Saturday, December 29, 2012

Complimenting the Snow with Tempura Okra

Christmastime has passed and I'm back to pay a little more attention to the archives of Louisville Lady Gourmet. I really hope that you, dear readers, had as much inspiration for culinary greatness as I did over the holiday. In my free time, I was combing the massive collections of recipes that were flooding from my fellow bloggers and food writers, and boy was I excited. I also reviewed some traditional methods that I want to perfect and keep in my culinary arsenal.

The New Year is on its way (can you believe it?), so that means making new goals and trying new least for me. I really want to investigate a few styles of cuisine that I have experienced or even cooked before, but want to see what I can do with the ingredients we have here in our fair city.

I got started early on my goals by tackling Tempura. I believe that anyone who tries tempura is truly amazed at what the Japanese have done to fried food. Tempura, if prepared correctly, is minimal on the grease, texturally exciting, packs massive taste from both the batter and the fresh ingredients, and is completely addictive. Oh yes, addictive.

So, what can you tempura fry that excites the Louisville palate? Only one of my most favorite foods in the entire world: Okra! I fried the okra whole, and doing so yielded an ethereal taste-bud explosion. The whole okra was beautifully crispy on the outside and was not soggy at all in the center. The okra seeds in the middle have always been my favorite to eat, and this tempura okra kept the seeds moist for optimum popping.

For seasoning, I simply went for salt and chili powder to give it a little kick. I felt like a tempura dipping sauce would have been a little much...and might not allow the integrity of the okra to shine through. Being the first time trying it, I wanted to get the full effect. I think that a lighter sauce, perhaps with a citrus base instead of soy base would go well with these. Honestly, I was satisfied just popping them in my mouth until they were all gone.

Let's get on with the tempura technique. I think that the tutorial by Chef Tadashi Ono via Saveur is spot on. I'll outline what I did here and you can check out the video and tutorial on Saveur from there!

Tempura Okra
2 1/2 C Cake flour
2 Egg yolks
2 C Ice water
1/4 C Crushed ice cubes
Fresh Okra

Dredging in cake flour first
This recipe can be used for any vegetable, herb, or meat that you want to cover in a perfect tempura batter. If you are going for meat, shrimp is the most popular and delectable. Vegetables should be in uniform shapes, you can even tempura herbs--my favorite is tempura's like eating bright, flavorful lace. Make sure that everything is prepared before you even start on the batter. That means whatever you are frying needs to be washed, dried, and brought to room temperature. This will maximize crunchiness.

Heat a cast iron skillet with about an inch of canola or vegetable oil to 360º add 1/4 C sesame oil before you start frying for that authentic tempura flavor. Plus, it smells awesome! If you don't have a thermometer, check the temperature with the batter. The batter should bead and immediately rise and bubble to the top.

Put 1/2 C cake flour on a plate to dredge the okra in first. This step will help the tempura batter adhere to the okra. You can dredge them before your prepare the tempura batter to ensure that the batter is fresh. When the flour from dredging and the batter meet, you get that quintessential tempura batter with crispy bits intact!

Tempura batter mixing with 4 chopsticks
Now for the magical batter.
Place two egg yolks in a large bowl. Using two chopsticks mix the yolks with 2C ice water, ice included. This reduces gluten absorption. Then grasp four chopsticks and hold upright so that they make a square in the bowl. Do not use a whisk, do not use a fork, just take the chopsticks without fear (and a little practice), and gently incorporate the flour with the egg-water mixture. Your batter should be lumpy because those flour bubbles are gold. The batter will reach the consistency of heavy cream. At this point your oil should be hot and your okra should be dredged and ready for action!

