Sunday, December 28, 2008

Saturday, December 27, 2008


I'll be honest - I kind of hate the saying'staycation.' It is a little contrived and a bit too cutesy for me. 'Steakcation' however, I can endorse wholeheartedly.

When we decided to make the most of our cancelled vacation though, we figured let's make the most of it and enjoy some of the sites, sounds, smells, and tastes in our own backyard. We love to dine out - but we often fall back on the practicality of cooking at home instead. When we travel however, we never cook. We may picnic now and again but we prefer to research, plan and enjoy the culinary landscape of every destination.

My list of restaurants to try in Seattle is long and frequently updated. Great new restaurants seem to open every week. When it comes to a splurge meal though, I like to look to places that have provided the trifecta restaurant experience for me in the past: food + service + quality ingredients.

I've been to 'The Met' a couple of times and it delivers on all three components of the "trifecta" in spades. All the beef is dry-aged for 28 days, there is the requisite sommelier, captain, server & 3-4 bussers that make up what I consider to be exemplary service and they have great bread/salads/wine to round out the menu offerings. It isn't cheap, but dollar for dollar I think you get your money's worth here.

Gavin and I decided to go to The Met earlier this week. We have been making a list of activities and restaurants to enjoy during our vacation and wanted to pick a couple of splurge meals that we only treat ourselves to once in awhile. We went the The Met in June and had a fantastic meal. Then, when we were in Chicago in November we experienced a great steakhouse dinner there at Gibsons.

There is something inherently comforting about the bustling steakhouse dining experience. I have had some great steaks around Seattle at Betty, Cremant, Canlis, Saltoro and Cafe Presse. Nothing quite compares though to the gluttony and excess of a good steakhouse. I love the waitstaff in their white lab coats, the rich, dark wood paneling, the mirrors and the sommeliers and captains in their tuxedos. I love the valet, the coat check and the meat display case.

Well, once we made the reservation for tonight we started stalking the menu online. We had pretty much decided on what we'd order by the time we walked in the door. Our server only confirmed what we already knew: the American Wagyu "Long-bone" Rib-eye was the way to go. Sweet Jesus, this was a big steak! The guys delivering our platters started humming the theme-song to The Flintstones. Yikes! What did we get ourselves into?! 36-ounces including bone and fat. If the picture above doesn't give you enough 'to-scale' comparison, allow me to compare my steak to a tube of lip gloss:

Good GAWD did these steaks deliver on the flavor! We ordered some Béarnaise and steak sauces on the side, but pretty much turned our noses up at them because all you really need are the juice and fat drippings on the plate to dip the steak into.
The bitter reality is that we each only ate about half our steaks (we were too proud and stubborn to consider sharing). We'll fry up the leftovers with some eggs for breakfast this time, but have agreed that we can enjoy this indulgence again in the near future by sharing one steak.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Consolation Prize

Although our dreams of a Mexican Christmas were dashed, I have to say that a small part of me was thankful to be home for some Scandinavian traditions.

We managed to make it over to my parents house for Christmas Eve dinner - a feast with all the Swedish and Norwegian specialties. We got to take home some leftovers and some tasty cookies, but my favorite was some of the cooking broth leftover from cooking the Christmas ham.

One of the traditional Swedish dishes is Julskinka (Christmas ham). Nowadays you can purchase the ham finished, but traditionally it took several days cure it in salt. On the day before Christmas Eve, the ham is boiled for several hours. The ham is then left in the broth overnight in the fridge. On Christmas Eve, the ham is dried, painted with a coating of egg and mustard, sprinkled with bread crumbs and baked.

The salty, flavorful broth does not go to waste however. After skimming off the fat, you warm the broth and everyone gathers around with bread to dopp i grytan (dip in the kettle). Traditionally, this was done on Christmas Eve. My mom has always saved the broth until Christmas morning (or any other morning, since the broth can be stored in the freezer for several months). You warm the broth and simmer the Swedish crispbread for a minute or two until it is soft. Then, pull it out with a slotted spoon and serve it slathered in butter.

As the snow started falling again this afternoon, I poured myself the last from our beer reserves and made myself up a plate of tasty, salty, hammy comfort food.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Feliz Navidad

This is not the photo I was hoping to share with you today. You should be seeing a photo of a warm, sandy beach, a margarita or perhaps a taco. Why? Because we are supposed to be in Mexico right now through the new year.

Alas, we aren't in Mexico. Thanks to WINTER STORM 2008, our flight on Monday was cancelled. The next available flight was not until December 30th. The lady at Alaska Air said, "Sorry, but these flights were booked many months ago." Um, yeah I know. I booked our tickets in February. So, we threw in the towel, got our money and mileage refunded and are going to make the most of it. Can you say "staycation?"

