Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Tale of Two Critters

I have a confession to make. I am a pressure cooking virgin. I have always wanted to learn how to use a pressure cooker, but I admit that I have allowed myself to be intimidated by them for as long as I can remember. But really, if you consider the fact that most of the pressure cookers I have seen, including the one I inherited from Matt’s grandma, are the old-style cooker that was reputed to explode at will if you used them incorrectly. Well, I am not exactly known for following directions precisely, so I just kept my distance from the little Vesuvius.
Recently, I received a newer model cooker from a friend who was cleaning out her house and finally, when Mom came to visit and I felt I had some level of moral support behind me, I decided to give it a shot.
In preparation for the parental visit, I picked up a number of items at the store to cook for them, and I couldn’t resist the lovely looking cross-cut beef shank. Not your usual cut of meat, but it reminded me of the cooking class Mom, my sister, and I took a few Christmases ago, so I though it would be fun.
The shanks were large, so I knew they would not all fit into the cooker, which gave me an idea. Since the pressure cooking is an experiment, let’s try this two ways. I put my pressure cooker to the test, alongside my 14 inch covered Mega Pan. (I love this pan)
This was the process:I seared two of the shanks and put them in the pressure cooker with some onion, celery, carrot and garlic (poised on a piece of foil, twisted like a pretzel to keep the meat off the bottom since I didn’t have a rack that would fit), added a cup of beef broth and a cup of red wine.I repeated the process with the remaining three shanks in my mega pan (except that I realized after sealing the cooker that I forgot to add any seasoning at all, so I tossed in some dried Italian herbs as well). Both pans got covered and the Mega Pan went into a 350 degree oven while the pressure pan stayed on a medium flame on the stove top.
The cooker’s manual said to cook it for about 35 minutes, which we did, but we had our doubts about whether the pan was properly sealed, because the safety lock never popped up, so we left it in a while longer and ended up pulling both pans out at the same time, after about 45 minutes.
When comparing the two side by side, I must say there was not a dramatic difference. The Mega Pan produced a more flavorful meat, partly from the herbs that I added, but not entirely, I don’t think. The meat was tender, but not falling apart.The pressure cooker brought forth a beef shank that was extremely tender, nearly falling apart, and quite tasty as well.I do think if we had removed it from the pan at the 35 minute mark, it would have been about equal to the other example. All in all, a good test! And I’ve decided that either method is great. I’m still a little nervous about the pressure cooker, but I will be intimidated no more! Although, to be honest, the oven method was much simpler, in my own opinion, and I can make more at a time that way, since I am accustomed to cooking large meals. So, you decide! Pressure? Or Pan?
Since I had so much time on my hands, I made my favorite Cream and Leek Risotto to go alongside it. (There is also an ulterior motive here.) I’ve posted this risotto before, but never had any decent pictures, so you’re going to get it again!
Some people are as intimidated by risotto as I am by pressure cookers, but it is really a very simple dish to prepare. The basic ingredients are a good rice (I use Arborio because it is readily available in my area), stock, and some kind of vegetable. There are as many variations as you can imagine.
The original recipe came from The Silver Spoon. For this risotto, you need a couple of nice leeks, thoroughly rinsed and very thinly sliced, using only the whites and light green parts. 2 cups of Arborio rice, a couple of tablespoons of butter, 6 cups chicken stock, ¾ cup heavy cream, and ½ cup parmesan cheese
Start by sautéing the leeks in the butter until soft, about 20 minutes.While you are doing this, warm your chicken stock in another pan. You should always add warm stock to the risotto. Adding cold stock will only slow down the cooking process. Add a couple of tablespoons of water, or in my case, the white wine that was in the glass I was drinking from, then stir in the rice so that all the grains are coated with all the lovely flavors in the pan and the butter is absorbed. A ladle or two at a time, add the stock and allow it to absorb into the rice before each addition, until you have used all six cups. Stir constantly. This will take some time, and you will think there is no way all that liquid will absorb, but trust me, it will. When all the stock is absorbed, stir in the cream. The original recipe says to garnish with the parmesan cheese, which I do, but I also add about a half cup to the risotto at this point.Now, what you have is a savory little side dish that can stand up to any hearty meal you put on the table. However, I must admit, that I sometimes make this dish, simply for the leftovers. Why, you may ask? Well, its like this. Because this recipe makes a fairly large amount, there is always leftover. When that happens (and I insure that it always does) I bring the cold risotto out the next morning, cook up a pound of pork sausage in a pan, then mix it in with the risotto and some more parmesan cheese, and form it into patties.Then I roll it in breadcrumbs and fry those little gems up in a pan.Voila! Breakfast. You just can’t beat this for a morning meal. They do tend to be somewhat fragile in the pan and you want to make sure your pan is good and hot to leave a good crust on the patties, but the effort is well worth the result. Your holiday houseguests will be raving about this one, and calling you Martha Stewart for your ingenuity in using up leftovers. Go ahead, try know you wanna.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Then and Now

