Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Welcome Home Macaroni

Dear Jamie,

What a lucky little girl you are!  You have been given two of the coolest parents.  They have intelligence, wit, great taste, and are overwhelming kind and generous.  With them supporting you, I can't wait to see how smart, funny, and charming you will become.

You are a week old today.  I'm grateful to have seen you every day for the first five days of your life.  It was great to see your folks and see the changes in you.  I'm away for a while, but I hope you know that no matter where I live I will always be there for you, just as I am for your amazing parents.

Hugs and kisses....Auntie Katie

Our friends Dave and Wendy just had a beautiful baby girl.  I am thrilled for them and wanted to show my affection for them by bringing them food.  But what to make?  I wanted something that would be fine to leave in the refrigerator for a few days, if needed and would taste good re-heated.  I wanted something comforting and filling.  I wanted something that they could share with other guests.  My go-to dish includes meat and cheese with pasta in a spicy, garlicky sauce, but that didn't seem to be good for a nursing mother.  Oh yeah, how about macaroni and cheese?  I modified a recipe that comes from James Beard via my mother.

Macaroni and Cheese
Serves plenty

3/4 lb dried macaroni
4 Tbsp butter
4 Tbsp flour
2 cups milk
1 tsp salt
1 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp hot sauce (optional)
10 oz shredded cheese

Cook the macaroni in boiling water according to package directions.  Drain well and set aside.

While pasta is cooking, begin to prepare a white sauce.  Melt butter in a heavy skillet, stir in flour.  Cook over medium heat, stirring smooth.

Before you add milk to the flour-butter mixture, heat it separately until it is almost boiling.  Then, gradually stir it in and continue stirring until it thickens.  The sauce stays smoother by adding warm milk to the other warm ingredients.  Add the salt, mustard, and hot sauce, and simmer for no more than 5 minutes.

Butter a 3 quart baking dish or casserole.  Put a layer of cooked macaroni on bottom, cover with some of the white sauce and cheese.

Repeat layers until dish is full, ending with a slightly heavier layer of cheese on top.

I used sharp Cheddar and a little grated Parmesan, but it can be good with whatever cheese you like or have on hand.  I don't recommend too much soft cheese, though.  Also, depending on how much cheese you like, you can use between 8 and 12 ounces.

Bake in 350 oven for 20 to 25 minutes until you can see the sauce bubbling on the sides.  Then pop it under the broiler for about 3 minutes to give it a nice color on top.

NOTE:  I gave this casserole to the new parents before cooking it, so they could have it fresh, but it also reheats well in the oven or microwave.

I'm Back

Hi, friends.  Please forgive my absence.  I've missed all of you.  Recent developments in the life of Cook in the Bar have taken me away from my kitchen and writing.  First there were home renovations.  Need I say more?  Then, I had some computer problems.  All cleared up now.

And, drumroll, please...A Cook Walks Into a Bar is now coming to you temporarily from Texas.  Yay, y'all!  Yes, my husband has a temporary position in Fort Worth, Texas for the next few weeks.  Husband came ahead, but I arrived only last night (after driving two days).  I'm thrilled to be back in my hometown.  Plus, I'm really eager to cook with ingredients from the Lone Star state.  In fact, I've already made my first trip to Central Market this morning.  (Dave, I picked up some Hatch chiles in your honor.  Yes, I know they are from New Mexico, but it is a tradition to eat them here in Texas, too.)

I have a back-log of recipes to post for your reading pleasure, so some of my posts will be a bit dated, but stay tuned for our eating adventures here in Texas as I try to catch-up.

Cross-Country Road Trip Recipe
Serves me (nobody else would dare)

2002 Honda Civic coupe
1 60-lb excitable labrador mix
1 40-lb arthritic, senile border collie mix
1 12-lb grumpy cat
approx.  150 lbs of clothes, kitchen equipment, books, and other household stuff
1300 mile journey
2 days

Start by being tired - you may want to have done several weeks of manual labor by working on your house, and don't sleep well the night before.  Perhaps you can get your neighbors two doors down to hold a party and play bass-heavy rap music very loudly all night.

