Friday, May 14, 2010

Putting my Education to Good Use

All the Fixin's

Hello, hello!  I’m finally back!  And man, it’s certainly been a while.  It was pretty crazy around here for a good week or so, what with my big catering gig and everything. (Which, by the way, went really great.  Thank you all for the good lucks and well wishes.)  And then after that, we were out of town to NYC for week, and then I got bogged down with even more work.  But even with these good excuses, it’s still been a while.  Way too long a while.  Thanks all of you, for being so patient. 

But believe it or not, I’m still right on track with the dinner parties.  Actually, we’ve thrown three in the last ten days, so I’m still completely on schedule, as far as the cooking and the hostessing goes.  The only element that’s lagging behind a bit in this blogging project, is well, the blogging element.   But with this post, I’m making some instant progress.  And you can be sure you’ll see a couple more posts up here pretty quickly, over the next couple days. 

We had an special dinner guest this last week: my dad, who was in town for a few days on a business trip.  On the single night that he didn’t take us out and treat us to steak dinners (Yes, plural steak dinners - We were conducting a comparative study of Chicago’s steakhouses), we invited him to our place and treated him, this time to surf, rather than turf. 

Shrimp & Cherry Tomatoes in Yellow Curry Sauce with Brown Rice & Wilted Spinach
Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

This Yellow Curry Shrimp is one of  our favorite dinners.  I don’t know who loves it more, me or Ben.  But that hardly matters – What does matter is that absolutely everyone who tastes it, including my dad who tasted it for the first time last week, positively loves it. 

Yellow Curry Shrimp with Cherry Tomatoes, Wilted Spinach & Brown Rice

It’s a recipe I learned in my ‘Cuisines of Asia’ class in culinary school.  I have to say, I learned to make some sensational stuff in school, and took away more than a few fabulous recipes.  But it’s funny, I rarely make any of these dishes at home.  This dish though, is different.  This dish became part of my home cooking repertoire right away – I cooked it again in my own kitchen, only a couple days after preparing it in class.  It was so incredibly good, I couldn’t wait for Ben to try it.  What’s more, I couldn’t wait to eat it again myself! 

Toasted Cumin & Coriander Seeds

One taste and Ben was as in love with it as I was.  And what, you may be asking, is so lovable about this dish?  For starters, the yellow curry sauce.  Warm, toasted spices - turmeric, coriander, cumin, and chile - with flashes of bright citrus, heady aromatics and a velvety background of rich, cool coconut milk.  This vivid yellow sauce is so full of incredible flavor, it’s no wonder we’ve all fallen in love at first taste. 

Yellow Curry Paste Ingredients

And with this perfect sauce, sweet and tender sautéed shrimp.  And who doesn’t love shrimp?  But the best part has definitely got to be the cherry tomatoes.  The small red orbs are simmered for a just few minutes in the bubbling sauce, just long enough to barely cook them though, taking them right to the point just before they burst.  One bite and the whole tomatoes literally explode with flavor, releasing the the bright, juicy goodness their insides have become, like delicate capsules of the freshest, most delicious tomato sauce in the world.

A Look into the Blender

Between the sauce, the tomatoes and the shrimp, this dish already has a lot going on.  And so I always tend towards simplicity with the sides.  A basic rice pilaf and a quick wilting of spinach.  Both delicious in their own right, but wonderfully unassuming.  These two humble sides make no threat of competition, which is important, because the last thing I’d want is for the spotlight to be stolen away from this divine curry.

Curried Shrimp Ingredients

When it came time for making dessert, I can’t remember if it was simply coincidence, or if I  made a conscious decision to again choose a recipe from the annals of my culinary education.  But at any rate, that’s what I ended up doing.  And both Dad and Ben were pretty thrilled that I did.  This pineapple upside-down cake is definitely one of the best things I took with me from cooking school, and that’s saying a lot.  (Thanks again, Chef Higgins!)

Pineapple & Brown Sugar Topping

I still remember my first extraordinary bite - It’s been my favorite dessert ever since.  The pineapple, so sweet at the height of its ripeness, becomes even more delectable as it slowly bakes - its natural sugars concentrating and caramelizing, its flavor intensifying, its deliciousness growing with every minute in the oven.  Over the pineapple oozes a marvelous gooeyness of buttery brown sugar caramel.  This wonderfully sticky nectar soaks half-way through the cloud of a cake, saturating its light crumb with a deliciously sugary density.  Still warm from the oven, this cake is the embodiment of pure joy.

I know it took me a while to write this post.  But please, don’t wait that long to make this cake!

