Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Long And Winding Road From Apple Strudel To "Pork" Fried Rice

Is there such a thing as six degrees of separation for food? If so, then my tale of meandering food inspiration is a good example of it. It starts with the Daring Bakers' challenge described in my previous post. The recipe chosen was for apple strudel, but the real challenge was making the strudel dough, with the filling left up to each individual Baker.

Lisa Michele, of Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives, made a truly mouthwatering-looking char siu (Chinese roast pork) strudel, with her very own roast pork. She provided her recipe for the roast pork and, as I've wanted to try making a vegetarian Chinese roast "pork" ever since a disastrous trial many years ago, I started yesterday by making her marinade (recipe in the linked post).

I had an unfortunate missing ingredient -- five spice powder -- but otherwise followed the recipe exactly, doubling it because tofu needs more added flavor than pork does. I sliced a high-protein, super-firm tofu and marinated it for almost 24 hours, turning it once to recoat. I baked it for about 45 minutes, turning once and basting with extra marinade.

It turned out quite beautifully, as you can see. I would tweak the next batch. This was a little sweeter than I'd like, so I'll cut back on the brown sugar next time. And make sure I secure some five-spice powder, too.

The cut tofu looks pretty darn good and we ate half of it tonight in a "pork" fried rice with lots of onion, garlic, and green onions. The side dish stole the show a little bit, though. I used Lisa's pork sauce as inspiration and combined about 1 TBSP of dry sherry, 1 TBSP of soy sauce, about a half TBSP of vinegar, and 1 TBSP of corn starch in a bowl. I sauteed some minced onion and lots of garlic and then poured in the starch flurry. I added about a third a cup of water, some salt, and a small amount sweet red chile sauce, and cooked until thickened before adding some par-steamed broccoli. Oh, it was GOOD.

Husband ate his. Looked longingly at mine. And stole Little Girl's about 10 seconds after she uttered the magic "May I please get down?" that ends her meal.

So, thank you, Daring Bakers for the original challenge! And thank you, Lisa, for your inspired char siu version!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Daring Baker: Strudel!

May 26th

10:07 am: So here it is. The last possible day I can make the strudel that is May's Daring Bakers challenge. It's been a crazy month between illnesses in the house and a family wedding. I could opt out, I starting thinking yesterday. But it's my first month as a Daring Baker and that just seems so wimpy. So if not making a strudel isn't an option, that means I have to make a strudel. Today. Not a problem, right? I just have to choose a filling. And figure out how to roll and stretch the dough without a rolling pin. And make the whole thing. It'll be, Easy? A laugh a minute?

I even have the secret Daring Baker password for this month:

The May Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Caf├ęs of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.

Thanks, Linda and Courtney for choosing a truly daring recipe for this month's challenge! Here goes nothing!

12:15 pm: It would be boring to do this with no mistakes, right? So mistake number one: miscount the number of 1/3 cupfuls of flour I put in the bowl. I stirred and turned the resulting very wet, very shaggy dough on an unfloured board, as directed. Tried to knead it. Not happening. I start thinking about adding just a little flour when my eyes glance down at my hastily scribbled notes and see the 1 1/3 cups flour. Oh, yeah. That fourth 1/3 cup of flour would be really handy just about now. So I dump it on the board/dough, knead it all into the dough, and then continue kneading on the now-flourless board for a couple more minutes.

The dough is now oiled and in the fridge. I need it to sit longer than the specified resting time, so I'll pull it out later to sit and get nice and warmed up before trying to stretch it out.

I've decided on a savory mushroom/potato filling. Little Girl has had cake three nights in a row thanks to the wedding rehearsal, wedding, and a birthday party last night. I think four nights of dessert would set a precedent I'm not interested in setting. So I'll use her nap to cook the mushrooms' liquid out of them, par-boil the potatoes, and mix up some carmelized onion/goat cheese/cream cheese just for kicks.

