Improv Dinner I
December 23, 2011
It didn’t start out this way.
Adam and Zev wanted to have a cooking double-date with me and Carolyn. I would, based on their prompting, come up with a couple of recipes based on their suggestions, and then we’d all hang out in the kitchen and cook together. We’d judge whether or not I’d done an accurate job sketching their relationship in recipe format, Z and A would take the recipe home with them, and we’d all learn something about each other. Hooray.
Zev and I had a better idea.
When I asked him to think up a suggestion for me, he couldn’t summon up anything on the spot, so he impulsively challenged me thusly:
“So, I should just say ‘we have these five ingredients’ and you go all Lynne Rosetto Kasper on us?”
I said, “… A Stump-The-David Challenge sounds awesome. Let’s do it!”
“I accept,” he said. “Prepare to die!”
He did not say that last part.
For the uninitiated, Lynne Rosetto-Kasper has a fantastic PRI food show called The Splendid Table, and one of her occasional segments is called the Stump The Cook Challenge – a listener calls in with five ingredients, and Lynne has to theorize a meal that could be made from them – she gets to pick three other ingredients that the caller has lying around her kitchen; water, salt, pepper, and oil she gets for free. Usually Cook’s Illustrated host Christopher Kimball serves as Celebrity Stumpmaster, to help judge the proceedings.
Well, Zev and Adam were going to be the Stumpmasters, and I was to be Lynne. They gave me 24 hours’ notice of what they were bringing, and I was allowed to incorporate a few more ingredients into the mix – spices were free, but I couldn’t 1) use too many extra ingredients or 2) try to hide the ingredients that Adam and Zev brought. I’d also have to use 3) three kitchen gadgets in the course of making the meal – something I’m not particularly used to doing. I’m not really a gadget person; that’s more Carolyn’s territory, with her collection of culinary Happy Meal toys that include the Garlic Zoom and the Vegetable Chop (which seems innocuous enough, but watch the video – it’s like watching the Slap Chop’s violent stepdad.)
So what did they bring me?
From left to right we have:
1. A 12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries
2. 2 pounds of boneless beef ribs
3. 1 pound of young turnips
4. 3 bars of dark chocolate
5. A 2-pound sack of Tater Tots.
“Um,” I said, “Do I have to use all of the chocolate?”
“No,” said Adam. “Just use enough of it.”
“And whatever Tots you don’t cook, we get to take back,” Zev said, a trifle unnecessarily. I’m not so crazy ‘bout Tater Tots.
BUT! In the interest of friendship and SCIENCE, I was willing to try my level best to make a meal for my friends that they would not only 1) enjoy but 2) be willing to recreate!
I had a plan. It was time to put it into action.
I decided to make a salad, braise the beef with the chocolate, mash the turnips with potatoes, and make the cranberries into a gastrique sauce. The tots? I’d… I’d figure something out with the tots. With the help of my faithful assistants David and Carolyn, I knew we’d kick some ass.
Boeuf braisé à la Cincinatienne
Braised beef in the Cincinnati Style – serves 4 to 6
I knew that, if I had beef and chocolate, I was probably going to have to return to the conceit of a Cincy-style chili (which, if you recall, contains chocolate, chili powder, and other non-traditional chili spices like clove, cinnamon, and allspice), because I’d be damned if I was attempting a mole. Those things take forever, and I just didn’t have the time – Adam was picking up the ingredients from the apartment on his way back from work, so I was going to have to start cooking the meal around 6. I wanted to get it on the table by 8:30 at the latest, so I figured I’d start with the thing that took the longest – the beef.
You will need:
- 2 lbs beef ribs
- 1 8-oz can tomato sauce
- 30 g/ 1 oz dark chocolate
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tsp David’s Homemade Weaponsgrade Chili Powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/.2 tsp clove
- 1/2 tsp allspice
1. Set your oven for 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Pat the beef ribs dry with paper towels, and sear them in a 6-quart dutch oven over high heat (with a touch of canola oil), two to three minutes a side.
2. You certainly don’t need to do this, but at this stage I used a Microplane (Gadget #1) to grate the chocolate. Again, this is unnecessary – you can simply break up the chocolate and throw it in; it’ll all melt and incorporate anyhow. Chop the garlic finely, and measure out the spices.
3. When the beef ribs are browned on each side, throw in the garlic and cook, stirring briskly, for a minute or so. Then add the tomato sauce, the spices, the chocolate, the salt, and the water. Mix this all together, and heat until bubbly – then take it off the stove, and put it in the oven for as long as you can stand to, adding water, if necessary, every hour or so, for a minimum of two hours. You cannot overcook these ribs – not at this temperature – but somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 to 4 hours is probably ideal. I wanted them to stay together and not flake when cut, so I hewed closer to the 2 hour mark. When finished, they’ll look something like this:
I’d never made a gastrique before. But I knew that I wanted to use the cranberries to bridge the gap between savory and sweet, so it wouldn’t be so impossible. I hoped. A gastrique is basically a caramel sauce with vinegar in it, which may sound horrific to some of you – it is, however, delicious – tart without being painful, and sweet without being cloying.
You will need:
- 12 oz cranberries, washed
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1 cup port
1. Place the cranberries in a small saucepan with enough water to cover them. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, put the lid on, and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the cranberries are soft.
2. With a potato masher (or a stick blender! [Gadget #2]), squash the berries into as fine or as thick a pulp as you desire.
3. In a non-stick skillet, combine the sugar and the water, and mix, over medium heat, with a heat-proof spatula. Stir briskly and cook until the mixture thickens and just begins to turn tan around the edges.
4. Turn off the heat, add about a quarter-cup to a half-cup of cranberry pulp, and incorporate. Turn the heat back on, and add the vinegar; stir and reduce over medium heat until thick again.
