Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chicken Stock - Locally

I had no idea that the most valuable lesson I would learn about cooking would also be one of the simplest. Stock is the base for so many soups, sauces, braises and other dishes and from what I've read of Rulhman's experience at CIA, it's the first thing you learn at culinary school. You probably know how much you rely on it because of the number of containers of stock you go through, but do you know how easy it is to make at home? I had heard countless times from cookbooks and TV Chefs how important it is to make your own stock and what a difference it makes in flavor, but had never really taken them seriously. That's not to say I didn't believe them, just that I didn't think it was realistic for someone with a full-time job to make their own stock. How wrong I was.

It turns out that with a little bit of prep work, you can have stock made in an afternoon with most of that time being spent on unmonitored simmering. Even better, that one afternoon can provide you with enough stock to stick in the freezer to last a few months (as long as you're not making vast amounts of soup). If the idea of butchering a chicken at home is off-putting or if you're interested in making beef stock, talk to your local butcher about buying bones for stock. In most cases, they'll be happy to oblige.

Please keep in mind that this recipe is simply a guide. The water will vary according to how many bones you have and the aromatics should be adjusted to your personal taste. Since this is another piece to my short rib recipe with all local ingredients, I made sure that all of my vegetables were California grown by going to my farmers' market. I also took the time to search out fresh California bay leaves, as well as cage-free, locally raised chickens, etc. Don't feel like you have to go to those lengths if you're not as excited about cooking locally as I am!

Chicken Stock

Bones from two chickens

3 litres of water

2 onions, quartered

3 carrots, cut into 2-3 sections

3 celery stalks with leaves attached if you've got them, cut into 2-3 sections

3 thyme sprigs

2 bay leaves

4 peppercorns

The chicken bones should be relatively clean. Place them in the bottom of a large stock pot and cover with water. Add the onions, carrots and celery. I leave the leaves on my celery to act as a distiller. I have no idea if it actually works, but I get the sense that they help to soak up impurities that would otherwise need to be skimmed off as the stock simmers. Bring the mixture just to a boil and reduce the heat to simmer. Cook for 4 - 5 hours, checking the pot every 30 - 60 minutes to make sure it has not come up to a boil. All you want is a gentle simmer. Wrap the bay leaves, thyme and peppercorns in cheesecloth and add them to the stock for the last 30 minutes. 

After 4 - 5 hours of simmering, drain the stock and discard the vegetables and bones. At this point you can either painstakingly skim the surface to remove fat, or you can pour cooled stock into storage containers and place them in the fridge. After a few hours the fat will have risen to the top and solidified and you can simply scoop it out. Freeze whatever stock you aren't going to use within a few days. After defrosting, I always bring my stock up to a boil before using. Enjoy!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Tomato Paste - Locally

On a recent Saturday morning I happened upon on a farmers' market that I had not been to before. I'm very lucky that in my general area there are multiple markets on every day of the week. My biggest complaint about the markets closest to me is that they never seem to have any protein. I can load up on produce or bread, but when it comes to my other staples, I always end up at the grocery store on my way home. I was thrilled when, walking through this new market, I discovered eggs, cage-free chickens, grass-fed beef and even locally harvested shellfish. I was in heaven. My first instinct was to immediately move so I could be within walking distance of my new favorite market, but after taking a moment to calm down, I set about getting the week's supplies.

My biggest sin at the market is buying something because I'm taken in by how great it looked or how fresh it was, but with no plan on how actually to use it. I either end up not using it or having to go back to the store to buy everything else I need to make whatever it is I have decided to create with said fresh item. This go around it was two pounds of short ribs. Having happened upon the market with so much protein, I just couldn't leave without getting some.

Shopping at the new farmers' market got me thinking more about locally grown food. I always prefer to buy my produce at farmers' markets because I absolutely agree with trying to use locally grown and produced food whenever possible, but I never really took it beyond produce. This market opened up the idea that I could do more than just get local produce. With that in mind, I set about creating a new short rib recipe using only locally grown or produced food in the recipe.

Finding local produce was easy. I didn't have to look further than my local farmers' markets. The first place I ran into some trouble was with locating locally produced tomato paste. It quickly became clear that I would have to make my own. After browsing the internet for some time, I found this method that turns 5 pounds of tomatoes into about a 1/2 cup of paste. It certainly isn't the economical way (with time or money) to get tomato paste, but the flavor was absolutely better and, it was from locally grown ingredients. Problem solved. Check back in a few days to see the stock I made to use as a braising liquid.

Tomato Paste
Yield approximately 1/2 cup

5 pounds tomatoes
2 T olive oil
salt to taste

Preheat oven to 350*
Chop the tomatoes. Uniformity is not important as the tomatoes will be passed through a food mill shortly. Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan and add the chopped tomatoes. Simmer for 4 - 5 minutes until the tomatoes are releasing their juices. Pass the tomatoes through a food mill fitted with the smallest disc. If necessary, take the tomato pulp still in the bowl of the food mill and return it to the saute pan to help it break down some more and release its juices. Once all the tomatoes have been processed, place the tomato liquid in a half-sheet pan (rimmed cookie sheet) and place in the oven for four hours. stir the mixture every hour until a tomato paste texture has been achieved. If storing in the fridge, pour olive oil into the container to cover the paste for storage. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pear Custard Pie

I find it difficult to branch out from chocolate when making dessert. It's not that I don't appreciate the endless assortment of dessert varieties available, it's that I am such a chocoholic I'm always worried I will be disappointed. 

