Monday, September 21, 2009

Shepherd's Pie (WCJO - DS)

I suppose any baked meat dish with a mashed potato topping can be called a shepherd's pie, or "cottage pie" as the case may be. Having spent a great deal more time on Personal Trainer: Cooking than I'd anticipated, I figured it was time to give this one from What's Cooking with Jamie Oliver a proper tryout.

Unlike a lot of other recipes for shepherd's pie that I've seen, this one relies more on stewed and shredded meat than ground or minced. I guess that goes to Jamie's preferences for "rustic" or crude-looking dishes.

Ingredients: And right away, I ran into some trouble. The WCJO recipe calls for small amounts of pork, beef brisket and duck legs. At the supermarket where I shopped, duck legs weren't available, and the beef and pork were packed in amounts more suitable for a Scout troop. On a weekend camping trip. Where more friends were invited. In other words, too much for a single person. (If ever people wonder why more single people don't cook for themselves . . . )

What this meant was, instead of pork, beef brisket and duck legs, I wound up using bone-in stewing lamb, veal cubes, and chicken drumsticks. The supermarket did have smoked turkey legs, which I considered, but then I had a look at the ingredients on the package, and changed my mind. The drumsticks might be from battery hens, but at least they were chemical free.

The other vegetables were simple enough: carrot, celery, potatoes and parsnips. It was the last one, used as a mash along with the potatoes, that I elected to try out.

Techniques: The recipe called for open stewing of the meats, along with the carrot, onion and celery, in a combination of red wine and beef broth, in a 350-degree oven for about three hours. Giving it some thought, I figured I'd try another method for stewing: a slow cooker. Which meant frying the ingredients first, then deglazing the skillet.

Eight hours later I transferred the meats to one of my Corningware pyroceramic baking dishes, taking care to remove as many of the bones as I could. The vegetables went as well, but not so much the remainder of the cooking liquid. The potatoes and parsnips were boiled and mashed with butter and S&P, spread on top of the dish and dotted over with rosemary sprigs, and then I put the lot into the oven.

One thing I have to add about WCJO: I really missed the interactivity that was available in PTC. The audio, especially, was sorely missed: all you have are paragraphs that flash up. And once you complete the dish, you don't really get much by way of congratulation. It's something JO should think about, next time he tries putting his name on a cooking game.

Results: Not bad at all. The lamb and the veal were nice and tender, the chicken picked up quite a bit of flavour and the potato/parsnip topping got a nice crispy surface.

Leftovers the next day were interesting. I'd saved the stewing broth in a jar; after a day in the fridge it had turned gelatinous, which I hadn't expected. Put the gelled broth in a microwaveable dish along with some of the leftover pie, and the nuked results were quite satisfactory as a quick dinner.

Well, if I had to make a potluck contribution, this dish is definitely an option for me. I'd call this a pass: better than PTC's chili dish, but not quite on the level of that mulligatawny soup.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Salade Nicoise (PTC - DS)

I am informed, via one of Julia Child's DVDs, that Nice used to be a part of Italy until the 19th century, which is why the dish Salade Nicoise resembles an Italian antipasto plate.

I can well understand, then, why Salade Nicoise would be included in Personal Trainer: Cooking. There has always been great emphasis put on the presentation of a dish, in Japanese cuisine; it goes to the same esthetic that we see in the art of ikebana, and why Japanese mothers take such great care with the preparation of bento lunches. And a great deal of Salade Nicoise's appeal happens to be in its eventual presentation.

Ingredients: There's not all that much deviation between the ingredients listed in PTC and those listed in Mrs. Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking: green beans, boiled potatoes, boiled egg, lettuce, tomato, tuna, olives, capers, and a dressing made with Dijon mustard and red wine vinegar. The only real difference is that PTC uses green bell pepper, which is absent from Mrs. Child's version.

This time out, however, I decided I'd rely on my own interpretation of portions. One of the reasons why I don't eat salad at home very often is that, most of the recipes I have for salad make enough for five or six people -- which goes bad after a few days. So this time out, I elected to try to shrink the proportions down to something suitable for 1 or 2 folks. PTC has no allowances for this (they bring it down to three people, minimum), so I made a few guesses.

Techniques: This is nowhere near as complex as PTC's recipe for Boeuf Bourgignon, but I can understand why Salade Nicoise isn't made all that often: boiling beans, potatoes and eggs can be quite time-consuming. Which is why I opted for a boiling shortcut.

I have a Chef's Choice electric hotpot. Works just like an electric kettle, only it has a very wide opening on the top, which means I can actually use it to cook stuff. I elected to boil the egg and the potato at the same time: slip both in, switch on, let it automatically switch off once it boils, fish the egg out after 10 minutes and the potato out after 20.

In retrospect, I probably should have left the egg in for 2 to 5 minutes longer. After 10 minutes the yolk had barely set, which is fine if you're eating a hard-cooked egg straight out but doesn't work as well if you're using boiled egg as an ingredient: the egg tends to fall apart when you apply the pressure of a knife to it. The potato, on the other hand, turned out all right.

The other part that actually involved what I'd consider "cooking" was the making of the dressing: combining Dijon mustard with vinegar, salt, pepper and olive oil. PTC uses both plain and extra-virgin olive oil; I substitute corn oil for the regular one and it seemed to work out all right.

One thing I did notice with this recipe: while PTC will tell you how to do a technique, it won't necessarily tell you a term if it doesn't think you need to know. For example, it told me to boil the cut green beans briefly before chilling them in ice water. That particular technique is called blanching, and yet PTC doesn't mention it at all. (I can sort of understand why; the intended audience of inexperienced cooks wouldn't necessarily want to know such a cooking term if it got in the way of their trying to cook.)

Everything else was simply flower-arranging; since it was just me, I didn't care all that much, but if I do a potluck I'm pretty sure I'll do it much differently.

Results: If I were a teenager making this for the first time, I'd call it a success. I'm a middle-aged man, though -- and yet I'd still call it a success. It's very hard to screw up a salad; the only way to do that is to use stale or past-due ingredients. I'd call this one a keeper.