Cooking at Home


For the record, kometsuna is a Japanese spinach. Who knew??

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In honor of Easter, we’re reposting a seasonal favorite – Peep Wars!

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Cake Wars. peeps-faceoff

Iron Chef.

Last Restaurant Standing.

Let’s face it: we are obsessed with food battles.  This time of year there is no better food battle than Peep Wars. And ulike the showdowns listed above, Peep Wars can actually happen in your very own kitchen. Or – if you’re very lucky – the kitchenette in your company’s office.

The thrill of Peep Wars was spilled to me by Jocko, a former co-worker, lifetime long distance runner, and microwave experiment enthusiast. Peep wars is marshmallow jousting for your microwave. Anyone who has attempted a s’mores without the benefit of open flame has probably learned that marshmallows expand in the microwave. Add well-placed toothpicks to the equation and suddenly you have a nail biting duel on your hands.

Like all great ideas, Peep Wars’ brilliance lies in its simplicity.

round-oneStep 1: Select Peeps. For these purposes, chicks are better than bunnies. It will also be easiest if you select two different colors. I picked up pink and green, because I’m gangsta like that.

Step 2: Put two Peeps on a plate, facing each other, no more than 1 inch apart. Insert toothpicks into Peep bellies.

Step 2a: Try not to giggle that the Peeps now look like a prelude to movie night at UMD.

Step 3: Insert into the microwave for 1 minute and cheer your color on!

As the Peeps expand, they ooze and waver and shift until eventually the spear of one Peep impales the other, causing Check out Mike cheering for his Peep. abject deflation. The toothpick placement is really clutch here. Insert it too high and it’ll miss the mark. Too off center and it could veer in the completely wrong direction, ensuring your Peep defeat.

The terms of your Peep War may vary. Maybe its for bragging rights, or cash. Or you could go Pacific Island-style and devour the remains of your Peep opponent. Warm, sugary marshmallow may be one of the most delicious victory dinners ever known.

But before you dive in, heed these wise words from Jocko, the Peep Wars general: “Never, and I mean NEVER, use the sugar-free Peeps. Your microwave will never smell the same.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE: We received a review copy of The New Jewish Table and were impressed with the way Chef Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray had successfully updated so many of the traditional dishes we recognized in ways that incorporated lighter, fresher flavors.  When they followed it up with an invitation to observe the Passover Seder with them, we wanted to make sure that we were able to truly compare charoset to charoset, so we asked our friends and frequent Capital Spice contributors to attend and let us know how the Grays’ Passover compared with the ones they’ve observed with their families over the years.

Monday night, the Bacon Terrorist and Itty Bitty Betty attended a special Passover Seder hosted by Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray at their Equinox restaurant to celebrate the launch of their cookbook, The New Jewish Table. The night highlighted three items from the book’s suggested Passover menu encapsulating the Grays’ seasonality-first philosophy as they bring treasured Jewish classics into the twenty-first century.

Why was this night’s dinner different from all other Seders?  Find out after the jump. (more…)

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<<EDIT 2/13/12 11:30 AM – Voting is now live for the DC Lamb Pro-Am.  Check out all of the entries here (DO NOT do this on an empty stomach) and then vote for your favorite.  Or for us, if we’re not your favorite.  Either way, thanks for your support!>>

Foodie pop quiz.  What’s the first word that comes to mind when I say “lamb?”  If you’re a Fan of Lamb, the answer is likely to be something like “tender,” “medium-rare” or just plain “delicious.”

If you had asked us just a few years ago, our answer would probably have been “intimidating.”  Restaurant presentations of lamb tend toward the more impressive: racks and chops, slices from the leg and loin, often served with rich sauces.  That frame of reference, coupled with the price tag, was enough to make us hesitant to try it at home.

As is often the case, Trader Joe’s provided us with the impetus to give it a go.  We bought a frozen, seasoned leg section for a dinner party and roasted it.  Served with a simple wine reduction, it was a revelation of bold, meaty flavor without the chew of similarly intense cuts of beef.  We’ve been Fans of Lamb ever since.

When the American Lamb Board invited us to compete with twelve other local bloggers for a chance to cook at their Lamb Pro-Am in March, we jumped at the chance.  We were told we’d be cooking a boneless leg of lamb, supplied by local rancher Craig Rogers of Border Springs Farm – even better!  But we couldn’t just do a traditional leg presentation.  We needed to get creative.

