Sunday, November 21, 2010

How to Make a Birthday Dinner: Part Two

And as promised, the second half of the birthday meal....

Problem #2: Steakhouse at Home

A good steak dinner makes a special, and delicious birthday meal. Fortunately, cooking steak is relatively simple, as long as you remember to keep it simple. For this dinner, I purchased two giant T-bones from the grocery store---this state might not have the strongest appreciation for cheese or microbrews, but it sure does appreciate good cuts of beef. The steaks were sprinkled with kosher salt and fresh pepper, then seared in a pan with a tablespoon of oil for 3-4 minutes per side. I used a meat thermometer to cook mine to medium (about 150 degrees) and Dave's to rare (about 120 degrees).

With the steaks I served corn, twice baked potatoes and a bottle of Dave's favorite wine. The corn was, well, corn and the wine was delightfully as expected, but the potatoes were a high-calorie masterpiece in themselves. I highly recommend these---just don't weigh yourself afterwards.

Twice Baked Potatoes
Serves 2

2 large baking potatoes
1 tbs melted butter
1/2 c sour cream
1/4 c milk
2 tbs butter
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 c shredded cheddar cheese
2 green onions, sliced
2 strips bacon, cooked and broken into pieces

1. Preheat oven at 425. Pierce potatoes all over with a fork. Microwave on high for 5-10 minutes until fork goes through potatoes with light resistance. Check every three minutes or so; cooking times can vary depending on the size of your potatoes.
2. Let potatoes cool for 5 minutes. Slice about 1/3 of the top of each potato, length-wise.  Scoop out the flesh from the potato skins and put into a bowl, leaving about 1/4 in. of potato flesh remaining inside skins for stability. Brush inside of skins with melted butter and bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes.
3. Add sour cream, milk, 2 tablespoons butter, salt and pepper to the potato flesh, mashing with a potato masher to smooth out lumps. Add 1/4 cup shredded cheddar and one chopped green onion and mix.
4. Scoop potato mixture back into skins. Top with remaining cheddar and bacon pieces. Bake for another 10-15 minutes until cheese is melted and bubbly. Top with green onion slices to garnish.

Alright. I really better get back to that gym now.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How to Make a Birthday Dinner: Part One

Birthdays, even if they aren't my own, are times I always look forward to. After all, anytime you have an excuse to go out, eat at a fancy restaurant, consume cake and have a drink at your favorite bar is pretty much a good day for everyone involved.

So what happens when your birthday boy is sick of restaurants, is not a big fan of cake and hasn't yet found that perfect Cheers-quality bar?

Problem #1: Cake Apathy

I love desserts, in pretty much all its forms. I don't think that's a secret. The Husband, on the other hand, seems to have an underdeveloped sweet tooth. He regularly turns his nose up at cakes of all kinds, calling them too sugary, too fluffy, too dense, too boring, too bland (my response to this is usually "but its CAKE."). The one type of cake that he does like (other than cupcakes, due to a long standing and little understood dessert dispute with a friend --don't ask) is cheesecake, specifically pumpkin cheesecake.

For the past 5 years or so, I've made the same cheesecake for this man's birthday, despite my nagging desire to tweak everything I make more than once. He likes it how it is, and since it's his birthday, I restrain myself.  After all, I suppose it is pretty good as is.

Dave's Birthday Marbled Pumpkin Cheesecake
adapted from Renee at

1 1/2 c crushed gingersnap cookies
1/2 c pecans, chopped fine
1/3 c melted butter

16 oz cream cheese, softened (Philadelphia is best)
3/4 c white sugar
1 tsp vanilla
3 eggs
1 c canned pumpkin (Libby's only)
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
dash of allspice and ginger
caramel sauce

1. Preheat oven at 350. Mix the crushed gingersnaps, pecans and melted butter together in a bowl. (I pulse the gingersnaps and pecans in a blender to crush them, though a food processor would probably work better. If you want to go low tech, a plastic bag and a rolling pin will also work just fine, though it will take more time.) Press the mixture into the bottom of a springform pan, and up the sides about an inch. Don't worry about getting it perfect; it won't really matter later.

2. Bake the crust in the preheated oven for about 10 minutes, and set aside to cool.

3. Blend the cream cheese, vanilla and 1/2 c sugar in a mixer until smooth. Add eggs one at a time, blending well between. Set aside 1 cup of this mixture.

4. To the remaining mixture, add the pumpkin and spices, blend well. Pour the pumpkin mixture over the cooled crust. Drop spoonfuls of the reserved cream cheese mixture on top and swirl with a knife.

5. Bake the cheesecake for 45-55 minutes, or until set. The top of the filling will begin to crack around the edges when it is done, but the filling at the center will still wobble slightly when the cake is shaken. This is fine: the cheesecake will continue to firm up in the pan while it is cooling outside the oven. If you cook it until it is completely firm, it will be overdone. Allow the cheesecake to cool completely, and leave in refrigerator for at least 4 hours before serving. Run a knife around the edge of the pan before releasing the springform.

6. Serve slices of cheesecake with drizzled caramel sauce. Personally, I think this is crucial; it really brings out the pumpkin flavor, and makes the entire dessert seem more decadent and special.

Well guys, that's one awesome cheesecake for you. In my next blog we'll cover, in admittedly backwards order, how to do a killer main course. Vegetarians beware, this one's not going to be quite as up your alley!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gumbo: Part of a Balanced Work Out

The work out freeze has ended!

