Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Olympic Fever

Quick story:

On my run this morning, someone had taken sidewalk chalk to my running path.  They wrote the words "Olympic Fast Lane" with a big arrow pointing straight ahead.  Naturally, I put the hammer down and made it count.  After all, rules are rules... :)

Really enjoying the Olympic Games so far.  Although, I must say in the internet/social media age, it is nearly impossible to make it to NBC's tape delayed broadcast without having something spoiled. :)  Oh, well.

Go, America!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cookbook Challenge #19: Michael Symon's Live To Cook

For the next Cookbook Challenge, I tackled the work of an Iron Chef.  I cooked from Michael Symon's Live To Cook by Chef Michael Symon with Michael Ruhlman.

Symon says...cook!
Michael Symon is easily recognizable as the bald, gregarious Iron Chef with the great laugh.  He burst into the national spotlight in the late '90's when Food & Wine magazine named him one of the "Ten Best New Chefs in America," and was also featured shortly thereafter in Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef.  Symon is easily my favorite of the Iron Chef cast simply because he looks like he is having the most fun out there.

And the dude can cook.  His restaurant, Lola, has helped to put Cleveland on the culinary map.  Symon puts a creative spin on various styles of cuisine - Italian, Polish, Greek, and Midwestern - all foods that he grew up with, but with playful twists. (There probably are not many Polish grandmothers who are making beef cheek pierogies!)

Live To Cook is subtitled "Recipes and Techniques To Rock Your Kitchen."  There are tons of creative recipes here, along with instructional sections covering techniques and advice to help make you a better cook.  Soups, sandwiches, pasta, stocks, sauces, condiments, fish, meat, side dishes, family meals, and even some ambitious charcuterie and pickled dishes are covered in depth.  

Being a Minnesotan, a recipe that jumped out at me was the "Bacon Wrapped Pan-Roasted Walleye." (walleye is Minnesota's official "state fish," and a delicious one at that)  But I ended up going with a different selection because I had most everything on hand.  I made Symon's "Risotto with Bay Scallops." (recipes found online here and here)  What we have is an almost classic, saffron-infused risotto Milanese, but with the addition of some prosciutto and bay scallops.

Michael Symon's Risotto with Bay Scallops
I really, really liked the risotto.  Even without the scallops, it would make a wonderful dish on its own.  The aroma of saffron is quite exotic, and the deep yellow color it produces makes for a pretty and flavorful  sauce.  I think my preparation got a little more "saucy" than expected, but that was my fault.  The overall flavor was delicious. 

Can't say I was crazy about the scallops here.  The particular bay scallops I had were so tiny that it was impossible not to overcook them.  That was my screw up.  But I did a good job with the Arborio rice.  The rice turned out tender and just a little bit al dente, so I was pleased with that.  I just should sought out some slightly larger bay scallops.  Or substituted shrimp.  (Ooh, yes!  Definitely doing this with shrimp next time!)  In any case, this recipe is worthy of a repeat attempt sometime.  Very easy to prepare and quite tasty.  It would be easy to do for a weeknight meal. 

Live To Cook is a pretty cool book.  Symon definitely offers some intriguing recipes, a few nice educational pieces, and narratives that allow you to get inside the mind of an Iron Chef.   There are several other recipes I look forward to trying as well.  An enjoyable first cookbook from Iron Chef Symon!  

Monday, July 23, 2012

Morning Runner

Good morning, sunshine!

Normally, at least during the week, I run in the afternoon or early evening after I get home from work.  However, due to the never ending hot summer, I have been getting up at 4:30 in the morning to run.   

This has really been the only decent option. but even some of those mornings were unpleasant.  Why, today it was 79 degrees before the sun came up, and it was so humid that the windows of my house were fogged over!

It occurred to me that I couldn't remember the last time I ran late in the day.

I had to look it up in my running spreadsheet/journal.

June 26th.  Darn near a month.

I am looking forward to the fall so I can get some sleep.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cookbook Challenge #18: Urban Italian

We head back to Italy by way of New York for this Cookbook Challenge.  I cooked from what is one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, Urban Italian by Andrew Carmellini and his wife Gwen Hyman. 

