Monday, 29 August 2011

Seared Steak Salad: The Art Of Eating Alone

Check out this new natural light!
Sorry about the long delay between posts...I've recently begun living in sin with my boyfriend, and moving houses basically took over my whole life. We kind of moved in stages and I only had two plates, one pan, etc., for about 2 weeks, anyway, this is all totally boring and needless to say I haven't been doing much cooking. But the new kitchen is unpacked, and it's my new favourite place in the world. This is not an exaggeration.

So, we had eaten the remainder of the leftover take-out and yesterday I needed to get my cook on:  I wanted to make something salad-y but still hearty, and I was eating alone.

Ah, the often derided solo eating experience. Here's the thing with eating alone:  it always irks me when people say 'I would never bother going to any trouble just to cook for myself'. Who better to go to the trouble for? I actually make a point of going to a ton of trouble to cook for myself - I know that's due in large part to the fact that I love cooking, and not everyone does, but it's also because I think it's lame to settle for a bowl of cereal or some crappy KD (unless you've got a hankering for just that, in which case, no judgment) just because you happen to be flying solo. Step up, loners! Let's make ourselves something nice, yeah? Let's not succumb to the outdated and closed-minded view that eating HAS to be a social occasion - and man, it's so great when it is - but instead, let's admit that there's also something very private and wonderful about sitting alone with something you've taken good care to make for yourself. No chatting, no passing of salt, no distractions. Just you and your nourishment.

So, after that brief rant, we arrive at the recipe. I bought a perfect little striploin today. Because some days, my body is like 'Feed me red meat' - and I happily oblige. Oh - and another added benefit of cooking for one is you can splurge a bit on the ingredients...the steak I bought, which was a perfect serving for one, was a whopping $4. Actually, now that I think about it, that had to be wrong. Oh well.

Wood on wood: the weird thing about a butcher block
counter is you never want to chop on it. So, I guess it's all
just aesthetics. Right? 
Seared Steak with Zucchini and Parmesan

Striploin steak, enough for one
1 small zucchini, cut into chunks
Some thinly sliced red onion      (to take some of the bite out of raw red onion, I usually soak it, after slicing, in a small bowl with cold water - I have no idea the science behind it but the onion mellows out and becomes way less harsh)
A handful of halved cherry tomatoes
Parmesan shavings, as much as you want      (the easiest way to achieve 'shaved' parmesan is with a vegetable peeler)
Green leaf lettuce
1 tsp of butter, for frying
1 tsp of neutral oil, for frying

For the dressing:
Juice of half a lemon - it'll be about 1 tbsp worth
1/2 teaspoon of minced fresh rosemary     (you can also use thyme, or oregano, or any strong, woodsy type herb)
2 tbsp of olive oil
1 tsp of dijon mustard, the smooth kind
A splash of white balsamic vinegar      (I added this after I tasted the dressing and was like 'whoa, easy rosemary', and the whole thing needed a bit of a pick-up - worked like a charm)
Salt and pepper, to taste

To make the dressing, place all the ingredients in a small jar and give it a good shake. Taste, and fix it up/readjust to your taste.

Who needs company with this hot salad joining you?
Okay, here is a super important step when you're frying a steak. Take it out of the fridge at least an hour before you cook it. It needs to come to room temperature before it hits the max heat you are about to subject it to. This is kind of a crucial step - don't skip it. You'll notice the difference. Once it's rested at room temperature for a while, salt and pepper one side, aggressively. Use more than you think you should be using. It'll give it a wicked, salty and peppery crust kinda thing.

Crank your heat up to high, and add your butter and oil to a sturdy pan (ideally cast iron, but any good solid pan will do). Once your pan is nice and hot, place the steak in the pan, salt and pepper side down. Salt and pepper the other side now, and then don't touch it. Let it sear on one side for about 3-4 minutes, and then flip it over, and let it go for another 2 minutes, for rare to medium rare, longer if you like it cooked more thoroughly. Once it's had its time, take it out of the pan and let it sit and rest for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, once you've flipped your steak that one time, you'll want to throw in your chunked up zucchini, and let it brown up a bit while the steak does its second 2-minute or so side - the zucchini will hang out a bit longer than the steak, for a total of about 5 minutes. Which is great, because the steak needs to rest while the zucchini finishes up. Once your steak is rested, slice it very thinly, against the grain. Place the sliced steak on the lettuce, along with your halved cherry tomatoes, the zucchini, the red onion you have diligently soaked in cold water, and the delightful parmesan shavings.

