Friday, April 27, 2012

Giving in to your cravings

Believe it or not, this was more my craving than the Happy Husband's. It was a combo craving for a wedge salad (to be explained later) by the Happy Husband and crispy boardwalk style fries for me. The steak ended up really being the accompaniment to our uncontrollable cravings.

We will start with my craving, the fries, because, as expected it's Ladies First in this Happy Home. It was one of those days where I just NEEDED what I wanted. And what I wanted was a taste of the beach... Bring on the boardwalk fries, only problem being, we are about 2 hours away from the boardwalk :( Never fear though, I had potatoes, frying oil and salt, the three basic ingredients to the perfect fry. The first step with your fries of perfection is to cut the fries. Some people have the fancy pants fry cutters that you see at state fair stands... I do not. I do, however, have a mandoline with a fry cutting setting which evenly cuts the fries. You can do it old school too with a knife, just be sure to evenly cut the fries so that they cook consistently.

The next step is to turn your sliced potatoes in to golden brown amazingness, also known as french fries for those of you who aren't as obsessed as I am. The key, in my opinon, the secret to perfectly cooked fries is the blanch. This basically means that you will cook them twice. Contrary to popular belief, this does not result in greasy fries, it helps to properly cook the inside and then add a nice crisp to the outside. I keep the heat on medium-high on my electric stove (I have NO idea what temperature I am frying at). I also do the first fry for an undetermined amount of time, generally its between 2 and 3 minutes. The second cooking session lasts until the fry is crispy and just dark enough. If you have ever had a decent boardwalk fry, you will know what color this is.

A major must do when doing home made fries is to put the fries on a cooling rack. Do not just set them on a paper towel or news paper!! They WILL get soggy on the bottom and nobody likes soggy fries. You will also want to salt your fries immediately after they come out of the second dip in the oil. This will help the salt to stick to the fries.

After the first fry, Blanched
After the second fry, Salted
Ok, so the most important part of the meal, my craving, has been taken care of. Now, onto the second most important part, the Happy Husband's craving. I have to admit that I am a HUGE fan of a wedge salad as well. There are some restaurants out there offering variations on wedge salads. Let's get something straight, there is NO SUCH THING as a variation on a wedge salad. I think they should be calling them wedge-style salads. A wedge salad has 4 ingredients; iceberg lettuce (this is the only kind that will do), real bacon, diced tomatoes and blue cheese dressing. If you really wanted, you could put some fresh cracked pepper on the wedge but if you have quality dressing you won't need it. The first thing you need to do for this glorious salad is crisp up the bacon (pig bacon people!). You want it to be crispy enough to easily crumble but not burnt. The other option, what I do, is to chop it up before you cook it. This makes it easier to brown it and just stir it around the pan. After it's good and crispy, drain the fat. You can save the bacon fat for frying eggs and making home fries on the weekend if your Happy Partner is into that kind of thing.

The next step is to dice up the tomatoes. You can do this while the bacon is browning. In the winter/spring, I prefer to use grape or campari tomatoes. They are probably the most flavorful that you will find out of season. In the summer and fall I use any type of tomato from my back yard garden or I buy them from someone else's back yard garden on the way home from work. I have the benefit of living near Amish country and having lots of road side stands to stop by on my way home from work. Now for the actual wedge part. Cut your iceberg head in half and then in half again... Magic! You have a wedge. Put the wedge on the plate, pour on some of your favorite blue cheese dressing, layer on your diced tomatoes and bacon. You now have a classic wedge salad which is one of the most refreshing combos you will ever eat.

Finally, we have our 'lesser' craving accompaniment, perfectly seared strip steak. There's really nothing new to speak of here as far as grilling thick steaks is concerned. Make sure you bring it to room temp before hitting it with the heat. For perfect grill marks, leave the meat alone. You shouldn't flip a steak more than once during the cooking process. If you are OCD about the criss cross marks, (yes, this is a Happy Husband issue) just turn the meat 90 degrees half way through each cooking time. If you ask me, the diagonal marks on these steaks are just fine.

