Friday, January 29, 2010

Stormy Eats

We've been hit by a storm. A lot of snow has fallen, and we're expecting even more over the next 24 hours. It is extremely messy outside, what with the blowing snow, uncleared sidewalks, and icy conditions. My walk to work this morning wasn't too bad, but as the morning progressed, conditions worsened.

Even though I wouldn't recommend that anyone go walking outside unless absolutely necessary, I still had to make the trek home for lunch. Why not just buy my lunch at work, you ask? Well, there's this furry little guy that depends on me to let him outside in the middle of the day. Oh, the things we do for little creatures.

By the time I made it home and waded through knee-deep snow to get to my front door, I was a wreck. My jeans and boots were soaked, my glasses were fogged up, my hair was a mess, and I was shivering. There was no way that I was going to eat my usual cold salad for lunch; I needed a serious pick-me-up. Omelette time!

So, I sauteed some sliced cremini mushrooms in butter, wilted some fresh spinach into the pan, and poured in a couple of beaten eggs with cream. I then folded the omelette over some grated provolone cheese. For fun, I added a few dashes of Sriracha hot sauce (which I've recently discovered and adore!)

Yum! After a couple of bites, I forgot all about my miserable walk home and how I would have to head right back out into the storm once I was done eating. The omelette was a nice change from my usual lunch, and I found it very comforting. It's amazing how even a quick little dish can really improve your mood!

Suddenly, as I was enjoying my creation, Mortie C called to tell me that our workplace had decided to close for the rest of the day. Yay! So now I'm sitting at home in a warm change of clothes, with a full belly and a snuggly puppy, while a storm rages outside. It's finally the weekend, and I couldn't be happier.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Meatballs, Two Ways

Jeff and I bought the entire box-set of The Sopranos off of e-bay, and we've been drawn into the show in a big way. In addition to making me swear like a sailor and exclaim things such as "Always with the barking, that one!!" to no one in particular when I'm playing with the dog, The Sopranos has given me a huge craving for Italian food. The other night I watched a scene in which Dr. Melfi is eating dinner with her family, and I couldn't take my eyes off a big dish of pasta with giant meatballs sitting on top of it. I just had to make my own.

I very gently mixed lean ground pork and beef with finely grated onion, minced garlic, freshly grated parmesan cheese, panko breadcrumbs (which are Japanese rather than Italian, but they're the best,) marjoram, crushed red pepper flakes, kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, and a couple of beaten eggs, and chilled it for about 15 minutes. I then lightly rolled about 2 tbsp of the meat mixture between my palms to form the balls.

After browning the meatballs on all sides in a little bit of olive oil, I threw them into Jeff's simmering spicy homemade tomato sauce for about 15 minutes to heat them through.

Ladeled generously over some fresh spaghetti, these saucy meatballs were just what I wanted. Moist and flavourful, they held together well without being too compact. Bellissimo!

But that wasn't all, folks; the next day, I had grand plans for the tasty leftovers. While I reheated the meatballs on the stove, I put a loaf of crusty bread in the oven to warm it up, cut it into two pieces, and then sliced it, taking care to leave one edge intact. To make a pocket, I used a spoon to scoop out a lot of the warm bread (which Jeff and I happily snacked on) and spread a bit of garlic butter on the inside of it.

I filled the bread with provolone cheese and the warmed up meatballs and sauce, and put the sandwiches back in the oven for a few minutes. Once the cheese was good and melted, Jeff and I eat the best lunch ever.

I totally recommend going through the trouble of making your own meatballs, just so that you can experience the likes of this sandwich. You will burn the roof of your mouth, but you will not care. Oh, I can still taste it: the crunchy bread, the tender meatballs, the spicy sauce, and the gooey cheese, all melded together into a mouthful of heaven. I am changed.

Aside from stimulating my mind for hours on end, The Sopranos has given me the best sandwich of my entire life. What's not to love? Although I can't say for sure that Carmela Soprano or Dr. Melfi would serve these meatballs to their Italian families, I'm glad to say that I satisfied my craving to the best of my abilities. There really is no limit to where a hobby cook can find inspiration; so tell me, what has inspired some of your best cooking?

Meatballs: The Recipe
Amanda's notes: Be careful not to over-mix! Once the ingredients are just incorporated, and after letting the mixture sit, wet your fingers with water and roll each meatball very gently in the palm of your hand.

1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground pork
2/3 cup panko bread crumbs
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup finely grated onion
2 large eggs
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1-2 tsp dried marjoram
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper

2 tbsp olive oil
Tomato Sauce

Bring tomato sauce to a boil; reduce heat to a simmer. Meanwhile, gently mix all ingredients. Let mixture sit in fridge for 15 minutes. Form balls out of 2-3 tbsp of mixture. Heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Cook meatballs in batches, turning every few minutes to brown all sides, 8-10 minutes. Transfer the meatballs to the simmering tomato sauce, covering and turning heat to low, to finish the cooking process (10-15 min.) Serve over spaghetti or in a sandwich. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

One Pot Meal

Sometimes, I just want to throw a bunch of ingredients in a pot and have them magically turn into dinner. Last Sunday was one of those days, and, while I didn't want to put a whole lot of effort into it, I still wanted a quality meal. Ladies and gentlemen, enter a roast with root vegetables.

