Wednesday, January 25, 2012

You Lie, Giada!

            I sincerely enjoy the challenges of creating something that I have never cooked before just to see if I can and how well I create it.  The application of touch and go is the mad method I tend to use because I don’t believe that cooking can ever be an exact science. 
I have never made meatballs before.  I don’t think I have ever been in a kitchen while meatballs were being cooked (not just because I’m not Italian).  So when I decided to challenge myself with meatballs I followed the recipe as precisely as I could.
            I had obtained this recipe off of the Food Network website, it’s by Giada.  I was more boastful than nervous as I was chopping the onions and parsley because the recipe was rated as an intermediate level.  I expected the onion to make me tear up like a stood up prom date but the fresh parsley completely took me by surprise!  It is incredibly pungent and I learned I do not enjoy it in such generous proportions.
            I mixed all of the ingredients with my hands, as instructed, and began forming the meatballs.  The main reason I chose this recipe is because they have a mozzarella center!  I create six meatballs out of a pound of hamburger, which I was not immediately perturb by except that I was not sure how long they should be in the oven for and other complications popped into my head.  So I remedied this by cutting them by a third of what they currently were and popped them in the oven.
            When they came out, they were fully cooked and cheese had melted out of them, which was supposed to be a good sign.  They looked good, but not like a typical meatball.  The texture was soft and more meatloaf like in consistency than the deliciousness of a juicy grease explosion from inside, crispy on the outside meatball.  I eagerly took an aggressively large first bite but I think the parsley bit me harder.  I used no more than the recipe called for but I couldn’t stand to finish eating it.
            The interesting thing is that out of the four of us who ate, I was the only one who didn’t like it.  I fully have to believe that everyone’s compliments were sincere because everyone had acquired seconds.   This is exactly why cooking can never be an exact science.  I missed the rough outside texture with the explosion of hot grease carrying 150 different flavors in your mouth.
            Last week I was watching the Food Network before I had to go to work and Giada was on cooking her meatballs, the exact same as I attempted.  Immediately I noticed that her meatballs were a lot smaller than I had made mine.  Before she but hers in the oven, she put them in a frying pan to give them the fried crunchiness that mine completely and mostly glaringly lacked.  This move was not on the recipe, but it seems so obvious now!
            There are several things I will change the next time I attempt this meal.  I was so close but missed a few specific taste and texture marks.  Possessing the ability to adapt to your ingredients and proceed with ease makes the touch and go procedure the only one you will use.  I still like my mad method even if I didn’t get it perfect today, now I know what to change and I can’t wait for the challenge.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Eh spice a meat-a-balla

I honored Peter Griffin tonight by using his same kitschy enthusiasm as when he grew a mustache and a bo-pity boo-pity, he coulda speak Italiano.  And this is the sama happen to me when I make-a spicy meat-a-balls-a!

I had a lot of fun making them and three out of four people loved them.  The twist is the person who was disappointed, but you will have to come back later for the full story and pictures.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Strawberry Cheesecake Sundae!

