Thursday, March 27, 2008

Culinary Improv Pt. II: Meat Rubs & Special Sauce

I'm in this phase of cooking on weeknights. I find catharsis and relaxation after a long work day in the kitchen. It's also an opportunity to be creative that work may not provide. That said, it's got to be a fairly fast cooking process because I get bored and tired easily. Dinner at 10pm? Might as well order my favorite neighborhood takeout!

Finding recipes to follow was a good start, but I find that often these took significantly longer than the prep time indicated. So time to get serious and learn some basic cooking techniques. The following recipe is an amalgam of what I've learned about pairing flavors, cooking pork - and making interesting sauces.

I'm curious as to whether this bears replication. I've only made it once but if any of you venture it and it comes out alright, let me know! We may have a bonafide recipe on our hands . . .

(Thanks to my personal photographer for the pic)

So heres the story behind the flavors. Pork chops and apple sauce is one of my favorite comfort foods. So I know that apples and pork go well together. But to keep the sauce from getting too sweet, I wanted something tangy to cut it. Like dijon mustard. And to give it an extra kick and sophistication, a mysterious element, I thought it'd be fun to add some bourbon to the mix. And since I'm Indian and you can never have too much masala, some old cinnamon-clove-ginger-chilli masala sounded like a nice addition ;o) May not make total sense, but that was basically my thought process (BTW Gray Kunz's book on the Elements of Taste is a good starting point with pretty pics for learning this)

The recipe itself? Well, it involved pork as you might have guessed. . .

1/2 lb pork tenderloin
2 tbsn mustard
1 tbsn crushed bay leaves
1.5 tbsn fennel
salt & pepper to season
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1 tbspn butter (melted)

1 medium shallot
1 tbsn butter
1.5 red apples finely diced
1 tbsn dijon mustard
2 tbsn bourbon
4 cloves
1 tspn cinnamon
2 tspn diced ginger
1 tspn crushed red pepper
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
salt to taste

1. Preheat oven to 470F
2. Wash and trim the pork. Season with salt and pepper. Mix bay leaves, fennel, mustard in a small bowl. Rub onto pork, coating evenly on all sides. Leave in fridge for at least an hour if you can.
3. In a hot cast iron pan with a drizzle of olive oil, sear the meat for about 2 minutes on each side.
4. Place in oven, still in pan, for 10-15minutes until meat is just short of done.
5. As meat cooks, in a separate saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and add diced shallots.
6. Add apples and ginger, cook for 2 minutes. Add mustard, cloves, cinnamon, red pepper.
7. After 1 minute, add bourbon. Then add stock and bring to a boil.
8. Reduce heat to low and simmer, letting sauce slow cook and reduce to desired thickness. Allow to cool slightly and add salt to taste.
9. When pork is almost - but not quite - finished, removed cast iron pan from oven with mitts. In a flat plate, rolls bread crumbs with melted butter. Using tongs, transfer pork and coat in bread crumbs evenly, turning repeatedly.
10. Return pork to cast iron pan and place back in oven. Continue baking until finished and panko has turned golden and crispy (another 5 mins or less).
11. Allow meat to cool a few minutes. Slice into medallions and serve with sauce poured on top!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Culinary Improv & Cream Sauces

Learning to "wing it" when you cook is an important skill. Not only can it cut down cooking time, but when done properly, it also requires you to master the finer principles of cooking - pairing flavors, learning basic culinary techniques, thinking creatively about food. I'm not very good at it myself but I'm learning. Rarely does the resulting product warrant praise, so I want to share one of my few improv victories - a tasty cream sauce with artichokes and lemon pepper.

The inspiration for this concoction? 45 minutes to make a meal, a bag of penne in the cupboard, and two lemons about to spoil in my fridge. Nothing especially poetic. Let's also toss in the fact that it's citrus season and I'm generally a fan of making food with seasonal relevance. And that sauces, I've discovered, are quick and easy and can make a boring meal delicious and elegant. They're a fast way to jazz up frozen meats or pasta into a meal worth eating at a proper table with a glass of wine.

So on to this delicious cream sauce. I can't claim it's healthy, but it's pretty tasty. The recipe is below. But first, a few of my observations on sauce making technique. For one, shallots and butter and maybe a touch of garlic or other bulby flavors (like onions or leeks) are a good starting point to just about any sauce. Especially if you're making one with cream, where the flavors are often pretty light and delicate, this first step can add a nice depth of flavor. Next, simmering your cream is important but don't let it simmer for two long or you can seriously over-thicken your sauce. I actually like to cut my cream with low fat milk, which helps make the sauce thinner.

