A Beefy Return

Ladies’ Beef Stew

My favorite place is my local Hannaford market. While the main Lowell store is larger with a bigger selection, Billy the Kid and I prefer the closer and smaller Dracut location, with clerks that know us by name and two buggy-carts, one of which is almost always available at 9:20 in the morning. Last week, while BK unpacked the cart into a precarious tower on the belt, I noticed the in-house publication, “Fresh,” for the first time, free with a purchase of $25. It’s done shockingly well considering its primary value as marketing collateral, with little self-aggrandizement and absolutely no paid advertising. The January/February issue features a bunch of soups and stews, as well as various comfort foods and chocolate desserts.

The first recipe I chose to execute was for Cinnamon-Spiced Beef Stew, an odd title for the corresponding anise-explosion. Fennel seeds are usually used in moderation, but creator Nina Simonds is not taking any chances that you might miss the parfum. I followed the recipe below exactly, but next time I’ll halve the fennel, as I don’t need to address my dinner as “madam.”

2 tbsp olive or canola oil
2 lb Angus round stewing beef
2 tbsp flour
4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3 onion, each cut into 6 wedges
1 1/2 lb crimini mushrooms, cut in quarters
3 cinnamon sticks
1 tbsp fennel seeds
3/4 C full-bodied red wine (Shiraz or Cabernet)
1 lb peeled baby carrots
3/4 C reduced-sodium beef broth
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp salt (a charming but ridiculous suggestion – use 1 tsp)

Put the flour and beef in a large mixing bowl and toss with a wooden spoon until the meat is completely coated. Heat up 2 tsp of the oil a large pot over medium-high. Add half of the beef and sauté until golden-brown on all sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the seared meat to a bowl, add another 2 tsp of oil to the pot, and throw in the remaining beef. Repeat the sauté, then transfer to the cooked-meat bowl.

Add the last 2 tsp of oil to the pot, give it a minute to heat up, then add the garlic, onions, mushrooms, cinnamon sticks and fennel seeds. Sauté over medium heat for 1 minute, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add 3 tbsp of the red wine, and scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pot. Cover it up and cook until the onions are limp, about 3 minutes.

Return the seared beef and any juices to the pot, and add the carrots, remaining wine and broth. Stir everything up well, bring the liquid to a boil, cover it back up and turn the heat down to low. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the beef and vegetables are tender. I must intercede here; the author estimates cooking time to be 1 hour 15 minutes after the final covering, but your meat will not be tender for at least another 45. Plan accordingly.

Stir in salt and pepper before serving (unless you’ve been adding them all along the way), and serve with potatoes or crusty bread.

Happy (and trying really hard to not be underwhelmed) Presidents Day!

President’s Day Breakfast for Dinner

A nicely heaping plate of blueberry pancakes, pure maple syrup, Adobo-seasoned eggs over medium and cast-iron-fried bacon seems adequately presidential, as far as I’m concerned. I recommend the standard Bisquick box recipe, but add a little sugar and vanilla, and just a pinch of cinnamon. For the eggs, a light sprinkling of Adobo over the tops as they fry is plenty, and I always cook them just until the whites are done to maximize yolk-dipability for my bacon, each strip of which is brown and crisp, save for the chewy 1/4″ fat-tails. Real maple syrup is essential, considering the heartiness of the meal; that amber-colored corn syrup that Butterworth and her kind sling will have you unconscious one third of the way through your plate. Yeah, that’s right; Aunt Jemima’s not a victim. She’s this guy’s avatar, so pay the extra $2 every other month. You know he does.

Michael F. Barry, CEO Quaker

Weird, but good. But really weird.

Isn’t-that-Interesting Sandwiches

Nothing says unnecessary deforestation like a printed publication based on the content of the auxillary website of a major and long-established printed periodical. Still, as I flipped through the most recent copy of MixingBowl.com (exactly) in the check-out line of my market, several pictures adequately whetted my un-lunched appetite, and I soon found myself enthusiastically parting with $4.99. Let’s just say that’s a little much to pay for this “Better Homes and Gardens Special Interest Publication.” Featuring recipes from three spotlighted contributors, as well as multi-page spreads on topics such as “It’s Chili,” “Open a Jar,” and “10 Recipes You Can’t Screw Up,” the good people over at the Meredith Corporation are obviously fans of the get-content-on-that-page approach to print media.

Nevertheless, I’ve selected a handful of recipes to test such as Slow Cooker Clam Chowder, Easy Chicken and Noodles (from the “Picky Eaters” section), and a chocolate chip cookie that fascinatingly employs corn syrup and vinegar. My first audit, however, was of DEECOOK’s Grilled and Peppered PST (Prosciutto, Spinach, Tomato). While conceptually a little Californian for my taste, the contributor redeemingly hails from Durham, NC and detests okra, two reassuring qualities.

