Friday, April 30, 2010

Donut Madness

Having never made homemade donuts, I didn't realize what a process it was when I idly suggested to M. on a Sunday morning, hey, let's make donuts.

Although, my stepfather makes awesome bignets, and I know that's an overnight process. So I shouldn't have been too surprised to find, when I consulted the Joy of Cooking, a lengthy recipe for yeast donuts alongside beignets and fritters.

After realizing that donuts were not going to happen in time for even the latest brunch on Sunday, M and I fixed ourselves something else to eat and began mixing our donut dough.

After hours of rising, punching down, and rising again, we were finally ready to fry up some donuts.

Hoo boy, look at those babies go. Between the three of us (Roomie A. helped too), we had great designs of filling them with some fresh strawberry rhubarb filling. But honestly, the donuts didn't stick around long enough for that.

We rolled some donut holes in sugar and Gryffon Ridge's Persian Spice blend and glazed some of the donuts with a maple syrup and butter reduction.

After we'd all housed about 5 donuts each, we each retired to our rooms, the thought of filling donuts way beyond our abilities. In the morning (after two donuts for breakfast), I figured we'd each had our fill.

We used the remaining donuts to make bread pudding, with 4 eggs and 2 cups of whole milk- not for the faint of heart. All in all, a delicious, albiet time consuming, project!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Jamie Oliver's Fresh Pasta with Oozy Cheese

M. loves Jamie Oliver (maybe he thinks he's dreamy...) and is always inspired by Jamie's fresh cooking with quality ingredients and the great dishes that result from simple processes. Take our riff on Jamie's Fresh Tagliatelle with Sprouting Broccoli and Oozy Cheese.

We watched a little YouTube video of Jamie making fresh pasta- he makes it look so easy!- and liked his method of making an egg and cheese sauce in a double boiler over the steaming pasta water. And of course, we had to include bacon somehow (maybe I was subconsciously trying to make up for my failed Carbonara).

So the way this works is, after you make your fresh pasta and boil your water, you place a metal bowl over the boiling water. Then, you begin melting your cheese and creme fraiche sauce in the heated bowl which creates a nice silky, smooth texture.

Here you see the creme fraiche and some olive oil melting together. After the cheeses (creme fraiche and Parmesan) are melted together, add the fresh pasta to the boiling water. At this point, we added diced cooked bacon, some diced fresh herbs, salt and pepper, and two egg yolks.

The finished sauce isn't too pretty, but is sure is tasty. This was all whisked up and heated through while the pasta and chopped broccolini boiled for a quick minute.

Mmm... steamy.

Finished and topped with some more grated Parmesan, this pasta dish was rich and smoky, but yet had vegetables (which totes makes it healthy)! I love how versatile this method of sauce-making was - only 2 dirty dishes and a plethora (of pinatas?) no, a plethora of options for additions. Now for the sake of my waistline, I just gotta keep M. away from the creme fraiche- the man wants to add it to everything!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Chicken Tagine with Ras el Hanout

Ever since Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants came to Portland at the Winter Market, everyone's been abuzz about these purveyors of spice. Roomie A.'s mom so generously bought us their Persian custom spice blend and Ras el Hanout and told us to experiment.

M. made bread with the Persian spice blend, and we rolled donuts in it, mixed with some sugar (more on that to come). But the Ras el Hanout? We were kinda stumped. Until Roomie A. sent me this recipe: Lamb Tagine with Green Olives. And we knew we had to make it because of this line in the intro: If you can get your hands on ras el hanout, you can use it instead of making the spice mixture. Perfect. All of this led to A. and me chanting Ras! el! Hanout! a lot while we made dinner.

As a rather timely addition, Bittman wrote about a weeknight tagine on his blog. We decided to mash the two recipes together and use chicken thighs and couscous instead of lamb and rice, respectively.

We started by searing the deboned and chopped chicken meat in a large dutch oven with about 3 tablespoons of olive oil. After the chicken had 'browned' (more browning would have occurred if we'd used lamb), we removed the meat and set it aside in a small bowl. Then we added diced onion and stirred until they softened.

