Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Independence Day, Southern Hemisphere Style (7 July 2007)

Another oldie but goodie. This post chronicles a memorable Fourth Feast that we had a couple of years ago, and highlights how really great a simple, seasonal, no-frills meal can be. As we celebrate the first day of Autumn with 88 degree temps here in Central Florida, it's nice to know that, if we wanted to, we could make this meal today and it would be just as delicious - and appropriate - as it was in July.

One note: I make a reference or two to Pampered Chef. At the time, I was a consultant with Pampered Chef; I'm not anymore. Great company with some great products (although I can now admit that some of them are just, you know, silly.) I didn't want to alter the posts in anyway, so I'm leaving the references. Any quality garlic press will get the job done, but I can attest that we use our PC one practically daily, and wash it in the dishwasher, and it continues to be a great products after 3 years.

This week's entry - July 4th! We wanted simple, simple, simple. If you know us, then you know that we are all about simplifying - especially during the hot - REALLY hot - days of Florida summers. We often lose our way while planning meals, though, and end up wearing ourselves out. But this time, we really managed to reign ourselves in.

The best way to eat well and to eat cheaply (it's surprising how often these two goals can converge) is to eat what is in season. This time of year, that certainly means raiding the garden! (Or, if like me, you don't have a single green digit, it means raiding the grocery store or market.)
We decided on a very simple menu - caipirinhas, grilled ribeyes with chimmichurri, potato salad, white bean salad. For dessert, peach buttermilk sherbet.

Jeremiah had a taste for steak on the grill, and because of the holiday, we found all kinds of options on sale. We chose boneless ribeyes, which are flavorful because of good marbleing, versatile, and won't break the bank. Another bonus - there were 4 of us, but since we are not linebackers, we decided to eat smaller portions, and split 3 steaks among the 4 of us - another $$$ saver (I mean, who needs a side of beef in these hot temps anyway?!) With the steaks, Jeremiah opted for a chimmichurri sauce, a piquant vinaigrette that includes lots of vinegar, parsley, and garlic, and a little red pepper just to give it a pop. If you are a die hard A-1 fan, PLEASE branch out and try this - holler if you'd like the recipe.

To round out the meal, we wanted, for the most part, to leave the oven off - turning it on this time of year makes it that much harder to keep the house comfortable. My mom made a very delicious, very traditional potato salad - I swear, this woman makes the best potato salad in the world...you can't imagine that it could be so much better, but somehow, it is. I made a white bean salad that we've had a few times, and we love it. So simple - canned cannellini beans, fresh basil, fresh tomatoes, s&p. Heat 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil over a medium flame, add 3 pressed garlic cloves (yes, I used the Pampered Chef garlic press, and yes, you need one if you like garlic), and gently let the garlic steep for 2-3 minutes, being careful NOT to let it brown (that would be icky.) Pour over the salad and toss. Can be left at room temperature for up to 4 hours. Jeremiah likes it cold; I like it room temp or slightly warm. DIVINE - and healthy! (By the way, we got the recipe from Martha Stewart Living, but we're kicking ourselves for not thinking of it first.) I love this recipe so much, that I'm making it for my PC shows in July and August.

You can't imagine how well everything went together - especially the potato salad and the steaks with the chimmichurri. The creaminess of the salad was the perfect foil to the vinegary-peppery sauce, which cut through the richness nicely.

Normally we would have a nice red wine with grilled steak, but this time of year, I find red wine hard to drink - it seems so heavy in the heat. So instead, we decided to try a cocktail that we had heard of - the Brazilian caipirinha. Caipirinhas are traditionally made with a cane liquor called cachaca, but in the spirit of the theme - keep it SIMPLE - we used what we had, which was rum. (We plan to find cachaca one of these days, because I am all about the authenticity of recipes.) The drinks were awesome - raw sugar muddled with limes, topped with rum and ice. Add some mint and some club soda and POOF! You'd have a mojito. But that's another entry. The caipirinhas definitely get a thumbs up in our household. We have a variation that we want to try with tangerine and ginger - I'll keep you posted.

Dessert - again, simple. I wanted to make cookies, or a sauce, or something! - but we stuck with a peach buttermilk sherbet recipe, again from Martha Stewart. We were concerned that we wouldn't find good peaches, having heard that this year's crop was all but decimated by bad weather conditions, but we found some great Georgia peaches, and offered our sincere thanks to God (I swear, peaches and white corn will be in Heaven - no doubt.) I lightened the recipe by using lowfat milk in place of whole milk with great results.

So there you have it! No amuse bouche, no fussing with cornsilk, no red white and blue cakes...but a memorable meal that made us thankful for our independence and summertime. And that's really what it's all about, right?

My Life in Food

I cut my teeth on blogging on My Space. Before I launched a "real" blog, I wanted to try my hand at it, see if I could be interesting and consistent. I had pretty good results, with lots of posts, a modest following, and some good comments.

As I'm still trying to feel my way here on Cooking By The Brooke, I thought I would migrate some of those older posts over here and share them.

Here's one originally published 7 July 2007, my kickoff date. It gives a little background on Jeremiah and me, as well as what I thought I would like to focus on. As the blog grew, it encompassed more than just cooking, but we'll stick to food here.

Enjoy - Brooke

So, here is my first attempt at blogging. I couldn't fathom sharing with the world my thoughts, feelings, blah, blah, blah...but I COULD fathom sharing about all the amazing foods that we make and eat. Jeremiah and I are total foodies...we actually met at Disney, where we were both working for the Mouse as culinary assistants. He made me laugh! We had a particularly long and stressful day one day, preparing for a a HUGE event, and we organized a nite out after at Orlando Ale House for anyone who wanted to join us. Turned out that no one wanted to join us! But that's okay - it was the beginning of our relationship. We found out that nite that we both wanted lots of the same things, but in particular, we were both passionate about good food - about crafting it, about seeking out great ingredients, and about showing those we love how much we love them by putting TLC into our dishes. We also both dreamed of having our own food-based business - maybe an artisan bakery (him) or creating wedding cakes and small scale catering (me.)

SO - here we are - 8 years later! I joke that our wedding cake was the center of our wedding - it cost more than twice as much as my dress...now, I ask you - is that sanity?!

I've decided to dedicate this space to our quest for great meals, both at home and in restaurants that we discover. Being a stay at home mom with a fledgling business, we have the extra challenge of eating well on a tight budget. I would like to post on the subject at least once weekly, and highlight something we've done during the week.

Happy Reading!

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Chopper Update

Today, my chopper met with a tragic end...the clear plastic collar cracked completely in two when the whole thing rolled off the counter and crashed to my tile floor. Amusingly, this happened while I was trying to pick up all the nuts strewn across my countertop, which occurred when the lid (or bottom, depending on your perspective) fell off, and pecans went everywhere. I could probably get a replacement part, but really, after writing a scathing critique of the chopper, I think not.

Sub-conscious tool maiming, or judgement from the gadget gods? You decide.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Why Knife Skills Are Important

I was making dinner the other nite, and I was oh so tired (growing a human has the tendency to zap my energy inexplicably on some days, and dinnertime seems to be the lowpoint.) I was making a beef chili recipe, and I needed onions for both the chili and the guacamole-ish garnish. At this point, so tired, and meal prep staring at me relentlessly, I used what brain power I had to dream up shortcuts, rather than just doing the prep work and moving on. How could I make this go faster so I could just sit down and go to sleep?

Ah, the chopper.

I know lots of people that use - and swear by - hand choppers. These are the handy little gizmos that have a blade and either a plunging action or a crank action that allows you to chop various types of food without using, you know, a knife. Think of them as manual food processors. The thought of eliminating or simplifying even one step drove me to my overflow tool drawer, the place where I keep gadgets that I use occasionally, but that don't have a permanent place in my kitchen. I assembled the pieces to the chopper, got out the cutting board used a knife to hunk off a piece of onion, and went to town.


What greeted me from my countertop looked less like minced onion and more like carnage. It was as though my recipe called for "one half an onion, mutilated."

So what? you say. So it's not pretty. It's not like Hubert Keller is coming to dinner, right? So who cares? I went on with my meal prep and tried to ignore the big and little ugly pieces of onion in my soup pot, the torn layers in my reserve bowl for garnish, and the extra dose of stinging I felt in my eyes.

Later, with dinner made, served, and digesting, I thought about my chopper, and my hasty decision to forego my perfectly adequate knife skills for a shortcut...and I decided that the shortcut, in terms of what I sacrificed in aesthetics, cooking quality, and flavor, had not been worth it. Allow me to explain, by suggesting three reasons NOT to reach for the food chopper, and instead, to focus a little practice on building knife skills and maintaining sharp knives in your kitchen.

Number one: Size matters. The very best chopper that you can buy (and mine is among the best of this type of tool) chops your food indiscriminately. Pieces of food will not be uniformly chopped, unless you chop them so fine that it ceases to matter. The chopper will inevitably not penetrate some of the onion skin, while liquefying other portions. Two reasons that this just won't do: in a raw dish, the last thing that most people want to do is bite down on a long, stringy piece of onion; in a cooked dish, pieces of food that are chopped in different sizes cook at different rates. You may very well cook all of the pieces of onion, save five or six, which will remain crunchy and sharp, and detract from the finished dish.

Number two: It's ugly. We're all learning more and more about food everyday. We're learning that, both from an aesthetic point of view, as well as a "healthy eating" point of view, we "eat" with our eyes as well as our mouths. Food should look pleasing. Pleasing equals uniform, square little pieces of onion, not hunks and shards that look like so much soft, crunchy broken pottery floating in your soup.

Number three: It doesn't taste...quite...right. Remember the comment about my eyes burning? The eye-burning gas that onions emit comes from sulfoxides, which are most potent when layers of the onion come in contact with one another during the chopping process. The best way to combat the discomfort is to use a sharp knife for your chopping. Alas, my chopper's whirlyblade wasn't equal to the task; the membranes mingled, and I was miserable until I made it to the sink to rinse my eyes. But what I didn't expect - and I admit - this might have just been the particular onion - was the bitter flavor that the onion had, especially in the avocado garnish. Whether it was the release of the onion juices, or the large-ish pieces, or the fact that I'm pregnant - I'm not sure, but the flavor of the onion was unpleasant. I suppose I should try and duplicate the experience to see if it was a one-time thing, or if the chopping method does indeed impact flavor. But I'm just not willing to sacrifice dinner for the sake of food science.

Please, invest some money in a good knife - santokus and chef's knives are my favorite go-to tools in the kitchen - and spend some time learning how to chop things. There are some great tips and videos on Food Network's website; likewise, just watch the pros, pay attention, and pick up some tips. Almost all of them (except maybe Rachael Ray) display good knife skills on their shows. Finally, if all else fails, give me a call, and we'll make dinner together. I'll teach you everything I know.

So save that chopper for the Christmas cookie nuts...or better yet, learn to cut up your food with a knife, the ultimate kitchen multitasker. You'll save money, time, frustration, and you'll have a great sense of accomplishment by learning to do it like a pro.