2:33 pm: No potatoes. Changed my mind about them because I want the flavors to be more intense. I don't really have a picture in my head about how much flavor the dough will take away from the filling. So the mushrooms are cooked, the cheeses/onions/garlic are all mixed. Now I just have to figure out the perfect time to pull the dough out to warm up. If I wait until Husband comes home, we'll eat pretty late. If I try to do it while Little Girl is still asleep, I'm guaranteeing us a room temperature dinner and I'm not sure if that's what I want. If I try to stretch the dough with Little Girl awake? Heh. Barrel of flour, add monkeys. That's what we'd have.

5:22 pm:
Sesame Street to the rescue! Little Girl happily watched away as I rolled, stretched, and filled my dough. The problems came in my apparent inability to do simple math today. See flour, above for the first mistake. The second came as I was thinking, "Wow...this is pretty easy! I'm almost half-way rolled out and I haven't needed to use any creative language at all!" And that's when I realized that I hadn't cut my dough ball in half as planned. Of course it was all going along swimmingly -- I thought I was rolling out to a size suitable for a half recipe, but I had a whole recipe of dough. Very easy that way.

But, in the end, I managed to get a very thin dough almost as big as the recipe says it should be, and just cut off the sides to make a smaller rectangle for the amount of filling I had. And now, it's all filled and in the oven!

Husband, who kindly downloaded my pictures while I was taking care of other things, says that the unbaked strudel looks like a grub if you look at it quickly and don't know the scale. You'd never guess that I won his heart with a mushroom pie, would you? I think there was a qualifying, "Don't take this the wrong way, but..." I am not soothed.

After thirty minutes in the oven and thirty minutes of rest (I timed this phase; patience while waiting for food to cool is not my strongest virtue), I cut into the strudel. Flaky, mostly separate layers filled with a fairly rich mushroom and goat cheese filling.

That'll do, pig. That'll do.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Daring Cook: Ricotta Gnocchi

May 6th

11:03 am: For the very first Daring Cooks Challenge, we are making Ricotta Gnocchi from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and I'm beginning to feel like I've cursed this recipe before I've really even started.

The first time I read through the recipe, I thought it was quite similar to the gnocchi I made for HHDD quite some time ago. The method of forming the gnocchi struck me as different, but it was not until my second reading today that I noticed that there is no flour in the Zuni Cafe recipe, other than flour to roll the gnocchi in. That puts me in a completely different mindset about what I'm about to deal with, but I think I can handle it.

The ricotta, straight from the container.

The first step in the recipe is to drain the ricotta for a long time. Two cups of it, or approximately a pound. Well. I bought my ricotta at Fresh and Easy yesterday. It's not truly fresh ricotta, recommended for this recipe, but it's a big step above "normal" store-bought ricotta. The ingredients list reads, "Pasteurized whey, milk, citric acid, salt." Not too bad. It comes already draining in its own little strainer. I took the recipe's warnings seriously, though, so it's currently draining. The problem is that I have not one pound, but 12 ounces. Twelve ounces that do not look like a cup and a half. More like a generous cup. I guess I'm making a half-recipe and hoping for the best.

The drained ricotta, waiting to be forced through the sieve.

1:45 pm:
After almost four hours of sitting in a strainer with a couple pounds of weight on top, my ricotta has given up not one drop of liquid other than what the towel has absorbed. I'm calling it dry and thinking ahead to the next step.

4:41 pm: Creamy. Lemony. Delicate. Almost like an air-filled, savory, bite-sized lemon cheesecake. Truly. Delicious.

The luscious interior.

I just bit into my test gnocchi and I am in heaven. This is nothing like the previously mentioned ricotta gnocchi. Those took some chewing. These melt on the tongue, or maybe even before that, on the lips. I chose to flavor them with a little grated lemon peel (one of the recipe options) and very finely ground black pepper. I think Husband would probably like them as is, but he has texture issues (doesn't like mushy foods), so I'm thinking I might pan-fry my gnocchi with butter and a tiny bit of sage.

