Friday, September 25, 2009

What's this about a root beer cake?

I've always had a thing for root beer. When I was little, my sister and I took tap lessons at a dance studio that happened to be near an A&W. Sometimes after class my mom would take us there for a treat.  We preferred A&W to other fast food places because they made baby burgers for kids, perfectly sized for little paws.

"What would you like to order, Hungry Dog?" my mother would ask.

"A baby burger," I'd reply, not missing a beat, "and a root beer float."

Remember those days? When you'd order a root beer a beverage? Ah, the decadence of being a kid in the 70's, before the obesity epidemic and trans fat frenzy. We thought nothing, and neither did our parents, of consuming red meat and processed foods at each meal. We didn't think twice of saying, "I'll have a cheeseburger and a root beer float, and I'll take a sundae for dessert."

Those post-dance class floats--served in frosty mugs and made not with ice cream but vanilla soft serve--remain one of my happiest memories. While I haven't made it to an A&W in decades, I still love root beer and I do enjoy a good float, although now I like it with Henry Weinhard root beer and Haagen Daaz vanilla. And root beer floats are one of my favorite desserts to serve to guests. I have the perfect float glasses and special spoons that double as straws.

I've never played around with root beer much, though, baking-wise. So when I came across this recipe for root beer cake, I just about lost my mind. Immediately, I began wondering where I could buy a bundt pan on the way home from work. I mentally poured over the pantry. Did I have the right kind of cocoa? Dark brown sugar? Was there root beer in the house? I became obsessed. I even mentioned root beer cake in a facebook status.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who can get behind a root beer cake. Within moments of posting my status, several people made comments. The husband wanted to know when he could expect to see this cake. Desiree wanted the recipe. Cynthia reported that she currently had a root beer sitting on her desk and wanted to know what else she needed to turn it into a cake.

The cake was gaining momentum. It wanted me to make it. So I did.

The cake was simple to put together and didn't take long to bake. Once I'd removed the cake from the oven, I admired it in its attractive green bundt shell.

A little bit later, I popped it out and frosted it with root beer fudge icing.

"Hey, Hungry Dog, what's that sprinkled on top of the cake?" you're wondering.

Oh yeah. The cake is sprinkled with sea salt. SEA SALT. Genius.

The cake was delicious and moist, more of a chocolate cake reminiscent of root beer than a straight-up root beer cake. But that's probably just as well. A cake that tastes like a can of soda might be a bit much.  But a cake that has cocoa and dark chocolate and coarse sea salt, a grown up version of that favorite dessert you had as a kid, well that's just about perfect.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rubik's Cube risotto

On Saturday, the husband and I spun around town crossing things off our list. Boring things, mostly. Picking up medicine for the dog at the vet. Getting an oil change. Grocery shopping. I'd jotted down the ingredients for a recipe I wanted to try, fillet of sole wrapped in prosciutto and served with roasted butternut squash and parsnips.

But the day ended up being so busy that when it came time to make dinner, I didn't feel like fussing with all the root vegetables, which always require a bit of attention. I felt more interested in drinking a beer and watching "Mythbusters" with the husband than painstakingly peeling and chopping, and fretting over a new recipe. So I scrapped the original plan and instead pan-fried the fish with lemon and parsley, and served it alongside potatoes and steamed broccoli. A dinner straight out of my childhood.

The next night, I felt prepared to take on the vegetables, but I had no fish. Time to wing it, Hungry Dog style. I had the parsnips, which are homely on the outside but once peeled, reveal themselves to be a beautiful, snowy white. And I had a little butternut squash, the cutest thing you ever saw, about five inches tall and three inches wide at its, um, hips. Ridiculous. And I had some beets that had been waiting patiently in the vegetable bin for a few weeks. I began to envision a bright autumn risotto, with little squares of color running through the pale rice.

I peeled, diced, and roasted the veggies, and got started on the risotto. Usually I add white wine but all I could find was vermouth (where did that come from?) which did the trick. And I minced up some fresh rosemary to give it a woodsy flavor.

