Blog of an aspiring foodie

Archive for February, 2005

Good drink, good meat, good God, lets eat!

Posted by beer_chris on 19-February-2005

Last night was Jaime's birthday, and we went to Perry's Grill and Steakhouse, here in Clear Lake on Bay Area Blvd. It's probably the finest dining to be had in Clear Lake, and I've been there a few times over the years. Many of the engineers I work with in Baytown (most of whom also live out here in the CLC) have their company anniversary dinners at Perry's – it's a popular place.

As you walk in, you see the large bar (which has been expanded since the last time I was in) behind a panel of floor to ceiling frosted glass that separates it from the foyer. There was a jazz trio playing on Friday when we were there: a stand up bass, grand piano and drums.

As you enter the dining room, a smallish and slightly crowded space, the first thing that is noticeable is the large wine cellar – it fills up the entire wall between kitchen and dining room, and contains probably a dozen private boxes. Perry's is pretty well known in the Clear Lake area for the unique wine list – and the wine cellar is displayed obviously as the pride of teh restaurant.

The dining room feels a bit like a bistro with booths. A large serving buffet juts out from the kitchen entrance (just to the side of the wine cellar) – it was serving as a waitstaff prep area on this night. My father in law said that when Perry's first opened, it was a far less formal restaurant, and was a cafeteria style place – the buffet was where you picked up your food after ordering it at the entrance. In any case, the place has a bistro feel, but the booths are kind of enclosed, and so keep it pretty quiet.

For wine, I usually jump right to the Chilean section in restaurants with a larger list, and tonight was no exception – the wines are so good and generally so reasonably priced. The waiter actually recommended a brand I recognized from my Chilean wine tasting class – Cono Sur small batch merlot (20 barrels). Since this is generally a wine you're only going to find in a restaurant (typically, these small batch wines are special purchases by the owners directly from the vineyards), I was interested. That it was only $45 sealed the deal. Jaime doesn't usually like merlot – to phenolic and dry, but since this was a 2001 vintage wine, I assumed most of the heavy, bitter tannic flavors so dominant in merlot that give it those puckering qualities would be mellowed with age – and I was right. The tannins were a big part of the flavor – not as big and oaky as a cabernet, but defintely a woodsy flavor, but balanced just right with the dryness of the alcohol, just like a good merlot should be.

I started with the turtle soup – which typically doesn't actually have turtle meat in it, but is a little bit of everything spiced with some cajun type spices. It's a thick, stewy kind of starter, and usually is orange colored (from I guess paprika?). When I had it at Brennan's for the first time a few weeks ago, the waiter walked around with a fifth of brandy and poured a splash into everyone's bowl – at Parry's the brandy came in a small glass for pouring in yourself. The soup was a little too pepperey, and the spice overwhelmed the brandy, but it was otherwise alright.

For dinner, I had the special – the chateau-briand, a tender cut of beef sirloin rubbed in pepper, seared on all sides (whole) and carved tableside, where each piece is cauterized in hot butter immediately after carving before being topped with Bearnaise and a rich brown sauce.

Interestingly, the floor manager was the one completing the preparations, and after cutting the first piece confirmed with my waiter that I had ordered the meat medium. He adjusted his searing time accordingly (and served it perfectly done, to order). All in all, no less then 4 different members of staff served us during our meal.

Speaking of tableside, almost all of the meals were prepared in part in front of us. Jim got the famous cold smoked pork chop, which comes out on the bone, and is carved off in front of you. For dessert, Jaime got bananas foster, one of the penultimate table-prepared dishes, and I got a digestif called 'cafe diablo', a flaming coffee drink containing about a shot each of frangelica, whiskey and brandy, which are mixed in the coffee and then the mixture is set aflame. Once it's burning, the preparer uses a ladle to draw flaming coffee-mixture about 3 feet above his prep table, where he lets it drip, flaming, back into the glass carafe he uses for the mixing bowl. It's an impressive concoction to look at, and quite good to drink, too.

The best part of Perry's – a premium restaurant experience for about half the price – the four of us were out of there for just at $200 (with an extra 20 thrown in by me to our waiter for the good recommendation on wine).


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A final accounting – Valentines Day

Posted by beer_chris on 16-February-2005

Well, all in all I'd say the meal went well, although I didn't quite hit my goal of 1 hour of prep time. The main issue was really that I didn't get home until nearly 7 PM, and Jaime wasn't home yet – but there was a message on the machine from Jaime, left at about 6:00 that left it pretty unclear when she would be in, so I was a bit hesitant to start things and have food get cold.

