Friday, June 8, 2012

Goodbye to School Year: Kids Make Fettucine Alfredo

Lots of cream and butter make sloppy good eats
By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook
How do you tempt kids off the playground on the last day of school?

Tell 'em you've got fettucine Alfredo waiting for them in the multi-purpose room.

Legend has it that this dish was named after a Roman restaurateur--Alfredo Di Lelio--who used it to keep American tourists coming back. It may be the most decadent pasta dishes ever invented, swimming in sinful amounts of butter, cream and Parmesan cheese.

How could kids not love it, especially when they get to crank out their own noodles on the pasta machine.

Fresh pasta is much softer and cooks much quicker than the dried commercial variety. To my taste, it definitely has a place in a well-equipped kitchen. The simple machine I own will make fettucine or thinner linguine noodles. All you have to do is make a dough, starting with flour and eggs.

Commerical pasta typically is made with semolina, a harder variety of flour. Semolina is not so easily found, and it's definitely more difficult to work with at home. Feel free to use all-purpose flour, or a blend of all-purpose and whole wheat (or try white whole wheat).

Place two cups flour on a clean work surface in a volcano shape, then use your measuring cup to create a deep well in the center. Into the well crack two eggs and pour in 1/8 cup water. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Stir the eggs and water vigorously with a fork to blend, then gradually work in flour from the edges of the well. Continue this process--stirring and working in flour--until you have a thick mass and can draw in more flour with your hands to form a ball. Don't worry if you can't incorporate all of the flour. The pasta seems to know how much flour it actually needs.

Knead the dough a few times with your hands until it holds together. You can finish the kneading process by rolling the dough through your pasta machine. First, divide your dough ball into four pieces. Pass each about a dozen repeat rolls through the machine at the lowest setting, folding the dough in half after each pass and dusting occasionally with flour if it's sticky. The end result should be a smooth, elastic dough. (You can finish kneading by hand if you like. In fact, you don't need a pasta machine at all to make these noodles. Just roll out pieces of dough with a rolling pin, then roll the finished sheets into cigar shapes, dusting them first with flour, and cut into fettucine-sized widths with a sharp knife.)
Even kids can make perfect fettucine noodles
If you are using the machine, simply pass your sheets of dough through the fettucine setting. We cut ours both ways--by hand and with the machine. The machine obviously is faster. But we're not looking for speed in our cooking classes. We're trying to keep the kids busy and teach them how to cook without fancy gadgets. This way they learn pasta noodles with or without a machine.

Toss the finished noodles with a little corn meal and spread them out on your work table to dry a little while you bring a big pot of salted water to a boil and prepare your sauce.

For the Alfredo sauce, melt four tablespoons butter in a heavy skillet, then add 1 large clove garlic, finely chopped, and saute over moderate heat until the garlic is soft. Then add 1 cup heavy cream and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and continue cooking the cream at a light boil until it thickens. Don't worry if it gets foamy and rises up in your pan. Just stir frequently with a whisk and take it off the heat momentarily if necessary. When it reaches the desired thickness, stir in 1 cup or more of finely grated Parmesan cheese and a generous pinch of nutmeg. Remove it from the heat.

Meanwhile, cook your noodles. They shouldn't take long--maybe five minutes. When they are al dente (to the tooth), drain them well in a colander, then pour them into your skillet with the Alfredo sauce. Toss the noodles well to coat, then add a good fistful of chopped parsley.
Special treat for last day of school
The kids eagerly slurped their fettucine Alfredo out of hot drink cups. But you can serve yours in a bowl. Sloppy eating doesn't get any better than this.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Kids Make Mussels Venetian Style

Sloppy eating at its best
By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Welcome to Italy!

Our food appreciation classes landed in Venice this week and there are so many culinary adventures to be had in Italy I think we may be here for a while.

Venice is famous for its art, its canals and its gondolas. But it also happens to be situated on the Adriatic. Consequently, Venetians love their seafood.

Mussels are one of my favorite foods. They are a great source of protein that's relatively cheap compared to other aquatic species. And mussels are abundant, both in the wild and in the farmed seafood economy, which is more environmentally friendly than many other fisheries. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program rates farmed mussels a "best choice" because "they are farmed in an environmentally responsible way." Here in the Mid-Atlantic, farmed mussels are readily available from Prince Edward Island in Canada.

