Ricotta, crackers and zucchini ribbons

Served with homemade crackers and wilted zucchini ribbons.

I like to make things from scratch, especially when they involve learning about a new process or technique that I didn’t know about before. I have a great, reliable cracker recipe from Alton Brown, and I was looking for another course for an Italian-ish meal I was making for friends in New York. So, I figured this would be a good opportunity to try making ricotta cheese.
Continue reading

Borscht, scallops and succotash, and gingerbread trifle

Building the trifle. I have put down the first layer of gingerbread cubes in the bowl on the right, which will be covered with the lemon curd mixture and blackberry sauce on the left, then more gingerbread...

The mostly complete trifle.

Borscht. Check out that color!

Succotash and scallops.

Very soon after having moved to Philadelphia, I made the following meal: borscht, scallops with succotash, and gingerbread trifle.

This was my first meal in a new kitchen, so I thought I’d go with something simple. Borscht is a delicious beet soup with the typical awesome magenta beet color, and it’s pretty easy to make. The only time-consuming thing is boiling the beets, which takes quite a while.

(On an unrelated sidenote, according to the Wikipedia article there are apparently other types of borscht that involve tomatoes or sorrel. Amazingly, sour cream, which is a typical borscht ingredient, reacts with the molecules in sorrel that cause a sour taste, neutralizing them.)

Succotash is a mixture of vegetables such as corn, lima beans, and zucchini; scallops are sauteed for a few minutes and served on top. The first time I made this I used jumbo scallops, which are quite large but which are also extremely expensive. This time, I just used small ones.

Dessert was the most complicated piece, as it often is, because it is the most important. (I am only half-joking).

In general, a trifle is “a dessert dish made from… custard, fruit, sponge cake, fruit juice or gelatin, and whipped cream”, arranged in layers (Wikipedia). In this case, the trifle is made from lemon curd, gingerbread baked from scratch, and a blackberry sauce.

The flavors go really well together. You get the sweetness of the gingerbread first, which is balanced by the lemon curd, and finally the tart blackberry sauce hits you. As time goes on, the flavors and textures come together even more. This is very similar to banana pudding, which I would argue is also a kind of trifle.

Skirt Steak, Zucchini and Pepper Sandwiches

On the left, the zucchini and onion mixture; on the right the completed skirt steak.

The salad, with roasted peppers and parmesan.

Recently for lunch I made these flank steak sandwiches. They are delicious, but fairly complicated. They have three main sets of ingredients: (1) a roasted pepper and parmesan salad, (2) sauteed zucchini and onions, (3) flank steak. Because these ingredients are layered within a pita pocket, it’s sort of like a little meal with a salad followed by a steak, zucchini and onion entree.

We added some mayonnaise, too, to try to make things even more delicious. As a side, I made this black bean salad, and we brought along some cucumber-cranberry juice. Even though this was a pretty simple meal, I have a number of comments to make.

Skirt steak

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am a big fan of braising, because you can use a cheap piece of meat and make it really delicious. Another way you can make cheap meat delicious is by marinating it for a while.

This recipe calls for flank steak, which is to be marinated in an olive oil, lime juice, and spice mixture. I did this overnight, though I used skirt steak (more on this in a minute). The result, after it is grilled, is delicious, incredibly flavorful, and very tender. This is especially true because flank or skirt steak is usually cut in thin strips, against the grain. This helps make it even more tender by severing a lot of the muscle fibers. The meat isn’t super-cheap, especially not compared to some other cuts such as ribs, but you get way more than you pay for in taste experience.

A word about skirt steak vs. flank steak. This recipe calls for flank steak, which is cut from the abdominal muscles of the cow. I couldn’t find flank steak, so I used skirt steak, which is apparently from the diaphragm (and which is usually used in fajitas). I think this was an OK substitution; I certainly wasn’t able to tell the difference, and they do come from similar areas of the cow and are of similar texture. But some people do notice and care, and I’m sure there are important differences between the 2 cuts that I will eventually become aware of.

Mayonnaise

As I mentioned above, we put together a quick, spicy mayonnaise to add to the steak. I think this was a great addition, though probably not necessary. We used an immersion blender to bring about the necessary consistency, which has always worked well for me in the past.

However – and perhaps it had something to do with the extreme heat an humidity that day – the mayonnaise completely fell apart as we finished adding the oil. So, it ended up being more of a sauce. Which was fine. Anyway, if you arrive at mayonnaise, stop adding oil!

