Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dinner With A Side Of Nostalgia

Pot Roast

Does anybody out there make pot roast regularly? I haven't made one in years, but I found this great grass-fed chuck roast recently at Noah's Ark in Placerville. There's just something homey and comforting about pot roast. It reminds me of my grandma (my dad's mom) who passed away a little over a year ago. There were three dishes that I think of as her specialties: "Spanish" meatballs, mustard/brown sugar pork chops, and pot roast. She made excellent corned beef and cabbage too, and her cole slaw (she always called it cabbage & carrot salad) couldn't be beat. She also made the best butter cookies. I've got the recipe somewhere. They were just light and crispy with a nice buttery flavor without being too rich. I can remember helping her mix up batches when I visited her.

       When my siblings and I were kids, we would each go spend a week with grandma individually during the summer. During that week, the kid who was visiting was "The Big Cheese." My grandma and I would bake cookies, go shopping, and play tourist in Sacramento. She taught me how to crochet (I made endless hats, scarves, and socks for all the stuffed animals), to play cribbage, and to swim. Her neighbor had Corgis that were so cute. It's funny how much you remember when you start thinking about your childhood.

       Well, this is supposed to be a food blog, so I'm writing today about the pot roast (pretty darn good) and the madeira cake (not quite a fail) I made yesterday. Once again, I didn't have a go-to recipe, so I cobbled together a recipe I found online with my mom's advice on how to proceed in the endeavor of pot roast making, and the result was quite yummy.

       First I patted the chuck roast dry with a paper towel then sprinkled it with a little flour, salt, and pepper before browning it on all sides in a skillet with a little oil. Once all the sides were nice and brown, I transferred the roast to my Crockpot. I love this Crockpot; it was a gift from my sister one year for Christmas or my birthday, and it is just perfect. It's a perfect size, not too small and not too big, and it's not all gadgety with digital readouts and programmable controls. It has 4 settings: high, low, warm, and off. That's the beauty of a Crockpot, you don't have to do much. Once you start it, it's good on its own for several hours (or more) before you have to do anything. When the dish is done, you really only have to turn it down to warm or off and serve dinner.

       The chuck roast went into the Crockpot along with a sliced yellow onion, a few potatoes, and some carrots. I threw in some garlic powder, parsley, and thyme for good measure. Then I poured in one 12 oz can of V-8 and about a cup and a half of water. My mom suggested the V-8 because that's how she used to make it. She said she used it because it added the flavor of the vegetables, but not chunks of veggies we kids didn't like when we were little. I turned the Crockpot to high and left it for about an hour. Then I turned it to low and left it for another 5 hours or so.

       When the roast was done, I turned the Crockpot to warm and then ladled out about 2 cups of the broth, straining it into a smaller bowl. I chilled this for a bit so I could skim as much fat off as I could before using it to make the gravy. When I made the gravy, I browned some flour in a dry pan. You don't really need to used oil or butter to brown the flour when making gravy (cream sauce is another story). Just keep the flour moving (I use a wire whisk) and the temperature of the burner at medium to medium-low, and it browns just fine. Once the flour is ready, pour in the hot liquid and stir like crazy. This works for me, minimizing the problem of lumps. I added a little salt and pepper and let it bubble for a bit before serving it up with the roast and vegetables. All-in-all a success, and and enough leftovers so I can take some for lunch at work tomorrow.

Madeira Cake
       While the roast was cooking, I was thumbing through my new baking book I got just after Christmas. It is full of interesting recipes I'm not very familiar with. One of these is madeira cake. The description goes like this, "This rich butter cake was popular in Victorian England. It was often served with a glass of Madeira, hence the name. It is a moist tender cake due to the high butter content." Sadly, the same could not have been said about my cake. The photo and description in the cookbook made it sound similar to pound cake only with some orange zest mixed in. Something didn't seem quite right when I mixed up the batter; it was more like soft cookie dough than cake batter. It seems to me now that the amount of flour called for might have been too much and/or the liquid ingredients should have been increased. Still, I persevered. I spooned the batter into the loaf pan and patted it smooth. I baked it exactly according to directions: 315 degrees (weird) for 50 minutes.

       The cake was not a success. It was dense and on the dry side. The crispy texture of the outer crust was good, as was the flavor of the cake (I mixed in about a teaspoon each of orange and lemon zest.) The texture really needed help. My mom sprinkled some Amaretto Di Saronno on her piece after the first bite, which helped with the dryness. The one thing that did go perfectly was turning the cake out of the pan. The recipe called for greasing the pan then lining it with parchment paper. Once the cake was baked and allowed to cool for about 10 minutes, it just slid right out of the pan, and the crust was smooth with no stuck spots.

       After about an hour's mild disappointment, I had a brilliant thought: Trifle! The cake would be perfect to use in a trifle. Slices of cake or ladyfingers are layered on the bottom and part way up the sides of a trifle dish (if you have one. otherwise, a glass bowl). The cake is then brushed with liqueur or sherry then layered with fruit, custard, sometimes jelly (either Jello or jam), and topped with whipped cream. There are any number of variations. I will be making the trifle tomorrow night or possibly Tuesday, and we'll see how the cake tastes in that. I think it will hold up well; the wet ingredients (liqueur, custard) will soften and moisten it without causing it to dissolve into a soggy mess. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Last Week's Recap

Chicken, Granola, Fish, and Dried Fruit

Last week (March 6-12) wasn't a super-exciting week food-wise. There were a couple of days my mom didn't feel too well, and then it was my turn to feel not-so-great. So, there's not a lot to report, and I'm putting it all in one post.

