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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Grills Just Wanna Have Fun

There is something about cooking outdoors...over open flames. For me, just about year 'round, there's a kind of primeval yearning to sear food over hot coals.
I'm filled with envy when I watch Jamie Oliver throw things into his outdoor wood-burning oven and I can recall years of bitterness over not having access to a grill when we lived in a pre-war apartment building in Chicago with no outdoor space.
That meant summer holidays at our place were celebrated with 'urban' barbecue-- burgers under the broiler, or on a ridged, cast iron pan... and a kitchen hallway smoke detector perpetually disconnected.

The move to San Francisco changed all that. The apartment we moved into came with a gas grill on the deck and a small brick terrace...perfect for a charcoal grill. Now, I'm not going to get into a big debate between gas and charcoal, but just know that we never let go of our chimney starter -- a relic of the years in Boston where we had outdoor space for a charcoal grill. The chimney starter accompanied us from apartment to apartment, and even cross-country, with the hope that some day we would find a place to have a grill.

A couple weeks ago, Steve found a neighborhood garage sale and, wouldn't you know it... a barely used Weber kettle grill. $25 later we were lugging it into the back patio, giggling like two teenagers and plotting our first meal. (Shrimp kabobs.)

So, when my friend, K., said it was time to get together for one of our Sunday evening cook-a-thons you know it was going to be All About The Grill.

We quickly decided the centerpiece of the meal was going to be some kind of beef.
Because we were both craving chimichurri! The incredibly delicious and meant-for-grilled-meats condiment hailing from Argentina.

Two giant t-bones (grass-fed, of course...this is San Francisco!) were our choice, and we decided to go with The Zuni Cafe Cookbook's version of chimichurri. Then, the discussion turned to what else we could throw on the grill.
Asparagus! Corn on the cob! Large, green chile peppers!
Then K. suggested peaches. We agreed to recreate a salad she had tried at some restaurant in the Marina. These recreations of something K. has had in a restaurant seem to serve us well.

The ingredients for the salad:
Peaches, grilled, of course, and then stuffed with goat cheese or gorgonzola (my suggestion)
Spring onions, grilled, natch
Bresaola, (Note: Bresaola is beef and has a very delicate flavor--almost too delicate for this salad, I think. We both agreed -- next time, go with Serrano for that extra kick of salty, porky deliciousness.)
All, draped over a bed of greens tossed with a vinaigrette.

Wine was poured. Ingredients prepped. The chimichurri prepared.

We stood in the dwindling end-of-day light, tending the various fruits and vegetables arrayed on the grill. Smoke swirled around us and and the smell of grilling peaches was heavenly.

We raised our glasses. A toast... To Grilling!

A note about chimichurri.
I used to follow a recipe found on Epicurious, which was mainly parsley, very green and, in retrospect, a bit boring.
The recipe we used was apparently shared with Judy Rodgers by two chefs from Argentina who spent some time cooking in the Zuni kitchen in the late 90's. It is fantastic and there's no going back.

This chimichurri uses a mix of chopped fresh herbs and the key is warming the olive oil so that when the fresh herbs are added they create a very satisfying sizzle as they hit the oil. The addition of a jalapeno, charred over an open flame is so much better, to me, than the typical red pepper flakes. The other important ingredient is paprika -- it gives the sauce a sultry, smoky finish that is addictive.
Make this sauce and you will be finding any excuse you can to throw some meat on the grill.
It is, in a word...amazing.

Connie & Maryanna's Chimichurri
adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers
makes about 1 1/4 cups -- keeps well for weeks, refrigerated and improves with time

1 jalapeno, preferably red (we used green)
2 teaspoons tightly packed fresh oregano leaves
2 teaspoons tightly packed fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon tightly packed fresh rosemary leaves
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon tightly packed, coarsely shopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 or 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
2 bay leaves, crumbled
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar--the good stuff
About 1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

Char the jalapeno, either directly over a gas burner, or charcoal fire, or under a broiler
until the pepper is freckled with black and smells good
When the pepper has cooled slightly, halve, seed and mince it. Don't rub off the tasty black blisters -- include them in the chimichurri.

Place the oregano, thyme and rosemary in a mortar and pound lightly. (K. and I decided to pound, AND do a little mincing, to vary up the texture. It just looked a little too 'leafy' after just pounding.)