Applying heat

This meal called for roasted peppers and roasted corn, as well as grilled onions, zucchini, and steak. I only have an electric oven and stove, and no grill, so I had the chance to make some interesting substitutions.

To roast the corn, I spread frozen kernels on parchment paper, and then put this under the broiler in the oven. When the parchment paper caught fire, I had to quickly close the oven door in order to prevent the apartment from filling up with smoke. I lost those kernels in the blaze!

For my second attempt, I spread the kernels directly on a sheet pan, then put the sheet pan over 2 electric burners at full heat. This seemed to work pretty well as long as I rotated the kernels actively. There was a small amount of ash, but overall the kernels charred nicely. To roast the peppers, I simply placed them directly on our electric burners when they were hot, rotating them from time to time. This worked fine.

Finally, the recipe calls for the steaks, zucchini and onions to be grilled. I put them all in a very hot cast iron pan as a substitute for the grill. I really enjoy using cast iron pans, mostly because they keep heat well.

However, it is also true that sometimes cast iron pans keep heat better than I would like. I will write more about this later, but until recently I would often get my pan too hot, then add oil, which promptly burned. I would then have to scrub out the oil, and wait a long time for the pan to get cool enough to use.

I ran into this problem immediately when trying to grill the zucchini and onions. Fortunately, I had time to wipe the old oil out and wait for the pan to cool off a bit before trying again.

Pork with Mango Chutney

Cooking the chutney.

Making the chutney.

The completed dish.

Recently I made this mango chutney, together with some pork and this recipe for broiled zucchini and potatoes.

It didn’t turn out that well. The chutney was OK, but I found that the mango flavor got pretty heavily overpowered by the raisins and peppers. In general, I find the presence of raisins in a chutney or curry distracting – they have a unique flavor and texture that really stands out, which makes it easy for them to overwhelm other flavors.

The broiled zucchini and potato recipe also didn’t work at all for me. Because my stove and oven heat relatively unevenly, some zucchini and potatoes were relatively undercooked, while others were blackened. This isn’t the fault of the recipe; it just didn’t work that well for my cooking situation (the reviews seem to indicate it worked well for others, however).

Also, parmesan doesn’t really seem to work under a broiler. Instead of melting, it seemed to char and it immediately took up a distinct and unpleasant burned / oily flavor which really detracted from the vegetables.

Anyway, I probably won’t make this again, though I would really like to learn how to make a good chutney – it seems that a very wide variety of ingredients can be used, which opens up a broad range of possibilities.

Raita-Marinated Salmon, and Succotash

A few weeks ago, I made honey-mustard-glazed salmon. My girlfriend said, “you know what would be good? Salmon marinated in raita.”

For those who don’t know, raita is an extremely refreshing mint/cucumber/yogurt sauce that’s often served with certain types of Indian food. I decided to serve this salmon with some succotash, which doesn’t have a recipe as far as I’m concerned – I usually take a bunch of corn, and sautee it with a little basil, cider vinegar, garlic, onion, and tomato, and a whole bunch of other vegetables ad libitum. I used zucchini, carrots and celery because that’s what I had.

That Wikipedia articles says that succotash is supposed to involve corn and beans as a foundation, I guess this makes sense since that I believe that would make succotash a complete protein.

Can we talk about complete proteins for a second? Wikipedia says that “a complete protein (or whole protein) is a source of protein that contains an adequate proportion of all of the essential amino acids for the dietary needs of humans or other animals.” Typically, this is eggs, meat, dairy, etc. This is also a few very rare grains (e.g. quinoa) or vegetables.

You can also make complete proteins, however, by combining two of (a) a grain, (b) a legume, (c) a nut. This combination “explains” in some way a lot of the basic dishes in many cultures. For example, beans and rice. Or corn tortillas and beans. Or beans and toast (English breakfast). Or hummus (chickpeas and sesame seeds). I find it fascinating that humans appeared to have discovered many of these combinations well before understanding their nutritional basis. Others might find it unsurprising!

Anyway, back to the recipe description. So I made the succotash. To try to make it go with the salmon a bit better, I added a little mint and cumin too. This didn’t taste bad, but it was  little strange. I also am not a big cumin fan, so I’ll probably leave that out of the raita next time I make it.

In addition to the succotash and salmon, I also made some more polenta. I am getting hooked on this stuff – really easy to make, and very tasty if you make it with stock. It has one major drawback, which is that when heated it gets very nerflike in texture. You have to spend a lot of time reheating it in a pan, and as far as I can tell also adding some water, to get its original creamy texture back.