Wake up early.  Load all items into Honda by yourself while climbing down and then up stairs.  The lab mix must be running and jumping at your heels during the process.  It should be hot enough outside to make you sweat.  Pack the trunk as full as possible and maximize your spatial skills by sliding items together like pieces of a puzzle.

Encourage strangers to walk their dogs by this loading process in order to fully excite your dogs before they enter the car.  Also, it makes for a more interesting experience if, before you can load your cat he hides under the furniture that has been pushed together due to home renovations.  I recommend laying on your stomach and getting dust bunnies in your hair.  Then, pull the cat out to his loud protests, wrap him tightly in a large towel, and cram him in a car carrier.  The lab mix should try to help by barking and nipping at both you and cat.

Pull out of your driveway, but then immediately pull back in because your forget a crucial item.  Leave again.  Hit traffic from folks leaving town after Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor Rally.

Drive for 10 hours, stopping only for gas, food, and to walk the dogs.  Once you are sufficiently tired, find a seedy-looking Motel 6 (that's almost all of them) and get a room for the night.  Make sure your room is up a flight of stairs and far from the stairwell.  It is best if you need to make three or four trips between the car and the room to unload the animals and all your gear.  It is also helpful if strange men call out to you as you pass. Because the older dog has difficulty climbing stairs and the lab mix is excited, the leashes of both dogs should become tangled and cause them to start to tumble down the stairs.  Carry the older dog up the stairs, but only once the other dog's leash wraps around one of your legs and he half-pulls you up, too.

Once the strange men have been scared away by the dogs and you are finally in the room.  Sigh, open a beer, and take a seat on the bed, but only once you pull back the covers.  I mean, you've seen the Dateline report on the bodily fluids on motel beds, right?  Call friends and family, and think about how tired you are of making this same trip over and over in your life.  Sleep soundly until 3:30 am when the cat starts squalling and the older dog decides she is hungry.  Return to bed and lay awake until 5:30 am.  Decide to get ready for day.  Repeat experience of night before in reverse.

Return to car and drive for another 10 hours, stopping only for gas, food, and to walk the dogs.  Smile upon crossing Texas state line.  Smile wider upon seeing husband again.  Sigh, open a beer, and think about how lucky you are to make this same trip over and over again in your life.  Delicious.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Recipe in a Pickle Jar

My husband and I go through jars of pickles like crazy.  After seeing some online posts of pickle brined dishes, I decided to not just dump out the juice next time we finished a jar of pickles.  The recipes I found used different techniques - braising, baking, frying, etc...Chicken seemed like the best choice for brining, and I thought breading and frying would taste too much like Chick-fil-a, plus I wasn't in the mood for a braised dish.  So, baked chicken was the winner, and I thought searing it in advance would create a more appealing color.

Well, my husband and I are glad we gave this a try.  It created a very juicy, succulent chicken dish with a distinctive flavor.  If you do not like pickles, you will not like this chicken.  And, this may be obvious, but I feel it should be said - only use the pickle juice of pickles you like.

Pickle Brined Chicken
Serves 2

2 bone-in chicken breasts
1 jar of pickle juice (Claussen Hearty Garlic Dill is our fav)
2 Tbsp olive oil

I left the skin on the chicken breasts, thinking it might lead to crispy bits later.  You do as you prefer.  Drop the chicken in a zip-top plastic bag, pour in the jar of pickle juice to cover, and seal the bag.  I placed the sealed bag in a bowl to keep upright in the refrigerator and prevent leakage.  You could also try double-bagging.  Be warned: most of those zip-top bags are not leak-proof.

Let the chicken brine for at least 6 hours, but I think about 12 - 24 hours is best.

Pull the chicken out and pat dry.  Heat olive oil in a cast-iron skillet.  Then, sear the chicken breasts.  I cooked them on medium high heat for 3 to 5 minutes on each side.  Let it develop a nice browned color on each side.

Then, turn off the heat, and put the chicken still in the skillet in a 350 degree F preheated oven.  Bake it for about 30 minutes.

Once it was done, I pulled it out and covered it with foil to let it rest, but not let it get cold.