            Today I had to redeem myself when it came to syrup making.  I decided to make a strawberry sundae cheesecake out of a no bake recipe.  I chose a no bake recipe because I want to serve this in a sundae glass, which would make baking useless for my intents and purposes.
             For the filling I mixed together softened cream cheese and sweetened condensed milk.  I also added some vanilla and lemon juice.  I used juice from a lemon that I simply squeezed over my filling mixture.  In retrospect I wish I measured it because the lemon taste was not as apparent as I had hoped for and next time I will find a way to squeeze out more.  I put the filling in the fridge.
            Next I turn my attention to the strawberries.  At the store I was elated when I found a package of strawberries that were not moldy or bruised, especially during this time of the year.  I washed them and sliced off their little green tops, as well as the minor blemishes.  I’ve heard somewhere fruit too ripe make the best by products such as jams.  I didn’t know if the same would be true for the syrup and because this was my retribution to myself, I was not going to take the chance.
            I sliced all of the strawberries in half and put a third of my total batch in a saucepan.  I added a third of a cup of sugar and twisted the knob to medium.  When the strawberries began to sizzle I had deja vu of the night before.  This time I fought the temptation to do something different.  This felt completely counter intuitive but I stirred and smashed anyway.  The trickiest part was to leave it alone long enough to warm the strawberries into reduction. 
            The strawberries underwent many beautiful metamorphose.  They began as awkward red sugar coated chunks and soon became a burgundy grainy liquid.  With several more minutes it was a frothy ruby red delight.  My recipe said it should only take about five minutes or so, until thick.  Between my experiences of yesterday and today, I’ve decided that thickness is relative.
            I put all of the liquid and two thirds of the strawberries that were still mostly whole into a small blender.  I pulsed them until it looked smooth it was also frothy.  I returned the puree with the rest of the cooked strawberries and put the syrup into the refrigerator.  It is time I turn my attention to my “crust”.
            When I was at the grocery store I laughed when I saw that there were boxes of graham cracker crumbs.  It was more expensive than a regular box.  In a world where we value whole potato chips, we also sell broken graham crackers.  I think crushing them was the most fun part.  The reluctant little pieces were crushed in the pulsar.
            My goal was to have a cool cheesecake feel but juxtapose the coolness with something physically warm. I mixed cinnamon and sugar with the crumbs and added them to a warm skillet with butter then sautéed them for several minutes.  To me, it felt like an eternity but I wanted to achieve a crunchier texture in the graham crackers and I thought the sugar would caramelize a little.
            It didn’t.  At a loss for what to do and coming dangerously close to burning my graham crackers I had to pull a Hail Mary of some sort.  In a last ditch effort for crunchiness I added honey.  It immediately clumped together but I didn’t do a lot to separate it.  I was hoping the clumps would do something interesting but I think the honey sort of burned, it also candies a little which was pleasant.  It was all I could do to restrain myself from adding more sugar.  I was very afraid of making the entire dessert too sweet because the filling was mostly cream cheese and sugar.
            I took the filling out of the refrigerator and whipped it.  The recipe said it must sit for two and a half to three hours.  Viscosity was not my goal in this case; I just wanted the filling to be cool.  I dished a spoonful over a strawberry I had put in the bottom of a sundae glass and generously sprinkled graham cracker crumbs over that.  I swirled in some syrup and repeated all of the layers.  I garnished the glass with a strawberry for funsies and if the peel from the lemon I used was pretty, I would have done something with that was well. 
            The entire thing was a masterpiece, especially the syrup.  My friends liked it, and I loved it.  Even more gratifying than everyone having seconds is the fact that I beat my current nemesis-the syrup.  For the first time ever I am confident in my cooking abilities as my possibilities have just multiplied because of this minor battle win.


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Cooking is Not Easy

            Over the last few years of having to cook for myself I’ve been trying to find ways to expand my meager culinary skills both in taste and options.  My introduction to cooking well was through food shows such as Man Vs. Food, Bizarre Food with Andrew Zimern or whatever Anthony Bourdain was doing.  I’ve hardly cooked anything outside of boxed mac and cheese so almost everything they were eating were things I’ve never heard of.  A lot of culinary jargon I don’t know but actual execution is more important, I’m guessing.
            Today I went to the store to grab a few missing ingredients as my refrigerator and pantry is always like Swiss cheese, there are plenty of holes.  I stood in the aisle looking for sea salt to refill my vacant grater.  There was a lady with a cart speckled with canned goods blocking my path to the majority of the spices.  I patiently occupied myself by looking at the shelf items I can see.   I was amazed there were so many different varieties of dried peppers.  In a way, considering I live in South Texas, I’m surprised there were not more.
            The lady pushed on and I looked for my salt.  I felt a little silly not knowing that salt was not simply salt.  I stooped to the floor and looked at the selection.  Kosher, iodized, table…who knew there were so many different varieties of salt? I expected “regular” or “chunky”, nothing else.  If I chose the wrong one would there a difference in taste?  Concerned, I called my mom.
            “There are a lot more varieties of salt than I expected, does it really matter?  I just need the big, chunky sea salt to put in my salt grinder that won’t fall through.”  She nicely explained the differences but I felt silly because I think we learned that iodine is necessary and added to the salt in fifth grade.  “You’ll probably laugh at this…” I drew out the first word because I knew the question would expose how very little about cooking I actually know, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to look so foolish. 
            “I need corn syrup but all I can find is corn oil, are they substitutable?”  All my mom had to say was:
            “You will have very disappointing results.”

