Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Interactive Dinner

Last weekend we had a wonderful interactive dinner with Brilliant Daughter and her newlywed friends Jen and Jason Ko. Jen recently began working for a food-related website that is in beta testing and she and Jason loooooove food: eating, cooking, writing and reading about it. So instead of just serving something to them, I thought it would be fun to include them in the process. And, to be honest, it takes the load off me a bit! On the menu:

Rack of Lamb
Pea Risotto
Tarte Tatin

Alexandria requested the rack of lamb. I made it earlier this year and it was one of the best things I had ever made and deceptively simple. I had looked up recipes and modified them to suit my taste. Problem is, I didn’t write anything down. Stupid, stupid, stupid. In trying to recreate it, I searched all my cookbooks, several sites on the web, and no luck, whatsoever. So I guessed. As for the risotto, I just wanted something other than potatoes and risotto keeps you in the kitchen stirring, which would work for purposes, and it included a vegetable, which was a bonus. And because I had an abundance of apples, I decided to use the tarte tatine recipe from my book, The World Is a Kitchen.

I started by setting the table, printing out the recipes and setting up food stations in the kitchen with all the ingredients and tools we would need. I prepped the salad fixins and left them in the fridge. Then Butcher Son came home on his break and frenched out 3 racks of lamb for me (see photo at right). Although the lamb said it was already frenched, in a proper butcher shop, extra steps are taken to prepare it in this style, which removes additional fat and membranes on and around the bones (see the “before” and “after” photo, along with the final product below).
Once everyone arrived and we had a proper chat, we headed to the kitchen to start with the first step of the apple tart. Jen peeled, Jason cut, I made the caramel, Alex watched. Once done, it went off to the oven, coming out thirty-five minutes later begging for its puff pastry crust. But patience is a virtue, and the apples would have to wait, as we had risotto and lamb to prepare.

For the lamb, I bought one rack for every two people. Earlier in the day I had made a Meyer lemon salt, with zest and coarse sea salt and stirred it every so often to infuse the lemon flavor into the salt. I rubbed this on both sides of the lamb and browned the racks in olive oil for about 3-4 minutes a side. Then we smeared them with orange marmalade. (Last time we used homemade lemon marmalade, but I am all out and my lemons are not quite ready yet.) Then they were popped into a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes (for rare). Meanwhile Jason began the risotto, recipe below:

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 cups Arborio rice
¾ cup dry white wine
About 5 1/2 cups chicken broth
8 ounces shelled fresh peas (about 1 lb. in shell), or 1 1/2 cups frozen peas
1 cup shredded parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper

Begin by heating the broth over medium heat in a large saucepan. Heat olive oil in large pot over medium-high heat and add shallots when hot. Stir until limp, about 5 minutes. Add rice and stir until opaque, about 3 minutes. Add wine and stir until absorbed, about 2-4 minutes. Add one ladleful of broth at a time to the risotto, stirring after each addition. Once absorbed, add the next ladleful, and continue until rice is done, about 25-20 minutes total. If using frozen peas, add these with the last ladleful of broth. If using fresh peas, add half-way through the process. When done, stir in the cheese and add salt and pepper to taste.

To be honest, we added a bit more cheese than it called for, emptying out the last of the bag. It tasted fine, but really stuck together with the melted cheese. I think it best to limit the cheese to the one cup and put additional cheese on the table.

We finished preparing the apple tart, by topping it with prepared puff pastry (we bought the frozen kind at Trader Joes) and popped it in the oven once the lamb came out. The complete recipe is as follows:

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
6 apples, such as Golden Delicious or Gravenstein, peeled, cored and quartered
1 pound puff pastry
Crème fraîche or vanilla ice cream, optional

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Melt half the butter in a 9-inch frying pan, preferably cast-iron, set over high heat. When the butter is melted, use a wooden spoon to stir in the sugar; continue stirring until the mixture takes on a golden color, like light caramel. Remove from the heat and let cool for 1 to 2 minutes. Arrange the apple slices in concentric circles, working from the inside of the pan outward. If any apple slices are left over, scatter them over the first layer. Cut the remaining butter into small cubes and scatter the cubes over the apples. Bake for 35 minutes, remove from the oven, and let cool. Cut a circle of puff pastry that is one-inch wider than the frying pan and about 1/4-inch thick. Fit it over the cooled apples, tucking the edges inside the rim of the pan. Bake for 35 minutes more, or until the pastry is flaky and golden brown. To serve, put a large flat serving plate on top of the pan and carefully invert everything, so that the tart drops from the pan onto the plate. If any apples stick to the pan, carefully remove them and tuck them into their proper places.

The lamb came out of the oven nicely browned and a bit shiny and smelling divine. It was all we could do not to pick at bits of it while it rested. Perfectly done, it cut easily into individual chops for serving. The risotto was poured into the large tureen and topped with pea shoots and it was off to the table with a salad to dig in. But of course not before standing on a chair and taking a final picture of the joint effort, which was devoured in no time, with very little conversation, leading me to believe that it was enjoyed by all.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Missouri: The Show Me State

WARNING: There are some rather graphic photos in today’s post, so if you are at all squeamish, I suggest you pass up reading this.

