Monthly Archives: October 2006

Clearing Out the Cupboards

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been working some pretty long hours this past week. I’ve been staffed on a project that’s to last a minimum of another two weeks so more of the same is ahead of me. As I get paid by the hour, that’s some nice overtime in the bank; however, that schedule also takes its toll in other areas.

One of those is my eating and diet. Losing 10+ hours in opportunity costs (the amount of overtime I billed this week), doesn’t make it easy to prepare, shop and plan for mealtimes. Perhaps it is for these reasons that the new Real Simple Food was appealing to me. I’ve enjoyed the regular magazine and often found some good tips in it, so I was interested to see what tidbits a version solely dedicated to food would tell me.

With hints about speeding up prep time, sample meals, and suggestions for what to stock in one’s pantry, the magazine tries to address how to feed ourselves and our families with our time-starved lifestyles. It made me think that it was also long time since I had overhauled my own kitchen cabinets and fridge.

One item I think is really useful is “The periodic table of produce.” It goes through how to store and how long to keep various items. For me this is always a challenge as I’m not always up for preparing dinner after working overtime. Sometimes, I have to admit, food goes bad before I have a chance to eat it. Hopefully, having this reference on hand, I’ll be able to make smarter shopping decisions.

Now, in a soul-baring first, I’m going to throw open the contents of my refrigerator and cabinets. I know that they are not the best-stocked they’ve ever been, but I think that they have some good options. I just need to do a big shop to fill in the missing pieces and to restock some of those things I’ve used up.

A selection of spices is always good to dress up dinner

Oils and vinegars for cooking and marinades

Nothing in the freezer except chicken, puff pastry, filo, and cookie dough

Look: frozen peas, some pine nuts and almonds, and back-up coffee

Not much in the fridge except some breakfast food and cheese

Hmm…wonder from whom I learned to put foot lotion in the door…

Always good to have garlic, shallots and onions available

Coffee (of course), granola and pasta are always readily at hand

Baking supplies are top-shelf

And look what I found hidden in the back! Good thing I didn’t buy this again.

Buon appetito!

Burgers Baby!

Having pulled two 10-hour-plus days back-to-back, I felt I was entitled to pre-spend some of my future overtime earnings on dinner. Even the above pile of take-out menus didn’t seem all that inspiring as far as choice. I’m not sure if it’s just me, or my iron-deficiency cravings, but burgers seem to be a much-discussed topic in blogland lately. Even Frank Bruni was interviewed in A Hamburger Today.

I’ve written before about one of my favorite spots to grab a burger when the weather’s nice in the city (see link). Tonight, however, that was too far to trek from my Midtown office building. I headed towards my apartment and stopped in at a local restaurant instead.

You know this place. Almost every area has one. It has reliable, tasty food and a solid menu. It’s the place you think of for Sunday brunch or Saturday lunch, the place to take out of town guests to grab a bite their first night in town, and where you know the game is on (doesn’t matter which one) every night. Most of all, it is the place where you can grab a good, meaty burger and at a reasonable price.

Isn’t that lovely? Look at those fries – crispy and fluffy at the same time. I have a friend who can eat a whole portion in a matter of minutes. My burger came medium rare, as usual, covered in melted cheddar cheese, served on a toasted kaiser roll.

My additions were the standard for me: ketchup, mustard (not the yellow American kind), and a slice of red onion. It’s a ritual for me when I decide that a burger is the thing to hit that hunger spot. In general, I skip the lettuce and tomato. It just interferes in my opinion. Besides, they always seem to slip and slide out of the bun.

So, here’s a salute to those local joints, the ones that keep us fed when we are hungry and also serve us what our soul craves.

Buon Appetito!

Croque Monsieur/Madame

Croque Monsieur

I knew from the first minute I woke up this morning that it was raining outside. I could hear the sloshy sound of cars traveling on the streets, water spitting out from under their wheels. What a great excuse to lie around in bed all day. Then, my stomach started to grumble a little. Obviously, it had other ideas for what I should be doing at that moment. I threw back my fluffy duvet and rolled myself out of bed, literally. I knew that I really had too much to do today to waste all of it sleeping.