Urban Italian
You might remember we previously cooked from another Carmellini cookbook for a Cookbook Challenge.  American Flavor was his second book.  Urban Italian was his first.

Urban Italian came about when Carmellini was between jobs and waiting to open a restaurant, an opening which was plagued by delays.  Finding plenty of time on his hands, he missed cooking and took to doing some home cooking in his tiny apartment kitchen.

During this time, he developed an appreciation for the logistics a home cook has to deal with.  Carmellini noted he had cooked professionally for so many years with teams of people to perform all the tasks (prep work, chopping, cooking, cleaning), and ingredients are brought to him by various purveyors and delivery people.  It almost became a revelation that home cooks have to do everything themselves.  These recipes are the results of his home cooking endeavors.  Italian cooking, NYC style, he says. 

Like American Flavor, Urban Italian, there is a huge introductory chapter that is filled with crazy stories from his culinary education.  It is an amusing and entertaining book for the stories alone.  But that leads you right into a showcase of some amazing recipes.

All of the recipes are designed for the home kitchen.  This is not to say that some of the recipes aren't a little involved and contain a number of steps (such as "My Grandmother's Ravioli").  But all of the recipes are very well explained, and the more involved ones often have the work spread out over a couple of days.  There are some very classic Italian dishes, but also some creative interpretations of the classics. 

I have made a number of his recipes, and a couple of them (such as the lamb ragu & chicken leg cacciatore) have become "go to" dishes in my culinary arsenal.  For this challenge, I made a dish that I have prepared before, so I am not exactly breaking any new culinary ground.  But it was so good that I wanted to do it again!  I am talking about the "Prawns Wrapped In Pancetta and Sage."

It is really quite simple, and there are only a few ingredients.  Take huge shrimp, sprinkle with cracked black pepper, apply a leaf of fresh sage, wrap in pancetta, broil a couple of minutes per side, drizzle with lemon, and eat them with a big 'ol smile on your face.

Prawns Wrapped In Pancetta and Sage
These shrimp are just delightful!  Carmellini said he was after a Roman saltimboca flavors (traditionally a veal dish), only with shrimp.  The pancetta gets crispy on the outside, and the pork and sage flavors play really nicely with the plump, juicy shrimp.  Lemon adds a citrusy brightness and freshness.  It is a beautiful and simple dish.  I love it!

I keep coming back to Urban Italian.  It is enjoyable just to read Carmellini's stories about picking porcini mushrooms in Europe, getting wine recommendations from the Italian police, and cooking for a guests at a disastrous fashion show.  But the recipes are even more enjoyable.  Honestly, when I first got the book, I listed out at least 15 dishes I wanted to make, and everything I have tried has been delicious and fun.  That makes for a pretty inspirational cookbook.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The next big thing

I had grandiose intentions of running the Half Voyageur Trail Marathon yesterday in Duluth.  But my experience at the Lola's Lake Waconia Half Marathon reminded me of this - training for races during the hot summer months really sucks.

So, I am targeting the fall for my next big race.  I am going to run the Surf the Murph 50K down in Savage, MN.

This will be my second 50K, but no doubt the tougher of the two.  In fact, their measurements are a little loose on the 50K designation.  Based on the course description, two loops of 16.96 miles definitely equates to more than a 50K!  So I've got my work cut out for me. 

But I am also looking forward to it.  Actually, what I am most looking forward to is the fact that I can get through these miserable hot summer months (94 degrees today with a 100 to 105 heat index) before the training really ramps up.

Onward to the Murph! 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Cookbook Challenge #17: Off The Menu

This Cookbook Challenge takes us into the kitchens of some of the finest restaurants in the country.  I cooked from Off The Menu: Staff Meals From America's Top Restaurants by Marissa Guggiana.

It's not on the menu...it's Off The Menu!
Guggiana has put together an ambitious book.  She traveled all over the country, visiting some of America's best restaurants to learn about and partake in their "staff meals" - that time before a service where the chef and the crew have time to relax, bond, and share a meal together.

As the title of the book implies, these recipes are not necessarily served at the restaurant.  They are "off the menu" - meals reserved for the staff, often simple and economical for the chef to prepare.  But they are also good, high quality dishes meant to feed a large group. 

