Saturday, February 28, 2009

DSLR followed by a cheese sandwich

Dana and I finally paid off our credit cards last month. This marks the end of a long process and, let's hope, a new chapter in our financial lives. We've been filling this hole we'd dug ourselves into for a couple of years, leveraging every extra penny and every scrap of knowledge we could pick up from Get Rich Slowly and The Consumerist to build an emergency fund, lower our interest rates, transfer our balances, and otherwise find the tiny exit credit card companies leave in the great dark debt cave they keep half of America in.

So maybe this month we've been a little too giddy, maybe we've felt a little freer to spend money on indulgences we've been slavering after for years, but can you blame us? We've accomplished something. We feel like we're in the sun for the first time in years, like we've come out of winter and lain eyes on grass a shade of green we had forgotten existed. Until actual spring hits, it's something.

So one of those treats we'd wanted for years that we finally sprung for is a new Digital SLR. We've been shooting Eat This House as we've been shooting everything for many years: with a crappy point and shoot I picked up on Amazon a long time ago. It turned out okay enough pictures but they had some really serious artifact problems when you got close. Plus it had almost nothing in terms of manual control (you could change either shutter speed or aperture, not both. And manual focus? Forget it). So enter our new camera. We're definitely still getting the hang of it but we've already learned some lessons and are making progress. After so many years with a point and shoot it seems almost obscene to have such tight control over a photograph. I find myself relearning rules about depth of field, going speechless when I realize that if autofocus doesn't work I can just switch to manual, browsing digital photography websites and ebay lens auctions until the middle of the night and then stumbling away from the computer only to take long exposures down the hallway and out the window until I can hardly see.

So, for the inaugural (and requisite) food photos from our new fancy DSLR, I made a cheese sandwich. Enjoy.

So hopefully you'll be seeing more professional pictures with the blog in the coming months. Let me know if you've got any tips.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day Dinner

We just had a super amazing meal. We went to Taverna Banfi for dinner tonight and got their prix fixe Valentine's menu along with a tasting course of wines (of which I remember exactly 0 names, sorry. Update: Banfi's sent us the wine names!). But here's what we had before it all slips my mind:

1st course: crabcake with dijon aioli. This was paired with the surprisingly earthy Treleaven Riesling that I would have sworn was a pinot gris for all its floral depth and soft character. This is the kind of riesling I hardly knew existed and hardly does in the finger lakes region. It had little relation to the syrup and rotting peach nose or throat-punched-by-an-heir-to-the-smucker's-fortune mouth of the rieslings we've had access to the last couple of years, and it actually made me think that maybe there's something to this cold weather grape after all.

such a good salad
2nd course: arugula salad with (candied?) walnuts, grilled pear, and a sherry vinaigrette. Served with the only miss of the night: an incredibly soft Brancott Pinot Grigio that was completely lost against the robustness of the salad. It was a drinkable wine, if forgettable, but coupled with the dish it was like drinking water that somehow managed to be more tasteless.

I can do nothing but drool.  It's good to be a carnivore
Main course: porcini crusted seared beef tenderloin with fresh green beans served on a creamy polenta. Paired with a delicious and surprising Concha Y Toro, Cassiliero del Diablo, Cabernet Sauvignon that initially had a shockingly mellow oaked nose and vanilla finish but ultimately bloomed into a wine more characteristic of its varietal with spicy notes mid palate and strong prune in the finish. Though it sparkled a little toward the acidic pepper of my ever-hated shiraz, it rebounded well with a grass note and, dare I say it, some fine character. Like the riesling, this glassful gave me the urge to expand my exploration of wine from the floral, fresh fruit of California wines to something more brusque, maybe even the jammier ultra-resilient grapes offered in the world of cab.

dana prepares to devour our entire plate of desserts in a single bite
Dessert: a plate of various decadences including a couple chocolate covered strawberries that, for being out of season and served in New York, were actually kind of okay; a decent raspberry cream cake covered in chocolate; a slice of forgettable raspberry cheesecake; and the kicker: a chocolate souffle cake that Dana described as "a chocolate cloud" and even I, not normally a chocolate maniac, ate a bite of and immediately and inadvertently let out a sound somewhere between a whimper and a moan. This was heaven on a fork. This was the best pairing of the night, as well, with a deep pomegranatey sparkling rose (BANFI, Rosa Regale, Brachetto d' Acqui) that perfectly complemented the chocolates and wiped the palate clean with its glittering close.

