Technique #126 Vegetable Salads (Salades de Legumes)

My blundering stumbling tripping journey into the culinary arts is Salades de Legumes or Vegetable Salads. This is technique #126 from Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques.

Now the tricky part about this here technique is that its actually four techniques. There are four different vegetable salads listed here; String beans and Tomato Salad, Beet Salad, Zucchini Salad, and finally Carrot Salad. 

I have actually done two of four techniques, well, one and a half. I'll blog the other one another time but this time on the red carpet it is......drum roll please.......zucchini. That's right. It's summer and one of the best fresh foods that says summer to me is zucchini. Versatile, super green, filling yet light. I loves me some zucchini. 

So Zucchini Salad it is. Or, as Jacques would say Salade de Courgettes. I was very proud, by the way, when my wife and I were watching one of Gordon Ramsay's many UK shows (Best Restaurant) and they started talking about courgettes and I knew just what they were talking about. 

So first step? Get some yummy zucchini from the farmers market. I got some delicious zucchinis from Oak Hills Farm at the Pearl Brewery farmers market. 

Next step is to cut the top and bottoms off. 

Next step cut each one into roughly 2" sections. 

Then cut lengthwise (as in set them up vertical and cut from top to bottom) into quarters. 

Then slice off the seeded sections (at the tip of the quarter). 

Looking at them side by side (before and after) they should look something like this. 
Trimmed (left) and Not trimmed (right)

The above part, trimming the seeds, is something I might disagree with Jacques about. I don't know if there is a reason why. That is to say, am I removing them because they (the seeds) somehow impact the taste, the cooking, or the texture? OR does he suggest doing it because that is simply the way the french have always done it. I don't know. Sorry if I built you up thinking I was going to answer those questions. I really would sincerely like to know. My apologies for misleading you into thinking I had any clue about what I was doing. 

The reason I question it is because to me the seeds don't do anything to detract from the flavor. Also, trying to trim out the seeds resulted in cutting away quite a bit of flesh. But if that's what Jacques wants then that's what Jacques gets. 

Next step is to lay them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and sprinkle with salt. Then pop them into a preheated oven at 425 degrees. Oh shit, I guess I should have told you to do that at the start. Oh, by the way preheat the oven to 425. You'll need it in about.......um...zero minutes.

Well you only want to have it in the oven for about 3-4 minutes. Just long enough for the zucchini to start sweating. What do I mean by sweating? Check out the pic below. Can you spot the sweat?

Ok, how about I help you. Now can you see it? Relax, its not real sweat. That is, not people sweat. Just the moisture being pushed out of zucchini. 

Once they cool off (yes, this is a "room temperature" dish) toss the zucchini 1 tablespoon olive oil (or peanut oil), 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Now that's what the recipe called for. I actually used 2 teaspoons of olive oil (2/3 tablespoon for those that can't Google). I probably could have gotten away with one teaspoon of olive oil. 

Even with two teaspoons of olive oil (to me) it was a bit oily. Throw in a wife who isn't crazy about olive oil and you're bordering on disaster. 

All in all though it really is a very fast, very summery, and very delicious dish. I highly recommend. 


Technique #105 Asparagus Stew (Ragout d'Asperges)

This is technique #105 Asparagus Stew a.k.a. Ragout d'Asperges from Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques. Are y'all tired of me blabbing about Pepin's book? Well tough, suck it. I'm obsessed and his book will have me on TV by the time I've gone through all his techniques.

I really don't know if it should be called asparagus "stew". The quotation marks means that "stew" is what them there fancy peoples call it. But when I think "stew" I think 1)brown and 2)long cooked. This is more of a. .. .um.....saute? no.....poach? no.....braise? no.....ok,well its something. A wee bit of water, plenty of butter (of course), and really short cooking time. This is actually a really fast and delicious side to have with just about anything.