2 tbspn butter
1/4 pint heavy cream
1/4 pint low fat milk
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
3 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 can artichokes, drained and diced
2 tbspn thyme, finely chopped
1 tbspn sage, finely chopped
lemon zest from 1 large lemon
1-2 tbspn capers
5 tbspn grated parmesan cheese
2 tbspn crushed black pepper
salt to taste

1. Melt butter over medium heat, add shallots and brown. 1 minute later, add garlic.
2. Add cream and milk and raise to a simmer, stirring constantly
3. Add diced artichokes, sage and thyme, and pepper
4. After 1-2 minutes, add lemon zest
5. Continue simmering for 6-7 minutes, stirring often so sauce does not stick and burn
4. Add capers and parmesan cheese. Reduce heat.
5. Continue simmering until sauce reaches your desired thickness.
6. Salt to taste and serve over pasta, chicken breasts, etc.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Go to Wine Country, Try the Eggs Benedict. . .

NorCal's wine country has more redeeming features than fabulous wine and The French Laundry. I actually figured this out back in October but am somehow just getting around to sharing the news. Sorry for the slight delay. . .

My last visit to wine country involved an overzealous friend and a 6:45am wakeup call. Since we'd gotten up at such a atrociously early time, and few wineries are open to serve wine for breakfast, we decided to hit up the best meal of the day in Napa. A quick blackberry search (boy did that make us feel baller) for "Eggs Benedict" and "Napa" revealed one Alexis Baking Company (ABC) & Cafe.

There was something magical about the breakfast that that fateful search led us to. . .

Maybe it was the absurdly beautiful scenery of Napa vines in fall colors. Those reds, oranges and yellows, perfectly trellised and glittering with some strange silver threads (to scare birds?) were poetic enough to trump a New England color change.

Or maybe it was the prospect of the awesome wines we would go on to taste that afternoon (Grgich Hills and Stags Leap, among others were highlights - perhaps to be discussed in a future post). And there would be many.

But one way or the other, that breakfast at ABC Cafe is still one of the best ones I remember having since moving out here. In truth, the credit probably goes to Alexis and her kitchen staff directly. The eggs benedict was amazing - please do try it if you can. The portions are huge, so beware that you can probably order one dish for two people. The eggs are huge and poached to perfection. The bacon was just crisped and not too greasy. And the hollandaise was flavorful - touches of dill and paprika were well paired. As a seasonal complement, with the harvest just ended, we had some juicy wine grapes as a garnish on our plates too.

You'll have to take a little detour to find this place - it's nestled on Third Street in sleepy downtown Napa. But especially if you can beat the lines that begin to form outside by 10am (as we were leaving), eggs benedict fans will find it well worth the search.

Alexis Baking Company & Cafe
1517 Third Street
Downtown Napa

(Btw, photo credit for each of these gorgeous shots goes to my photographer friend Tushar!)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Magical Murugan

I was in Chennai recently for work. After a long day of meetings, my mind was exhausted from talking and listening - and I was craving some good old South Indian comfort food. Luckily, Chennai is just the right city for such a craving. An economist of repute, with whom we met that day, recommended a little coffee shop called Murugan Idli Shop.

The unassuming little cafe, tucked into a corner store front on North Usman Road (although there are 4 other locations in town), isn't much to look at. But the joint has been around for over 15 years. It's humble in trappings - but for visitors to South India looking for some 'authentic' local flavor, that may make it all the more appealing. Chennai residents certainly think so, as I'm told that all the local branches are packed during lunch time and on the weekends.

Murugan specializes in South Indian snack foods - idlis (steamed rice cakes with various flavors), uttapam (a flatbread cooking on the griddle, made from slightly soured batter), vadas (fried lentil cakes), tamarind rice, yogurt rice - and these delicious chutneys that accompany each dish. The food is served piping hot, freshly cooked, entirely vegetarian. And it is so, so tasty. Mom, you may not like to hear it, but their idlis are actually better than yours.

One of my favorite parts of Murugan? Everything is served on banana leaves. Not only do you get the authentic South Indian dining experience, but you also get the gratification of knowing you're being environmentally friendly! To further add to the shop's authenticity - you'll be washing your hands pre and post meal at the communal wash basin with the best of them, and you're lucky if your waiter speaks any English. But the fare here is so delicious, Murugan is a great opportunity and incentive to learn a little bit of Tamil -
"innumonu , dhayavu saidhu" (one more please!).

Murugan Idli Shop
46/13 North Usman Road, T.Nagar
Tamil Nadu