I can't stop thinking about that saying, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." We went out to brunch, ordered margaritas, then came home and made spiked hot ciders and made a snowman. When your vacation is cancelled due to snow...make a snowman.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Baked Brie en Croûte

I've said it before and I'll say it again...the only thing better than cheese is hot cheese.

We had an early Christmas celebration with our families and among other cheesy/porky delights, I made my go-to appetizer - Baked Brie en Croûte. The recipe is alarmingly simple, plus you can prep it in advance. I highly recommend adding it to your repetoire as well.

Baked Brie en Croûte
One 9-by-9 1/2-inch sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 large egg, lightly beaten
One 8-16 ounce wheel firm Brie cheese
1/4 cup apricot preserves

1. Roll the puff pastry into a 12-inch square on a lightly floured counter. Using a pie plate or other round guide, trim the pastry to a 9-inch circle with a paring knife. Brush the edges lightly with the beaten egg. Place the Brie in the center of the pastry circle and wrap it in the pastry (see Note). Brush the exterior of the pastry with beaten egg and transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Freeze for 20 minutes.

2. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 425°F. Bake the cheese until the exterior is a deep golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes.

3. Transfer to a wire rack. Spoon the jelly into the exposed center of the Brie. Cool for about 30 minutes. Serve with crackers or bread.

Note: To wrap the Brie, lift the pastry up over the cheese, pleating it at even intervals and leaving an opening in the center where the Brie will be exposed. Press the pleated edge of pastry up into a rim, which will later be filled with preserves or jelly.

To Make Ahead: You can complete step 1 (but do not freeze) and refrigerated, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, for up to 24 hours. Freeze fr 20 minutes before continuing with step 2.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cure for the Common Cold

I'm sick. I'm @#$*! SICK?! I haven't been sick in over 5 years, yet this week - of all weeks, the week I leave my place of employment for the last 12 years and start a new job - I am sick.

Bourbon and I are old friends - it's seen me through some dark times. I am a firm believer in its medicinal qualities as well. I discovered a long time ago that a simple hot toddy kicks ass over Theraflu any day. The soothing warmth of honey combined with a citrus kick and the sinus-opening, throat clearing 80 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is the cure for what ails you.

Hot Toddy
1 ounce Bourbon
2 teaspoons honey
1/4 lemon wedge, squeezed and added to the glass
4-5 ounces hot water.

Stir to combine, drink and repeat.

On a side note - the Bourbon I use for hot toddys (and Whiskey Sours for that matter) is Rebel Yell. I have hosted a couple of Bourbon tastings and this inexpensive ($15) Bourbon got high marks. It isn't one I would drink neat nor in a Manhattan, but mixed with honey and lemon it tastes mighty fine.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bacon and Eggs...for Dinner

You have to love an email that says, "...We have 1000 pounds of organic, heirloom Berkshire hog bacon for sale." An email two weeks ago from the good folks at Swinery Meats (AKA Culinary Communion) said just that. Well, I picked up my bacon last week and let me tell's divine.

I am no stranger to good bacon, but I am pretty content with thick-cut bacon from Hemplers that I usually pick-up. This fancy-pants bacon is great stuff though. The fat is almost buttery. It isn't smoked as much as typical bacon either, so it has a nice mild sweetness to it.

The next day, I fried up some bacon before work to use for a lunchtime BLT. Yes, some managed to get eaten straight away, before I even left the house for the office. Other than using bacon for weekend breakfasts, we probably use bacon the most in Pasta Carbonara.

Describing this dish doesn't really do it justice - it's just pasta tossed with bacon and eggs. The trick is to slowly temper the egg mixture into the hot pasta so that rather than scrambled eggs you get a thick, velvety, custard-like sauce coating the eggs.

We made Pasta Carbonara with our friends Jason & Dana when we visited them in Chicago over Thanksgiving. They loved it and were happy to learn how quick and easy it is to make. I likened it to that old adage, "teach a man to fish, feed him for a day...," because once you learn this dish you'll eat well for many years to come.

You start with a few simple, quality ingredients: pasta, parmigiano, eggs, cream and bacon. The better the ingredients the better the end result, so get good bacon, good quality eggs and real parmigiano.
Pasta Carbonara
Serves 2

1/2 pound pasta (we prefer Barilla Linguine)
4 slices bacon (cut into 1/2 inch pieces)
1 clove of garlic, sliced thick
2 tsp olive oil
1/4 cup dry vermouth
2 eggs
1/4 cup of heavy cream
1/2 cup grated parmigiano
Salt & fresh ground pepper

Bring 4-5 quarts of salted water to a boil. While the water is heating, heat olive oil in a non-stick skillet on medium-high heat. Add the bacon and garlic and brown. Be careful not to burn the garlic. Once the garlic is browned, remove it and discard. Allow the bacon to brown until nearly crisp, then add the vermouth. Simmer until the vermouth is reduced by about half. Remove the skillet from the heat.