When the risotto was nearly done, I folded in the vegetables, which looked like teeny Rubik's Cube squares. The rice did not remain pristine white as I had hoped; once the beets and squash made their way in, it turned startling shade of pinkish orange. But it was still pretty, and it tasted good. Perhaps most importantly, it fit the mood I was in. Sometimes you feel like sticking to the plan and sometimes you don't. Often the best discoveries happen when you're short an ingredient, can't remember the exact measurements, or when, out of laziness, you divide one recipe into two.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Bouillabaisse, rouille, and homemade crackers

As you know, I'm a fan of Ina Garten. I like her show and I like her cookbooks. I find her husband irresistible. And, although I make fun of her recipes, which usually begin "Combine 1 pound of butter and 1 pound of sugar" and end with "Douse with cognac and stir in 2 cups of cream," I completely trust her recipes. She may be shortening my life with each one, but they are usually worth it. So, I decided to purchase her new cookbook, Back to Basics.

The first thing I made was her chicken bouillabaisse with rouille. I was intrigued by rouille ever since I read Croque-Camille's post about it a little while ago. Rouille is a garlicky saffron mayonnaise. Croque-Camille's contained potato to stabilize it. Ina's recipe did not call for potato, simply egg yolk, lemon, garlic, saffron, salt, and olive oil. After making Ina's rouille, I think potato might have been a good idea.

The rouille was a total bust. Although I tried to be careful, slowly dripping the olive oil through the food processor tube, the rouille broke and instead of a smooth, creamy aioli, it turned out curdled and thin. The flavor was also off--too garlicky even if I'd gotten the consistency right.

The bouillabaisse turned out strangely, too. The tomato puree made it weirdly thick and the whole dish was very salty, although I did not add any additional salt. And, it took way longer--nearly 45 minutes extra-- for the potatoes to cook than Ina indicated.

I should disclose that I did stray from the recipe in one small regard which may have impacted the flavor-- it called for Pernod, which I did not have. I actually went to the store to purchase it and nearly had a heart attack when I saw the price. Although I can be extravagant in most ways when it comes to cooking, I can also really cheap out. When I saw that a bottle of Pernod was $31, I immediately eliminated it from the recipe. It probably would have added some lovely depth of flavor, but I am a non-profit drone who has been furloughed since February; Pernod is a luxury I can live without, especially when I only need 3 tablespoons.

So the rouille broke, the bouillabaisse ended up salty, and the little potatoes took f-o-r-e-v-e-r. As the husband summed up, "Not a bestseller." This is something my dad used to say when he would try new recipes that nobody ended up liking.

Because everything took so damn long, by the time dinner was ready, it was too dark to take any photos, which is a shame, since in spite of tasting kind of crummy, the deep orange chicken and bright yellow rouille made for a striking dish.

I decided to give Ina another chance a couple of days later and make her parmesan thyme crackers, although I used rosemary instead. They were simple and elegant, which I think encapsulates the Barefoot Contessa's cooking philosophy.

You just mix up some softened butter with parmesan, flour, a little salt, and the fresh herb, forming a nice crumbly dough. Then you shape it into a log, chill it, and half an hour later you can slice the crackers and bake them off. They were absolutely delicious as a little snack before dinner, which you know I am inclined to have on occasion.  The crackers quickly disappeared. Next time I'll double the recipe and freeze half so I can enjoy homemade crackers on a whim. They went very nicely with a glass of wine, but what doesn't?

So, one failure and one bestseller from the Barefoot Contessa. I guess no one gets it right every time!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sunshine pasta: dreaming of Los Angeles

In spite of all my badmouthing of Giada de Laurentiis a few months ago, I have to admit I like her recipes. On Sunday I decided to make her rigatoni with butternut squash and prawns. Other than prepping the squash and deveining the shrimp, the recipe was a cinch. What I found interesting is that you puree the squash so it becomes a silky, creamy sauce. The recipe does call for milk at the end to ensure that it's got the right texture, but truthfully, it tastes and feels much more luxurious than you'd think a sauce could that does not contain cream. Plus, it turns out a beautiful shade of marigold.

