October 26, 2006

My Favorite Beef Stew

I love the Fall. Warm soups and stews are just begging to be made. Visions of pot pies float through my head. Some of my favorite fall dishes are braised dishes, like Bœuf Bourguignonne, and although the quintessential version that I made last winter is amazing, sometimes it’s a little on the heavy side. Plus, it’s a lot of work with all the separate steps of sautéing the bacon and mushrooms separately, not to mention caramelizing the pearl onions all while simmering the beef in yet another pot.

I wanted to make a beef stew to freeze and give to my Grandparents for their birthdays last week. (In addition to the stew, I made them 6 cute individual chicken pot pies and 2 meatloaves, which I think will help ease the burden of cooking a little bit.) The beef stew, however, was going to be our dinner that night, as well, so while I wanted something traditional that Grandma and Grandpa would like, I still wanted a lot of flavor.

There are many recipes out there for Beef Stew, but I’ve always found that if you don’t marinate the beef before braising it, the stew is almost always utterly flavorless. After having marinated the chunks of beef overnight and simmered the stew about 3-4 hours, the meat truly transforms and becomes incredibly tender. Turns out if you cook it all damn day, it’s pretty good! Actually, despite the long ingredient list, this is a pretty easy dish. Once you make it, you'll never go back to your shortcut stew. For a more elegant dinner, leave out the potatoes and prepare a fancier gratin or mashed potato on the side.

I combined parts of my bœuf bourguignonne recipe with a more traditional stew recipe to make this wonderful version. It’s rich with red wine and beef stock, but has added potatoes and a bit of tomato paste and brown sugar for a bit more depth, but not the salty bacon flavor of the French version. It’s a little boozy, but maybe that’s why it’s so damn good.

My Favorite Beef Stew

3 pounds lean beef stew meat
2 ½ or 3 cups dry red wine
2 cups beef broth
¼ cup brandy, cognac or dry sherry
2 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic, sliced or smashed
10 whole peppercorns
5 whole cloves
5 whole allspice berries, if you have them
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried rosemary
1 onion, sliced

Combine all the ingredients in a large ziploc bag that has been placed in a large bowl for support. Combine the marinade well. Place in the refrigerator overnight or at least 6 hours. Mine was in the fridge from 8 pm to noon the next day.

½ cup flour
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-in chunks
2 ribs celery, cut into 1-in chunks
3 idaho or Yukon gold potatoes, cut into 1-in dice
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried marjoram
½ cup frozen peas
1 cup sliced mushrooms
Fresh parsley, chopped
Additional beef broth, up to 2 cups

Strain the marinade from the meat, reserving all the liquid, but discarding the onion, garlic, peppercorns, bay leaves, and cloves. Set this marinade aside.

Melt the butter into the olive oil in a large dutch oven. Pat the meat dry with paper towels. Pour the flour onto a large plate. In batches, lightly coat the chunks of beef with flour and place in the dutch oven. Sear the pieces of beef until well browned on all sides, 4-5 minutes, and remove to a plate. Repeat with all the remaining beef.

Add more olive oil to the pan if needed and sauté the onions, carrots and celery until almost translucent. Stir in the tomato paste. Season the vegetables with salt and pepper. Deglaze the pan by pouring in about 1 cup of the reserved marinade and scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Pour in the rest of the marinade, add the brown sugar, thyme, marjoram and beef to the pot, and bring it to a simmer. Simmer, covered, on low heat for about 2 hours. (This could alternatively be put in a crock pot and simmered all day on low and finished when you get home.)

After 2 hours, the beef is almost good enough, but we want it to be amazing, so add the potatoes at this point and keep it simmering. Add a bit more beef broth to keep all the vegetables covered and so it doesn’t get too thick. Let the potatoes cook for 30 minutes, then add the sliced mushrooms and frozen peas. Continue to simmer about 10 minutes of until the mushrooms are done to your liking. Stir in the fresh parsley and taste for seasoning. You may need to add salt and pepper, or beef broth for the taste and consistency you like. Of course, it will taste better in 3 days, but who could wait? I actually like the cleaner taste you get on day one. Serves about 9.

October 20, 2006

Chocoholics Beware!

One of the nicer parts about returning to Iowa City for a few months has been spending time with my family. Besides having both my parents and Paul's parents in the same town, I'm lucky enough to have my maternal grandparents here, too. They moved to Iowa City the year that I was born, having retired from farming in Illinois. They have been there for me my whole life and it's just now that I'm into adulthood that I realize what a uniquely special gift it is to have had grandparents so close when I was growing up.