Fried Chicken
Early in the week I made pan-fried chicken with oven-baked sweet potato fries. I'd never made fried chicken before, but with advice from my mom and after reading several recipes, I felt up to the challenge. I put a mixture of flour, salt, pepper, and paprika in a paper bag and then dropped the chicken pieces in one at a time, coating them well. I heated about 3/4 inch of oil on high heat in a flat-bottomed frying pan and then placed the chicken pieces in and cooked them, turning once, until both sides were nicely browned. Then I turned the heat down and covered the pan letting the chicken cook for about 25 minutes. After that I checked for done-ness and lifted the chicken out onto paper towels to drain.

I peeled and cut a large sweet potato into french fry sized sticks, tossed them in a little olive out and spread them out in one layer, trying not to overlap, on a 2 baking sheets. I cooked them at 400 degrees turning them as they browned. I can't really say how long they cooked, but I can tell you that one pan cooked too long and half the fries burned. We ate the non-burned ones and threw the rest away and finished cooking the others, which came out tasting good, but not really crispy except on the edges.

The chicken was tender and juicy and very flavorful though I think I missed a couple spots on the edges when flouring them. One piece had a couple of tough spots around the edges where the meat was frying without the benefit of a little flour to buffer it. Still, all-in-all, it tasted good.

Red Snapper with Baby Bok Choy & Crispy Ginger

Later in the week I made Snapper with baby bok choy and crispy ginger again. It turned out really delicious, even better than last time. I added both chopped garlic and a little chopped ginger to the olive oil before adding the fish. This gave the fish added flavor.

The bok choy is pretty tender because it's young, but the white parts of the ends can be a little tough, so after separating and washing the leaves, I cut the ends into thin strips, but I just split the green leafy parts lengthwise.

On Saturday I made granola (see the photo at the top of the post). I wrote about making granola on facebook a while ago, but I thought I'd write about it here as it's been a while, and I think I've perfected my recipe--to my taste at least. Again, it's still based partly on Alton Brown's granola recipe available on the Food Network Website.

Alex's Version of Alton Brown's Granola
4 cups rolled oats
1 cup slivered almonds
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
6 Tbsp brown sugar (1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp)
6 Tbsp maple syrup (1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp)
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 Tbsp water
1/4 tsp salt
a couple of dashes of cinnamon

Mix the first 4 ingredients in a large mixing bowl. In a small bowl or measuring cup, I stir together 6 Tbsp maple syrup, 2 Tbsp canola oil, and 2 Tbsp water. I pour the mixture over the dry ingredients and mix well--using your hands really helps to get the liquid ingredients well-distributed throughout the dry ingredients.

Coat 2 baking sheets with a little cooking spray and spread the granola mixture onto the two trays. Bake these in a 250 oven for 1 hour 15 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes. When it's done, remove the trays from the oven and let the granola cool completely before putting it in a plastic or glass container with a tight-fitting lid.

I love this granola. A little bit of it sprinkled over bran flakes or wheat square (some cereal high in fiber but not necessarily big on taste) really perks up the cereal.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

BBQ on a Rainy Day

Earlier this week I made BBQ Ribs for dinner. It was pouring down rain so I couldn't exactly use the grill. Instead, I made oven baked BBQ ribs. I got the recipe idea from one on It's super easy and requires very little effort. I used a package of boneless country-style pork ribs (I've made it with bone-in ones too). You want the ones that are very meaty--not baby back or spare ribs.

     First, I mixed together equal parts sugar and salt and coated the ribs in the mixture. Then I put the ribs in a foil-lined 9 x 13 pan and poured enough water in around them to come about halfway up the sides of the ribs. Then I baked them in a 250 degree oven for 1 hour. After an hour, I removed the pan and turned the ribs over then baked them for another hour. Next, I removed the pan and turned up the oven temperature to 400 degrees. I poured the water out of the pan and poured some bbq sauce over the ribs. I then returned the ribs to the oven for another 1/2 hour.

     The ribs turn out tender, juicy, and very flavorful. I served them with Brussel Sprouts sauteed with pancetta and toasted pecans. This dish was inspired by my sister's way of cooking Brussel sprouts with bacon--so delicious--I never thought I'd love Brussel sprouts. I don't usually have bacon in the house, but I do occasionally have pancetta. I cut the pancetta into small pieces and cooked them in a large non-stick skillet draining off most of the fat. I trimmed and cleaned the Brussel sprouts, sliced them in half, and steamed them in the microwave until they were cooked but still firm. I drained off any liquid in the bowl, and then added the sprouts to the skillet with the pancetta, sauteing them on medium high heat until the outer leaves of the sprouts browned slightly. Then I tossed in some toasted pecans and served them up.