Friday, June 25, 2010


Beautiful Blueberries

We had two of our New York friends, Russ and Sam, staying with us last weekend.  Actually, they used to be our New York friends.  Now they’re our Colorado friends.  With their car jam-packed full of all their belongings, the adventurous Russ and Sam said good bye to the Big Apple, and headed out on the big drive westward, taking socially plotted pit stops not only in Chicago, but in a number of other friend-filled cities, in the midst of their month-long move.  We were thrilled to be one of their many stops along the way, and we had a blast of a weekend hanging out and eating with them.  Knowing that these two had probably had more than enough restaurant food as of late, we figured they’d enjoy some home cooking.  And so, their first night in town, we stayed in for dinner.  This was our home-cooked menu:

Grilled Herb-Rubbed Skirt Steak
Grilled Baby Artichoke, Pearl Onion & Potato Kebabs
Green Beans with Arugula
Kalamata Olive Aioli
Blueberry Gingerbread Upside-Down Cake

We’ve been crazy about grilling lately.  Can’t get enough of it this time of year.  Unfortunately, over the last few weeks, our gas grill hasn’t seemed all that enamored with us.  It just hasn’t been cooperating lately, and won’t ever get nearly hot enough.  It’s not one of those hulking, silver sorts with the raging flames and sturdy exterior.  Our cute little grill is definitely on the wimpy side of the grill spectrum, and pretty susceptible to the Chicago winds that always whip past our outside deck, even in the middle of summer.  It seems every time we cook out lately, even with a fresh tank of propane, our little grill just doesn’t stand up to the job. 

And I’ve known all this for a while now.  So why, you may ask, does this week’s menu include grilled skirt steak (a somewhat fickle cut of beef that’s notorious for needing a really hot, hot flame) and on top of that, grilled sides too!?  To tell you the truth, I have no idea.  I have no idea whatsoever what I was thinking.  Perhaps I was thinking, that I’m nearly half-way through with this once-a-week-for-a-year-dinner-party endeavor, and that since I haven’t had any major flops yet, perhaps I was indestructible.  Well, I kind of proved myself very wrong. 

Baby Artichokes

Skirt steak has all the potential for being magnificent, but only if it’s cooked really quickly and over really high heat, to just about medium rare, no more, no less.  Needless to say, thanks in part to our weakling grill, but thanks in bigger part to my own should-have-known-better stupidity, this is not how I cooked my skirt steak.  And magnificent is not at all how it turned out to be.  I ended up having to finish the steak indoors, on a hot sauté pan.  This averted completely failure, but the end results were only okay, at best.  Russ and Sam insisted that  everything tasted great.  But I do think they were just being nice. 

The good news is that this skirt steak fiasco finally justified our long-time longing for a charcoal grill, whose top vent would make it much less susceptible to the blowing winds than our side-vented gas grill.  Aside from that, we’d been coveting charcoal grills for the incredible, smoky flavor they impart on any food that rests above their smoldering coals.  No gas grill, however convenient it may be, can ever quite compare to the smoky goodness of a charcoal grill.  So, as soon as Sam and Russ took off, we headed to Home Depot and found a great deal on the greatest Webber grill.  And man, if we were loving grilling out before, now we’re officially obsessed!

Vegetable Kebabs

The other good news is that the vegetable kebabs, not needing near the blast of heat the steak required, turned out pretty great.  Pre-cooked a bit so they were tender on the insides, the potatoes, onions and artichokes picked up a beautiful outer char from a quick turn on the grill.  What made these colorful rows of vegetables even more tasty was the flavorful dollop of kalamata olive aioli served on the side.  This piquant concoction of briny olives, pungent garlic, zesty lemon and salty capers, folded into creamy home-made mayonnaise, was a deliciously dip-able sauce for both the grilled vegetables and the thinly sliced steak. 

And one last addition to dinner, the green beans with arugula.  Sautéed with garlic and a touch of lemon, then tossed with a big handful of arugula, which wilted in the heat of the pan, and clung to these beans, these green beans would be a perfect side to any summer dinner.  Sometimes you just want something a little bit different from regular old green beans, and this dish certainly did the trick.  It was anything but regular.

Green Beans

As if in atonement for the miserable steak, the delicious dessert completely made up for any main course shortcomings.  This blueberry gingerbread upside-down cake is the epitome of magnificent.  The recipe comes from a favorite dessert cookbook of mine called Luscious Berry Desserts, which is also the source for this raspberry tart that I made a while back.  And wow, are both of them incredible!  I’ve made this one at least a half dozen times.  Luscious baked blueberries sit atop the moist and tender cake, swathed in a caramelized brown sugar syrup that soaks into the warmly spiced gingerbread below.  Served just out of the oven with a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting on top, this dessert is simply incredible.  And it was a perfect way to end a night that had gotten off to not so perfect a start. 