This week, I knew I was going to have branch out. I had a bag of D'Anjou pears on hand that I needed to do something with before they passed their prime. I turned to my trusty library of cookbooks and came across this extremely simple recipe. The most time consuming part is prepping the pears. After you have completed that process, this pie will be finished in no time.

Pear Custard Pie
Adapted from Everyday Food

1/4 cup melted butter
6 small D'Anjou pears, peeled, halved and cored
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup flour
2 t vanilla bean paste
3 eggs
3/4 cup milk
1/4 t salt

Preheat oven to 350*
Butter a 9" pie dish. Slice pears thinly and place in the pie dish in an overlapping circle. Pulse remaining ingredients in a blender to create a batter. Pour the batter into the pie dish gently as to not disturb the pear slices. Bake for 45 minutes until golden and firm to the touch. Dust with some powdered sugar if desired and enjoy!

Monday, November 10, 2008

French Toast - Leftover Vanilla Cakes

The vanilla cakes from last week were delicious, but we had two leftover and I hate having to throw food away. The perfect solution came to me when I woke up this morning and needed to figure out breakfast. It turns out that mini-cakes turned into french toast equals deliciousness. I was worried that the cakes would be too sweet or have too much vanilla in them, but I didn't add much vanilla to the egg soak and they turned out great.

Vanilla Cake French Toast
Serves 2

2 individual vanilla cakes
2 eggs
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 t vanilla
1/4 t salt
butter for cooking

Slice cakes into 1/2 " slices. Combine eggs, buttermilk, vanilla and salt in a small container and add vanilla cake slices to container to soak for 20 or more minutes. Heat butter in a non-stick skillet and fry french toast for 3 - 4 minutes per side. Top with fruit and maple syrup.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Individual Vanilla Cakes

I love the idea of giving gifts of food. It's something that you've taken the time and energy to make yourself, and there is something warm and comforting about getting a gift from someone's kitchen that can't quite be duplicated with anything else. So I was thrilled to see the article in this month's Cooking Light with ideas for gifts from your kitchen this holiday season. I knew I had to start trying out some of their recipe ideas right away so I would be prepared with great baked gifts when the holidays finally get here. I can recommend this one whole-heartily.

Vanilla Buttermilk Cakes
Adapted from Cooking Light
Makes 5 Loaves or 10 Mini-Cakes

13.5 oz flour
1 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t sea salt
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup butter, softened
1 T vanilla bean paste
3 eggs
1 1/3 cups low-fat buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350*
Combine first four ingredients and stir together with a whisk. Place sugar and butter in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat until light and fluffy. Add vanilla, followed by the eggs, one at a time, making sure each is fully-incorporated before adding the next. Add flour and buttermilk to the sugar mixture in alternating additions, starting and ending with the flour. Place a mini-loaf pan (mine has room for eight) in the oven to preheat slightly. Remove the pan and spray with cooking spray. Pour batter into the pan and bake for 40 - 45 minutes until golden brown and slightly puffed on top. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes before removing to a cooling rack. Enjoy!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Thai Coconut Shrimp Soup

Fish Water, aka Nam Bplah, aka Thai Fish Sauce is my newest staple flavor. It's a central flavor in Thai cooking and is used in similar ways to how westerners use salt as a flavoring. I would not say that the two are interchangeable. Fish sauce definitely imparts a flavor to Thai food that cannot be duplicated by just adding salt.

I'm not sure where my love of Asian flavors comes from. I started eating sushi with my family when I was very young and I'm guessing it has grown from there. The truth is that I have never met an ethnic food that I didn't like so let's just chalk it up to a love of all ethnic food. When I'm craving Thai food, this soup can be ready in 20 minutes and usually hits the spot.

Thai Coconut Shrimp Soup
Adapted from Everyday Food

1 T freshly grated ginger
4 minced garlic cloves
1 T canola oil
1 can coconut milk
4 cups water
1 T cornstarch
2 carrots peeled and cut into thin two-inch strips
1 oz Mee Krob noodles
2 scallions, sliced vertically
6 colossal shrimp
2 T lime juice
1 T fish sauce
Salt to taste

Heat oil in a medium pot and add garlic and ginger. Cook until just heated through and add coconut milk and water. Remove a small amount of cooking liquid to a bowl and stir in cornstarch. Return cornstarch slurry to the pot, add carrots and bring to a boil. Once carrots are just tender, add noodles and cook for 4 - 5 minutes. Add shrimp and remove from heat (shrimp will continue to cook). Stir in lime juice and fish sauce and salt to taste. Divide soup between two bowls, top with scallions and enjoy!