Sunday, July 31, 2011

How to Make Meatballs in a Pinch

I love meatballs and think that most meats should be available in ball form.  In fact, one of my first blogs ever wrote was tackling someone's meatball conundrum.  (Which ended up with a sweet thank you note that I also posted on the blog) I found a recipe that, though completely legit, has a few things I would adjust to make the process easier if you have limited ingredients, time, or space in your kitchen because hey, not everyone keeps fresh herbs in the house or has the time or space to sautee up a pan of meatballs. 

Here's the original recipe, published in the New York Times in 2007.  It's legit, but it's not always practical.

2 pounds ground beef

1 cup fresh bread crumbs

1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan

1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh basil 

1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 eggs

3 tablespoons olive oil.
1. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients except olive oil by hand, using a light touch. Take a portion of meat in hand, and roll between palms to form a ball that is firmly packed but not compressed. Repeat, making each meatball about 2 inches in diameter.
2. In a large, heavy pot heat olive oil over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add meatballs in batches. Do not crowd. Brown well on bottoms before turning, or meatballs will break apart. Continue cooking until browned all over. Remove meatballs to a plate as each batch is finished. Let meatballs cool slightly; cover and refrigerate until needed.

Here's my version:

2 pounds ground beef or ground turkey
1 cup bread crumbs (fresh is better, but out of the box will work in a pinch)
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan, or 1/4 cup parmesan out of the green can
2 heaping tablespoons dried basil
2 heaping tablespoons dried parsley
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt  or 3/4 teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon garlic powder or 2 teaspoons of already chopped garlic out of the jar
2 eggs
1 tablespoon of olive oil

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees
2.  In a small bowl, mix parmesan, bread crumbs, basil, parsley, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes and garlic.  Pour a glass of wine and take a sip because wine makes everything more fun.
3.  Put beef or turkey in a large bowl and add bread crumb mixture to it.  Mix well with your hands and when everything in combined, roll meatballs in your hand about the size of a golf ball. 
4.  Spread oil on a cookie sheet (with sides is preferable) and cook in oven for about 30 minutes.  The size of your meatballs will determine when they are done, so give them a little longer if you made larger ones, or take them out earlier if you made smaller ones.

Hey, have you joined Twitter yet?  Now's the time to do it because I'll be hosting a live Twitter Party this Wednesday August 3 at 7:00 central time.  Follow whatthebleep1 and I'll solve your culinary dilemmas in live time.   Tell your friends too! 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Second Helping of Rubber Chicken

Dear Tricia, Chicken: no matter what I do, it is dry.   I've marinated it, quick fried little tenders, and they only time its not dry is when i do "chicken in a pot" stuffed with lemons and oranges and surrounded by veggies and drowned in white wine.  

Well kudos to you and your pot o' chicken.  Lemons and oranges?  That's so fancy sounding!  

I covered chicken waaaaay back when I first started blogging (here and here if you want to go back a couple of years), so its about time I talk tips on chicken again.  

The absolute easiest way to cook chicken without turning it into a mouthful of boot is wrapped in foil, in the oven.  Whether you prefer chicken breasts, thighs, tenders, whatever- season it, wrap it in foil, and cook it at 375 degrees until its done.  If you cook chicken tenders or something smaller in size like that, just line a pan with foil, put the chicken on it, and cover it with foil.  You don't have to individually wrap them or something.  That would be a HUGE waste of time and foil.  The great thing about cooking chicken this way is that you don't have to do much, just throw it in the oven and let it go.  This is when I make a cocktail, but that's just me.  Tenders are usually done in 10 minutes at the most.  Chicken breasts, depending on how large they are take closer to 25-30 minutes.  You can also experiment with new ways to season chicken without putting in a bunch of thought or energy.  Even if you just throw a clove of garlic and some sprigs of fresh herbs (hello, that's like ZERO effort) in with the foil, the chicken is still going to get some great flavor because its steaming inside the foil.  Steaming is what makes flavors infuse into the chicken.  Infuse- use that one to impress your girlfriend next time you cook dinner for her.  