Top of the Upside-Down Cake


Grilled Herb-Rubbed Skirt Steak
Serves 4
Skirt steak is a cut of beef that’s best served right around medium-rare.  Any less than that and it will be too chewy.  And more than say, medium and it will turn out very tough.  Another important thing to keep in mind - slice the cooked steak very thinly, and always on a diagonal, against the grain. 
Herb-Rubbed Skirt Steak

2 # skirt steak
2 sprigs rosemary, leaves plucked off
10 sprigs thyme, leaves plucked off
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
vegetable oil, for grilling

Trim the skirt steak of any excess fat or sinew, if needed.  (But you’ll probably not need to do too much of this, if any.  Skirt streak usually comes pretty clean from the butcher.)  Pat the meat dry with paper towels, then press the rosemary and thyme leaves evenly over both sides of the streak.  Refrigerate for at least four hours, or up to one day, covered with plastic wrap.
Preheat the grill to very hot, about 30 minutes. Here’s a way to tell if your grill is at the right temperature.  Hold your hand right over it.  If you you can keep it there for five seconds, it’s not hot enough.  If you can’t hold it there for even half a second, it's too hot.  When the grill is hot, soak a clean rag or a bunch of paper towels with a few tablespoons of vegetable oil, and using tongs, rub it over the grill rack. 
Scrape the herbs off the skirt steak, then pat the steak dry with paper towels.  Season both sides with a good dose of salt and pepper.  Place the steak on the hottest area of the grill, over direct heat.  Cook for about 3 minutes, then flip it over and cook another three minutes, for medium-rare.  Transfer the steak to a cutting board and rest, covered loosely with tin foil, about 5 minutes.  Thinly slice the steak on the diagonal, against the grain.  Serve immediately.


Grilled Baby Artichoke, Pearl Onion & Red Potato Kebabs
Serves 4

Grilled Vegetable Kebabs 

2 tsp thyme, finely chopped
2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
2 Tbl plus 2 Tbl lemon juice, divided
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
about 8 baby artichokes
about 16 baby red potatoes
about 24 pearl onions
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
about 12 bamboo skewers, soaked for at least 30 minutes in cool water

Make the vinaigrette:
In a small mixing bowl, whisk to combine the thyme, lemon zest, 2 Tbl lemon juice a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Slowly add the olive oil, pouring in a thin stream and whisking as you pour.  Reserve.
Prepare the artichokes:
In a large bowl, combine 1 quart of cold water with the remaining 2 Tbl lemon juice, and set aside.  Working one artichoke at a time, bend back the tough, green outer leaves, snapping them off close to the base.  Continue removing several layers of leaves until the exposed leaves are pale yellow at the bottom, pale green at the top and tender.  Using kitchen shears or a very sharp knife, trim off the pointed tips of the leaves.  Cut a thin slice straight across the bottom of the stem to expose a fresh cross-section.  Trim the tough, dark green outer edges from the base and stem, exposing the tender, light green flesh beneath.  Slice the artichoke in half, length-wise.  Remove the fuzzy center, and any pointed tips of inner leaves. Place the prepared artichoke halves in the lemon water.

Whole Baby ArtichokeTough Outer Leaves Removed
                                                             whole baby artichoke                                                                        tough outer leaves removed
Top Sliced Off, Stem TrimmedTrimmed Artichoke, Sliced in Half
                                                                        top sliced off, stem trimmed                                           trimmed artichoke, sliced in half
Hairy Choke Removed
                                                                                     hairy choke removed
As you prepare the artichokes, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  When all the artichokes are trimmed, drain them from the lemon water and place them in the boiling water.  Simmer until tender, about 8 minutes.  Drain off the boiling water, then place the artichokes in a large bowl of ice water.  Allow them to rest in the ice water about 3 minutes, until cool.  Drain well, then pat dry with paper towels.
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the prepared artichokes with about a third of the vinaigrette.  Season with salt and pepper and gently toss to coat.  Arrange four artichoke halves on each skewer, piercing the skewer twice through the leaves, near the choke.  Reserve, covered and refrigerated, until ready to grill.  

Prepare the Pearl Onions:
Bring a medium pot a water to a boil and add the pearl onions.  Simmer about two minutes, then drain.  Slice just the barest amount off the tough root end, then using a paring knife, peel off the skin. 

