Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mac and Cheese

So, how often do you eat Kraft Dinner? I've never really been a big fan, frankly, but I have to admit that I kind of like the Three Cheese variety. In fact, it's the only one I'll buy if I have the option, but not all stores carry it. My family prefers it, too, so you should give it a try, but only to prove to yourself that there is a hierarchy of macaroni and cheese, and that the Three Cheese variety is better than the original.

This one is better still. It's my recipe, and though you have to be standing over the stove the entire time, it still only takes 15 minutes to make. Max. My daughter always requests it when I'm asking for dinner suggestions, and if I want her to clarify whether she wants Kraft or homemade, she never lets me down. Oh, it's nice to be adored. Well, at least my food is adored.

What makes homemade macaroni and cheese better? For one, it's made with real pasta, not the soft flour-type product that comes with a packet. That's not really, pasta, you know, it's just shaped like it. Also, it's creamier, cheesier, and smoother. And delicious. Delicious. Also, it's easy to make. I start with an easy white sauce, add cayenne and nutmeg for a little nuttiness (the cayenne doesn't make it spicy, though you could add enough to make it that way), and sharp Cheddar. The "sharp" part is very important, or you won't get a cheesy enough flavor. And I often end up with more sauce than I need, since I never measure, which is very handy for chilling, mixing with salsa, and dipping.

Macaroni and Cheese

1 lb. good small pasta (I like Barilla brand, and rotini, small shells, or small penne)
3 T. unsalted butter
4 T. (1/4 c.) flour
2 - 2 1/2 cups milk (2% is great for this)
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
pinch cayenne
Kosher salt
10 oz. sharp Cheddar cheese, grated

In a large saucepan, bring water to boil and prepare pasta according to directions, being cautious to stop at the "al dente" stage. Drain the pasta and set aside in a serving bowl.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat until it starts to smell a little roasted. It may even start to brown just a touch (don't go too far on this). This will give the sauce a rich, buttery flavor. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring, for about a minute, to cook the raw flour taste away.

Whisk in about 1 1/2 c. milk to start. As it's heating, stir in the nutmeg, cayenne (up to 1/8 t. if you like a bit of kick), and 1 t. salt. When the sauce begins to near the boiling point, you'll notice it's getting much thicker. Add milk gradually, watching the thickness of the sauce, and keep it at a pretty medium consistency. Taste for salt and add more if necessary. Once the sauce has just started to boil, turn off the heat and stir in the cheese.

Lightly salt the pasta, then add enough sauce to thoroughly coat the pasta but not leave it swimming. Taste again for salt and season as necessary. Serve and enjoy!

(Goes great with sliced Fuji apples.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Carne Asada, continued

So, to continue with the previous post, I next had to tackle the carne asada. I was so excited to make this with Ribeyes, since that is my favorite steak. Actually, when we do grill steak, we never touch it - just buy a good steak, add salt and pepper, and grill. But I was willing to make an exception for something that sounded so extraordinary.

According to Chef Bayless' description, he used guajillos and anchos in his adobo sauce. He has a similar recipe, without the anchos, in his cookbook Mexican Kitchen. I decided to semi-adopt this recipe, reducing the amount of liquid to make a thicker marinating sauce. I did forget one small ingredient in the recipe: 1 T. of cider vinegar. Looking ahead, I will definitely incorporate this next time, but I won't say we really felt the lack of it during our dinner. Also, we served our dinner taco-style, so I chopped up some onions and cilantro to top the meat. So, here is the recipe, as I prepared it, but with the vinegar.