If you want to step it up and put a little more effort into your dinner, you can start with a hot pan, add some oil, and just sear the chicken on both sides to get it brown.  Then finish it off in the oven like I talked about in the effort-less paragraph, but have your oven temperature at 400 degrees.  This helps keep the chicken juicier than just cooking it entirely in the pan, which tends to give you a chewy outside and some rawness in the middle.  This also gives you a lot more color on the chicken because the proteins brown in the pan.  That's called the Maillard reaction- when proteins brown. The name comes from a guy named Maillard.  It's not french for anything (actually its French for "buff" whatever the hell that means), he just wanted to name something after himself.  

Ok, here's a little secret if none of these tips are working for you: FREAKING EVERYONE overcooks their chicken.   That's one of the reasons why I get emails about chicken being dry or rubbery.  It's really that simple- don't cook it as long.   I wonder if people are so afraid of the slim-to-none chance of getting salmonella, or some other strange illness that Fox News is trying to make you live in fear of, but either way, there is a difference between cooked chicken and chicken that's been cooked until its awful.  Get a thermometer if you're not sure.  165 degrees is the magic number.  If you're cooking by color, pink chicken might even be safe, depending on what you've marinated the chicken in and how much hemoglobin happens to be in the tissue.   

What to do when your chicken is already over cooked?  Easy- make tacos.  I wrote a blog on making authentic pulled tacos that taste like Mexico and not North Dakota.   All you have to do is pull the chicken apart into little pieces and follow the directions on the sauce, you just skip the part about cooking the chicken, since you've already cooked the daylights out of it.   Mmm Mmm pollo.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

My Chicken is Old and Boring

Dear Tricia, I'm bored with chicken.  I always grill or roast it and I need something new that's hopefully not too difficult for me to ruin dinner.

Chicken can be boring- I totally get it.  I have a couple of ideas to save you from your mundane poultry lifestyle, and luckily the first one I've already covered in my NYC Tacos, Texas Style post from a while ago.  These are great because you can make a big batch and just heat it up as you need it, and it's really delicious when you're drunk. All you need to do is stock your spice cabinet with a few things that will serve you well in your taco making future.

My second glorious idea is actually really simple but it can pass as kind of gourmet if you're trying to impress someone.  (Or just yourself, that's cool too.)  You take a chicken breast (skin on or skin off, its up to you) and sit it on a cutting board in front of you with a sharp paring knife. 
 That's this little one:

 Not this one:

So if you're right handed, you put your left hand on top of the chicken breast and hold the knife in your right hand.  Holding the knife parallel to the counter (or cutting board, or whatever you're cutting on top of) take the knife and cut a pocket along the side of the chicken.  Cut as far over to the other side of the chicken without cutting that side open.   What you're trying to do is make a safe little house to stuff some awesome fillings into without them leaking out of the sides.

Once you've cut a pocket into the chicken, season both sides with salt and pepper.  Now let's talk fillings options.  You want to pick things that aren't messy.  If you're going to use cheese, that's great, just make sure that you stuff the cheese towards the side that's closed, not the side you cut into.  This way the cheese doesn't leak out and make a mess.  We're going for non-messy here, Messy McMesserstein.  Here's some ideas, but you can get as crazy as you want.  You know me- I'm all about encouraging you to screw around in the kitchen.  Have some fun you rock star.

Bacon (cooked), pecans and blue cheese
Pepperoni and mozzarella
Roasted red peppers and pesto
Sausage (If you're using raw sausage, make sure it's cooked all the way through before you serve the chicken.  We'll get to that in a sec.)
Olives and artichoke hearts
Spanish Rice and pumpkin seeds
Gummy bears
Just seeing if you're paying attention
Mushrooms and onions

Once you've got your selected stuffing, (and you don't need a whole lot, just a few tablespoons per chicken breast) just put it inside the chicken.  Get as much as you can in there without it just falling out and making a mess.  And remember, if you're using cheese, stuff it in first so it's up against the closed side. 

Then get your oven heated to 400 degrees.  Have a pan ready and get it hot over medium high heat.  That means if the numbers on the knob go from 1-10, it should be at a 7.  When the pan is hot, pour about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the pan and let that heat up for a good 10-15 seconds.  Then put your chicken breasts in the pan.  Did you hear the chicken start to sizzle?  Good, that means your pan was hot enough.  Were your chickens silent?  Then your pan wasn't hot, and that's not going to ruin dinner, but it won't give your chicken a really pretty brown color.  Next time don't be afraid to crank up the heat, ok?  Don't pussyfoot around here.

