Monday, March 22, 2010

Twice-Baked Potatoes and a Condiment for all Seasons

After my gnocchi-making extravaganza of last week (they were incredibly good, and worth every ounce of effort), I had some russet potatoes left over, not my favorite kind for roasting or boiling, and not enough to make more gnocchi. For a lazy Sunday night dinner after an interminably long and hard week, we had a pan-fried rib steak and twice-baked russet potatoes. Not much in the way of culinary challenge, but very cozy, very easy, and very, very good. (And perfect for those on a meat-fast or gluten-free restriction.)

Preheat your oven to 400F
Stab your potatoes with a fork, all the way around- this a) lets steam out, so your inside potato matter is drier and fluffier, and b) relieves any anxiety (possibly instilled by my mother) that an unpricked potato could explode in the oven. Bake the potatoes in their skin, directly on the oven rack, not on a pan, until they are soft when you squeeze them, then take them out, cut them in half lengthwise, and let them cool slightly. You want to work with them when they are hot, but they are positively thermonuclear when first out of the oven. Spare yourself some agony, and let them rest open for 5 minutes.

Using a spoon, scoop out the potato innards into a bowl, and mash them gently: a ricer is ideal, a pastry cutter (one of those semi-circular 5-wire gizmos with a handle cutting off the half-circle) is next best, and a regular potato-masher or fork last best. You don't want to make the potato gluey, but you do want it smooth. Mix the fluffy, smooth potato with salt, pepper, butter and cheese (cheddar is nice, chèvre is better). Spoon this back into the potato skins, and put in them on a pan, and back into the oven just long enough to melt the cheese. You can turn the broiler on at the end to crisp up the top.

So good. Eat them with everything. Dunk them in sour cream, or better yet, aioli, my new favorite condiment.

Aioli is a homemade mayonnaise flavoured with garlic. It is better and more versatile than store-bought mayo. Ideal for sandwiches, as a dipping sauce for potatoes, pizza or steamed vegetables, aioli is a cinch to make (and it really is marvelous to watch disparate and incompatible liquids emulsifying in your food processor). Here's how:

In the bowl of your food processor, grind 1/4 cup of garlic until fine. Add 1/4 cup of lemon juice, a good spoonful of dijon mustard, 1/2 tbsp of salt, a good grinding of black pepper (omit this if the appearance of speckled mayo would annoy you), 1 whole egg, and 1 egg yolk. Whizz these all together, and then slowly, with the motor running, drizzle 3 cups vegetable oil in. More traditionally, olive oil is used, but I often don't like the taste of olive oil, so I substitute a more neutral canola.
It will turn thick and white. Do the drizzling slowly, so all of the oil gets to emulsify, and you're not left with big globules of oil on the surface. The eggs act as an emulsifier, or mediator, if you will, allowing the oil to hang in suspension with the lemon juice, as a homogenous mixture. Kind of like how if you add eggs to a red-wine and olive oil dressing, you get a smooth caesar-type of dressing, instead of a vinaigrette that splits into its component parts.

Put it in a jar, and slather it on everything that will stand still long enough. Keep in mind, though, that there are raw eggs in the aioli, and so it has a definite shelf-life in a way that store-bought does not. You can cut the recipe in half, if you like. The way to halve a recipe that only calls for one yolk and one whole egg is to whisk the two, then put them in a measuring cup (or better yet, weigh them), and use only half.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Two Raves, and a Rant

1. The Raves:

I definitely cooked some tasty food these past two weeks at home.
On Sunday night, we had ribs in a very tasty, homemade spicy/sweet chipotle barbeque sauce. I rarely have the forethought to slow-cook ribs all day, so I short-cut via blanching the meat in salted water to get the cooking and softening started quickly. Then sauced, covered, and into a 375F oven until cooked through and falling apart, then sauced some more and cooked uncovered, turning and basting once, to caramelize the sugar in the sauce and make the ribs sticky, messy and delicious.