Finally after nearly an entire year stuck in a contract with our old gym in Madison, the contract has finally expired and Dave and I can finally justify joining a gym!

Its been months for me, and probably over a year for the hubby, but we're determined to return these flabby abs and weak little chicken arm to their former glory. The biggest change I've noticed, however, after working out consistently for about two weeks is unfortunately not a pair of rock hard abs, but instead something rather counter productive: I'm hungry ALL THE TIME.

I suppose making (and eating) a batch of oatmeal cookies doesn't help the situation.

In an effort to get the most out of his work outs, Dave is seeing a personal trainer for a few sessions.  Along with a butt-kicking work out schedule, the trainer has suggested a few foods as part of his new work out diet.  He was practically giddy when he showed me one item on the list.


I don't like shrimp. I'll eat them ever now and then, but mostly, I think they just taste like fishy meat grapes.

Dave loves shrimp. When I tell him that they taste like fishy meat grapes, he replies "mmmm, yes exactly. Delicious."

I'd prefer to just not bother with the funky little crustaceans (is that what they are?), but it's doctor's orders. Plus, I'm not one to back down from the personal challenge of trying to make something that I don't like actually palatable for ME.

So of course, whenever I'm out to make a recipe that is guaranteed to be good (and likely packed with plenty of lengthy extra steps), I turn to my good old Cook's Illustrated. This time, its Creole Shrimp and Sausage Gumbo.

Not being from the South, I mostly just know OF gumbo; I've had it maybe once of twice before, but its definitely not part of the standard meal line up.  As it turns out, there's probably a good reason for that.

Gumbo is not for the faint of heart, or the short on time. Like many southern dishes, its designed around the assumption that you have the time and the love in your heart to Do. It. Right.

First, there is the roux, which is where any good gumbo starts. It's made from vegetable oil and flour, which is heated for about 20 minutes while stirring literally constantly until it turn a deep chocolate brown. The roux is the base of the soup and if you don't take care of it, there's no point in doing the rest.

To the roux, you add diced celery, red bell pepper, onion, garlic, assorted spices, and a fish stock made from shrimp shells and clam juice. This cooks for another 30 minutes.

Then my favorite part, the andouille sausage goes in. Another 30 minutes. Finally, the final element that precipitated the entire affair comes to the stage--shrimp,added only in the last 5 minutes of cooking. Finish with chopped scallions, parsley, and a spoonful of rice and volia! You've got a gumbo.

All in all, the entire process took about 2 hours, which is a pretty long time for what is essentially a very meaty stew. But it's like I said; lots of care, lots of time.

Dave thought the gumbo turned out great. In his words, "Ah, Southern food. Tastes great, but always manages to look like poop."

I agreed that it tasted pretty good, but really...I could have done with less shrimp. They were palatable, but really, after all that effort, I mostly just wanted to eat the broth and the sausage. So I guess in the end, it's a part win. If I had to eat shrimp to survive, this would definitely make it easier. But given the choice between shrimp and not shrimp---verdict still goes to not shrimp.

The recipe for Oatmeal Cookies used in this blog can be found in Baking Illustrated: The Practical Kitchen Companion for the Home Baker. The recipe for Creole-Style Shrimp and Sausage Gumbo can be found in The Best of America's Test Kitchen (2008)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Healthy vs Unhealthy

I am aware that I may not eat/make the healthiest food around. If I have to choose between something tasting good, and something being healthy...well, life is too short for light mayonnaise.

This isn't to say that I don't try to make some food a bit healthier, or at the very least insert some veggies. But when all is said and done, and I've made something that I think is actually worth eating--can I really call it healthy anymore?

Case Studies: Healthy or Not Healthy?

Case #1: Eggplant Parmesan with Spaghetti

  For Healthy: Aside from containing plenty of vitamins and minerals, eggplants are also frequently piled onto the antioxidant-rich, new age brain food band wagon. Also, complex carbs like pasta are good to consume 30 minutes before a work out---so this meal LEADS to healthy activity.

For Unhealthy: Lots of cheese and frying involved. Technically, I have made these by baking the eggplant instead of frying...I just like it better when it's fried. Big surprise.

Case #2: Tofu Peanut Stir Fry

For Healthy: Packed with veggies, including snow peas, red pepper, carrots onion and of course, tofu! What's even better, it tastes really good. This is what I call my "tofu conversion" dish. I've made this for a number of tofu haters who even admitted that it tastes great. So not only is this healthy---it's gateway healthy.

For Unhealthy: Once again, to get this to be so tasty, I bread the tofu with a tasty breading and spice blend, then fry the crap out of them. The peanut sauce on this is amazing ( House of Tsang's Bangkok Padang Peanut Sauce) but I would have to say that the breading and frying is what makes this dish. It makes the tofu taste great, without attempting to make it taste like anything else. I think that's what I love the most about this dish; its delicious tofu, not tofu pretending to be bacon or turkey and failing.

Case #3: Cheetahs

For Healthy: This is one of those foods that never really sounded appetizing to me until someone gave them an adorable name. Yam fries, sprayed with canola, liberally sprinkled with cumin and salt, and baked until spotted (like a cheetah!), then dipped in ketchup and BBQ sauce. More nutrients than potatoes, and this method of cooking is far healthier than traditional frying.

For Unhealthy: How much ketchup is too much ketchup to make a yam palatable? Is it really healthy to eat that many yams? Yes, I ate all of these myself.

What are your favorite meals of possibly questionable healthfulness?