Remember, giving in to your cravings once in a while is perfectly normal. Everything in moderation, including moderation :)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Breakfast Fit for a Hokie

When I first saw a plate of biscuits and gravy, I was less than impressed. It was a big pile of whitish lumpy goo on top of a food that I though was reserved for dipping in my mom's beef stew. I will say however that my opinion quickly change when I took a leap of faith and had a sloppy fork full. I don't remember exactly what restaurant served up my first taste but I am sure that it was in Blacksburg, VA and that I was probably a little bit hungover.

During my five year, yes that's right I took a victory lap at the end, stint at Virginia Tech I became more and more intrigued by the great southern breakfast tradition of biscuits and gravy. It started out as a hangover helper must have meal and grew into something I enjoyed making and eating on even a sober weekend morning. If you are reading this and are interested in the best version for a post partying night, I would most certainly recommend Hardee's drive thru. No shower or decent outfit required! If, however, you are interested in making the dish, please read on.

I have to thank my good friend Lindsey French for teaching me the basics of good sausage gravy construction. She also has a food blog called Foodie on the Rocks and you need to check it out! The first thing you are going to need is your favorite brand of breakfast sausage. It's easiest to get the kind in the big bulk roll rather than having to remove the sausages from their casing but if links are all you have, then just squeeze the goodness out of the casing into a pan.

It looks a little gross at first but once you chop it all up you are in good shape. Cook the sausage on medium-high and be sure to break up the bits as if you were browning ground beef. Once the sausage is nicely broken up and browned, drain the excess fat and put it back in the pan and back on medium-low heat. This next step is the most crucial for the thickening of the gravy. Add enough flour to coat the amount of sausage that you have in the pan. You need to cook the 'raw-ness' out of the flour, this is called a roux. The sausage, unless you are a weenie and used turkey or chicken sausage, should still have enough fat in it to bind with the flour and cook down. If not you can just add a little butter to the mixture. After a minute or so you can add the milk. Barry and I keep 1% around for drinking and cooking. If you are using skim, it will still work, it just might not be as smooth. When adding the milk do it just a little at a time. REMEMBER you can always add more but you can't take it out. Add enough milk to where the gravy is just slightly thinner than you would prefer it. It will continue to thicken as it cools either in the pan or on the plate.

Now that the gravy is made, its time to talk biscuits. I don't think I knew that bread type products were available pre-made in boxes or cans as a child. My mom made pretty much everything from scratch. Cakes, pie crusts, biscuits, cookies, brownies (hers are the best!!); they were all made by hand from eggs, flour, butter and sugar, and they were all AMAZING. She did not pass this baking gene on to me. My sister, Gwen (who I owe all the credit to for the title of the 'Pork on Pork Action' post) is a fantastic baker and maker of sweet delights. I digress...

For the past 10 or so years, I have been using refrigerated biscuits out of a can for anything biscuit related. Last week Barry woke up and wanted biscuits and gravy for breakfast and I had no canned bread! What was a girl to do??? I decided to take the plunge and open up a cook book to a biscuit recipe. I have several cook books but I used my Joy of Cooking book for this extremely daunting task. The recipe seemed relatively straight forward; flour, baking powder, milk and butter. Impossible to screw up, right? Not so much... I tried to half the recipe but spaced out on the milk and put it all in. I ended up with flat but very tasty biscuits. This weekend, I decided to give it another go and just make the whole recipe to decrease the error potential.

I mixed the ingredients per the instructions. Cutting in ice cold butter with two forks makes a giant mess and takes a long time. I now know why my sister asked for a pastry cutter for Christmas last year. The next step was the rolling. I have a marble rolling pin that was my great grandmother's, and I have no idea if she ever used it. She weighed about 85 pounds soaking wet and this thing would probably weigh in at about 7 pounds, so I would imagine it was not used as much as the wooden one that she had. The directions say 'Roll to about a half inch thickness'. I do not have my husbands contractor eye for these type of measurements and rolled them a little on the thin side. I just kind of pushed them back together to puff them back up.