I’ve never been to Missouri before, but this past week I took my first trip. The trip coincided with the opening of deer season, which I wouldn’t have thought too much of, except my nephew Seth was taking his 13-year-old niece Naomi on her first deer hunt. They bought the camo gear, the orange vest, the Scent Off. They had already been through firearms safety class and had obtained their hunting permits. And off they went. Unfortunately, they did not have much luck. A buck did cross their path and Seth, being the good uncle he is, let Naomi take a shot. She missed. I was rather saddened that they came back home empty-handed. While my father and godfather were both hunters, I had never gone with either of them, never seen a deer gutted and skinned or a bird defeathered. Born and bred a city (or suburban) girl, these things were foreign to me. Yes, I have gathered eggs and had my own garden, but that is a far cry from raising your own cow or pig to fill the freezer or hunting your dinner and preparing it from scratch.

Fortunately, Seth went back out with his brother Jessie and they did have some luck. (They don’t have to go far, in fact they hunt on their own property in rural Neosho.) So Uncle Phil was called to help dress the deer and a half hour later Mr. B and I moseyed on over to Jessie and Angie’s house next door and experienced firsthand why Missouri is called the Show Me State. (I don’t think Mr. B was too thrilled to go, but he humored me.) The first photo here is of Jessie and Uncle Phil with the kill in the back of Jessie’s truck.

I was a bit disappointed that I got over there a bit too late and missed the initial gutting, but they kept out the wheelbarrow with the innards for me to see. Starting with the deer on the bed of the truck, Uncle Phil and Jessie had opened up the deer and taken out the internal organs, carefully removing the bladder (or as Naomi so delicately put it, the pee sac), so as not to spoil the meat and stink up the joint. I am ashamed to say that I had not brought my camera with me to Missouri, so had to borrow one to take these pictures. Because it was nighttime and there was little but the garage light, the little digital camera took photos that turned out rather dark. (In all fairness, I was in a hurry to take pictures and did not acquaint myself with the camera, which possibly could have been set to take better photos.) Brilliant Daughter came to my rescue and was able to enlighten me on the finer points of lighting levels in Photoshop Elements so all that picture taking wasn’t all for naught.

Once the insides had been removed, Phil skinned the back legs to make the deer ready to hang. There is a very simple hanger-like contraption that got hung up by a rope from the rafters of the garage. The deer gets hung on this, with the space between the two lower leg bones serving as the contact point for the hanger ends. This took some fancy maneuvering with Phil’s friend Okie (yes, that is his real nickname and what everyone called him) having to climb up Phil to reach the rafters and then had to hang himself upside down to do all the knots. I was so intrigued by the process that I forgot to take pictures. (Apparently a ladder would have made this step simple, but one was not available at the time.)

Once the deer was hung, the skinning process began. Right about now you are wondering why I am even doing this, right? Well, I do think that we take for granted how we get our food. We can be so far removed from the process that many people forget that the filet mignon wrapped in bacon that they had for dinner last night was once a cow and a pig, alive and well on some farm in the Midwest. I have always had a small suburban garden and used to get a lot of food from my godfather’s garden. I go to the farmer’s market, and even know farmers, and I even try to eat locally when possible, but this is another step in understanding the process. And it is, most certainly, a foodie thing to do. So the skin is slowly worked off the deer (picture #2). Down and down they go until they get to the head of the deer. Once the whole pelt is peeled down that far, it’s time to remove the head. Uncle Phil teased Naomi about the sound it makes, right before he did it. (Not near as bad you might think.)

Once the pelt and head are removed, Phil went about trimming off any unnecessary membranes, etc. (Picture #3). He also found that the bullet had done some damage to one part of the deer, and had to remove that portion, as well as the bullet. There was some discussion on the best ammunition to use to kill a deer. Phil prefers something a bit smaller than what Jessie used and showed me the two so I could see the size difference. In fact everyone was very kind to the city girl asking stupid questions, taking flash photos, and generally just gawking at the proceedings.

Once Phil was done, he and Jessie cut off two tenderloins and another tender piece of meat (Pictured #4) to go into the fridge. The rest of the carcass will hang for a few days in the cool garage letting the blood drain out. Then Jessie will finish cutting it up for the freezer. We actually got to have a portion of it for dinner the next night and it was good eating.

All in all it was a very interesting experience. The odor was not particularly bad or pungent. The process was actually pretty quick, maybe an hour all together. It wasn’t terribly bloody or horrendous and it made me appreciate more where my food comes from. I won’t be taking up hunting anytime soon, but if I were stuck out in the wilderness and had to do this, at least I wouldn’t be a total idiot and would have a visual knowledge of what needed to be done. Let’s just hope that doesn’t happen…..

A big thanks to Jessie, Angie, Cody, Naomi, Levi, Seth, Phil and Okie for their hospitality and friendliness. Hope to do it again sometime!