Monday, July 27, 2009

Eggs-traordinary aggravation

Oh, c'mon - I'm allowed a horrible pun once in a while. Cooking that deals with eggs has never been my strong point. I mean, sure, the first "real" cooking I ever did without the supervision of an adult was scrambled eggs (in the microwave) and they turned out perfectly, but beyond that I've always had issues. I don't know why. Making an omelette is a crap shoot - I've got even chances to pull it off perfectly, or having it split into two or three pieces mid-flip, leaving me swearing up a blue streak and mangling it into the scrambled egg equivalent of a ten-car pileup with my fork out of spite. Basic fried eggs? Not a problem... as long as you don't mind the underside being a blotchy white and yellow mess of hard-cooked yolk, the casualty of never being able to lift it quickly and cleanly enough to keep the still-raw yolk from sliding right off the spatula, and swan-diving to its splattery end in the skillet, leaving me to gently lay the cooked portion still on my spatula over it like a burial shroud.

The one thing that I have NEVER been able to pull off perfectly, though, has been a pie meringue. This is particularly galling for me, since I like to make desserts more than anything else, and I LOVE the lemon meringue pie recipe from "The Joy of Cooking." But even using their foolproof method for meringue, mine always "weeps". That is, shortly after it comes out of the oven it develops those small dark brown spots of syrup on top, which is a sign of an inferior meringue. One attempt I made was so pathetic that instead of small weeping drops, I actually had several puddles of syrupy imperfection all over it.

However, recently I found I had a nearly-empty bottle of Nellie and Joe's Key West Lime juice in the back of my refrigerator, just enough for a single key lime pie, and I just so happened to also have a can of sweetened condensed milk sitting in my cupboard. Key lime pie is probably the easiest pie in the world to make - you use a simple graham cracker crust of crumbs and butter. The pie filling only has three ingredients. The pie itself only takes 20 minutes to bake. And it is the only pie I love more than lemon meringue. Normally I see (and myself top) key lime pie with real whipped cream, but I realized that I would have 4 egg whites sitting around unused after I placed the required four egg yolks in the pie filling. I thought "what the hell", and went about making a meringue to top this pie off with. I used the "foolproof" method again, which basically means a few extra fussy steps of boiling some water, cornstarch, and sugar into a thick glue that is allowed to cool a bit and then gets stirred into the meringue prior to topping the pie. Eggs whipped, "glue" incorporated, spatula out, meringue dabbed onto pie. Then, the whole thing was shoved into the preheated oven, and I got down on my knees and f*cking PRAYED.

It came out of the oven looking nicely browned. Half an hour later, I was cautiously optimistic. No weeping. An hour later, still nothing and I oh-so-carefully slid it into my refrigerator and went to bed with a glimmer of hope in my heart. The next morning, I opened my refrigerator with crossed fingers, and was greeted by my very first, perfectly baked, weep-free meringue pie. Because I HAD MADE A PERFECT MERINGUE. FINALLY, perfection with eggs had been reached. Much hooting, hollering, fist-pumping, and an attempted cartwheel ensued. I was ecstatic.

Look at it. Not a blemish, not a spot of dark brown ooze anywhere. The jagged little peaks I made by dabbing at the meringue with my spatula held their shape, and turned that lovely dark brown shade. Sheer perfection! So happy, I was, and it was with great pride that I took it to where I worked and presented it in our company breakroom.

Within a minute, two co-workers confessed the "weeping" was their favorite part of a meringue.

I wonder if they'd notice the next time I baked a cake if I substituted castor oil for vegetable oil. Weep over THAT, you bastards. Grrr.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Stewed Lemon Chicken - Attempt #2

For my second attempt at using preserved lemons, I went back to a simpler recipe: one whole chicken in a crockpot. This time I was looking to avoid the overpowering flavor of the olives and bringing out the lemons more. I wasn't feeling particularly adventurous this time, so I stuck with flavors that I knew would work with chicken and lemon: just some fresh rosemary and garlic.

