challenge for me. I've been collecting recipes with beans and different types of grains (quinoa, farro) to try in the new year, and with some planning, I'll be able to stock the pantry with what will hopefully be new kitchen staples.

3. Spend less money. When there are too many obstacles to make dinner at home, sometimes it's just easier to get take out or go out to eat. However, my class schedule has definitely increased the number of times we eat out a week. Cooking more at home also means there will hopefully be leftovers to bring in for lunch the next day--even more cost savings! Also, if I only go grocery shopping once a week, I'll save money on gas.

So far, I did some research, and I've set up a spreadsheet that has room for main dishes and vegetables for each day of the week. I did the grocery shopping already for this week and am mostly following the plan. It's been a great way to incorporate my love for trying new dishes into the week because I can grab the ingredients at the store ahead of time rather than furiously searching through epicurious every night for a well-reviewed recipe that includes ingredients I have on hand.

Next post: I'll blog about our New Year's Eve meal. I tried out a cooking technique I've been dying to try, and the results were awesome!