Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Recipe: Moussaka!

Moussaka! It's almost as fun to say it as it is to eat it. I first tried this hearty dish while traveling in the Greek Isles many moons ago. Since then, I've sampled a few different recipes looking for a good base formula, but I had little luck duplicating the dish I remembered from my trip, even after tweeking some of the recipes. Then a few years after that vacation, I received The Wine Lover’s Cookbook from a friend and while thumbing through it, found a recipe titled “Best Ever” Moussaka. I followed the directions to a "T" as I most always do when trying a new recipe and after tasting this version of the hearty dish, I knew my search had ended. It truly was the “best ever” moussaka, even better, dare I say it, than that I had tasted while touring the Cyclades years before.

The key to this moussaka is the ground lamb spiked with wine and simmered in a rich tomato based sauce seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg. The sauced lamb is then layered with slices of roasted eggplant and cubes of feta cheese. It’s all topped with a creamy sauce and freshly grated Parmesan that turns a beautiful golden brown when baked. When you sink your fork into a slice, the crusty top will be noticably crisp with a fluffy, soft, nutmeg flavored layer just below that perfectly complements the flavors of the lamb.

Ok, so one-dish meals, or casseroles, are not exactly in vogue but when it’s an authentic ethnic dish like Greek moussaka and not some cheesey, Campbell’s soup laden meat and macaroni noodle dish, it can be quite fashionable, in fact it never really goes out of style. Thank goodness, because moussaka is a great dish to make for dinner guests. Besides being a crowd pleaser, it is easily prepared ahead of time. Just put in the oven about an hour before you want to serve it and enjoy a drink and some Greek mezes with your friends while it bakes.

“Best Ever” Moussaka

2 medium globe eggplants
2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 pounds ground lamb
2 yellow onions, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon fines herbes
¼ cup minced parsley
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
¾ cup red wine

½ cup plain bread crumbs
¾ pound feta cheese

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 egg yolk, beaten

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Garnish: chopped parsley

Preheat oven to 375°F. Cut tops off eggplants and cut lengthwise in ¼-inch-thick slices. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and place on paper towels for 30 minutes to absorv the moisture. Rinse, wipe eggplant dry, and place in a single layer on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Roast for 30 minutes.
In a large sauté pan or skillet over medium-high heat, cook the lamb, onions, and garlic, crumbling the lamb with a fork and stirring frequently until browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain thoroughly in a strainer. Place meat mixture on paper towels and pat dry to further remove fat.
Return the meat to the cleaned pan and add remaining 1 teaspoon salt, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, fines herbes, parsley, and tomato paste. Stir well. Add wine and simmer for 10 minutes.
Grease the bottom of a 9 X 13 ovenproof baking dish and dust with all but 3 tablespoons of bread crumbs. Reserve remaining bread crumbs for sauce.
To make sauce, in a medium sauté pan over low-medium heat, melt butter and whisk in flour. Stir in milk, nutmeg, and salt and stir until thickened. In a separate mixing bowl, spoon a little of the hot sauce into the egg yolk and add the 3 tablespoons of reserved bread crumbs. Then, blend the egg-bread crumb mixture into the sauce. Mix thoroughly.
Layer dish first with eggplant, then meat, and then with a generous portion of feta cheese. Repeat layers and top with sauce.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Top with Parmesan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until top of cheese is golden brown. Cut into square servings. Garnish with chopped parsley.

The Wine Lover’s Cookbook by Sid Goldstein, Chronicle Books, 1999

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Shogun Salmon

For the second week in a row, I bought some fresh Salmon from the Shogun Fish Company at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market, and I was once again grateful that this lone fisherman was spending days at sea to provide us with these amazing filets. This firm orange-red color flesh might be the freshest Salmon I've ever had the pleasure of devouring. It was succulent and tender and (if I do say so myself) perfectly cooked, with the inside still scarlet. Neatly sliced and individually packaged, it is also extremely convenient. I like and admire this whole operation from boat to market. If you get a chance, I highly recommend checking it out next Saturday.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Filet Mignon with Crimini Mushroom Beurre Rouge

I don't eat red meat very often, not necessarily because of health reasons or anything, but because I just don't usually crave it. Today was the exception. I wanted red meat and nothing else was going to satisfy me, so Lou and I walked down to Real Foods and picked out two filets for our steak dinner. One normal sized for me and a gigantic one that Lou chose for himself. With some left over mashed potatoes and asparagus from the farmer's market that I had already blanched, we'd be eating our feast in no time.

I'm sure a lot of you like to grill your steak, but I prefer to pan sear it and finish it in the oven. Grilling is not very convenient when you live in an apartment and honestly, I think it's a little over-rated. I like the taste of meat and don't need to mask it with charcoal, especially when starting with $20 a pound steak. After searing the steaks on both sides, I placed them in a 350 degree oven and stuck my digital meat thermometer probe into the center of one. When the thermometer beeped telling me the steak's internal temperature was 125 degrees for medium-rare, I removed the pan from the oven, placed the steaks on plates and covered them both with foil. Steaks need to rest before you can cut into them, giving you time to make a sauce in the same pan you used to cook the steaks. I encourage you to be creative with the sauce. You can use whatever flavors you like, but the goal is not to cover up the flavor of the meat, only to enhance it. I think a wine or port sauce does a great job of this. You can make a simple beurre rouge with some chopped shallot, red wine, and cold unsalted butter. To jazz it up, you can add a dash of balsamic vinegar, use half port, half red wine, add an herb such as thyme, or whatever you like. Tonight, I happened to have some fresh crimini mushrooms from the farmer's market that I sauteed with the shallot before adding half wine, half port, probably about 1/2 cup of each. When the liquids are reduced and thick, turn off the heat and stir in the cold butter until the mixture is emulsified. I added about 3 tablespoons unsalted butter. Then add salt and pepper to taste. The biggest difficulty that most amateur chefs face while making a buerre rouge is a sauce that breaks. This happens when there is too much heat or adding butter that is not cold enough. To ensure the sauce doesn't break, I turn off the burner before stirring in the cold butter. Also, always serve a butter sauce immediately, if it is allowed to stand, it will surely break.

