Thursday, May 26, 2011

Homemade Pasta Sauce

Zack has become the "Sauce Master" in our house. When we have time to make homemade sauce, I willingly take the role of sous chef. If you could taste it, you'd do the same.

We had the luxury of a couple hours of cooking this weekend and I really wanted to use the spinach pasta that we found a few days before, so I talked Zack into working his magic on a sauce. Here's the thing, we never have the same sauce twice. Mostly because we never measure anything, just season, taste, season, taste, and then let it simmer, then taste and season again. Zack also switches up the ingredients depending on how he's feeling that day. This weekend, we had a red sauce with white wine and mushrooms. I licked the plate.

Here's how it went down. The measurements aren't exact - you really have to trust your taste buds. You'll need:

1/2 medium red onion
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4-1/2 cup white wine
1 giant can of whole peeled tomatoes
Red pepper flake
Dried oregano
Fresh basil
4 large (or 6 small) baby portabella mushrooms
Salt & pepper to taste
Grated Parmesan
Pasta of your choice (we chose spinach fettuccini)

Start by chopping half a red onion and 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, depending on their size:

Now add a bit of olive oil and just the onion to a pot over medium-low heat. Toss the onion around in the oil to coat it.

Add some salt and pepper. Let the onions cook down and soften, then add the garlic. Continue cooking - your nose will tell you when it's ready, but the onions will turn slightly opaque. Now, add some white wine (You can add red if you prefer). We used somewhere between a quarter and half cup of Chardonnay because it's what we had on hand. Basically, you want enough wine to almost submerge the onions.

Now, bring the wine/onion/garlic mixture up to a boil and stir occasionally. Boil until wine is reduced and the onions have absorbed most of the wine. 

Next, drop the pan back to low heat and add the tomatoes. This time we used "no salt added" whole plum tomatoes, to which we added salt, pepper, a dash of red pepper flake, and dried oregano.

Now for Zack's favorite part - mash the tomatoes with a potato masher until they look like a chunky salsa. Then add a sprig of basil. Add the whole thing, you're going to puree it up later. Once you get everything mashed up, bring the heat back up to get a low boil going for about 8-10 minutes. Pay attention to your sauce and stir it a LOT so that you don't burn it. If it seems like you've got too much heat going on, back the heat down to medium before the 10 minutes is up. You want it bubbling softly, not splattering all over your kitchen.

Now, turn the heat way down and let your sauce simmer for at least an hour. You can go a bit longer if you want, just remember to stir occasionally.

For the mushrooms, I used 4 large baby bellas. Clean them up using a damp cloth. I personally just use a damp paper towel. Don't scrub them, just wipe gently, then slice 'em up.

When you are about fifteen minutes from serving, start your pasta water (throw a lid on it to bring it to a boil quicker), saute your mushrooms in some olive oil and puree your sauce. If you're doing this operation alone,saute the mushrooms first and set them aside, then puree the sauce. We transfer our sauce to a separate bowl because our kitchen is tiny and there isn't room for this operation at the stove while mushrooms are being sauted simultaneously.

Add the sauce back to the pot on the stove, and add the mushrooms. We reserve about 1/4 for topping the pasta at the end, but you can definitely throw them all in now if you want. Continue to let the sauce simmer until your pasta is ready. Strain the pasta, but remember to reserve some of the water, we always use a little to loosen the sauce up. In fact, Zack adds a one or two tablespoons of pasta water directly to the sauce at this point.

Important Note on thinning your sauce: A little pasta water goes a long way! Start small and build until you get the consistency you desire.

Zack likes to do individual portions, so he prepares each serving in a different pan with some sauce, one portion of pasta, a little bit of butter (no more than a tablespoon), freshly grated parmesan and possibly some more pasta water if needed. If you want to skip that step, just add your pasta to the pot with the sauce. Add pasta water as necessary. 

Plate it up, add your mushroom garnish and top with freshly grated Parmesan.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Korean Beef with Jasmine Rice

We like to mix up our menu and challenge ourselves with different flavor profiles. Our spice cabinet can attest to that! This Korean Beef bowl isn't difficult to put together, and gave us an intro into Korean flavors. We found this in a Pampered Chef cookbook. We didn't follow the recipe exactly, but close.

Here's what you'll need:

2 green onions with tops, divided (reserve a bit for garnishing)
2 garlic cloves, chopped (or pressed if you want)
3 Tbsp  soy sauce
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp (15ml) sugar
1 tsp vegetable oil
1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1 lb skirt steak or flank steak (tried this with both cuts and we preferred the flank steak)

The Rest:
1 cup (250ML) uncooked jasmine rice
2 medium carrots
2 cups (500ml) bean sprouts

The Preparation:
This meal is perfect for two people to prepare in tandem. Zack threw the marinade together while I sliced the steak. For the marinade, all you have to do is throw all of those ingredients under "Marinade" together in a Ziploc bag. You'll need the gallon size to be safe.

Quick tip for slicing those green onions - Leave the knife in the block and grab your kitchen shears. They make quick work of the onions!

