Pan sauce, take one: steak

In the process of learning to cook, I’ve seen a recipe or two…or eighty-nine…for various meats cooked with pan sauce.  All along, I’ve steered clear of pan sauce.  I mean, have you seen the terminology used in relation to pan sauce?  FondDeglazeCaramelizeNape.  I don’t like words I can’t define!

Ah, but hasn’t the progress I’ve made all resulted from my learning things unfamiliar to me?  Crap.  I hate it when that thing called logic interferes with my resistance to change.

Having said that, my next Two Week Technique is—you guessed it—pan sauce!

I haven’t had a rendezvous with steak in quite some time, so for my first stab at pan sauce I chose a recipe for Steak with Pan Sauce (such a creative name, isn’t it?) that I found in my BH&G cookbook.

The first step was to heat a tablespoon of butter in a pan and cook the steaks for three minutes on each side.  The first three minutes went according to plan.

But then the stupid bleepity-bleeping steaks started to char on the outside…

At this point, they’d cooked for three minutes on one side and one and a half on the other.  Surely there was a problem.  I cut into one of them just to be sure.  Though the exterior of the steak was black and stiff, the interior was still entirely dark red and oozing blood.  [Insert frustrated cry here.]

I cooked the steaks for several more minutes before I was satisfied that they wouldn’t “moo” as I bit into the meat.  What resulted was two ugly steaks, and I hadn’t even started the “challenging” part of dinner yet!

The steps for making the pan sauce were simple:  add apple juice and broth, stir, add whipping cream, stir, add butter, stir, add more butter, stir, add more butter, stir, add evenmorefreakingbutter, stir.  But of course, I handled this all about as gracefully as a one-armed juggler.  By the time the sauce was finished, I’d worked up a decent sweat.

Thirty minutes of stress and cussing paid off when I tasted the food.  The sauce had a great flavor and texture and, despite the charcoal briquette-like appearance of the steaks, the insides were cooked to perfection.  HAHAHA, steak—IN YO FACE!

On a more serious note:  I do hope things go just a wee bit more smoothly when I make chicken with pan sauce…

Steaming, take three: pears and honey

When I plan out my Two Week Techniques, “dinner” is always the guinea pig. My mind simply defaults to dinner because I tend to stick to simpler breakfasts and lunches. But when I compiled my steaming recipes for the past couple of weeks, I found a collection of dessert recipes for food steamers. In this collection is a recipe for Steamed Pears and Honey. Pears? Honey? Applies to my Two Week Technique? A healthy dessert option? Count me in!

It all started with a pear.

Pears don’t scare me. I eat them all the time. I might even be as bold as to say I could eat one with my eyes closed. Seriously, I have never looked at a pear I’m about to eat and thought, “Crap, I don’t know if I can do this.”

But that was before I had to cut off the top of a pear and remove its core without destroying it. It took a paring knife, a butter knife, and several lucky moments during which I didn’t cut off my fingers, but somehow I managed to remove the core from the fruit.

Once I had created a substantial well in the center of the pear, it was time to add the honey.  Mmmmmmmmhoney.

Now all that was left to do was replace the pear’s hat—er, top—and start the steaming!

After 15 minutes in the steamer, I transferred the pear to a dish and removed its top (does that sound dirty?).  My kitchen was instantly filled with the warm, spicy scent of fall.  It was dessert with a built-in air freshener.  But what else can you expect from boiling honey?

When I sliced into the pear, honey oozed out in every direction.  It looked scrumptious and it tasted even scrumptiousier (it’s my blog, I’ll invent new words if I want to).  I was really pleased!

My two weeks of steaming had its ups and downs, but I did discover that I haven’t been utilizing my steamer nearly enough.  Just no meatballs.  Ever.

So what’s the next Two Week Technique going to be?  Well, I’ve already started and I’ll be posting about it tomorrow…so stay tuned!  Oooooh, the suspense…

Steaming, take two: meatballs

Lesson learned:  meatballs belong in the oven.  Let me explain.

Because my current Two-Week Technique is steaming, I found myself perusing the recipes at foodsteamer.org.  When I saw a recipe for Mini Chili Tomato Meatballs, I was ecstatic.  After all, I’m a girl who loves her meatballs (no dirty jokes, please).

