Beef Short RibsAt last we come to the piece de resistance of our three-recipe meal, Tom Colicchio’s braised short ribs from Think Like a ChefOf all the dishes I attempted during the June Cookbook Challenge, this is perhaps the one of which I am most proud.  I really feel like this was a high-quality dish that I executed properly from beginning to end.

As Elizabeth has noted from time to time, I’ve got something of a man-crush on Tom Colicchio.  And although it predates our picking up a copy of his cookbook, every recipe we’ve tried from this book has only served to reinforce that feeling.  This was no exception.

We picked up a small package of beef short ribs some months ago at one of the local farmers’ markets, and they had been tucked away in the freezer until we started attacking our stockpile in earnest for the Challenge.  As soon as I saw them, I knew I wanted to braise them using this recipe.  Although the recipe’s quantities are based on using four short ribs, I figured we’d have just as much luck with the two we had.

Step by step instructions and more photos after the jump. (more…)

Zucchini SaladFor the second dish in our trilogy today, we took on a recipe from Dr. Philip Tirman’s The Wine and Food Lover’s Diet. This is a cookbook that we picked up because the concepts behind it really mesh well with our belief in the value of ‘whole foods’ – foods that start out as close to their natural state as possible before we prepare them. 

Whenever we feel like we’ve been overindulging, we try to spend a week eating things like roasted chicken, salads, and other dishes that celebrate the quality of the ingredients instead of the chef’s skills.  In doing so, we also cut out things like breads, pastas, and processed products.  At the end of a week, we always find ourselves revived and feeling healthier once again.

With the mint and pea risotto as the other side, we felt like we should definitely go with something fresh and light.  This warm zucchini salad hit all the right notes.

We started out by toasting two tablespoons of pine nuts in our toaster oven (we find this much easier than doing it in a skillet on the stove).  Once they were nice and toasty, we set these garnishes-to-be off to the side.  We then proceeded to chiffonade ten large basil leaves, rolling them up and then cutting them crosswise into thin strips.  They got set aside, as well.

IMG_8214And then we got to break out one of my favorite kitchen gadgets – the mandoline slicer.  We cut the tops and bottoms off of two medium zucchini and then proceeded to run them lengthwise along the slicer, basically shaving off thin strips of zucchini with every slice.  When we were finished, we had a large pile of zucchini strips that the good doctor describes as ‘resembling wide noodles.’  We put these aside, too, but only temporarily.

In a wok (we had quite a few pans going at this time and were out of appropriately-sized options), we warmed one tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat and then added one finely chopped shallot.  We let that cook for two minutes before adding one small bell pepper, which we had seeded and cut into a fine dice.  Those pieces cooked for an additional two minutes before we grabbed up all of those zucchini slices and added them to the mix.  They got another two minutes on the heat as we stirred everything around gently. 

IMG_8215We skipped the tablespoon of butter that the recipe called for at this point, moving straight to the one and a half teaspoons of Dijon mustard that got added to the vegetables and stirred in until it had coated everything.  At that point we added in about a half a pint of cherry tomatoes, which we cut into halves before adding them to the wok for a brief (1-2 minutes) heating.  Some salt and pepper, and the warm zucchini portion of the salad was good to go.

From there it was just a matter of plating some salad greens and arranging the cooked vegetables on top.  The basil strips and pine nuts got sprinkled over the top of everything, and we chose to forego the freshly grated Parmesan cheese that the recipe calls for in light of everything else we had happening on our plates.

The salad was great – it still had all those garden-fresh flavors from the vegetables, but the cooking added some depth and made this more than just a salad.  It held its own against the richness of the risotto and the bold, meaty flavor of the slow-braised short ribs that will be our third and final recipe of the day.

Three RecipesWe’re into the home stretch with our June Cookbook Challenge write-ups, but we’ve saved some of the best for last.  Today, we’re going to be sharing with you three dishes that combined to make one of the most enjoyable meals we’ve had at home in recent memory.

Part of the appeal came from the fact that we were cooking up recipes from three of our most-often used resources, so we were comfortable with their approach and generally confident in the outcomes.  Another part came from the fact that we were able to once again find recipes whose primary ingredients we already had on hand.  But the most important part was the simplest: all three dishes were absolutely delicious.

Over the course of the day, we’ll be putting up the three recipes that made up the meal you see at the beginning of this post.  First up: a mint and pea risotto from Risotto, another cookbook from Parragon Publishing’s ‘Essentials Collection.’

Details and more photos after the jump. (more…)

Cornbread 082The third and final recipe in our wok-cooking trilogy comes from a paperback titled The Classic 1000 Chinese Recipes.  Though it certainly delivers on the quantity, we found ourselves frustrated as we read through recipes in the hopes of finding one we wanted to make for the June Cookbook Challenge.  The reason: this cookbook is long on recipes, but short on directions.

