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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

ijj's Tuesday Night Alfredo Sauce

So, this is my Tuesday night Alfredo.  Not to be confused with a Wednesday night Alfredo.  ;)  And not totally rigidly based on an authentic, classic, Alfredo sauce.  But kinda.

For the most part it's pretty close, although a traditional Alfredo will have less onion, and more cheese.

I like Alfredo sauces, because they're dead simple.  By and large, to be considered (by me, anyway, can't speak for authorities on the matter) an Alfredo sauce, it only really needs to have the following (and probably in this order):
  1. cream
  2. cheese (parmegiano reggiano)
  3. parsley (Italian, fresh)
  4. garlic
  5. some fresh black peppercorns
However, it doesn't have to be that exactly, for me to consider it real enough.

My Tuesday night Alfredo, for example, consisted of butter, cream, and skim milk for the base, asiago for the cheese, and had some white onion, and a half a chili pepper in there.

So, heavy on the garlic and onion, but no so much on the cheese.

To begin with, I took a couple chunks of fat which I had just trimmed off a couple of (already fairly lean) pork tenderloins, and put them in a pan with a couple pats of butter, and a generous amount of olive oil.  There wasn't really enough fat to render it, plus I didn't feel like spending all afternoon rendering fat into lard.
That's something pretty cool though, and the next time I get a large, particularly fatty cut of pork, I'll be certain to include my travails rending its fat!
Something I learned a while ago, regarding 'frying' with butter: because butter on its own has a relatively low smoke/burn point, it is often a good idea to mix some sort of vegetable oil in with it beforehand.  This effectively stabilizes the fat, making it capable of withstanding a hotter temperature, longer, before burning.  Therefore, whenever I "fry" with butter, I'll heap a couple of generous splashes of olive oil in there along with.

So, my heart-attack-in-waiting crisped up nicely in the hot oil, at which point I removed it, and then turned the pan down to medium-low.  The butter was very nice and golden by this time, and was ready for some of my pureed veggies.  I like to give onion a little bit of a head start for this sort of thing, just cause it can sometimes be less soft than other veggies.  As I've mentioned in previous posts, by staggering the saute times in this way, I can be ensured of a relatively uniform texture for my sauce.

After that blipped away for about 5 minutes, I added the other veggies.  Incidentally these are all in puree form, for having been mulched in my trusty cusinart hand-blender.  So, after giving the onion a head start, in goes the garlic, scallion, and chili.

The cheese and parsley will be added later as they are "sauce" ingredients, rather than "base" ingredients.  This is going to sit on medium-low for a good ten minutes more, before adding anything else.  During this time, I get my cheese and parsley ready - parsley is still finely chopped, just not mulched in a blender - and I run my cream through my blender cup because (if you've read much of my previous cooking, you'll know that) I'm a flavour-miser.  There is a fair bit of flavour left in that cup that I can get out with a couple 'washes' of liquid.

So, once the puree mixture is ready, I whisked in the cream, cheese and parsley.

Then, I did another rinsing 'wash' of my parsley bowl with some more milk.  As you can see, I'm not being crazy - there's a fair bit of ingredients left which would otherwise go to waste:

Well on its way, this sauce still needs a good whisking every couple of minutes, and, of course, a thickening agent.  Out comes the corn starch with a touch of skim milk.  To this mix, I am going to add some salt and some crushed green peppercorns, just to make sure that my dry ingredients get equally distributed into the liquid.

That gets whisked in gradually, all the while the pan is kept at medium-low.  After a minute or two, the sauce begins to thicken.

 At this point, it's content to just simmer on low, covered.

I'd give it a good ten minutes still, to simmer, but it can last much longer (if indeed covered) if needed (if your other menu items still need attention).

For me, I boiled some pasta, drained it, and then added 95% of the Alfredo sauce to the pasta.  I don't love the notion of adding my pasta sauces to my pasta beforehand.  I much prefer to keep them separate, right up until plating.  However, there are sometimes advantages to mixing them beforehand...

The other 5% of the sauce I saved in the pan, and "fried" up some green beans in it.  This was absolutely delicious.  Unbelievably so.  It made me wish I had more.

The pasta and sauce I just kept warm on low, and boiled up some brussels sprouts for the wife... <vomit>.
Those pork gribblies I saved from earlier I chopped up and added to the cooked sprouts.

 They still looked disgusting, but whatever, I wasn't going to eat them.

At this point, my pork tenderloin was finished baking (it was about 45 mins at 350°) so I took it out, and unceremoniously chopped it in half.  I could (and have) put a bit more effort into the presentation of this, but really it was just a side dish to this meal, almost an afterthought (pork was unthawed and needed to be used, so why not?)

