Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The First Annual Food That Doesn't Suck Holiday Cookbook Blitz

Here's the idea: you like to cook. Your spouse/mom/boyfriend/kid wants to give you a cookbook for Christmas, but has nooo idea what's good and what's not.

So here's what we do: below, in the comments section, post a short--say, 20-50 word--review of your favorite cookbook. Be sure to include the title, the author, and maybe the publisher. Tell us why you like it, naming a couple representative recipes. See my sample, below.

Then wait a few days, come back, and see what everyone else has posted. Pick and choose, then pass the relevant details along to the shopper in your family, reminding them that cookbooks are one of those gifts that benefits them just as much as it does you!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Weekend Roast Beef and Potatoes

This dish is really really easy, but because of the cooking time, it's probably best for weekends. I grew up eating this roast beef. I suppose some readers of Bon Appetite will be offended by my use of dried french onion soup as a spice, but given the choice between hanging out with those folks and hanging out with the woman who birthed me, raised me, and continues to give me emotional support, I'll go with my mom a good 58% of the time.

I'm not really sure what to call the cut of meat you want to get for this dish: in Wisconsin, where I grew up, you just went to the meat counter and asked for a "beef roast." Down in Virginia, where I am now, there's top shoulder roasts and round roasts and beef butts and bottom round shoulder beef butts. Basically what you want is a nice hunk of meat (3-4 lbs.) that's got some fairly serious marbling to it. Too lean a hunk or too skinny of a piece will lead to a dried out roast.

Speaking of dry, one key here is to make sure the tinfoil wrapped around the roast is air-tight. Crimp and double-crimp all of the seams, and if you poke a hole in the foil by mistake, either start over or double wrap with another sheet. Seriously: miss this step and your roast will have the taste and texture of dried dog food.

Just in case, I've included a recipe for "gravy" here that uses the juice from the roast. I know it's not true gravy, and that if I'd read more cook books and cooking magazines I could put together a really fantastic concoction that would make even Julia Childs happy. But you know what? I drive 100 miles a day to and from work, have three kids ten and under, and just don't have the time or patience. And besides, this au jus stuff that I make tastes pretty good . . .

Finally, feel free to just make the roast and skip the potatoes, or just make the roast and the potatoes and skip the gravy. Whatever works for you.

And my apologies to the vegetarians in the crowd: I've yet to find a suitable soy-based substitute for a 3 lb. lump of meat. Coming soon though: a chick-pea pasta that'll knock your socks of.

The Roast Beef

1 3-4 lb beef roast with good marbling
1 envelope dried onion soup (I usually go with Lipton)
A really big sheet of tin foil, large enough to wrap around and tent over the roast

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Rinse the roast and pat dry with paper towels
  3. In a baking pan with lay out the sheet of tinfoil
  4. Pour half the envelope of dried onion soup onto the foil
  5. Situate the roast onto the foil
  6. Pour the rest of the soup mix on top of the roast
  7. Very very very carefully seal the roast in the tin foil. Be sure all seams are air-tight, and that the foil tents over the top of the roast. If possible, also leave a little space on the sides of the roast as well.
  8. Cook for 2.5 hours.
  9. Remove from oven. Carefully open the foil from the top, avoiding the steam and preserving the juices if you wish to make the "gravy" (below).
  10. Cut and serve.

The Roasted Potatoes

1-1.5 lbs small potatoes (new or red are fine)
Salt to taste
Olive oil or Olive-Oil Cooking Spray (e.g., Pam)

  1. Clean the potatoes and cut in half (or quarters, if they're large)
  2. Throw into a pot of water.
  3. Heat to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes.
  4. Test with a fork. If your fork can go in easily, they're ready for the next step. If not, let them go for another 5 minutes and test again.
  5. Drain the water from the potatoes. Spray cookie sheet with olive oil.
  6. Arrange potatoes, cut face down, on sheet.
  7. Spray very lightly with olive oil. Or don't, if you don't feel like it.
  8. Sprinkle with salt.
  9. Roast for 45 minutes, turning once if you think of it.
  10. Remove and serve, slathered in butter.
The "Gravy"

The juice from roast beef from above.
2-3 Tablespoons of flour
A large pinch of dried rosemary, crumbled between your fingers
Fresh-ground pepper to taste

  1. Pour the beef/onion juice from the tin-foil into a frying pan
  2. Spoon maybe half a cup of juice into a small bowl and mix with the flour until pasty and smooth.
  3. Pour the mix back into the frying pan and whisk. If it's still a bit thin, repeat step 2 with another 1-2 tablespoons of flower.
  4. Turn heat to medium-high.
  5. Crumble the rosemary into the sauce.
  6. Add pepper.
  7. Heat until it begins to thicken.
  8. Serve with potatoes and roast.
Family Ratings

Lucy, who loves potatoes, loves roast beef, and loooooves onions: 10
Will, who often leaves the table to get a toothpick: 8
Jamie, who also loves potatoes, but only if you let him have as much butter as he wants: 10
Ellen, who grew up eating roast beef and roasted potatoes in England and isn't a fan of beef: 6
Paul, who grew up eating this stuff: 10

Penne Vodka

Yes, this is the same dish you can get at your favorite Italian restaurant. And yes, it's full of butter and cream and cheese and alcohol, so you want to go easy and not stuff your face. But the great thing about it? Since it's basically a fancy mac and cheese, your kids will love it.