The Peña reviews were mixed; Mr. P had to remove the Brie immediately, and he tried his hardest to plow through the rest cheerfully, but a wife knows. I, on the other hand, found it absolutely delicious, yet the indefinable oddness kept me on edge through the last bite. Mr. P noted that it might work well with mozzarella instead of Brie, but I’m not convinced that substitution alone would negate the hmm-factor. Here’s how I went about executing DEECOOK’s masterpiece (I assume you can find his exact version on the less expensive virtual mixingbowl.com).

To make 4 sandwiches:
1 8-oz pkg cream cheese, softened
1/4 C grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 C roasted-garlic pasta sauce
1/4 C canned green chile peppers, chopped
8 slices prosciutto
1/2 C unsalted butter, softened
4 cibatta rolls, cut in half
10 oz high-quality Brie, sliced into 1/4″ thick squares
1 C fresh baby spinach leaves
2 tomatoes, sliced 1/4″ thick
salt and pepper

Mix together the cream cheese, pasta sauce, chile peppers, Parmesan, and a little salt and pepper. In a cast iron pan, fry the prosciutto until crisp, then transfer it to a paper-towel lined plate to drain the grease. Butter the INSIDE surfaces of the sliced cibatta rolls. The buttered surfaces will be the outsides of the sandwiches. For this reason, you may want to slice off a little of the raised tops of the buns. With the buttered sides down, layer each of the bottom halves with slices of Brie, tomato slices, spinach and prosciutto. Spread garlic sauce onto the top halves (again, not on the buttered side), and assemble the sandwiches. In a hot cast iron pan, cook the sandwiches over medium heat until each side is golden brown and the Brie has melted (give it a couple of flips, it’s not a steak).

You’ll want to serve this with a hearty and starchy companion, as you may, like poor Mr. P, wind up calling it a tater tot night, depending on how this perplexing fist fight of a flavor combination strikes you.

Sometimes I take one for the team.

Pollo en Qué-es-cabeche

I recently came across a recipe Mr. P had scribbled on a leaf of small notebook paper some time ago. While this is another example of the put-everything-in-the-pot-and-cook method that always sets me on edge, Mr. P knows his home cooking, so I called him at work to make sure that, “really, no water? just that much oil and vinegar?” (I should also mention that, while in the Spanish language, escabeche usually refers to pickled dishes, the Puerto Rican version calls for chicken cooked in a vinaigrette and olive oil sauce). With a go-ahead from the Protectorate, I executed the following instructions, transferred everything into a Tupperware container, and stuck it in the fridge for Mr. P’s dinner. I don’t go in for this kind of thing, myself.

Held up by a compelling appointment with a Mr. MC Frontalot in the city, Mr. P returned much too late for a meal, so the chicken marinated for another sixteen hours before making its debut earlier this evening. I still haven’t tried it, but according to the man, chicken was falling off the bone and leaping into his mouth. I have a feeling that “escabeche” is a love-or-flee flavor combination. Do you get really excited about vinaigrette dressing? How do you feel about a whole lot of oil-boiled peppers and onions? Does the aroma of the pickling process make you anxious? These are all questions you’ll want to answer before you get too invested.

2 lbs chicken breasts, bone in, skin on (one split breast did it for me)
1 lb storage/yellow onions, sliced into thin rings
1 large green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
6 large or 8 small cloves garlic, whole
3/4 C olive oil
1/2 C vinegar
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
salt and pepper for rubbing

Rub the chicken with salt and pepper. You want a big pot for this; I used a large, deep skillet with a tight-fitting cover, but a large saucepan is fine, too. Set the pot over medium-high heat and add 2 tbsp of olive oil. Once it’s hot, sear the chicken breasts for 2 minutes on each side (all 3). Add the onions and peppers and mix them in, under the chicken, before adding all the other ingredients. Get the liquid to a boil before turning the heat down to medium, then cover the pot and let it cook for 40 minutes. Check in every 10 minutes or so and turn the chicken to prevent burning. After 40 minutes, remove the cover, and cut into the chicken to see if it’s done. If not, cook uncovered for 10 to 20 more minutes.

My chicken looked dry after the initial 40 minutes, and I was relieved when Mr. P reported succulence. So, you’ll want to immediately transfer everything from the pot into a plastic container and stick it in the fridge overnight. Oh, did you not want to start tomorrow’s dinner this morning? Also, this should be served with the elusive Puerto Rican white rice, so make sure you’re self-confidence tank is full before taking it on.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Hamilton!

Deposit-Your-Soul-Here Devil’s Food Cake

Last night, I managed to type the following: “I’m looking forward to an early retirement this evening, having just concluded Mr. H’s annual birthday dinner, Steak Hamilton and Cheesy Potatoes,” then immediately succumbed to the food coma induced by filet mignon, sauteed mushrooms, twice-baked potatoes, and a deliciously sneaky Muscat contributed by the couple, which made for a difficult bed-extraction this morning. But it was the rich, moist, chocolate cake that did me in; elastic pants were donned within seconds of our friends’ departure. Breaking a cardinal rule, I made a new cake for company. How could I act so irresponsibly when Mr. H’s birthday cake was at stake? I’ve had the 1960’s recipe for Betty Crocker’s Devil’s Food Cake for as long as I can remember, and I’ve started assembling the mise en place to make it on countless occasions. However, while I keep a laudable stock of baking ingredients in my pantry, I’m repeatedly foiled by the buttermilk. Yesterday, I remembered the recipe’s existence before a scheduled trip to the market, and I trust Betty more than I do myself.