Anyway, put together, the meal looked like this:

The beans were actually the highlight of this supper, but I'd be lying if I claimed not to also smother the whole thing in the Alfredo sauce.

Time on the whole meal: 30 mins prep + 45 mins cooking with an overlap of about 15mins... so total time was a little less than an hour.  This also included some clean-up and dishes as well (see the "don't have a dishwasher right now blues" post :).  All in all, not terribly taxing, and well worth the effort!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Washing Woes

So, my dishwasher died a couple days ago.  We're currently waiting for it to be fixed.

I'm ashamed to admit it, but I had become quite used to it.

It's one of those things which you don't fully appreciate until it's gone, I think.

Anyway, it's brought up some old memories of washing by hand.  Oh sure, I'll still do a sinkful now and again - particularly after having a large feast, or having guests over, but I remember the old days of having no other options.

I grew up with a dishwasher - I don't remember my parent's house ever not having one - but when I moved out I had some interesting things to learn (and to say) about washing dishes by hand.

Out of the 5 apartments I've ever lived in, only 2 have had dishwashers.  I think it's one of those things which isn't considered a priority, and which can eat into your water consumption quite a bit, so a lot of landlords opt out.

It is not to say that I am incapable of doing dishes by hand, in fact I think the dishes get cleaned faster than they would with the dishwasher (in which they might sit, dirty, for a day or two) just because I don't like dirty dishes sitting out.  My wife and I are quite fastidious that way.  It's more just that this brief (hopefully!) stint of hand-washing has brought back some memories.

And while the actual act of washing dishes by hand can often be meditative, I nevertheless hope my dishwasher gets fixed soon.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Lotsa Legumes

Every once in a while I'll mix up a meal that is entirely vegetables.  

Sometimes literally, using vegetable oil, fresh herbs, and nothing but veggies, and sometimes a little more loosely in that just all of the meal's dishes are vegetable-based.

Regardless, it's usually a good time.

Last night I mixed up a couple of salads, some brown beans, and some green beans.  It was only after I started cooking them that I clued in to the fact that it might be a little cellulose-y.  Certainly legume-y.

It all worked out surprisingly well, however, and this is an excellent example of a relatively healthy, and balanced meal which took less than 20 minutes.  So... great for those weeknights when you don't want to cook anything extravagant, or be in the kitchen for very long.

Anyway, I began by lightly frying some pancetta.  This is not necessarily needed, and I wouldn't even have really thought about it unless I had some leftover in the fridge which needed to be used.  So, I just fried about a quarter of a cup up in its own fat (no added oil or anything), and when done, I took about a third of it out and dried it on a paper towel.  For use in my salad later...

The other two-thirds I left in the saucepan and added some garlic and onion to saute.

While this was sauteing, I rinsed some green beans, trimmed the tops, and then lightly tossed them in some flavoured olive oil, and a bit of crushed cumin, salt and pepper.

The cumin I siphoned off from a large amount I had crushed in my M&P, as I planned on using it in BOTH bean concoctions.

Anyway, at this point the garlic and onion and pancetta had crisped up nicely, and so I added the brown beans to that saucepan... and promptly added some crushed cumin, pepper and a pinch of salt.

You can see the cumin before I mixed it in.  Mmmmmmmm!

Also at this time, I put the tossed green beans on the fire, on medium, and now it was just sit back and let these two beans cook.

So, using this time, I mixed up two small salads.  

A simple caesar with pancetta, asiago, and PC yogurt dressing (delicious stuff!) for myself:

And a butter-leaf and cucumber salad with pulled chicken and goat's cheese for my wife:

After less than 20 minutes, the brown beans were thickened and bubbly, and the green beans were nice and toasty.

So, I put them all together, and had a decent, but delicious, dinner in no time at all.  

And it was only slightly trashy (I'm looking at you canned brown beans!!!!)


Monday, January 16, 2012

Spinach Ravioli in Brandy Truffle Cream

So it was my wife's birthday the other day.  Because she claims to love my cooking, she seems to appreciate having a custom-tailored meal made just for her for the special occasion.  This year was no different, and I had a few ideas of what to cook up.

Firstly... pasta.  She loves pasta.

Secondly, mushrooms.  She loves mushrooms... in particular truffle mushrooms (sigh).

Thirdly, brandy cream sauce.  A definite favourite of hers in the past.

Taking these three notions, each of which a successful culinary concoction in its own right, and putting them together to yield a Brandy Truffle Cream pasta, was - in my mind - sure to win her over.

So, as with most of my Franco-Italian based sauces, I began with sauteing some vegetables for a base.  Because  for this sauce I wanted the mushrooms to be the main, dominant textural ingredient, these other veggies got pureed first.