Ever since I realized there aren't a lot of foodies or contestants on Top Chef whose repertoire is confined to corn dogs and microwave mac and cheese I knew I was going to have to try new foods. After turning my nose up at asparagus for years (Green foods = Scary) I found out I actually looooooove asparagus.
Wow! I actually took this great picture of Asparagus. 
Up until now all of my asparagus cooking has been almost exclusively in the roasting categories. Snap the asparagus, a little olive oil, pepper, and salt. Pop in the oven, 10 minutes at 425 degrees, deliciousness done!!!

In addition to wanting to try asparagus another way I also to add another technique to my not-so-mad skills. So my main man Pepin (which is funnier when you say it aloud because "man" and "pah-pan"rhymes) had a simple fast way to put some asparagus together.

It calls for two dozen or so asparagus, 1/2 stick butter, and 1/4 cup chopped parsley. The butter should be cut up into itty bitty cubes.

Up until now I've always "snapped" asparagus to get rid of the less edible ends (opposite the spear). Just hold the spear and the other end and bend them towards each other until it snaps. Mother nature has a built in pull tab. Where it snaps is likely where the tougher portion that you would discard anyway. At least that's what my wife says.

But Pepin introduces me to peeling asparagus. Keeping the whole thing and just peel it. Now he says to use your fingernail to find where the asparagus gets tough. Well, let me say this, I scraped a line down about twenty or so asparaguses (sp?) asparagi (sp?) asparagus (?) and I walked away still having no clue what the hell he was talking about. I, for the life of me, couldn't figure out where this supposed magic line was. I think Jacques put it in his book just for sheets and giggles knowing all of his readers would scratch each asparagus.

But back to what I was saying. this was the first time I peeled the asparagus. Since I couldn't find Pepin's magical asparagus line I just peeled the asparagus with a regular old vegetable peeler.  I took each asparagus and rolled it as I peeled.

I think I probably pushed too hard because some of the asparagus got very thin in parts. I also think I peeled it much higher than I actually needed to. I probably could have gotten away with only peeling the lower 1/3 to 1/2 of the asparagus.

The next step is cutting them diagonally into about 1 inch pieces. I'm not a very good diagonal cutter person but I tried my best. My wife said the trick is to cut an angle on one side then roll it halfway over and it cut it again at an angle.
Don't look at my old man knuckles.
I didn't do that though. It sounded too complicated, it was frustrating try to roll asparagus that I had (probably) overpeeled, and (as with many things my wife tells me) I didn't understand why she was telling me to do it. In retrospect (i.e. writing this blog) it would have given them a little rooftop which would have looked prettier. I will next time do that.....I think.

Once everything was cut up and prepped I put the asparagus into a skillet with 1/3 cup water and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Cover and bring to a strong boil. Boil for about 1 1/2 minutes, uncover, and add the butter and parsley.

Return to a strong boil and shake the pan (you know, kind of like when you make a french omelette) for about 20-30 seconds. The reason for the shaking (and strong boil vs. gentle boil) is to get the water and the butter to mix (bind) into a sauce. When there is an equal amount of water and butter a strong boil should bind the butter together with the water. If there is too much water you'll have buttery water. If you have to much butter you'll have watery butter. If equal parts (plus shaking/strong boil/other slamming of molecules) you get a creamy butter sauce (Beurre Blanc).

When the water/butter mixture starts to rise (lots of bubbles, think boiling over milk) its done. Slide it right onto a serving dish and you're done.

Delicious, fast, easy, and pretty darn nutritious. I highly recommend it. Enjoy.


Technique #172 Pepper Steak (Au Poivre)

Pepper Steak, Steak Au Poivre, or Technique #172. Anyway you describe it it taste delicious. How did I come up with calling it technique #172 you ask? Its actually from Jacque Pepin's book "Complete Techniques". Hands down it is one of the best books out there for aspiring cooks. It is so full of broken down step by step techniques.

I love to buy cookbooks. Especially books that focus on technique over pure recipes. I'm always stunned when I get distracted by other books why I ever left Jacque (or at least Jacque's book). His book is so complete, so well written, so explanatory. Truly a tome of tomes.