While I felt initially that this recipe had a lot of ingredients and steps, looking back, I realize it wasn't so bad! And totally and completely delicious, especially for how easy it was. So after the veggies had softened, we added the meat back in and some shredded ginger, along with the juice of one orange, a 14 oz. can of diced tomatoes, one 2" piece of orange peel, the ras el hanout, 2 cups chicken broth and 1 T. honey.

It was at this point that we realized our recipes diverged dramatically (uh, one of the pitfalls of not reading a recipe all the way through before you start, I guess). The NY Times Lamb Tagine recipe had us popping the dish into a 350*F oven for an hour, and then adding in the carrots and celery and cooking some more.

Bittman's recipe, however, could be finished on the stovetop - hence the 'weeknight' part. We figured that we would go with the oven route, since time wasn't an issue for us and that method would give us more traditional results. So we added in the carrots and celery and put the whole thing in the oven for about 45 minutes.

While that was baking, we made the citrus couscous, which is like regular couscous, plus deliciousness. I added the juice of one lemon and 1 T. of lemon zest, and A. used her newly discovered orange segmenting skillz to add some diced orange to the finished product. And the end result was amazing. These really simple additions elevated this otherwise ho-hum addition (and I love couscous!) to another world- bright, moist, and a great compliment to the rich, complex tagine. I also toasted up some sesame seeds and sliced almonds with which to top the tagine.

Everyone was rather surprised at how great this tagine turned out. I mean, you can't beat a one-pot meal for simplicity and ease, and these flavors really melded together in their time together in the oven (is that like 7 minutes in Heaven??). The tagine also had diced apricots and green olives in it, but most of us either didn't like the additions or didn't even notice them. The real stars were the tender chicken, the crunchy nuts, and the bright moist couscous. I also dug on the chance to break out some apple chutney that I preserved in my Master Food Preserver course last summer.

And of course, the opportunity to chant Ras! el! Hanount! all night.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mekhong Thai Review

Time for Thai-O-Rama, Round 5... and still no great Thai food yet. I figure by the time this project is over we bloggers will have eaten hundreds of dollars of Thai food and *maybe, just maybe* 15% of it good. I haven't seen that 15% yet, hence the hedging.

But away we go... Mekhong Thai is located on Forest Avenue, right next to Haggarty's and The Fisherman's Net in a large red building that looks like it also used to house a Mexican restaurant. M. and I went in for dinner on a Friday night and were greeted by friendly servers and hostesses. Given a table in the upper dining level, I decided the decor made it feel like you were eating in someone's Grandma's house. Some grandmas make good food, so maybe this was a promising sign.

I heard the Thai dumplings were good, so we started with an order of them and M.'s favorite, crab rangoons (both $5.95). The dumplings were bland and a strange chemically flavor in the ginger dipping sauce didn't rescue them.

The crab rangoons were good, though it's hard to screw up fried food. The wonton wrappers were not too tough and chewy, and while there was no discernible crab taste in the filling, that's par for the course for crab rangoons. The spicy cocktail sauce, however, was not a welcome addition. It tasted like chicken chili sauce mixed with ketchup, and it just made me wish for some plain chicken chili sauce.

For my entree, I ordered green curry (from an oddly small selection of curry types) with chicken and 3 stars of heat ($11.95). The portion was large, it certainly was spicy (thanks for taking me seriously!), and it had lots of vegetables that I love: snow peas, green beans, onions, and broccoli. But the curry itself was pasty and thick- I prefer my curries on the sweeter side (I would have ordered Panang if they'd had it) and thinner. A thick curry just made for a weird mouthfeel.

M. had the seafood Pad Thai ($13.95) and he enjoyed it- there was a lot of seafood: shrimp, octopus, and scallops. Again, it was spicy, but would have benefited from a squeeze of lime, whereas none was offered.