Carne Asada
adapted from Mexican Kitchen by Rick Bayless

6 large garlic cloves, unpeeled
about 3 oz. ancho chiles (dried), stemmed and seeded
about 2 oz. guajillo chiles (dried), stemmed and seeded
1 t. dried Mexican oregano
1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper
1/8 t. cumin
1 1/2 c. beef broth (I used rich chicken stock, as that's what I had available)
2 T. olive oil
Kosher salt
1 t. sugar
1 T. cider vinegar
3 lbs. Ribeye steaks, boneless, 1" thick
corn tortillas
1 small onion, diced (preferably white)
1/4 c. chopped cilantro
limes, quartered

Heat an ungreased griddle (I like cast iron for this) over medium heat, then toast the garlic on the griddle, turning a few times, for about 15 minutes. While this is going on, open up all of the chiles and toast them for a few seconds on each side, pressing them down with a spatula to ensure more even heat distribution. Move the chiles to a bowl, cover them with hot water, and wrap the bowl with plastic wrap. Allow the chiles about 30 minutes to rehydrate, stirring once or twice. (If you have fair skin like me, use gloves, or your hands may be on fire later in the night and most of the following day.)

Drain the chiles, then add them to the blender with the oregano, pepper, cumin, just-peeled garlic, and about 1/2 c. or so of the broth. Blend until smooth, then press through a medium-mesh strainer into a bowl.

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. When it is quite hot, quickly add all of the sauce and begin stirring. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until it's a bit thicker, then add the rest of the stock. I still like it to be fairly thick, so adjust the stock quantity as necessary, since I certainly wasn't measuring. Simmer for at least a few minutes (and up to 45) to let the flavors come together, then add the sugar and salt to taste. (It should taste pretty spicy, but the salt needs to come through a bit to season the meat as well.) Cool the sauce to room temperature.

Divide the sauce into two parts: about 2/3 and 1/3. Reserve the 1/3 for topping the meat later. Add the vinegar and 1/2 t. salt to the rest, then spread the adobo sauce on both sides of the steaks. Cover and let it marinade for at least half an hour, and up to four hours.

Fire up your charcoal (we use a chimney) and let it get white hot. Pour the charcoal onto one half of the grill, creating a hot side and a cool side. Don't skimp on the amount of charcoal, as you want the hot side to be as hot as possible; if your grill isn't hot enough, the steaks will get too done by the time they have a good char. Throw the steaks on the hot side and grill them until they get a nice char, then turn them over and do the same on the other side. Move them to the cooler side and put the lid on until they are done to your preference. This whole process takes about eight minutes for a medium-rare steak.

After bringing the steak in, let it rest for just a couple of minutes to pull the juices back in, then slice it against the grain in 1/4" slices. Meanwhile, wrap the corn tortillas in a towel, then microwave them on high until they are steamed and fully warmed, 1-2 minutes, depending on how many tortillas you have in there.

Combine the onions and cilantro in a small dish.

To create the perfect carne asada taco, place some of the meat in the tortilla, then top with the onions and cilantro, a squeeze of lime, and a small pinch of Kosher salt. If you're looking for additional heat, add some of the leftover adobo sauce. I can't even tell you how good it is.

I'm thinking of trying this with chicken, though it will in no way approach the Ribeye. If I do, I'll let you know what I think.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Carne Asada

On his website, Rick Bayless responds to a question about Frontera Grill's carne asada. He says, "Our original steak is a boneless rib steak that's marinated in adobo (ancho and guajillo chiles blended with roasted garlic, vinegar and spices), served with black beans, rustic guacamole and fried sweet plantains (that are topped, in a traditional style, with homemade crema and fresh cheese)." I read this the other day, drooling, and decided that living 1500 miles from Chicago shouldn't keep me from enjoying the same thing.

Of course, that wasn't a recipe, but it was close enough to get me started.

I made the black beans on Friday, which were very easy. First, I chopped up a large onion and sautéed it over medium in about 2 T. olive oil. After about 10 minutes, when it was carmelizing nicely, I added a pound of black (turtle) beans, as well as 3-4 cups of water. I brought that to a boil, then turned it down to simmer. I checked it periodically, making sure the water level was always 1/2 an inch above the beans, at least, and after 3-4 hours, they were soft throughout. I salted them to taste, then cooled and refrigerated them for the next day.

