Archive for March, 2010

Mussels: camouflaging flavour with all that ugly.

Posted in Cooking with tags , , on March 26, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

A couple nights back I attempted to cook something I had never even thought of  attempting before; mussels. I’ve had them in restaurants on a couple occasions, and at other people’s houses, but had never thought of them as something I’d pursue to gorge myself on (regular readers will recall them being casually mentioned as a food I initially disliked, and grew to tolerate/enjoy to a degree).  Apparently, my stomach thought otherwise, and began sending signals to my brain, demanding mussels for sustenance.

Now, I generally try and accommodate myself when it comes to food cravings (usually just involving peanut butter or something salty, so this was somewhat more esoteric than usual), so I started going through various and sundry cookbooks to look for recipes for steamed mussels. While I came across a ton of variations (especially within Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything-a fantastic cookbook that stresses variety and simple experimentation within cooking), I was somewhat taken aback at how simple the cooking process appeared to be; I may have been branching out in terms of what kind of food I was attempting to make, but any functionally limited mule can steam some bivalves in some flavouring until their shells open.

So, with ingredients firmly in mind, the grocery store was clearly the destination to visit (well, the Saint Lawrence Market would’ve been a better choice, but I’m not likely to travel downtown and back for ingredients at the best of times, and this was long after the market would be closed. I’m sure the Danforth also possesses some killer places for fresh seafood, but I don’t know of those vendors). Getting there, I realized I hadn’t really thought of a side-dish, and began puttering around the store in some sort of blind stumble (blind panic, blind rage? Dunno, I was anything but thrilled, as I hate dumping all my effort into a single portion of a meal. I’m known to over-extend myself a lot of the time, trying to accommodate more dishes than my skills and experience allow for),  desperately wracking my brain for something vegetable oriented (starch was already covered-there would be baguette to sop up the liquid with, so pasta or rice were both no-gos).

Still grumbling about my lack of fore-sight for side-dish planning , I continued my putter over to the seafood section, and found the only mussels available came vacuum packed in 2lb bags. Not really considering why, I decided I needed two bags to feed the two of us. When back home, I realized the tremendous error of this-that’s a hell of a lot of mussels.

While I began cutting up vegetables for the salad (I acquiesced to Jess and settled for making this on the side), I had Jess cull the cracked and open mussels (a surprisingly large number. More shocking was the amount of good ones left over; Finding a bowl large enough to rinse them was initially daunting, but at least our stock pot was more than large enough to accomplish the herculean feat of containing them), and then I shooed her out of the kitchen so I could cook (I go all Marco Pierre White, and generally prefer that if I’m in charge of doing that meal, once all the sous-chefery is done, I like to work alone. I may listen to some music, generally metal, but otherwise, I just prefer quiet to help me focus).

For the mussels, I decided to do something simple for my first time, and decided to do a white wine cream sauce with shallots. It turned out to be quite effective and simple-for once, I felt the flavouring was successful in enhancing the natural characteristics of the food, rather than burying it. The mussels were cooked perfectly. My only real gripe was that even though I had balanced the flavours well, there was just enough extra white wine to thin the cream sauce a bit too much, but that’s easily remedied if I make this again.

mmmm, steamy

The salad had me attempt to make a vinaigrette for it (yes, the salad was clearly sentient, just go with it), so along with some balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, I added in some white wine, basil, and parsley, hoping they’d pair nicely with the mussels. With some shallots and a few hours to absorb some of the flavours, it may have turned out pretty nicely, but as it stands, it was light on flavour and fairly unfulfilling.

Served with the same white wine used in the cooking and salading process, it was a nice, simple meal. I must admit, the tremendous mountain of mussels soon proved off putting though; after a pound or so of them, they were beginning to cool, and if you actually look at the damn things, they’re ridiculously revolting. Texturally, they’re pleasant, and taste nothing like you’d expect, but they’re not about to win any beauty pageants. I eventually decided I’d had my fill, before my stomach decided the same. I then had salad, and lots of baguette to sop up the wonderful mussel soup.

