Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tough Critic

My new try for the day was to make corned beef and cabbage. Not groundbreaking by any means, since it is St. Patrick's Day after all. However, still totally traditional, and new to me! I've never made it before, but I was actually a little scared to! My husband has unreasonably high standards for corned beef (blame the kosher delis), and anytime I make something new, I always ask him several times, "Is it good? Should I have done anything different? Is it good enough that you want it again?" etc. How am I supposed to ask him for an honest opinion about a new endeavor when he has such high standards?! I didn't want to set myself up for disappointment.

Luckily, I discovered that much like beef brisket, corned beef brisket is pretty foolproof. Unless you slice it incorrectly or something (resulting in tough meat), you pretty much can't mess it up. I loosely followed a few different recipes for a slow cooker preparation, and it was insanely easy.

I added the following ingredients to the slow cooker:
  • baby carrots
  • small red potatoes, quartered
  • water (4 cups)
  • beer (I used about 8 oz. of Bud Select because that's what we had on hand)
  • flat cut corned beef brisket (and the included seasoning packet)

I put the first 3 ingredients in the slow cooker first, then placed the brisket on top. I poured the beer over, then rubbed the seasonings over the brisket. I cooked this on high for 8 hours. When I got home from work, I added chopped cabbage, gave it all a stir then set on high for 1 more hour. Then that was it!

One note about briskets. You can get either a point cut or flat cut brisket. The point cut is cheaper (at my market it was $1/pound cheaper), but it's fattier. The flat cut still has a layer of fat on the underside, but that is easily removable after it's cooked. I made the mistake of trimming a brisket once - bad idea! Not only is it difficult to remove while the meat is raw, but you're removing all that great flavor that the fat imparts! So if you're trying to eat healthier, like me, spend the extra $3-4 for the leaner flat cut and just remove the extra fat before you eat it. It's a win-win.

What's great about a dish like this is that you can adjust the ingredient amounts to your liking. Add more carrots, less potatoes, etc. I'll probably add more carrots next time because they had such an awesome flavor (I used two cups this time). We have lots of leftovers!

The meal was fantastic and the corned beef was so tender, juicy and flavorful. The husband gave it a 8 out of 10 (a rating of 10 being his died-and-gone-to-heaven kosher corned beef). For my first attempt, I'll definitely take that! Success. :)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Irish Soda Bread

I woke up this morning to quite the snowstorm! It's not uncommon for St. Louis to see snow in March, but today's accumulation was a bit unexpected. When it snows or ices, it's usually quite difficult for me to make it up the hill in my subdivision. This morning was no different, so I found myself waiting it out. I had a small bit of time before the next try-to-make-it-to-work attempt, so I decided to make a recipe I'd found for Irish Soda Bread. This one is from Better Homes & Gardens and has currants and oranges in it...mmmm. Sounded good to me! With St. Patrick's Day soon approaching and me wanting to try new things, I thought it would be a fun venture.

This recipe was quick, easy and fun. Here's a basic rundown.

First phase: Dry ingredients and orange zest mixed together.

All ingredients, including currants, fully combined:

About to go into the oven. Mental note: Don't stand so close to the open oven door this time... (see post from March 4, 2011)

The finished product! Pretty good looking, if I do say so myself! :)

The orange zest and currants really add a lot to this bread. Soda breads aren't generally super flavorful, but this recipe is quite delightful. I put a warm piece in a bowl with a little bit of milk, which was tasty. Spreading some honey or marmalade over a piece would be very yummy as well!