Oh, I decided to add something to the menu that was not there: Bobby Flay's Grilled Corn and Tomato Salad. I half to add my two cents to the recipe, of course. First, I quit adding corn after 6 ears; 8 would be overkill for sure, but I had large ears of corn. Second, the bleu cheese (I used Maytag, my favorite) was a little strong at 8 oz. I would recommend 6 oz., though I didn't think it was overly strong the following day when I devoured plenty of leftovers. It's a fantastic salad, and we'll definitely make it again. I did want to quickly cook the corn without using up all the heat from the charcoal, so we husked it, rubbed it lightly with olive oil, and threw it on the grill for three or four minutes. It worked great, especially since fresh corn doesn't need to cook for very long to be tender and cook. In fact, when I was little and shucked corn from dawn to dusk with my sister (okay, just the hour before dinner), I often ate an ear of corn right then. It was pretty irresistible. Besides, it was my pay.

The guacamole was very easy, since I had Mark make it. He just smashed up some avocados with a potato masher, added some lemon and lime juice, salt, and a bit of salsa. Mmmm, mmm. It was especially delicious served right next to the reheated black beans, with a little drizzle of Crema Mexicana over the beans as well.

The plantains were also fairly simple. To make sweet plantains, slice up some very ripe plantains, about 1/4" - 1/2" thick. Heat about 1/4" of canola or other vegetable oil over medium high, or just less than medium high. When it is hot, add the plantains, and cook them on each side for about 2 minutes, until golden. Remove to a paper towel. Set on a platter, then crumble some Queso Fresco over them and drizzle on some Crema Mexicana. Oh, they are delicious. In fact, I'm making more tonight, since I had one plantain that took a while to ripen. I can't wait!

By the way, the plantains are sweet when they're very yellow and look all bruised. The peel is very thick and the bruising usually hasn't reached the fruit when the peel looks ruined. The green plantains are not as sweet but are still very delicious, and to cook those, you want to cut them about 3/4" thick. After you cook them for about 1 minute on each side, remove them to the paper towel, then smash them flatter (the bottom of a glass works great for this) and fry them again, this time until they're golden on both sides.

(to be continued...)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Sometimes when I'm out of garlic, I hope to pick up a few good heads at the grocery store. Often I'm a little disappointed, and sometimes I'm just disgusted. Isn't it frustrating when the garlic heads look like all the large cloves have been picked off the outside for the store's own use. I'm sure it's much more likely that the heads aren't as mature and should have been given more time to grow, but it doesn't much matter what the excuse is. Small heads of garlic are annoying. You have about 4 medium-size cloves and then just the skinny stuff in the middle (that isn't worth my time).

So I was understandably ecstatic when I went to the store the other day (a different store, the cheap one), and they had loads of beautiful, large, perfect heads of garlic. I wanted to grab the whole lot, but that would have been overdoing it. Instead, I grabbed eight lovely looking parcels and brought them home. I've used one (over the weekend, which I still haven't told you about), and I have seven left.

Look at them. They're just dying to be used. Sautéed? Oven-roasted? Simmered in olive oil? I haven't figured it out yet. I've never tried this. Any suggestions?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ice Cream Tasting: Vanilla

Saturday Mark and I had some friends over. Mark administered a blind taste test to the rest of us (seven of us), and we tried nine different vanilla ice creams. Nine different flavors that we might perhaps try at some point or another, or feed to our children, or hoard for ourselves. So, which flavors would we hide, which would we throw away, and which would we share? Well, that took a lot of taste buds to figure out. Let me start by saying what we tasted.

We tasted the nine flavors in this order (though we didn't know it at the time): Tillamook French Vanilla, Breyers All Natural, Dreyer's (Edy's) Slow-Churned Half-the-Fat Vanilla, Ben & Jerry's Fair Trade Vanilla, Dreyer's Grand Vanilla Bean, Mountain Dairy (this was the cheapest option), Green & Black Organic Vanilla, Haagen Dazs Vanilla, and Julie's Organic Vanilla. I think the order probably makes a little differences here and there, but we tried to be objective.

