26 April 2008

Secret ingredient: Chili

In preparation for the Nelson Institute Chili Cook-off tomorrow and in response to some ground meat that really needed to be cooked, we decided to make some chili. The prep was rushed and lots was going on, but it came out ok.

I stubbed my toe on the cayenne and was undisciplined with the cumin and coriander. It was a bit too spicy for Francie and Zora, but the flavor was pretty good. I added another cube of the secret ingredient toward the end. A good daub of sour cream and some scallions improved the taste further.

(p.s. there is another secret ingredient, but it is a secret)

08 April 2008

Review: Harvest

food: 7/10 - service: 8/10 - ambiance 8/10

On Monday, one of our lecture series entertained the speaker at Harvest. We were a decent crowd and we had a set menu to choose from. The variety was reasonable if a bit staid. Actually I was a bit disappointed with the variety on the first course, but did find the slow roasted beets,toasted hazelnuts, buttermilk blue cheese, hazelnut vinaigrette to be an interesting possibility and started to build from there. The main courses included two beef choices along with a vegetarian pumpkin ravioli and a striped bass dish. I opted for the porcini salt rubbed angus tenderloin served with spinach and fingerling potatoes. For dessert I ordered the almond cake with bourbon ice cream.

The beets were not quite what I had hoped. I would have liked the vinaigrette to be a bit more present than it was; a bit more bite would have helped the beets and would have made me happy. The tenderloin was very nice and the almond cake was ok. The best dessert was one that I didn't order and whose name I can't remember. It was a gelled vanilla cream with a simple blood orange sauce - that was really good.

The service was pretty good. It can be spotty at Harvest, but this night our waitress was attentive and gracious.

All in all it was a good meal, but I felt that it was not particularly inspired. I found myself longing for a bit less fine-food aspiration and for more excitement in the dishes that come to the table. Looking forward to dinner at Levain up in the Twin Cities soon (I may review it, but I will definitely have a bias as my nephew is a cook there).

04 April 2008

Review: The Great Dane

food: 5/10 - service: 4/10 - ambiance 5/10

I have been on a minor quest here in Madison for a really good burger. My standard is Big Nick's (see the photo) just below 77th on Broadway in NYC. I say minor quest, because I haven't really tried very hard, but tonight I went to the Great Dane at Hilldale to give the burgers and beer a shot. It seemed like a good shot and Francie recently gave them a cautious thumbs up.

It was Friday in a serious college town, but Zora was at D&D and Francie was on a boat race trip so I was solo and found a seat at the bar without too much difficulty and a bit of luck. Point number one - the bar staff are easy on the eyes, but not too interested in a single stranger at the bar.

I ordered an IPA and a basic burger with fries. The burger promised to come with the basics plus bermuda onion. It was delivered promptly, but the onion (two rings) was disappointing. The pickle chips were good, and like the onion, I could have used more. Point number two - the burger itself was good, but the bun killed it. After a bite or two with the top and bottom bread, I discarded the bottom of the bun and ate the rest with only 1/2 of the bread. (There is another post coming that will address the sorry state of bread here in the Midwest. (Seriously, how hard is it to make a good hard roll?))

The beer was good. I wanted something a bit more bitter, but they were out of the ESB.

The Great Dane itself is new construction in the expansion of the Hilldale Mall. Across the intersection is the Sundance Cinema. It has that ordered-out-of-a-bar-decor catalog feel. It is clean if somewhat sterile. Plenty of TVs showing sports. Kind of noisy, but not too bad. Plenty of drinking, but this is Wisconsin and it is a bar.

All in all it was a burger in a bar on a Friday evening. Nothing to write home about, but the beer was decent and the burger was about what you would expect.

01 April 2008

Some thoughts on Chili

I have been invited to judge the Nelson Institute chili cook off again this year. My credentials as a chili cook are presented in the photo...

Last year there were some interesting interpretations of chili, so I think that it is only fair that I lay out some of my fairly strongly felt ideas about chili. I must admit to being on the conservative end of the spectrum and I definitely am not from the SouthWest on this issue.
  • Beans do have a place, although I have, on occasion, encountered good chili where they were absent
  • Meat is optional; if it is present, it should probably come from something with 4 feet
  • Collards don't belong, but did manage an award last year (see below)
  • Heat does not equate with good; well developed, and preferably complex, flavor matters a lot
  • It is hard to make good chili without cumin
There was some good chili last year. The one with the collards won an award for Best Use of an Ingredient not Usually Found in Chili; it was ok. There was one that was sweet; it won for Best Dessert Chili. I didn't like that one so much; chili should not be sweet.

Tune in after 27 April for tales of this year's cook off...