My grandfather is turning 95 years old this week and my grandma will turn 94 next week. They are still living at home, still driving, and although their health has deteriorated in the last few years, I'm feeling lucky to have these kinds of genes in my family! Grandma was a good cook. Unfortunately, she hasn't been able to lately because of her health. She never made anything too fancy, but every Sunday we always sat down to a huge table of food. Pot roasts and potatoes were her specialty, so it's no wonder that my life wouldn't seem complete without occasionally gorging myself on mashed potatoes and gravy. Being farmers, even once they retired, they had a huge garden for years. Among their garden and fruit trees, Grandpa had to the most virile cherry tree I have ever seen. I have the fondest memories of being a little girl, picking the darkest red ones I could find and putting them right into my mouth straight from the tree. And I can just picture Grandma with a big bowl of cherries on her lap, pitting each one to go into a fabulous pie.

Chocolate pudding was the dessert Grandpa and I bonded over. Once I was old enough, I knew right where Grandma kept the box. She had almost an entire shelf devoted to Jell-O, most of it chocolate (with some pistachio for those Watergate Salad opportunities). As I got older, I decidedly sorted through the boxes to find the ones with the most current packaging, just to be on the safe side. Anyway, Grandma loves to tell about how whenever they were watching me, mostly when I stayed home sick from school, I would eventually make my way to that cupboard and say, "let's make Grandpa some chocolate pudding!" She always was tickled that I never said it was for me, but always for Grandpa. Grandpa also required large amounts of Cool Whip on top, too.

So, for this special birthday, I was given the task of making a very dark chocolate birthday cake. "Something Grandpa can taste..." said my Mom. I just told you about how I'm not much of a baker, but it seemed like I'd be getting some practice in.

I was looking for something with an intense chocolate flavor, but in normal layer cake form, as opposed to a flourless cake or torte. I found this recipe from Martha Stewart online. I'd love to tell you that it worked perfectly. But, actually, it was a huge mess. The good news is, it tasted fantastic in the end and I think the recipe is a good one, but with one very important flaw. LISTEN UP, MARTHA!

She says to divide the batter between two 8x2 inch round cake pans. It should actually tell you to divide the batter between 3 pans, or at least use 9-inch pans. Trust me; your oven will thank you. Since I was a dutiful recipe follower, my oven got coated with a volcanic explosion of oozing chocolate cake batter that didn't slow down until 30 minutes into the baking time. Finally, the cake sealed itself and I left it to continue cooking, hoping like hell that the whole cake wouldn't smell or taste of burnt chocolate from those hardening masses on the bottom of the oven.

Despite that near catastrophe, I soldiered on and once the cakes were cooled and I removed them from their tiny pans, I cut off the uneven overflow around the top, ate the evidence, and frosted the thing. I frosted the cake with a chocolate buttercream ganache. And it's good. Ooooh, so good! If you love chocolate, you will adore this cake. It was the richest, most chocolaty layer cake I've ever tasted, so I know Grandpa definitely tasted the chocolate! Maybe I should bake more often?
Before frosting the cake, line the bottom edges with strips of wax paper.
Slide them out gently once you have finished for a clean edge.

Grandpa's Chocolate Cake "Ol' 95"
(adapted from Martha Stewart)

1 1/2 cups good unsweetened cocoa powder (like Penzey's),
plus more for dusting
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup hot water
1/2 cup strong coffee, still hot

Butter the bottoms and sides of three 8-inch cake pans. Line the bottoms with parchment paper and butter them again. Dust the pans with a few tablespoons of cocoa powder, shaking out the excess. Coat the bottoms and sides completely. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 C).

Sift together the cocoa powder, flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Place in the bowl for your mixer. Add the sugars to this and mix these dry ingredients together lightly. One at a time, with the mixer going on very low, add the buttermilk, vegetable oil, eggs, extract and finally the water and coffee. Mix together on low for 2 minutes.

Pour the batter between your 3 pans. Bake for about 30 minutes, but check at 25. An inserted toothpick should come out clean when they cakes are done. Let the cakes cool in their pans for 30 minutes, before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Frost cake and serve. Mine made 2 very high layers, or 3 layers if you use 3 pans.Chocolate Ganache Buttercream Frosting
(recipe from baking911.com)

1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup light corn syrup
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 12-oz bags semi-sweet chocolate chips, or chopped bars of chocolate.
2 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

In a small saucepan, stir together the cream, corn syrup and 1 stick of butter over medium low heat until the butter melts and the mixture barely comes to a simmer. Place the chocolate chips in a large bowl and pour in the hot cream. Stir until the chocolate is completely melted. Let this cool.