…And that’s where we ran into problems.

Our first inclination, as you can probably guess if you’re a regular reader, was to smoke the lamb on our Big Green Egg.  The low temperatures are great for coaxing out maximal flavor while maintaining a tender bite.  There’s just one problem: the smoke is lost on the lamb.  Even after hours in a BGE with aggressive woods like hickory and mesquite, lamb pretty much just tastes like lamb (not that that’s a BAD thing).

…So our first trick was a no-go.

Then we thought back to our short-lived run as a Charcutepalooza participant.  In working our way through Michael Ruhlman’s “Charcuterie” cookbook, we were intrigued by a recipe for merguez, a spicy lamb sausage.  Why not use some of the lamb to make sausage as part of our dish?

We decided to incorporate homemade merguez into a lamb chili that has become a family favorite.  The dish calls for chorizo, but we tweaked the spice profile to complement the flavors of the substitute sausage.  The addition of roasted red peppers and black beans (chili sacrilege, we know), completed the transformation.

…Remember those problems we mentioned?

As it turns out, we probably shouldn’t have used this contest as our first attempt at sausage-making.  Pork back fat, which Ruhlman calls for in his merguez recipe, is not the same as pork fatback, which we found packaged and sold salted and skin-on in the grocery store.  Needless to say, this was not an ingredient that fed easily (or at all) through our KitchenAid’s sausage-making attachment.  Our dreams of “Chili with Lamb Two Ways” were ground up while the sausage components remained untouched.

Thankfully, we had already planned to incorporate the spices from the merguez into our chili, so we were able to pick out the pork fat and use the cut-up lamb – we couldn’t stand the thought of letting it go to waste!  We made an emergency grocery run for Mexican-style chorizo from local producer Logan’s Sausages and got to work on a re-revised version of our chili.

This is where we make you drool with a description of the lamb.  The leg we received from Border Springs was beautiful – lots of deep purple-red muscle with some creamy white fat around the exterior.  We’ve worked with our share of inferior lamb in the past, fighting our way past large pockets of hard, nasty fat and silverskin.  In this case, we had to do almost no work to get it ready for cooking.

We began by rendering some of the fat from the chorizo and then cooking onions, garlic, cumin, smoked paprika, oregano and red pepper flakes in that oil to get the ball rolling.  To that delicious combination we added the chorizo and a chili paste made from chicken stock and chipotle peppers in adobo.  We turned the heat up to high and added the black beans (which we had soaked overnight) and the cubed lamb.

At this point we turned down the heat and let the whole mixture simmer for an hour.  The beans softened up nicely and the lamb took on that firm tender feeling that we always love.  We rinsed golden hominy and added it to the pot with some more roasted red peppers, and we let things cook for 15 more minutes.  That’s when we turned the heat off altogether and let the chili rest for about 5 minutes (we couldn’t stand to wait any longer).

The chili was wonderful all by itself – the lamb picked up the cumin and the paprika while still retaining its own assertive flavor.  Taken together, this gave what could have been a one-note dish a complex, Middle Eastern accent.  But this is a contest, so we wanted to make sure we made it more camera-ready.  We garnished the dish with shredded cheese, sour cream and cilantro.  It may not have been the duo of lamb we originally envisioned, but the final result was a testament to the quality and versatility of the lamb.

Capital Spicy Lamb Chili

1 lb merguez sausage (or Mexican chorizo in a pinch) removed from casings, if any
1 red onion, diced
10 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
5 chipotle chiles in adobo (roughly 1 small can)
2 cups chicken stock
1 pound dried black beans, soaked overnight and drained
4 pounds lamb (preferably leg or shoulder), cut into 1” cubes
2 cans hominy (golden or white), rinsed
1 red pepper, roasted and peeled

Garnishes to taste: sour cream, shredded cheese, diced raw onion, cilantro

  1. In a small saucepan, cook chipotle chiles in chicken stock for 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow to cool, then pulse mixture in a blender until thoroughly combined.
  2. Sautee the sausage in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat for 10 minutes or until it gives up a slick of oil
  3. Remove sausage from pot and set aside.  Add onions, garlic, cumin, paprika and red pepper flakes and cook for 5 minutes or until onions soften.
  4. Return chorizo to pot and add chipotle-chicken stock paste.  Cook for 5 minutes.
  5. Add cubed lamb and black beans.  Bring mixture to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer.
  6. Simmer covered for one hour.
  7. Taste beans and lamb.  If cooked to taste, add hominy and diced roasted red pepper.  Simmer uncovered for an additional 15 minutes.
  8. Remove from heat and allow to rest for five minutes.
  9. Serve with garnish of your choice.