I timed my cooking a little crazily, sandwiched between two things. The first is a radio program on KALW that I like to listen to on Sunday nights called "Minds Over Matter." It's a call-in trivia show for the ultra-nerdy, like me. Sometimes the husband will come in and listen to the show with me, sort of laughing at me for liking it, but also sort of liking it. "I'm not the one who called in with an answer once," I frequently remind him.

Anyway, I like to listen to the show while I cook. Because it's public radio, the hosts speak in soothing, dulcet tones I find relaxing; plus, I always learn a thing or two. "Minds Over Matter" starts at 7 and goes until 8, but "Entourage" starts at 7:30, so since that's been airing, I've only been hearing half my nerd show. Those of you who are not slaves to TV, my hat is off to you, but please excuse me while I enjoy my HBO.

The recipe was fabulous. You might think the butternut squash would make the sauce too sweet but it was surprisingly well balanced. I tried to think of something I could substitute for the prawns, as I'm under the impression that eating shrimp is very bad for the planet, but I couldn't think of a good substitution. So for the time being, shrimp it is (or "srimp," as we call it in our house, due to my mother-in-law's endearing pronunciation.)

Rushing, I managed to get the pasta done in the nick of time. I'll have to catch the rest of "Minds Over Matter" on a podcast; geek radio can't really compete with Vince and the Boys. Over sunshine-colored rigatoni and a brawny zinfandel, for half an hour we escaped the drizzling rain of San Francisco for the blue skies and deep tans of Los Angeles. Everyone can use a little escapism now and then, and if it's enhanced by a sweet, creamy pasta that tastes faintly of the ocean, so much the better.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Poor little Martha Stewart

After a hectic week, I awoke this morning very pleased at the thought of no plans. Once done with coffee and the paper, I shuffled into the kitchen to see what I could make for breakfast, something in the muffin or scone department. I'm a little burnt out on blueberries and cherries, but am not at all burnt out on zucchini. I found this recipe, courtesy of Martha Stewart, and got these little guys mixed up, plopped into their paper sleeves, and into the oven before you could say, "Was Martha Stewart really convicted of insider trading or was that a ludicrous dream now that we know about this guy?"

I've never made anything by Martha Stewart. But I've gotta hand it to the lady, not only can she pull off an orange jumpsuit and prison shackles, she can write a recipe. The muffins came out looking like this, with flecks of green running through them and crusty little tops, tasting of brown sugar and almond extract.

Once again I had to fend off the other hungry dog, who in this picture looks like a giant beast about to crush this poor helpless muffin.

Sorry about the poor quality of that shot. I've been feeling frustrated with my camera, or maybe it's my skills. I have trouble getting enough light in my shots which means half the time the flash goes off, washing everything out. I need to remedy this, because I'm finding it very frustrating to make things I want to share here, and then not ending up with usable photos. I think I need one of those photo/lighting sets, the ones that look like weird little dioramas. Or, a new camera. Or, someone to show me how to use my own camera. I have tried to decipher the ridiculous user's manual but it was only a step up from the quality of directions on how to assemble an IKEA desk. In other words, it did not get me very far.

So, hopefully I'll have some improved photos in the future. If anyone has any advice in the meantime with how to cope with challenging lighting, I'd love to hear it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Engine 9's chile verde

Like most of you, I have a stack of go-to recipes (figuratively if not literally) that I can whip out with little to no grocery shopping and even less effort. I love these recipes, and not only because I can make them with my eyes closed. They're good. They became favorites for a reason, after all. For me, the short list includes pasta alla amatriciana, soy sauce chicken, and minestrone. I've cooked and devoured these dishes more times than I can count.

The problem with these recipes is that I get a little tired of them. Sometimes I start to feel acutely like I need to make something brand new. When this happens, I enjoy nothing more than perusing cookbooks, food magazines, and blogs I like in search of something inspiring.

Something like a tomatillo.

While flipping through this groovy cookbook called Firehouse Food, a compilation of recipes from San Francisco's firefighters, I stumbled upon a recipe for chile verde. It had three desirable qualities going for it: 1) it required just 5 ingredients 2) it seemed to involve very little work and 3) it looked, as one of my fellow bloggers might say, wicked good.

First I had to get a couple of artsy shots of the tomatillos though. Incidentally, this was my first time using tomatillos. I have no idea what took me so long to discover these delightful little bundles, like hard green apples wrapped in crinkly cabbage leaves.

You start by toasting the tomatillos in a dry pan, then pureeing them. Brown the pork, add the tomatillo puree, along with some garlic, jalapenos, and salt, and you're all set. While the pork bubbled gently, I set about making Mexican rice, also from the cookbook. Another revelation! Simple, flavorful, and delicious.

All the dinner required was patience, which I mustered up with the distractions of the husband, dog, and a couple of frosty Sierra Nevadas. A few hours later we ate chile verde and Mexican rice, with warm corn tortillas to soak up the sauce.

So, thanks to Bob Lopez of Engine 9, I now have a fantastic new recipe to break up the routine--and definitely one good enough for company.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bad mood blondies

On Thursday, someone smashed the rear window of our car. It was parked at the train station and the husband discovered it in dismay at the end of the work day. Nothing was taken, because we leave nothing in the car, which you can tell very plainly from the outside. So whoever did it just to do it.

Frankly, what I find most offensive of all is that the window was smashed not just with any bottle but with a San Pellegrino bottle. Perhaps it was one of the many BMW-drivers who also parks there, someone so repulsed by our car's weathered exterior they had to hurl their sparkling Italian water bottle through the glass. I won't lie to you: it's a 1990 Honda Civic with some serious battle scars. But hideous enough to merit an attack? Not even close.

Anyhow, the incident put me in a bad mood. I'm not a perfect person, but I try to be decent and considerate and not break other people's stuff. But I guess there are plenty of jerks out there looking to steal and vandalize things that belong to someone else just for the thrill of it. It's the kind of small event that can make me feel very down on the human race.

My tactic for occurrences like this it to try not to think about it. It's the old ostrich maneuver, which in plenty of cases is not a good thing (say, when it comes to your job, your relationships, your health) but in certain cases is very appropriate. When you cannot change something and could not have prevented it, you gotta keep on rolling.

Distracting yourself helps. So I decided to bake up some blondies. I love making blondies because they come together in a flash and create hardly any dishes. Plus I love that faintly burnt smell that you get when you blend melted butter and brown sugar.

These are from Mark Bittman. He says chocolate chips are optional, but who are we kidding? Of course, with a whole cup of chips in such a small batch, calling them blondies might be pushing it. But as you know from reading this blog, I'm no purist. I'm of the "do what you like" school of thought and this week, sweet, sticky, melty, chocolate blondies fit the bill.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Lemony snapper with buttered beets and carrots

Unlike professional chefs, we home cooks can make what we want when we want--even if the combinations seem surprising. I'm not trying to imply that I'm the most creative girl on the block. But I do sometimes get an idea about something and it's nice to have the freedom and solitude of your own kitchen to experiment.

The other night I wanted to do something with the beets and carrots sitting idly in the crisper. I'm not sure if I've mentioned it, but I'm nuts for carrots. And I like beets pretty well too. I began to envision a little...dare I say medley? of these two Crayola-colored vegetables, smothered in butter.

I boiled the beets first--undercooked beets are the worst--then cooled and peeled them. Once the butter foamed and faded in my frying pan, I added the carrots, cooking them over medium heat. After awhile I added the beets. Feeling froggy, I decided to add a little brown sugar, thinking my southern husband might enjoy a little added sweetness. But to balance it, I finished the dish with a splash of red wine vinegar. No need to be cloying.

Once done, they looked like bright little gems, and they tasted of butter and sugar, with a slight tanginess.

"But Hungry Dog," you're wondering, "surely you served more than just vegetables for dinner!"

Why of course, dear reader, don't be silly. I pan-fried two red snapper fillets and squeezed fresh lemon juice over them as they came off the heat. I never can get fish like snapper browned properly without dusting it first in flour, which I didn't feel like doing this time, so the fish ended up a little pale. It tasted good, though, and looked pretty with the sweet and sour beets and carrots.

So, it was a strange combination that wouldn't fly with Tom Colicchio, but he's not invited over anyway. It seems the whole point of cooking for yourself and your loved ones is to have a good time, and to try and learn something now and then. Which I did indeed.