I have to completely rethink the dinner menu. I had planned to serve these with asparagus tips in an asparagus cream soup. But that is too much for the delicate flavors. So now, just the butter and sage, I think. Asparagus on the side, maybe, but perhaps these will just be an appetizer by themselves.

Forming the gnocchi.

6:37 pm: Husband has this belief that I sometimes take something perfect (like a recipe I've made over and over again) and tweak it in some way that makes me (and sometimes him) not love it as much. He says that tonight is a prime example.

Here I had these fluffy blobs of perfection and I, well, maybe "ruined" is too strong a word, but I made them into lesser beings. Instead of melting on the tongue, they had a tough outer surface. Think deep-fried milk skin. Not so good. And the airy middle had shrunk in on itself to form a denser, sponge-like center. Not good, either. Tasty as all get out. Pretty for the picture. But not the wisps of lemony perfection they had been.

Someday, I'll learn.

Finished product with steamed asparagus.

All in all? A good start for my Daring Kitchen experiences. I'll make these again and serve them straight out of the boiling water. Because right now, the only witnesses to my lemon-pepper clouds of joy are me and Little Girl. And nobody's gonna believe a two-and-half-year-old on this one.

May 12th
5:06 pm: With two days left before the reveal, I am reliving my gnocchi experience. The ricotta is drained, strained, and mixed with the other ingredients. I am sticking with the lemon zest and black pepper flavors, but these gnocchi will see only boiling water.

Yesterday, I made some veggie broth with veggies from a friend's garden. I will liven up the flavor with lemon juice and herbs and serve the gnocchi in the broth. The plan is that I will find enough energy to clean and cut to ribbons the spinach I also received. If I do, I'll put a mound of lightly sauteed spinach in the middle of the bowl of broth, with the gnocchi around it.

Simple, delicate flavors for a warm evening. That's the plan.

8:23 pm: The adventure is over. For now. I like making these, so I will probably pull out the recipe every once in a while. I think they'd make a perfect starter at a dinner party, but also a relatively painless supper for just the family. With all the different saucing possibilities, they are very versatile.

Things got a little crowded on the stove.

So, of course, the plan changed for dinner tonight. The broth wasn't a very pretty color, so I added some pureed tomatoes along with the lemon juice and zest. Light, but flavorful. I didn't find the energy for the spinach and the tomato took me in a different direction anyway, so I served them with a little feta cheese and basil in the middle of the bowl.

The gnocchi were as airy and luscious as my first, unfried test gnocchi. The flavors of the gnocchi and broth were balanced. I was happy.

As a coda to the experience, I required Husband to give me three adjectives to describe the gnocchi. He pulled out the thesaurus. He made a three-column list with 15 options. He crossed some out, circled others, second-guessed himself. He decided he required alliteration. But I am giving him the last word in thanks for his patience during my very first challenge with the Daring Kitchen:

Soft. Subtle. Satisfying.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Cool Evening Meal

Things are heating up in Desertville after a slightly extended winter. The oven is soon going to be put out to pasture for the summer. But we had an overcast day that kept temperatures low, so I took advantage of it to make a savory bread pudding with mushrooms and veggie sausage.

This dish owes it's place in my menu to my mother in law. Every Christmas, she makes huge pans of strata with thick bread, lots of ham (not for us, of course), cheese, and chiles. Hugely popular, especially with Husband who has a short list of iconic "my Mom makes it" dishes. Sometimes I do the true strata, but when that feels too fussy, I go for a bread pudding.

Husband was off for the day, so I had some free time to cook. The oven needed to do double duty to make the extra heat worth it. After getting the bread and veggies soaking in milk and eggs, I turned my hand to some lovely beets. I'll post that artful adventure soon.

The finished product was brown and crisp and well-received.

We ate the pudding with creamed spinach and the cranberry sauce my MIL always serves with her strata. It is a surprisingly perfect foil for the richness of a cheesy strata. I faked a whole berry sauce by simmering some dried crans in orange juice for a few minutes and then stirring them into the jelly that was my only option at the store.

Stay tuned for adventures in beet land.