This pairs nicely with the Sweet Tart salad (below), especially if you use white balsamic vinegar for the salad dressing. And be sure to buy a loaf of crusty bread to sop up the leftover sauce--because, you know, this dish doesn't have enough carbs as it is . . .

Penne Vodka

1 lb penne or a similar pasta (the kids may prefer bow ties or rigatoni)
1 stick of butter (Yes: butter. Don't mess this up with margarine)
3/4 cup vodka
1/2-3/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup canned tomatoes, drained
3/4 cup grated Parmesan
1 teaspoon salt

  1. Cook the pasta according to directions. I like to leave it a little al dente. Whatever you do, don't overcook.
  2. Melt the butter in a dutch oven or other large pan.
  3. Add the vodka and the pepper flakes. Simmer for three minutes, or until just before your nose hairs don't curl when you put your head over the pot for a wiff. (You think I'm kidding, but I'm not . . . )
  4. Add the tomatoes and cream and simmer for five or so minutes.  Stir frequently to keep the items from separating too much.  
  5. Add the salt.
  6. Drain the pasta really well, and add it to the pan.
  7. Lower the heat and add the Parmesan. Mix.
  8. Turn off the heat and serve.
Family Ratings:

Will, who's loathe to give his father any positive reinforcement: 8
Lucy (oh my god, are you kidding?): 10
Jamie: 10
Ellen who's still skinny after all these years: 8
Paul, who's not: 10

Sweet Tart Salad

This is an easy salad that has bits and pieces to keep everyone happy. My basic philosophy here--as with a lot of my dishes--is that its okay for a kid to eat around the edges of a dish, because even if they're just eating, say, the apples in this dish, they'll be picking up other flavors, whether they want them or not. And over time, their tastes will expand and they won't even notice the "weird" things in a dish.

Okay, so it's just a theory.

A couple variations on this:
  • If you can't find good pears, use sweeter apples alongside the Grannie Smiths.
  • If the balsamic vinegar taste here is too strong for your kids, try white balsamic vinegar.
  • If the kids really fuss about the blue cheese, just put it in a separate bowl on the side for the adults to sprinkle.
  • And no, the extra halves of the apple and the pear don't go to waste. You eat them, dummy.
  • If you have leftover dressing, it'll keep for at least a week and maybe longer.
Sweet Tart Salad

One bag of green lettuce (red leaf, baby romaine, that sort of thing)
1/2 Grannie Smith apple, chopped
1/2 Asian pear, chopped
1/3 cup blue cheese
3 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
3 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon honey
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Mix the vinegar, olive oil, and honey. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Put the lettuce in a large bowl.
  3. Top the lettuce with the apples, the pear, and the cheese.
  4. Pour 1/2 of the dressing on the salad and toss. Add more dressing to taste.
Family Ratings on a scale of 1-10:

Lucy, who will eat everything but the blue cheese: 8
Jamie, who will eat anything we put in his mouth: 8
Will, who will only eat the apples and pears: 3
Paul, Ellen, and every other adult who's eaten this salad: 100

Friday, November 4, 2011

Creamy Tomato and Ravioli Soup

Back when I was in college, I was nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship. Nominated, at least, by a faculty member. The next step was to receive an endorsement from the college itself, and I never made it past that stage. The school could only send along the names of two students, and apparently the committee decided they didn't want some long-haired, earring-wearing dude whose main ambition in life was to be lead singer of Don't Kick the Baby to represent the college.

Of the two chosen, one was a pre-med major who started the first ever Tae Kwon Do club in northeast Iowa, something the committee, I guess, thought was more significant than writing songs about losing your parrot and cheating on your girlfriend in Budapest. He went on to be a heart surgeon at--*YAWN!*--the Mayo clinic. The year I was in Hong Kong on a Fulbright, the college alumni magazine ran a little--really little--article about my grant. Opposite it, they ran a full page--as in, one WHOLE page--article featuring old what's-his-face karate guy, talking about how he promised some little girl he was about to cut open that she wouldn't die and that he would (I'm not making this up) "dance with her at her senior prom." And then he did. Cut her open, I mean, and saved her life, and danced with her her senior year. Which is pretty cool, I must admit, but even so: I was in Hong Kong, eating dim sum and buying custom-made suits. Surely that's almost as important as saving some kid's life?