As we mentioned at the top, this post is our entry into the Lamb Pro-Am bloggers’ challenge.  When voting opens up, we’ll be sure to provide you with a link.  Take a look at all of the competitors, and then we’d love it if you could help us make it into the finals by voting for your favorite!

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When I got back to my office with the beef for this month’s Charcutepalooza challenge, several of my coworkers lit up with big smiles.  You see, I work with a decent number of Texans, and brisket is the meat of choice in traditional Texas barbecue.  They envisioned a succulent, peppery masterpiece bathed in post oak smoke overnight.  You can imagine the way their faces fell when they learned that the brisket would be bathed in salty, seasoned water instead.

“You’re going to do what with a perfectly good brisket?” was the question.

I could have seen it coming.  I should have seen it coming.  Of course March’s challenge would be corned beef…St. Patrick’s Day is one of the few holidays that is actively associated with a specific dish and it just so happens to be cured meat.

There’s just one problem.  We’re not exactly fans of boiled dinners, stews or braises that involve cooking meat until it loses all trace of its muscular past here at Capital Spice.  Add steamed cabbage and overcooked potatoes and you’ve lost us completely.  So what’s an aspiring charcutiere to do?

I could have fallen back on the Apprentice Challenge, brining a chicken or some pork chops, but it would have felt like a cop-out.  We’ve been singing the praises of brining for years now, and we know from experience the transformative effect it can have on roasted chicken.  We’ve even brined a turkey for our Fakesgiving dinner.

I knew I had to go for the Charcutiere Challenge this time around.  I wanted to anyway, as I’m eager to embrace Charcutepalooza as fully as possible and I’d like to think I’m ready for the varsity team when it comes to curing.  That’s why Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s introductory post was such a lifesaver.

In her description of her get-together with friends, she describes what might be one of the best party games ever: a head-to-head competition between a classic Reuben sandwich and a Baltimore special known as the Cloak and Dagger.  That’s when it clicked for me: I didn’t have to serve my corned beef hot as part of an Irish meal, I could slice it thinly and serve it deli-style.  I could even use the opportunity to introduce our friends to a largely unknown New Jersey treat.

Go ahead and make your jokes about what that might be, then rejoin the group for the process and the results after the jump. (more…)

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Some things are just meant to be.  The stars line up, you find yourself in the right place at the right time, and you’re handed something you didn’t even know you were looking for.  It can be a job opportunity, or a romantic connection, or something even deeper than those.

For us, it was bacon.

On January 26th, Mike read Bonnie Benwick’s profile of Mrs. Wheelbarrow and the Yummy Mummy’s tandem charcuterial endeavor and everything just fell into place.  We were just gearing up to start another one of our Cookbook Challenges – an attempt to winnow our ever-growing collection of cookbooks by attempting a new recipe from each one to make sure we still found the books helpful.  In fact, one of the first books Elizabeth reached for was Mike’s copy of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s “Charcuterie: the Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing.”  Although he had received it a little over a year earlier, he had yet to attempt any feats of cured meat.

Enter “Charcutepalooza.”  The article made it sound tasty and fun all at the same time, and anyone who has read at least a few of our posts knows our love of all things brined, cured or smoked.  So we reached out to Mrs. Wheelbarrow through her website and decided to throw ourselves into the challenge along with the hundreds of other bloggers who have signed on.  A contest with some killer prizes has no doubt piqued the interest of some, but most seem genuinely motivated by the spirit that inspired the ladies to begin with.

The process seemed easy enough.  Each month a new pair of challenges is announced, with one for novices and one for those seeking a more intense assignment.  We all agree to work on the challenges ourselves and blog about our results on the 15th of each month.  We’ll continue like this throughout 2011, having cooked our way through a dozen recipes (more if you try both challenges in any given month) by the time we’re through.

So why am I up at 11:30 on a Monday night (Valentine’s Day, no less) waiting for my homemade bacon to reach an internal 150 degrees Fahrenheit?  My delicious, unintentional procrastination after the jump. (more…)

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