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Archive for July, 2008

Pickles

Do you know how many things you can make with pickles?  This is a subject I have become keenly interested in lately due to the fact that I have an abundance in my refrigerator.  How did this happen?
 
Earlier this year, in April, Matt and I joined a farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) through NYU’s food and nutrition department.  We decided to purchase a full share of vegetables.  This means that each week for 26 weeks, that began in June and end in November, I go to the pick up location, which is about a 5 minute walk from my apartment, and collect my share of vegetables.  We also purchased half shares of cheese, eggs, and fruit so every other week we are entitled to 8 oz of cheese, a dozen eggs, and fresh fruit.  All of the food is organic and from local farms in upstate New York.

We initially decided this would be a great way to support the local economy and contribute to preserving organic farm land – not to mention the welfare of the farmers and their families who cut out the middle men and therefore reap more profit.  I was also curious about which foods are harvested at what times in this region.  Maybe the farm CSA contributed to my ease with the Market Basket exercise in class.  As a bonus it turned out to be wonderful that we locked into food prices in April, now that they are rising.  The price per week wound up being $25, which given New York City food prices is very reasonable.  Especially considering that all goods are organic.

Back to the pickles.  Every week we receive a variety of different vegetables… but one thing remains steady.  The cucumbers.  Who knew they grew so well in New York?  Sometimes they are the large salad cucumbers, and sometimes they are smaller thin-skinned cucumbers.  I have been able to manage most of the delivered cucumbers with salad and snacks but this last delivery entitled me to nearly 4 pounds of cucumbers.  Can you imagine?  For two people in a week… that is a lot of cucumber.  I selected the small to medium thin-skinned pickle (saves time since you don’t need to peel them).  Little did I know that they were the perfect kind for pickling.

Pickles

My Bread and Butter Pickles

I returned home, washed, dried and packed all my produce in to the refrigerator.  The next thing I did was hit the books… cookbooks.  I was in search of ways to utilize all of these cucumbers.  Unfortunately, this vegetable rarely takes center stage in a recipe and usually plays back up in various cold salads or garnishes.  Due to all the previous deliveries of cucumbers I was tired of the cucumber salads and had already made raita (an Indian garnish with yogurt, cucumber, and cumin).  I reached for my cooking magazines next.  Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, Martha Stewart,  Diet and Nutrition,  Fine Cooking… nothing until I opened my August edition of Cooking Light.  As I turned through the pages I came across an article titled “Curing & Pickling – Preserve seasonal produce that you can enjoy weeks later with these time-honored methods”.  Perfect!

Within the article I found a recipe for bread and butter pickles.  I knew these were designed to be sweet (which I do not particularly like) and therefore I reduced the sugar to 1/4 of the amount asked for.  I found that these pickles were not very salty, like many store-bought pickles can be, and were delicious!  It was super easy to do and I was able to utilize about 2 pounds of my cucumbers.  In the end I had a container with about 4 cups of pickles.  Since I do not can or jar foods – I had about 2 weeks to use them before going bad.

Back to the original question – what can you do with pickles?  I made my own tartar sauce – I combined homemade mayonnaise, chopped pickles, pickle juice, and chopped scallion – and served it with grilled fish sandwiches.  I made a tuna salad with lots of chopped pickles, a few tablespoons of pickle juice, and homemade mayonnaise.  A side dish of German-style red potato salad with string beans and dressed it with an oil and vinegar dressing that had chopped pickles and pickle juice and lots of fresh ground pepper.  A bulgar wheat salad with fresh chopped corn, tomato, scallion, fava beans and what else but pickles!  Tonight we are having a few friends over for dinner and as an appetizer I plan on serving pickles with a grain mustard, sharp cheddar, and crackers as an appetizer.  Who knew there were so many possibilities with pickles?  Before this week, I don’t remember the last time I even purchased pickles.  Let me say this… when farmer’s caught onto the idea of preserving vegetables this way after an abundant harvest to enhance the flavor and extend shelf life, they were onto something good.

FInd my recipe for pickles (without the extra sugar) in the recipe section or click the following link:

Bread and Butter Pickles

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Final Challenge Results

Rules: One mystery protein is selected by head Chef.  Each person, individually, must envision and then creat a main course.  Presentation of entre to the head chef is timed for 2 hours after each person’s start time.  Your score is determined by technique, flavor, originality, and presentation.

Mystery Protein: Veal breast

Dish:  Pan-fried crisp veal cutlet with a creamy tarragon mustard sauce served over a bed of sauteed greens.

Results:  My scores were great for presentation, originality and flavor.  I lost a few for technique simply because by breading pulled away from the cutlet a bit upon cutting (apparently this can be overcome by breading the protein 30-40 minutes before pan-frying to allow the mixture to fully adhere – which I didn’t know). 

