Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Cooking Year in Review

After spending the past year really trying to learn how to use our beautiful new kitchen properly, I have to look back with a lot of pride and accomplishment. I was looking back on some of our older posts a couple of weeks ago, and smiled at how we started out: simple dishes with new flavors. And through this initial process, we found so many new dishes that we really enjoyed and are excited to cook again! Through the evolution of the year, we took our meals up a notch and started to try new techniques, new equipment and very new flavors. Some worked out great, and some taught us more about our boundaries.

The top, number one bit of advice that I learned this year was to always, always prep all of your ingredients and equipment before you even start the cooking process. Too many times, I ended up scrambling to chop or measure something while I should have been adding it to a pot or pan already. Plus, if everything is at your fingertips, the process is easier and WAY more fun for everyone involved.  (Ex: Less yelling or rolling of my eyes during moments of stress...)

The other important tidbit I learned is just not to be afraid to try anything. I was terrified to butcher a duck and to cook lobsters while they were still crawling around! But it was only in my head that it was going to be difficult, and real life is so much easier when you just try. Along the same vein, I feel like we were more willing to try any dish if it had been made in our kitchen. We knew every ingredient in that pot, and it made the flavors less scary to eat sometimes. I know I was amazingly impressed with how much my hubby tried this year, and I know he's excited to keep the experiments going into 2016!! I mean, if he's willing to try dragon fruit when it looks like this in the grocery store, then we aren't afraid of anything any more.  hahaha

I'll admit that I feel a little "cooked out" right now. I just cooked my butt off for the last three days straight, and I'm looking forward to a simple meatball sub tonight for dinner. But I know that it will be the best meatball sub I've ever made, because I'm a much better cook than I ever was before, and those meatballs were so delicious the other night...

Live Lobsters!!

As my final big cook of the year, the hubs and I went out and bought some live lobsters. Since we'd already had them boiled fresh by a pro, we thought we'd maybe try something a little different. So I purchased a steamer and we steamed the lobsters instead.

After storing the big ocean bugs in the freezer for about 20 minutes to "put them to sleep" a bit, we pulled them out of the bag and just stuck them in the pot. We had a little bit of movement from them before we closed the lid, but not much. And there was no screaming at all, so I'm starting to wonder if that's just an old wives' tale??

The work is when the lobster is done really, getting the meat out of the tail and claws without ripping your own fingers apart. It's a process, but I think I had it down pretty good from my previous lesson. Honestly (about to get a little gross here), I had a hard time eating the lobster after pulling it apart and watching all of its innards and excrement fall out on the cutting board. Kind of put a weird taste on it, that I just couldn't seem to get over...

We ended up cutting up all of the lobster meat and mixing it into a cheese risotto, which tasted fabulous. It was a good meal, and I'm glad that we checked this one off the list. But in the future, we might just stick with the tails or let some fancy restaurant take care of the cooking for us!

Duck Confit Christmas Dinner

After the duck legs and wings had their day in the fridge, we had to slowly cook the meat in its own fat to create our Duck Confit Christmas Dinner. The biggest issue I'd had all year with trying to conquer this recipe was the difficulty in finding duck fat anywhere. So when I butchered the duck, I saved and rendered out as much fat as possible, but I was still a little short...

Luckily, I still had some bacon fat in the fridge, and our recipe noted that we could substitute vegetable oil if we were running low on the actual fat. So we ended up using a little bit of that, too.

To go along with the Duck Confit, I pulled out a recipe from my favorite cookbook and made up some Au Gratin Potatoes as well. These potatoes - they were to die for. I couldn't get enough of them, and my stomach was stuffed to the brim because I actually went back for seconds of these after I'd already finished a full dinner plate. (It's the Holidays, so I didn't get too mad at myself... Back into training soon!)

Over-all, we had a great Christmas Dinner. The duck legs and wings didn't give a ton of meat, but considering the fact that we each ate our weight in cheesy potatoes, maybe this was a good thing. It was a lot of work to do duck, and I'm not sure if it was amazing enough to go through the full process very often. But if I just buy some breasts or legs, instead of trying to butcher the duck myself, that would take a huge step out of the long process...  So now we know for next time! But at least I can say that I did it once in my life.  :)

Ravioli and Meatballs for Christmas Eve Dinner

This was our third year in a row making an Italian feast for Christmas Eve dinner, and we decided to pull it back a notch this time. It seemed that we'd always over-done the process, making too much food, and making it all just barely ok. So this year we made less, but we made it well...