30 March 2008

Waiting for stock

One of my favorite things to cook these days is stock. There isn't much to do, but that is part of what I like about it.

I collect chicken carcasses in the freezer until I have enough to fill my 3 quart pot (I am going to get a bigger one soon, but start with what you have). In this method, the bones have been roasted; I will soon try with necks and backs from the butcher - those will have to be roasted first, but I might just toss them in the pan and see what happens.

Cover the bones with cold water water and add some other flavors - yesterday I added some leek greens, bay leaves, a stalk of celery, about 10 pepper corns and a few grains of salt.

Now here comes the waiting part - put the pot on the stove over the smallest burner and turn it to darn near the lowest it will go (if it won't go very low, turn it all the way down). The objective is to get the temperature in the pot to a very low simmer. You want the bubbles to just barely be coming up. Do not boil! You want to hold it at that barely a simmer temperature for a long time. You can watch it, you can adjust the heat a bit, you can run some errands and come back to a great smell in the house. The key is patience.

Once the liquid is a nice color and has a good flavor although perhaps a bit weak, the first part is done and it is time to strain the liquid. I use about 4 thicknesses of cheese-cloth in a strainer and pour from the pot into a bowl through the strainer. Toss the leftovers. Now if you would like a bit more kick in the stock return it to a cleaned pot and to the stove at the same very low heat and reduce, reduce, reduce...

23 March 2008


It is a sunny Easter morning here in the midwest. The snow from last week is still with us, but will diminish as the temperature soars into the mid-30s later today.

The light is beautiful in Francie's south-facing, farm-style kitchen and we have a big lot of folks here for brunch. My suggestion of leg of lamb was over-ruled by Francie's dislike of said meat and then by the timing of the need to serve her Mom at mid-day rather than late in the afternoon. We have settled on quiche and at mid-morning we added Anna had her 3 kids to the mix and so the group has expanded and we added a 3rd pie to the mix.

We have 3 out of the oven now - one with bacon, leeks and marjaram; one with asparagus, brocolli, bacon, and shallots; and one simply with asparagus. They are beautiful and have been replaced in the oven with scones of Anna's construction. We also have fruit salad with strawberrys (probably from Florida), lovely pears, apples, blueberrys and bananas.

The scones will come out shortly and then we will eat. (Camryn will need to be awoken (perhaps) and Andy will be fetched)

We ate them and they were good. So were the fruit salad and the scones

A couple of tips -
  • Use less milk than Moosewood or Joy of Cooking calls for in the custard.
  • Careful with the nutmeg!
  • Trust your instincts with the salt
  • Build the quiche from the bottom up: cheese, stuff, more cheese, then pour in the custard

14 January 2008

Pork - not bbq

It is sometimes hard for me to think about a pork butt and not think about bbq and smoke, but I live in Wisconsin now and it is *cold* outside. Besides the oven does such a nice job of temperature control...

So I was in Knoche's looking for lamb shanks (which are much harder to find than I would expect) and they had some nice pork loin roasts, bone in. They weren't very expensive and I had seen Jamie Oliver do a nice stew with a boned butt. So I bought one thinking about the 1/3 bottle of old red wine sitting on the counter and the bag of peppers in the fridge.

When the time came I salted the roast and browned in my enameled steel casserole and removed it from the pan. In the oil in the pan I sauteed 2 medium onion roughly chopped, a mess of peeled whole garlic and an apple in the oil. To that I added thyme, bay, pepper and salt and a pinch of cinnamon. Back goes the pork, in goes the wine, on goes the top and the whole mess goes into the oven at 300˚F. (note that I changed my mind wrt the peppers - such is Life)

4 hours later I took the thing out and it was falling off the bone - actually it was a little dry. Next time either lower heat (maybe 275 and a bit more patience for the liquid to come to a simmer inside the pan) or start paying closer attention at about 3 hours.

Somewhere early on I found some baby carrots that wouldn't get eaten in a school lunch - so those went in the pan.

I degreased the sauce, removed the bay leaves and pureed the heck out of it in the food processor. This made an amazing rich sauce, which I then mixed with the pulled meat and the dryness was not such an issue any more.

I served it with mashed potatoes and chopped spinach. Zora commented that there was a lot going on with the meat - and she liked it.

Tomorrow we are having tacos with the left over, unsauced meat - stay tuned.

12 January 2008

Squeeze a Lemon in it!

Sometimes when I am making soup I just can't get it right. It is at this point when I am thinking that all is lost and the soup is just going to be disappointing that I think maybe something acid will help and I consider either vinegar or lemon. Now in the context of this post I am of course suggesting that lemon is the way to go.

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

So the next time you are standing at the stove stumped by a pot of soup: