Friday, January 30, 2009

Tagliatelle with Meat Sauce (PTC - DS)

In the Bologne region of Italy, the local pasta dish is known as ragu, cooked chopped meat on pasta. It's the basis for the dish commonly known as spaghetti bolognese, only in Bologne the pasta used isn't spaghetti but tagliatelle, a slightly wider version of fettucine. Personal Trainer: Cooking has tagliatelle with meat sauce listed in its Italian section; I decided it'd be worth a try.

Ingredients: The only real surprise, here, is the use of flour as a thickening agent. Otherwise the ingredient list is pretty familiar: you start with a soffrito of carrot, onion and celery, then add ground beef, wine, canned tomatoes (because it's winter in Canada, fresh ones just don't have the intensity of flavour), some stock and some seasonings.

The major modification I made was using ground lamb as well as beef, mainly because I thought a stronger meat profile would be good. I also left out the called-for broth, because -- well, you'll see when I explain.

Technique: Here, I think PTC made a serious error in its equipment list. For making the sauce, the recipe calls for using a frying pan. Honestly, that's a bad idea, because the recipe requires you to have at least 4 cups of liquid in addition to all the other ingredients. A 4-quart saucepan or Dutch oven would be a far better choice.

Preparing the soffrito went well enough; a little too much noise when I was chopping the carrot (which tended to confuse the DS) but all went well. Ditto with the browning of the ground beef and the ground lamb. About the time when I added the tomatoes and red wine, however, I started worrying about overflow. It became pretty obvious that the 13-inch chef's pan I was using wasn't tall enough to accommodate the stock called for in the recipe.

The recipe called for a simmer for 20 minutes with the lid on. Great, except that there was too much liquid in the sauce as it was. I compromised: 10 minutes with lid on, rest of time with lid off, and I'd let it boil while I made the tagliatelle.

No, PTC doesn't actually have a recipe, at this point, for making fresh pasta; they recommend a package of dried tagliatelle instead. I just figured that, since I have a pasta machine that I don't use as often as I should, and a paper recipe for making egg pasta, I should try it. After all, how hard could it be?

Um -- long story short, I wound up boiling up some dried angel hair pasta. No, it's not the ideal match for this type of meat sauce, but it was what I had in the pantry.

Results: Pasta disasta aside, it wasn't bad. Using lamb as well as beef added a good note, I think.

If you've never made Bolognese sauce before, this is a good basic recipe. However, there is a nicer one from Heston Blumenthal that, while a lot more complicated (and a lot more time-consuming), yields a more flavourful accompaniment to a pasta dish.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

New England Clam Chowder (PTC - DS)

The first recipe I'll talk about here is New England Clam Chowder, from Personal Trainer: Cooking. There are tons of recipes and variations for this clam-and-dairy soup, so it's very hard for a nit-picker to point an accusing finger and yell that it's not "authentic" -- whatever that means in this day and age. Which is why it's a natural inclusion for PTC, which is after all aimed at a more generalized audience than WCJO (i.e. an audience that's a bit more timid about actually making stuff in the kitchen).

Ingredients: Now bear in mind that this recipe isn't from some obscure game programmer geek in Japan riffing off of Iron Chef. PTC's recipe database comes directly from the Tsuji Cooking Academy,] which trains both homemakers and professional chefs in the art of cuisine. (One of their principals, Shizuo Tsuji, wrote a classic cookbook called Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, which is enamored by Nigella Lawson, among others.) So the recipe is written up by professionals, but at the same time it's geared towards a Japanese palate -- which tends not to be as appreciative of super-spiced foods as we are in the West.

Anyway, there are no surprises in the ingredient list: clams (of course), onion, potato, carrot, bacon, butter, stock (I used Campbell's Organic Chicken for this review), milk and cream. (Crackers and Italian parsley are listed, but as garnishes at the end.)

PTC illustrates its recipes with photos, so the clams used here were pretty big, even when canned. Canned baby clams are easier to come by than canned surf clams, so I used that.

Here I should say that using the shopping list function in the grocery store works just as well as using the one provided by WCJO. One major difference: there's a function in PTC that lets you look up a recipe based on the shopping list you've just completed. Very handy, if you don't carry your DS with you all the time.

Techniques: One thing PTC does during the step-by-step process is list the equipment used at the start of each step (i.e. a knife and block during the chopping phase, a saucepan during the actual cooking phase). If you've had a lot of experience cooking, you might find that annoying, but for novices I can see that it'd be an important feature.

There is a slight problem that you'll have to get used to: PTC's microphone function may be a little too sensitive, interpreting everything as a voice command -- including the sounds of the knife hitting the chopping block, getting bowls out of the cupboard, and so on. However, unlike WCJO, hands-free use is very easy, so long as you take care to enunciate when speaking to the DS.

As for the techniques themselves, they were pretty much standard: no fancy cutting techniques or equipment required. One step that I never encountered before when making clam chowder was a step to skim off the foam, which appears when adding the stock. (A nice feature of PTC is that, when prompted by voice, you can get more details on a technique or step, such as why it's important to skim the foam off a soup that was meant to be cream-based.)

One step that I think they left out: during the chopping phase (onion, potato, etc.), unless you're dumping the ingredients straight into the saucepan, you're going to want some bowls or containers to put the chopped ingredients in, until you're ready for the actual dumping. This is pure common dog for someone already used to working in the kitchen, but it's still a handy step to remember.

Results: Well, I did say it's a fairly standard recipe. You're not going to blow anyone's taste buds away with this one, but at the same time it's very satisfying. Especially when compared with chowder out of a can, which tends to be sodden with soggy vegs and all too heavy on the salt.

If I wanted to modify it, I might have added chopped celery at the same time as the onion and carrot. I might also add a pinch of something spicy -- curry powder, say, or nutmeg. Not too much, just enough to deliver a hint of a kick. (I did mention that Japanese palate tends to be a bit bland.)

Would I make this recipe again? Easily, with the modifications mentioned above. I'd call it a good beginning.

Welcome to Nintendo Chef!

One of my New Year's resolutions was to make some recipes from Nintendo video games. Right now, I have two of them, both for Nintendo DS: What's Cooking with Jamie Oliver (which I'll refer to from now on as WCJO -- hey, since I'm here, it's a natural that I have this) and Personal Trainer - Cooking (which I'll refer to as PTC).

It occurred to me that some folks might be interested in how these videogame recipes actually turned out. After all, you wouldn't necessarily expect something off a Nintendo DS (which people still perceive to be -- let's be honest -- a school toy) to be as culinarily exciting as something from, say, The Joy of Cooking. But since the purpose of these particular games is to get people cooking who ordinarily wouldn't go near a stove, it would seem a good service to let people know how things turned out -- with much more than a mere videogame review.

Hence, this blog.

I'll be alternating between recipes from WCJO and PTC, and each review will take the following format:

Ingredients. I'll discuss the ingredients from each recipe, with notes on any modifications I've made either due to availability problems or personal preferences.
Techniques. I'll talk about the steps in preparation each recipe requires, and comment on the difficulty (or other problems that crop up) with each recipe.
Results. This is the part that people care about: is the resulting dish any good, or not? I'll let you know.

There are over 200 recipes in PTC, and 100 in WCJO. I suspect this blog won't be lacking in updates for some time to come.