Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Brownies. They make life better.

There's something about Chicago weather. It has meteorological attitude problems. It misbehaves.

For those of you who have never been here, this is not simply because it gets really cold and really windy. No, it's because it conspires to trick you like no other place I have ever been. Only in Chicago could you be caught unawares in a heavy snow in no more than a sweatshirt, or be more layered than an Inuit for what turns out to be a sweltering day. Only in Chicago could you expect to experience a 30 degree temperature jump from one day to the next. Only here, on the banks of Lake Michigan, would you find yourself in a place that has been colder than Alaska, Moscow, or even the North Pole. Or hotter than... well, we haven't conducted that experiment yet. We only researched other temperatures around the world this winter. (So no, I'm wasn't kidding.)

Take this week as an example. After several days of clear skies and brilliant sunshine, I couldn't help but feel that, at long last, we were inexorably crawling towards spring. The Chicago Weather demons must have sensed the joy in my thoughts, and decided it was a fit time to anoint us with that delightful precipitation that is somewhere between rain, freezing rain, hail, snow, and sleet. I think the NOAA has taken to calling it a Wintry Mix. Five days of it.

In Chicago, one does not walk. One trudges.

[Insert rant about how Neen & Do are living the Bay Area, the Land of Neverending Spring. Grr.]

How in the world, you might ask, does any of this relate to food? Very simple: the "comfort" variety. And what can possibly be more comfortable than chocolate? Long and short of it: brownies. Brownies make life better.

HISTORICAL ASIDE: My obsession is geographically appropriate, because brownies were invented in Chicago. Seriously. In the Palmer House Hilton, in the Loop (downtown). Mrs. Palmer assigned her chef to create a new dessert for the ladies at the 1893 World Fair -- something with chocolate, preferably that could be handheld, but similar to a cake. Et voila: brownie.

Now, like Neen, I usually rely on the New York Times' old Supernatural Brownie recipe. As a matter of fact, I think it was this recipe that convinced my roommates that I was a chocolate fiend. There is unanimous agreement in my apartment that when I am in the kitchen, I provoking the slow and delicious deaths of all around me. Mwahaha!

Recently, however, I've uncovered a new way of making them. It lightens up ever so slightly on the butter and chocolate, allowing you to have more control over whether you end up with more cakey or more fudgy brownies depending on your cooking time. Furthermore, with the different proportions, they lose nothing of their luxuriousness while nevertheless not making you feel like you'll die if you have more than one or two. Or three. Or-- yeah, actually, I recommend you make multiple batches. In my experience, they disappear in about as many days.

These are "Classic Brownies," I believe originally clipped from the Joy of Cooking.

-1,1/4 cups cake flour (regular flour is fine)
-1/2 tsp salt
-3/4 tsp baking powder
-6 oz unsweetened chocolate (chopped fine)
-12 Tbs (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
-2,1/4 cups sugar
-4 large eggs
-1 Tbs vanilla

Adjust your oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a 13*9 baking pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper.

Combine flour, salt, and baking powder by whisking them together in a medium-sized bowl.

Melt together the chocolate and butter, stirring until it's smooth. Once smooth, whisk in the sugar. Add the eggs one at a time until they are thoroughly combined. Whisk in the vanilla.

Add the dry ingredients in three additions, folding in with a rubber spatula until the batter is completely smooth. Transfer to the prepared pan and bake 30-35min, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out with a few moist crumbs attached. I recommend sprinkling the top with some powdered sugar, just for decoration.

Supposedly, you should to let it cool on a wire rack for 2 hours before cutting and serving. Yeah, right. As if I could wait that long.

Suddenly, facing the outdoors isn't so bad anymore.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Homemade Parmesan Polenta with Shrimp, Pancetta, and Chard topping

So to celebrate Do passing his PhD exams (yes! He passed!), we spent this past weekend in Santa Cruz. Four blocks from the beach, in a 1929 Victorian house that had 5 bedrooms, 30 stained glass windows, and a giant box of Playboys hidden in the attic. I mean, there was stained glass in the stairway, stained glass in the bathrooms, stained glass on the kitchen ceiling. Not kidding. And if all that weren't deliciously random enough, we were there with a college friend we hadn't seen since 2005, my cousin, his wife, his wife's sister + beau, and five other people whom Do & I had never even heard of before we all arrived Friday night. We drove up, made introductions, and promptly began exploring all the nooks and crannies of the crazy house and giggling over the epic quantity of board games we had all brought down. It was that kind of weekend.

By the way, if you're ever in Santa Cruz, the best coffeeshop in the entire Western Hemisphere is called The Abbey. It's this renovated space behind a brick church with huge, comfy, retro couches, funky art, and some of the best coffee drinks I've had anywhere. Do & I happily spent Saturday afternoon there reading and discussing the late 20th century bureaucratization of science research. Very us.