Leave room for even frying!
Using just two chopsticks now, pick up the dredged okra one piece at a time and swipe it through the batter and directly into the hot oil. Do this quickly until you have filled up the pan about 3/4 full. The okra needs to have enough room to cook evenly and not stick to itself. Make sure that they have room. Gently stir and take your chopsticks to drop more batter on top of the okra pieces. If you have some pieces left over, you can strain those out and serve them as a bed for the tempura or reserve them for toppings on salads. After about 2-3 minutes they should be fried. The color should be just turning to golden...not brown, not white as the batter, but just thinking about turning. Then quickly remove the okra and put them on a baking sheet lined with paper towels.
Drain on towels
Fry in batches until you are all out of okra. Remember to sprinkle with seasoning while hot. Then immediately consume with joy and happiness knowing that you can take techniques from across the world and transform our ingredients here at home. Stay curious and stay hungry!

Final product! Eat away!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sweet Holiday Happiness: The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies!

I know, I know... it has been far too long since I have posted, but I do have a great excuse! The Handsome Spaniard is in town for Christmas and we have been busy celebrating and I have been busy preparing everything!!! Anyways, amongst all of this happiness, I have definitely had some delicious meals lined up. Today, however, I will share a sweet treat with you...the best chocolate chip cookies in existence.

Now, I will warn you that this is purely chocolate chip, nothing else special to add texture or complex flavors. Yes, it is weird coming from my kitchen, but again, I am not a natural baker :) That is usually left up to my dear roommate. My goal though is to build up a base of staple baking recipes so that I can hold my own in the kitchen, no matter what's thrown at me. I also have a brownie recipe that kicks ass, but I'll have to bring that up another day!

These cookies were a dream! I made them as big as my outstretched hand, because let's be honest, cookies shouldn't be the size of half dollars--that's just wrong. They were soft in the center with a slight crunch, and they could be reheated to softness even after a few days. Perfect with tea, a nice breakfast (for the soul not your health), a good ending to lunch, the possibilities for cookies are endless--I'm sure I don't have to tell you that!

While on the search for this recipe, I went to my normal go-to references like Epicurious, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, various food blogs, and of course my recipe book collection, but I found that a basic chocolate chip cookie recipe was not really part of my arsenal of great recipes. Then I was taking a listen to Lynne Rossetto Kaspar on the Splendid Table and I thought that she must have a published recipe on the best chocolate chip cookies ever...and sure enough, there they were.

There are times when a warm chocolate chip cookie out of the oven is just what you need to make a rainy day happy, a rough day at work a little more tolerable, and to keep that chocolate craving from taking over your life! Cozy up with your mixer and preheat that's time for some cookies!

Best Chocolate Chip Cookies
2 cups minus 2 tablespoons (8-1/2 ounces) cake flour
1-2/3 cups (8-1/2 ounces) bread flour
1-1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 Sea salt
2-1/2 sticks (1-1/4 cups) unsalted butter, softened
1-1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
large eggs
2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
1-1/4 pounds dark chocolate chips
Vanilla Sugar
Dark Chocolate Sugar
Orange Fleur de Sel

Okay, so as far as I can deduce, baking is as simple as measuring accurately, mixing up your dry ingredients and your wet ingredients and then incorporating them together. Finally you throw it all in an oven at some set degree and you wait between 8 min- 1 hr for whatever it is you are cooking to puff up into happiness. That's the approach we're taking with these cookies too!

First you need to sift the flours, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Reserve.

Cream the butter and all of the sugars together in a mixer with a paddle attachment. They should be so creamy they look like fluffy, buttery sugar clouds whipped into ribbons in your bowl. Add the eggs one at a time and mix thoroughly between each egg. When that's done mix in the vanilla!

Mix in the dry ingredients on the low setting until just incorporated. Add the chocolate chips and fold them into the dough until just combined. You just made chocolate chip cookie dough! I feel like I eat half of the dough before it gets in the oven...this dough is irresistible...mmmmmmmmmmmmmm!!!

I cooked these in a preheated 350º oven for 19 minutes on baking sheets lined with parchment paper.

When they came out of the oven, we added a little sprinkle of something special while they were still hot. My choice is definitely the orange fleur de sel---it put the basic chocolate chip cookie into the realm of incredibly awesome. We also had vanilla sugar and dark chocolate sugar, which were wonderful as well...I think I would be a little more heavy handed with the sugars to get the same wow effect as the fleur de sel--but that really makes it special.