Things started off about as uneventful at meatballs normally do.  I mixed my ingredients together, shaped them into balls, and arranged them neatly on a sheet of parchment paper placed inside my steamer basket.  Nothing out of the ordinary here…yet.

Once the water was boiling, I placed the steamer basket over the pot and set the timer.  I left the little darlings to cook.

Ten minutes later, I approached my stove and the sight was horrific.  First lesson:  steamed meatballs should be made with extra lean beef.  Greasy meat drippings, anyone?

I scooped the meatballs out of this mess with a slotted spoon, genuineley thinking this mother of a grease pool was no big deal.  Gross, yes, but problematic?  I ain’t afraid of no grease!  And they looked like regular ol’ meatballs, so surely they would taste like regular ol’ meatballs.

Considering the number of flavors packed into these meatballs (tomato paste, garlic, onion, chili pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and freshly ground salt and pepper, to name a few), there was a HUGE flavor deficit in my meal.  The meatballs were so flavorless I couldn’t even taste the meat itself.  I am convinced–though I may simply be making excuses for a bad recipe–that all of the flavor was left behind in the puddle o’ grease.  Whatever the reason, I took one bite of my meatballs and the udon noodles they were served with, and I tossed it in the trash and made myself a ham and cheese sandwich.  I’m not particularly fond of “cardboard” flavor.

Steaming probably isn’t the best choice for prearing meatballs.  Fattier ground beef is an equally poor choice for preparing meatballs.  Keeping a supply of lunch meat, cheese, and bread while teaching yourself to cook is of the utmost importance.  So many lessons…gotta love it!

Steaming, take one: potatoes

Many of you are already aware that potatoes are a major foe of mine in the kitchen.  The battle isn’t against any kind of potato in particular; bakers, reds, babies, sweet potatoes, they are ALL on my can’t-cook-worth-poo list.  I always manage to overcook my sweet potatoes and undercook my other potatoes.  Every.  Single.  Time.

At my bridal shower a couple of months ago, I was given a big freakin’ steamer pot.  Back before I moved out of my parents’ house, I used their steamer pot–once–to cook some broccoli.  Now that I have one of my own, I figured I’d better become friends with it and see what beautiful magic we can make together.  I chose to start with potatoes.

I’ve been on a sweet potato kick lately, but my husband dislikes them.  Therefore, I figured I’d really put the steamer pot to the test by using it to cook a sweet potato and a russet potato at the same time.  I chopped each potato into about 20 small cubes, tossed them in the pot, and set the timer for 15 minutes (the minimum time recommended for steaming potatoes).

At 15 minutes, I lifted the lid and used a fork to poke one cube of each of the types of potato.  For me, this is always the defining moment in my attempts at cooking potatoes.  I have a terrible habit of assuming that if the fork can penetrate the top 1/1000th of an inch of potato, it must be done (and I learn the hard way, when chewing half-cooked potato, that my assumptions need some tweaking).  Tonight, I was smart enough to set the timer for five additional minutes when I didn’t feel the fork pierced the potato quite smoothly enough.

So what was the verdict?  BEAUTIFULLY cooked potatoes!  I squished them up with a potato masher and a little bit of butter (and a handful of cheese in my husband’s) and they were by far the most well-cooked potatoes I have made to date.

I think my steamer pot and I are going to get along juuuuuuust fine.  🙂

Handmade pasta, take three: ravioli

After my last batch of homemade pasta turned out gray and smelly, I was doubting my decision to make homemade ravioli.  If there’s anything I’m good at, it’s learning from my mistakes–so, I figured out what went wrong and I fixed it and tried again.  In this case, my method of storing my fresh fettuccine in the refrigerator was to blame.  I proceeded with the ravioli, but this time I planned to freeze them until it was time to cook them.

I prepared the dough as usual (I’m getting to be a pro at this!) and used my pizza cutter to cut the dough into 2-inch squares–and yes, I measured them with a measuring tape!  Earlier in the night, I’d browned some ground beef and stirred in about 3/4 cup of ricotta.  In the middle of my first dough square, I plopped a small amount of beef mixture I’d measured using a melon baller (this was PERFECT).  I blanketed the mixture with another square of dough and squeezed the two squares together around the meat and cheese.  Then I trimmed the edges of the ravioli with the pizza cutter and I had my first, and damn near flawless, handmade ravioli!