Additionally, because I made it my personal mission to finish an entire 12 pack (OK, 11) of Shiner Bock longnecks on Sunday, I never did get the brown sauce base made – that alone took about an hour and a half. If I had been able to do that the night before like I planned, I probably could have pulled off an hour of prep.

So, if I had pre made the brown sauce, we would have been ready in an hour (sans the dessert prep time, which wasn't included in my original estimates anyway)

The pork chops were a little overcooked. I aimed for a 150 degree internal temp and prob should have done 125. They were a bit dry – the port sauce, however, was GREAT, and I slathered it on my chop – hiding any errors in cooking the pork. It was super creamy, and so rich in flavor – just like some of the best pan sauces I have made. This was the first sauce I think I've ever made with my own roux. Something about making a roux is just therapeutic to me. Looking at the recipe, it seems somewhat intimidating to have to whisk something constantly for about an hour, but as you watch the flour slowly turn from white and to yellow, then to beige and dark taupe, and then finally to brown, all the while smelling the nutty toasted flavors it lets off, time seems to melt away. Between the rich flavor of the roux and the amazingly deep beefy flavor of my homemade veal stock, the sauce was the definite centerpiece of the meal for me – it took the most work, and did it's job magnificently, bringing all of the ingredients together to make a meal.

I also went ahead and added about 1 more tbsp of heavy cream to the potatoes to rehydrate them, and they came out GREAT. Jaime had a good laugh with me, finally comfortable to admit (between mouthfuls) the confusion she had when we first got married – she had a hard time understanding how I could cook wonderful complicated meals but make such (in her opinion) awful mashed potatoes – always very dry, not creamy at all. The gruyere potatoes, at least in her eyes, completed my Phd in mashed potatoes, and she was marveling at the turnaround.

That conversation reminded me how I've built my own cooking skills off of what my mother taught me – either directly or by my watching her – just about all the fundamentals of cooking I know I learned from her, but there were some things either we didn't eat at my house, or I didn't know could be made richer and more full flavored. Mashed potatoes were one of the latter. My mother always used russet baking potatoes, and put very little milk or anything in them before serving with a little margarine or spread. I grew up with dry mashed potatoes covered in salt and pepper – and I still have a taste for them that way (Jaime's opinions notwithstanding). When I had potatoes at Jaime's parents house for the first time, I couldn't believe her mother was using red skinned new potatoes – at my house those potatoes were ONLY for roasting, never for mashed. However, those mashed potatoes were some of the best I've ever had, and I've always remembered that. I now know it has everything to do with the moisture-starch ratio in the potato. So-called waxy potatoes like new and white boiling potatoes make very good mashed, because they contain a lot of liquid relative to the starch, making them easy to puree, but not so good fried because they end up too wet and slimy. High starch potatoes like russets make great baking potatoes and french fries because they flake up when cooked – but are not so good for mashed because they end up too dry.

In any case, I like mashed potatoes just about any way, made with any potatoes, but these gruyere potatoes made with the in-between Idaho Butter Golds were just grand.

I browned the chops in butter before I put them in the oven to finish, and I almost burned the butter again – I had the same problem with my Frankenroasters last week – in fact then I had to stop cooking and clean the pan out to get the burned milk solids out so they wouldn't ruin the chicken. I'm really having a hard time getting used to this electric range, and the temperatures seem highly variable. While I was making the stock on Sunday, the liquid would alternately boil heavily and then lose a boil altogether, without my touching a thing. Perhaps a new electric range might need to get on the strategic capital investment plan sometime soon. I REALLY miss my gas range.

The Nickel and Nickel 2000 Cab was simply fantastic. What an amazingly complex wine – it went so well with the port sauce and the sharp gruyere potatoes. It was just as good as I remembered it, but with the sweetness of the port sauce all kinds of cherry and fruit notes were coming out – I remembered much more of the deeper, richer oak flavors when we had it at Bren's b-day at the steak place, so it was like drinking a different wine this time. Jaime and I savored every sip, and had that bottle downed in less then an hour. The wine was so well aged – the tannin astringency and alco-phenolic dryness were just there, underneath the flavors, reinforcing them instead of dominating them. Fantastic, fantastic wine.