The funny thing about tasting lots of vanilla ice cream is that you don't just grab a bit of one and go, "Wow! That's yummy! I love ice cream!" It kind of makes you cynical. You taste the subtle differences between each, and you're generally only pulling out the things that are wrong with each variety. The crazy thing about that is that I would never grab a bowl of ice cream and say, "Wow! That's awful. Inedible. Yuck." In the taste test, though, there were a couple of ice creams scoops I didn't finish, and not because I was getting full. Still, it's important information. Let's say I want to relax, sit back, watch an old Cary Grant movie, and have a small dish of ice cream after the kids have gone to bed, as I might do this evening. I should know what kind of ice cream will make me the happiest, so I don't waste calories on something that's going to make me think, "Hmmm...that was okay." Why should I have to run an extra two miles for that? Of course, the Cary Grant movie is calorie-free and always good, as is relaxing after kids have gone to bed, so it's not an all-bad deal.

I'm rambling, and I should get back to the test. It was a blast, and I highly recommend you hold your own with a bunch of friends. You'll be surprised what they like, and you may be surprised what you like. I'll list the consensus results in order of preference, with my ranking in parentheses. I'll also include some of our panelists' comments.

First place: Ben and Jerry's Fair Trade Vanilla
There was one thing that made this ice cream different from all the others I tasted: the sugar. The ingredients list "liquid sugar", which I would guess from the tasting is liquid cane sugar, as it has a touch of the depth you find in brown sugar, though it is neither too sweet nor overpowered with molasses tones. Ben and Jerry's also tasted a bit roasty, like the vanilla beans were maybe toasted, but this could be an effect of the sugar. It had an edge over the rest of the ice creams I tasted because it definitely possessed a greater depth of flavor and didn't have an alcohol-like extract aftertaste. It was dense and delicious. Other commenters said it had a good vanilla flavor, was creamy, and full-flavored. (1)

Second place: Julie's Organic Vanilla
When I bought this ice cream and tasted it, nothing in particular struck me, so I was surprised it did so well in the tasting. I think that was one of its winning qualities: there was nothing bizarre or unpleasant about it; it's just a good vanilla and was the winner for three of the tasters. But while some enjoyed its very unassuming qualities, calling it "good all around", others thought it was "artificial", "blah", and had a "plain taste". (5)

Third place: Dreyer's Grand Vanilla Bean
This was a popular choice because it had "good vanilla" and "natural" flavors. I think it made it to this place in the polls because, like the Julie's Organic, it has an all-around pleasant taste with little to complain about. On the down side, some did think it was too sweet and icy (compared to the previous ice cream, Ben and Jerry's), and one of our friends said he'd "save it for favorite company". (4)

Fourth place (tie): Häagen-Dazs Vanilla
The Häagen-Dazs ice cream had the strongest custard flavor, which is probably why it was also the smoothest, creamiest, and highest in fat. It does, however, have a bit of an "extract" aftertaste, though not nearly as strong as some of the other brands. While I like the cleaner flavors of an ice cream with fewer egg yolks, the perfect creaminess of Häagen-Dazs is hard to resist, and is my second choice because it is perfect for topping peach pie, blueberry cobbler, or any other dessert. Other commenters said it was nice looking, melts well in your mouth, was not the best, and was eggy. (2)

Fourth place (tie): Tillamook French Vanilla
Tillamook's line of ice creams all seem to be good - at least we think so. I especially recommend the mint chocolate chip, with large chunks of dark chocolate. But we're talking about their French Vanilla, which is also nice. Though very sweet, it had a smooth texture and a nice vanilla taste. One taster said it reminded him of French toast. (6)

