Friday, December 13, 2013

Sweet and Spicy Cucumber Salad

The Background

I was searching recently for a new cold salad to add to a fajita buffet dinner.  I knew I wanted something that would be both "cool" and just a little bit spicy.  I ran across several cucumber salads and combined what I thought were the best ideas into this recipe.  I really liked the way it turned out.  It is cool and bright, spicy and sweet, salty and tangy all in one dish.

The Ingredients 

  • 4 large cucumbers, seeded and diced, peel if desired  
  • 1 medium white onion, chopped 
  • 1 to 2 jalapeno peppers, sliced thin
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • 1/4 cup cold water
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon lime pepper (coarse ground black pepper will work fine, but I definitely recommend this Lime Pepper I found at Texas Spice Company!)
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, minced 

Making it Work  

  1. Place cucumbers, onion and jalapenos in a large bowl.
  2. In a separate bowl, whisk together all remaining ingredients; pour over cucumber mixture and toss well to coat.
  3. Chill at least 3 hours before serving.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Steak Tips with Mushroom-Onion Gravy

The Background

Who isn't a sucker for something warm, rich and satisfying on a cool, Autumn evening?  A cool night, maybe a bit drizzly and dreary begs for "umami", that elusively savory and utterly delightful culinary trait.  Mushrooms are so umami, steak too.  Oh, and onions that have been richly caramelized, very umami. 

I am also a huge fan of America's Test Kitchen, and their sister sites, Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country.  These guys take a lot of time to break down dishes and dissect how they work, why they work, how to make them taste better, how to make them easier to prepare and then publish the recipe along with why the other 87 iterations didn't work, just so you don't make the same mistakes.  I have mentioned before how I frequently take a recipe and compare it to several others I find online.  I take the best parts of "this" recipe and add parts of "that" recipe, sprinkling in a cool technique that was found in yet another recipe.  Not this time.  Nope.  Completely unnecessary.  So with 100% credit to America's Test Kitchen, where I originally got the recipe via an email newsletter, and to Cook's Illustrated, where the recipe and the picture above is published, I proudly pass along one of my new all-time favorite recipes.

The Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 1/2 pounds sirloin steak tips, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks (see note)
  • 1/4 ounce dried porcini mushrooms, rinsed well
  • 1 3/4 cups low-sodium beef broth (see note)
  • Table salt and ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 pound white mushrooms, stems trimmed, caps wiped clean and cut into 1/4-inch slices (see note)
  • 1 large onion, halved and sliced thin (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 1 medium garlic clove, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 teaspoon)
  • 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
  • 4 teaspoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley leaves

Making it Work

1. Combine soy sauce and sugar in medium bowl. Add beef, toss well, and marinate at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour, tossing once.
2. Meanwhile, cover porcini mushrooms with ¼ cup broth in small microwave-safe bowl; cover with plastic wrap, cut several steam vents in plastic with paring knife, and microwave on high power 30 seconds. Let stand until mushrooms soften, about 5 minutes. Lift mushrooms from liquid with fork and mince (you should have about 1½ tablespoons). Strain liquid through fine-mesh strainer lined with paper towel into medium bowl. Set mushrooms and liquid aside.
3. Sprinkle meat with 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until smoking. Add meat and cook until well browned on all sides, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer to large plate and set aside.
4. Return skillet to medium-high heat and add remaining tablespoon oil, white mushrooms, minced porcinis, and ¼ teaspoon salt; cook, stirring frequently, until all liquid has evaporated and mushrooms start to brown, 7 to 9 minutes. Scrape pan to loosen fond. Add onion and ¼ teaspoon salt; continue to cook, stirring frequently, until onion begins to brown and dark bits form on pan bottom, 6 to 8 minutes longer. Add garlic, thyme, and flour; cook, stirring constantly, until vegetables are coated with flour, about 1 minute. Stir in remaining 1½ cups beef broth and porcini soaking liquid, scraping bottom of pan with wooden spoon to loosen browned bits, and bring to boil.
5. Nestle steak pieces into mushroom and onion mixture and add any accumulated juices to skillet. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until steak registers 130 degrees on instant-read thermometer, 3 to 5 minutes, turning beef over several times. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with parsley, and serve.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Jalapeno Popper Cornbread

The background

I was thinking through how I wanted to celebrate my birthday this year and had settled on a barbeque dinner.  Never mind that it is early February, here in central Texas, the weather is most definitely indicative of an early spring.  With daytime temperatures in the mid 70’s and flirting with the 80’s, the weather is perfect for firing up the smoker.  In the grand Texas barbeque tradition, dinner would include smoked brisket, pulled pork and sausage.  To compliment the peppery smoked meats, I served pinto beans, grilled corn on the cob, homemade dinner rolls and Jalapeno Popper Cornbread. 