I’ll probably attempt another [smaller] batch of mussels at some point, but I feel my craving has been satiated for a good while.

There can NEVER be too much peanut butter.

Posted in Baking with tags , , , , on March 21, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

Yeah, those cookies I mentioned? Made ’em Monday night. It’s now Saturday (well, late Friday night…). Let’s just chalk up the lack of posting to me coming down with a case of God of War III (protip: It’s damn entertaining).

So, I’ve always been well-aware that the actual process of baking is far more about perfecting your craft than being artistic about it-recipe tweaks are fine, but once you’re comitted to baking something, follow your instructions closely, and your product will turn out well (barring crappy ovens, unforseen circumstances etc). Conceptually, really easy to grasp, in practice (for me), not so much.

A while back, Jess made cookies from the same recipe she handed me, and while they were good, they weren’t PEANUT BUTTER cookies (though apparently this recipe was meant to emulate good ol’ fashioned peanut butter cookies, but have a more subtle flavour, and emulate traditional drop cookies or somesuch-would’ve been helpful to know this before embarking on the journey). Sure, there was an element of the flavour that was peanut buttery, but it was kind of timid and probably would’ve flinched if you noticed it.

Peanut Butter is one of my favourite sweets in this world, be it in cookies, pared with chocolate, or eaten a la carte (gross, I know). That in mind, I decided I needed some cookies that really showcased this. With recipe in hand (dutifully scaled down by jess-baking school recipes seem to expect that I’m providing for a bakery or something, pfft), I began carefully electronically scaling ingredients with utter precision, down to the gram. I was utterly convinced this would be my shining hour as an amateur baker, producing top notch cookies I could happily charge for.

I began the mixing process (made easier by a KitchenAid stand mixer-it’s seriously helpful, albeit noisy. If they come knocking, I’ll happily shill for them), and preheated the oven. Things were going well. Batter mixed, I decided it was time for a taste test…and remembered my previous complaints about the lack of peanut butter in the cookies. Cursing under my breath, I did the only logical thing-add more peanut butter. A lot more peanut butter. Peanut butter to such a degree, that I probably tripled the initial amount, completely throwing the recipe out of wack. That said, it now tasted very peanut buttery, so I was content.

I then began the process of creating little balls of peanut butter, and depositing them on a baking sheet. I noticed how pliable and squishy they were, and was concerned, but was more focused on potential Future Cookies than anything as immediate as the consistency of my product. I also forgot to flatten them with a fork.

In minutes, I was aghast to discover that my cookies were beginning to resemble the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, and with alarming alacrity, grabbed a discloth, got the things out of the oven and flattened them down somewhat (though they seemed to deflate-highly disconcerting). They also were starting to get really big. And taking a long time to bake, much longer than recipes usually call for. I noticed them browning, and gave up and took them out.

Not the most glorious batch of cookies ever, but they fulfilled the whole PEANUT BUTTER aspect pretty well. The bottoms were slightly crisp, and would’ve been burnt within another minute or so. Once cooled, the consistency was decent, albeit slightly overdone; I was concerned due to their spread, so I let them overbake.

This was mainly meant to be a test batch, though, as I’m intending to make some tweaks to it (and it shall also partially feature into a challenge I’m gearing towards-doing a blind taste test of various baked goods baked with regular all-purpose flour, and King Arthur flour that my aunt got me as a gift/souvenir from the states-Practically every book related to cooking that I have invariably mentions it as the defacto flour). If I meet with some success the next time I hit the baking battlefield, I’ll probably do a follow up to this-I’d like to leave you with more than a single photo of some large, malformed cookies.

This sends me in hunt of a more appropriate recipe though, as I clearly am wanting something as peanut buttery as possible, with a nice crumb, and an affinity for 2% milk-not too soft and crumbly, not too crisp. Now, I clearly have to Jeffrey Steingarten this project, and test out dozens of recipes, and try and come up with my own recipe that is a culmination of other good ones. Or something.

MEAT. POTATOES. EAT.