Finally, stack these babies up and give them to everyone you know. Share them over a tall glass of milk with your neighbors, bring them to work, sneak a few in lunchboxes to share, and make sure that you get your fair share as well. The season of giving shouldn't just be reserved for December, so tuck this recipe away and use it whenever you need a solid pick-me-up!


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

There'll be parties for hosting...And hostesses for gifting!

If you haven't yet been to your first holiday party of the season, chances are that it is coming up this week! We recently went to an open house party from a new neighbor of ours, so I can say that we've already started our merry-making outside of trimming our own tree. Also, it is about time for those work parties to celebrate the end of the year, but that's another story altogether...

I want to talk today about visiting friends and family, or accompanying your significant other on their visits to friends and family for holiday parties. Today's important subject for discussion: The host/hostess gift.

Let's turn back the clock a little bit so I can give you a full picture on my relationship with hostess gifts. I started throwing my own parties in college, where I was quite involved with international exchange students and getting them acclimated to Louisville. Whenever we would have them over for a big dinner or any get-together at our house, most of our guests would bring over a small token of their appreciation...mostly in the form of wine. There is even a word for this gift in German: Mitbringsel. It means something to bring with you. I'm just going to go right out there and say that this is a dying yet necessary art in our culture, so let's bring it back!

If you have ever thrown a party you know how much time, energy, and resources goes into gathering up your loved ones and having a successful soirée. If you are going to one of these planned soirées, it is a nice idea to bring a little something to pay back the hosts' investment in your happiness, right? Most people usually throw in the required "Can I bring anything?" line, but a sincere thought into a small gift can go beyond just absorbing the gluttony of a mob of holiday guests.

When I spent my time abroad and was considered an exotic foreigner (laughable, I know), I would bring something from Louisville to share with my friends. This still holds true for those of us who have to travel outside of Kentucky to celebrate the holidays with family. It's really easy for us to gift things from our hometown...the home of Bourbon...please. I also got creative and painted a plate from Louisville Stoneware, brought a small bat from Louisville Slugger, and basically raided WHY Louisville and took the store in one of my suitcases.

If you are spending the holiday in Louisville though, here are some suggestions for small gifts that you may give to your hosts during your many holiday party runs. I recommend edible gifts for this time of year, and you really don't have to overdo it--it's not a Christmas present, it is a hostess gift, so it is meant to benefit that person and his/her partner or immediate family. Thus, keep it small and sweet. Some of the smallest details are the best remembered.

If you are into canning, you can simply gift one of those half-pint jars with a sweet ribbon and a label telling your friend what is inside the can, who it's from, and perhaps how to use it. Some seasonal ideas for this could be apple butter, homemade applesauce, pumpkin butter, Green Tomato Chutney, Tomato Jam, etc. Also...I have found that gifting a jar of my Homemade Cozy Granola (in whatever combination I had made that week) is always well received, and often freaked out about.

If you have a favorite brownie or cookie recipe, you can easily measure out the dry ingredients in layers in a pretty jar and attach your recipe (just add egg and milk, etc!) on a ribbon around the jar. If you are one of those people who guard their recipes like Fort Knox, and I have a bone to pick with you, this will keep your magical ratios to yourself (please, get over it...good food needs to be shared!).

I have often seen this done with cocoa by mixing up their special homemade hot chocolate recipe and gifting it in a jar as well. The great thing is that it is a cinch to personalize, it is going to be enjoyed no matter what, and it is easy to whip up. Seriously...dumping stuff into a jar and tying a ribbon on it...can I make it any simpler for you? No. If you want to get fancy, here's an idea for you: Take dark cocoa powder, mix it with sugar, chili powder, and cinnamon, and gift that little Mexican-inspired hot chocolate surprise...of course you need to test out the ratios to see what you like--and then it's your recipe, not mine!

Have you ever made a house seasoning? This is a cute little gift to give, and it is impressive to boot. If you have a certain combination of herbs and spices that you think rock out together, throw them in a little tin with sea salt, shake it up, put a bow on it, and label it as your house you didn't think you had one of those. Now your host does too!