Thoughts:  The best part was that working with only one mandatory ingredient and only one dish to prepare seemed like a cinch compared to the previous challenges.  It was interesting to see all the various preparations that people did.  I saw a few rolled/stuffed veal presentations that looked promising.  There were a number of veal stews or ragus served on their own or with a form of cooked potato.  One very ambitious student decided to do his veal ragu with handmade pasta!  Given our time constraints, I thought this was very aggressive.  He was not the only one who rolled pasta.  Another student made a free form type of veal lasagna layered with a bright green herb sauce.  Overall our class performed well and of all the practical exams, I actually found this one the easiest and least stressful… perhaps going through mock challenges AND the previous 4 practicals all helped prepare me.

As you can tell by the description I wasn’t going for a health-consious dish.  My goal was flavor, color and varying textures.  The star was a crispy pan-fried, golden brown, large butterflied veal cutlet.  I drizzled the top with a creamy pale yellow mustard sauce that had flicks of bright green from the tarragon.  I also placed a teaspoon of finely diced tomatoes in the center/top of the cutlet for a shot of color.  The veal cutlet was perfectly framed by the bed of bright greens peaking out from beneath.  I sauteed spinach and mesclun with some shallots and extra virgin olive oil, then seasoned with a pinch of salt and fresh ground pepper.  Yum!  Of course Matt sampled my leftovers for dinner that night and cleaned the plate.

What did I learn from these challeneges?  That there are a lot of things to consider when putting together a plated entree.  Besides just picking your protein and sides.  You have to think about all the colors on the plate… if there aren’t any you’re in for boring brown or yellows that don’t get the same wows as bright greens and reds, for example.  You have to think about the textures… this is a component of taste and varying textures cause you to percieve each food in a different way.  You also gain more satisfaction from a meal with different textures and flavors than one that has just one.  Also to be considered is how the flavors and ingredients in each part of the dish play on each other.  Food for thought!

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RULES/PLAYERS: (See previous entry)

INGREDIENTS:

  • Striped Bass
  • Stone Fruit (plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots)
  • Poussin (a small fowl)
  • Nuts (any kind)
  • Eggplant

RESULTS:

  • Appetizer: Thai-style coconut soup with Poussin, eggplant, and scallions garnished with fried basil leaves
  • Entree: Grilled stripe bass topped with macerated red plums and port wine reduction sauce served over Israeli couscous in a mint-pistachio pesto sauce 

THOUGHTS:

When we were given the ingredients my partner and I scratched our heads for a minute… what a strange combination of foods right?  After running through many possibilities we were both excited about our final menu.  The appetizer was my partner’s vision and the entree was mine.  Both were beautifully plated and got great reviews from students and the chef.  The grilled striped bass was actually quite a healthy dish in the end.  It was not low in fat (there was a generous amount of mint-pistachio pesto on the couscous) but it was healthy fat since I used extra virgin olive oil and the fish provides omega 3 fatty acids.  I loved how all of the flavors went together.  Logically mint goes with stone fruit… and from there it followed that I would make a mint pesto.  The delicate flavors of mint, couscous, and stone fruits were the perfect compliment to the flaky, white striped bass.  Plus the colors were beautiful on a plate… deep red plums, white fish with crispy brown grilled marks, bright green pesto and burgundy port reduction.  Matt and I enjoyed the leftovers for dinner that night and there were clean plates all around.  I’m actually liking this “market basket” challenge.  We all thought the chef was crazy when she said we would.

Next is our final practical exam!  The rules will be a little different from above.  We will work alone, having two hours to produce one plated entree.  There will only be one mystery ingredient and it will be a protein.  Wish me luck!

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The rules:

  1. You must use all 5 ingredients given at least once (among two dishes).
  2. Additional food items allowed are those in the “pantry”.  The only special requests that can be made are for kitchen equipment.
  3. Create an appetizer and an entree.
  4. Write your appetizer and entree on the board before you begin cooking.
  5. Have your appetizer plated and on the front table two hours after the challenge begins.
  6. Have your entree plated and on the front table 20 minutes after the appetizer.

The players:

A class of 14 students must draw numbers from a hat to determine partners.

The Mystery Foods Revealed:

  • Scallops
  • Tomatoes
  • Corn
  • Asparagus
  • Bacon

The Results:

Here is what we made:

Appetizer: Quinoa Salad with Roasted Corn, Tomatoes, Nicoise Olives and Herbs in a Lemon Vinaigrette

Entree:Seared Scallops served over Grilled Asparagus wrapped in Bacon with Balsamic Reduction and Citrus Reduction sauces.