Recently, my husband and I went to a local consignment auction and as I was sifting through boxes of cookbooks, the hubs came across a tattered old cookbook whose cover read, “Chesterfield Science Club Cookbook 1913”. Now, Chesterfield being the small Illinois town that he grew up in, he was immediately interested. We know of two other Chesterfield cookbooks, one from the sesquicentennial year in the mid ‘80s, and the Y2K edition, both of which we own. This edition is a typical “contribution” cookbook, with the names of each contributor listed. As Matt’s step dad (among others) was born and raised in Chesterfield, we started looking for names we recognized.

We’ve been flipping through the book here and there (yep, that’s right, my husband was the high bidder and we now own it as well as the other two editions), and while my parents were out here visiting, I thought it would be fun to try a couple of the recipes from the book, just as a kind of throwback to days gone by. Many of the recipes have very little instruction, and even some questionable ingredients, so picking one was a challenge. One recipe jumped out at my mom as she was leafing through the pages. Amber Pie.
I ask you – what exactly makes a pie “amber”? Well, the ingredient list wasn’t much help. It called for 1 ½ cups jam (what kind, you may ask? I chose Strawberry, simply because I didn’t want to waste my jar of fig if the recipe went badly.), 1 ½ cups sour cream, 1 cup sugar, 2 TB flour and 2 eggs.
The directions go something like this.
Mix all together. Take one crock of cream and whip. Pour on top of pie in unbaked shell. Makes enough for two pies.

I. Kid. You. Not.

Do you bake it? If so, how long? At what temperature? You don’t really put the whipped cream on before baking, right?

So, using our common sense (we hoped), we mixed the four pie ingredients together (I halved the recipe to make one pie), poured it into an unbaked crust (yes, I cheated and used a frozen one from the store), and baked it in a moderate oven (350), hopefully until the filling “set”, and, we waited.

At about 30 minutes, the filling was still liquid.
At forty minutes, it was boiling. Spewing fat little bubbles up from the middle of the pie. But the crust was definitely not done. Hmmm....
Ten minutes later, it was a puffing and heaving mass of phlegmy looking curdles that reminded me of a festering cesspool. I was mildly disgusted and somewhat horrified.
Finally, at an hour and ten minutes, there was a distinct change that had taken place, the puffing had subsided and it appeared to be a consistently gelled mass, apart from a bit around the edges that was caramelizing aggressively.
We removed the pie from the oven and allowed it to cool. After lunch, we decided to brave the beast. Cutting small slices from the pie, we passed them around the table, daring each other to take a bite.
As it turns out, it was....not bad. It tasted only vaguely of strawberry, but held a strong resemblance to a curd, in texture. It was intensely sweet, and the whipped cream helped cut the sugar a bit. All in all, not a bad result, if a bit disturbing in the process. I hope to try a few more obscure choices over the next month or so, and bring a taste of historic Illinois to my blog!

Oh, and just to salvage our sense of the present, we also made the Snowball Cake featured on the cover of the last Kraft Foods magazine. It was easy to make and turned out great! A creamy, coconut-y confection that my co-workers were happy to help me get rid of yesterday.

Snowball Cake
1 pkg. (2-layer size) devil's food cake mix
1 pkg. (8 oz.) PHILADELPHIA Cream Cheese, softened
1 egg
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1 pkg. (3.4 oz.) JELL-O Vanilla Flavor Instant Pudding
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 cup cold milk
1 tub (8 oz.) COOL WHIP Whipped Topping, thawed

HEAT oven to 350ºF.

PREPARE cake batter, in 2-1/2-qt. ovenproof bowl, as directed on package; scrape side of bowl. Beat cream cheese, egg and granulated sugar until well blended; spoon into center of batter in bowl.