It took me an hour to complete the rest of the ravioli–although, my stepson and even my husband contributed to the cause and made their own!  When the last of the dough had been used up, I was so proud of my ravioli I almost teared up a bit.  Never had I imagined I could pull off something like this:

I slipped these babies into a freezer storage bag and popped them in the freezer, crossing my fingers they’d be edible the next night.  When the next night (i.e., last night) rolled around, they cooked up fabulously!  I was slightly afraid they would come open in the boiling water and leak out beef and ricotta, but every single one stayed perfectly intact.  And–holy smokes–I couldn’t believe how good they tasted.  I will NEVER purchase pre-packaged ravioli again!

I had my doubts after the fettuccine incident, but I can say with certainty that this Two Week Technique has been my most successful yet.  Next up will be steaming, since my grandmother gifted me with an amazing steam pan set when I got married!

Handmade pasta, take two: herbed fettuccine

I’m going to mentally return to my first batch of homemade pasta–the bowties that turned out to be such a success.  You see, revisiting the successful moments in my mind is what keeps a girl like me sane.  Otherwise, I’m left to dwell on my second (and failed) attempt at homemade pasta.

The goal of round two was to make basil-and-thyme fettuccine noodles.  In the beginning, all seemed perfect.

I did struggle a little cutting the dough; who has the patience to cut perfect, even fettuccine noodles by hand?  (Hint:  not me.)  Cutting the noodles so they were the same length and width was a challenge.  They still looked pretty good when I was finished, considering!

And that’s the last hopeful photo you’ll ever see of my basil-and-thyme fettuccine.  Since it would be a couple of days before I’d need the pasta, I followed the recipe’s instructions to store the noodles in an airtight container in the fridge.  My guess is that my container wasn’t quite airtight enough, because when I opened it, this is what I saw:

Gray.  Gray.  Gray.

They smelled funky, too.  Not “bad,” just not “good.”  Not like fresh pasta.  My fettuccine joined my Cream-Filled Cake Roll in food heaven.

Tonight I’m going to make some ravioli.  Somehow crossed fingers just don’t seem like enough.

Oh, before you move on from reading this:  does anyone else see the resemblance between this egg, soy sauce, and garlic mixture, and a big ol’ puddle of vomit?

Happy eating!

Handmade pasta, take one: bowties

As much as I’ve grown to love cooking, I didn’t miss it one bit while I was on my–wait for it–HONEYMOON!  After the most incredible week in San Diego with my husband, I half-assedly opened the bridal edition of my BH&G cookbook and struggled to find motivation to cook anything.  Following the excitement of our honeymoon–Seaworld, the San Diego Zoo, Mission Beach, zip lining over the Safari Park, and surviving rush hour traffic in a city three times the size of my own–standing over the stove felt like the equivalent of watching paint dry.

I’d flipped through half the cookbook with a peculiar absence of interest when I stumbled upon the chapter about handmade pasta.  Suddenly, my mojo was back.  Time for Two Week Technique:  Handmade Pasta Edition!

The biggest reserve I had about attempting handmade pasta was that I’d be doing it without a pasta press.  But hell, what would I be learning if I did things the easy way?

Surprisingly, rolling out the dough wasn’t nearly as difficult as I’d thought it would be.  Back in the day when I didn’t know a cheese grater from a garlic press, I couldn’t properly operate my rolling pin to save my life.  I’d primarily used it while trying to roll out sugar cookie dough, which resulted in a trip to the grocery store to purchase a tube of Pillsbury cookie dough because my own batch had stuck to the rolling pin like paste.

After I rolled out the dough, I cut it into a rectangle and then cut that rectangle into many rectangles.

At that point, I took each rectangle and squeezed together the top and the bottom to make bowtie shapes.  After the first of four batches, my stepson wanted to help and we busted out a whole tuxedo shop’s worth of pasta bowties.

The recipe stated the bowties could be dried for up to two hours.  At the two-hour mark, many of them were still pretty doughy and flexible, but I really wanted to follow the rules on this one.  I transferred them to a Pyrex container and crossed my fingers.