Posted in Cooking with tags , , , , on March 14, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

Haven’t posted in a while, sorry. I wasn’t feeling up to snuff that last week or so, and have only just begun eating meals again; it would’ve been fraudulent to have expounded about food while consuming none. BUT NOW, I return, and I bring with me more tales of high adventure in the culinary world. Today, I actually cooked! Now, that seems like a dismally low bar to aim for, but hey, it’s been a while.

WHAT DID I COOK ?

Well, except when a recipe on TV catches my eye (or I’m baking), nothing is pre-ordained. No, I don’t have the ability to instantly waltz into a grocery store or market, and bang out a whole meal on the spot, but I do like to see what’s available before committing to any sort of dish. This can be a detriment, as I may forget an ingredient or two vital to a recipe (especially when it’s a single dish with various spices and herbs, I’ll definitely forget something), but it’s never been crippling.  Sure, it may not be as originally intended, or as fully developed a flavour, but it’s pretty damn hard to make something inedible (I have a couple stories of those failures, but I’m in no rush to share them) if you’re applying basic cooking principles.  Hell, even tonight’s food wasn’t spectacular, but it certainly felt good to get back in the kitchen to do something beyond visit the fridge.

So, wandering the local Sobey’s, we picked up the various essentials one can expect (various veg, bread, cheese et al), but turned an eye towards thrift- all sorts of pork and beef products were on special, and what the hell, we wound up getting some decent steaks, among other things (eh, some pork ribs and sausages, if I recall). In our cart, we already had potatoes, so why not…wait for it…STEAK AND MASHED POTATOES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yeah, fantastically original, I know. Give a guy a break-it was late at night, I was in a pissy mood, and I wasn’t exactly giddy with inspiration. But, don’t fear! I now had a plan, and the means to execute it (also, surprised Jess didn’t say anything, but I’m sure she was probably hoping I would’ve dropped in some sort of veg side, since the starch and protein is kind of off the charts).

Steaks first-

Well, nothing especially exciting. I tenderized them first (couldn’t find a meat tenderizer, used an old ice cream scoop-sorry jess), then did a basic pepper and salt rub. (sorry for photo quality-taken quickly with my iPhone, which lacks a zoom or flash. And yes, that is my thumb in one of the photos >_<)

After that, into the pan with some grapeseed oil on medium-high for a minute and a half or so on each side

and then into the oven (400f, I believe, may have been 425f), for 10 minutes. The sheet is from our toaster oven, but I’m not really sure what the thing I put on it is-some sort of rack that happened to have holes in it.

The potatoes were really easy, but I still managed to over-boil them due to not watching the clock/getting distracted.Skin on, as I like mashed potatoes with them, and Jess thought the red skins would be an added visual bonus.

There is smoke coming from under the heating element. Something had previously fallen underneath, and now it was getting its own viking funeral.

Added in some basil, salt, pepper and butter, and they were done.

The final product.

Yep.Kind of frightening that the meat and potatoes are nearly identical in size and shape, but plating has never really been one of my strong suits. I also would like more interesting plates.
How did it taste?  The steak was cooked well (slightly closer to medium than medium-rare, but I wouldn’t have sent it back), but was way over-peppered and under-salted. This hampered the natural flavours of the steak, which weren’t anemic, but certainly could’ve used something a little subtler to enhance, rather than mask them. It certainly wasn’t as good as a similar-quality steak I had at a pub a few nights previously, but with a bit of work, I believe I can produce something of a much-higher quality (up to a certain point. the quality of ingredients is probably the biggest limiter, with frugal spending taking priority).

The mashed potatoes were actually pretty good, but texturally a little sticky (less boiling, next time). The basil probably needed to be in higher proportion, and more pepper might’ve added more bite and edge to compete with the rounder, sweeter flavours of the butter and milk. Garlic also would’ve been nice, but it hadn’t roasted in time (but it did roast in time to serve with the meal).

So all in all, a decent warm-up for some real fun. I’m a little rusty, but I’m starting to feel some inspiration flowing back. I still have more rants on the way, but there will definitely be some be some accounts of blood,fire and steel. Butter may come tomorrow, as I’m probably going to bake peanut butter cookies.

G’night.