I can't reinforce enough how glad I am I dropped crazy money on that wine. How else would I have even known there was this almost other world of wines to enjoy? The N&N was so far above anything else I've ever had in terms of complexity and taste it's hard to even index it in my mind. I'll be buying something similar again for another meal, I'm sure of it.

Whether it was the great wine or the late evening, the failure of the dessert didn't seem like a big deal. By the time I cleaned up the dinner mess and had everything ready for preparing the dessert, it was well after 11PM. Jaime made the buttermilk cream filling, and I tried to mess with the apples – but my lack of a mandoline and the starchy apples I picked (Braeburn) turned out to be killer. The slices that weren't turning into starchy mush when I tried to bend them were much too thick. Jaime went ahead and set up the tart with apples just laid on top of it, and it was really, really good. The buttermilk cream tasted something like a mix between whipped cream and buttermilk waffle batter.

So much better then going out.

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Valentines Day Menu

Posted by beer_chris on 13-February-2005

Valentines Day has always been something of a personal issue for me. Before I met and started dating Jaime, I viewed it as one of those silly Hallmark-manufactured days, just concocted to sell cards and flowers to poor saps with girlfriends that didn't do anything nice or romantic any other time of year.

Once I got serious with Jaime, I learned the truth.

Everyone, even the women, know that it is a farce – a made up day that celebrates something that should be done every day as if it is the only day of the year where that kind of behavior matters. However, it's something like buying diamonds. No matter how silly (or overpriced) the ultimate conclusion is, if you don't put time and effort into getting the issue down right, your're in serious trouble – and if you do nothing – well, buddy, count yourself out, because you've just lost the game.

In any case, I used to complain that Valentines Day, although nominally the day for lovers, is really the day for females in a relationships, because dudes get pretty much nothing out of the deal. The guy has to plan the day, buy the flowers, get the card, etc. If he's lucky (which I am) he gets a card and a gift, but in general Valentines is a day where men do something nice for the women they love – and the women expect it.

Whether or not you happen to live with a S.O. that actually reciprocates on Valentines (which I do – Jaime I love you!) is kind of left to chance – our cultural mores say that the lady gets the honor on this day, and that's just the way it is.

That kind of sucks, but I've turned it into something good (at least I think so)

One of the things that typically happens in Valentines Day is some sort of romantic dinner out. In general, this is because the woman does most of the cooking, and so it really doesn't make sense that she would be working to make dinner on a holiday that essentially (as I've explained) honors her.

In my case, since I do all the cooking in our house, I get to choose whether we go out or not. I *hate* going out to dinner on Valentines Day. It's super busy, hard to get a reservation, you usually have to wait, and the restaurants are extremely busy, making it hard to have a nice relaxing dinner. For the last few years, I've instead chosen to make a nice meal at home on Valentines, and I let Jaime help pick what we'll be having. This year, my menu is as follows:

Baby spinach with gorgonzola, bacon and toasted sesame oil and balsamic vinegar
We love the spinach salad at Maggiano's. I've successfully cloned their salad, which has apples, gorgonzola, red onions and walnuts. It's FANTASTIC. I've also done all kinds of derivatives, and this is one I tried a few weeks ago with the steak dinner I posted about. I've modified the dressing somewhat – it's base is champagne vinegar and vegetable oil, with a splash (1 tsp each) of balsamic vinegar and toasted sesame oil.
MAKE AHEAD: I made the bacon bits from scratch and mixed up the dressing in my 7 seas dressing mixer thing I bought at the grocery store a few years ago (it has markings on the glass jar for vinegar and oil to make sure you get the proportions correct). I think mine is about 3-1 oil-vinegar. Prep on the day will be to toss the salad, bacon and dressing. I did make sure to get as much of the oil out of the bacon as possible by pressing it in paper towels while it was warm. I also sprinkled it on parchment in one layer and packaged it up that way, putting the folded parchment into a ziploc before putting it into the fridge. I don't want slimy bacon bits on my salad..
Thick cut boneless chops of pork loin with a port wine sauce
This is the centerpiece of my dinner. I'd been trying all week to figure out what I wanted to do, and finally settled on restaurant style thick boneless pork chops. I had to get the butcher to cut these special for me, and they are about 3 inches thick. I plan on cooking these about medium rare. I'll pan roast them in a little butter (I might also brine them, haven't decided yet) to get a nice crust, and then roast them in the oven for about 35 minutes, to an internal temp of about 150 or so. Let them rest for a few and then sauce it up.
The sauce is a port wine sauce I found in my Essentials of Fine Cooking book, a little 60 page Time-Life style book I got at Half Price books for about 2.50 a couple years ago. It's really been indispensable, as it has lots of just plain basics that taste great (unlike the basics in my Better Homes and Garden's Cookbook, which often cut corners and just taste OK) Anyway, the port sauce called for a brown sauce base, which uses beef stock at it's core. Since I had just made a veal roast (from Hazan's cookbook, realy good, another posting maybe) and had some leftover bones, ribs and short ribs of veal, I decided to make a veal stock. It's cooking now, and should be done by 11:00.
MAKE AHEAD: Stock and the brown sauce base. The chops and the actual sauce are made day of.
Potato puree with gruyere
I needed a starch, and paged through my Essentials book (see above) for the kind of mashed potatoes you pipe onto plates. This looked good, and I LOVE Gruyere cheese.
MAKE AHEAD: The Essentials book said you could make the whole thing ahead and reheat it. I may follow some alternate instructions and bake this to make a quasi-gratin, but I probably will need to add a little cream at reheat time to get the potatoes back moving again.
Steamed broccoli
This is for me – nothing special, just some steamed broccoli.
MAKE AHEAD: I trimmed up the broccoli florets to get them ready for the pot, and made sure to drain them throughly.
Buttermilk cream tart with apple roses
I asked Jaime to pick out a dessert, and she picked this from her latest Martha Stewart Living magazine. It is a puff pastry shell with a pastry cream base and apples soaked in a simple syrup and wrapped into quasi-roses. Red skinned apples are used to make the 'roses' look real. Golden delicious are skinned and used as the majority of the apple base. The apples are sliced very thin, soaked in the syrup, those slices are halved and then curled up together to look like rose buds. The pastry shell is made into a square container onto which the pastry cream (made with buttermilk) is spread onto it. The apple roses are then placed into tyhe cream. The recipe said not to use 'supermarket' pastry puff dough, so I looked into making it myself. Ha. That's a huge laugh. You need a chilled ROOM to do it right. It advised to use a specific brand that uses all butter in the pastry, Darfour, which is carried by Spec's, but they are closed on Sunday's. Rather then drive into Central Market, I went with Pepperidge Farm, which uses shortening. I also would have done better to cut the apples with a mandoline, but I went ahead and used my dull chef's knife, which did OK. I'm a little concerned that the Braeburn apples I used as the red ones are too starchy, as some of the slices were starting to break apart.
MAKE AHEAD: I prepared the pastry shell and apples ahead, but the buttermilk cream and roses have to be assembled at meal time. Jaime and I will do this together on Valentines.

All in all, I'm hoping for a dinner that takes no more then an hour of prep time. We'll crack open the Nickel and Nickel for this dinner as well.

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Mystery meat

Posted by beer_chris on 12-February-2005

Last night I tried to cook one of the cuts of venison that I received from Rob/my inlaws in Arkansas. The deer meat was gun harvested, and I have probably 20 lbs of various cuts in my freezer right now. On Monday I pulled what I thought was a rump roast out and put in in the fridge to thaw. It came to me in large dog food bags covered in ice, each cut wrapped double in plastic sacks from Wal-Mart.

In any case, the 'rump roast' I had was thawed by Thursday. I picked up some turnips, celery and carrots to make a root vegetable pot roast with the venison cuts. I thought there might be a bone in the meat, and so I was prepared to cut it out (even with my really dull knives, which need sharpening badly). Anyway, I pulled it out, pulled off the Wal-Mart bags, inhaled the sweet and spicy smell of venison meat, and noticed there was a bone. As I started to bone the meat, I noticed the bone seemed especially large. After about 15 minutes fighting it, I realized the bone was actually the spine. I was looking at the front end of an animal, the shoulders being the majority of the meat – it was a brisket cut, kind of, with the backstrap (sirloin) removed and the shanks already cut out. I went ahead and butchered the bone out, and ended up with two chicken breast looking pieces of meat, each full of long sinewy tendons and muscle fibers, and covered with a slimy silverskin I couldn't get off. I decided against pot roast at this point, both because my meat weighed less then 2 lbs total, the turnips were soft and sprouting, and it was 8 PM already. I went with a recipe for beef brisket – 2-3 hrs at 300 degrees, covered with foil.