As usual, we started with our own dough for the pasta, and made up a simple cheese filling for some ravioli. We also pulled out our amazing meatball recipe to pair with the pasta, and we ended up having a fabulous dinner this year of fresh ravioli, meatballs and ciabatta bread.

And, as always, we finished up the night with a glass of chocolate tequila and Bad Santa. Such an odd little tradition, but I love it!

Seared Duck Breast Salad Lunch

With my little list of meals that I still wanted to try and cook this year, I made plans for Duck Confit on Christmas Day. So I went out and bought a whole duck. Having been shown how to butcher the bird once in person and watching several videos online, I was feeling skeptical but ready to try it on my own. On the morning of Christmas Eve, I got out the bird and tried my best to separate all of that meat from the bones.

The duck legs were meant to sit in some herbs overnight for the Confit on Christmas Day, so the legs and the wings went into a dish, then into the fridge. The breasts, requiring a different method of cooking, I decided to cook separately for lunch. Following the directions, we scored the fat and slowly cooked the meat fat side down for best temperature and flavor.

We threw in some clementine slices and a raspberry chipotle sauce as the dressing for our salad. I thought it turned out pretty good! The duck breasts were cooked over, based on all of the information I read and the medium rare it was supposed to be. But we both still really enjoyed the flavor, and I think we may have even felt better eating the meat cooked a little more than recommended.

Other than the butchering part (which I'm pretty sure I did very poorly), this was pretty darn easy. It just took some patience and attention to turn out a delicious duck breast.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Bucatini a la Carbonara with Ciabatta Bread

I was pretty nerdy yesterday, and I actually woke up excited to cook dinner. ha   Yesterday was my chance to try Carbonara in our kitchen, with just our four hands and our amateur skills. We also made up some fresh ciabatta dough, and baked it off while we were building our pasta dish.

The bread turned out soft and flavorful in the middle. There was a very crisp crust on the outside, which I think was correct, but maybe a little too crisp for our personal taste. So next time, we might try less flour on top, a little oil on top and less spritzing with water during baking.

The pasta was awesome. Our noodles were slightly too al dente for the hubby's liking and our sauce was slightly too watered down. I believe we added some extra starchy water at the wrong time... So we'll know better next time. But NO SCRAMBLED EGGS!!! I was so excited that we did that right!

On top of that, I've officially started my own stash of bacon fat!  haha   Something that my dad had in the house every once in a while and my wonderfully talented friend swears by, I figured it was my turn to jump on the bandwagon. It kind of makes me feel like a real cook, keeping a weird jar of fat in my fridge.  hahaha

Blue Christmas Cookies

We frosted the cookies blue because the hubs had never seen a blue cookie before, and to be honest with ya, we wanted to eat some blue cookies.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

My Culinary Education

As a perfect culmination to this year filled with cooking and adventurous eating, I had the awesome opportunity to learn some of the harder dish techniques from my wonderful friend who is a professional chef. As a graduate from CIA, she is my "phone a friend" whenever something isn't going quite right in the kitchen. She blew me away by teaching me how to perfect some of my favorite and scariest dishes during our visit. I'm not really sure that she could have give me a better Christmas gift. It was perfect!

We started the first night with boiled whole lobsters. At the grocery store, they pulled them out of the tank still kicking and crawling around, threw them in a brown bag and sent us on our way! The trick (I learned) is to put them in the freezer for 30-45 minutes before boiling them. This kind of knocks them out, so no screaming! Along with some lemon butter and a real education in getting all that meat out of the shells, I was one step closer to my year-end goals!

The next evening, we made a spaghetti carbonara, which I've always been afraid to do. I've just always been sure that I'd mess up the egg sauce and make scrambled eggs instead. So she showed me how it's really done, and man was it so delicious! I cannot wait to make this recipe along with her ridiculous ciabatta bread. I'm thinking this might be the winner for this weekend.

In addition, she made fried calamari, duck breast, tuna tartare, croissants, and eggs benedict. My favorite breakfast dish, I was blown away by how perfect her poached eggs turned out and how creamy wonderful her hollandaise sauce was! I wasn't expecting that amazing treat, but that was really one of my favorites of the weekend. She also prepped duck confit and showed me how to butcher a whole duck for the dish. Unfortunately, we didn't get the chance to eat that one before we headed off to the airport. Although I'm sure it was just as amazing as everything else had been all week. I can't wait to take everything I learned and put it to use in our kitchen!!