Anyway, I just wanted to get this all down before the tastes faded from my mouth entirely. Best Valentine's dinner ever. If you live upstate, it is your responsibility to have dinner at Banfi's. I will allow no argument on this point.

You may consider yourself compelled.

dana enjoying the dregs of her cabernet
justin looking dapperTomorrow morning: huevos rancheros, oven home fries, and belinis, with Brian and Eisha!

Update: I got the wine names!

Sense and Sensibility and Scones

Granted, watching Sense and Sensibility and eating scones is not nearly as exciting as the prospect of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I can't think of many other ways I'd like to spend a Sunday afternoon. The eating scones and watching Jane Austen movies part, I mean - not the zombies. Zombies are really more of a Saturday night activity.

Last weekend, Eisha from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast joined Justin and myself for a late afternoon tea time. Scones, of course, are requisite for such an occasion, as are jams, jellies, and out-thrust pinky fingers. I started with Alton Brown's basic recipe, and modified it a little bit to end up with this:

Vanilla Cherry Scones
  • 2 cups flour
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons shortening
  • 3/4 cup cream
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 cup dried cherries
  • 1 egg white for egg wash
  • cane sugar for dusting

Directions

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix well. Cut in butter and shortening. In a separate bowl, combine cream with beaten egg and vanilla, then add to dry ingredients. Stir in fruit. Turn dough out onto a floured surface. Roll dough out and cut into rectangles, then cut rectangles in half to form scone shape. Transfer to baking sheet and brush with egg wash, then sprinkle with large-grain cane sugar. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Enjoy - with pinky out.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ice Cream reborn

When we first got our ice cream maker, it was all we could think about. Vanilla ice cream, mint chip, banana, peach, pumpkin, on and on and on. It was disgustingly decadent but also heaven sent during an interminable 100 degree summer without central air. There's nothing like shoveling huge gobs of frozen cream into your mouth in a sweltering apartment where even the cats have begun to melt into the floor.

Then, just as suddenly as our obsession had come on, it was gone again. The bowl for the ice cream maker was pushed to the back of the freezer, heavy cream fell off of our grocery lists, warm weather became a legend, legend faded to myth, and eventually even the memory of homemade ice cream was lost from this house. Yet there was one who still remembered.

I was purging our freezer recently and stumbled across the bowl in deep freeze. In an effort to clear space, I would have moved it into storage with the rest of the machine, but Dana suggested instead that we pick up some whipping cream and brave the weather (which had dipped below zero with wind chill) to revitalize the idea of fresh ice cream. That night, armed with half and half and some Scharffen Berger baking bars (remember those?) Eisha gave us for Christmas, we improvised a Mexican Hot Chocolate ice cream that was to die for.

Here's the recipe for the half-batch we made:

4 oz Scharffen Berger Semi Sweet Chocolate, cut into bite size pieces
1/2 cup skim milk (though whole would be better, we only keep skim in the house)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup half and half
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
a dash of cayenne pepper (we didn't add this but I think it would be a great addition)
Combine the chocolate and sugar in the bowl of a food processor until very finely chopped. Meanwhile, bring the milk to a low simmer then pour over the chocolate and sugar mixture in the processor. Process until smooth. Scrape into a bowl and let the chocolate cool completely before proceeding. Later, stir in the heavy cream (which you've been chilling, right? Right?), the vanilla, cinnamon, and cayenne (if you're using it). Chill for around 30 minutes more. Then, with the ice cream maker on, pour the mixture into the freezer bowl and mix for 25-30 minutes. You can eat it right after it comes out of the machine but with a mixture this low on milk fat it's best to pop it into the freezer for about 2 hours so it can "ripen" which essentially means develop delicious crystal structures by freezing more thoroughly.