Shrimp & Cherry Tomatoes in Yellow Curry Sauce
Adapted from my Asian Cuisine class at the CIA
Serves 4
I’ll tell you up front, making this dish takes a bit of time.  It’s mainly the sauce – The shrimp and tomatoes are simple as can be.  But the sauce does take a bit of effort and patience.  But here’s the deal - the first and most time-consuming step is making a yellow curry paste.  And the good thing is, once you’ve got the paste, the rest is a complete breeze to whip up.  Another bonus - one recipe of the curry paste yields enough for you to make this dish four times over.  If you’d like, you can freeze the extra portions of the paste.  It’ll be a quick thaw away, every time you’re in the mood for this delicious dish.  Or maybe you’ll love it so much, you’ll want to make it four nights in a row!  Don’t be surprised if you end of doing the latter. 
Shrimp & Cherry Tomatoes in Yellow Curry Sauce
1 # large (31-40 per pound) shrimp
2 Tbl vegetable oil, plus more for sautéing the shrimp
2 13.5-oz cans coconut milk
1/4 cup yellow curry paste
3 Tbl fish sauce
2 Tbl light brown sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
1 pint cherry (or grape) tomatoes
Peel the shells and tails off of the shrimp.  (I didn’t remove the tails because I was in a hurry.  But really, it’s a good thing to do.  It makes for less work during dinner.  And for less messiness too.)  Be careful not to rip off the entire tail while you’re removing the shell – An intact tail makes for a much prettier shrimp.   
De-vein the shrimp (i.e. remove the intestinal tract).  Use a paring knife to make a shallow slice along the center of the outer edge of the shrimp.  This will expose the dark grey ‘vein’, running along the length of the shrimp.  Scrape it out with the knife.  (You may not even have to do this.  Many times shrimp is already de-veined when you buy it.  If it hasn’t been de-veined, the outer edge of the shrimp will be intact, and you’ll see the vein just below the surface.) 
Sauté the shrimp: Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for about 2 minutes.  Swirl about 1/2 Tbl vegetable oil into the pan and heat for about 30 second more.  Working with about half the shrimp at a time, arrange a single layer of shrimp into the pan.  Don’t crowd the pan with too much shrimp, or you won’t get a nice sear.  Maybe you’ll need to do this in 3 or 4 batches even, if your pan won’t comfortably fit half the shrimp.)  Cook the shrimp for about 2 minutes, until the bottom of the shrimp are pink with slight golden sear marks.  Flip the shrimp over using tongs, and cook two minutes more, until the shrimp is just cooked through and the other side is seared and pink also.  Remove the shrimp from the pan and reserve.  Repeat with the rest of the shrimp, adding more vegetable oil as needed. 
Place a medium-sized sauce pot over medium heat and add the 2 Tbl vegetable oil.  Heat for 1 minute, then add the 1/4 cup yellow curry paste.  Cook until aromatic, about 1-2 minute, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.  Add the coconut milk and mix well to combine with the curry paste.  Add the fish sauce, sugar and salt and bring to a simmer.  Simmer, stirring frequently, until the sauce is slightly thick (about the consistency of heavy cream), about 5 minutes.  Add the cherry tomatoes.  Cook at a bare simmer (maybe lower the heat a bit, if you need to) for about 5 minutes longer, so that the sauce thickens a little more, and the tomatoes cook a bit.  You don’t want to cook the tomatoes so much that they burst, just enough to make them all saucy on the inside, but still fresh and intact.  Add the sautéed shrimp, and re-heat them in the sauce.  Serve hot. 
Yellow Curry Paste
Adapted from my Asian Cuisine class at the CIA
Makes 1 cup
    Yellow Curry Paste
1/4 cup dried small red chiles (about 4-5 peppers)
4 garlic cloves
4 shallots
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 Tbl coriander seeds
4 white peppercorns (or black peppercorns, if that’s what you’ve got on hand)
2 Tbl ginger
1/4 cup lemongrass (about 4 stalks)
1 tsp lime zest (from 1 lime)
1 Tbl ground turmeric
2 tsp kosher salt
2 Tbl vegetable oil
1/4 cup water
Toast the peppers:  Preheat the oven to 400ᵒF.  Slice the stem off the peppers, then slice the peppers in half, lengthwise.  Remove the seeds.  Place the halved peppers on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and toast in the oven, about 2-3 minutes, until golden brown & blistered.  Remove from the oven, and roughly chop into small pieces.  Set aside.
Roast the garlic & shallots:  Peel and slice (Just roughly slice them– Pretty thin, but it doesn’t really matter) the garlic and shallots.  Arrange them over the same parchment-lined baking sheet that you used for the peppers.  Roast until lightly browned and tender, about 15-20 minutes.
Toast the cumin & coriander:  Add the cumin seeds to a small sauté pan.  Over high heat, continuously shake the pan back and forth over the stove burner, until the cumin becomes slightly browned and fragrant, about 1-2 minutes.  Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.  Toast the coriander seeds using the same method. 