About 5-6 medium cloves of garlic, 4 medium green onions, and about a half of a jalapeno.  Throw in a bit of liquid like olive oil for lubrication.  Brandy worked surprisingly well here.  Just a smidge, as adding alcohol at this stage doesn't really do much... a little flavour, and in this case, some cool emulsification for the veggie puree.

So, once mixed smoothly (don't want these to interfere with the creamy texture is all), I scraped it into a pan of chopped pancetta I had been frying.  

In some butter.  YUP, that's right!  Pancetta in butter.  Tonight's meal was about rich extravagance.  :)

Brought this to a nice quick simmer, and let it all soften for about 10 minutes on medium-low.

Next came the mushrooms.  Firstly, a scooped a generous amount of truffle butter into the pan - this is where much of the flavour is going to come from.  And then, for texture and appearance, I crushed up a few spoonfuls of wood ear mushrooms.

After those got added to the pan to soften (and re-hydrate) a little bit, I added a small carton of light (5%) cream.  So what is one of those - two cups?  Not the tiny cartons which are only 1 cup, but not an entire litre either, but the one in the middle.  I think they're around 500ml.

Anyway, because I'm also a flavour-miser (as you've probably come to notice by now), I'm going to add the cream first to my mixer cup, and stir it around in there.  Just to make certain that I've gotten as much of that garlic, onion, and pepper as can humanly be expected.

So, it's pretty much all downhill from here... add the cream to the pan, whisking often:

Add some thickening agent (I whisked up some corn-starch into a bit of milk), and then just keep whisking and adding a splash of brandy every 5 minutes or so.

I normally use brandy extract (which is available at most grocers, in the baking or spices section... usually right beside the vanilla extract!) for these sauces, but today (again ---> see above 'rich extravagance') I went out and bought a mickey of real french brandy. Just a cheap-o bottle, but still better than extract...

When cooking with alcohol, you have a choice really... if you don't want any of the alcohol to be left in the sauce (which could get you drunk, actually) you should add it a good while before the sauce has finished cooking.  This ensures that the alcohol will boil off before consumption, but it will still leave behind all the wonderful flavour of the spirit.  
Much like any alcoholic reduction sauce, it's kind of the point to boil off much of the liquid in order to concentrate the flavour (the precipitate of the solution).
So, be sure to add the alcohol early enough in the cooking process that it will reduce some, and thus add some concentrated flavour to your sauce.  Then, stop adding alcohol at least 10-15 minutes before taking the sauce off the heat if you want the alcohol to dissipate.

If, however, you want there to be some alcohol in there (like I did here) just keep adding your alcohol right up to serving.  I'll even sometimes put a larger splash in right before serving... depends on the sauce and the alcohol.

For this brandy truffle cream sauce, it stayed on for about 25 minutes from the first addition of the cream and brandy.  I added probably about 6 oz. of brandy over the course of about a half-dozen pourings over the span of this 25 minutes, and the sauce  turned a beautiful golden colour near the end.

I read somewhere once, I don't remember where, that you can tell when your cream sauce is done, by its ability to fully coat a spoon.  So, I like to do that before taking anything off the stove.  For two reasons: one, to check consistency/thickness, and the other is that I get to taste the sauce and perhaps add any finishing touches.

I did add a pinch or two of sel gris, but it was pretty much ready to go.

Poured just a titch on the ravioli (spinach- and ricotta-filled) cracked some freshly ground pepper on top, and served it up.

Here's a gorgeous (in my opinion) close-up for you to enjoy (or make you hungry?) Click and enlarge for maximum effect:

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Poor Showing Lad, Poor Showing Indeed...

Took a bit of a hiatus there I'm realizing.

The last few weeks were very eventful for me, and included (among many other things) Christmas at the folks' place, significant travel, and finally contracting a pretty nasty illness.

So I was out-of-province for the first ten days or so, and then quite ill for the next.  In any case, I was not in my kitchen for close to a month.

Indeed, the situation became so drastic and dire that my wife had to take over most of the cooking and culinary duties for the last couple of weeks!!!


To be fair (or, rather, unfair, depending on your perspective) these duties consisted mainly of heating soup and other easily-ingested foods.  No, truly, it should be said that although she's not necessarily a goddess in the kitchen, my wife can still be quite homey, and her domesticity knows few bounds; I'd certainly be nowhere without her efforts.  Especially when ill!

Anyway, I was pathetic and prostrate for the first half of January, and am only now getting to the point of being able to get back into the kitchen; for contagiousness reasons as much as any fatigue-related reasons (I tell myself, anyway).

Life does resume, however.

As does my culinary spattering.