The recipe says that if you want the tops browner to give them a brush with butter or milk. I wasn't about to add another variable to my baking experiment so they went in the oven in the nude. I baked those terrifying little pillows of hell for the directed time and, to my surprise, they actually puffed up and grew into real, recognizable, edible biscuits!!

I was ready to celebrate!! For me this was perfection... Split one of those puppies open, pour some of the gravy goodness on it and call it a day but this was not the case for Barry. He is an eggs with every breakfast kind of guy. He grew up with back yard chickens and they laid enough eggs to feed an army. Which was a great thing because my mother-in-law ended up with three sons who are all over 6'4" and love to eat! She is a great fried egg maker but my favorite of hers is quiche. She made 3 fantastic quiches for my bridal shower a couple of years ago and they were the hit of the party.

Barry loves a sunny side up, runny yolk egg. He also loves to have those slimy little suckers piled on top of his biscuits and gravy. Thereby, ruining the posterity of the biscuits and gravy in my opinion, but I'm just the cook and I will give people what they want. For me, the easiest way to cook a sunny side up egg, is to use a non-stick pan, spray it with a little Pam and cook on medium-low with a lid over them until the whites are just cooked through.

These are not done enough.
The final plate can be seen below. As you can see the membrane on the egg on the left had just started to turn white. That's when I know the eggs are done. This was a pretty high calorie breakfast but we ended up being able to work in the yard non-stop for about 6 hours thanks to the carb, protein and fat in our southern delight breakfast. If only I could get him to eat grits... maybe next weekend.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pork on Pork Action

If this is what you were thinking when you read the post title...


In all seriousness, we really did have some pork on pork action at dinner last night. Yesterday morning I decided that I wanted to have pork chops for dinner. During my daily meal planning session, generally at lunch or on the way to work in the morning, I was trying to figure out how I could make my center cut, lean pork chops special. I have done them on the grill with rubs and sauce, marinated in balsamic and Italian dressing, and oven roasted them in my amazing cast iron Le Creuset pan. I wanted something different... so Bacon Wrapped Pork Chops it was. I figured the bacon would add some nice flavor and help to keep the chops moist and I was SOOO right. 

Let's discuss some bacon wrapping technique. On something of this magnitude you are going to need full slices of real bacon. No sissy center cut or turkey bacon allowed here. Not to mention that most of the fat from pork belly (that's what fancy people call bacon) will cook off on the grill. You will also need to secure the bacon in several spots with wooden tooth picks. Save the plastic ones for your party appetizers or fru fru drinks. I like to put about 4 evenly spaced picks in something of this size. If you think you need it, and I did on this one, you can secure where the ends of the bacon meet with an extra pick. I would also suggest using the non-dyed variety. As you can see above, I couldn't find my regular ones and ended up using the rainbow colored party picks. 

Grill your chops to your desired done-ness. Please do not ruin your pork chops by turning them into inedible pork hockey pucks. Unfortunately, I grew up disliking pork chops because my mom LOVES overcooked, dry pork chops. It is perfectly safe to eat a juicy, tender chop these days! You will also want to watch out for flare ups on the grill from the dripping bacon fat. Time for the final, and probably the most important, cooking with toothpicks tip. Remember to REMOVE THE TOOTHPICKS before serving. If your loved one(s) is anything like my happy husband, you will have a very unhappy dining enthusiast on your hands when they sink their teeth into a pointy toothpick of destruction (see picture above). I know this from personal experience!!

For the sides for our Pork on Pork Action meal, I went with our old stand by of roasted potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts. The potatoes were tossed with extra virgin olive oil, garlic salt, and pepper. The sprouts had a similar treatment but with lemon pepper seasoning rather than garlic salt. When I cook these two sides on the same tray I take the sprouts off when they start to brown around the outer leaves and I take the potatoes out when they get a little crispy on the edges. The sprouts will undoubtedly cook faster than the potatoes but will hold their crunch and heat nicely if kept on a plate on top of the hot toaster oven or in the microwave.

