Dinner of ill repute

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Gil‘s away in Cleveland for the evening, so you know what that means — olives and capers (no brussels sprouts, bein’s how it’s summer and all) and LOTR. Yes, I am well and truly living it up with my bad self. So maybe having whore’s pasta to celebrate my alone-time isn’t the most virtuous-sounding meal I could’ve eaten, but boy, do I love olives! And egad, does my husband not!

For more than you ever really wanted to know about pasta puttanesca, check out this Wikipedia entry.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my D70 owner’s manual and I are needed in Middle Earth.

Living the dream, my friends. Y’all have a good weekend.

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A miss is as good as a mile

Well, THAT didn’t turn out as expected! Trying to lighten the old brussels sprouts recipe from a few months ago, I substituted fat free condensed milk for the heavy cream, bumping up the flavor with an extra slice of bacon, some garlic, and double the mustard. Actually, it tasted fine, but the condensed milk resembled cottage cheese more than anything approaching a silky sauce.

Oh, well. Back to the drawing board. Maybe next time I’ll try a white sauce instead.

At least Fellowship on the big screen TV is redeeming my night.

Cinco de Mayo and cake

I don’t deal well with cravings. Never have. They ping around my brain until the whole thing is lit up like a pinball machine. It’s dangerous to walk around in such a state, but I’ve learned the hard way that indulging is the only way to reset, even if you possess the willpower of a thousand Southern Baptist virgins, as I do. My most recent reset took place over the weekend as I gave in to a weeks-long craving for coconut cake. Now I’m happy and sane once again after devouring far too much of it.

At least it wasn’t heavy. Cooking Light is a great resource for all kinds of healthy dishes and not-too-bad-for-you desserts, so I turned to their website for super-light coconut cake and cream cheese frosting recipes. Since baking frightens the bejeezus outta me, I’ve been reading a lot about it online, where I learned that cakes benefit from sitting in the freezer for a few hours before you frost them. Like a little bakery penalty box, the freezer forces the cake to get its crumb together before it gets back in the game. Who knew? Pretty much everyone but me! So after dutifully freezing and thawing the cake before applying the crumb layer (a crumb layer — brilliant!), I got down to the serious business of frosting with my new offset spatula and produced a cake I wouldn’t be ashamed to serve to guests.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough cream cheesy goodness (or hours of daylight) left to test my new decorating tips, but maybe I’ll try them next time. I’m already planning my next baking adventure — a red velvet cake for a friend’s birthday in a few weeks. And she’s kind, so she won’t mind if her cake looks like something from a 1st grade science project.

The reason there was NO TIME for decoration was because we needed to get the Cinco de Mayo celebration rolling so as not to bring shame on white people everywhere with our lack of (relative) inebriation. I knew I didn’t want to make regular skirt steak fajitas, but wasn’t sure what to prepare instead. After I tooled around online for a little while, the paper of record came through with a recipe for fish tacos that really surprised me — not like, “Where am I and where are my pants?” surprise but more like, “Cool … I didn’t get sick from those 25-cent oysters!” surprise. I’ve only had fried versions of fish tacos, so I didn’t know how this broiled one would work, but it was really delicious, even with the substitutions I made. As banana leaves are few and far between in Ringwood (where Gil and I are probably the most ethnically exotic folks around), I used about a teaspoon of pureed chipotle pepper with adobo to give the sauce a smoky flavor, and I used scrod instead of halibut because I didn’t want my tacos to taste like ass. We had pureed black beans with chorizo on the side and would’ve had corn fritters with roasted garlic and cilantro sauce, too, but it was impossible to get everything finished at the same time.

So Saturday was a little rushed, I guess, but we enjoyed our Cinco de Mayo anyway. The traditional Mexican gin martini might’ve had a little something to do with that — the Official MI Husband is turning into quite the mixologist!

recipes after the jump

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Broadening our chorizons

Deb left too early Sunday morning to partake in one of my favorite Creole dishes — shrimp & grits. Sausage or bacon really helps this dish along, but I have no idea where I’d find chaurice up here, so we went with chorizo instead. To keep the Spanish influence going, I used Manchego cheese in the grits, which lent them a subtle depth without overpowering their delicate flavor. It’s one of my favorite non-eggy brunch dishes and cooks up in a flash, the perfect meal for those mornings when your head feels too heavy to lug around for very long.

recipe after the jump

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Well, gal bee!

Clockwise, from left: si gum chi na mul, shredded carrots, ho bak na mul, sook ju na mul, gal bee

There’s no greater treat (or easier meal) than grilled food when company comes calling. Slap some meat over a fire, serve it with a few simple side dishes and copious amounts of alcohol, and you’re guaranteed a good time and satisfaction all around.