When all was said and done, Guggiana visited fifty restaurants.  The book features profiles on each of the restaurants, some rather insightful Q&A sessions with the chefs, and a collection of recipes featuring examples of the dishes they serve as part of their staff meals.  Most of the dishes are very homey, family-style meals that translate well to the home kitchen, and the recipes in the book cover a variety of different cuisines.

In my younger days I worked at a golf resort that provided staff meals.  I would have to say that none of what I got served resembled anything in the book!  Lots of tempting selections to choose from, but I eventually decided to make two recipes from the book, mainly because they were intended to be served together.  They were the Soy-and-Honey-Glazed Chicken (an adaptation of the chicken recipe can be found here) and the Skillet Fried Rice, both from the restaurant Abbatoir in Atlanta.

The chicken dish consisted of large chunks of chicken thighs cooked in a honey, soy sauce, and chicken stock mixture, seasoned with ginger, chile pepper, and lots of cilantro.  The fried rice is more or less traditional version - rice, eggs, soy sauce, scallions, and a shot of lemon juice for some acidity - but there is the sneaky addition of bacon to impart a smoky, porky surprise.

Soy-and-Honey Glazed Chicken with Skillet Fried Rice and Broccoli
Of all of my Cookbook Challenges thus far, this is easily one of the top three meals I have made!  Tender chicken pieces get absolutely lacquered in this beautiful, dark, rich, sweet, and salty sauce spiked with ginger and chiles.  Cilantro brings a wonderful fresh burst to the finished products.  So good you want to lick your plate!  Really, really delicious stuff. 

The skillet fried rice was a meal in and of itself, and it was very simple to make.  Render the bacon in a large skillet until crisp, saving some of the drippings.  I cooked some long grain Basmati rice the day before (you always want to use cold, leftover, previously cooked rice for fried rice dishes), and you just stir-fry the rice in the leftover bacon drippings and a little bit of fresh oil.  Add some beaten eggs, stir-fry until set, stir in the reserved bacon, scallions, soy sauce, and lemon juice, and serve it up.  That's it.

A plate of fried rice proved to be the perfect accompaniment to the chicken.  Loved the bits of smoky bacon in here (it was almost like a "breakfast fried rice" if there is such a thing!).  The rice was quite tasty, and it served as a nice sponge for soaking up the incredible sauce from the chicken.  Leftovers for lunches this week were equally as fantastic.  An awesomely successful dinner all the way around.

Off The Menu provided some interesting subject matter and took a look at an aspect of restaurant cooking that doesn't get a lot of press - that being how they feed their staff, also highlighting the importance of the staff spending this time together.  And if the other recipes in the book taste half as good as this chicken and rice did, I will be coming back to it time and time again.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Beating the heat

Running has been challenging in Minnesota this week (heck, probably not just in Minnesota - it seems like it is hot and miserable everywhere this week!).  I have been getting up at 4:30 in the morning to do my runs because that is the only time of day where it is at least somewhat bearable. 

July 4th was probably the worst, most oppressive heat and humidity I have experienced.  It was "only" 82 degrees with a heat index of 88 when I went running.  But it blossomed to 101 actual air temperature with a heat index near 110 later in the day.  Ugh.  I had a headache for most of the day because of the intensely hot weather.

Getting relief from the heat is challenging on weeks like this.  Even at home.  Or when you go out to dinner.

I am on an "off peak" program with my electric company.  In a nutshell, I pay a higher rate during the winter months in order to keep a more balanced bill during the higher energy use months of summer.  Along with this, they do load management and will cycle my central A/C on and off during a period of several hours on the really awful hot days (so, like every day this week).  Basically what I have found with this program is that I pay more in the winter for the privilege of not getting to use my A/C when I need it in the summer. :)  But hey, I am saving money.  Right?

I ate dinner at Five Guys, because a good 'ol American burger seemed to be the thing to do on the 4th.  That, and I didn't want to further heat up my house by firing up the stove.  However, their open air kitchen combined with the fact that the restaurant is all windows, their A/C had a hard time keeping up.  So the restaurant was rather steamy inside as well.  It was hard to find relief anywhere.