Because we still had half of the crab on hand that we had purchased for the spicy pork meatballs, we decided to see what Classic 1000 had that used crab.  As luck would have it, there were plenty of choices.  We opted for a Chinese take on that Chesapeake favorite, the crab cake, eager to see how it would differ from local favorites (like the ones at Chris’s Marketplace).

Right away, the ingredient list suggested that we were heading into very different territory.  Even though these things were described as crab cakes, there were four ingredients listed before crab.  More disturbing?  The recipe called for as many bean sprouts (8 ounces’ worth) as crab.  This would be an adventure.

Chinese Crab CakesWe heated two tablespoons peanut oil in a wok and then stir-fried eight ounces of bean sprouts, four ounces of bamboo shoots (we used canned shoots from Harris Teeter), and one chopped onion until they had softened.  Once everything was soft we pulled it from the wok and mixed it with eight ounces of crab meat, four lightly beaten eggs, one tablespoon cornstarch, and two tablespoons of soy sauce.

Heating two more tablespoons of peanut oil in a cleaned-out wok, we started cooking handfuls of the mixed ingredients that we had shaped into small cakes.  Each one fried about two to three minutes on a side, after which we would flip it so it could brown on the other side.  We blotted them on a paper towel and then served them hot.

Crab Cakes in WokWere they anything like the crab cakes we enjoy here in DC?  Not really.  Though they weren’t heavy or bready the way a crabcake that’s heavy on filler would be, they still had only a taste of crab that shared the stage with the bamboo shoots (a refreshing taste) and the bean sprouts (earthy).  We didn’t dislike them – we actually kinda liked them, really – but we’d have some serious explaining to do if we tried to serve them to friends as crabcakes.

Sadly, I don’t think the Classic 1000 will have much opportunity to redeem itself.  Too often we’d find ourselves scratching our heads as a recipe failed to include cooking times, temperatures, or other key bits of information.  With the internet at our disposal (usually), there’s no reason to keep this confusing collection on the shelf.

Orange Beef Stir Fry on CabbageFor our second foray into wok cooking during the June Cookbook Challenge, we turned to Greatest Ever Wok & Stir-Fry, a thick little book full of “easy and delicious step-by-step recipes.”  Thank goodness they go step-by-step!  Don’t you just hate cookbooks with stream-of-consciousness recipes?

Once again hoping for inspiration to strike as we were searching for a recipe from this book, we found ourselves referring to our list of meats on hand.  And wouldn’t you know it?  Almost as if by magic we came to the entry for “stir-fried lamb with orange” almost simultaneously to reading off “one pound ground lamb” from our freezer’s contents.  It was a happy coincidence and we decided to run with it.

I don’t know that we had ever even thought about stir-frying lamb before we came across this recipe.  Now we’re definitely converts, at least where ground lamb is involved.  The relatively lean meat is well suited to wok cooking because it doesn’t release as much greasy fat as ground beef.  As a result, you’re able to work with the sauces and liquids you choose to add to the wok, without worrying about diluting them too badly.

IMG_8292To start, this recipe had us pre-heat a dry wok over medium heat, then add in 1 pound ground lamb.  We dry-fried the lamb for about 5 minutes until the meat was mostly browned (but not cooked through).  We didn’t end up with much excess fat to drain off, but the directions warned us to do so if we needed to.

At that point, we threw in two minced garlic cloves, ½ teaspoon ground cumin, 1 teaspoon ground coriander, and one sliced red onion, cooking them in the wok with the ground lamb for another 4 or 5 minutes.  Then we added the grated peel and squeezed juice of one orange and two tablespoons of soy sauce, mixing them in until they were thoroughly combined.

We reduced the heat and covered the wok, letting the contents simmer for 12 minutes.  After this, it was a quick 3 minutes over higher heat as we added in the segments of a second orange and some salt and pepper.  We served the dish garnished with some snipped fresh chives and served it over some leaves of Napa cabbage which we also used like lettuce wraps.

Orange BeefThe lamb was great – meaty and spicy, tender and juicy.  The sweet acid from the orange was a welcome contrast, and the sliced red onions had steamed to the point that they were meltingly soft.  We could have done with a bit more heat in the final dish, but that’s a personal taste that is easily accounted for in future versions – of which there are likely to be plenty.

As for that hyperbolic title?  Well we were definitely impressed by the sheer volume of dishes they compiled…but we’ll leave it to those who’ve studied the field a bit more closely to make the call.  But “greatest ever” is pretty much the equivalent of the nuclear option; it doesn’t leave much room for anyone else to claim superiority, so if you’re going to call yourself the “greatest ever” of something you’d better be bringing it.  If many of the other dishes in this collection rise to the level of our stir-fried lamb, I’d say this book is at least in contention.