The bowties sat in my fridge for a night and tonight, I whipped up some turkey meatballs with spaghetti sauce to serve with the pasta.

Although I do feel I made the bowties just a smidge too big, the taste and texture were just what I had hoped for!  I’m definitely ready to take on more handmade pasta–next time, with a little bit of pizazz.  🙂

Pressure cooker, take three: California chicken

Amidst all of my recent bridal shenanigans–multiple showers and, this past weekend, my bachelorette party–I seem to have lost my brain.  It up and left my head and is surely floating somewhere in the sky far away from here.  Keep that in mind if you see a brain drifting aimlessly through the clouds overhead.

Given that my day has been one moment of stupidity after another, I should have known better than to try a new recipe.  But the first two rounds of pressure cooking had gone so well–I thought I had this one in the bag.  “This one” is a recipe I found called California Chicken.

To begin with, I realized that I’ve learned a thing or two about what makes a good recipe.  If I can be honest, I don’t think this recipe was well-written.  First, it calls for “3 pounds chicken, skinned and cut into pieces.”  Which part(s) of the chicken should be used?  Is it boneless?  How large or small should the pieces be?  Technically, I could cut a chicken breast in half and call it “two pieces,” but I could also make 20 pieces from that one chicken breast.  While deep in contemplation, it occurred to me just how precise a good recipe needs to be.  Basically, I had to trust my gut on this one.  I always have chicken breasts on hand, so that’s what I used.  I sliced them into 1″ cubes and prayed for the best.

I browned the chicken as instructed and then added the rest of the ingredients.  At that point, I made an impromptu decision that may or may not have contributed to the failure of this dish.

I added frozen broccoli.

I’m a really big fan of veggies with my chicken, and broccoli just seemed to fit the dish.  What I hadn’t considered was that frozen broccoli packs a bit of water.  After cooking the chicken under pressure as called for, there was still quite a bit of liquid left in the bottom of the pan and I could NOT get it to thicken or cook down any.  By the time the chicken made it onto our plates, it was drier than a bone in the desert.  The only consolation was that the flavor was really, really good.

Prior to cooking, I’d had a great internal debate about what to make as a side dish, and ultimately settled on mac & cheese (of the Kraft variety), due to poor planning.  Once I was aware of just how crappy the chicken turned out, I was grateful for my decision.  At least I’d chosen a side I couldn’t mess up!

For my final installment of my Two-Week Technique pressure cooking trials, I can state with honest conviction that I will NOT be cooking meat!

Pressure cooker, take two: risotto

Preface to what you’re about to read:  my bridal shower was last weekend, and my gag gift was the LARGEST pair of granny panties my eyes have ever seen.

So this is how my morning started:  I was in the bathroom, getting ready for work, when I heard my cat Orville making a ruckus in the hallway.  I poked my head out the door and caught Orville wildly running back and forth in the hallway with the granny panties in his mouth.  This continued for several moments and ended with Orville collapsing on the ground, hugging the underwear with his front paws while he kicked at them with his back legs, and finally curling up in a ball and resting his head on the panties like they were a cat-sized pillow.

It was bound to be an interesting day from the get-go.  With an interesting day comes an interesting cooking experience.

First, I tackled my second pressure cooker recipe:  rapid risotto.  I LOVE rice dishes, especially risotto, but I really despise how long rice takes to cook.  Having survived my first pressure cooking undertaking, I was a lot calmer going into my second venture.  I also learned what I did wrong in the first recipe that had caused the beans not to cook thoroughly (I turned the heat down too low when trying to maintain high pressure), with the hope that I wouldn’t have the same issue with the risotto.

While the risotto cooked, I coated some chicken breasts with a meat rub and put them in my brand new grill pan!  I’ve emphasized those words because that’s how ecstatic I felt when I purchased this grill pan a couple of nights ago.  I’ve wanted a grill pan for a really…long…time.  But don’t let the enthusiasm fool you.  My grill pan is already in the doghouse, so to speak.

