Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Side Dishes: French Fries

French Fries

2-3 medium baking potatoes, peeled and cut to desired “fry” size
Canola or vegetable oil to cover

  • Arrange potatoes in a large skillet, cover with cold oil
  • Turn heat to medium, turning fries after 15 minutes
  • Drain on paper towel, add salt to taste
Detailed Instructions
Using a pan large enough to hold the potatoes in no more than two layers, scatter the fries, making sure to separate them as much as possible. Any two fries that are right next to each other may stick together. It’s not possible to get every single one separate, but arranging them so that most of the fries are perpendicular to one another, versus side by side, is preferred.

Add enough canola or vegetable oil to just cover the fries. Turn the heat on to medium, and bring to a rapid simmer. You probably won’t have to adjust the heat much, but keep an eye on it. You don’t want it to boil over.

In the first 15 minutes, don’t stir the fries. After 15 minutes you can move them around gently. After about 20 minutes, use tongs to move them around and flip them over so you can see the undersides. When they start to turn golden, they’re close to done. You’ll end up with a few that get a little more brown than golden. Once they’re done, remove from the hot oil with tongs and drain on paper towel. Salt to taste.

This makes enough fries for 4 people.

Dinner at my house on Thursday night is the same thing every week in every season. We have hamburgers and French fries (the exception being the fourth Thursday in November, of course). By the end of a long week I’m ready for a meal that I can prep in 12 minutes, let cook largely unattended, and serve without having to listen to any whining. Everyone likes it, I get no groans of protest when I announce what’s for dinner, no one saying, “Why can’t we have x instead?”

I read about these fries in several places and they really are as easy as they sound. There are a couple of small caveats, but nothing too daunting. I use a 12” nonstick skillet. I’ve used a 12” chefs pan (with straight sides, as opposed to the sloping sides of a skillet) that was not nonstick. I recommend the nonstick because it does make it easier to get the fries out. If you use a regular pan, you’ll have to pry a few off the bottom of the pan, which is a bit tricky when what you’re doing is attempting to dislodge something that’s under an inch or two of boiling hot oil. I’m not saying it can’t be done—it can—but be very, very careful and be prepared to still do some scrubbing once you’ve removed the oil.

A word on the oil—I use canola. I buy a big jug of it at Costco. You can reuse the oil 2-3 times before it starts to break down. We just pour it back into an old oil jug and keep it on hand. When it’s time to dispose of it, we usually line a trash bag with lots of newsprint and pour the oil on that. The newsprint absorbs the oil, and goes out with the garbage. The plastic jug gets recycled.

The primary trick to these fries is not to stir them until they’re mostly done. I made them once with great success, then made them subsequent times and couldn’t understand why I was ending up with piles of fried potato bits. Then I realized I was trying too hard to keep them from sticking, and kept stirring them every few minutes. Don’t do it. Wait 15 minutes, then you can move them around. I use tongs to flip them over because the ones on the bottom get a bit more brown than those on the top. Turning them over and rearranging them gives them a more uniform appearance.

We’ve been making these for so long that I actually have a commercial French fry cutter. It can be mounted on the wall (I’m not quite to that stage yet) and the potato rests in a sort of trough that has a grid cutter at one end. There’s a plunger or pushing mechanism with a handle on it. As you lower the handle, the potato gets pushed up to and through the grid cutter, making perfect ¼” square fries. Before I owned it, I had one of those round apple slicers that switched out the apple sectioning insert for one that had a ¼” fry cutter. The fry insert never stayed in very well, and I often had to trim my potatoes so that the cutter would fit over them. After months and months of Thursday night hamburgers and fries, we bought the more efficient commercial one from Amazon. The price was surprisingly reasonable.