The sauce may sound fattening, but remember that a serving of this richly flavored concoction is quite small. Keep that in mind also when tasting for salt and pepper. You want it to be concentrated in flavor. I hope you have fun experimenting. Let me know if you have any questions.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Unmolding Yesterday's Pound Cake

Yesterday, I went to the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market and found some of the sweetest strawberries at the Dirty Girl Produce stand. I couldn't resist buying two baskets, but even though they were freshly picked, these ripe berries were not going to last long. I gave Lou the choice of a strawberry tart or a pound cake to assist us in devouring the ruby gems and not surprisingly, pound cake was his choice. I decided to make the cake late in the afternoon and in my usual multi-tasking way, went to go to the gym while it was baking. When I returned, a golden, buttery cake was waiting to be removed from the oven. After placing the hot cake in it's tube pan on the cooling rack, I jumped in the shower to get ready for our Saturday night plans. Unfortunately, I entirely forgot about the cooling pound cake and left for dinner without unmolding it. This morning, I walked into the kitchen and realized my oversight. I loosened the sides of the cake from the pan with a knife then turned the pan upside down hoping the cake would release and drop out without a hitch. I repeatedly overturned and thumped the bottom of the pan but the stubborn cake would not give in. Then I thought, what is causing this relentless sticking? I greased the pan before I poured the batter in... of course, that was it! The cold butter must be causing the bond. I therefore realized that all I had to do was melt the butter between the cake and the pan. I turned on a burner held the tube pan over the flame for about 30 seconds, and sure enough, when I flipped it over, the pound cake fell right out. Because not everyone has the time or remembers to unmold a cake exactly when they're supposed to, I thought I'd share this handy bit of information. Isn't it nice to know you don't have to stay home on a Saturday night to unmold homemade cake? Plus, when you make your own pound cake, you know you're eating only natural and real ingredients, like butter verses some fake margarine made of partially hydrogenated oils.

To enjoy your pound cake with strawberries, clean the berries, cut the tops off and mix them with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. Taste the berries and only use as much sugar as is needed, as their natural sweetness will depend on their variety and ripeness. The sweetened berries will keep for a day or two in the refrigerator and the sugar will make a sweet syrup with the berries' juice. Just pour the syrup and berries over a slice of cake and enjoy!

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

French Country Bread

I have been so busy the last couple of weeks, I have already committed the cardinal sin of bloggers and haven't posted a thing for 10 days now. Sorry to my small readership-I promise to update more often.

This week has been a great baking week and there is nothing like fresh baked bread with a crisp crust and some ripe cheese. I practiced making some French artisinal bread, French country bread to be more specific. It includes 8-10% wheat flour vs. 100% unbleached bread flour as the regular French artisinal bread does. Why is it called artisinal? Because it resembles the bread made by the small bakers who crafted the technique of using pate fermentee (fermented dough), or old dough reserved from part of the last batch of bread to make their next batch. Artisinal bread has a richer, slightly sour flavor and I think it is well worth the extra step.

I love the process of making bread, and it doesn't take as much time as one might think. Yes, hours are needed for raising and proofing, but that is time that you can spend reading, cleaning, excercising, or making homemade soup to accompany your fresh baked baguettes! This time, I mixed up and kneaded the pate fermentee on Sunday evening and let the dough rise while Lou and I went out for Sushi. When we returned, I put it in the refrigerator to ferment for 1 to 3 days. Monday, I was way too busy, but on Tuesday, I found time to mix up the Pain de Campagne, or country bread. It was a recipe out of The Bread Maker's Apprentice, which is a great book if you are interested in learning the craft of breadmaking. After mixing and kneading, the dough is left to rise for 2 hours, enough time to go to the gym. The bread is then shaped and proofs for an hour while I make dinner. My favorite part is shaping the bread into boules or baguettes or whatever shape you prefer. (A boule is the round loaf and to make one you need a banneton, or proofing basket.) I would love to teach you the entire shaping process, but I'm afraid I would lose most of you if I tediously described the steps. It's really not that difficult to do, just hard to explain. I'd suggest either buying a book with pictures or learning the technique in a class such as the "French Artisinal Breads" class in the Weekend Gourmet program at the California Culinary Academy. I've done both because I find the pictures in The Bread Makers Apprentice help refresh my memory of what I learned in class. The actual baking process is even more fun! Of course to get nice crusty bread with a moist crumb inside, it is best baked in a brick oven with steam, but if you don't have a brick oven, a baking stone and a pan of hot water will do the trick. Just preheat the oven with a sheet or cake pan on the top rack then pour simmering water into the pan just before you place the scored loaves onto the baking stone. You can create additional steam by spraying the walls of the oven with water from a spray bottle (you can find details of this method in the book). I suggest letting the bread cool before taking a bite, but who can resist? Slap a piece of butter or some ripened soft cheese on a steaming slice and you will know why you took the time.