I only used two quarters of preserved lemon for this one. I scooped the pulp out of the quarters and set those aside. Then I trimmed away a bit of the pith, and minced the rind. I also took two big sprigs of fresh rosemary (courtesy of my Mom planting it in a box on my patio during one visit - thanks Mom!), stripped the leaves and minced those as well, adding them to the lemon rind. Then I chopped one large, fat clove of garlic and added that to the lemon and rosemary, and then whisked in some olive oil to all that to make a sort of chunky paste.

Next, I took my chicken (a 3 1/2 lb. roaster), and carefully separated the skin from the breast with my paring knife - this was the only tricky part, since it's hard for me to get under the chicken skin far enough towards the neck without tearing it near the cavity. I stuffed as much of the lemon-rosemary paste under the skin as I could, and then put it in the crockpot. I drizzled some olive oil over the chicken, and rubbed it over the surface, both to coat the chicken and also to distribute the lemon-rosemary paste a bit under the skin. I threw in some new potatoes and some unpeeled cloves of garlic around the chicken, and stuffed the pulp from the lemon quarters into the cavity of the chicken. Then I sprinkled a generous amount of Kosher salt over the chicken, and also a ground pepper blend for spiciness, and tucked a sprig of rosemary under each leg of the chicken. Lid on, set the crockpot to low, and off to the office I go!


Nine hours later, I got home and my kitchen smelled delightfully of garlic, rosemary, and lemon. The chicken had stewed in it's own juices and was a nice golden brown. The garlic cloves were soft and mushy and sweet and nutty and the potatoes were easily pierced with a fork.


This turned out a LOT better than the previous preserved lemon recipe. The chicken was tender and falling off the bone, and both it and the potatoes tasted wonderful from sitting in the herb-garlic-lemon-enhanced chicken juices. I just mushed the potatoes a bit and smeared the soft garlic cloves into them, and spooned the juice from the chicken over them and the chicken, and everything was deeeeeeee-licious. The flavor of the lemons was noticeable, but not overpowering, and nothing needed more salt or pepper.

I'm definitely going to be revisiting this recipe next time whole chickens are on sale, but I think the next time I use the lemons, I'm going to try then with seafood and see how that goes. I have to say, it was really heartening to find a dish I really liked that used the preserved lemons after the unpleasant encounter with those DAMN OLIVES AND YES I AM STILL HATING ON THOSE THINGS.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Moroccan Chicken with Preserved Lemons

This was the first recipe that I used my preserved lemons on, which is courtesy of the Epicurious website - you can read the whole recipe here. I'm thinking this is actually a pretty common recipe, because I looked at about six different versions of the recipe before settling on this one. The others either asked for ingredients I didn't have (I don't keep harissa on hand, typically), or used chicken livers (not a line I'm willing to cross for this blog just yet).

So, I set to work on this recipe. I did the whole mise en place to start, and right away I ran into a little trouble. You see, the recipe called for 16 pitted green olives. I'd bought them with pits. No biggie - not hard to pit an olive, or so I thought. Apparently, olives are different from cherries and avocadoes in the sense that while cherries and avocadoes can have their pits coaxed out of them pretty easily, olives HANG the F*CK ON to their pits with their FINGERNAILS. My first three attempts at pitting an olive wound up with me nearly slicing my finger open with my knife, and the accursed pits lying on my cutting board, glaring at me triumphantly with tatters of olive flesh hanging off of them, in a puddle of brine.