Sixth place: Green and Black's Organic Vanilla
Green and Black's is known for their organic chocolate bars (so we'll have to taste their chocolate ice cream sometime), but released their ice cream line in the U.S. earlier this year (it has been available in the U.K. for a few years). Their vanilla ice cream is smooth and dense, and the vanilla flavor and sweetness levels are very good. Some, however, found it a bit icy, but the biggest drawback is their chunks of vanilla beans. I don't mean little tiny seeds, I mean 1/2-inch lengths of bean. Have you tried vanilla beans? They're not very tasty straight up. Like eating wood, really. Very unappealing, though the ice cream would be very good if you could find a carton with no (or fewer) bean pieces. Unless you like that kind of thing. (3)

Seventh place: Mountain Dairy
For one of the options, we had our friends pick up the cheapest option available at the store. This is often not the store brand, since they don't want to attach their name to it. It tasted, in my opinion, like a cross between fluffy grocery store frosting and Cool Whip, and left a funny coating in my mouth. It was quite sweet. And some people really enjoyed all those aspects. It does kind of remind me of cheap ice cream I had as a kid at parties or something, so there's the whole nostalgia thing that might explain some of it. I don't know. (9)

Eighth place: Dreyer's Slow-Churned Vanilla Bean
This ice cream tasted more milky than creamy, and was completely unappealing to most everyone because of the weak flavors and the aftertaste of extract and cardboard carton. (8)

Ninth place: Breyers Natural Vanilla
As much as the previous flavor tasted like extract and cardboard, this one was even worse. A couple of funny things about this ice cream. First, years ago, this used to be my vanilla of choice. For some reason I really liked it, though I show it no preference today. And one couple on our panel who regularly buys this ice cream ranked it as their sixth and seventh favorite amongst the brands. Even though they both objectively rated it rather poorly, they took home the leftovers and indicated they would probably continue to buy it. (7)

It just goes to show that we tend to be quite critical in a taste test situation, but when we just open a carton and eat the ice cream, it's all good. Well, except the Mountain Dairy (although the kids didn't mind that one at all). One last thing, if you're going to do an ice cream tasting, make sure you eat a good meal (more on this soon) beforehand, so you don't get sick.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Bon Nutrition

Just a couple of notes for the day.

First, I've added a link on the left that I really like. It's the website, and it's very handy if you're at all health-minded. (I hope you are.) It gives all the little facts that are required to be on a package for pretty much everything under the sun, from In-N-Out's Double-Double with Onion (670 calories, 41 grams fat) to grapes (104 calories per cup) to peach pie (261 calories, 12 grams fat), and anything else you can think of. One of the things I like most about it, though, is that it also tells you the caloric ratio, how nutritious it is, how filling it is, what's good and bad about it, and if it's good for weight loss and/or optimum health. Very handy.

Occasionally I get asked how I got into cooking, or where I learned to cook. The truth is it was a progression of a lot of things, but what really helped me out when I was first learning all I could about food was subscribing to Bon Appetit magazine. I maintained a subscription for about 3 years, read every copy cover-to-cover, tried out at least a few in each issue that I could afford, and referenced them all the time. I later subscribed to Cook's Illustrated, which I also really enjoyed, but Bon Appetit gave me a lot of diversity in my cooking, and it helped that I was willing to risk a bad meal by trying something completely new.

I picked up a copy of it today, and there was an article in there on starting a supper club. It sounds fabulous. I used to do a cooking group, which was a lot of fun, as we'd all bring a dish for a luncheon and share recipes, but cooking together sounds fun. The only problem is you need to set aside a couple of hours at least, and I have small children. Guess I'll save that one for another year, unless you have any suggestions.