The recipe is simple enough. Take some fresh peppercorns and crack them all open. I'm not sure it matters a lot what you use. Jacque suggests rolling a heavy based pan over the peppercorns. I used a mallet after putting the peppercorns in a sandwich bag. I made a lot of noise and suddenly my peppercorns were transformed from mere mortal peppercorns to "mignonnette". Peppery flavorful and fresh.

Put your "mignonnette" ("ha ha ha, we all sound like Maurice Chevalier" -- that's an obscure Mel Brooks History of the World reference) on a plate and drop your steak in the peppers. Season with salt. Flip it and repeat the process. Your steak is just about ready.
If you look at the picture you can see where I started making a mistake. Or at least I feel like I started making a mistake. When it was all said and done I felt like I didn't do quite as well as I should have. If you look closely you can see an abundance of whole peppercorns. I don't think I crushed the peppercorns as much as I should have. When we were eating it we would hit whole uncrushed peppercorns and it was just a wee bit of too much spiciness.

I was definitely touchy about crushing the peppercorns too much. I was worried that I might be over-crushing them. Ok, its confession time and in retrospect I know this might sound silly. I was worried if I crushed the peppercorns too much it wouldn't be too different from the ground peppercorns from the grinder. I didn't think the recipe called for ground peppercorn. It called for crushed peppercorn. I tried crushing the peppercorns without pulverizing them.

In writing this blog entry I just reread the recipe and realized I made a second mistake. The recipe actually says to cook in browned butter. I, as is often my preference, cooked the steak dry. Why dry? Because I LOVE FOND!!!!!!

Here's a pic of the finished product (served with corn and asparagus stew (see next post)). There's actually a balsamic reduction on top too.
So peppercorns weren't cracked enough. Should have used butter. I guess that means this technique goes back into "to do" list. Don't get me wrong. It still tasted really good. It just wasn't as good as it could have been done. The portions of the steak that had fewer whole peppercorns were delicious. I love the simplicity of the recipe as well. Don't get discouraged by my stumbles. It's still good and tasty.

I will say too that as I've started cooking more and more I am getting a better feeling on seasoning meats. I've learned that to properly season meat it includes using a lot more salt than I would have normally used. And when I am talking about seasoning I mean pre-cooking seasoning not post-cooking. If you are   adding some salt and pepper to a simply straight forward saute cut of meat, use more rather than less.


Cucumber Soup

I always have vegetables left over at the end of the week. In fact it always seems like I have either way too much or way too little. Either tossing fuzzy veggies or making midnight runs for a single onion. Too much or too little. I am indeed the Goldilocks of Veggies. 

Well this week I had a surplus of cucumbers. I've recently fallen back in love with cucumbers and they (like watermelon) are such a terrific summer vegetable. Somewhere recently I had heard someone talking about Cucumber soup. The thought of a cold soup that had that cool light airy taste and texture sounded like a winner. 

In this case I went to Allrecipes.com as one of my favorite recipe websites. I found this recipe and gave it a try. The garnish you'll notice is a combinaton of green onions, tomatoes (chopped, peeled, and seeded), and roasted almonds. 

I actually had to make this in two steps starting it on one day and finishing it on the following day  because I only had 2 of 3 cups of sour cream needed. The recipe was exceedingly easy to follow. The only thing that added a few extra minutes was blanching the tomatoes to that I could peel and seed them. The roasted almond garnish was great for the texture of the soup. The tomatoes gave a very needed acidic touch to a recipe that has equal parts sour cream and chicken broth. 

Overall the recipe was good but I would recommend it as a small light refresher or even snack but it with 3 cups of sour cream it was much more overpowering than I had expected. I don't know if I want to say it was "heavy" because it was light but I don't think I could take more than a cup at a time. It was also exceptionally white. Very very white. If you notice in the picture you can hardly tell between where the bowl ends and the soup starts. I would have liked (hoped) for it at least to a be a little green. Of course that may have had more to do with the cucumbers than the recipe.