Add the toasted cumin and coriander along with the peppercorns to a spice grinder and process until coarsely ground.  Add the chopped peppers and process until finely ground.
Using a sharp knife, peel the skin from the ginger.  Finely mince the ginger.
Finely mince the lemongrass: Pull away the tough and dry outer layers from the lemongrass stalks, leaving just the green, tender interiors.  Slice off the bottom root end and the brittle top ends.  Slice the remaining stalk in half, lengthwise.  Then slice each half, lengthwise again, into about 4 long pieces.  Thinly slice these long pieces, crosswise, into small pieces.  (See the picture below.)
Finely Chopping the Lemongrass
Add the roasted garlic and  shallots, the minced ginger and lemongrass and the lime zest to a blender. Blend on high, frequently stopping to scrape down the sides of the blender with a rubber spatula, until a coarse paste is formed.  (I’m not going to lie to you – This is a pain in the butt to do!  But keep at it – Keep on pulsing the blender, then scraping the ingredients back into the center - Eventually you’ll get there!) 
Add the ground spices (cumin, coriander & peppercorns), the turmeric and the salt to the blender.  Continue to blend until the spices are incorporated.
With the blender running, add the oil.  Then slowly add the water.  Continue to blend (and scrape down the sides with a spatula, of course) until a fine, smooth paste is formed.  Keep refrigerated in an air-tight container. 
Wilted Spinach
Serves 4
There is no simpler way to prepare spinach. 
And sometimes I think there’s no yummier way either.
Pre-Wilted Spinach
12 oz baby spinach, stems plucked off
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbl lemon juice (which is a bit traditional) or lime juice (which is a nice twist)
Place a large sauté pan over medium-high heat.  Add the spinach leaves.  Season with a good pinch of salt and a few good grinds of pepper.  Drizzle with the olive oil and citrus juice.  Using tongs, continuously turn the spinach over in the pan, bringing the already wilted spinach to the top, and the fresh, unwilled spinach to the bottom.  Continue until all of the spinach is wilted and tender.  Serve hot.
A Few Words on Rice Pilaf, and a Basic Method
There have got to be hundreds of different varieties of rice out there, each one more beautiful than the next, each with its own unique color, shape and flavor.  Such a huge array!  I love it!  Pushing my cart through the rice aisle, I can rarely resist picking out a pretty, new rice.  On this particular night, I cooked this particular rice, a medium-grain variety called Lundberg Lehani.  It was fabulous, with a tender chewiness, a great nutty flavor with hints of honey, and a strikingly rich reddish-brown color.
Brown Rice
Of course, there are all sorts of ways you can prepare rice.  The possibilities are endless.  But the most simple, the most basic, the most common preparation for rice has got to be Rice Pilaf.  And more often than not, like maybe ninety-five percent of the time, when I make rice, it’s the Rice Pilaf method that I’m using. 
Now, the method for making a basic Rice Pilaf is exactly the same, no matter what type of rice you use.  What changes from variety to variety, are two things: the amount of liquid you need, and the amount of time the rice needs to cook.  To find out how much liquid and cooking time you’ll need, just look on the back of the rice container – It should always tell you.  If it doesn’t, follow these two simple rules of thumb, and your rice will probably come out pretty close to perfect: For medium or long-grain white rice - Use about 2 cups liquid for every 1 cup rice, and cook for about 15 minutes.  For medium or long-grain brown rice - Use about 2 1/2 cups liquid for every 1 cup rice, and cook about 45 minutes.
But the really important thing I want to share with you is my method for making Rice Pilaf.  Usually the back of the rice container shares a method for preparing the rice too, but the recipe below can’t be beat, so I usually just ignore the container’s instructions, and use it just to find out the amount of liquid I’ll need, and the right cooking time.  For every kind of rice out there, these steps below will stay exactly the same.  Follow them, and you’ll get perfect rice every time.  So, with no further ado, here’s what to do…
Basic Rice Pilaf
Makes about 2 1/2-3 cups rice, about 4 servings or so
1 cup rice (any variety)
1 Tbl fat (butter, extra-virgin olive oil, duck fat, etc…)
x cups liquid (water, chicken stock, vegetable stock, beef stock, etc…)
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Rinse the rice with cool running water in a colander, until the water turns from cloudy to clear.  Drain the rice well.  (Rinsing removes the excess starch, so the rice doesn’t turn out too mushy, sticky or clumpy.)
Heat the fat over medium heat in a medium-sized sauce pot for about 1 minute.  Add the 1 cup rice.  Season with salt and pepper, as needed.  Sauté, stirring constantly, until the rice is heated though and coated with the melted fat, about 2 minutes.  (This step causes the starch to begin to break down, gives the rice a bit of a toasty flavor, and encourages the rice grains to remain separate after they’re cooked.)
