Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Moules Frites and Nostalgia

First off, thanks to the brilliant boy my youngest sister is dating, you can now find me at www.theunemployedcook.com, as well as through the blogger portal. This was done to make it easy for new readers directed from the magazine to find the site. Nifty, huh? Thanks a million to the ever helpful Kid Gravy (when are you going to come teach us about perfect biscuits?).

And now, on to the evening meal. I've been flipping through pictures from our honeymoon lately, trying to get my act together and have some printed out, but instead of productivity, this has inspired a wave of nostalgia. Chris and I visited Paris and Nice for two blissful weeks, doing nothing but eating, relaxing, and enjoying eachothers company. Being an ultimately food minded person, I couldn't help but think back to favorite meals we shared. Besides eating nearly our weight in duck (it's our favorite and harder to come by here), we ate lots of Moules Frites, gorgeous mussels cooked in a silky wine and garlic concoction, served with plenty of crispy frites to dip in the remaining sauce. Paired with a sweet-tart Lambic, it was pure heaven, I swear.

And so, after skimming over a recipe for mussels and fries in the latest Real Simple, I seriously couldn't stand it. I was going to need this dish in the near future, otherwise we were risking some sort of culinary wanderlust-inspired meltdown.

When I happened upon a large box of New Zealand Green Mussels in my grocer's freezer, I knew that it must be fate. Let me tell you right off the bat, I know frozen is no way to have a mussel, but you have to grant the poor landlocked mountain girl a few concessions, lest she cry all over you and ruin your nice new shirt. Okay? Okay. Also worth a mention, these mussels were enormous, and their shells were the most incredible green color, I couldn't help but marvel at them.

This recipe is terrifically simple, with only a time investment (for the frites), and a bit of mind-numbing chopping. The end result, however, will transport you and have you making swoony faces in the direction of the one you love.

Moules Frites
with thanks to Real Simple Magazine
serves 2-3

for the oven-fried frites:

2 large white new potatoes
3 Tbsp butter
splash olive oil
sea salt
freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toss butter in a large glass baking dish, drizzle a bit of oil over it, and chuck it into the heating oven. While the butter melts, slice your potatoes into french-fry sized pieces (the thicker you go, the longer they will take to crisp up, so go thinner). Once the butter has melted completely, remove the pan from the oven and swirl the oil around to coat completely. Sprinkle the hot oil generously with salt and pepper, then add the potato, toss very well to coat.

Return pan to oven. Cook until crispy and golden brown, about 45-60 minutes. Gently toss once during cooking (gently is key, the potatoes will be soft and might want to fall apart). Once the fries are about 20 minutes away from completion, begin the mussels.

for the mussels:

4 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, slivered
1 large leek, halved and sliced into half-moons
1.5 cups dry rose*
10 cherry tomatoes, diced roughly
handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
2 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded if they don't come that way
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

*any dry white wine is fine, but I love the sunset-colored broth the rose leaves you with.

Melt the butter and oil in a large pot over medium-low heat. Once melted, add garlic and leek and sweat until very tender, but not browning, around 6-8 minutes. Add the wine and simmer for 5 minutes. Toss in tomatoes and half of the parsley (reserve the rest for garnish), as well as a scant teaspoon salt and fat pinch or two of pepper. Turn heat up to medium and bring to a low boil. Simmer for 2-3 minutes, then taste to check seasoning.

Toss mussels in the fragrant broth and clamp a lid on. Cook until mussels open, 3-4 minutes (discard any mussels that do not open). Divide mussels into shallow bowls and ladle generous portions of the gorgeous broth over them, topping with a sprinkle of the remaining parsley. Serve with lots of crispy, salty frites and a simple green salad alongside.

Sitting here, after happily devouring my delicious dinner, sipping a cassis lambic bought for this sort of occasion, I realize this is a rare moment of pure contentedness. All too often my bouts of nostalgia mire me in melancholy, but it seems that recreating this oh-so-French/Belgian meal has instead sent me soaring on the back of happy memories.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Who is this mysterious anonymous commenter that cannot rest until I post the recipe for butter-poached lobster tails? This person, who leaves no distinguishing details about themselves, but comments again and again, like I am purposely punishing them?

I assure you, I meant you no harm.

You will be disappointed to find, however, that the recipe is ridiculously simple, and not too precise. I started by purchasing 3 enormous 10-ounce fresh Caribbean lobster tails at the fish market. Using a heavy, sharp knife, I split the tails down the middle and trimmed off their little flippers.

While I prepared the tails, I melted a pound and a half of salted butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. You want the butter to be melted, but not at a temperature that will fry the meat. If the lobster sizzles when you place it in the pan, the butter is too hot, remove from heat and adjust.

Cook, cut side down, until opaque, then flip over and cook another 10 minutes or so. The lovely things about this method is that the butter makes it much harder to overcook the tender meat. Serve to your guests and watch them gaze at you with a new sense of wonderment.

And please, mysterious commenter, leave yet another comment and let me know how this goes for you? It's really very easy.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Homemade Buns and Other News...

A few days ago I was smart enough to take a crack at Kevin's recipe for Black Pepper & Garlic Buns, and my, am I ever glad I did. I made minimal substitutions, namely using only white flour (I didn't have any whole wheat, and I'm lazy), white pepper (same), and shaping them into hoagie-style buns.