Pork and Crab MeatballsAs we worked our way through our collection of cookbooks, we learned that we’ve got a couple of books specifically focused on the art of the stir-fry.  Throwbacks to our earlier, less confident cooking days, they provided us with recipes whose greatest challenges were making sure that we added the right ingredients in the right order.  Although the meals were usually satisfying, we’ve drifted away from these books as we’ve expanded our horizons.

But our Joyce Chen non-stick wok has stuck with us, and we knew it would be seeing some use during the course of the June Cookbook Challenge.  Today we’ll be sharing three recipes that reminded us why we were such big fans of wok cooking to begin with.

 The first comes from a no-frills volume called, appropriate enough, Stir Frys.  It boasts “over 60 simple recipes for great home cooking!”  But we wanted to stretch ourselves…even when it came to stir-fry cooking.  So we flipped through the recipes until we came across an entry for “Spicy Pork Meatballs.”  We knew we had some ground pork from Cedarbrook Farms in the freezer, and we were intrigued by the second ingredient in the recipe: 6 ounces white crab meat.  We had found our winner.

 Meatball ArmyTo start, we combined 8 ounces ground pork with 6 ounces drained (squeezed) crab meat in a large bowl.  We grated a 2-inch piece of peeled ginger, crushed 2 garlic cloves, seeded and chopped 2 red chiles, and roughly chopped 2 handfuls of cilantro leaves.  Then we added half of each to the crab and pork mixture with 2 tablespoons of soy sauce.

 After all of these ingredients had been thoroughly combined, we formed the mixture into small round meatballs – the recipe suggested we might get about 24 out of the mixture, but we were a bit more generous with ours and ended up with only 17.  We coated the meatballs in ¼ cup cornstarch to prepare them for frying.

Using ¾ cup peanut oil, which we heated in the wok until it was hot but not smoking, we fried the meatballs in four batches, turning them occasionally over the course of 3 or 4 minutes.  When they looked golden brown in most places we removed them with a wire scoop and set them on a cooling rack covered with paper towels to drain.

FrytimeWhen all the meatballs were finished, we poured out the oil in the wok, wiped it down, and returned ALL of the meatballs to the wok at once.  We added the remaining ginger, garlic, and chiles and added 3 cups hot chicken stock and 1 tablespoon soy sauce.  From there we sprinkled in 1 teaspoon sugar and some salt and pepper, and then we covered the wok so it come simmer/steam for 15 minutes.

We shredded some Napa cabbage to add in at the end of the cooking (the recipe called for Chinese cabbage), and served the whole thing hot garnished with cilantro, red pepper and shredded scallions.

Overall, the dish was impressive.  The crab and pork complemented each other nicely, though the meatballs seemed a bit waterlogged from their steam session.  The seasonings came through loud and clear, with the astringent notes of the garlic and the heat of the chilis offset by that unique ginger bite.  This was definitely stir-fry taken to a different level than we had previously attempted.

assorted 006There are few things as comforting as a nice bowl of pasta topped with fresh-made sauce.  And the best part of the deal is that it’s actually a pretty easy meal to make up, especially if you opt for something besides long-simmering tomato sauce to top your noodles.

When a couple of our friends recently had a new baby, we knew we wanted to do something to congratulate them that would also take into account the new demands on their time.  So we waited a few weeks until things had settled into something of a more regular routine for them, and then we presented them with a jar of home-made spinach and walnut pesto from Pasta: Every Way for Every DayThis is another one of our old reliable cookbooks, and we’ve even created some of our most favorite dishes using recipes inside as a guide.

Spinach Walnuts OilWe chose the spinach and walnut pesto because it was both healthy and delicious.   The vibrant green color is echoed in the fresh flavor of the sauce.  Even with the addition of a few cloves of garlic, this is not an overly heavy pesto.  Paired with a block of parmesan cheese (so they could add it to suit their tastes), it made for a great step-saver should they be faced with a night when boiling the water for the pasta is all the cooking they want to do.

And the pesto is super-easy to make, as well.  We combined one cup spinach leaves, two cloves crushed garlic and three tablespoons of walnut pieces in a food processor and then added four tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil.  We let the mixer run for a few seconds before stopping it, scraping down the sides and running it just a little bit more.

Jarred PestoWe jarred our pesto at this point (to help it keep longer), but the finishing touches involve the addition of eight tablespoons of freshly-grated parmesan and some salt and pepper to taste.  From there, it’s just a matter of tossing cooked pasta (preferably a rigatoni or a shell-like pasta to catch chunks) with the pesto and serving it hot.