I let it cook for about 2 and a half hours, and it was 125 degrees internal temp – medium rare. I let it rest for about 20 minutes, and it toughened up. I made a ketchup based sauce with the pan juices, and it was flavorful, but the meat was just too darn tough and dry to enjoy.

I also discarded the spine, as I wasn't sure it would make good stock. I'll have to find out, as I have some more cuts like this, and venison stock would make good soup.

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Posted by beer_chris on 9-February-2005

I finally did it – I cloned the KFC 'roaster' – and on my first try. I've been a fan of these fast food items ever since I first had them, although I was always slightly confused when I saw the nutrition facts: 670 calories and 38 fat grams! Yikes! And this was supposed to be KFC's healthy entry.

Well, turns out it just looks healthy. There's a reason they don't call it 'roastED' – cause it's fried. In my case, two breasts (filleted into 4 pieces) were fried up in about 3 tbsp of butter, with a splash of vegetable oil to raise the smoke point – and I got the taste just right. I'm guessing KFC uses Crisco or some other type of hydrogenated vegetal oil.

I've been considering attempting a clone for some time now. Finally had an excuse to do it this week.

The key to this half batter, half rub is the spicy sweetness – something I discovered when I first started exploring sauces (who'd have thunk that it's nutmeg that brightens a Bearnaise?), or when I was trying to get that last perfect ingredient to 'fix' my cream of tomatilla soup – extra salt was just making it saltier. No, it took cloves to really open up the bitterness and bring all the flavors together. So, I followed that as my guide and came up with the following (proportions are for 2 chicken breasts filleted into 4-6 pieces)

Roasterish chicken

1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp onion powder
2 tsp thyme (dried) be careful with fresh – use less!
1 tsp marjoram (dried) see above warning on fresh!
1'ish tsp paprika (just the generic kind – the expensive smoked Hungarian stuff is too strong for this)
1/2-1 tsp cinnamon (to, um, smell? see instructions)

Mix the dry ingredients together in a pie plate. Take a whiff. Add cinnamon until you can just smell it. Add enough paprika so that it smells earthy. Rebalance the cinnamon if you want to. Press your COMPLETELY DRY fillets into the rub, giving them a good covering. Let them rest for a few. You can also brine the fillets ahead of time if you think you need to. Melt 3 tbsp butter over medium heat in a moderately sized skillet (something that will hold all your fillets). Once it is foaming, add a splash of vegetable oil. Increase heat to medium high and put chicken in. Cook 5 or 6 minutes a side, until nice crust forms. DON'T LET IT BURN!!!!

I started with thyme as my base. I'm loving thyme lately on chicken, mainly because ever since I moved I don't have my fresh rosemary outside my door anymore (sad). I decided on a base of flour to get a crust – just enough – not really even noticeable, but needed something for everything else to stick to. I also added marjoram as a good accompaniment to the thyme. Tarragon was no good – too salady, and I like the mellow spicy aroma of marjoram. I added the onion powder as the base, kind of like a nice beige on a canvas – something for everything else to blend into. I needed something beyond herb tastes though, and decided something with fullness would be needed. I first pulled out the cumin for this and also had the cardamom ready for adding in. Those are full, round flavors, but add too much 'zing' along with it – each would have killed the thyme (not to mention the delicate marjoram flavors). I also thought about turmeric – it's round flavored, but I was worried about the color issues (it is nature's yellow dye), and it smelled so earthy. I liked the earthy smell, but it was too much. I thought some more about it, and decided on the ultimate in mellow, earthy but full flavor – paprika. It is smoky, earthy and almost spicy, but NEVER overwhelms, especially the plain old Food Club kind you can get for .79. I had a great mix with this add, but it still had the aroma of a few different, but well mixed, ingredients. That's when I thought of the sweet spices. Nutmeg would add too much of an earthy edge – I was worried it's bitter sumac overtones would be exacerbated by the paprika. Cloves would be too much – too spicy, would kill the marjoram. Allspice would just kill it all – so I settled on cinnamon. Totally – the – right – decision!

Ate these with mashed new potatoes, roasted elephant garlic, steamed broccoli and a tall cold one (that's really not fair, as DogFish Head Raison D'Etre is really minimized with the moniker 'tall cold one', but it is beer, after all)

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