I have to say, I was not really into baking bread before this. But making this bread today was fun! I really quite enjoyed getting my hands into it, even for just a brief kneading. Kneading the dough made me remember my mom baking bread when I was little, and her teaching me how to knead the dough. This experience has opened my eyes to further baking possibilities, and I can't wait to try more breads!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Citrus-Basil Cooler

I'm going out for dinner tomorrow night at King and I (which many consider to be the best Thai food in St. Louis), which got me thinking about the Thai basil I grew last summer. Unfortunately, I didn't have much time to play with it before it all burnt up in the August heat. I started thinking about cocktails in which I could use Thai basil, or just plain basil. I've been obsessed with Cara Cara oranges lately, so I thought the two could join forces. (If you haven't tried a cara cara orange yet, you must! They have the perfect balance of sweet and tart. And they have an awesome name!)

I assembled my ingredients:
  • fresh basil leaves
  • juice of 1/2 a cara cara orange
  • vodka
  • sweetened lime juice (which I didn't use during the first run but decided on because the drink was definitely lacking without it)

I bruised the basil leaves with a muddler, then muddled them with the orange juice. I added about a jigger of vodka, 1/2 jigger of sweetened lime juice and shook with ice. Strained into a martini glass and that was that!

This Citrus-Basil Cooler is tart, citrusy and refreshing. I could drink this all year, although it would be perfect for summer. When you take a sip, the aroma of the basil hits your nose. A subtle basil flavor lingers after the citrus is gone. I didn't use exact measurements when I put this together, so you could tweak it to your liking. You could limit the tartness if you want, you could use citron vodka or unflavored, you could throw in more basil, etc.

In terms of mixology, I have so much yet to learn. However, I really enjoy a good cocktail and I know what flavors complement each other, so that's my springboard. Time to go make myself another!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Strawberry Balsamic Chicken

Whenever I was a child, my mom deemed one night a week as "Try a New Recipe Night" for our family. Tonight, my venture was similar, but more like "throw a bunch of stuff together and hope that it works... night." Once again, I attempted a dish I've never made before without the guidance of a recipe.

I wanted to make a Strawberry Balsamic Chicken using the strawberry balsamic vinegar and sweet basil EVOO I purchased at Di Olivas last week. I threw 1 pound of chicken breasts in to marinate this morning before work, with the aforementioned vinegar and EVOO, along with some salt, pepper and dried basil. I used enough liquid to coat the chicken, but there wasn't any excess (I don't want to have to discard the good stuff!).

When I got home this evening (roughly 11 hours later), I put the chicken in the oven to bake. I threw some sliced strawberries and crumbled feta cheese over the top. The feta cheese did not turn out well in this recipe, so I'll scrap that for next time. The strawberries were OK, but I think they added too much sweetness to the dish. So I'll scrap those next time, too. However, the chicken had a fantastic flavor! There was a very subtle sweetness to the chicken that came from the vinegar - this flavor was much more appetizing than the actual strawberries.

I paired the chicken with some couscous that I'd tossed with finely chopped spinach and green onions, lemon juice, salt and pepper and a drizzle of the sweet basil EVOO. Yum! The husband gave dinner two very enthusiastic thumbs up.

A good result, methinks. Another lesson learned and toying with new ingredients is always fun. Oh, and I have to apologize for the lack of pictures. I looked down at my empty plate tonight and thought, "Crap, I forgot to take a picture of the chicken!" I'm still new at this. :b

Monday, March 7, 2011

Trial and Error

Today I tried out some of my new purchases from Di Olivas, on a salad. I made a vinaigrette using the cranberry-pear balsamic and the blood orange EVOO. It wasn't as awesome as I was hoping it to be, but I need to tweak the ingredients a bit more. I was going with what I already had on hand: an overripe pear, pine nuts, baby greens and feta cheese. I thought that the feta and greens worked well. Arugula and/or goat cheese would probably be nice, too. The pear I used was too sweet that it didn't work so well with the vinaigrette. There needed to be more acidity in the salad. Maybe some citrus fruit next time, or dried cranberries. Finally, a different nut than pine nuts. I love pine nuts normally, but the flavor just didn't work this time. Maybe almonds or possibly even macadamia nuts next time...