In the off chance that you haven’t been to a backyard barbeque in the last decade or so, jalapeno poppers are bacon wrapped peppers stuffed with cheese and either battered and fried, or grilled.  I am a fan of the grilled variety, myself.  I like the smoky bacon and slight char on the jalapeno pepper.  In order to mimic these qualities in my cornbread, I relied on my favorite cast iron skillet and the all around goodness of rendered bacon fat. 

I am willing to bet that you can get perfectly acceptable results by adding the three pepper popper ingredients to whatever boxed cornbread mix you already use, baked in a casserole pan, but I have to strongly encourage you to take the time to make this recipe from locally sourced ground corn if at all possible.  Using the best bacon you can find definitely won’t hurt either.  The cast iron skillet also delivers on a nice crisp crust on the bread, which can’t be achieved in a glass dish.

No, you won’t find this recipe in anyone’s healthy eating or diet cookbook.  This should be a splurge for sure, so I don’t recommend getting carried away with healthy swaps like using skim milk, turkey bacon, coconut oil or almond flour.  Enjoy this cornbread with a slathering of real butter guilt-free, just don’t eat the whole pan in one sitting.

2013-02-08 17.14.52

the ingredients

  • 1 Cup Ground Corn Meal (locally sourced and organic)
  • 1 Cup All-Purpose Flour (unbleached and organic)
  • 1 Tsp. Salt
  • 2 Tsp. Baking Powder
  • 2 Tbsp. Sugar
  • 1 Cup Milk
  • 2 Eggs
  • 1/4 Canola Oil
  • 3 Whole Jalapeno Peppers
  • 1 Lb. Smoked Bacon
  • 2 Cup Cheddar Cheese, grated (I prefer a Longhorn Style Medium Cheddar)

making it work

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees with a rack in the center position.
  2. Slice the bacon into thin pieces and brown in a cast iron skillet.
  3. While the bacon is browning, slice the jalapenos into 1/4 inch slices.  You will further dice these in a later step, we just want nice slices so that they cook evenly.
  4. When the bacon is browned, remove the bacon to a plate lined with paper towels to remove excess grease.  Pour off most of the bacon grease from the pan, reserving a tablespoon or 2 in the pan.
  5. Sauté the sliced jalapenos in the rendered bacon fat until they soften and start to brown.
  6. Remove the sautéed peppers from the pan and chop them into small pieces.  Set these aside to be added to the batter.
  7. Combine the dry ingredients (corn meal, flour, salt, baking powder, sugar) in a medium size mixing bowl and then stir with a whisk or fork so that they are mixed well.
  8. Add the wet ingredients (oil, milk, and eggs) to the dry ingredients and whisk fully incorporate.
  9. Stir in the bacon, jalapeno peppers and cheddar cheese.
  10. Grease a clean cast iron skillet.  For this purpose, I prefer to use bacon fat, but shortening or vegetable oil will work just fine as well.  I am one of those crazy people that actually keeps rendered bacon fat to use for things like this or for biscuits.
  11. Pour the batter into the greased skillet and bake for 30-35 minutes.  When it is done, the top should be lightly brown and firm to the touch.  You should also see nicely browned edges.

notes and observations

I cut my cornbread into 16 pieces.  This means I end up with 4 very small, triangular pieces that really aren’t big enough to serve.  These are of course made entirely for taste-testing, and naturally are void of calories.

Assuming you have to brown the bacon, this recipe should take about an hour from start to finish.  This does reheat well though, so it can certainly be made early.

Shredding cheese from a block really does make a big difference.  If you have abandoned block cheese for the pre-shredded bagged cheese, please reconsider this.  Here’s a challenge, hand grate some cheddar cheese and taste it side by side with the bagged stuff.  I guarantee you will taste a huge difference.  Even without buying expensive artisan cheddar from the cheese counter, if you will just use even the store brand block cheese you will be surprised by the results.  If your not convinced, read the ingredients on the back of the package.  Yuck.