Monday, January 30, 2012

Week 4: Pan Frying - Chicken Parm

Week 4 I had a plan.  Chicken Parmesan created with a pan fry and my own style of balsamic pasta.  Then I got called in to work 13 hours on Saturday.  This forced me to adjust plans somewhat, but I had a plan, and by god I was going to make it happen.

This week was pan frying, and to me, that's all about the alternative to a deep fry.  I pounded out some chicken and set up my handy dandy breading station.  The standard breading station is pretty simple, but one of those things that is all about preparation.  Seasoned flour (in my case Emeril's Essence, garlic powder, an italian herb blend and salt mixed in) forms station one.  Station two is the egg mix, I go back and forth between just egg and a mix of egg and milk, for this one I splashed in some milk to help ensure I had enough.  Finally, the actual breading.  I almost always go with a mixture of italian bread crumbs and panko.  Obviously you can tweak the seasonings and bread crumbs to your own preferences, but I find that a mix of panko and "normal" bread crumbs works best.  Finally, for this recipe I added in a thin layer of freshly grated parmigiano regiano.

And now, we fry!  Cast iron is my go to pan for this type of pan fry.  It holds heat wonderfully, has steep and deep sides to reduce any chance of splashing or bubbling out and its reasonably easy to clean as well.  I put down about a 1/2 inch layer of oil (since I had several batches to fry up) into the pan and hit it with the flame.  After the oil hit the appropriate heat I dropped in my first two pieces.  Ok, technically I placed them slowly and carefully into the oil, but you get the idea.  After about 5 minutes I checked for a nice brown crust on the lower side and flipped them when I saw they were all set.  A few minutes later and they went onto a rack to drain, and into the oven to keep warm.  I had about 8 pieces to go through, and in batches of two at a time it took a bit to get them all ready for the final step.

With the chicken ready and in the oven it was time to toss on the final touch, some mozzarella cheese melted over the top of the chicken.  With the chicken complete I finished up the pasta (something I'm sure I will cover in more detail later, but its a simple mixture of pasta, sweated veggies, olive oil and balsamic vinegar) and plated it up.  I was incredibly pleased with the end result.  The chicken had a wonderfully crisp crust and a tender, moist interior.  The cheese made a nice extra layer of saltiness and delicious flavor; particularly when mixed with the sweet and slightly acidic flavor of the pasta.  Definitely a success, and fairly simple to create.

Next week we bring on the booze!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Week 3: Soup

Week 3 came to an end with a rush of cold air and snow, the perfect time for a winter minestrone.  This is a recipe that my family has had before, although I wanted to give it a bit of my own twist.  My minestrone starts with the standard mix of carrots, celery and onions cooked in olive oil until they just start to turn translucent.  Once they achieve this state, I tossed in some sliced up salami.  I realize this is not the standard choice, but personally, I love the flavor that salami adds to the soup, even more that other more standard additions.  Finally, the potatoes that are a core component of minestrone.

With the mirepoix, potatoes and salami ready and "happy" I tossed in a bunch of standard beef stock.  With the stock in place I gave it a few minutes to come up to a nice bubbling simmer before adding in my choice of beans.  I'm a big fan of red kidney beans (in this case pre-cooked and canned, just for simplicity) and cannelloni beans for their texture and flavor.  The all important seasonings came next.  I added some minced garlic, salt, pepper, bay leaves (make sure to count), a bunch of parsley and some basil to the brew.  With everything prepared I left the mix to simmer for about an hour.  I realize this is far more than is needed, but I like to give everything some time to really meld.

After an hour of gaming, I headed back into the kitchen to put the final touches and twists on my soup.  First I tossed in some diced tomatoes.  They add a bit more colour and flavor that is difficult to get anywhere else, but they can become a bit gross if left to stew for too long.  I also tossed in some fresh spinach.  Yup, spinach.  I like the extra flavor and earthiness it can add, as well as the obvious health benefits.  Plus it cooks down a lot and melds perfectly with the soup.

After about a minute (maybe two) the spinach cooked down nicely and it was time for the final addition.  Some pasta.  I really like a bit of orzo and stars in my soup.  They help thicken it up and absorb liquid making the soup a bit heartier, which is perfect for a cold dreary day.  The result of my experiment was a fantastic success.  A hearty soup that filled me up and warmed my insides, while also providing a nice healthy addition to my meals for the next several days.

Next week I'm going to tackle pan-frying, although I think I'm going to keep that one simple and go with one of my more standard meals.  Now its time to head back to the ever-present Starcraft II and the lovely Day9

Monday, January 16, 2012

Week 2: Chinese

For whatever reason Chinese is always about dumplings and wontons.  So for this week's challenge that was the clear choice.  Unfortunately, I've never done anything of the sort, so it was also experimentation time.  And, because I'm me, I decided it was time to try out a bunch of styles at once.  I decided to throw together pork and beef fillings, thin and thick casings, and to deep fry, pan fry, and steam a selection.  If that sounds like a ton of extra and unnecessary work just for the sake of experimentation, it was.  It was also 100% worth it.

Ok, lets start with the fillings.  Ground meat (pork and beef) was the starting point, and I tossed some finely diced cabbage and green onions.  Most recipes I found called for fresh ginger, unfortunately I was unable to find any at the store, so powdered ginger went into the mix, along with some sesame seed oil and dark soy sauce.  A bit of corn starch to bind it all together, and the filling mixture was born.

The dough also came in two parts.  The first was some store bought wonton wrappers, mostly because I don't actually know how to make them, and I figured I was in deep enough as it was.  The second was a fresh dough to go around the dumplings.  2.5 cups of flour, and about 3/4 of a cup of warm water combined into a simple dough to go around the dumplings.  Then came the involved part, wrapping them.

By the time I remember to take a couple of photos, I had finished wrapping all of the fresh dumplings and had moved on to the wontons.  It took a couple of tries on the dumpling wraps to get the proper pleat present in every dumpling I've ever had from a restaurant, but in the end I figured it out.  The wontons were easier, I went for a mixture of purse style and classic wonton style (both pictured above).  Some of them were pan fried, and the rest deep fried.

It took about 3 hours, but I finally had all 100 or so dumplings and wontons wrapped and ready to go. 
My trusty cast iron dutch oven was converted to a deep fryer, my steamer basket was finally used for its intended purpose (instead of as a strainer or cooling rack) and the ever present non-stick pan was ready to go for pan frying.

The end result was an unquestionable success, although there were a couple of lessons learned along the way.  First is that wrapping dumplings will take just as long as it sounds, maybe longer.  Second, you want to almost over-season the fillings.  They can handle a bit more salt, ginger and flavor than you expect, and its definitely worth it.  Finally, I learned that that wontons and dumplings are delicious, but are really are best when made in huge batches, its almost not worth it otherwise.

Some leftover duck sauce and a bit of homemade dumpling sauce (soy, sesame oil, vinegar and ginger) topped off the meal.  Everyone was quite pleased with the attempt and its definitely something that's going in my bag of tricks for special occasions, but its just too much work for anything more frequent.

Up next week:  Soup, I think I'll try a different experiment, but maybe something a bit less labor intensive.

Week 1: Eggs

Week 1 snuck up on me a little bit.  In classic style I tossed together a frittata on Sunday night.  For those of you unfamiliar with them, frittatas are a modified versions of the classic omelet.  They're simple, quick and make a fantastic last minute meal morning or night.

My particular approach was simple, go to the fridge, grab some shredded hashbrowns and eggs (the two components that are always present in a frittata) and then grab whatever leftovers were around.  For Sunday night that was some onions, green peppers, and deli meats left over from the week.  Finally, cheese, because no egg dish is complete without cheese.

The actual construction and cooking of the dish is very simple.  All you need is an oven, an oven safe non stick pan and a stove top.  The hashbrowns get mixed in with any veggies (such as my diced onions and peppers) and go into the pan with some oil, start them just like you would if you were making hashbrowns on their own (including the all important salt, pepper and garlic powder, everything else is optional).  While they get started, the eggs get whisked together with some salt and pepper (an important part of any egg dish).  The egg goes in on top of the potato mixture, with the deli meats (or any other cooked protein) on top.  Coat the whole thing in fresh shredded cheese and toss it into the pre-heated oven.  About 5 minutes after tossing it in you'll see the egg start to set and the cheese melt everywhere, covering it in deliciousness.  That's when its time to flip on the broiler and brown the cheese to finish it.  In the end you'll wind up with something akin to an egg pizza, and its best served as such.  A pizza cutter to break it into slices and then fingers to scarf it down.

Not the most complex way to start things, but for the first week of the year, it was a good way to get things rolling.