BAKE 1 hour 5 min. or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool cake in bowl 10 min. Loosen cake from bowl with knife; invert onto wire rack. Remove bowl. Cool cake completely.

MEANWHILE, beat dry pudding mix, powdered sugar and milk in medium bowl with whisk 2 min. Stir in COOL WHIP. Refrigerate until ready to use.

PLACE cake on plate; frost with pudding mixture. Cover with coconut. Keep refrigerated.

Santa, Baby....this won’t fit down my chimney!

Christmas came early at my house this year, in more ways than one. For starters, my parents made a long-awaited trip out from the east coast to visit and catch up with Ty. Naturally, since it is so close to Christmas, we opened a few presents and I just have to say....this is Ty’s year. This year, he really gets it. This year, he is very excited about anta coming (which means we also get to use the “Santa is watching” method of child discipline). This year, he was really able to tear those packages open with a gusto that only another four year old can rival. I can’t wait for Christmas morning.
Its been awhile since I’ve had a “Dad visit” post, but if you have been reading a while, you may remember that my dad can’t come visit without having a ‘to-do’ list to accomplish while he’s here. And that, as you may also know, is just fine with me. This trip, we had a fairly lengthy list, but mainly small items that involve items like repairing a leaky sink, moving some curtain rods, burying the line to our well pump, etc. SO, unlike previous posts, I don’t actually have a lot to show you from the visit, project-wise. There are a couple of things, of course, of which I am particularly enamored.

Number one....bathroom cabinet.
My upstairs bathroom is smaller than my closet. And, being in such a hurry to pick out fixtures when we were remodeling the entire house in one fell swoop, I picked out a lovely, but impractical pedestal sink. Which, of course, left me with ZERO storage in that room. Since his last visit, Dad made me a wonderful cabinet to mount above my toilet to hold all the essentials. It is just perfect. See?
Number two: STOCKINGS!
About three years ago (or more) I bought fabric to make Christmas stockings for me and my boys. Naturally, with Christmas being out-of-sight-out-of-mind most of the year, it just never got done. A big part of the reason was that I never really had anywhere appropriate to hang them. The first year, we hung them from the ledge over the stairs...then we got a new sofa that blocks the ledge. The next year, we hung them off the entertainment center, which was very inconvenient. Last year, I don’t think I even bothered. So, my plan to get this in motion was to commission a new shelf from Daddy Dearest with three perfect little wrought iron hooks on it to hold out stockins during the season, and anything else I choose during the rest of the year. As usual, Dad outdid himself in the details. The shelf is just exactly what the space needed, and now when Matt finally picks out his big screen tv, we’ll have somewhere to put the picture frames that currently reside on the entertainment center. It also pushed me to get the stockings to the local shop to have our names embroidered on the flaps, and then Mom helped me finish them off so I could get them hung as soon as the shelf was mounted. I just love it.And, finally, NUMBER THREE!
In a spontaneous moment, the hubs suggested on Monday that we take our change jar to the bank and see if there was enough in it to buy the new stove I so desperately need. You’ve probably never noticed, but when I post pics of food cooking on the stove, you only see the pan. I never move out far enough that you can see my actual stove....because it was AWFUL. A hand-me-down ten years ago, it was well overdue for replacement. So, yesterday in a fit of practicality, the hubs went to Lowe’s and picked up the model I selected, paid for by our spare change. And, in addition, a new upright freezer to replace the one in our laundry room that has electrical tape holding it shut because the door is slightly bent (due to a fit of irritability by my hubs). The new one is so large, I couldn’t get back far enough from it to get a picture. But hey, a freezer is a freezer. Not only did the hubs bring the new appliances home, he installed them, put all the frozen items in the new freezer (even ORGANIZED, mind you!), AND sent the old ones away to be hauled off for scrap. Fabulous, fabulous day. Merry Christmas to ME!
On to the new light of my life, the main event.....Gigi.
Yep, I named my new stove. Don’t ask me why, I’m just a freak like that. Ain’t she just GORGEOUS? I kinda just wanna lick know? Maybe that’s just me....

Gotta love it...Whirlpool gas range.....5 cubic foot oven....self cleaning.....waist high broiler (hell, ANY broiler would be nice! I've never had one that worked!)....5 burners with continuous friggin' grates!!! What more could a foodie like me ask for?

Anyway, I just had to share...I am officially in appliance heaven, and I can’t wait to go home and cook tonight. Its going to be a Chicken Parm night at my house tonight!