The ice cream that comes out of this is probably more properly ice milk but it's silky and smooth and has a great balance of richness from the strong chocolate flavors and cinnamon. This half-batch serves 3 easily or 2 decadently. It would benefit from a little textural contrast so if you happen to have a churro around, or want to brave deep frying a tortilla and sprinkling with cinammon sugar, pop that sucker (and maybe a mint leaf!) on top and call it a day.

You won't be sorry.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Homemade Stock

I've been gathering chicken bones for a while. Not like I'm about to break some voodoo on a dude or anything but collecting and storing them definitively, with a final nod every time I add another bone to the growing freezer bag, the sort of way that might make a man stop and remark "that looks like a fellow who is planning to brew himself a stock, I dare say." And that man would be right. And also watching me in my kitchen way too often for comfort.

I've always heard making your own stock is awesome. Well, okay, no. I've heard that having homemade stock is awesome but the act of making the stuff is always glossed over. "Add chicken bones and stuff to pot," they'd say, "wait." Later, in a totally different part of the magazine I'd run across the word "enjoy" in small type and get a vague whiff of cooking chicken but nothing really exclamatory was ever associated with the process.

Having the stock, that's the exciting bit. So it seems natural that I'd always thought yes, that is something I want, but never that is something I want to do. Saving chicken bones was my pathetic effort to overcome the debilitating winter lethargy and force myself to make this thing I'd be glad to have once I'd made it, but just keeping bones in the freezer was never going to work.

This is one of the truths of existence, and probably not just mine: I will go to any length, overcome any hurdle, push through any struggle, to do something I'm enthusiastic about. For something I can't muster some enthusiasm for, a thousand tiny vampires couldn't drag me from the couch. So I could have frozen all the chicken bones in town and I would never have made a stock if I hadn't run across this post at The Amateur Gourmet last Saturday. Which led me to this post by Michael Ruhlman which led me all over the place to various blog posts that I can no longer find but they all essentially say one thing, and say it demonstratively and with the enthusiasm I'd been unable to generate myself: just make some damn stock, man.

By the time I'd been adequately convinced on Saturday I didn't have four or five hours to spend, so I started Sunday morning (after I whipped up some whole wheat waffles with Scharffen Berger Nibby pieces for breakfast, natch) which, of course, stretched into Sunday afternoon before the stock had actually cooled enough to package. Mere minutes before people arrived for our little Super Bowl party I was skimming fat globules and fumbling to seal plastic lids. Now let me condense for you the best thing about this experience: for probably ten hours, our entire house smelled like everything the world has ever loved about chicken soup. Our building was velvety with chickeny goodness and I was the mad engineer at its burbling heart, laughing so hard my uvula jumped and danced like a cartoon cat from the 40s. I take a lot of pleasure in creating this level of culinary agony for people climbing our stairs. It's something like a hobby of mine to make people I don't know hungry. Is it too much information to say that I feel gratified when other people feel empty? Maybe.

Now here comes the really heartbreaking part. The stock tastes... okay. It's all right. It's chickeny, it's not water, but I don't see a wide difference between this and canned stock. I think the problem is that I should have reduced it more: intensified the flavor with heat and a little more salt. But I was frankly terrified of boiling it (apparently this is the way to get cloudy impure stock) and might have undercooked it instead. I mean, it works. I think it will probably be really good when I actually use it to cook something but for now it's just kind of taking up space in a bunch of these little Rubbermaid containers we picked up at the dollar store.

So until it validates my belief in this being a worthwhile pursuit and reason enough to take up valuable freezer space, at least it looks pretty. That's something.