So we read books on the beach. We ate seafood at every possible opportunity. We visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium (just as awesome as everybody claims -- Do remembered almost nothing from when he visited about 15 years ago, until we got to the ray touch pool. You get to pet Rays! Apparently that made a big impression on him back in the day. They feel like velvet, BTW.). It was a very ocean-themed weekend.

We didn't do much cooking during the weekend, partly because we were so busy running around having a good time and partly because cooking for 12 people whom you don't really know is complicated. However, at our last supper club get-together, we had a massive success with a new seafood-themed recipe: an Italian take on southern Shrimp & Grits. Massive Success.

I don't really cook with polenta or shrimp. The former is too often just a swanky cardboard-tasting filler, and the latter is a bitch to clean and/or tastes like rubber when pre-frozen. But this recipe... oh, man. Like most top-quality homemade Italian food, this recipe takes my preconceived notions of "shrimp" and "polenta" and throws them back at me with "You keep using that word. I do not think if means what you think it means."

(This weekend also involved ample quotations from Princess Bride. What better way to bond instantaneously with perfect strangers on Valentine's Day than by talking about "Twue Wuv"?)

Cook's Illustrated has an amazingly simple and delicious recipe for homemade Parmesan Polenta: creamy like grits, but much lighter (think fluffy clouds of goodness), and chock-a-bloc full of a Parmesan/olive oil/black pepper flavor. Not delicate, this one. Which goes well with the rough and ready take on the shrimp: lots of garlic, tomatoes, meaty pancetta flavor, hearty greens, and then these really delicately cooked shrimp. Think Italian. Think Addictive. Vampire deterrent served on pillows of Parmesan.

For those of you who find the thought of homemade polenta intimidating: it is so worth it. And it only takes 5 minutes total of hand time (25min cook time). Please, please, please try it.

For the vegetarians out there, I'm tagging this as "vegetarian" because the meat products are in no way critical to the dish: top the polenta with whatever you want and it'll still be awesome.

And by the way, a great use for the leftover Parmesan Polenta is to have it for breakfast, topped with fried eggs. Almost exactly three years ago, the Nytimes published a recipe for that very dish. Yes, we've had the clipping squirreled away that long and only ever fantasized about it. And I can finally assure the world that the dish is as good as it sounds.

Homemade Parmesan Polenta, from Cook's Illustrated (serves 6-8)
1.5 tsp salt
Pinch baking soda
1.5 coarse-ground cornmeal (also called "corn grits")
2 Tbs butter
4oz good quality Parmesan cheese, grated (~2 cups)

Bring 7.5 cups water to boil in heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda. Slowly pour cornmeal into water in steady stream, while stirring back and forth with wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Bring mxture to boil, stirring constantly, about 1 min. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover.

After 5 min, whisk polenta to smooth out any lumps that may have formed, about 15seconds. (Make sure to scrape down sides and bottom of pan). Cover and continue to cook, without stirring, until grains of polenta are tender but slightly al dente, about 25min longer. (Polenta should be loose and barely hold its shape but will continue to continue to thicken as it cools.)

Meanwhile, cook a polenta topping (see recipe below)

Once 25min are up, turn off heat, stir in butter and Parmesan, and season to taste with black pepper. Let stand, covered, 5min. Serve.

Shrimp, Pancetta, and Greens over Polenta, inspired by Gourmet Nov 2009 issue (serves 4)
Homemade Parmesan Polenta (recipe below)
1/3lb pancetta, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 - 1/2 tsp hot red pepper flakes
1 bunch winter greens, sliced into thick strips (chard, kale, whatever floats your boat)
2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1 14oz can diced tomatoes in juice
1-1.5lb cleaned large shrimp
1 Tbs chopped flat leaf parsley

While polenta is cooking, heat 2Tbs oil in a heavy 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat. Cook pancetta, garlic, greens, and red pepper until garlic is golden (~2-3min). Add tomatoes in their juice and simmer until liquid is reduced to ~1/4cup (~6-8min). Add shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp are just cooked through (~3min). Season with salt.

Spoon Polenta into bowls and top with shrimp mixture. Season with pepper and sprinkle with parsley.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Surviving PhD Exams with Indonesian Chicken Soup

Do's PhD Qualifying Exams are this Wednesday. He has been studying every day, evenings and weekends, for 11 months. For those of you outside academia, this event carries all of the anxiety of an Indiana Jones "Are you worthy to pass through, if not you'll die a painful death" ancient booby trap, but without the 3rd Reich and the Steven Spielberg dramatic soundtrack playing in the background. Like in the ancient Roman Coliseum, it'll come down to a thumbs up or a thumbs down from the Committee: thumbs up and Do magically transforms into a PhD candidate, thumbs down and we have to go through this 11 month hell again. If you get thumbs down twice, you get fed to the Lions: you're kicked out of the PhD program and pretty much have to give up on a career in the sciences.