Slicing the meat up is easy, just takes some time. I always sharpen my knife before, because you want to try to get the beef as thin as you can. Be sure to go against the grain. Now, throw all that sliced beef in bag with the marinade and toss it in the fridge for a bit. Ours normally sits in there for about an hour.

The rice: If you're using jasmine rice, be sure to rinse it first. Now, here's the tough part... cook according to package instructions.

While the rice is doing its thing, grab your bag of marinated beef out of the fridge, but don't cook it yet. Just let it hang out while you peel some carrots and wash the bean sprouts. Set both sprouts and carrots aside for final prep.

Now, get your pan nice and hot (medium-high heat) with a little bit of vegetable oil. Don't go overboard on the oil, because the marinade is going to release some juices too. I normally use a 12" skillet to do this, and I grab my splash guard for the beginning, because sometimes the steak can pop at you.

You're ready to start the beef. We like to put each piece in individually with tongs. By the time you get the pan filled, you'll pretty much be ready to flip the first ones that went in. Since you cut the beef so thin, it takes almost no time to cook. Toss the beef around a bit and pull them from the heat.

About this time, your rice should be just about done. Fluff the rice up with a fork to see if it's ready. If so, mix the bean sprouts and rice together and place on the bottom of the bowl/plate. Add your beef strips and top with the pan drippings that you cooked them in. Then top with carrots and garnish with a few more green onions.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Restaurant Recap: Frontera Grill

For those of you who may not know about Frontera Grill, here's a quick synopsis:

Rick Bayless is the chef at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago, creator of Frontera gourmet foods, cookbook author and host of Mexico - One Plate at a Time. We first learned of him during Top Chef Masters. He won the first season of the show. (Just a note, we're kind of addicted to Top Chef, so there may be some commentary about it in the future).

Moving on...

We went to Chicago to celebrate a friends birthday, and since we're all foodies, we decided the best birthday gift was an amazing meal. Frontera Grill didn't disappoint. We ate, and ate, and ate.

The meal started with Ceviche Fronterizo, lime-marinated Hawaiian albacore with tomatoes, olives, cilantro,and green chile; served on crispy tostaditas. We had tried ceviche before on a trip to Las Vegas, and neither of us liked it. Well, apparently we were wrong about ceviche, because Frontera's was to die for. We forgot to take a picture of it. Bear with us as we get used to the blogging world!

Next, we decided to get one of the small plates, Taquitos de Pollo Ahumado, which are crispy taquitos filled with smoked chicken, black beans and poblanos. Homemade sour cream, salsa verde, anejo cheese, guacamole. They were amazing, and again, we forgot the picture... We remembered by the entree course, I promise. The taquitos were just as described on the menu, crispy outer shell, stuffed with all the goodies. Our favorite part of the plate was the guacamole. There was so much flavor and the freshness of the ingredients were amazing.

Now for the entrees: We couldn't believe that the meal could get better, but it did. Between the four of us, we had the following, which of course, we all tried:

Pato en Mole Coloradito: adobo-marinated Gunthorp duck breast in Oaxacan mole coloradito (ancho chiles, sesame seeds, spices and Oaxacan chocolate). Mexican chocolate tamal, winter fruit salsa (apricots, cherries, jicama), watercress salad

Holy Mole, this was great! After hearing about this Oaxacan mole on Top Chef, one of us had to try it. The duck was cooked perfectly and the chocolate tamal was a perfect compliment - not too sweet, but a perfect compliment to the dish.

Chilpachole de Mariscos: classic Veracruz red-chile braise of Gulf shrimp and Viking Village scallops with herby epazote, chochoyotes and roasted chayote. Watercress, lime.

The overall dish was great, but the sauce... the sauce was transcendant. It started off a nice, tomato flavor, then evolved into a spicy explosion of flavor. Then, once your mouth cooled off from the spice, the flavors of the shrimp and scallops came through - there's no way to do it justice without actually tasting it.

Enchiladas de Mole Poblano: homemade tortillas rolled around Gunthorp free-range chicken, doused with Mexicos most famous mole; black beans.

These were amazing. A different mole than was on the duck, and it totally worked with the chicken enchiladas. The star, in our opinion, was the black beans. Upon first glance, they seem like normal beans, but upon tasting, there was something special about them. Who knew black beans could have so much flavor?

Puerco en Salsa de Frijol Negro: red chile-marinated Gunthorp pork loin in velvety black bean sauce flavored with smoky salsa negra. Braised kale, ham hocks, grilled onions, red-chile rice.

Another tasty dish. I'm not sure if you can tell from the picture, but the rice came formed like a pyramid. We're big on plating, and this was a nice touch. The pork was again cooked perfectly and was wonderfully juicy and flavorful. The black bean sauce was very yummy, and the kale, well, lets just say we'll be experimenting with our cooked greens now. We have to figure out how to re-create that kale!

Overall, we'd give it four thumbs up. If you're on a budget, this isn't your place. It's not somewhere we could go often. Entrees are anywhere between $20 - $30. It was, however, the perfect place to celebrate one of our best friend's birthday.