April 28, 2008

Skillet Cornbread

The other day, a friend asked if I knew how to make cornbread. Of course I do! When I was a young girl, my mother and I- oh, no, wait, I'm a guy. Men who leave the South have a different set of skills: grilling, mowing the yard, repairing the, uh, carburetor? OK, let's face it - I have the skill set of a metrosexual 20-something. I can wear slim, designer slacks, choose a fierce bottle of wine, and wire a set of audiophile loudspeakers in two minutes flat. But the goal of this blog is to shatter that glass ceiling in my kitchen, so why not bake some cornbread this weekend? This particular recipe came from Food Network's website (link at the bottom) and was chosen almost entirely because it involved bacon (and, as we know, a meal with bacon is better than a meal without).

The preliminary steps - and those that make this recipe different from other cornbread recipes - is to cook up some bacon, minced garlic, and jalapeños. These will act as the flavor base in the crusty top of the cornbread since we'll be pouring the cornmeal mix right on top of these and their greasy, delicious juices. Cook the garlic and jalapeños until they've softened and the bacon has browned, but remember that we'll be baking them for almost half an hour. To be honest, you're not going to be able to taste the jalapeño if you use less than the recommended four, so don't be squeamish. The taste of the cornbread itself will far overpower the other ingredients unless you get a bite consisting mostly of bacon, and the bacon grease won't absorb the garlic or jalapeno flavoring because it's, well, grease. We Southerners sure know how to eat healthy, amIright?

We see here combined two separate containers. In the first, cornmeal (my only option was Quaker brand; I guess there's not a lot of competition in Albany grocery stores), baking powder, baking soda (they're different, but no one knows how), salt, and pepper. In the second, buttermilk, two eggs lightly beaten (here's an opening for a joke, but my mind is a barren wasteland), and melted butter. Then mix these two together to form the batter we'll be adding straight into the skillet. It may seem like a lot in the bowl, but it should nicely fill a 10" skillet (the one shown is 12", which the ladies prefer [groan]).

The first picture here is the batter in the skillet before baking, the second 25 minutes later (oven at 450). It came out just right. Insert a knife and if it comes out damp or greasy, stick the skillet back in the oven. Technically, this has been prepared upside down and you can flip it over onto a serving plate, but I'd recommend against this. For one, this top is better looking than the crispy bottom (compare pictures three and four, respectively). For two, a cast iron skillet is heavy and you'll never keep the bread intact while flipping. So cut in, serve, and enjoy. I know cornbread is usually eaten with a meal, but I think this is a sufficient enough amount of work for a bachelor.
Food Network's recipe: Skillet Cornbread

April 21, 2008

Blackened Scallops with Sauvignon Blanc-Lemon Caper Sauce

I was rather excited about this dish for a number of reasons. On Saturday, some friends and I drove down to an outlet mall outside NYC. They had a Le Creuset store that, while the cookware was unbelievably expensive, sold a book on cast iron cooking I had to pick up. As you've seen, I have a cast iron skillet I've used a few times before, but now I have a good excuse to use it more often. This dish also allowed me to experiment with a new type of seafood, though scallops aren't quite as "hardcore" as some other saltwater meats. And I tried a new photographing technique which I believe has resulted in better pictures. I'll let you be the judge! [The Centrum Performance in the second picture was not part of the ingredients.]

So down to business: the scallops will be seasoned with a combination of garlic powder, cayenne powder, salt, ground pepper, and your favorite selection of seafood grilling seasonings. Thoroughly cover the scallops and, once some butter has melted into your skillet, add the scallops to cook. By the time they've browned on each side (aim for five minutes per), the meat will be nice and tender inside, so remove them and set them aside.

Now for the part I'm not so sure I got right. Deglaze the pan with some of the white wine and lemon juice, stirring in the bits from the bottom of the skillet. Naturally, the cast iron is full of succulent juices and we'll be using the wine to loosen what's cooked down. However, once I did this, my house was full of steam and now smells completely of almost-burnt seafood (seriously, my windows and doors are open as I write this... a whole day later). Add garlic and the capers, melting in some butter, and cook for a few minutes (not long). Pour this concoction over the scallops and serve!

The sauce in the pictures is dark, yes, but not solid. Interestingly, the meal itself was very flavorful, though the meat quite tender and neutral. The seasoning was alright, but the sauce and capers were both strong - the capers like a pickled olive. Overall, I enjoyed this dish, though I wish I could get the smell out of my house. That's all for now. Farewell!

April 15, 2008

Crab and Corn Chowder with Pasta

In all fairness, Rachael Ray calls this "Crab and Corn Chowda-Mac", as a mix of New England meals: corn chowder with crab meat and mac and cheese. How New England is mac and cheese? Don't ask. But, I live here now and I'm trying more seafood items, so this seems like a pretty easy way to nail all my goals. A forewarning: the quantity of ingredients used and the temperatures I cooked at rendered the milky chowder-ness gone. I'm not sure how liquid Rachael planned this dish to be, but mine ended up more floury. Enough rambling, on with the cooking!

I don't have a lot of pictures for you this time. This meal was actually quite easy to make. Choose a large type of pasta (I chose rigatoni because it was, well, large) and cook it until al dente. This can happen while you're preparing the chowder itself. Slice up some bacon, an onion, celery ribs, and a small red bell pepper. Put the bacon on first to cook for a few minutes, then add the chopped onion and celery, cook a while longer, then add the bell pepper.

Pretty simple so far. The interesting part (and the first part that makes it properly chowder) is to add two tablespoons of flour. This immediately solidifies around the bacon and veggies and results in a stiffer concoction. Adding a cup of stock and a cup of milk will complete the chowderification of our meal. I think, in retrospect, I shouldn't have halved these liquid quantities as I did the majority of Rachael's servings (I'm not feeding four, I'm on a diet). Using a full cup (I used half) of each would have resulted in a far more chowder-like dinner. Anyway, once the milk is bubbling - and, presumably, before it has cooked down - add the crab meat and corn kernels. Heat this through and season with a cup or two of shredded white Cheddar cheese and cayenne pepper.

So, yes, we can observe my real problem. Many pictures of these dishes are turning out unappetizing (I swear they look better in real life). A close flash is necessary to get sharp images, but the flash itself reflects off the often moist food in a terrible way. Turn the flash off and my shaky hands ruin all photos. The proper method of photographing culinary renditions would involve (I suspect) large, indirect lights and a tripod-mounted SLR camera. I, however, do not have a thousand dollars to spend on photographic equipment. Nevertheless, I will do my best to improve future pictures. Oh. Right. The meal. It was actually quite delicious, especially if you enjoy crab meat. Could this meal work without pasta? Certainly. The cheese and bacon add a fantastic flavor (or mask the crab, if that's your thing) and more milk next time would've given us a proper chowder even a native Northerner would be proud of (I'm just faking it). See ya next time!

April 6, 2008

Montalcino Chicken and Buttered Gnocchi

This weekend has been such an absolute disaster, I'm rather surprised my house didn't catch fire. I tried my best to pretend like I didn't exist, but how could I neglect you, solitary reader? And so I present a dish near the end of my Rachael Ray cookbook: Montalcino Chicken with Figs and Buttered Gnocchi with Nutmeg. Alas, a more fitting title would be Jacob's Creek Chicken without Figs and Buttered Gnocchi with Nutmeg. Rachael Ray married in Montalcino, Italy and she requests a Rosso di Montalcino red wine for this meal. As you could surmise, I used a Jacob's Creek Shiraz instead. First, the preparatory ingredients:

The well-trained eye will notice the pancetta! Only one grocery in my area carries pancetta and only diced. This recipe actually calls for thick, sliced pancetta, but I'll just have to do without, since I live in hell's northern retreat. Gnocchi (which, as it turns out, no one in the world knows how to pronounce) is an Italian dumpling. When boiled, it's soft and chewy. The two herbs on the cutting board are chives (top) and parsley (bottom). The chicken has been dredged (yep, that's a cooking term) through flour. The meal is cooked in two parts - and simultaneously if you're talented: the chicken and vegetables, and the gnocchi [See why the Oxford comma is necessary? -Ward].

The pancetta is cooked first (and, diced, it cooks fast) then set aside. Grill the chicken on both sides for a few minutes and push to the edge of the skillet to add the sliced onion and crushed garlic. Figs are not in season as I write this, but if they were, or if you were mentally capable enough to remember things, you could add your substitute now. I, however, forgot. Sauté for a few minutes and then add some quantity of wine. Rachael's recipes, when they call for wine, always turn out normal looking. Mine turn out as if I bled all over them (and if you're aware of what I did with scissors Friday, this would not be a bad bet). Once the wine has cooked down, add a bit of chicken stock, the parsley, and "zest of 1 lemon". When you feel that this has been done sufficiently, remove it from heat.

While you're cooking the chicken and vegetables, boil water and add your preferred quantity of gnocchi. Gnocchi will boil quite fast depending on how much you're preparing. Once softened, add it and/or them to a small sauce pan that has been melting butter. Season with the chives and nutmeg and sauté until slightly brown. Once finished, combine the chicken with the pancetta and gnocchi and serve. Delicious! OK, a word of warning before you click on the larger version of this final image: sliced onions cooked in red wine look exactly like earthworms.