Overall, Mekhong Thai does not make my list of go-to places for Thai food in Portland. After we ordered, I noticed a table stand that was their Pho menu. Maybe I'll include it in my tour of Portland's Pho dishes, but I will keep searching for the best Thai in Portland.

Mekhong Thai Portland on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Front Room: Strike Two

Due to the proximity of my apartment to the Front Room (wave when you're eating there!), I really want to like the restaurant. It's casual, it has a hoppin' bar, and it's rumored to have good food. However, between the two meals I've had there and the surly bartender, I'm not so sure it's making the list.

Now I know you're thinking, why did she take a picture of her half-eaten food- that's gross. But trust me, it didn't look much better when it arrived at my table this morning. I went for brunch (reportedly one of the best brunches in town) and aside from the prices and the big mimosas- after I ordered the regular one and not the 'special' one spiked with DeKuypers peach schnapps, yuck- I don't agree with the best brunch superlative.

Again, the prices are great, what brunch prices should be, but my biscuits and gravy with poached eggs ($7!) didn't match the diner prices. First, the main offense: the biscuit and gravy ratio was way off. I had biscuits that were 2" high (yay!) but only a thin layer of orange (?) gravy on top (boo!). The biscuits were great (I can make good ones too though), but the second offense was the gravy that had very little flavor and dry sausage.

Verdict? Underwhelming brunch. I'm still on the hunt for my favorite reliable brunch spot.

Front Room & Bar on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hipster Lemonade

We had a party last Saturday (sorry I didn't invite you), and I wanted to make a grown-up punch to serve. I think it's nice to provide an unusual cocktail, and this way, no one was tied to the "bar" - the tub full of PBR, maybe? - all night shaking up a special champagne pomagranate-tini or whatever.

However, when I tried to find the GQ article I'd saved about throwing a perfect dinner party (including several punch recipes), all my roommates and boyfriend made ruthless fun of me. Whatever, eff them, it was some damn good punch.

We started with a bottle of Old Grandad 100 Proof and added two cans of frozen lemonade concentrate, a dash of bitters and some grated ginger. We filled some old growlers (from Montana!) with the concentrated punch - since they're obviously not getting any use up here in Maine.

When it was party time, we filled the growler about 2/3rds full with some lemon seltzer and served over ice with a mint garnish. And it was damn good! Sparkly, sweet, and tangy, without being too boozy (although I was happy to drink the concentrated version, I think serving that to a house full of people would have resulted in sure disaster). Had we been a little bit more prepared, we would have frozen a block of ice with some pretty lemon slices in it.

What are your favorite booze punch recipes? I think it's hard to go wrong with booze, juice concentrate, and something fizzy. I think this would also be good with sparkling wine instead of the seltzer. I can't wait for more chances to make some spring punch - maybe a brunch punch!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Apply to be a Master Food Preserver

Canning is so hot right now. I really wouldn't be surprised if I heard Paris Hilton was trying her hand at it.

If you don't believe me, check out all these blogs that focus solely on canning:

Food In Jars
tigress in a jam
Put Up or Shut Up!
Saving The Season
Sustainable Pantry
Anarchy in a Jar
Hot Water Bath

And that's all I feel like listing right now... phew, I got a little distracted looking at all the beautiful home canned goods people are making all across the country.

But here in Maine, canning acts as a great way to increase your access to local foods. If you haven't noticed, we have a short growing season (hence the partying like it's 1999 during June, July, and August), so home canning is a great way to preserve those seasonal fruits and vegetables well into the time of year when your raised beds are covered with feet of snow.

But how to begin? Learning to can from a book can be overwhelming, and if you're anything like me, will induce the fear that you're going to give your loved ones some neurological damage with improper techniques.

But you're in luck! Maine is one of the few states in the country that offers the Master Food Preserver program, through the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. This 10 session class (from June to October) uses in season, local produce to teach you every aspect of home food preservation. After you've successfully become a jam, pickle, and salsa master, you'll go forth and teach public food preservation workshops. We'll be like an army of home canners. It'll be great.

Applications are in great demand, and there are only 12 spots available. So make yours a good one, and happy canning!

Note: the application period has passed. Thanks to all those applied, congrats to those who were accepted, and see you over the stove this summer!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter Dinner

Several near arguments were had at the end of last week over the nature of celebrating Easter. Obviously, for religious folk, it's a non-issue. They go to church like 3 times in one weekend and eat a big dinner on Sunday with their friends and families. Same non-issue for most people with kids. The Easter bunny comes, Easter eggs are dyed and hidden, there's often a party to attend, and again, a big dinner.

But for the non-religious, childless person not living in close proximity to their family? It's a crapshoot! Just another Sunday (albeit one where all the markets are closed and your friends are probably busy or out of town)? Or an opportunity to have a nice dinner with your other displaced friends. And so when our friend B. lamented on Thursday night that she was missing Easter dinner (Easter dessert, really), we decided last minute to have said big dinner.

M. the culinary creative genius of the bunch, decided he wanted to have deconstructed gyros: Roast leg of lamb, sauteed spinach, roast tomatoes, and a mint, goat cheese, cucumber salad.

We bought a 5 lb. bone-in New Zealand leg of lamb from Whole Foods Market (totally not local, maybe as non-local as you can get? but there is no lamb at the famers' market. Every other animal, though!), and rubbed it with thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper, olive oil, and honey. We let it sit at room temperature, as per Erik of (the now defunct) Evangeline's recipe on Find.Eat.Drink.

M. seared the leg in olive oil and butter in a hot cast iron skillet (we encountered the problem of not having a big enough pan for this monster!), and then put it into a 425 degree F oven for 20 minutes. Then he turned the oven down to 300 and roasted the leg until an instant read thermometer read 130 degrees F in the thickest part.

And as you can see, this method yielded a perfectly roasted leg of lamb. Some bits were more well done than others, and none of the leg was dried out or tough. M. figured he would cover it next time, as our oven is wildly out of control when it comes to temperature, and so it blackened a little more than he would have liked. But the meat was so juicy and tender, even though it was cooked medium well towards the outside.

Not to be upstaged by the meat, the veggies were great as well. I simply sauteed some 'cosmetically challenged' spinach from Fishbowl Farms in olive oil and garlic, and roasted Backyard Farms tomatoes seasoned with salt and pepper and olive oil in the oven (with the lamb) for an hour.

M.'s mint, chevre, cuke salad was a hit as well. We used plain chevre from Tourmaline Hill Farm and crumbled it with chopped mint, a diced English cucumber, diced tomato, a clove of diced garlic, salt and pepper, and olive oil. The chevre was nice, because it wasn't too assertive, but nice and creamy.

And oh my gosh, the piece de resistance was B.'s chocolate cake. She used a Martha Stewart one pot recipe (maybe this one?) and it was. so. effing. good. So moist and delicious!! And then she went hog wild on the frosting- cocoa powder, powdered sugar, butter, cream cheese, sour cream, and melted Ghirardelli chocolate chips. I mean, why not throw all those things in? Evidently, it makes the most perfectly fluffy, creamy, slightly tangy chocolate icing ever. Ever.

At the risk of starting another pseudo-argument! I want to say I had a great time celebrating my secular Easter on Sunday, simply because B. brought over that chocolate cake.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Roomie Night at Vignola

Ed. note: Vignola has closed.

If you haven't gathered this before, I'm pretty broke (AmeriCorps volunteer, you see). So when I decided I can afford to go out to eat, I take that shit seriously. I deliberate for a LONG time. I don't want to feel like my scant dollars (I won't say hard-earned, ha) are wasted on overpriced, bad, or even mediocre food. And in this culinary obsessed town, you'd think that wouldn't be such a tall order.

So when I decided to have a women's night out (what's with "girls night"? I'm not 12!) with my fabulous roommates at Vignola, I thought I was safe. I'd heard good things about their appetizers, but that their service frequently left something to be desired (namely, faster service). But I'm pretty low maintenance- as long as I have a drink, I don't mind whatever else they throw at me. So I chose Vignola in the hopes of sharing some of their great Italian appetizers with my roommates.