The whole thing will take you about 15 minutes of active cooking. You show me someone who doesn't have 15 minutes to cook themselves something nice, and I'll show you a liar.

Last step:  pour the dressing over the salad, toss it up a wee bit, and eat.  Alone and happy.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Corn On The Cob With Mayo and Parmesan: Yeah, You Heard Me.

This dish makes me lose my mind it tastes so good. It's hard, sometimes, for me to eat corn like a normal person know, with a bit of butter, salt and pepper, everybody's happy. Ever since a friend in high school* introduced this style of eating corn to me, it's been hard to not make it this way every time. But I remember I used to be okay with corn the old fashioned way.

Unsullied corn.
Let me take you back to a time when life was simple, when kids were kids and the living was easy; let me take you back to camp. Those that know me well know that in an odd twist, I spent a couple of weeks every summer from ages 8 to 13 at a Mennonite camp called Silver Lake. I had a best friend who was Mennonite, and basically just did everything she did, including attending church and camp with her Menno peeps. I didn't really retain very much info of the religious sort over those years, but man, did I ever love camp. And eating at camp was thrilling! People would serve you something different, every meal, and you could have seconds if you wanted, and there were always condiments around, and oh man, I was always super happy at camp.

Anyway, one day each camp session, we had corn on the cob for dinner. Only corn! It was the BEST THING EVER. There would be huge cauldrons of just-boiled cobs, and you could have as many as you wanted.  I think I usually topped out at about 6. No joke. And they had huge hunks of butter that they tied up in new J-cloths, you know the blue kind? You took the J-cloth wrapped butter, and smooshed it all over your corn. The butter seeped through the J-Cloth fabric just right, and you had full coverage with little mess. Genius.

A three-ingredient "meal"!
But I digress. This corn, right here before you, is not about camp, or simplicity. This corn is about adulthood, and always wanting more, and never being satisfied. This corn is about sullying what is already a delicious piece of food and making it even more delicious, just because you can. Corn is in its prime right now, it's so yellow and peachy and healthy and just begging to be buried under mayonnaise and parmesan. You feel me?

Corn with Mayonnaise and Parmesan

If you're serving this as a side dish, you can get away with one cob per person. I usually do it camp-styles and eat 2 cobs (not 6, I swear) as my dinner and that's it. No salad, no protein, nothing. All corn.

2 ears corn on the cob       (a couple of notes on buying corn:  don't be a jerk and shuck the corn in the store to see if your cob is perfect - once a cob is shucked, and the corn comes into direct contact with the air, it starts to oxidize, and dry out, and get less sweet, and get less delicious. Buy from a place that you trust and accept the fact that you might get a bad cob every now and then - and leave the shucking until right before the cooking. And try and cook your corn as soon after buying it as you can, the fresher the better.) 
2 tbsp or so of mayonnaise      (okay and the craziest thing? I don't even really like mayonnaise - but for some strange reason, it doesn't seem to matter in this recipe. So don't be dissuaded if you're like me and aren't really a mayo person. Make it anyway, see for yourself.)
2 tbsp or so of grated parmesan cheese       (use the good stuff, if you can. Although, having said that, the first few times I had it at my friend's place in high school, they used the grated "cheese" in a can, and it sure did the trick. So really, when I'm giving you a recipe that involves slathering mayo on corn, I should just shut up and let you use whatever quality of parm you'd like.)
Freshly ground pepper

Eat this by yourself, or with someone who loves you unconditionally.

Place the freshly-shucked corn cobs in boiling water, and boil until they get super bright yellow and you can really start to smell it. Should take about 8 minutes. Pull them out of the water and let cool enough that you can handle the corn without burning your fingers. You want the corn actually fairly cool, so the mayo doesn't get melty. Slather a thin (but not too thin) layer of mayo all over the ear of corn, and then sprinkle with the parmesan so that it coats it entirely, and sticks to the mayo. Then, calmly dig in to this delightful, raunchy dish.

*The same friend also introduced me to guacamole, god bless her.  Her Dad was Mexican, and they ate some really good food in their house. I'm so thankful I didn't have to wait longer than the age of 14 to understand this corn, and the power of mashed avocados, cilantro, and lime.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Cobb Salad: Bob Cobb's Lasting Legacy

I have no idea if this salad's supposed creator, Bob Cobb (seriously!) was trying to be rebellious when he came up with this dish, or if he just had a tendency toward fatty, luscious ingredients like bacon, avocado, and blue cheese. Was he all 'Salad? I'll show you tree-huggers a salad! I'm going to put everything that will make you fat (if not eaten in moderation) in this salad, and call it a salad, and it'll be a big middle finger to the whole salad world!'

