Monday, March 26, 2012

A Comfort Classic - Swiss Steak

I’m a firm believer in planning meals out in advance. It makes shopping much easier and efficient, and depending on what you are fixing, sometimes you can “cook once and eat twice.” For me, a good start to meal planning is a trip to my own pantry to see what I have on hand, what items are nearing their “best by” dates, and then to figure out how to build off those ingredients. But even with the best of planning, everything can fall apart once I’m in the store and see something that inspires me. I call them my “food muses” – these can consist of special deals, new items or just something I haven’t seen in a long time. This was the case with the recent purchase of some cube steak.

Cube steaks are thin cuts of beef, often from a top round, that have either been pounded by a tenderizing mallet or, in the case of many butcher shops, run through a cube machine. These machines make hundreds of piercings in the meat and in doing so, cut a lot of the connective tissue and make for a tenderer piece of beef. These were not on my shipping list, but were a manager’s special when I went into the store, so I brought some home.

Cube steak can be used for many different dishes. In some parts of the country, chicken-fried steak is very popular, and it is generally made from a cube steak. There is a Polish beef roll, which I will HAVE TO make for another episode, called “zrazy” that uses cube steak that is rolled with a thin slice of ham, onions and a pickle in the center. It’s dee-lish! But when I saw this beautiful cube steak in the meat case, my mind went to one thing: Swiss steak.

This is a dish that was in my mom’s regular rotation. It is basically a skillet meal, where the meat is braised in beef stock along with onions, celery and mushrooms. If you have an electric skillet, and I think everyone should, that appliance was made for a dish like this one. Once done, the meat should be fork-tender in a rich gravy and the vegetables soft and flavorful. Enjoy!


Swiss Steak

4 cube steaks (about 1 ½ pounds)
3-4 TBSP vegetable oil
1/3 cup flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
1 medium onion, diced
4 stalks celery, diced
8 oz sliced fresh mushrooms (can use canned mushrooms if necessary)
2 cups beef stock

Bring steaks out of refrigerator a half hour before cooking. Heat oil in skillet (if using electric skillet, you want about 360 degrees). Dredge steaks in seasoned flour and place in hot skillet. Brown steaks on each side and then remove to a plate. Drain skillet of excess oil and fat, but leave brown bits on bottom of pan. Add a little beef stock to skillet and scrape up brown bits from bottom with spoon until dissolved. Add steaks back into skillet and add celery, onion and mushrooms. Add beef stock to skillet so that it just comes up to the top of the steaks (without covering them). Set heat to simmer and allow cooking for about 40 minutes, and check to see if you need to add any more beef stock (it will reduce from evaporation). Add as needed and continue to cook for another 20-25 minutes for a total cooking time of an hour. Serve with mashed potatoes, seasoned rice or buttered noodles.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Hooray for Cheese Souffle!

Next month, I am embarking on an adventure to Paris with a group of students and some faculty from Wayne State University. This will be my first visit to the “City of Lights,” and friends and family who have traveled there have all shared stories of their own experiences. As someone who considers food an essential element to one’s quality of life, going to France has set my mind to thinking of the culinary opportunities that will await me. It helps that one of my travel companions is another foodie, and she has been to Paris many times before, so I’m looking forward to sharing some wonderful food with her.

I don’t prepare a lot of French cuisine, per se, but like a lot of other cooks much of what I find myself doing in the kitchen has roots in classic French cooking. Sauces are something that I prepare frequently, and I will turn to one of the French “mother” sauces from time to time. But a cheese soufflé has long held a lot of appeal – and why not? I don’t think it is that complicated to make and it sure sounds impressive! It’s very light – perfect for a late dinner, brunch or even as a side dish with a heavier main course. For being so light, it also has richness - and it just melts in your mouth. Plus, it’s just a fun dish. When you take that soufflé out of the oven in all of its puffed up glory, your eyes widen and that smile just comes on.

We have been featuring a lot of meatless dishes during Lent and the cheese soufflé would certainly make for great Friday dinner. I used a cheddar cheese, but if you want to be more traditional you could use a Gruyere cheese, or a Swiss, or a combination of cheeses. You could leave out the cayenne pepper, put in a little nutmeg, or add some finely chopped scallions – whatever suits your taste. But, whether you are looking for something quintessentially French or just wanting to change things up with something really different, in less than an hour you can make this spectacular soufflé for you and your guests.  Bon appetite!

Cheese Soufflé
1-2 TBSP unsalted butter
3 TBSP Parmesan cheese (grated)
¼ cup unsalted butter (this is ½ stick)
¼ cup flour
1 ¼ cup milk, room temperature (use whole milk or 2% - not skim)
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
¼ tsp. salt
½ tsp. dry mustard
1 ½ - 2 cups shredded cheese (sharp cheddar, Gruyere, Swiss, etc.)
6 large eggs, separated
¼ tsp. cream of tartar
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Using a 3 quart soufflé dish or round casserole, generously butter bottom and sides of dish. Sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese and rotate dish to coat butter with the cheese. Set aside. Separate eggs in two bowls. Gently beat egg yolks with a fork.  Set aside.

In a medium sauce pan melt half stick of butter. Add flour and stir well until flour is completely dissolved and bubbling. Over medium heat, add milk, cayenne, salt and mustard and stir constantly until mixture begins to thicken. Once thick, remove pan from heat and stir in cheese. Continue to stir until cheese is completely melted. Take a bit of the cheese mixture and put it in the bowl with the egg yolks.  Now add the egg yolks gradually into the cheese mixture and stir until yolks are completely incorporated. Set sauce aside.

In a large bowl, add cream of tartar to the egg whites. Using an electric mixer at high speed, beat the egg whites until soft, moist, peaks are formed when the beaters are pulled out. This will take a few minutes depending on the speed and strength of your mixer. Put a small amount of the cheese mixture into your egg whites and FOLD it in (do not stir). Repeat this process two more times until all the cheese mixture has been folded into the beaten egg whites.

Now that everything is together, pour batter into prepared soufflé dish or casserole. It should not fill it more than two-thirds of the way. Put dish in preheated oven for 30-35 minutes. DO NOT open the oven door while baking! Soufflé should rise above pan and have a nice brown top. Remove from oven and serve immediately – soufflé will begin to fall as it cools, so get it to the table quickly and enjoy!

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Cake With A Kick! Making A Bourbon Butter Cake

Here’s a cake that has a lot of possibilities. At its base is a recipe that produces a wonderful pound-like cake, which in and of itself would be perfect to be topped with fresh fruit, hot fudge or caramel, or a lemony glaze. But this time around we took things in another direction, putting additional moisture (bourbon), richness (butter) and sweetness (sugar) through a glaze that infused the cake while it was still warm. For me, there is something special about a dessert includes a little (or big) kiss of liquor.

Like so many of us, I have lots of kitchen appliances and gadgets. Although my trusty Kitchen Aid is my go-to mixer for things like cakes, from time to time it is fun to pull out some of the vintage appliances I’ve picked up along the way. For this recipe, I used my old Hamilton-Beach stand mixer from the early 1950’s. While Sunbeam dominated the market with its famous “Mixmaster,” a number of other manufacturers made their own versions. This old Hamilton-Beach features a one piece beater mechanism that, while hard to clean, does a very good job in blending the ingredients and turning the white Pyrex mixing bowls that came with the machine. When I think of all the food this machine helped to prepare in its 60-year life, it makes me smile.

Now, if you didn’t want to use any liquor, you could swap out the bourbon for water and a couple teaspoons of vanilla, and it would still produce a sweet buttery sauce that would further moisten the cake and add richness. Or if you prefer the flavor of run – wonderful with butter – you could use that instead. Either way, this cake comes together easily and presents itself beautifully at the table. Great after a meal with coffee or an afternoon break (which is when I seem to eat most of my sweets), give this a dusting with powdered sugar once it is cooled and enjoy!

Bourbon Butter Cake

3 cups sifted flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter (softened)
2 cups sugar
4 eggs (room temperature)
1 cup buttermilk or sour milk (make sour milk by adding a tablespoon of white vinegar to a cup of milk – preferably whole milk – and let stand for 10+ minutes)
2 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a medium bowl, sift together flour (already sifted once), baking powder, soda and salt. Set aside. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter until fluffy. Gradually add sugar and continue to cream until incorporated. Add eggs – one at a time – to butter mixture. Stir vanilla into buttermilk/sour milk. Starting with the flour mixture, alternately add the dry ingredients and the milk to mixing bowl containing the butter, sugar and eggs – beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.  Pour batter into a greased 10-inch tube pan. Place in oven for 60-65 minutes, or until golden brown and top of cake springs back when lightly pressed. Remove cake from oven and place on cooling rack. Prepare the sauce.