Me and my teammate did great!  We were inspired my the seasonal ingredients and developed a menu we were both excited about.  Quinoa is a new, chic, whole grain that is easily transformed into a refreshing summer salad.  Our entree was liked by many of our classmates… specifically the duo of sauces.  The balsamic sauce was a deep maroon color and the citrus reduction a bright yellow-orange.  I brushed them on the plate in two long strokes (with a pastry brush), side-by side and at a diagonal across the plate.  On top of the sauces, angled the opposite way (to make a cross) I plated the asparagus wrapped in bacon.  On top of the asparagus I laid the seared scallops.  The plated looked colorful, the food looked appetizing, and you could dip a bite of your food in either one, or both, of the sauces on the plate.

I admit to being intimidated by this challenge at first, but in the end is was about showcasing our creative talent.  We even impressed each other with our dishes.  Looks like we may have actually learned something along the way.  The time limit was more than enough and the whole class finished on time (plus or minus 5 minutes).  I also found that instead of the ingredients limiting me and my partner… they actually helped us and drove the menu.  This made the menu planning go by more quickly.  I brought home the remainder of the quinoa salad and Matt and I enjoyed it with a few meals over the weekend.

Now today we have another one of these challenges with new foods and new partners… hopefully it will go just as smoothly.

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Crab Cakes

Tonight, in preparation for my market basket day tomorrow in class, I decided to dive into a recipe…. without a recipe.  Crab cakes to be exact.  I love them!  Who doesn’t?  They used to be my number one most favorite thing to order at a restaurant.  And I never make them at home.  I know the idea behind making fish cakes – shredded fish, egg, some sort of bread crumb, seasoning, a source of moisture, and chopped veggies for texture and additional flavor.   Of course we have learned the technique in class and made a few variations.  Now after dining on my crispy, delicious crab cakes served over mixed greens tossed with a lime vinaigrette, I’m wondering why I don’t make them more often??  Success!!!  The consistency, flavors, spice and tastes all worked very well.  I have posted the recipe in the recipe section (which I actually wrote down, something I rarely do while experimenting).

A few tricks to keep in mind with making crab cakes or any other sort of fish cake include:

  1. Purchase good quality crab meat!
  2. Finely chop and pre-cook any onions, peppers, or other vegetables you will be adding to the crab cakes.
  3. Remember the larger the cake – the longer the cook time!  I keep mine about 1/2-3/4 inch thick and 2 & 1/2 inches in diameter (or smaller if you are in a hurry).
  4. If your crab cakes are not easily forming into patties – add some flour to the mixture, a teaspoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached.  But do not overdo it!
  5. To get that nice, crisp, brown crust you must coat the crab cakes in bread crumbs (I like panko) right before frying, use enough vegetable oil to cover the entire surface of the pan at 1/4 inch depth, and preheat the pan and oil over med-high heat.
  6. Remember they cook quick, about 1-2 minutes per side.  If they are turning black before then turn down the heat of your pan!
  7. Drain on paper toweling after removal from the pan.

Viola!  You have a crunchy, crispy, crab cake!  Not so hard right?  Don’t forget that even more important is the taste… I make a mini crab cake and fry it up as a “test” then adjust seasoning as needed.  Hey maybe the mystery protein tomorrow will be crab…

Crab Cake Recipe

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We are have finished with pastry and baking – finally!  Now we are back to preparing foods that I can call dinner.  Matt is happy about that too.  We just finished five classes focused on current famous chefs.  Each day we focused on one chef and learned about their background, theory, techniques, and famous recipes.  We broke into groups, 5 each, and prepared a three course menu of recipes written by the chef (or his colleagues).  The chefs were Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, David Keller, Ming Tsai, and Rick Bayless.  Of all – I think we most thoroughly enjoyed Ming Tsai’s dishes.  They were delicious!  The reason may have been because of all the chefs, he was the most involved with writing the recipes for the lesson.

It was really interesting to see how different they dishes looked one day to the next, depending on the chef.  Surprisingly, I found the recipes no more complex than what we anything else we prepare in class.  All of the cooking technique demos by our instructors and knife skill drillshave paid off.  There was nothing within these gourmet chef recipes that our class couldn’t handle.  To top it off – all of the recipes came out tasting great!  Our class has become among chef instructors for preparing really good food.  So that explains why our plates are cleaned so quickly?

The next three classes coming up are called “market basket”.  This means that our chef instructor selects three seasonal ingredients, one being a protein, that we have have to utilize in class.  We draw names to be put in pairs and then have three hours to prepare one appetizer and one entree using all three ingredients.  Of course we have an adequately stocked “pantry” that we can also use to make our dishes.  Sounds kind of like the school’s own version of Iron Chef America right?  Well it is… except we get a little more time and there is no judge’s table (though our chef instructor will grade us).  I am a bit nervous about this whole thing, I’m not gonna lie.  But at the same time, it is the chance to really show what you’ve got.  Should be very interesting…

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