But sometimes the burger/hot dog/steak axis wears thin, even early in the grilling season. I’ve had great great burgers/dogs/steaks, but only rarely are they memorable on their own. A kosher dog at Yankee stadium, when Gil and I were dating and he surprised me with a ticket to a Sunday game … totally memorable, but for the company. Steak cooked to perfection by R, my longtime boyfriend in St. Louis … again memorable, but for the secret family marinade I weaseled out of him (and which you won’t get here, dear reader — I made a promise and intend to keep it.).

But I did learn a lot of other things with R during our years together. Apart from the many cautionary lessons (which I choose not to dwell on), he taught me to shoot, something I still love to do whenever I make it out to the sporting clays range. I learned the most basic lessons of fly fishing, but haven’t gone back for years. And I learned a lot about Korean food.

See, R was a Korean cowboy-type from Tulsa, a good ol’ boy and gourmand in equal measure. His family loved entertaining with amazing home-cooked meals, so he learned quite a bit from them. Over the years after we parted ways, I cooked the few dishes I remembered and added my own spin to them, but I wanted more. Sure, I could live the rest of my life without eating the same version of Ja Jang Myun (noodles with soybean paste sauce) ever again, but did I really want to? Nuh-uh.

A few months ago, I finally managed to track down the out-of-print cookbook R had — Korean Cooking for You by Moon Ja Yoon — and have made old favorites many times since. But I can also turn to this cookbook for magnificent grilling recipes and produce something other than the typical cookout fare with minimal effort. So that’s what I did Saturday afternoon.

With the gal bee (short ribs), we had si gum chi na mul (spinach), ho bak na mul (zucchini), sook ju na mul (mung bean sprouts), and some awesomely pungent and fresh kim chi Gil picked up at the market Friday. And to make things super-simple, all of the na muls used the same seasoning ingredients, so it’s easy enough to mix up a big batch and just douse the different dishes at once.

Our weekend guest (Deb, Gil’s ex from college) is a smart girl who knows you can pick up wine anywhere, but a chocolate mousse cake from S&S Cheesecake … I … just … there are no words:

So that was dessert. And yes, we made short work of it:

recipes after the jump

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A real suburban weekend

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We welcomed the return of our prodigal Spring last weekend with open windows and grilled meats and vegetables. Winter stamped around a bit throwing a tantrum that it had NEVER left and why don’t we appreciate it the same WAY, but you can’t encourage a hissy fit, so we ignored it.

In a burst of spring cleaning energy and optimism, I thought it was time to do something about the state of the guest bedroom, where the dingy walls and half-finished look have been depressing me for so long I could not stand it one more minute. Did you know Home Depot opens at 6am? Ahem, not being completely batshit crazy, we didn’t make it there quite so early, but at around 7:30am (does that make us partially batshit?) we hit the local Despot for a window consultation (new windows! less dust!) and paint supplies. After our brief foray into the world, we went home and got busy with the redecorating.

Moving furniture and cleaning and taping and edging really take it out of a person, so between coats we thought it better to watch sports and grill instead of cleaning the rest of the house or watching paint dry. (The less said about the Yankees, the better, but gooooo Weber Q!) Having the windows open during the games felt like such a luxury after the past few weeks of grayishly brooding about better weather to come. Aaaaahhh…

The only non-grilled dinner we had all weekend involved testing a new recipe for Chinese Chicken and Mushroom Lettuce Cups from Cooking Light for dinner Saturday; it was such a success it’s already moved into the go-to pile for weeknight dinners. (It was really very simple to make, though mincing the mushrooms took longer than expected. I’ll use our trusty food processor in the future when I’m more pressed for time. I only changed the recipe a little — increasing the amount of mushrooms to use the whole container, using regular soy sauce instead of low-sodium, and adding a handful of slivered almonds because we had them.) The dish is light but has an earthy mushroom flavor and tastes remarkably like the wraps we get at Baumgart’s, a New Jersey diner/pan-Asian restaurant institution.

For dessert, we moved over to Thailand for bananas stewed with coconut milk (or Gluay Buat Chee) from Real Thai by Nancie McDermott. As the recipe notes,

When women in Thailand become Buddhist nuns, they wear white robes. This sweet dish of bananas in coconut milk is white as well, giving rise to its charming Thai name, “bananas ordained as nuns.”

Sunday, I grilled instead of heating up the house after painting. Marinated skirt steak (a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, hot smoky paprika, garlic, cumin, chile powder, salt, and pepper) got a quick turn on the grill and paired well with caramelized onions spritzed with lime juice and a dollop of fresh guacamole. Inspired by the abundant sunshine and cool breeze, we even broke out our patio set and ate overlooking the woods behind our house.

God, I’m so ready for summer.

If I like-a you and you like-a me…

We knew going into this evening that our marriage would face its toughest test thus far — one full hour of American Idol sans alcohol. The Official MI Monkey Husband stayed home feeling sickish today, but had perked up enough by the afternoon to get busy in the kitchen for me:

And if that ain’t love, folks, I don’t know what is. OK, OK, Gil’s the biggest chocolate chip cookie whore I know, so they weren’t exactly for me only, but I did appreciate the bits of dough he left wrapped and waiting for me in the fridge.