Bourbon Butter Sauce

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1/3 – ½ cup bourbon (can substitute with rum, or water and 2 teaspoons vanilla)

Place all ingredients in a small sauce pan and heat until butter is melted and sugar is well mixed in (do not boil!). Using a fork, gently poke holes in top of warm cake. Pour sauce over the top of cake. You may have to do this in a couple of stages – it will absorb the sauce – be patient! Using a spatula or thin knife, allow sauce to get around the side of the cake. Once all sauce is fully absorbed and cake is cooled, remove from pan and invert onto plate. Dust with powdered sugar.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Another Lenten Favorite: Spinach Lasagna - Delizioso!

I'm still waiting to meet a person who doesn't enjoy Italian food. And for those of us who like to fix some meatless meals, whether during Lent or anytime of the year, the Italian palate of recipes provides endless possibilities. Spinach lasagna is a dish that my mom, who was Maltese, made with some regularity. Over the years, she stopped making meat lasagna altogether, as everyone loved the spinach version.

For a number of years, there was a small pasta shop in my neighborhood where they made all kinds of things. Every day they made fresh pasta and I would go there and buy the flat sheets of pasta for lasagna or manicotti. It was light, delicate and so tender. Aside from making it myself, this was about the best I could find. Then one day, the people who ran the store retired, moved away and that was the end of my convenient fresh pasta supply.

I went back to the dried lasagna noodles, and found that they were causing me all kinds of problems. I found it hard to get them out of the pot of boiling water without tearing them, or splashing myself with scalding hot water. I also didn't care for the curled edges. Then one day I spotted a box of Barilla brand no-boil lasagna noodles. They were little flat sheets (no curls) that you just took right out of the box and into your lasagna pan. I was intrigued but very skeptical. After the first use, they performed so beautifully that I haven't used anything else. The key is to have a good amount of moisture - sauce - in your lasagna.

Speaking of sauce, I'm including the sauce that I use for this recipe, but if you have a great tomato sauce recipe, by all means use it. Or, if you don't like to make sauce and have a favorite brand of ready-made tomato sauce, that would be fine. Just make sure you have enough to use in the making of the lasagna and then extra to put on top of the finished pasta.

Tomato Sauce
2 TBSP olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 - 28oz can tomato puree
1 - 28oz can San Marzano tomatoes
1 - 6oz can tomato paste
1 - 8oz can tomato sauce
1 cup water
2 vegetable bouillon cubes
3 TBSP dried chopped onion
1 TBSP Italian seasoning
2 tsp sugar
salt and pepper to taste

In a large saucepan, heat olive oil and garlic until garlic become very fragrant but not brown. Reduce heat to simmer and add tomato puree, tomatoes, paste, sauce and water. Add all other ingredients, cover pot and allow to simmer for an hour or so. Every 15 minutes give it a stir, and press the whole tomatoes against the side of the pan with the back of the spoon. This will break the tomatoes down, but still leave a little texture.

Spinach Lasagna
2 boxes no-boil lasagna noodles (I use Barilla)
1 - 12oz bag frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1 - 15oz ricotta cheese
1 - 16oz mozzarella cheese
1 - 5oz or 6oz freshly shredded Parmesan cheese
1 egg
salt and pepper

This recipe works for a 9x13 baking dish.

Preheat the oven to 350. Make sure your spinach is totally thawed out. If not, put it in a bowl and microwave it until just thawed - it doesn't need to be hot. I then transfer the spinach to a clean dish towel and give it a good squeeze over the sink to extract as much water as possible from the spinach. Return the spinach to the bowl and add ricotta cheese, eggs and salt and pepper. Mix well to incorporate everything together.

Spray the sides and bottom of your baking dish with non-stick spray. Put a thin layer of tomato sauce over the bottom of the pan. Put your first layer of noodles in the pan over the sauce. The no-boil noodles can be broken into pieces that will fit - if they overlap here in there that is no problem. Using a spatula, spread a layer of the spinach-ricotta mixture over the noodles (use about a quarter of the mixture), then put a good handful of mozzarella cheese over that, then sprinkle with the Parmesan. Finally, put some sauce over the cheeses, and lay down your next layer of noodles. This will repeat three more times. After your final layer of cheeses and sauce, put a top layer of noodles down, cover well with sauce and any left over mozzarella and  Parmesan cheese (you should have used all the ricotta-spinach mixture on the inner layers).

Cover baking dish with foil and put in 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Remove from oven, take off foil and allow to sit for about 10 or 15 minutes. This will allow the cheeses to solidify a little and make it much easier to cut and serve. This is great with a nice salad, garlic bread and a glass of vino! Enjoy!