It was, as expected, hellishly good. By far the heaviest cake I’ve created, forehead-tingle commenced within a record two bites, and though the double-dark buttercream frosting lent an adult depth, Billy the Kid cookie-monstered his slice with standard enthusiastic vigor. It was indeed a truly happy birthday for us all.

Above: Remains of the Cake

1-3/4 C flour
1 C sugar
1/2 C brown sugar
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1-1/4 C buttermilk
1/2 C shortening
2 eggs
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 tsp vanilla

Set your oven to 350 and grease and flour two 9″ cake pans. In a large bowl (preferably that of a stand mixer), cream together the shortening and sugar until fluffy, then cream in the brown sugar until the color’s consistent. Beat in the eggs and vanilla by hand until the batter’s smooth and airy. Add the flour, baking soda and salt, and stir the dry ingredients in while slowly pouring in the buttermilk. Give the whole thing a rigorous beating before stirring in the chocolate.

Stick the bowl under the mixer or get out your hand-held, and beat on high until it looks smooth and delicious, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the batter into the pans and pay close attention to leveling for this one. Bake them side by side in the center of the oven for 30 minutes (give or take 5, until a wooden-pick inserted into the center comes out clean, duh), but give each pan a 180-degree turn half-way through. Let the layers sit in the pan for 5 minutes before running a knife around the perimeters, then turn them out onto wire racks to cool.

The outsides of the layers harden quickly, so a soon as they’re barely warm, seal them with the following non-optional frosting.

2 C powdered sugar
4 oz unsweetened chocolate
1/3 C butter
1 tsp vanilla

Melt the butter and chocolate over low heat in a medium saucepan, stirring frequently to prevent the chocolate from burning. Once melted, turn off the heat and stir in the vanilla. Proceed to stir in the sugar in half-cup increments, and accompany each addition with 1 tbsp of water. Add more water as needed throughout the process, but no more than 1 tbsp at a time, lest your frosting turn into icing. Once you’ve incorporated all the sugar, the frosting will probably look a little greasy. That means you need to add more water and beat it as vigorously as you can. You can grab the hand-held if you don’t do a lot of baking and it’s killing you, but you’ll wind up sacrificing the love. I don’t have a slightly more muscular right upper-arm for no reason.

After you frost your cake, let it stand uncovered for a half hour to let the shell set, then cover it up until you don’t have anywhere to be for the rest of the day. I felt awful for so gastric-ly incapacitating the Hamiltons, as they had an hour of driving ahead of them, but as someone who enjoyed the option of passing out quickly, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the evening.

Put the meal back into breakfast.

Mrs. P’s Breakfast Potatoes

It’s time to get unreasonably excited about another skillet seasoning opportunity! Cast iron and home fries enjoy a perfect symbiosis, the oil from the potatoes greasing the pan while the starchy buildup seals it in for a nice long moisturizing. The frequent scraping off and incorporation of the browned coating lends a crispness that contrasts delightfully against the clumps of soft potato and caramelized onion. I don’t recommend adjusting the salt in this recipe; were I facing dietary changes due to high blood pressure, I’d sever my relationship with the home fry completely before I’d witness it lose its soul to the realm of the low-sodium.

3 baking potatoes, diced
1/2 large red onion, diced
1/4 C vegetable oil, plus more on hand
1-1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp dried cilantro

Heat the oil in your skillet over high heat until it’s hot, about a minute and a half. Add the potatoes and spread them out in the pan, then leave them alone for 2 minutes. Fold them over with a wooden or metal spatula and leave them for another 2 minutes, and repeat this process until all the potatoes have at least two browned sides.

Open up a small circle in the middle of the pan and pour in another tbsp or so of vegetable oil, wait 10 seconds, then add the onion and fold into the potatoes. A metal spatula works best, as the potatoes will want to break apart as they soften. Scrape any stuck-on residue off the bottom of the pan and you fold.

Turn the heat down to medium, add the salt, pepper and cilantro, and continue to cook, folding and scraping every 3 to 5 minutes, until you achieve your desired level of done-ness. This will take a while, and you should plan on chopping your first potato about 45 minutes before you want to eat. The picture directly above illustrates the stage at which you’ll want to eat them, but remember that you trade looks for taste when it comes to home fries. I cook mine to the stage shown all the way at the top, then let them sit in the pan for 10 minutes or so off of the heat for a final crisping. Whatever your preference, don’t forget the eggs over easy for yolk-dipping, and jelly should figure into this in some capacity, whether on toast, English muffin, or a buttered and grilled bagel.

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