Yeah, and he goes to the Coliseum this Wednesday. In 3 days. After 11 months of preparation.

All things considered, he's handling it pretty well.

So we've been eating a lot of "whatever will make Do happy." Turns out these days that's a lot of chicken soup. Friday night was our Matzo ball soup, and the week before was this crazy Indonesian Chicken Noodle Soup.

The soup was beautiful. The flavors and textures were complex. The ****ing recipe had so many moving parts that you should not make it without a sous chef (unless it's a dire emergency, like the week before Quals). I knew what I was getting into: this is a recipe out of the Williams & Sonoma Asian cookbook, a source known to gratuitously throw in esoteric ingredients and insert as many unnecessarily cumbersome steps as possible. Don't believe me? This recipe calls for you to grind a bunch of ingredients into a paste, which you then cook until fragrant (pretty standard for a south Asian recipe). I used a cuisineart. This cookbook wants you to do it by hand using a mortar and pestle! I mean, even freakin' Madhur Jaffrey (the Julia Child of Indian cooking in the 1970s) wanted you to use a blender!! Gah!

Anyways. So the soup is complicated and hand-intensive. But Do was so happy. The noodles expanded so that they sucked up almost all the liquid (the proportions are more Udon-style than a western chicken noodle soup). The dish was bright yellow and green, very cheerful for a winter day. It's delicious hot or cold (so good for leftover lunches). The flavors are authentically complex and nuanced. The fried shallots and hard boiled eggs and mung beans and all the other goodies add a ton of varying texture in every bite. He'd like it a little hotter, but didn't think it really necessary. Seriously, he took this dish into work every day for lunch and was so happy.

It's easy to buy chocolates and roses. In this household, we tend to display love by undertaking a very personal, labor-intense project, preferably resulting in something edible. One of our very first blog posts was about one such endeavor. In the spirit of V-day, if you want to really pamper somebody special (including yourself, because you're special too right?), I offer you this recipe. It takes so much effort, it must mean love.

Indonesian Spicy Chicken Noodle Soup, from Williams-Sonoma Asian cookbook (serves 6-8)
8 cups Chicken stock
1/2 lb bone-in chicken breast, skin removed
1/2lb bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed
1/2lb vermicelli
3 jalapenos, chopped (or more)
7 shallots
2 fresh ginger slices, peeled
3 cloves garlic
5 blanched almonds
2 Tbs lemongrass, chopped.
2 tsp tumeric
1/4 tsp ground coriander
2 Tbs fish sauce
2 Tbs lemon juice (Neen: don't add more, or lemon flavor will be more dominant than you want it)
3 eggs
1 cup bean sprouts (~ 1oz)
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
3 green onions, sliced on the diagonal.

In a heavy bottomed pot or large saucepan, bring the chicken stock to boil. Add 1 Tbs salt and the chicken, and return to a boil. Reduce heat to meduim and cook, uncovered, until the chicken is opaque throughout (~30min).

Meanwhile, soak vermicelli in water to cover for 15min. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, hard boil your eggs. (Suggestion: put eggs in saucepan and add cold water to cover by 2 inches. Bring just to a boil over medium heat, remove from heat, cover, and let eggs stand in water 20min. Rinse under cold water until cool, peel).

Meanwhile, roughly chop 4 shallots. In a cuisineart, combine 2 jalapenos, chopped shallots, ginger, garlic, almonds, lemongrass, tumeric, coriander, and 1-2 Tbs of water. Grind together until a paste forms. Set aside (Neen: if you have leftover lemongrass, which I did, just toss it in the simmering chicken broth).

Meanwhile, slice remaining 3 shallots and fry in 3 tsp canola or peanut oil until crisp and golden brown (7-10min). Drain on paper towels.

Once the chicken is cooked, use tongs to transfer chicken to a plate to cool. Pour broth into a heat resistant bowl. In the pot or large saucepan over medium, heat 2 Tbs oil. Add chile paste and saute until fragrant (~2min). Pour reserved broth back into the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 15min. Stir in fish sauce and lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper, and simmer for another 5min.

Meanwhile, shred the chicken into thin pieces, discarding bones. (Neen: again, throw them back into the simmering broth to add flavor).

Meanwhile, quarter the boiled eggs.

When broth is ready, discard all the solids (all that lemongrass and bones you added in). Add the drained noodles to broth and cook until just tender (~2min). Add chicken, bean sprouts, cilantro, green onions to pot. Ladle soup intro individual bowls and garnish with eggs, fried shallots, and the remaining jalapeno. Serve.