Tasty burgers and fries at Five Guys, though.  No complaints there!
Thankfully, Friday is supposed to be the last of the "Excessive Heat Warning" that we have been under for the last several days.  Here's to some more moderate days ahead.  Hopefully.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Cookbook Challenge #16 - A16 Food+Wine

The Cookbook Challenge rides again!  The latest installment takes us to southern Italy by way of the San Francisco Bay area.  I made a dish from A16 Food+Wine by Nate Appleman and Shelley Lindgren.

Let's go to southern Italy!
A16 is a restaurant in San Francisco, named after the A16 highway that runs from Naples to Canosa, Puglia.  Appleman was the chef (but is no longer there), and Lindgren is the wine director.  From their website:

"True to our namesake, we gather our inspiration from southern Italy, particularly Campania, the region surrounding Naples. Chef David Taylor oversees the menu, which features fresh pasta, house-butchered and house-cured meats and authentic Neapolitan pizza. Complementing the rustic menu, Wine Director/owner Shelley Lindgren selects wines that highlight the indigenous grapes from Campania and nearby regions."

The book is quite unique and formatted very interestingly.  It's part encyclopedia of the wines of southern Italy, part glossary of specialty Italian ingredients, and the rest a collection of recipes from the restaurant.

In fact, the first 65 pages of the book are all about wine, with an in-depth discussion of the unique southern Italian grapes, along with recommended producers.  There is a lot of great information here, and it serves as an excellent resource for learning about the wines from this area.

The rest of the book is all about food.  Antipasti, pizza, soup, pasta, seafood, meats, veggies, and of course desserts, all from the restaurant.  Some fun looking recipes that are intended to be representative of the country cooking of southern Italy.

I chose to make the A16 recipe for "Monday Meatballs.

I am a huge fan of meatballs in general, and I like making them, particularly to go along with spaghetti.  This recipe was prepared differently than any Italian-style meatball I have made.

While the seasonings are what you might expect with some oregano, parsley, fennel seeds, and red pepper (no garlic?!?), they add ricotta cheese as one of the wet ingredients.  To include some cured porky goodness, prosciutto is also added to the meat mixture.  And, all of the cooking takes place in the oven (which was great for a 91 degree day!).

After an initial sear in a hot oven, the temperature is reduced, and they are braised in a covered baking pan in a San Marzano tomato sauce.  The only can of authentic D.O.C.G. San Marzano tomatoes at my supermarket was $6.89 (gah!), so I went with "regular" canned plum tomatoes.  They might not have been kissed by the soils of Mount Vesuvius, but they were actually from Italy and were a third of the price, so at least give me some points for the effort.

So I baked and then braised the meatballs as directed.  Here is what they looked like coming out of the oven:

These were perhaps the fluffiest, lightest meatballs I have ever made.  This is due, in part, to the liberal amount of bread used in the mixture, which helps to keeps them delicate.  Beefy and porky with lots of "Italian sausage flavors" - fennel, oregano, and crushed red pepper.  The seasoning is right on the money, and they are a little bit spicy.  Ricotta adds some moisture and creaminess.  Very nice.

I wasn't completely enamored with the sauce.  One thing that I might do differently is, instead of using fresh tomatoes, use an actual marinara sauce in the preparation.  Even after braising, the tomato sauce comes out very bright with almost an acidic note.  A prepared marinara cooked down with some garlic, onion, and basil would add a more rounded flavor with greater complexity, in my humble opinion.    

The A16 book serves these as a stand-alone dish, like so:   

A16's "Monday Meatballs"
 Nobody is going to be upset if I had mine with a little spaghetti, are they?

Sorry, but that's how I like it!
A16 is an enjoyable book, and I look forward to exploring it some more (particularly in the pizza chapter).  Uniquely structured, it offers fine insight into the wine of southern Italy, and there are some intriguing recipes from the restaurant, many which I look forward to trying.  Their meatballs are tasty.  Although, I'm still going to make my own sauce and add some garlic next time.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The forecast


The forecast from FOX 9
I am running at 4:30 AM tomorrow to beat the heat.  Who's with me?


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