Tomorrow is our much-anticipated vanilla ice cream taste test. We will have no fewer than 9 flavors. I'll let you know the results!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Training Meals, part 5: Tilapia and Green Poblano Rice

I love to eat fish. I like that it feels light, even lighter than chicken, so you don't walk away from dinner feeling like you need a nap just to digest your food. I like the taste of it, especially when it's very fresh and has none of that "fishy" flavor (on so many levels) that requires a heavy breading to cover up. I love that it's tender and soft - well, at least most fish is tender, and those are the ones I like. I like that it lends itself to so many different flavors.

I don't like cooking fish inside, then having my house smell like fish for three days. I have a very sensitive nose. In fact, for several years now, we've only made fish at home in the summer (it's usually in season then, anyhow), when we can grill it outside (oh, with one exception: frozen salmon burgers...more on that another day). This avoids all possible fish smell inside, as long as we clean up all the dishes right away.

However, something new has given me freedom I never thought possible with fish: individually vacuum-packed, frozen tilapia fillets. Now, I've had these in the past at Albertsons or Kroger or something, and they weren't very fresh, but the ones that are now available at Costco (Captain's Cut brand) are amazing. They taste so fresh I would not be surprised to learn the tilapia are flash frozen within minutes of leaving the water. In fact, if you don't like fish, this is the fish for you, since it pretty much has no flavor at all, just the tender qualities of a delicate fish. The even crazier thing is they actually recommend microwaving as an option. I was skeptical, I admit, since I don't believe the microwave is for cooking, but I followed the guidelines and was quite impressed. Here is how I made the tilapia:


2 frozen tilapia fillets, 6-8 oz. each (not thawed)
lime zest
olive oil
Kosher salt
1 T. roughly chopped cilantro

Spray a glass dish with nonstick spray. Set the fillets in the dish side-by-side, not touching each other. Zest a little lime over the fish, then drizzle with olive oil (just a couple of teaspoons total), generously sprinkle with salt, and toss on the cilantro. Cover with two layers of plastic wrap, or use a fitted glass lid if available. Microwave on high for 7 1/2 minutes.

Check to make sure the fish is done completely, but the timing should be pretty correct. (The only thing you need to look for is that there is no pink left in the fish.) Serve.

Also great for fish tacos.

If you don't microwave, you can do this in the oven as well, but I can't tell you how long to bake it for. I would just cover your dish with foil, since tilapia dries easily (being low-fat: 2 g. per 4 oz.) and is best prepared steamed.

This is truly a great moment for me. My healthy eating habits improved the moment I discovered these!

Okay, now on to the rest of the meal.

I think you can figure out the corn for yourself. Buy some fresh, local corn, shuck it, set some water boiling, add the corn, remove after about 4 minutes.

The rice is so delicious, and is another recipe from Rick Bayless. It also comes from his book Mexican Kitchen, which I highly recommend if you don't have, as well as any of his other books. It's called Green Poblano Rice, and if you're in a hurry, it only takes about 45 minutes to make (which means the whole meal can really be prepared in about 45 minutes). It actually should take about 1 hour if you're doing everything carefully. I've made it before and strained the poblano-broth mixture as recommended, but this time I was in too big of a hurry, and I found it worked just fine without straining. Still, I'll probably strain it in the future, if for no other reason than I just like the way Rick Bayless does things. But the rice is so good. It's creamy, rich from the chicken broth, bright from the fresh flavors, and slightly spicy. It's also a great accompaniment to the tilapia.

Green Poblano Rice
adapted from Mexican Kitchen by Rick Bayless

1 2/3 c. chicken broth (preferably homemade, but the carton will do)
2 fresh poblano chiles (sometimes called pasillas), stems and seeds removed, chopped
12 sprigs cilantro
1 T. olive oil
1 c. rice, medium grain (by the way, medium grain is usually the right rice for Mexican cuisine)
1 small white onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped

In a medium saucepan, combine the broth and chiles. Bring to a boil, then simmer over medium for about 8 minutes. Pour into a blender or food processor (if using a blender, just add some of the liquid at first, so the steam doesn't build up, blow the top off, burn you, and cover your counter...yes, it's happened to me), and process to a smooth puree. Press through a medium-mesh sieve into a bowl. Taste for salt. It should be well-salted, but not salty, as it will be providing seasoning for both the stock and the rice.