Cook the chicken on one side until it's halfway done.  How can you tell?  Well look a the side of the chicken where you cut into.  The part that's still kind of translucent and pink is the raw part.  The white part is cooked.  When it's half white and half pink, it's half done.  Then you flip the chicken over on its other side.  Give it about 2-3 more minutes here.  Then put it on a cookie sheet or sheet pan and put it in the oven.  Even better if you can have the cookie sheet already hot, inside the oven to accelerate the process. The whole process on top of the stove should take you 8 minutes tops, unless you're cooking some monster huge chicken breasts.  What are they feeding those chickens?!

You're going to let the chicken finish cooking in the oven because I've found this makes the chicken more tender and juicy, plus it lets you have a minute to make a cocktail.  Bonus.  The chicken should be done within 10 minutes.  Again, just make sure there aren't any pink parts.  And if you've stuffed the chicken with raw sausage, the chicken is done with the sausage is completely cooked.  Be really careful with that.  No one likes a raw sausage surprise.

After the chicken is done, pull it out of the oven and let it rest for a few minutes before you serve it.  This keeps all of the juices inside the chicken, and not leaking all over your plate.   That's tip three for keeping things non messy. 

Are you ready to try this one at home?  Go have fun and send me your photos and comments.  Easy as pie, right? Easy as chicken pot pie.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Basics of Cookies- It's All Here!

Over the last few years of writing this blog, I have received tons of very specific baking questions; about cookies being flat, or why butter needs to be room temperature, or whatever else it is that befuddles you about baking.  So today I'm going to give you the Cliffs Notes of baking cookies.  It's ALL in here.  You must have caught me in a good mood!  (Or maybe it's the margarita.  Oh, summertime...)

On your ingredients:

Unless you have a recipe that specifically calls for you to keep your ingredients cold, It will always  help if you have your ingredients at room temperature.  This is especially important for eggs and butter.  (See my blog on Why Eggs and Butter are the Axl Rose and Slash of Baking for the science of it)  Eggs and butter don't like to mix together because they're both made mainly of fat, but if you have them at room temperature, they get along better.  Its kind of like those mean girls in sororities who hate each other, but after a few beers they're best friends and crying about how much they love each other.  Heat is the beer in this situation.  It makes everyone a LOT friendlier.

Baking soda, baking powder, and salt are all the same thing- they're forms of sodium.  And under a microscope, sodium and sugar look very similar.  Sodium looks like little glass boxes with perfect corners and sugar looks like a little glass box with a lot of jagged edges.  Both of them help incorporate air into cookies.  We'll get to how much of that you want in a minute.  But cookies recipes that have you cream your butter and sugar together should tell you to cream your sugar, salt, baking soda, and/or baking powder together.  Go ahead and mix sugar, salt, and your baking soda/powder at the beginning and let them join the butter party.  Everyone's invited!

Extra stuff like chocolate chips, oatmeal, raisins, whatever should always be added last.  That means DEAD last.  Wait until you've added your flour and what's in your bowl is the perfect example of cookie dough.  Then you can add your extra stuff.  Why?  Because I said so.  And because it keeps the chocolate chips, fruit, etc in tact so that you get whole bits of delicious surprises as you bite into the cookie.  Oh, and because that extra stuff tears up gluten, which makes your cookie more crumbly.  It's not the end of the world or anything, but if you want to know a brief overview about what the &%!@ gluten is, read this blog.

Baking soda and baking powder are NOT the same!  Read this ancient blog I wrote to find out why.   Make sure you use what your recipe calls for. 

On mixing:

If a recipe tells you to "cream the butter and sugar together," that does not mean that you should beat the shit out of those two ingredients.  With most cookie recipes, you want to just combine the sugar and butter until they're blended.  (Room temperature sugar and butter, remember?  Don't make me repeat myself.)  If you incorporate too much air into the cookie, it spreads out and gets flat and crunchy.  And judging by the emails I get in my in box (which is, for all of your fan mail/ questions/ Whole Foods gift card donating needs) you all prefer soft, chewy cookies like we all grew up with out of the Soft Bake package.   Try to hold back.  Just blend the butter and sugar (and salt and baking soda/baking powder) until they're combined.   Then move on to the next step. 