But I was not all that impressed with Vignola. At first, I was hopeful, as I was expecting a more rustic, old-world Italian feel to the restaurant. I was pleased to see that Vignola attempts to strike a more modern chord with intriguing wine bottle light fixtures over the bar and a combo of exposed brick, beams and ventilation.

Our waitress was friendly and engaging and assured us that if we ordered everything all at once, she would ensure that our food's arrival would be well-timed. So we started with a bottle of wine and a cheese course. I was dismayed (again with the brokeness) to see that most of their bottles start in the mid $30s. I mean, throw a broke girl a bone. Most places do! But whatever, since we were splitting it, it's just a small quibble.

Our cheese course came pretty quickly, as did some fresh herbed focaccia bread and individual plates of olive oil for dipping. However, after we quickly devoured our cheese, we waited... and waited... for our next course. To the point where even I noticed that the food hadn't come (like I said, as long as my glass is full...). C. had to flag down another server and beg her for some more bread. We were dismayed to encounter large gaps in the timing of our meal after our server had assured us that we were in the hands of a master.

Finally, A. and I split the beef carpaccio and Kobe beef tartar, being the meat eaters that we are, while C. snacked on her pile of greens. Our tartar and carpaccio were both good, especially with the accompaniments of mustard, pickles, and crispy toasts. C. was befuddled by her torn up bits of Boston lettuce with a sprinkling of cheese- as Adam of Appetite Portland said, "That was a nice heap of greens — I just wouldn’t call it a salad."

OK, as for this next course, I'm just gonna say it: It was a hot mess. A. can defend it in the comments if she so chooses, but I thought it was all over the place. Three grilled shrimp came over tarragon marinated artichokes and fingerling potatoes, with mini greens, roasted red peppers, and some sort of aoili. I was surprised to find the accompaniments were cold, as I was expecting them to be warm. The shrimp were cooked well, but the dish had no consistent flavor profile, just a bunch of incongruous ingredients.

C. asked for a vegetarian pasta dish, as, other than pizza, there's no vegetarian entree. The kitchen offered to tweak a pancetta, Brussels sprouts, and linguine in cream sauce dish for her. However, she wasn't too impressed with the final product. I don't have much of an opinion on how far a kitchen should go to accommodate special diets, but it seems to me that an Italian joint could do a little more to provide vegetarian options.

After dessert, almost everything was forgiven though. We had a chocolate mousse topped with whipped cream and caramelized bananas. The mousse was rich but light, and the sugary crust on the bananas gave them a nice crunch.

Since I liked the atmosphere at Vignola so much, I think I'll relegate it to the category of 'drinks and apps at the bar' from now on. I think that's a role that it will fill well, just as long as I don't need to eat and leave in a hurry.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Saveur's Chocolate Caramel Tart

After that last complicated but unrewarding Bakers' Challenge, I appreciate this simple and delicious tart I made. I'd seen it go 'round on several food blogs as 'the Saveur tart to make.' Vanilla Garlic even points out that there's an obligatory shot to take. So I did as I was told and made this salted caramel chocolate tart.

Aside from how easy it was to make, the best part about this tart is the salty and caramel combination. I know it's nothing new anymore, but it really is one of my favorite dessert flavors. Caramel can be a bit cloying and too rich on its own, but when you add some gray sea salt, the little salty tang cuts the sweetness perfectly.
Here's my obligatory shot and muchas gracias to Roomie A. for the food styling.

Note: A reader pointed out that there is a rather amusing dust-up over the temperature needed to make caramel in the Saveur recipe comments. Reading this naturally concerned me (the main point is that the temperature the recipe calls for is too high and your sugar will have burnt by then), so I checked out what Vanilla Garlic says about caramel and temperature. And he doesn't mention temp at all, but rather says cook the sugar over medium-high heat until a "medium-dark amber color." I thought that sounded like good common sense, so I did that. And I found that the caramel turned out perfectly, and I didn't have to stress over the temperature.