Rinse out the saucepan, wipe it dry, and add the oil over medium-high. Add the onions and cook, stirring for 5-10 minutes, then the garlic for another minute, then the rice. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the rice has all turned chalky-white. Add the chile liquid to the pan, stir, scrape down and rice kernels, and cover. Bring to a boil (this should be nearly instant, since the liquid was warm), then cook over medium-low for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let set 5 minutes before lifting the lid. Fluff with a fork, or turn out into a bowl, and serve.

I really want you to try this one, by the way, and let me know what you think. I just love it, and I think everyone should have a bite of it. Let me know if you do, and how it goes!

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Ice Cream Question

I'll be out of town for the next few days, and I need something from you in the meantime. We're going to do a taste test of vanilla ice creams sometime in the next couple of weeks. What's your favorite vanilla? What's your favorite flavor besides vanilla? Does the brand matter? I can't wait to read your comments!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Stuffed Tomatoes

I looked at my garden last night and noticed it was full of ripe tomatoes. So exciting! I thought this morning I'd go pick everything that was ripe and can a few jars of roasted tomato sauce, but I was a little mistaken in how abundant the crop was. I may have been able to squeeze two jars out of the batch, but then water-bathing two jars would be pretty difficult, since I'd have to fill all the remaining space with empty jars or something.

Then I thought about the Comté sitting in the fridge, and I decided to stuff a few of them. I've mentioned this idea before, but I thought I'd finalize a recipe and add a picture or three. It was a wonderful little lunch, and the filling was rich enough that the dish stands well on its own, or it can certainly be a side dish.

If you don't have Comté around, you can use another Gruyère, which shouldn't be too difficult to find, or if you're really remote and can't get any variety at the grocery store, try a Swiss cheese. They're all related. I'd tell you more about that, but Wikipedia has much more information than I.

I just ran out of olive oil last night (I know, Cardinal sin), so I used butter in this recipe, but I think I prefer the fruitiness of an extra virgin olive oil, though butter goes nicely with the cheese. Either way works well, so do as you choose. The fresh herbs are nice, too, but if you don't have them around, you can probably get away with dry; just cut the amounts in half.

Stuffed Tomatoes
3 medium tomatoes
1 1/2 slices white bread, lightly toasted
1/2 t. finely minced fresh thyme
1/4 t. finely minced fresh rosemary
1 1/2 t. unsalted butter or olive oil
1 c. grated Comté, Gruyère, or Swiss cheese
Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400°. Line a baking tray with parchment paper or a silicone mat, or spray with non-stick coating.

Slice the tomatoes in half and lay them on their tops or bottoms. Scoop out the centers of each of the tomatoes and discard the seeds and juice. Finely chop the fruit from the centers and place in a small bowl.

If using butter, lightly butter the toast. If using olive oil, add it to the chopped tomatoes. Roughly tear the toast and toss it in the blender for a few seconds. Add the crumbs to the tomatoes, as well as the herbs, 1/2 c. grated cheese, 2 pinches of salt, and 3 twists of black pepper. Stir together.

Salt the insides of the tomatoes, then divide the filling between the 6 halves. Top with the remaining 1/2 c. of cheese. Bake for 20 minutes and serve warm.

Now, I'll need to figure out what to do with the rest of my tomatoes!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Mini Meatloaf

I know this is going to be really cheesy, but I make meatloaf in muffin tins. Rachael Ray suggested it, and I have to admit it's very practical. Not only does the meatloaf cook a whole lot faster, but it's easier to portion off and easy to freeze and thaw. Not to mention very kid-friendly.