            By the time I had gotten home I modified everything I was planning on making enough that I was missing one or two most important ingredients.  So I had to change my game plan a little.  What I did have all of the supplies for was a French Toast Casserole topped with Praline Pecans and drizzled with red peach and lemon syrup.
            I took a recipe by Paula Dean I found online and modified it to my curiosities and needs.  I learned from an earlier hazardous cooking experiment to cut the recipes at least by half or else you will seriously suffer from leftovers.  So instead of making the huge casserole that is intended to feed a large family, I used ramekins to make fun individual servings.  Her recipe also called for the use of French bread but I figured the whole grain bread that has been sitting on my counter for a week would be good enough. 
            I read on the reviews that someone had wished they used bread that was “more stale” because it was too soggy.  In an attempt to combat the sogginess I cut the crust off the bread and dusted the pieces with cinnamon and sugar, then I put a few thin slices of butter in a frying pan and toasted the bread.
            I had to turn my attention to this praline topping.  I don’t know a lot about confections so I follow the recipe to the T (well, not quite, I divided it by two.)  I combined butter, brown sugar, pecans, corn syrup and cinnamon.  The recipe called for nutmeg, but I didn’t have any-I thought I had.  Before I began making the topping I thought it would be a best to start my red pear with lemon juice and zest syrup.
               I didn’t even bother to fully research how to make it but I knew that it required a lot of sugar.  I sliced my pear, put it in a saucepan with a lot of sugar and turn the heat on to medium.  Let’s just see what happens while I take some zest off of a lemon.  The pears that are in direct contact with the pan slowly begin to hiss.  I add some water, because that was in the picture I had pulled up online.
            This tangent distraction gave my butter time to soften a little more.  Mixing the ingredients for the praline may have been the most fun part of this adventure.  I loved smashing the butter and making the brown sugar consistent with each other.   I wanted to pick it up in my hands and squish it through my fingers, however to ease to minds of my taste testers, I didn’t.
            My pear and sugar concoction was very bubbly and I thought very watery, so I added more sugar.  Then that didn’t seem right so I added more water, and lemon juice.  Oh God, I don’t know what I’m doing.  I leave it alone to see what happens and I turn to the batter.  Every time I make French toast I am reminded of episodes of Seinfeld, which is the exact reason why I learned how to make French toast long ago.
            I had mixed together my French toast batter of eggs, milk and a little cinnamon (I already used so much on the toast I didn’t want to over do it).  I didn’t have nutmeg or cream as the recipe called for and I completely forgot to add the vanilla.  I’m not sure how much of a flavor difference the combination of these ingredients left out.  I imagine it would have been a little richer.
            I buttered the inside of my ramekins, then pushed one of the pieces of toast all the way to the bottom of each one.  I smother a few spoonful of batter on the toast and push down another piece of toast repeating the smothering process.  I think if I try this dish again I will pour a very small amount of batter on the bottom in an effort to combat sides that are too crunchy.  At this point they are left alone for a few minutes to allow the batter a little time to soak into the bread before I liberally apply my pecan praline.  The recipe said to leave the casserole in the refrigerator overnight, but I simply am not going to do that.  In retrospect, I don’t think it would have made a difference.  It is for convenience to have it ready for those who are not morning people but are morning entertaining.
            I put them in the preheated oven at 350 degrees.  At the beginning of today’s adventure I didn’t know what a praline was although oddly enough I did have a specific taste in my mouth.  With a little research I learned that in general a praline is a confection of nuts and maple syrup, but of course there are many different variations.   I find it very interesting that pecan praline is a predominately southern tradition because it was something created by an influx of pecans and sugar cane from the plantations.
With the French toast in the oven I can focus on my “syrup”.  The one article I looked up was no help but I wasn’t going to try to find new direction via the Internet.  I’ve already sunk too much sugar into this pan to give up now.  I decided to let it go, boil down to see what would happen.  I came back to it a few minutes later.  When I picked up the spoon that I was stirring with a long string connected it to the cutting board.  I made syrup! Success! It even had an interesting taste! By interesting, I don’t necessarily mean fantastic.  However it is an edible flavor for sure and one combination I may experiment with again. 
Oh how happy I am.  I take my wonderful alchemy off of the burner to let it cool.  I expected it to thicken and not after too long I was reduced to merely hoping it would thicken.   I kept checking the mini casseroles not knowing exactly when they would be done.  The recipe said forty minutes, but I knew that would be too long for my miniature version.
To be honest, I still do not know.  I left them in until the batter stopped running over and the praline topping was crispy.  The first batch made I thought that they may have been left in for too long.  All of the edges were too crispy for my liking.  However the second batch could have stood to stay in a little longer.  I topped it all off by drizzling some of my red pear and lemon syrup.
I use the word drizzle loosely.  My syrup had thickened but it had more caramelized.  Luckily when the first batch came out the syrup was still lucid enough to be drizzled over the top.  I don’t know what it was like to have to chew through it because by the time mine was out of the oven it had become too hard to do anything with.  I scraped it out of my pan into a container, I didn’t know what to do with it, but I was torn between keeping it and letting it cool further to see what would become of it with an over night rest?  Or throw it away. 
While I was debating I pulled the sugary mixture off of the spoon with my fingers.  I pulled my fingers apart and made a sugar clothesline.  I rolled it back together wondering if I could mold it into a figure of some sort.  I mold and squish and pull it apart.  It makes interesting bubbles and twists.  I try to let go and get the sticky mixture of my hands but I’ve found myself in a Chinese finger trap.  It reminds me of the time I got into some tar when I was a kid.  The more I tried to get out of it the more it spread on my hands.  I should have taken a lesson from the dinosaurs luckily my mom had some paint thinner.
This first experiment ended well.  Well enough that is.  Things executed well are difficult to replicate just by watching a certain technique once on TV.  I’m glad I tried though I learned some new things and have inspired myself to keep trying again to improve and expand my skills and techniques.