Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Perfect Weeknight Dinner

Take eight ingredients – and that includes salt and pepper – two pans, and 20 minutes, and for my money you can make the perfect end-of-summer weeknight dinner. I’m talking about steak in wine sauce on wilted greens, with corn on the cob on the side. I started with two thick top sirloin steaks, salted and peppered both sides and placed them in a hot, dry nonstick pan. I cooked them for eight minutes on each side, and then set them on a plate. Next, I added a teaspoon or two of olive oil to the hot pan, sautéed baby spinach for 30 seconds and then separated the greens onto two plates, topping the spinach with the steaks. Back at the stove (which in my kitchen is less than two steps away), I deglazed the pan with red wine, added less than a tablespoon of butter and voilà, had a delicious wine sauce to pour on the steak. The corn on the cob practically cooked itself and added a sweet counterpoint to the savory steak. All in all, a quick, satisfying supper for a rainy Brooklyn evening.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Recipe Roadtest - Wilted Frisée Salad w/ Beets & Manchego

Saturday night I prepared the Wilted Frisée Salad with Beets and Manchego from the September 2006 issue of Bon Appétit. This is a variation on the salade Lyonnaise I’ve grown to love, first at Artisanal, the delectable Big Apple restaurant devoted to all things fromage, and then from a cooking class I took a couple of years ago. Just thinking about a salade Lyonnaise makes my mouth water. It’s probably as far from health food as a salad can get: thick slices of bacon, crunchy croutons, and greens drenched in dressing. It’s deliciousness on a plate – with a poached egg on top. So when I saw the recipe, I decided enough time had gone by without indulging in a Lyonnaise-like salad. The addition of beets also intrigued me, since the ruby-red vegetables are a recent culinary discovery for me. Lyonnaise and beets… would it turn out to be an unexpected, yet delightful combination? Or an overwrought and ultimately futile play for novelty?

The answer: an overwrought and ultimately futile play for novelty. Now, full disclosure, I made two variations to the recipe, one of which I think ultimately served the salad and another that didn’t. Since we were eating the dish as a main course instead of an appetizer I added homemade croutons (a standard Lyonnaise ingredient that the recipe didn’t call for). It should go without saying that this is the variation that improved the salad, because, really, when don’t homemade croutons make something better? The variation that didn’t work as well was substituting romaine lettuce for the frisée, which I couldn’t find. I still wilted the romaine, but the salad’s texture, at least, certainly suffered.

But, romaine aside, the dish still had potential – bacon, eggs, dressing, croutons. Ultimately, it was the beets that did the damage. Think about it – does it seem like beets would complement a tangy, oily, crunchy, très français salad? The answer is no, and had I thought about it long enough I would have come to that conclusion.

Alas, this was one of those cases where I pondered too slowly and cooked too quickly. One good thing did come of it: I was reminded that a salade Lyonnaise is not a difficult dish to prepare and one that shouldn’t be banished from the table for too long a stretch.

I haven't tested this recipe for a classic salade Lyonnaise yet, but it looks just about right.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Recipe Roadtest - Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies

I subscribe to four food magazines: Cooking Light, Gourmet, Bon Appétit, and Eating Well. Each month I corner the pages of recipes I find appealing, and I try new dishes frequently – so frequently that my husband often complains we never get to eat dishes he likes twice. But it is still the case that there are significantly more recipes that catch my eye than actually make it on the dinner table. This weekend I tried to make up a little ground by preparing three new recipes – one main course, one dessert, and one cocktail. I’ll describe the dessert here and save the other two for future posts.

As soon as I saw the photo of the Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies in the February 2006 issue of Bon Appétit, I knew they would eventually make it to my table. A pair of rich-looking chocolate chip cookies sandwiching a creamy peanut butter filling – what’s not to like? But would the final result live up to the mouth-watering photo?

The cookie sandwiches were simple to prepare. The chocolate chip cookies are put together like any other chocolate chip cookie – mix the dry ingredients, whisk the wet ones, and combine – with a few variations. The recipe called for peanut butter, confectioner’s sugar instead of white sugar, and only one egg, perhaps the difference that rendered the cookies crumblier than I expected (especially by the second day). Preparing the filling couldn’t have been simpler. I heated six tablespoons of heavy cream to boiling and then poured it over chocolate, more confectioner’s sugar, and peanut butter. The end result was quite good, “decadent” was my husband’s word – just the right amount of salty peanut butter to counteract the tooth-achingly sweet milk chocolate chip cookies.

So will this recipe become one that languishes in my notebook while new sweet temptations take center stage? Or will I make my husband happy by including these sandwich cookies in my regular repertoire? I think the latter. The chocolate-peanut butter combination is too good to pass up. Next time, though, I will use semi-sweet chocolate chips in place of the milk chocolate chips. The cookie sandwiches would be even better with less sweetness to distract from the peanut butter goodness.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

In Praise of Kitchen Tools

Before I started cooking a few years ago, I didn’t realize how many recipes called for citrus zest. What I did realize, soon after trying, was how frustrating it was to grate zest on my standard box grater. Yet, I did it for nearly four years – scraping my fingers, struggling to clean the grater, and ultimately capturing very little of the flavorful zest. But standing in Bed, Bath, and Beyond with a mom eager to buy me things, I knew exactly what I wanted – a Microplane grater. Since then, my cooking life has been transformed, and I don’t say that lightly. I now look forward to zesting. It is a pleasure to watch the thin threads of peel materialize effortlessly on the grater. Cleaning the tool requires only a quick rinse, and my dishes taste better – dare I say, zestier – than ever.

So what took me so long? It wasn’t that the Microplane was expensive, ditto the salad spinner and tongs – tongs! – I finally brought home. The answer is… I don’t know. Perhaps I’m still mentally stuck in a time when I have zero disposable income. Perhaps I feel like I have enough stuff and should be able to make due without more tools taking up room in my limited kitchen drawer space. Or perhaps I’m just lazy. But, after the resounding success of the Microplane grater, I resolve to be proactive, to quickly acquire the tools that will making cooking easier and my food tastier. Next on my list is an instant-read thermometer. No more turning sadly past beef, poultry, and pork recipes that require the handy implement. I am saying “yes!” to the instant read thermometer – the next tool to rock my kitchen world.

I’m sure I’ll pick it up soon.