I'll leave you with this photo of the plate all put together. Hopefully I will get some different plates soon to help showcase the Happy Husband Diner meals. I am also happy to say that even my hockey puck pork chop loving mother enjoyed this juicy Pork on Pork Action. On a side note: Barry got an awesome new DSLR camera for the business and is letting me use it for the food shots. I hope you enjoy the higher quality photos as much as I enjoy taking them!!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Super quick fajita buffet!

So we have yet another entry from the grill!!! Now, I know in the past I have said that I like the grill because it decreases the dish load. For the photo, I used 5 bowls and a 15 pound bamboo cutting board that doesn't fit in the sink when I try to wash it. This is the dedication that I am putting into these photos for you guys! 

We have had this same meal on many a pre-blog night... The beans are served out of the pan they are cooked in. The fajita meat, peppers and onions are sliced on a dishwasher safe cutting board and stay there until they are put into their happy tortilla shells. The sour cream and salsa containers have spoons sticking out of them and the cheese is served out of the resealable bag that it comes in from the store. Yet again, I have my mother to thank for teaching me this fabulously efficient serving technique.

I would estimate that it took me about 25 minutes from start to finish to make these fajitas. This does not count the time to take the chill off the fajita meat when it comes out of the fridge. It would also take a bit longer if you were using chicken or pork or if you preferred well done beef as my beef is cooked to medium rare. In order to get this meal cooked in a hurry without feeling like you are rushing through it, you will need to do some planning in your head on the way home from work.

The low sodium mix is preferable
About 20 to 30 minutes before you are ready to start cooking (this for me is right when I walk in the door) you need to take the meat out of the fridge and season it. For my fajitas I like to use the pre-made taco or fajita seasoning from the grocery store. If you don't have it on hand just mix some chili powder, salt and a very small amount of cayenne to taste. The next thing you need to do is go to your bedroom and change so you don't stain your decent work clothes. Plus comfy pants are just sooo much better for your mental transition into being home and not thinking about work.

Ok... now that you are comfy, if you feel the urge, help yourself to a glass of wine. It is ever so much easier to cook with a glass of wine around! The next step is to light the grill on high. If you don't have a grill its ok to broil your protien of choice or pan sear it. While the grill/pan is pre-heating, pop open a can of black beans, give them a rinse and throw them in a small sauce pan with a little bit of water, some chopped up garlic, and diced jalepeno. Bring the bean mixture to a low simmer and leave it on low for the duration of the cooking adventure. Be sure to add some more water if it starts to look too dry.

I may have 'borrowed' this photo :)

The grill should be up to temperature by now. Slice a sweet onion into rings and core a green pepper but leave it one piece, then rub down the onion, pepper and fajita meat with olive oil. Put the pepper, onion and meat on the grill. This time is also a great opportunity to warm your favorite store bought tortillas. Cook the meat to your liking... medium rare is best for beef fajitas. I like to grill the onion and pepper until they have nice grill marks but they are still somewhat crisp. Nobody likes a soggy veggie and it makes it much easier to bite through the fajita without pulling out whole pieces of onion and pepper. Once the grilling part is done, bring in the goodies and let the meat rest for a few minutes. If you slice it right away, you will end up with nasty dry fajita fixins and all the yummy juice will be all over your cutting board and more than likely all over your counter.

While the meat is resting, if you want and you aren't dish-phobic, you can dole out the toppings of your choice into little serving dishes and garnish with some freshly chopped cilantro. Some of our favorites are light sour cream (it tastes the same as full fat and its waaaay better for you), diced avocado, salsa (your favorite jar brand works for when you are in a hurry), mexican shredded cheese blend and of course the sliced grilled peppers and onions. Barry's favorite way to have his salsa, avocado and sour cream is to blend them all together into a 'fajita' spread.

Finally, 25 minutes later, you are ready to eat. Get out your plates, serve up some of the black bean mixture, and save room for the fajitas. Pile all of your fixins onto your warmed tortillas and roll them up into yummy little packages to feed your happy family.