We had these with some fresh Italian sausages picked up at the Farmer's Market, sweet corn on the cob, and a nice avocado and tomato salad.

In other news, one of the projects I've been working on has come to fruition--I will now being doing restaurant reviews (and other food-related writing) for Knoxville's Cityview Magazine. They are revamping their website at the moment, but once it is up and running I will link to monthly reviews and other tidbits. Needless to say, I am pretty excited about this opportunity and can't believe I get paid to do this.

Locals, look for my review of new restaurant La Costa in the July issue, on newsstands at the end of June.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Mixed Berry Tarts (and no excuses)

I'm just going to avert my eyes and jump right into the recipe, because I can't handle your accusing stares right now. I'm sorry! But I'm not here to make excuses. Look, shiny pretty tart:

Now, since I wrote last I have finally acquired a food processor, and my life in the kitchen has honestly changed. I used it twice the day I bought it, and have used it multiple times a week since then. The best thing about it, so far, is the improvement my pie crusts have seen. People, I have made the perfect pie crust. And lo, it is good.

Along with the fancy food processor I picked up an adorable square tart pan and some exceedingly good vanilla beans. The tart pan inspired some sort of tart mania that has resulted in some very rich creations, and what appears to be a budding pot belly. I've had to take up swimming just to counter the Tart Problem.

The whole reason I was inspired to get on this tart kick was because of these tiny strawberries. I defy anyone that likes strawberries to not freak out a little upon seeing these fingernail-sized specimens. I made my first stab at pastry cream (good, but too thick and gummy in texture), and attempted a pie crust idea that lived in my wee noggin. The crust was fine, it wasn't exactly tender and tasted more like cornbread than I preferred, but it was serviceable and didn't reduce me to tears. Altogether the tart was well received and eaten in approximately 11 minutes by our friends.

But I was not satisfied!

And so, I tried again. This time, I took the pie crust idea in my head and merged it with a recipe from this month's issue of Fine Cooking. The result was magnificent--flaky and crisp with this almost buttermilk flavor that made me swoon. The pastry cream was perfect, too--firm enough to hold up to slicing, but delightfully rich and oozy (and boozy, for that matter). I am still perfecting the measurements for my ground breaking "less fat" chocolate ganache, so you can either use your own recipe or skip it all together. You really can't go wrong.

When I test out a new recipe on people (the first at a Memorial Day party, the second at a gathering of Knoxville food bloggers), I always make some miniatures so that I can test things and make sure they are not poison. For these sweet babies I cut out circles of dough with a large drinking glass and carefully lined a muffin tin with them. To weigh down the crust, you can use a muffin liner and pie weights (I use rice) to good effect. You can make this gorgeous tart with any combination of seasonal berries.

Mixed Berry Tart
with thanks to Fine Cooking magazine

for the crust:

1.75 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp cornmeal
12 Tbsp chilled butter, cut into chunks
1 egg, beaten
2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp milk
2 tsp lemon juice
pinch salt (if you use salted butter, do not add salt)

In a food processor, combine all ingredients and pulse until the dough has begun to form big clumps (you want to go past the pea sized clumps and really incorporate the dough). Roll out a large piece of cling wrap and carefully dump the dough out onto it--the dough will seem a little loose and dry. Using your hands, press the dough into a compact patty and chill for 15 minutes.

After removing the dough from the refrigerator, let it sit for a few minutes. You want the dough to be cool, but not so cold that it cracks when you try to roll it out. Roll out to your desired thickness and shape, and place in a tart pan.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Using a fork, poke some holes in the bottom of the pie crust. Carefully line the crust with aluminum foil or parchment paper, and fill with pie weights (or dried beans or rice). Bake for roughly 25 minutes, until the edges are a deep golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool on a metal rack. Be careful when removing the pie weights, they can get pretty hot.

for the rum-vanilla pastry cream:

1.25 cups milk (I use 1%)
half of a vanilla bean, split down the middle
3 large egg yolks
.25 cups sugar
3 Tbsp flour
2 scant Tbsp cornstarch
1 Tbsp spiced rum (or liqueur of your choice)

Place milk and vanilla bean in a medium saucepan and bring to a low boil. While the milk is heat, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar, then add the flour and cornstarch. This mixture will be pretty thick. Once milk has reached a boil, remove from heat and remove vanilla bean. Scrape vanilla seeds out and add to egg mixture (you can use the dried vanilla pod to make vanilla sugar). Slowly temper the egg mixture by whisking in the hot milk, a few spoonfuls at a time.

Once the milk is mixed into the egg mixture, pour back into the saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture comes to a boil. It will thicken very quickly, so keep an eye on it and keep whisking. Once the mixture has thickened to a pudding-like consistency, remove from heat and whisk in your liqueur (the liqueur is optional, of course). Pour into a bowl and press cling wrap down on the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Let cool completely.

To assemble tart, spread a layer of chocolate ganache on the tart crust, if you are so inclined. Like I said up top, I'm still working out the measurements for my magical less-fat ganache, so I didn't include the recipe. The tart is certainly still delicious without it.

After the ganache, carefully spread the cooled pastry cream on the tart. Top with any fresh berries you can get your hands on, and serve to your adoring guests. If you want to be extra fancy, you can brush a little melted apricot jelly over the fruit to make it look all shiny and professional.

This one's worth every second of work, folks.