This meal is so easy! Just chop up a bunch of root vegetables (in this case, onions, carrots, red and fingerling potatoes, and parsnips,) smash a few cloves of garlic, and toss them in olive oil with kosher salt, rosemary, and plenty of freshly cracked black pepper.
Bring your roast to room temperature. Make up a mixture of olive oil, whole-grain mustard, herbs and spices (Jeff used garlic powder, onion powder, thyme, and herbes de provence) and salt and pepper, pour it into a shallow dish, and roll your roast around in it. Use a choice cut roast such as top sirloin (pictured here,) rib-eye, or striploin for this method, since you won't be braising it. (Use cheaper cuts for stews, etc., because the liquid will tenderize the roast.)

And now, for a tip: the day before Jeff and I made this roast, we were watching Secrets of a Restaurant Chef on the Food Network, a new show that I like. The host was roasting a leg of lamb, and she shared one of her tricks with the viewer: after she had the bones removed from the leg, she used them as a roasting rack. Genius!
Inspired, we went to the grocery store and told the butcher about our plan; his eyes lit up and he said he had just the thing for us to use. A couple of minutes later, we had two rib bones all wrapped up to use as a rack. They only cost a few dollars, were very effective at keeping the roast off the bottom of the pan, and added a lot of flavour to the vegetables. I'm sold on this method!
We put the roast in the oven to cook on its own for about 30 minutes before adding the vegetables, but in the end the roast was done before the vegetables were. I recommend either roasting everything at the same time, or chopping the veggies into smaller pieces before adding them to the browned roast.
Anyway, put the whole thing in the oven, and forget about it for a couple of hours. Once it's cooked to your liking (when the sun has set and you have no more natural light for nice pictures, of course,) remove the roast and let it rest under a tent of foil. If your vegetables aren't done, continue to roast them; you can leave the "rack" in for flavour.
When the meat is done resting and the veggies are fork-tender, serve yourself a big plate of comfort. The meat will be tender and juicy, and the vegetables will be done to perfection and bursting with flavour. You will be very happy.
So, next time you're feeling a little lazy but have some time to spare, consider making a roast with root vegetables. A delicious, homemade meal without all the work? That's what I call a success!
Notes: Leftovers from this meal make a wonderful hash. Chop up the meat into small pieces and sautee everything in a skillet, mashing the vegetables into the pan as they cook. Top with some sharp cheddar, cover to melt the cheese, and serve. Enjoy your reinvented meal!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Potatoes au Gratin with Onions, Mushrooms, and Bacon

After spending a couple of weeks without cooking anything more substantial than finger foods, I was looking forward to this weekend so that I could try something a little more labour intensive. Since I wanted something really comforting (which, for me, usually translates into a liberal use of dairy products), and as I'm always on a mission to jazz up potatoes, my choice was to try potatoes au gratin. Jeff bought me some Russet potatoes from the farmer's market, and I started to hatch my plan.

While researching recipes, I couldn't believe the variation. Some people parboil their sliced potatoes before baking them, and some use them raw; some people put cheese between each layer of potatoes, some only put it on top, some make a cheese sauce, and some don't use cheese at all (I don't quite understand that last one). Cheddar or gruyere? Heavy cream or whole milk? Would you like to add onions, turnips, or go pure potato? Choices, choices!

Since it was obvious that there was no set formula to follow, I figured that I couldn't possibly mess up that much; so, I decided to wing it. I sauteed sliced onions and cremini mushrooms with some chopped garlic in olive oil, and fried and crumbled a few slices of bacon. Then, I layered this mixture with the potato slices in a buttered baking dish.

To some heavy cream, I added kosher salt, freshly cracked pepper, and, since I love what it does to alfedo sauce, a little bit of ground nutmeg. I heated it to a simmer in a sauce pan to thicken it a bit, and poured it gently over the potatoes, until they were just covered.

I covered the dish with foil and baked it until the potatoes were cooked through; then, I added plenty of aged cheddar cheese and dried thyme on top before baking it uncovered.

Once it was beautifully browned, it was time for the hardest part: letting the dish rest before digging in.

As usual with labours of foodie love, it was worth the wait. Decadently creamy and full of flavour, the potatoes au gratin were just what I wanted on a cozy Sunday evening. They would make a great side dish to just about anything, but since we were eating them as a main dish, I served them with a simple salad. I'm so glad I made much more than I needed (I can't wait to eat them with tomorrow night's salmon!)

I think this dish is elegant enough to serve at a nice dinner party. A convenient bonus is that you could assemble the entire thing the day before, and just throw it in the oven while you get everything else ready. I know I'll be serving it with pride very soon!

Potatoes au Gratin with Onions, Mushrooms, and Bacon: The Recipe

3 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly
1 lb sliced cremini mushrooms
1 large onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped
6 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
3-4 cups heavy cream
kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
pinch nutmeg
2 cups shredded aged cheddar
dried thyme

Preheat oven to 375C. Saute onions, mushrooms, and garlic in olive oil with kosher salt and fresh pepper, until softened. Place a layer of potato slices in the bottom of a buttered 9x13 in baking dish, overlapping slightly. Spread half of onion and mushroom mixture and half of bacon over the potatoes, top with another layer of potatoes; repeat.

Add kosher salt, fresh pepper, and nutmeg to the heavy cream; bring to a simmer. Pour over potatoes until just covered. Cover baking dish with foil, and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until potatoes are tender (pierce with a fork.) Remove foil and top with cheese, and sprinkle with thyme. Bake for another 30-35 minutes to brown. Broil for a few minutes, if desired. Let stand for 10-15 minutes before serving.