Or maybe it came about because he truly did stumble into his kitchen in the middle of the night, after a big night out* (it was 1937, Hollywood, those parties must have been off the chain**) and throw a bunch of leftovers into a bowl, with miraculous results (this is what the internet says). Who cares though. This salad is super delicious and easy and perfect for summer. I know I've been saying things are perfect for summer a lot lately. Well maybe not with the mac and cheese. But it's always true when I say it. I never lie. About food.

Thanks, Bob Cobb.
Cobb Salad
Serves 5 or so

3 chicken breasts, boneless, skinless, poached    (see below for ingredients for poaching liquid and instructions on how to poach - poaching is wicked)
5 hard-boiled eggs, quartered
2 large avocados, sliced into thick slivers
2 large tomatoes, sliced into thick slivers      (oh man tomatoes are just hitting their stride here in Toronto - and there are few things better than a tomato that's grown nearby and actually tastes like an actual tomato, eh?)
Blue cheese, crumbled     (as I've said before, I truly feel like it's judgmental to tell you how much cheese to use - but I used about 3/4 of one of those blue triangle packages, just to give you a gauge)
Bacon, about a half pack, fried up and cut into kind of 1-inch pieces, ish
Romaine lettuce, sliced thinly, either one super big head of it, or two smaller ones

For the dressing:

Liquored-up friends digging in.
1 garlic clove, minced
3/4 cup of olive oil
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
juice of 1 lemon
2 tsp of dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to your taste

For the poaching liquid:

about 2 cups of chicken stock   (I used a bouillon cube - which I do often - I find homemade chicken stock to be quite arduous and certainly not summertime friendly)
3 bay leaves
a small palmful of whole black peppercorns
a small palmful of coriander seeds
a small palmful of celery seeds
a small palmful of salt
a pan of water     (honestly, water is just fine - the other goodies I put in just added another layer of flavour but will not make or break this dish)

For the dressing, put all the ingredients in a small jar that will hold them and give them a good vigorous shake. Taste to see if it's working for you and set aside for now.

To poach the chicken, put your chicken in a pan with either the stock and ingredients or water, and bring to a boil. The liquid should cover your chicken breasts, in a single layer in your pan, by about an inch. Once it comes to a boil, turn things down to a simmer and let it go gently like that for about ten minutes. Turn off the heat after 10 or so, cover the pan, and let it sit in the hot water for another 15 minutes. It should be lovely, moist, and fully cooked through by that point. Chop the chicken into chunks and reserve it. You can do this a day in advance if you'd like. I sure did.

It would be kind of funny to serve a cobb salad just like this.
Now, this is all about assembly. A good, big platter is essential, as this is family-style and really pretty and impressive to bring out to some liquored-up pals waiting at your picnic table (oh, is that just at my place?).  Everything gets distributed on top of the shredded lettuce, and don't forget the blue cheese as I almost did.  Drizzle it all with the dressing and let people help themselves.

You can make every component of this dish well in advance and then simply arrange it on the platter when you're ready for dinner. Wait until the last minute to slice the avocados though, as they'll brown quickly.

*I added in the 'big night out' part, to make Bob Cobb sound like more a wild man. This detail is unconfirmed.

**There were no 'off the chain' parties in the '30's, it was the Depression, okay? But if there were, Bob Cobb would have totally been invited.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Summer Mac 'N Cheese: An Ode to Me Ma

It's my Mom's birthday today, so I thought I'd make a classic dish of hers, and then write a bit about just how much I friggin' love her.

So, she's funny. And she laughs A TON. Often, in the summer when the windows are open, driving up to the house you can hear her laugh before you see her. She is empathetic, and compassionate, and generous. I mean generous in an almost criminal way. Do you know people like this? People that will give until they're too tired to stand if it's necessary? That's my Mom.

She's feisty as all get out, but she also has a knack for fighting the right battles, the really righteous battles, the ones that matter. Her whole (groundbreaking) career was predicated on helping women who look after children in their homes, so that they in turn could provide better care for kids. Also, she once boycotted a local dry-cleaner because they charged way more to launder a women's 'blouse' than they did for a men's 'shirt'. She was PISSED. She's never been back.

She is low-maintenance and doesn't get bogged down with all the upkeep-y junk that so many women are so dug into. She's pretty and vivacious and she taught me that having perfect make-up or hair really didn't (or at least shouldn't) make much of a difference.