The irrational part of my mind took over. Instead of satisfying my mouth's curiosity towards preserved lemon, I would satisfy my ears with the statisfying crunch the pits would make... when I crushed them with my claw hammer. Unfortunately, the pits were slippery and hitting them with a hammer only caused them to shoot across my kitchen and hit the far wall. I was completely frustrated at this point, but then I noticed that only the pit had gone flying - the flesh of the olive (what was left of it) was still on the cutting board. That was an "A-HA" moment I needed, and I dumped out the 16 olives I needed, and proceeded to GENTLY squish each one with the flat side of my knife. The pits came out pretty easily, and I cut the olive flesh into strips. The rest of the recipe proceeded smoothly; it's not a hard one to pull off. And the finished product looked just like the photo from the recipe.

And for all that... I didn't like the finished product. I'm not the biggest fan of green olives, save for in martinis, and the taste of the olives kind of overpowered most of the other ingredients, except for the preserved lemon. Which, I don't think I cut out enough of the pith from the lemon before putting them in this recipe - they were too bitter, although the lemon flavor itself was incorporated nicely into the chicken breast, which was about the only part of the recipe I kinda sorta liked.

What I DID really like was the couscous I made to go with this. I toasted a handful of cashews, pecans, and almonds in a frying pan, and prepared a batch of couscous with chicken stock, a dash of garlic powder, and butter. When the couscous was ready, I fluffed it, and tossed in the toasted nuts and a little bit of chopped dried apricot. Yum

So, the first recipe I used preserved lemons in didn't go over so well. But, I wasn't about to give up so easily after waiting a month to make them. I already knew what I was going to attempt for my next recipe, and this time, NO ACCURSED BRINY GALLSTONES-OF-SATAN UNPITTED FREAKIN' OLIVES!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Preserved Lemons

A few months ago, I was reading one of my Indian cookbooks for the umpteenth time, and came to a section that detailed the creation of pickled lemons. I'd also read about something similar in one of my Nigella Lawson cookbooks, although the recipe in that one was for "preserved", not "pickled". Most recipes and references to this ingredient call it "preserved", so that's what I'm going with, even though in both cases it's still technically a pickle. The idea of using these in cooking sounded interesting to me, so I decided to try and have a go at making and using my own batch of preserved lemons.

I wanted the unsweetened version, both as my own personal preference, and also because the recipe was a bit simpler: quartered lemons, kosher salt, and lemon juice. Combine and let sit for a month - piece of cake. I was tempted to use spices like cloves or bay leaves like my Indian cookbook did, but I didn't want to shoehorn myself into a particular flavor of preserve that might limit what I could use them for, so I kept it simple. The Nigella recipe used quite a bit of sugar and resulted in a much sweeter pickled lemon (of course), and also called for some boiling and just sounded a little fussier than I wanted to deal with.

It just so happened that at the time my supermarket had Meyer lemons in stock (they usually don't), and on sale. I'd never made anything with Meyer lemons before, and I'd read they were sweeter and more aromatic than regular lemons. They're also rounder, more plump with pulp and juice than regular lemons, and a slightly orange tint to their rind that makes them particularly bright and hints at more intense flavor than their paler brothers. I bought about a dozen of them and brought them home. Half-dozen of them got quartered and I managed to fit them snugly into a bell jar. Over those, I dumped a large amount of Kosher salt.

Then came the problem - the juice from the remaining six lemons wasn't nearly enough to fill the jar the rest of the way. I only got about a third of the way up the jar. So, I figured I needed another dozen Meyers, but unfortunately there were only about seven left at the store and three of them were ones I didn't pick for a reason - they were a bit soft and sickly-looking. But, I figured since I was only after their juice it didn't really matter what they looked like on the outside. I had to go with regular lemons for the rest of the juice I needed, but I did manage to fill the jar the rest of the way.

Once the jar was filled, it was a simple matter just to keep it in my refergierator, and gently shake it every few days to keep the brine circulating, and do it for a month. Ok, so I had a generous amount of pickled lemons at my disposal - the question was what was I going to do with them? It seemed that Middle Eastern, particularly Moroccan was the way to go, since preserved lemons figure most prominently in that region's food. I did find a recipe that intrigued me, but that's a subject for my next post. Later!