Sometimes I get in a slump as far as creative food goes, but I think it's important to still make sure you're getting those standards down really well, too. Meatloaf is one of those, and I don't think I ever made it until I was well into my adult life. I probably had children before I made meatloaf. It's never seemed that exciting, probably because ground beef in general seems like one of the least exciting ingredients out there. But if you're looking for comfort food, this always fits the bill. Don't we all love to sit down at our mom's house and take a few bites of meatloaf? No? Well, she must have had the wrong recipe.

(By the way, those are mashed potatoes in the picture. Can you have meatloaf without mashed potatoes?)

Before I decided on meatloaf muffins, I tried the other two options: baking in a loaf pan and free form on a cookie sheet. I liked the free form better, honestly, because you get a browner crust and the glaze cooks up nicely, but I was willing to give these up in favor of the convenience of muffin tins. If you haven't tried it this way before, I recommend giving it a go, especially if you have small children around. Still, I recognize that there's a time and a place, and it may not be so elegant if company is coming. In such cases, I recommend baking the meatloaf on a sheet pan that has been covered in aluminum foil, baking it in a 350° oven for 1 hour, until a meat thermometer registers 165°.

It's very important when mixing a meatloaf together to mix it as little as possible. The more you knead the mixture, the denser the loaf will become. If you treat it gently, you'll have a very tender loaf, more delicate than you're used to. That doesn't mean it will fall apart; the eggs and bread crumbs should keep that from happening.

My husband's favorite reason to have meatloaf is so he can make a meatloaf sandwich for lunch the next day. He prefers it on white bread with mustard. Not very often, of course, but good when you get it.

(I need to interrupt myself here. My daughter, Emily, is 8 years old and loves to experiment in the kitchen. Apparently David, who is 3, has picked up the idea, because he just mixed together chicken, peanut butter, Craisins, salt, and fresh raspberries. I wonder if he'll eat it!)

Oh, my very favorite thing about having meatloaf was always my mom's glaze. Hers was sweet and ketchupy, almost like candy. I like that sweetness against the meat, but I've found through trial and error that I only like it in the glaze; leave the sugars out of the loaf for me. We like our glaze to have a good kick of vinegar in it, too, and cider vinegar seems to work best for that. Don't skimp on the glaze, either; that's like serving ice cream without the hot fudge sauce. Good luck!

makes about 18 muffin-size loaves

1 1/3 lb. lean ground beef (93% or thereabouts)
1 lb. ground pork
1 1/2 T. olive oil
1 medium to medium-large onion, chopped
6 large cloves garlic, minced
4 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 1/2 T. fresh thyme leaves (about 1 1/2 t. dried)
1/3 c. ketchup
1 T. Dijon mustard
1 T. *Worcestershire sauce
2 eggs
1/3 c. milk
1 1/4 c. fresh white bread crumbs (about 2 slices, torn and thrown in the blender)
Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

2/3 c. ketchup
3/4 c. brown sugar
2 1/2 T. cider vinegar

Preheat the oven to 425°.

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt, then cook, stirring, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute, then add the tomatoes, thyme, and another pinch or two of salt. Cook, stirring, 5-10 minutes, until the tomatoes are cooked down and the mixture is fairly thick. Taste for salt. Cool for about 5 minutes, while you prepare your bread crumbs and throw everything else together.

In a large bowl, combine the two meats, ketchup, mustard, Worcestershire, eggs, milk, bread crumbs, six or seven turns of pepper, 2 t. salt, and the cooked tomato mixture. Using clean hands, gently knead the ingredients together just until thoroughly combined. If you'd like, at this point you can fry a bit of the mixture up in the sauté pan to test for salt, but if the tomato mixture was salted correctly you should be just about right.

Combine all the glaze ingredients.

Spray the muffin pans with non-stick coating, then fill each cup just to the top with meat. Using a spoon and half of the glaze, coat the tops of each of the loaves. Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and quickly coat with the remaining glaze. Turn the oven on to broil, and bake for an additional 5 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes, then remove, using a fork. Serve.

*Pronounced [worse - stir - sure]