I’m not suggesting you rush out and buy a commercial French fry cutter (they are rather heavy and bulky to store, and they really do only do one job), but these fries are worth a try—they don’t make as big a mess as a “traditional” deep fry (admittedly they make some mess, but it’s not to the degree of the deep fry method), nor do they make your house smell like burning fat for two days. And I’ve never met anyone who whined about being served French fries.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Appetizers: "Mascarpone" Torta

"Mascarpone" Torta

½ lb butter at room temperature
½ lb cream cheese at room temperature
2-3 tablespoons prepared pesto
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
French bread slices, to serve

  • Process cream cheese and butter in a food processor until smooth
  • Spread half of cream cheese mixture into a mold lined with damp cheesecloth
  • Spread pesto over cream cheese mixture, scatter with walnuts
  • Spread remaining cream cheese mixture over pesto and walnuts
  • Chill to set, unmold, serve with bread, toasts or crackers
Detailed Instructions
In the work bowl of a food processor or stand mixer (or in a regular bowl with a handheld mixer), combine the butter and cream cheese. Whir it around until they’re completely combined and quite soft. In the food processor the mixture will appear almost liquid as it flows around. That’s fine—you’re going to chill it back up in a few minutes.

Dampen and wring out a square of cheesecloth large enough to fit in your cake pan and fold over the top of the cheese. Drape the cloth over the pan and push it in a bit. Spoon about half of the cream cheese mixture into the pan and smooth it out. Carefully spread the pesto over the cheese. You want a nice layer of pesto, but it shouldn’t be thick. Just enough that each bite contains enough that the flavor comes through, and it’s obvious that it’s pesto. You want to leave as little border as possible—you don’t really want the pesto to show, but neither do you want the first few servings around the edge to be nothing but cream cheese mixture. Scatter the pesto with the chopped walnuts. Spoon the remaining cream cheese mixture over the pesto and walnut layer. This is where it gets a bit tricky, trying to smooth the cheese without disturbing the filling. Remember that what is the top right now will be the bottom, so any flubs won’t show when it’s turned out.

Fold the extra cheesecloth up over the top, press down gently, and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight.

When ready to unmold, unfold cheesecloth and position a platter over the cheese. Flip the platter and pan over and lift off the pan. If it should resist at all, tug gently on the edges of the cheesecloth to loosen the cheese from the bottom of the pan. Remove the cheesecloth. You can serve it at once, or let it sit at room temperature for a half hour or so to soften up.

Slice French bread into rounds for spreading. Toast in a 350 degree oven until lightly crisped, if desired. I often just leave the bread plain. You can also serve this with water crackers.

Originally this was to be a, "What do you DO with all that basil?!" post, a suggestion to make pesto, and then this recipe. And that may still be your problem if you live in most of the United States, but if you live where I live, you're wondering not what to do with all that basil. No, you're wondering if you're ever going to have any basil at all ever pretty much as long as you live. Then you sigh. Then you go buy a tub of pesto to make this recipe. Which, to be fair, is pretty great, no matter what the weather.

This was something we used to make when I worked in catering. It serves a large number of people for a very low cost per person, and it can be made in a huge batch, so it’s not labor intensive. The hardest thing to do is slice (and toast, if desired) the bread. A food processor (or mixer) does all the work for the torta. It’s molded in a cake pan, so you can get fun with the shapes if you like. We used to make this in a heart shaped pan for weddings and decorate the platter with flowers. I have also used just a plain 9” round cake pan. I cut the usual recipe in half because it makes a simply enormous amount when you use the proportions we used in catering. It’s really enough for 30 or 40 people. This reduced version I made in 6” loaf pan and it was perfect for the 15-18 people I was entertaining. To serve the larger number, just double the butter and cream cheese, and increase the pesto and walnuts to get the same even coverage (you'll just about double them as well).

The name of this recipe is in quotes because there’s actually no mascarpone in it. Perhaps at one time it was all mascarpone (if you're not familiar with it, it's a soft cheese that’s sort of half way between ricotta and cream cheese, often found in tiramisu), but by the time this recipe made its way to me, it was completely devoid of it. Just as well—it’s a little pricey to use in this volume. If you have recently won the lottery, or inherited a substantial fortune, you might try using all mascarpone, but if you’re like the rest of us peasants, the (relatively) inexpensive ingredients here will work just fine.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Desserts: Strawberry Cream Cheese-Sour Cream Ice Cream

Strawberry Cream Cheese-Sour Cream Ice Cream

1 pound strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 cup granulated sugar
1- 8 ounce package cream cheese, room temperature
½ cup half and half
½ cup sour cream
½ cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
1 ounce plain vodka