The food she cooks is simple and delicious. She makes a mean soup and can do fantastic things with dried mushrooms. I have the most wonderful taste memory of a meal she used to cook when we were kids:  baked chicken breast with boiled onions and white rice, all smothered in a most delightful Campbell's mushroom soup sauce. Sure, it was an all-white meal, and sure, there were little to no vitamins and nutrients in it, but I swear, it tasted amazing. Her lobster rolls are also famous throughout Ottawa town. And her yorkshire pudding? Hold the phone.

Everyone should have panko at their house. Not to be bossy, but it's just a better breadcrumb.
This mac and cheese, a classic recipe of my mother's, is a good way to make a dent in an abundant crop of summer tomatoes (which we had, and my parents still have, every year thanks to my also awesome Dad's keen tomato-planting skills). It's a lovely, creamy mish-mash that gets nice and brightened by the addition of all that red summer fruit. It's also great if you have a bunch of cheese ends hanging in your fridge that are too small to have much of an impact all on their lonesome.

Just as an aside, when I called my mother to ask her for the recipe, she laughed like it was the most hilarious thing a person could ever ask her. Once she could get a full sentence out, through the laughing, she told me she 'oh, god, I mix some butter and flour together, and add milk, a fair bit, I guess, and then I add a bunch of whatever cheese I have, and then I boil macaroni, kind of to al dente, but I mean, whatever, and then I add the macaroni to the cheese, layering the whole thing with tomatoes, and then I bake it with some breadcrumbs until it's bubbly and browned'. A joyful, warming, straightforward recipe, just like its creator.
The tomatoes get a bit crinkly and warmed but still keep
their shape and some texture. So damn good.

Macaroni and Cheese with Fresh Tomato

1 big pat of butter
2 tbsp (or so) of white all-purpose flour
2 cups (or so) of milk
2 cups (or so) of cheese, shredded or crumbled accordingly      (I used a pretty dynamite combo of old cheddar, goat cheese, and blue cheese - my Mom says that blue cheese is one you don't want to leave out, and I wholeheartedly agree)
500 grams (or about half a regular-sized bag) of pasta      (so, traditionally one would go with elbow macaroni, but I saw the little baby seashells you see in the photo above and I couldn't resist. The key is to go with a pasta shape that has a few nooks and crannies for the sauce to slide into)
3 large tomatoes, sliced thickly
1/4 cup or so of breadcrumbs    (I always use panko now, which is a traditional Japanese style of breadcrumb - it's a bit less pulverized than typical 'Italian' breadcrumbs, and therefore has a bit more heft, while still being delicate and getting nice and crunchy when given the opportunity to broil)

First things first, put a pot of water, heavily salted, on to boil. When it comes to a rolling boil, add in the pasta of your choosing and cook until it's just about done, but not totally done.  It will continue to cook once it gets mixed up in the cheese sauce and goes into the oven. Speaking of ovens, preheat yours to 350 degrees Farenheit.

So, the butter, flour, and milk are all going to get together to make a roux. This is the white, binding sauce that often shows up in mac n' cheese, and some lasagnas. Melt the butter in a big enough pot that will hold the roux, the cheese, and the pasta once it's ready. Once the butter is melted, add in 1 tablespoon of flour, and whisk it in.  Do your best to avoid lumps. And by 'do your best to avoid lumps' I mean, really, you don't want lumps.  Once you've got the first bit of flour incorporated, add in your second tablespoon and keep whisking away.

Serious whisking action.
The photo at right shows some serious whisking action. Once the flour is all incorporated, start by adding in about a cup of milk, and continue whisking. Add milk until you get a consistency that coats the back of a wooden spoon, but is still nice and loose, about 2 cups. Add in all of the cheese, and stir it up well. At this point, you have cheese sauce - which could also be ladled over broccoli or cauliflower, and so on. A multi-purpose recipe! So, drain your pasta, and add the pasta into the pot with the cheese sauce mixing everything up together.

Now, the layering. I used a cast iron pan (which I am obsessed with, they're just so hefty and powerful feeling), and put a layer of the pasta and cheese mix in first, then a layer of sliced tomatoes, then another layer of the rest of the pasta, then the rest of the sliced tomatoes. I had a bit of extra sauce, so I poured some on top (which was not really a show of restraint, but whatevah), and then sprinkled the panko on top of the whole shebang.  I popped it into my handily pre-heated oven for about a half an hour, and then I broiled it for about 5 minutes to brown the top. So, so good. This recipe would serve between 4 to 6 people.

Happy birthday Mom. You are, in my humble opinion, simply the best broad in the whole wide world.