5. Turn the heat off again, add the port, and resume cooking until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of your spatula, but not so thick that it can’t be poured (add more water if that happens, or more cranberry pulp).
6. High five! You made a gastrique! Place in a ramekin and put that ramekin on a plate because this stuff is sticky and you don’t want it to get all over your nice tablecloth.
Neeps and Tatties
Mashed turnips and potatoes
I swear to God that’s what they call it in Scotland
Turnips have a powerful, radishy taste that I wanted to temper with potatoes. I think 1:2 is a good ratio for that. Baby turnips don’t need to be peeled, but big old turnips do, so keep that in mind. You’ll also want to cut the turnips smaller than the potatoes, because the turnips will cook more slowly and you want to get them to finish boiling at the same time.
- 2 lbs potatoes
- 1 lb turnips
- 1 cup milk
- 4 tb butter
- 1 tb sour cream
1. Cut the turnips into 1/2-inch pieces, and the potatoes into 1-inch pieces. Tumble them into a big pot and cover with water – add some salt to the water, or the mash will taste fairly bland, and you’ll have to compensate with way more butter than you’d otherwise want to.
2. Bring to a boil on the stovetop and cook until the roots are tender, about half an hour.
3. Drain the veg, return the pot to low heat and mash with a potato masher (I think they counted that as Gadget #3), then add in the milk, the butter, and the sour cream, as well as additional salt to taste. Add more sour cream if you think it hasn’t got enough tang to it.
I decided to make something approximating a salade lyonnaise, which means frisée lettuce, little sticks of bacon called lardons, and a poached egg. I also decided to put in fresh croutons and a bacon dressing, because why not? I used Alton Brown’s bacon vinaigrette recipe, because, even if I don’t like him that much anymore, he still knows his stuff.
- 4 ounces of bacon, preferably thick-cut or slab (ideally homemade. But let’s be real here)
- Half a baguette, cut into cubes
- half a head of frisée lettuce
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup cider vinegar
- 2 tb bacon fat
- 1 tb brown sugar
- 1 tb mustard
- one egg per person
1. Cut the bacon into small, thin sticks, and slowly crisp them in a pan. Reserve some of the fat. In fact, reserve it all, but put aside 2 tablespoons specifically.
2. In another pan, crisp the cubes of bread in olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Set them aside.
3. Wash and dry the frisée.
4. Whisk together the 2 tablespoons of bacon fat with the olive oil, the cider vinegar, the mustard, and the sugar, and toss the frisée with it just before you’re ready to serve.
5. In the pan that held the bacon, fry the eggs, one at a time, until their whites are set but their yolks are warmed-through but runny, about a minute and a half. Plop the egg atop a pile of dressed frisée, sprinkle with bacon lardons and croutons, and serve!
Plating the finished meal
I decided to start off each plate with a mound of neeps and tatties – I made an indentation in the center of each mound with my ladle, and plopped in a single beef rib, with the gravy-like sauce surrounding it, along with a drizzling of gastrique.
“What about the tots?” said Carolyn.
"Crap,” I said, and pulled them out of the oven.
Hold on, that needs more gastrique.
Everything was well-received – we washed it down with a few half-bottles of remarkably bad wine (I don’t know where they came from. They were ancient and corky and I think someone snuck them into my wine rack during a pizza party), poured the rest of the wine down the sink, and enjoyed ourselves despite it. I happen to know that Zev is waiting for this entry so he can snatch up the ribs recipe (which, I suppose, for simplicity’s sake I ought to just call Cincy Ribs) – but I’m pretty sure I didn’t win the Stump the Cook contest. A and Z were generous in judging me a success, but I think I failed on a tot-related technicality. I could not, for the life of me, think of something fun to do with the tater tots – later, my dad gave me this idea:
“What if you put them in a muffin tin?” he said.
“Let them come to room temperature, smash them flat, and make them into a tater tot bowl in the muffin tin, and bake them that way.”
So, I could have done that, and it would have been kind of fun! Potatoes within potatoes, cogs within cogs – a cup of Tot full of turnips and beef. Oh well.
Next time. Because you can bet your ass I’m doing this again. Adam said that turnabout was fair play, though – Carolyn and I could come up with a list of five ingredients for him and Z to use, the next time we’re over for dinner. What should I choose? What kind of mood am I in? Am I a good friend, or am I a conniving bastard? (Am I both?)
You decide. I look forward to your suggestions.
Have a marvelous holiday season, everyone. I think I completed my last New Year’s resolution from 2011 just a few weeks ago, when I finally figured out how to pleat guotie (potstickers!), by reading and rereading my new favorite Chinese regional cookbook, Feeding the Dragon – it’s a travelogue by a pair of globe-trotting siblings, Nate and Mary-Kate Tate. Their writing is solid, and their recipes are reputable and easily reproduced – and what else can you ask from a cookbook? They tell a great yarn, and I got a good sense for the incredible breadth of Chinese cookery.
Which gives me just enough time to start thinking about what my 2012 New Year’s resolutions are going to be. I’ve been preempted – topping the list will have to be learning how to butcher a squid, thanks to the spunky and marvelous Susan of SusanEatsLondon; I mentioned in a comment on her Malaysian Squid Curry recipe that I’d love to know how to do it, and lord, did she deliver! This entry is, perhaps, not for the squeamish, but if you’re a Fearless Midwestern Cook like me (*beams*), you’ll want to dive right into that squishy, baleful-looking cephalopod, and rip it apart with your bare hands, to remove, as Susan accurately puts it, “the squoogy bits.” Happy Hanukkah, Susan! Merry Christmas, folks!
Probably I won’t see you until the New Year. Until then, remember, SQUID. I’m doing something with it.
Happy cooking. Stay warm.