After about 10 minutes it was ready to serve.  Mmmm...juicy and flavorful, and so easy.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Scalloped Potatoes

These made a perfect side dish for our Lobel's tenderloin steaks...

Scalloped Potatoes
Serves 6

2 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, with more for baking dish
1 1/4 cup heavy cream
1 1/4 cup whole milk
3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 large potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Butter a 9 x 9 baking dish.

In a saucepan, whisk the cream, milk, garlic, salt, and pepper.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, and then remove from the heat and let cool in the pan to room temperature.

Arrange about a third of the potatoes in an overlapping layer in the baking dish.  Give the cream mixture a quick whisk and pour about a third of it over the potatoes.

Repeat twice more with the remaining potatoes and cream mixture.  Dot the butter over the top and cover with aluminum foil.

Bake until the potatoes are completely tender when pierced with a paring knife, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Remove the potatoes from the oven and heat the broiler on high.  Uncover the potatoes and gently press them down with a flat spatula so the cream mixture mostly covers them.  Broil until nicely browned on top, 5 to 8 minutes.  Let the potatoes rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Texas Foodways

Foodways Texas was launched a few weeks ago with the aim to promote, preserve and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas. Its initial members include Texas farmers, cattle ranchers, microbrewers, academics, historians, chefs, restaurateurs, and food writers from throughout the state.  This organization has been modeled after the Southern Foodways Alliance, a nonprofit group established in 1999 in Birmingham, Alabama, to document and celebrate the food culture of the American South.

Organizers are planning symposiums and regional events on Texas food culture; documentary films on Texas foodways and food personalities; and efforts to establish itself as the authority for information about Texas cuisine and culinary history. That would include celebrating and documenting Tex-Mex, barbecue, Gulf seafood, Texas beef, chili, Texas citrus, pecan pie, chicken-fried steak, kolaches, frozen margaritas, Texas craft brews, and local artisanal producers of ice cream, cheese, honey, bread and tortillas.  Oh, man…I’m hungry and homesick already.

No webpage or staff for the group as of yet, but stay tuned.

Meaty Gratitude

As an extra special thank you, our friends Dave and Wendy bought us some steaks from Lobel's of New York.  Wow.  What a great gift.  I tore open the box and was thrilled by some of the best-looking steaks I had ever seen.  I have heard good things about this butcher shop and I couldn't wait to try it for myself.

Lobel's  specializes in USDA prime, dry aged beef.  When beef is dry aged, the moisture evaporates from the muscle concentrating the beefy flavor and taste.  It also becomes more tender as the natural enzymes in the beef break down the fibrous, connective tissue in the muscle.  Needless to say, this is an expensive process, since the beef must be stored for weeks at or near freezing temperatures.  This adds to the cost of the meat, and is why you only see it offered at steak restaurants and high-end butcher shops nowadays.

I decided to prepare two tenderloin steaks for our dinner that night.  About half an hour before I was ready to grill, I took the steaks out of the refrigerator and removed them from their packaging.  With such a fine cut of meat, it needs seasoning only from kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Then I let the steaks sit out to bring them to room temperature.  This will help ensure the meat cooks evenly and can help reduce the cooking time.

I fired up the grill to high.  I knew it was ready when I couldn't hold my hand above the grate for more than about 5 seconds.  Using tongs, I placed the steaks on the grate to sear.  This will take 2 to 4 minutes for each side - depending on how thick your steak is, how hot you've made your grill, and how done you want it.  You can turn (not flip) your steak halfway through each side to give it fancy grill marks, if you want.

If you don't like your steak rare, you may want to cook it a bit longer on indirect heat after the sear.  Just lift it with the tongs, away from the flame.  We like our steaks rare, so ours were ready to go much faster.

To check for doneness, I don't like to pierce of cut the beef, I just use my clean finger and press down on the steak.  If it is rare, my finger will make an indention and it will stay in place.  If it is medium, the steak will give, but the indention will not remain.  A well done steak will feel firm.

After removing the steaks from the grill, let them rest for 3 or 4 minutes to redistribute the juices within the meat.

They were delicious and meltingly tender.  Some of the best meat I've ever had.  Seriously.  We have some pretty great friends.