Oh well.

Anyhow, the other person chosen to represent my school was this smart, tough, funny, field-hockey playing braniac name Julie. And while I was tempted to be annoyed with Julie for taking MY spot at the regional Rhodes interviews, I'd had her in a class or two and I think she was an RA with me, and I kind of had to admit tha she was actually fairly brilliant and impressive in a midwestern kind of way. Anyhow, Julie went on to become a college professor just like me, fighting the good fight for crap pay and minimal perks. You got to respect that. And then she gave me this recipe. So needless to say, all is forgiven.

This soup is pretty self-explanatory. Like the veggie chili from a few weeks back, it has a few cans, but boy does it have a lot of flavor. And the kids really gobbled it down.

Two minor points before you start:
1) If you're a vegetarian, I'm guessing the chicken broth could be replaced with veggie broth.
2) If this turns out to be too much, the next time you cook it go all the way through the recipe and stop JUST BEFORE adding the ravioli. At that point, remove half the broth from the pot and put it in the refrigerator along with half of the UNCOOKED ravioli. Then save it for another day.

Creamy Tomato and Ravioli Soup

2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, diced
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 cans diced fire roasted tomatoes, drained
2 cans condensed tomato soup
2 cans of milk (use the tomato cans. um, duh.)
14.5 oz. can chicken broth (or veggie broth)
3 Tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
6 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
1 9 oz. package cheese tortellini or cheese ravioli

  1. In a large saucepan or dutch oven, saute the onions and garlic for three minutes at medium-high heat
  2. Add the roasted tomatoes, the soup, the milk, the chicken broth, the tomato paste, the parmesan, and the basil
  3. Cook, stirring occasionally, until warmed through
  4. Add the tortellini or the ravioli, and cook for approximately nine minutes
  5. Remove from heat and serve

Family Ratings:

Will, who likes to be clever: 8.9999 repeating
Lucy, who will eat a chicken tail but doesn't like cooked tomatoes: 8
Jamie, who had trouble eating the big raviolis: 7

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Ma Po Tofu

I should hate this dish: it has tofu, brown rice, and ground pork, three things I'm not really so crazy about. But dang it tastes good! And as it turns out, the brown rice is essential to the flavor of the dish. I've added extra here to give really fussy kids something to stuff themselves with if they won't touch the tofu . . .

Two tricks make this work: first, you have to press the tofu to remove a lot of the moisture. Second, you have to be patient while the tofu fries, letting it get a nice golden-brown color. If you're pork is too lean, you may want to actually stir-fry the tofu separately in a little oil ahead of time, then go back to step #7.

And actually, here's a third trick: if the word "tofu" scares your kid, just lie and say it's chicken. Or pork. Or Tuna. Whatever works.

This recipe feeds five pretty comfortably.

Ma Po Tofu
2 x 14.5 oz. packages of firm or extra-firm tofu
1/2 lb ground pork
2 Tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and chopped (or grated)
5-6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup chicken broth
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
4 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons oyster sauce
4 cups cooked long-grain brown rice
1/2-1 teaspoon chili garlic sauce
1/2 cup chopped green onions, to garnish

  1. Start your rice. Brown rice can take a little longer to cook.
  2. Line two plates with paper towels. Slice each cake of tofu width-wise into six smaller cakes. Place half the cakes on one plate, the rest on the other plate. Cover the tofu with another layer of paper towel, then place a heavy plate on top. Allow to sit for half an hour or so.
  3. Chop up the garlic and the ginger. Combine and set aside.
  4. Chop up the onions. Set on the table for garnish.
  5. Combine the broth, cornstarch, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and chili sauce. Stir well. Set aside.
  6. Cut each of your 12 tofu cakes into 8 roughly one-inch square pieces. You should be able to do this while they're still sitting on the plates.
  7. When you know the rice is close to being done, heat up your wok or a non-stick frying pan. Add the pork and crumble for two minutes. It may still be pink. Don't worry.
  8. Add the ginger and garlic. Stir-fry for 30 seconds or so, until it becomes fragrant.
  9. Add the tofu. Cook for six minutes or so, allowing it to become firm and golden brown. If the pork or the tofu start to stick, use your spatula to scrape under the meat. That way you won't break apart your nice tofu squares.
  10. Once the tofu is lightly golden, add your broth mixture and mix lightly. Bring to a boil and cook for two minutes or until the sauce thickens. Remove from heat.
  11. Serve the tofu over rice. Top with green onions.
Family ratings on a scale of 1-10:

Lucy, who will eat the onions raw: 10
Will, who likes it but deducts points for "spiciness" purely out of principle: 7
Jamie, who honestly believes he's eating chicken: 9