Using an electric mixer, cream together the remaining stick of butter and powdered sugar. Once this is smooth, beat in the vanilla extract. Once the chocolate ganache is cooled (enough so that it is mildly warm but not hot) pour it into the mixer and whisk on medium speed until thoroughly combined. Do not over mix this as the frosting can become grainy. This frosting is thin, but let it sit for a few minutes and it will thicken up, or place it in the refrigerator for 5 minutes. The frosting will harden if refrigerated too long, but it can be stirred together again before using to loosen the consistency. Makes more than enough for my 2 layer cake, so there will be plenty for the 3 layers in the above recipe.

October 16, 2006

Blueberry Muffins!

I rarely bake. I'm really not a very well-rounded foodie. Growing up I was quite the baker, but I lost interest along the way. I love cooking dinners, lunches and breakfasts, even many desserts, but let me tell you, it's been awhile since I've made a muffin. Somewhere in my grown-up world, muffins got cast aside as a heavy, calorie laden food that just wasn't worth those calories. I've been quite content spending my food cash at the Sour Cream Imporium, Bacon Fat-o-Rama, and The Ginasium.

However, if anyone can inspire me to bake, it's Ms. Cream Puff herself. She proclaimed these the best muffins ever and she's quite adamant that they will kick your muffin's ass into next week. So, I had to try them. I wanted to bring something baked and homey to my friend Kim. She got married this weekend and since she put me up for the entire time, the only thing to do was to be a good houseguest and bring muffins. And wine. Good pairing, eh? You know...something for the morning and something for the evening!

Next time you're a house guest or are having some, bake up a batch of these and they'll be gone before you know it. These, I'm happy to say, are worth every sinful bite. I got many compliments all weekend about these muffins!

I actually find these muffins incredibly light and airy - not at all like those coffee shop versions that weigh 3 pounds each. They really aren't overly sweet, either, which may surprise you, given all the brown sugar. The topping is just perfectly sweet and crusty which goes so well with the very tender crumb of the muffin. Even those of you who normally only like muffin tops will devour the whole thing, I assure you. You can substitute any fruit you like in these, but if you use berries (fresh or frozen) like I did, toss them with just a teaspoon of flour before folding them into the batter. They won't burst (making your muffins blue) and they will hold their place in the batter instead of sinking to the bottom. A good little tip for any muffins, coffeecakes or breads!Blueberry Muffins topped with Pecan Streusel
(adapted from Cream Puffs in Venice
Adapted from The Best of BetterBaking.com by Marcy Goldman)

Streusel Topping:
1 Tbsp cold unsalted butter
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/3 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
a generous 1/2 cup pecans or walnuts, finely chopped

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/3 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
1 1/2 Tbsp lemon zest, grated
1 egg
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract, optional
1 cup buttermilk
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 3/4 cup blueberries (or other fruit: apples, peaches, bananas, coarsely chopped)

Cut together the streusel topping in a small bowl with a fork or pastry cutter. It should be coarse and grainy, like sand. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Line a 12 cup muffin pan with paper liners. Get out 2 bowls - one for wet ingredients and one for dry.

Mix together the dry ingredients in the bigger bowl (the flour, salt, baking and soda powders). In the other bowl, whisk together the oil, brown sugar, citrus zest and egg. When smooth, whisk in the buttermilk and extracts. Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture. Gently mix together until fully combined. Do not overmix. Fold in the fruit with some care. The batter will be stiff.

Fill the batter equally among the 12 muffin cups all the way to the top. Cap each muffin with a hefty amount of the streusel topping. It will seem like a lot, but use it all. Bake for 15 minutes and then lower the temperature to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) for another 10-12 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest in the pan for another 10 minutes before transferring them to a wire rack. Makes 12 muffins, obviously. Ivonne says they freeze wonderfully, too!

October 11, 2006

Salmon Cakes

My friends Adam and Emily made me these yummy salmon cakes for dinner one night while I was visiting them in Bloomington, IN. They eat them often as a simple supper and leftovers are put on a sandwich the next day.

We had some leftover cooked salmon so I decided to whip these up. Very similar to a crab cake, this recipe uses salmon as a convenient substitute. You can fry these or bake them, as I did, at 400 degrees F (200 degrees C) for 10-12 minutes.