Last Wednesday night, I randomly found a fresh leg of lamb at the butcher. Not a whole leg, mind you, but a good chunk of one, on the bone. Fresh lamb is rarely available at retail outlets in Kingston, so I snapped it up, even though it was not what I had in mind. The meat was so lovely and tender that it really could have been marinaded and dry-roasted, but I braised it until it fairly fell off the bone and into its rich sauce.
This lamb was from Alberta, which I had not, to my knowledge, tried before. I like very gamey lamb, and consequently prefer Quebec lamb to the milder New Zealand lamb, and local lamb has a pretty strong flavour, making it hard to pass up at restaurants, but not easy to find at the store. This western meat was very tender, and was quite mild. Even the fat, which is usually the wooliest-tasting part, could have been mistaken for something else. The leftovers were shredded into the super-flavourful braising sauce and eaten over rigatoni.
On the whole, this braised lamb business was just delightful, and I am pretty happy to get in a few more wintry braises before Spring is really upon us.

Furthermore, last night, I made a plain old roasted chicken, with plain old potatoes, and plain old asparagus, AND THE BEST ICE CREAM I HAVE MADE EVER!!! I made milk chocolate ice cream with black pepper, creme fraîche and ruby port. Seriously. The port adds depth to the sweetness of the chocolate, the creme fraîche adds a zippy richness, and the pepper? Coarsely cracked whole peppercorns added textural interest, a bit of spiciness, and when combined with everything else going on in the ice cream, actually added a licorice-like smoothness to the flavour profile. I suspect that the awesome ice cream will be a tough sell if it's called 'milk chocolate and black pepper', but once I've forced it on the unsuspectingly lucky victim, there's no turning back. Mike, who is normally conservative with what he thinks is going to be tasty, admits that this ice cream is surprisingly outstanding. I call that a win.

2. The Rant:
I went back to the gym last week. It was way harder to think about doing than to get off my arse and actually do. Once there, I quite liked it, and went 3 days in a row. I felt bad about not going the 4th day, but laundry had to be done and I work early on Thursdays. Since then, I've gone back to the gym every day that seemed reasonable (ie: not after marathon weekend shifts).

The following is a short, and by no means exhaustive, list of things I like to do(aside from cooking, that is. By far, that is the thing I like most):
Hanging out, knitting, chatting, reading, visiting, looking at cats, having cocktails and luncheons, napping in front of movies, snuggling.

These are all fairly sedentary activities, and even though I stand and sweat in a kitchen all day, I am a fairly sedentary person. When I have down time, I never get in that 'crazy hiking mood'. I am not particularly outdoorsy. Don't get me wrong: I like outside, but mostly from a seated, comfy position, with nice company and nice wine, and probably cheese and a cozy fire. I generally have no urge to actively investigate it. I prefer a more gentle, passive appreciation.
When my sedentary lifestyle is examined in combination with my appreciation of animal fats (exhibits #1-18: the entries on this weblog), it should be plain to see that periodically, I need to go to the gym to stay healthy, and fit in my pants.

And plus also: it has come to my attention that I am not getting any younger, and that maybe my skeletal system would like some weight-bearing exercise to complement all the calcium I intake from fancy cheese and ice cream. Just saying.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Epic Fail and a Lesson Learned.

Friday night dinner: Prosecco, cheese (Figaro again; Mona Lisa again; Migneron de Charlevoix, a firm, tangy washed-rind from Quebec that really fills the mouth; Cambozola) and crackers.

Our post-work 5 à 7 went on for quite some time, and so I was really feeling the Prosecco when I went to prepare the main event: New York Strip Loin with Green Peppercorn & Port sauce and asparagus. I managed to steam the steaks to rubber while trying to keep them warm whilst preparing the sauce. Having forgotten that the sauce required beef stock (I meant to make some, and then didn't...), I thought I would substitute chicken stock (which was nice and rich when I made it), but it smelled off when I retrieved it from the depths of the fridge. Should have frozen it into stock cubes, I guess.... Rather than using a bouillon cube, I tipsily opted to substitute water.

Let this be a lesson:
Beef stock does not equal water, in taste, texture, or colour.

The sauce was thin, bright purple, and its balance (or lack thereof) heavily tipped in the direction of the sweetness of the port. Blech. When unceremoniously dumped on the rubbery strip steaks, this easily took the award for worst meal I've prepared in the last year. The asparagus was nice, though.

Dessert was just fine: a fresh raspberry tart with lime creme fraiche. Hard to argue with that.