Finally, if you are already making an obscene amount of cookies or candies, you don't have to go out of your way to make something else...just wrap up a small amount in a cute box or a festive bag, and there's your present. Do you make a good party mix? Can you candy up some nuts? Put a bow on it and hand it to your happy host when they greet you at the door.

If all else fails, your life is a mess, you are working overtime, and you just want to get to that damn party and blow off some steam, do me a favor and hit up the drive-thru at Old Town Liquors on your way to the party and at least pick up a bottle of wine. If you don't know what to get, those guys can help you out with anything, so you don't even have to worry about it!

It kind of makes sense to gift to the host during this time of year...the time of great gift-giving. However, host gifts should be brought to all parties where the host actually orchestrates an evening of well-planned frivolity. You can start now!!!

Happy Holidays and stay safe during all that merry-making!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Jack Fry's: That Semi-Clandestine Flavor Paradise

Ever since I can remember, Jack Fry's has been on the tongue of special occasion celebrating Louisvillians. It is truly an establishment of our fair city, tucked in the Highlands right before Bardstown Road merges with Baxter Avenue. The shades are always drawn, a rich amalgam of teasing fragrances emerge from their kitchen, and I am caught on the sidewalk every time in a daydream of Jack's fine fare. I have a feeling they keep the shades drawn to prevent wanderers like me from pasting their faces against the glass, marveling at the works of art that come to the table. However, it goes along with their speakeasy feel too, so we'll go with that.

Jack Fry's is a restaurant full of history, opening in 1933 by Jack and his wife Flossie. A more romantic story of Louisville couldn't be better told, complete with "back room" bookkeeping and bootlegging, and a love of sports and our beloved thoroughbreds. A walk into the restaurant today transports you straight back to that era, frozen in time by the myriad of photographs and memorabilia displayed liberally and delightfully throughout the entire dining area. It's funny to think that it once had a brief hiatus as a Mexican restaurant, before returning to its former glory.

Today, Jack's is a restaurant that continuously serves up fine cuisine from the very soul of our hometown. Although it is not quite within my means to visit Jack Fry's with any regularity, it is and has been one of my favorite spots to celebrate a special occasion. On this particular visit, we were celebrating my mother's birthday, and seeing as that Jack Fry's is her favorite restaurant, we were more than happy to oblige.

We were kindly greeted at the door and quickly led to our seats (I would recommend making a reservation, especially on the weekend and during the holiday season...good luck during Derby). Our waitress was pleasant and attentive, delivering baskets of bread and their just whipped butter cream happiness on the side. The specials were recited as we swooned in our upright chairs, and we were soon faced with making a very important decision: what were we going to eat for dinner?!

Beef Filet
My mother and sister settled on the beef filet served on a crispy potato cake (an unforgettable combination of textures and flavors, causing my mom and sister to uncharacteristically order the exact same dish), with asparagus and prosciutto served with a sinful sage beurre blanc sauce and rounded off with parmesan. You can cut this filet with a fork and the elements of this plate pieced together on a fork will subsequently melt in your mouth. Please, just writing that description makes me relive the moment...give me a second to read that over again 50 more times...
Lamb Shank

...Okay, that's out of my system.

On my side of the table, I decided to go with the lamb shank. If I'm going to spring for Jack Fry's I like to try something on their menu that I know only Jack's can get right. It is a special occasion after all. Served garnished with garbanzos, Spanish Marcona almonds, prunes, and golden raisins, the lamb shank was slow-braised with vegetables until only their deep sweetness could tell their story. Finally, it was scattered with sesame seeds that happily danced in the sauce waiting to be sopped up by the lamb shank. The meat literally fell off of the shank with the slightest whisper of movement. I merely had to think about using the fork, and there it was, ready to bring on the food coma. I was happy to submit.