Stumbling to the kitchen, still a bit bleary-eyed, I opened the fridge. Hmm, let’s see, there’s ham, cheese, milk, butter, eggs, and I know I have bread in the freezer. Inspired by something that was on the company cafeteria’s menu last week, I realized I had on hand the ingredients to make Croque Monsieur. Although bit unorthodox for breakfast, this is one of my favorite all-time, top-5 sandwiches. Toast (how could one go wrong with that?), ham, melted cheese, and béchamel, then lightly grilled. Add an Orangina, and one could almost feel as though it was lunchtime in Paris.

Croque Madame

So, I was cheating just a bit to be eating this in the morning. To make it more brunch-y, when I was done cooking, I made a huge cappuccino, poured a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and fried an egg to make it into a Croque Madame.

Croque Monsieur/Madame

Prep Time: 45 minutes (with making béchamel)
Serves: 4 people
8 slices white bread, crusts removed (can save for another use)
8 slices ham, thinly cut
1 1/2 cups Gruyère cheese, shredded
1 cup Béchamel (see recipe below)
The first thing to do is to prep the sandwich. Toast the bread. Place a slice of ham on one of the pieces of toast. Place 2 Tbsp of the grated cheese on the ham. Add another slice of ham on top of the cheese. Put the other piece of toast on top. Set aside.
The next step is to make the béchamel (explicit directions and photos below). Add the rest of the shredded cheese to the hot white sauce. Preheat oven to 400o Farenheit (200o Centigrade, Gas Mark 6).
Butter the outside of each sandwich. Place them on a baking sheet. Spoon one-quarter of the béchamel-gruyère mixture on each sandwich, spreading it out to the completely coat the top of the bread. Put baking sheet under the broiler for 4-5 minutes, watching carefully to make sure that they do not burn. When golden brown, remove from oven.
Look at the results. Enjoy!  [If making the Croque Madame version, fry an egg and add it on top after removing the Croque Monsieur from the oven.]

A classic white sauce or béchamel is one of the building blocks of any culinary repertoire. It is incredibly versatile. I think I’ve been making this in one form or another since I was in my early teens. I can remember my mom making this when I was a child, whether as a base for macaroni and cheese (pre the blue boxed version) or for that Lenten staple in our household – Tuna Tettrazini.
Béchamel (classic white sauce)
Prep Time: 15-20 minutes
Serves: 4 people for recipe above
Ingredients: 3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 cups whole milk (do not use low-fat or skim)
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper (white is preferable but not mandatory)
1 tsp dry ground mustard
Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat. Stir in flour and let cook for 2-3 minutes until it is completely incorporated into the butter, and the mixture is very light golden brown, do not let it get too dark. This is a roux (see photo).
Roux (flour and butter mixed together)
Gradually add the milk, at first one tablespoon at a time. Whisk into the roux. Let all the milk get absorbed into the butter-flour mixture. It will start to resemble the paste that you used in elementary (primary) school. Please don’t do what I did and let it stick to the bottom of the pan (this is not a tragedy but it will leave darker brown flakes in the final dish). Using a non-stick pan is not necessary, but paying attention to it is.
A paste-like consistency
Then, continue to add more milk, still one tablespoon at a time. Whisk constantly. As it is soaked up into the roux after each addition, it slowly becomes creamier and smoother. At this stage, it looks like a purée.
At this point, it is possible to start adding the milk in slightly greater amounts, until all the milk has been added. Continue to stir thoroughly after each addition of milk or the sauce will develop lumps. After all the milk has been added, continue to whisk mixture and let cook for 2-3 minutes more until it starts to bubble. Remove from the heat.
Add salt and pepper. Taste. For this recipe with the Croque Monsieur/Madame, I added the dry ground mustard. For other recipes, nutmeg or no extra seasoning is preferable.
The finished product

If the mixture seems too thick (remember for this version it will go on top of a sandwich and be grilled), you can add more milk to thin it out. If you do decided to do this, you will need to add the additional liquid by tablespoons again and completely incorporate so that your sauce does not fall apart.

This is how much this recipe makes; plenty for a few sandwiches!

Buon appetito!