I’ve been watching cooking shows (ahem…Giada) in which food is prepared on the grill pan, and it looks AMAZING.  When I purchased my grill pan earlier this week, I was beside myself with excitement as I thought about all the wondrous things my new pan would produce.  But the closer my chicken breasts came to being cooked, the more it became clear to me that the grill pan had done nothing differently than just any ol’ frying pan I could have pulled out of my kitchen cabinet.  I was even robbed of the fancy grill marks the pan should have left on my chicken.  Unless I’m missing something important, I’m almost sure I wasted my money.

Luckily, I had no issues with my risotto and it couldn’t have turned out any better.  Given that the total cook time was only about 10 minutes, I do believe the pressure cooker will be my preferred method for preparing risotto from now on!  Bonus:  this time, I didn’t flinch even once out of fear that my pressure cooker might explode.

Even though I was disappointed by the lack of pizzazz in my grill pan’s performance, the chicken was decent.  I also discovered the deliciousness of cooking broccoli in the chicken juices left over in the pan.  Mmmmmmm.

Now that I’ve done rice and beans in the pressure cooker, my next endeavor will be to cook some chicken pressure-cooker-style.  I think I can, I think I can…

Pressure cooker, take one: “refried” beans

Today marked the end of the dough chapter of my Two Week Technique saga.  A week ago, I prepared a dish using the last of my three chosen dough recipes and I should have–were I to be following my own rules–completed my education by making something with dough without a recipe.  However, my mom gave me some advice:  even the most experienced bakers usually follow some sort of a recipe because with dough, the ratios of the main ingredients are beyond crucial.  So, I made an exception.  I succeeded three times with dough and I’m good with that.  So tonight, we move on.  For the next two weeks, I’m on a mission to learn how to use my pressure cooker!

In February, I visited my grandma in Montana.  In her garage was a counter piled high with all kinds of kitchen goodies:  pots, pans, bowls, cups, ice cream makers (yes, plural)…..you name it, it was probably there.  She was getting rid of it all and encouraged me to take home whatever I wanted.  I grabbed some bowls and some mini pocket pie molds, but what really had me drooling was the pressure cooker.  My mom had recently purchased one and repeatedly gushed about it.  I snatched that sucker up and went on my merry way.

Fast forward five months.  The poor thing sat in a dark cabinet in my kitchen collecting dust.  You see, when I first took it, I was still a shitty cook.  When you’re incapable of crushing cookies into crumbs or frying bacon, you’re definitely not qualified to use a pressure cooker.  But I’ve come a long way since then, so I feel it’s time I can pursue a relationship with my pressure cooker.

The first pressure cooker recipe I chose was for “refried” beans.  The plan for dinner was tacos, which meant that even if my first pressure cooker attempt were to fail, dinner wouldn’t be ruined–it would just be beanless.

I’ve never been more nervous to try out a new cooking technique!  Not only did it take several cooking websites and multiple Youtube videos before I understood how the thing even operated, but I still didn’t have a clue what I was doing after I’d prepared my mise en place.  To top it all off, my mind was swarming with everything I’d read and seen regarding EXPLOSIONS caused by pressure cooking.  My cooker has the “safety” feature that’s meant to prevent such an event, but nothing is foolproof (and I’m no fool!).  I was a nervous wreck.

Once I added the ingredients, I locked the lid (and fumbled, despite all my practice earlier in the day).  I stood by the stove as I waited for the pressure regulator to start steaming, but not without flinching every few seconds for fear of my dear new friend exploding on me.  Eventually the pressure regulator began to hiss and I left the beans to simmer while I transported myself to the safety of another room in the house.

The recipe’s instructions were to cook the beans at high pressure for 7-10 minutes and then let them sit while the pressure released.  After I did as instructed, I removed the lid to discover that the beans were only about halfway cooked and the pot was still filled with water.  Trying not to panic, I returned the cooker to the burner and cooked them on high pressure for another few minutes.  It was such a beautiful sight to open the lid and see tender, puffy beans and almost no water!  Armed with a potato masher, I mashed the CRAP out of those beans.

These “refried” beans, though not fried at all, were really good and just what I was expecting!  It was a lot of work for something I could have easily purchased in a can, but it’s the sense of accomplishment that I love.  Plus, I’ve now been officially acquainted with my pressure cooker and I’m hoping this is a sign we’ll get along well!