For birthday dessert, a sweet individual chocolate chip bundt cake was presented topped with a house-made scoop of ice cream and a birthday candle, drizzled happily with a sweet salted caramel sauce. Three of us helped devour it and we were more than satisfied. It was the perfect amount of sweetness to bring us down from our savory adventure of a few minutes before.

We took a moment of reflection before the check arrived, and everyone was very joyfully satiated. Another successful birthday celebration. When's the next one?

Jack Fry's
1007 Bardstown Rd.
Phone: 502.452.9244

They also feature live jazz nightly, and are available for carry out!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Latkes for Hanukkah!

Latkes with a Greek Yoghurt-Sour Cream Sauce
Traditionally served with Applesauce
The holiday season is upon us, and Hanukkah begins this weekend. For those of you who celebrate it, I'm sure you have your own family recipes. My own recipe is inspired by the original, and I make this recipe throughout the year to satisfy that fried potato craving that I know we all have :)

Check out my article published today on Inside the Kitchen for Insider Louisville: Just in time for the Holidays: Latkes!

I also outline some alternatives to the pure potato pancake, including adding zucchini and carrots, different spices...and I almost forgot--adding cheese...oh yes!

Enjoy and Happy Hanukkah friends!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Warming Winter Soup: Potato and Leek Soup with Fresh Rosemary

Getting through the winter for me means always having a hot pot of soup on the stove. I am also a fanatic of hot tea, so that goes in the same category. Whenever I enter the house and I find myself a bit peckish, I want to be able to heat up a cup of soup, crunch on some crackers, and drink some tea. At that moment, all is well in the world. Because of this habit, you all will be hearing a lot about winter soups--hope you don't mind! If you do, sorry, go check out the Recipe Box tab...I'm sure you'll find something!

Anyways, winter vegetables are absolutely choice in soups due to their velvety textures, ever-present richness, and that fantastic ability to get better on second and third day reheats. As winter progresses, and we fade out of the squash season, leafy greens become more sparse, and fresh herbs are all but a wisp of the imagination, I move on to my bean-based soups and stews...that means chili! For now, we are making a soup that can survive the transition with potatoes and leeks. This lovely soup can be pureed to a silky smooth texture, even though leeks are notorious for their stringiness--this is where the hand emulsifier becomes super handy...sauces, soups, drinks, everything!

This soup was made richer by adding chicken stock. This is a good opportunity to whip out that leftover turkey stock you froze from Thanksgiving. Just a bit will make a difference, but you can go purely stock instead of stock/water to cook up this soup.

Another thing that I think brought out some rich flavors was tearing up the rosemary instead of mincing it like most people would. Because I knew I was going to use the hand mixer to puree everything at the end, I was able to sacrifice a few larger pieces without worry about someone's cheek getting stabbed by a stray rosemary leaf (those spineys are rough). I have found that torn herbs give a better flavor because their oils are not lost on the chopping block when you go at them with a knife. Let's get on with it already!

Potato and Leek Soup with Fresh Rosemary
5 or so Red Potatoes, chopped 
1 Leek, whites and greens sliced
1 sprig Fresh rosemary
4 C chicken stock 
(water, vegetable stock, or turkey stock works as well)
Black Pepper

That's right, without seasonings, this soup requires four ingredients. I told you it was a winter staple! Chop up the leeks and potatoes first. You can choose to keep the skin on or off of the potato. Heat a soup pot over medium-high heat and sauté your leeks in butter (2-3 Tablespoons) until they soften and just start to brown on the edges. Then add in the potatoes and lower the heat a bit, cook until they begin to soften too. There might be some potatoes and leeks sticking to the bottom, but that's okay--that's your flavor! You could splash a little white wine in there at this point to deglaze the pan and add more flavor. 

Then you add enough stock to cover the potatoes and leeks and bring to a boil. As always with soups, lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. That's all!

I served it with pecorino romano cheese, sprinkled with fresh cracked pepper and sea salt. Warming and delicious!

Enjoy this as a meal in and of itself or as a first course. I had it on the second day with a leftover lamb shank from Jack Fry's (don't worry, you'll be hearing about it).