Warm the oil in a small saucepan until it is hot to the touch. Pull from the heat and stir in the herbs, plus all the remaining ingredients, including the jalapeno -- don't forget the paprika!
(If making the chimichurri more than a few hours in advance, wait to add the parsley until you are about to use it.) Taste. Leave to infuse for at least 1 hour at room temperature before serving.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Battle Chocolate

I can't remember exactly how it came up. Mike G. and I were chatting a couple months ago. We have what I'd call your typical producer/editor camaraderie. That means I talk to the back of his head, he nods sagely, pushes buttons and moves the mouse. We choose shots or agree that certain copy is simply not working and, before you know it... television is made. But every so often, maybe while we're waiting for a render to finish or the Avid has crashed, we'll get to talking about food.

We both like to cook, and eat of course, so we've had wide-ranging discussions about such things as the validity of deep dish pizza, where to go for dim sum here in San Francisco, the pros and cons of owning a brulee torch, and one day...the many wonders of one of our favorite ingredients...chocolate.

We compared notes on various recipes we'd tried. His seemed much more, well... adventurous, and improvisational than mine. I'm not super confident about baking as I've noted here before, so if I find something that works, I hang on for dear life. For me...improvisation works in cooking, but not, in baking. Somehow we came to the conclusion that it would be a cool idea to put our favorite chocolate recipes head-to-head. Maybe stage a little blind tasting to see exactly who could showcase this most magical of ingredients best. Battle Chocolate was born.
(I started out calling it the Chocolate Smackdown, but then we decided that the Iron-Chef model of a gentlemanly competition based on a main ingredient sounded more civilized.)

We opened the 'competition' to the rest of our co-workers and decided on a date. One Monday afternoon in June, (what better way to enjoy the start of the work week?) we'd gather in our dining area at work and everyone would taste whatever entries were submitted. It gave everyone the weekend to bake to their hearts content.

From the very start, I thought victory could be had with the Chocolate Truffle Tart. But, Mike G. was making me nervous. In addition to being a fearless baker he had started experimenting with ice cream and gelato. Meanwhile, word of Battle Chocolate was spreading like wildfire. People told me stories of a bacon-chocolate concoction he'd brought in for everyone to try last year. The man had invented one of the most delicious cupcakes I've had in ages: a S'more cupcake. I wavered and started surfing cooking blogs and looking through my cookbooks. For a very brief moment, the week before Battle Chocolate Monday, I was convinced I could win with a bundt: this Chocolate Stout cake. I kept looking at the photos of the homely bundt and decided to stick with my original plan. Mike sent a document outlining Rules of Engagement. Ohdear.
He suggested contestants have the option of submitting two entries.
TWO entries?! Absolutely not!

The weekend arrived. I shopped for ingredients. The week before, my shipment from Spice House (my beloved spice purveyor in Chicago) arrived. It did indeed feel a little like heading into battle.

Sunday morning was spent baking. Everything went according to plan. I had a good looking tart on my hands. I decided to garnish with a dusting of cocoa powder AND fresh whipped cream. I felt good.

I was petrified of one of the "Rules of Engagement" though -- prepare your submission in 40 'tasting' portions. The tart was round! How the hell was I going to slice it up? I debated...wedges, cut up into small slivers? A checkerboard? After some consultation with friends, I decided to go with the checkerboard.

Monday afternoon: we're frantically plating up our desserts.

Ballots have been designed (thank you Mike's girlfriend!) and signs identifying only the name of the dessert put out. Precisely at 2:30 PM, the dining area is swarmed! Happy co-workers are tasting their way through a panoply of chocolate, trying to guess who made what, writing out their ballots. Chocolate creates good buzz -- it is wonderful.

And, drum roll were the results:

FIRST PLACE: Chocolate Truffle Tarte made by Marcia

SECOND PLACE: Nutella Tart
made by Mike G.

THIRD PLACE: Mint Chocolate Deliciousness
made by Amy

FOURTH PLACE: Chocolate Mocha Chip Surprise
made by Rose

FIFTH PLACE: Mint Chocolate Chip Brownie Bonanza
made by Dallas

SIXTH PLACE: Chocolate-Peanut Butter Mochi
made by Lisa

I won! What a thrill...and what delicious fun.

We agreed right off the bat that the winner would have bragging rights. But then, I got to work one day and found that Mike had made a trophy. It is totally awesome.

(That's 100% pure Styrofoam in the base!!) I'll hold on to the trophy until the next Battle.
Possible ingredients? Battle Cardamom. Battle Vanilla. Battle Citrus. Battle Bacon.

The discussion continues...