Add the liquid (remember, the amount you’ll need changes with each variety of rice – look on the container) and with the lid still off, bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally. 
When the liquid comes to a simmer, cover the pot with a lid, and decrease the heat in order to maintain a bare simmer.  Peek under the lid from time to time, to make sure you’ve got just a bare simmer.  Simmer with the lid on (remember, the cooking time will vary for each variety of rice – look on the container) until the rice is tender and all the liquid is evaporated and absorbed.  To make sure all the liquid is gone, tilt the pan to the side.  If water rises up the sides of the pan, continue cook the rice a little while longer.
Once all the liquid is evaporated/absorbed, turn off the heat and allow the rice to rest five minutes, still covered.  Then remove the lid and fluff with a fork.  And that’s about it!
You’ll notice you can use just about any type of fat and any type of liquid.  For a basic pilaf, go with olive oil and water.  But for something a little more hearty, jazz it up with butter or a flavorful stock.  You can add other flavorings too, say like a bay leaf or a few thyme sprigs – Add them right along with the rice, then simply remove them once it’s done cooking.  Or you can start out by sautéing a couple tablespoons of minced shallots/onions and a minced garlic clove, then add the rice to the same pan, and continue right along with the recipe.  All of these steps can really enhance your rice dish, and change it from something really simple into something out of the ordinary.  The recipe above is as basic as it gets, and a great starting point.
Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
Adapted from Chef George Higgins, my Baking & Pastry chef at the CIA
Serves 8
Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
about 1/2 pineapple
4 oz butter, plus more for greasing the cake pan
1 1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 1/4 cup cake flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
3/4 cups granulated sugar, divided in half
3 large eggs, whites and yolks separated
1/4 cup plus 1 Tbl pineapple juice
Preheat the oven to 350ᵒF. 
Peel and slice the pineapple:  Cutting straight across, slice off the top and bottom of the pineapple.  Stand the pineapple upright on the cutting board.  Slicing from top to bottom, and working around the fruit, slice off the skin.  Annoying little bits and pieces will remain, but it’s important to slice these off too.  Be thorough, and remove every last little bit.  Lay the peeled pineapple on its side, and slice cross-wise into even 1/4-inch round slices.  (You’ll only need to use about half the pineapple, so save the rest for a snack.) Cut each circle slice in half, right through the center.  Using a circular cookie cutter (about 1-2 inch diameter) if you’ve got one, or a paring knife if you don’t, cut out the core.  Now slice each cored half, in half again.  (See the picture below, which might give you a better idea of what I’m trying to say.)
Pineapple & Brown Sugar Topping
Butter the sides of a 9 or 10-inch cake pan.  (Don’t worry about the bottom.)
Melt the butter in a small-medium sauce pan over medium heat.  Add the brown sugar, stir to combine, and simmer for about 2 minutes.  Pour the butter-sugar mixture into the cake pan and spread it evenly over the bottom.  Arrange the pineapple slices in two rings over the base of the pan.  Set aside. 
Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a small-medium mixing bowl.  Reserve.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks and half of the sugar (1/4 cup plus 2 Tbl) until foamy.  Add the flour mixture and the pineapple juice, and mix gently with a rubber spatula until just combined. (It’s okay if it’s still a bit lumpy, but you definitely don’t want to over-mix it.)
In the bowl of a stand mixer, using the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites on medium-high speed until they are fluffy and with ‘soft peaks’.  With the mixer set to medium, slowly add the other half of the sugar (1/4 cup plus 2 Tbl).  Add the egg white mixture to the egg yolk-flour mixture, and mix gently with a rubber spatula until just combined.  (Again, don’t over-mix it!) 
Pour the batter over the pineapple rings in the cake pan.  Lightly drop the filled pan on the counter top a few times, to allow any bubbles to rise to the surface. 
Bake for 20 minutes, then lower the heat to 325ᵒF, and continue to bake until the top of the cake is golden brown, and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out with a few clinging moist crumbs, about 25-30 minutes longer.
Remove from the oven and immediately invert onto a serving platter.  (Place the serving dish upside-down over the pie plate, hold the two dishes together and invert to right side-up.)  Allow the cake to rest about 15 minutes, then slice and serve.  The cake can also be served at room temperature.  It’s great served with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

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