With the night of extraordinary tension ahead of us, I didn’t want any frustration in the kitchen, so I thought noshing on something we already had in the pantry/fridge would be the way to go. But you know me, I need that feeling of accomplishment (no matter how easily gained) so I had to do a little more than just open a jar or unwrap some cheese. We had … crostini with spinach and cannellini beans!

The most important thing to remember here is to rid the canned beans of squack. Pardon my foray into technical jargon territory, but while we’re here, I would like to take this opportunity to establish my firm anti-squack stance. Please, please rinse your canned beans! Or, you know, use dried and be entirely squack-free.

Ahem, anyway, the dish came together in about 30 minutes, so we sat down with a plate of crunchy and garlicky crostini to test our marriage with sober Idol. You’ll be happy to know our shared hatred of the same contestants and love of ridicule pulled us through. But I like to think the noshing played some small part in keeping our marriage afloat.

recipes after the jump

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Rainy day hanger steak

Like Gumby, I’m a creature of flexibility. So while The Official MI Husband knows better than to stand in the way of my cravings, he’s comfortable suggesting alternate preparations or asking me to wait a day if the need arises. Thus my flexibility was put to the test this weekend when our excursion to Woodbury Common ran long Saturday. We left famished and ate an enormous, late lunch at Pizzeria Uno, so the hanger steaks I’d prepped with a dry rub paid for our gluttony by sitting overnight in the fridge until we could bear the thought of eating again. That happy occasion was lunch today.

Not relishing the thought of grilling in a downpour (Oh, did I forget to mention we’re in the middle of a nor’easter?), I had to come up with a different method of preparation. Ordinarily, I’d just pound the steak to about 1/4-inch thickness and cook it over high heat in my cast iron pan, then serve it with a quick pan sauce and fries, but the assertive rub made steak frites much less appetizing.

Inspiration struck when I found a site that recommended quickly searing the steak on the stove, then finishing in a 250-degree oven until medium rare. It promised uniformly tender meat, so I ran an experiment to see if we could really tell a difference between oven-finished and stove-finished steak. Both were cooked to an internal temperature of 125 degrees and allowed to rest on a plate loosely tented with foil for 10 minutes.

As you might be able to tell from the photo, there definitely was a difference between the two. The steak on the left was cooked on the stovetop and had more variation in color and texture. The exterior was tougher from cooking over a direct heat source, and the middle had a thin rare line because the meat rose to a higher temperature while it was resting. The oven-prepared steak on the right was much more tender and uniformly rosy. The outside wasn’t as tough and it had a much silkier texture. But both were very good served with a freshly-prepared pineapple salsa and warm spinach salad.

I still have to test grilling against these two methods, but I’m pretty sure steak frites will continue to reign supreme. The reason hanger steak is one of my favorite cuts is because it has great, beefy flavor and a chewy texture, so the silkiness of the oven-finished meat seemed all wrong to me, even though the beef itself was absolutely delicious.

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The Pesach Challenge, with Easter Sunday

An Easter Sunday with no ham or pork roast, no gumbo, no PEEPS! Gah! But we did ok without, methinks. The Peeps will certainly keep until tomorrow night and, if I open them now, they’ll be perfectly stale by the time I get home.

One of the reasons I decided to take this Pesach challenge was to break out of my cooking rut. It’s so easy always to reach for the tried and true when you’re in a hurry or to put off making a decision about dinner when your options are unlimited (relatively speaking). But this challenge has forced me to adapt to new rules and think creatively, using substitutions for my standard methods of cooking.

Take, for example, the artichoke. I’ve been craving them now that the calendar says Spring and ordinarily I’d just make a pasta sauce with them because it’s the easiest thing to do. Instead, we had something brunchy yesterday. To sauteed artichoke hearts with sage butter I added poached eggs and salad greens and topped the whole thing with browned butter. It was a nice start to the day.

Dinner was another springtime treat — lamb rib chops. Instead of going with an Indian-spiced preparation as is my wont, I marinated the chops with crushed fresh rosemary & thyme, garlic, truffle oil, and salt & pepper. A few hours later, I pan roasted them and served ’em up with a muscat reduction and kale mashed potatoes. Not world-class invention by any means, but those were flavors we don’t often have with that cut of lamb.

And then there was dessert. Oh, boy, dessert. No bread pudding allowed, obviously, so I took a banana that was getting to that perfect overripe stage, and made a bananas foster topping for vanilla frozen yogurt. I’m pretty sure bananas foster on anything is now my favorite dessert. If there is a more perfect marriage than butter, sugar, bananas, and rum, I’d like to hear about it.

But don’t get me wrong — I’m still looking forward to my lunchtime sandwich Wednesday.

recipes after the jump

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