• Cook strawberries down with sugar until syrupy and soft, and cool
• Combine cream cheese, ½ & ½, sour cream, heavy cream, vanilla & salt in food processor until smooth
• Combine cream cheese mixture with strawberry mixture in a bowl
• Chill in an ice cream maker, adding vodka at the very end
• Spoon into containers and freeze until firm

Detailed Instructions
Combine strawberries and sugar in a small saucepan (I used a 2qt). Cook over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved. This will take about 5 minutes. The strawberries will end up swimming in a light syrup. At no point do you want the syrup to boil (you could end up with strawberries in caramel if you do, which probably wouldn’t be horrible, but I haven’t tested that); if you start to see lots of bubbles, turn the heat down slightly. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the strawberries are soft, but not falling apart, another 3-5 minutes. Set aside and let cool until almost room temperature, about 10-25 minutes, while you make the cream cheese mixture. You don’t want it to be too warm when you add it to the ice cream maker, or it won’t set up properly.

In a food processor, combine the cream cheese and ½ & ½ and pulse until smooth, scraping down the bowl as necessary. With the motor on, add the heavy cream, sour cream, vanilla, and salt and process until well combined and smooth. You’ll have a very thick liquid, kind of like melted ice cream.

In a large bowl, combine the cream cheese mixture and the strawberry mixture. Stir well to combine. In an ice cream maker (I have the kind with a cylinder and a motor base) add the ice cream mixture to the cylinder and chill according to manufacturer’s instructions (mine calls for letting it run for about 15 minutes). Don’t worry if it’s not really ice creamy—it will firm up nicely in the freezer. In the last minute before you turn off the ice cream maker, add the vodka and let it blend through the ice cream.

Spoon the chilled ice cream into containers (I just use disposable plastic ones) and chill in the freezer for 4-6 hours or until set to desired consistency. You can take it out and stir it from time to time (you have the opportunity to lick the spoon you use for this when you do it), and once it reaches the consistency that you like, you can serve it. Because of the vodka it won’t freeze solidly. The ice cream will keep for about two weeks in the refrigerator. Eventually it will start to form ice crystals and ice chunks. Eat it before that happens. I’m not worried about that, to be honest.

This is not an ice cream in the classic sense. That is, it doesn’t start with a cooked custard base. That’s a plus for me—I don’t have the patience to wait for a custard to cool overnight in the refrigerator, which is why I seldom make ice cream. This recipe is largely attributable to my friend Julie Tiramisu (as I think of her—she has a real last name, but she also has a degree in Pastry, so I think of her as Julie Tiramisu).
I first made this for Mother’s Day as a cream cheese-ice cream mixture. When I described it to Julie, she said, “I’d put some sour cream in it, but that’s what I do—I tweak recipes.” I said, “Me too,” and made a mental note. I jotted down some changes in my recipe book along the lines of switching out some of the ½ & ½ in the original recipe for sour cream and moved on.

Then my neighbor gave me some strawberries from her patch, because they were just rotting on the vine, she said. While the first use for them that came to mind was strawberry daiquiris, the strawberry ice cream recipe seemed more family friendly, so I went with that. The berries weren’t terribly big, but they had big flavor, so I used them, making the changes I’d noted to the recipe when Julie T and I had talked.

There are only a few words appropriate to describe the result, and all of them should be followed with exclamation points. Wow! Incredible! Amazing! You get the idea. The sour cream makes the ice cream silky, while the cream cheese adds that lovely tang. You’d think that was the sour cream that added the flavor twist, but having had it made with and without, I can assure you it’s not the sour cream that adds the zing—that’s the cream cheese—while the sour cream changes the consistency. The sour cream makes it taste like liquid pink silk. If it were possible I’d have a dress made out of this stuff, it’s so beautiful.

It’s nice to have it in the freezer for any time, but I did serve it as dessert on Mother’s Day with great success. Because homemade ice cream is somewhat out of the ordinary, it makes a nice “special occasion” dessert. When I took some over to the woman who gave me the strawberries in the first place, her whole family said, “You made it? You made ice cream?” People just don’t expect it, but it’s easy with an ice cream maker, and with a base like this, that doesn’t require overnight chilling, it’s right up my (impatient) alley.