In a mixing bowl, combine the prepared pearl onions with about a third of the vinaigrette (about half of what’s remaining).  Season with salt and pepper and toss to coat.  Arrange six pearl onions on each skewer, piercing through the center, from side to side (not top to bottom).  Reserve, covered and refrigerated until ready to grill.

Prepare the Potatoes:
Add potatoes to a large pot of boiling, salted water and simmer until they are just tender, about 15 minutes.  Drain well.

In a mixing bowl, combine the cooked potatoes with the remaining third of the vinaigrette.  Season with salt and pepper and toss to coat.  Arrange four potatoes on each skewer, piercing them through the center.  Reserve, covered and refrigerated until ready to grill.

Grill the vegetables:
Heat the grill on high until very hot, about 30 minutes. Here’s a way to tell if your grill is at the right temperature.  Hold your hand right over it.  If you you can keep it there for five seconds, it’s not hot enough.  If you can’t hold it there for even half a second, it's too hot. 

When the grill is hot, soak a clean rag or a bunch of paper towels with a few tablespoons of vegetable oil, and using tongs, rub it over the grill rack.

Arrange the skewered artichokes, onions and potatoes directly over the heat.  Grill, turning occasionally, until grill marks appear on all sides, and the vegetables are heated through, about 3 minutes total for the artichokes and about 4-5 minutes total for the onions and potatoes. Transfer to a platter and serve hot. 


Green Beans with Arugula
Adapted from The Best of Gourmet by Ruth Reichl
Serves 4
  Green Beans with Arugula
1 # green beans, trimmed
1 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
about 4 cups baby arugula, stems trimmed
1/2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
kosher salt & finely ground black pepper, to taste
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the green beans and boil, uncovered, until tender, about 4-5 minutes.  Drain in a colander then plunge into a large bowl of ice water.  When cool, drain again in a colander and set aside. 
Heat oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking, about 1 1/2 minutes.  Add the garlic and sauté until golden, being careful not to let it brown, about 1 minute.  Add the green beans, lemon zest and arugula.  Season with salt and pepper and cook, tossing occasionally, until the beans are warmed through and the arugula is wilted, about 2 minutes.  Serve hot. 


Kalamata Olive Aioli
Makes about 2 cups
Kalamata Olive Aioli
2 large egg yolks
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped
1 Tbl capers, drained
1 anchovy fillet, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1 Tbl lemon juice
1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Crack the egg yolks into a large mixing bowl, and whisk until they are slightly foamy.  Slowly add the olive oil, then the vegetable oil, just a few drops at at time, constantly beating with the whisk, until all the oil is incorporated and the mixture is thick and smooth, the consistency of mayonnaise.  Set aside.
Add the chopped olives and capers to the bowl of a food processor.  Pulse until coarsely chopped, then scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.  Add the anchovy, garlic, lemon zest and lemon juice.  Pulse until finely chopped (but not pureed). 
Add the olive mixture to the oil mixture.  Add the chopped parsley and mix to combine thoroughly.  Taste, and season as needed with salt and pepper.  This can be stored, covered and refrigerated, for up to one day.  Serve at room temperature. 


Blueberry Gingerbread Upside-Down Cake
Adapted from Luscious Berry Desserts by Lori Longbotham
Serves 8-10
Blueberry Gingerbread Upside-Down Cake
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 stick plus 1 stick unsalted butter, divided, room temperature
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 Tbl lemon juice
1 pint blueberries
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup molasses
2 large eggs
1/4 cup whole milk
Preheat the oven to 350ᵒF.  Position a rack in the middle of the oven.
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, baking soda and salt.  Reserve.
Melt 1/2 stick of butter.  In a small mixing bowl, stir together the melted butter with the brown sugar and the lemon juice.  Pour into a round cake pan of 9-inch diameter and 2-inch height.  Sprinkle the blueberries evenly over the bottom of the pan.
Using an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the remaining stick of butter on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about three minutes.  Add the granulated sugar and beat until light and fluffy again, about one minute more.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, then add the molasses and beat until blended.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.  Add half of the flour mixture and mix until just combined.  Add the milk and mix until just combined.  Add the remaining flour mixture and mix until combined.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan.  Smooth out the top with a rubber spatula.
Bake until a wooden pick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 60-65 minutes.  Set the pan on a wire rack and cool the cake for 15 minutes.  Run a thin, sharp knife around the inside edge of the pan.  Invert the cake onto a serving plate.  
Cut into wedges and serve warm.  This goes great with vanilla ice cream.

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