Salmon Cakes Salad with Spicy Mayo
(adapted from Rachael Ray)

2 large salmon fillets, cooked, or 2 packets or cans cooked wild salmon
1/2 cup bread crumbs, or crushed saltines
1/2 red pepper, minced
1/4 red or green onion, minced
1 tsp minced garlic
2 eggs, beaten
2 tsp Old Bay Seasoning
freshly grated pepper
2 Tbsp fresh chives, chopped
1 Tbsp fresh dill, chopped
1 tsp Tabasco sauce, to taste
1 lemon, zested and juiced

Spicy Mayo:
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 Tbsp medium salsa
few dashes of Tabasco
few tsp dill pickle relish, optional

Salad Greens of your choice
sliced avocado

Mix together the salmon, eggs, herbs, garlic, onions, peppers, zest, and seasonings. Add the bread crumbs and mix gently to combine. Form 8 salmon cakes from this mixture. If frying them, heat 1/2 inch of olive oil in a skillet and fry the cakes 3-4 minutes per side. Drain well on a paper towel lined plate. If baking, mix 1/4 cup extra bread crumbs with 1 Tbsp olive oil. Place the salmon cakes on an oiled baking sheet and sprinkle with the oiled bread crumbs. This will give it some crunch despite the fact that you aren't frying them.

Dress the salad greens with the juice of the lemon you zested. Arrange 2 cakes per person on top of the greens and lay the avocado slices around the salad. Top each cake with a tablespoon of the spicy mayo. Serves 4.

October 3, 2006

Tomato Basil Soup

So, I come back to you today, fellow food lovers, after a seemingly long absence and what do I have to offer you? Tomato soup. Granted, it's really good tomato soup, but not exactly the show stopper you might have expected after almost 2 weeks of no posts. (And not even a garnish in sight! How lazy can you get?) Sure, I've been making my smoothies religiously, and fixing up some sandwiches for lunch, and there was this bright spot of chili making, but other than that, I've been on hiatus. I wasn't confit-ing duck legs or making my own cassoulet or canning my five bushels of tomatoes like some people I know.

It wasn't my idea, really. I've been forced out. Living with my parents again has presented a few challenges and a big one is cooking. I've realized that cooking became a passion for me because the kitchen was my space. Or rather, I made it my space. For the past 5 years now Paul and I have lived in a small apartment that didn't lend itself to privacy. Paul had his office area and I had the kitchen, I guess. It worked beautifully. But, now that I'm using my parent's larger kitchen, there is no privacy, plus I have to take into account whether they'll eat what I make or not. Feeling their suspicious eyes lurking to ensure I don't make anything too "spicy" kind of takes the fun out of it. Cooking has morphed from my Zen time of the day (where my worries are pushed aside) into a slightly stressful, "where the hell is a spatula? Do you have garlic that isn't in a jar?" type of experience. I don't mean to say I need solitude to enjoy cooking, but it helps.

They don't have a box grater. I don't like their knives. I'm not sure if real carrots are grown in this country anymore because I have yet to see anything besides those alternately dry or slimy, shaved off stumps called "baby carrots." None of my go-to basic produce or pantry items are stocked. I love my parents, but I did not get many culinary lessons from them.

One might say, "Megan, this isn't hard. Go get your items that make you happy. Carve out your little nook in the cupboard and cook as you wish!" Well, that is true. I can do that, and to some extent, I have. But, this also brings up a point I think a few of you might relate to. Being a food snob is something I don't deny. I have high expectations and I'm generally grumpy when I don't completely enjoy what I'm eating. Which isn't to say I'm picky, but I feel deeply for that wasted meal. But, when cooking for others who are not as interested in food, who don't love richly flavored food, who have odd "no onion" policies and such - or just really dig KFC - what do we do with these people? How do I cook what I want to cook without being elitist? And when did caring about what you put into your mouth become a snobby way to live? Why do I feel guilty for not using that bottled salad dressing or pre-shredded cheese?

As I was making this tomato soup today my Dad passed by the kitchen and said, "oh, you're at work!" and I thought about how usually it's exactly the opposite. It's not work, it's joy.

The secret to a great tomato soup is adding brown sugar. It cuts the acidity of the tomatoes, especially when using the canned variety. Serve with your favorite grilled cheese. I recommend a goat cheese and fresh basil combo if you're sick of cheddar.

Tomato Basil Soup

1 tsp olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbsp white wine
2 tsp dried basil, or 2 Tbsp fresh
1 tsp dried oregano
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 (28-oz) can fire-roasted crushed tomatoes (Muir Glen)
1 (8-oz) can tomato sauce
1 Tbsp brown sugar (to taste)
1/4 cup half & half or heavy cream, optional

Sauté the onion, carrots and garlic in the olive oil for 5 minutes over medium heat. When the onions are tender, pour in the white wine and cook until all the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the dried herbs and some salt and pepper.

Pour in the chicken stock, crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce and brown sugar. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add more brown sugar if it is too acidic. Add the fresh basil, if using. You can puree the soup in a blender at this point if you would like a smoother texture. Do it in batches; only fill the blender half full when blending hot liquids. Return the soup back to the pot.

Remove from the heat and stir in the cream. This soup could be simmered for hours to deepen the flavor or made the day before. Add the fresh basil and cream just before serving. Serves 4.