In a small mixing bowl, gently whisk the eggs, cream and about 1/4 cup of the parmigiano until just combined. Add about 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ground pepper.

Once the pasta is cooked to al dente, drain and stir the hot pasta into the skillet with the garlicky-bacon mixture. Toss to cool off the pasta just slightly. Add in the egg/cream mixture and toss to coat. Season to taste (go wild with the pepper, it makes the dish). Serve topped with more freshly grated parmigiano.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Weekend Hangover Cure

Hangover courtesy of Rick Steves' company Christmas party. Hangover cure, courtesy of Lunchbox Laboratory

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hot and Fresh

I can't even begin to say how exciting this development is to me! A tortilleria is coming to Shoreline. I've only experienced these east of the mountains and you have no idea how amazing hot & fresh tortillas really, truly are. Soon, very soon, it looks like these will be available in my own backyard.

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Give it a Rest

Chocolate chip cookies are probably the #1 reason I learned how to bake. The double whammy of tasty dough and tasty cookies was added incentive. I remember being about 10 years old and making chocolate chip cookie dough (yeah, just the dough) with my childhood friend Kristi. We ate nearly the entire bowl and made ourselves so sick we couldn't eat the dough again for...well, probably only days.

The thing is, even with all the great cookies I love to bake there is something special about chocolate chip cookies. The standby recipe on the bag of Nestle chips is fine, but every few months or years someone tries to make chocolate chip cookies even more perfect than they already are.

This past summer The New York Times had a great piece on the CCC. I'll be honest - I don't read the NYT daily. I read it religiously on Wednesdays though - along with many other daily newspapers - because that is the day the food section runs.

The conclusion they came to - along with using half AP and half cake flour - was to rest the dough overnight. At least 24 hours. They also made large cookies - 3 1/2 ounces - which makes them particularly decadent. Then, they gilded the lily by sprinkling sea salt on the tops of the cookies. Welcome to flavor country.
The beauty of this recipe is that you can make the dough one night and then bake them off the next night. It spreads the work over two nights and you can serve your guests (or yourself) warm cookies out of the oven.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 cups minus 2 tablespoons (8 1/2 ounces) cake flour
1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) all purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
1 1/4 pounds bittersweet chocolate chips (I like Ghirardelli)

Sea salt (Try Fleur de Sel, you won't regret it)
  1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

  2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

  3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.

  4. Scoop 6 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.

Allow Me to Reintroduce Myself

Hi, my name is Sonja and I like to cook. That's right, it is time to get back to the regularly scheduled program: COOKING.

Tonight's challenge - potato chips.

My friend Rhonda recently told me she has been making homemade potato chips. I was intrigued. I had never considered making potato chips at home, even though I go through periods of absolute obsession with chips. She said they were simple - slice them thin, coat with oil and put them in a hot oven.

I know what you're thinking, "Um, my idea of simple potato chips is 1) buy a bag, 2) open the bag and 3) eat them." I'm sorry, I really have been away from the kitchen too long. You don't remember me do you? I don't really do 'simple.'

Don't get me wrong, I love a bag of potato chips as much as the next person. That is why I try not to buy them though. I will devour the ENTIRE bag. In a matter of minutes.

Well, I've had a bowl of potatoes in the fridge that have been staring at me for several weeks. I can almost hear them, "cook me, cook me, cook me." So this weekend I finally found the time and inspiration to tie on my apron and give homemade potato chips a try.

I trusted Rhonda's simple method, but did a little online recon as well (on-con? re-line?). There were loads of recipes, but I tried to not overthink it and just go for the baking approach. The results were...meh, but I couldn't stop thinking about one method I read about over at - potato chips made in the microwave.

Yeah - the microwave. Deal with it. I am not one of those no-TV watching, no microwave using Seattlites. The microwave has its place in the kitchen right there with V-slicer. And those are the only two things you need to make crunchy, tasty potato chips in about 10 minutes.

You can use any type of potato, heck maybe even sweet potatoes. I tried both russets and yukon golds. The yukons are a little bit sweeter whereas the russets are quite earthy. The trick is to slice them as thinly and as evenly as possible. Unless you have mad knife skills, buy a v-slicer (you don't need a fancy French mandoline, just one of the plastic ones like this). Don't be afraid when they get quite brown, that is what makes them super crispy. Cool them for as long as you can stand it, then salt and eat.

Potato Chips

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 potato, sliced as thin as possible
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Pour the vegetable oil into a plastic bag (a produce bag works well). Add the potato slices, and shake to coat. Coat a large dinner plate lightly with oil or cooking spray. Arrange potato slices in a single layer on the dish. Cook in the microwave for 3 to 5 minutes, or until lightly browned (if not browned, they will not become crisp). Times will vary depending on the power of your microwave. Remove chips from plate, and toss with salt. Let cool. Repeat process with the remaining potato slices. You will not need to keep oiling the plate.