Eggs are usually the next step.  We've already gone over that you've let them get to room temperature.  So now that you've mastered the art of letting an egg sit out on the counter for half an hour or so, make sure you don't add it too fast.  If you have 2 eggs to add to a recipe, add them one at a time.  Add Egg #1, and let the mixer blend it in.  At first the eggs look like they're separated- you'll actually see little fat bubbles that don't want to mix.  But if you're patient, and if your butter and eggs were room temperature, it will eventually blend together.  Then you want to turn the mixer off, take a rubber spatula and scrap all the way down to the bottom of the bowl to make sure you mix in any butter/eggs that have been left alone at the bottom, untouched.  Like little orphans.  Please.  Don't ignore the orphans.  Then, and only then, can you add the next egg.  If you happened to be making the most giant batch of cookies ever and you needed to add 100 eggs, you obviously wouldn't add them 1 at a time.  You'd add them like 1/4 at a time.  Use your common sense here, people. 

On Baking:

Let's talk preheating.  You preheat your oven for a reason, people!  If I can quote myself here from yet another ancient blog, "While a hot oven will force a cake into its submission and make it rise like no one's business, an oven that's not pre-heated will basically just sip a cocktail, nudge your cake and ask, "Do you want to bake or what? Yeah, I didn't think so."  Put your cookies in the oven to BAKE.  If your oven isn't hot, what's the point?  A slow, painful death to the chocolate chips?  There's so much happening: high heat makes water turn into steam which helps things rise, which helps baking soda finish its very important job, which makes sugar caramelize into golden pieces of heaven... Just preheat the damn oven until it beeps at you, ok?  And then give it another 10 minutes or so for good measure. 

Chill the dough before you scoop it out and lay it on a pan.  Even better, scoop it out, lay it on the pan, and then chill it.  Freeze it, even.  This gives you a chewier, softer cookie every time.

Your recipe doesn't always know how long to bake your cookies for.  12-15 minutes doesn't always mean 12-15 minutes.  I remember working a pastry externship at a lovely restaurant in San Francisco with a very lovely chef who went on to star on many a Bravo and Food Network TV shows, and if there's one thing I learned there, its that you don't bake things for a certain amount of time, you bake them until they're done.  Every oven is different.  How cold or hot the weather is affects baking.   Humidity affects baking.  So if your recipe says 12-15 minutes and after 15 minutes you look at your cookies and they're still doughy and undercooked, then leave them in there longer.  WE ALL KNOW WHAT A COOKIE LOOKS LIKE.  Trust yourself to make that decision to say "Yes.  This cookie is finished and I will now remove it from the oven because the time has come."  The same goes for cookies baking much faster than you think.  If those suckers look done at 9 minutes, then you better take them out before their prescribed time of 12-15 minutes.  And if you don't and you burn them, it's your fault.  You saw they were done, didn't you?

If you bake a lot, I recommend investing in a couple of good sheet pans.  Home bakers call them cookie sheets, but we in the industry (or we who used to be in the industry and have since escaped, thank the universe) call them sheet pans.   They're usually made of aluminum, they have durable sides, they're uber sturdy and will last you a gazillion years if you treat them right, and if you line them with parchment paper instead of coating them with butter and flour, they're super easy to clean.  Do yourself a favor and purchase a couple from a restaurant supply store, not Williams Sonoma or Sur la Table.  As much as I love those two stores' cookbook selections, they'll charge you triple for a shopping experience with better lighting.  Not worth it.

On what to do when you've messed up:

Cookies a little over done?  Too much baking soda and the texture is all funky?  No problem.  Freeze it and save it to blend it into a milkshake when you want to eat your feelings.  Crumble it into a bowl and pour milk over it and pretend like you're 8 years old watching Saturday morning cartoons eating a Cookie Crisp.  (God, how I MISS Cookie Crisp.  Damn you, diets!)  Puree it up and use it instead of graham cracker crumbs for a cheesecake crust.  Homemade chocolate chip cookie crust?  You just made like 14 new friends.  Puree it up, freeze it, and rim a martini glass in it for some kind of decadent signature holiday drink.   You can do that with almost anything!  I once drank a martini in a glass rimmed with pretzels.  I don't remember much after that, but I'm pretty sure I enjoyed it.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

What the Bleep Happened to My Breakfast?

Here it is, my pets- my inaugural video blog all about breakfast.   Post your comments below and let me know if you love it or hate it.  Special thanks to Jessica Albritton at Hair By Jessica for her magic work.  As always, thanks for reading (and watching)... now go tell the world what you've learned!