At any rate, a work in progress. Tomorrow: spinach salad with strawberry-basil balsamic vinaigrette! I'm also toying with the idea of strawberry balsamic-roasted chicken breasts sometime in the future.

Overall, today didn't have anything life-altering in store, but it's just a Monday. I can do better tomorrow. :)

Friday, March 4, 2011

If you can't stand the heat...

As with every other day this week, I experienced something new today. However, I wouldn't say that this experience was particularly enjoyable.

It all started with me wanting to bake some muffins. Every year, my friend and her husband have people over for breakfast before the Mardi Gras parade in St. Louis' historic Soulard neighborhood. (St. Louis has the largest Mardi Gras celebration in the Midwest, and I think is only second to New Orleans in the entire country. Actually, I just learned that the word "soulard" is French for "drunkard." It's almost like they planned that...) Anyway, so I volunteered to bring muffins to the pre-parade shindig.

I found a yummy-looking recipe for cranberry-orange muffins, so I whipped up the batter and into the oven they went. I opened the door when the timer went off and, like a moron, stuck my head a little deeper into the oven than I should've. Whoosh! A huge gust of 400-degree air comes flying at me (apparently there was a hellstorm brewing in this appliance of mine) and practically burns my face. I jerked back and for a split second, worried if my eyebrows were singed off. Once I realized that they were still intact, I noticed the strangest feeling in my eyelashes. The heat had wreaked havoc on my mascara, fusing my eyelashes together! It was the weirdest feeling!

I set down the muffins to cool and went to look in the mirror. I was a spitting image of Tammy Faye Baker. WTF. I don't even want to know what is in mascara that made it react to heat that way. When we were kids, my brother and sisters and I used to tease my stepmom that mascara was made out of bat guano. I don't know where we got that idea, but I'm going to assume that's not really what it's made out of. At least that's what I'm hoping...

Anyway, a few laughs at myself and a good face-washing later, I can definitely claim a lesson learned on this one. It'll be a good story to tell tomorrow, right? Before all those Hurricanes turn me into a soulard. ;)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

An Oil & Vinegar Emporium

Today I visited Di Olivas, an oil and vinegar shop that just opened its second location in the town where I live. I'd heard good things about the original location but had never gotten a chance to stop by. Once I got word about the new shop, I knew it was only a matter of time before I'd make it over there.

The owner and shop assistant were so helpful and friendly. As a oil- and vinegar-tasting "virgin" (oh, you gotta love puns), I definitely had some questions. I did learn some new things while on my visit, such as the difference between white and dark balsamic vinegars. I sampled, sampled, sampled until I found my favorites.

I came out with the following:
  • Cranberry-pear balsamic vinegar
  • Strawberry balsamic vinegar
  • Sweet basil EVOO
  • Blood orange EVOO

I've already got a lot of ideas about using these, especially for salads! A strawberry balsamic-sweet basil vinaigrette would be great with a spinach and strawberry salad, but I'm thinking it'd also taste good as a reduction over chicken. However, I'm really excited about the cranberry-pear and blood orange - they taste so fantastic together! It's so good I would drink it as a cocktail. Throw a little vodka in there and you've got yourself a party! Although I can only imagine the looks I'd get when I bust out the vinegar as a mixer. The college kids already think I'm crazy just for drinking wine at parties. But I digress...

Oils and vinegars make up the majority of their inventory, but Di Olivas also sells a selection of specialty pastas, tapenades, salts and olive oil-based hair and skin care products.

On my way out the door, the shop assistant said to me, "I have a feeling you'll be back."

I have a feeling I will be, too.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Going it alone...

I just finished Day 2's new and exciting task and I'm quite proud of myself! I made a meal that I've never made before, without using a recipe! That might seem totally minor to some, but let me provide a little background. I'm a strict stick-to-the-recipe kind of girl. "30-minute meals" generally take 45 or 60 minutes for me, because I'm so anal about double- and triple-checking the recipe to make sure I'm following the directions correctly. So when I'm making something that's not completely basic (e.g. scrambled eggs), I need to have a recipe.

Tonight I decided to challenge myself. The game plan: throw things together, in a somewhat logical way, and hope that it turns out. The hubby was gone tonight, so if I screwed up dinner, that would just be on me. I can deal with a failed personal first attempt, but I kind of hate disappointing other people. Anyway, my plan was a mix between pasta alla vodka and chicken piccata.

I prepared the pasta, chicken and sauce all separately, in case something went awry. I prepared the chicken breasts simply, seasoned with salt and pepper and sauteed in a bit of olive oil. I started the sauce with minced garlic sauteing in some butter and lemon juice. After a minute, I added some citron vodka and let that all reduce down. Total, I ended up adding the juice of 1 and 1/2 small lemons (I love lemon juice!). After this, I threw everything together with some additional salt, pepper and EVOO. I added capers at the very end to tie in the "piccata" part of the inspiration. That, and I'm sort of obsessed with capers lately.

The verdict: The capers and lemon juice added a nice, acidic brightness to this dish. The little textural "pop" of the capers were a nice contrast to the pasta and the chicken. I really liked the way the subtle citron vodka flavor played off the rest of the dish. Success, if you ask me! It was really fun to combine the vodka sauce and piccata styles together, and even more enjoyable because I sort of just blindly ran ahead, using only my prior culinary knowledge, instincts and tastebuds to guide me!

Thoughts for next time: I wanted to saute some minced shallot in here, but didn't have any. I also wanted to sprinkle some fresh parsley on top at the end, but the store was all out of that today (lame). I did like using thin spaghetti with this kind of sauce. Any larger pasta wouldn't have worked as well, IMO. And throwing in some veggies might be tasty, too. Like mushrooms or, ooh, asparagus! That could be yummy.

Overall, I'm pretty psyched that I gave myself this little challenge. I'm really excited to do this again, to experiment with dishes, tweak old favorites, etc.

Lesson learned from today's new experience: going out on a limb can lead to bigger trees.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Delightful French Confections

Today began much like any other day, except perhaps for the elevation of my mood (blame it on the sunny morning, the coming of spring, or the excitement of knowing I was going to try something new today). The day progressed much like any other, but as the workday drew to a close, I decided to make a fun little stop on my way home home.

My "something new" for the day became a post-work snack trip to a little French bakery/cafe near my office - La Bonne Bouchee. I've been here several times for lunch, but I've never tried any of their sweet treats before. Which, if you've ever seen the massive amount of beautiful treats they have displayed in this place, you'd praise me for my willpower.

I chose 4 lovely little confections: a raspberry meringue, one chocolate-dipped madeleine and one plain madeleine, and a bag of petit French macarons.


They all looked and smelled fantastic. I ripped open the bag before I even started my car. The chocolate-dipped madeleine was the first and the best. The chocolate created this wonderful soft shell around the fluffy, light cookie that had just the subtlest hint of almond. For some reason, and despite the fact that I grew up very far from France, this madeleine reminded me of my childhood. I can't quite put my finger on it, but somehow it brought me joy.

The raspberry meringue continued on the road to bliss. It was like cotton candy for the discriminating palate! There's still that airy puffiness, but the flavor is truer and not so sickeningly sweet.

The petit French almond macarons were no disappointment. Each one was better than the one before it! I was actually excited to come to a red stoplight, just so I could sample another macaron. The almond flavor is just so good! It's delicate, yet has a really nice, sweet nuttiness. I highly recommend them! (They also received a shout-out in last month's Sauce magazine... check out the article here.)

I think the lesson to be learned here is that a plain old Tuesday afternoon can be greatly enhanced by divine treats such as these. And that trying something new from someplace familiar can turn out to be a great experience.

My first attempt to make each day more exciting and pleasurable? I think we can call Day 1 a success.