Like oysters, mussels are a bivalve, meaning the creature lives inside a shell and filters food from the surrounding water. In the wild, mussels attach themselves with filaments to rocks or wooden piers. These "beards" needs to be pulled off before you eat them. Mussels spoil quickly so they must be alive and odorless when you purchase them. The shells should be tightly closed. If not, you can test them by pinching the shells closed. If the shells stay closed, the mussel is still alive. If not, throw it away. Keep them refrigerated until you plan to use them, preferably within a few hours of purchase.

Many cultures have recipes for mussels. The Belgians love theirs steamed with a side of french fries. In Venice, the preparation is extremely simple and the mussels can be eaten as a starter or as a main course. They are delicious hot off the stove, or at room temperature as an antipasto, or even chilled served in the shell or in a salad.

To start, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil in the bottom of a heavy pot. Over moderate heat, saute until soft (about 5 minutes) one fairly large shallot, diced small and seasoned with a generous pinch of salt. Add 2 pounds cleaned mussels and douse with about 1/3 cup white wine (we used non-alcoholic wine in our classes: it works just as well). Place the lid on the pot and allow the mussels to steam until fully cooked. As the mussels cook, the shells open. The meat should be plump and firm when done. Discard any shells that do not open.
Simple goodness: steamed mussels
Stir a fistful of chopped parsley into the pot and distribute the mussels into warm bowls along with some of the broth. Younger kids may be skeptical about the wisdom of eating mussels, but the older ones love pulling the meat out with their fingers, making this a great sloppy fun meal. Be sure to have a good bread on hand for sopping up the broth.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Kids Make Chocolate Mousse

Can't beat chocolate in a cup
By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow cook

The kids in my food appreciation classes are always begging for something sweet. They'd be delighted if we just made cookies and cupcakes every week. Well, I finally obliged. It being near the end of the school year, I figured they were due for a treat. And since we had stopped in Switzerland on our virtual world food tour, we couldn't really pass up a chance to make something with chocolate.

How about a cup of chocolate mousse?

Well, it may not be traditional Swiss, but this recipe is all about chocolate. Plus, the kids get to learn some really valuable kitchen lessons--like how to make custard, how to temper hot cream in egg yolks, how to use a double boiler to melt chocolate, how to fold the chocolate into whipped cream.
They passed with flying colors.

My wife's first comment about our chocolate mousse was, we didn't use the best chocolate. The response to that is, we do try to budget our expenses in these classes. I admit that where we might have spent a fortune on the chocolate (and you certainly may if you like), we instead opted for the Baker's brand, which provides twice as much chocolate for the same price at Ghiradelli's. And I don't think the kids noticed at all.

You won't want to start this without the right equipment: At least three stainless or glass mixing bowls, one large and two medium; a heavy 1-quart sauce pan; a double boiler if you have one (you can also just place a mixing bowl over a pot of water); a good whisk; a fine-meshed sieve. An instant-read thermometer is really helpful.

Plan on making the mousse a day ahead, then refrigerating the finished dessert overnight.

Start by separating four eggs, whisking the yolks together with 3 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and a pinch of salt in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Next, heat 3/4 cup whipping cream (you'll need another 1 1/4---2 cups altogether--later on) over moderate heat in a heavy 1-quart sauce pan until the cream is just hot to the touch. Drizzle the hot cream into the the egg yolk mix, whisking continuously, until fully incorporated. You want to slowly "temper" the yolks so they don't cook.

To make the custard, pour the egg yolk mix into the sauce pan and heat it, stirring frequently, over moderately low heat until it reaches a temperature of 160 degrees, as measured by your instant-read thermometer. If you don't have an instant-read thermometer, you'll know the custard is finished when it coats the bottom of the pan fairly heavily. It will thicken quickly at this point and you want to be careful not to cook the yolks.

Remove the pan immediately from the heat and pour the custard back into the mixing bowl, passing it through a fine-meshed sieve to catch any bits of cooked egg.

Set the egg mix aside and melt 7 ounces bittersweet (or semi-sweet) chocolate, either in a double-boiler, or by placing a second medium-sized mixing bowl over a sauce pan of lightly boiling water. (You can use the same sauce pan as the one you heated your cream in. Just clean it out first.) When the chocolate has completely melted, stir it into the egg custard until fully incorporated. Refrigerate while you whip your cream. (I like to chill the chocolate mix until it has cooled at least to room temperature.)

In a large mixing bowl, whip your remaining 1 1/4 cups cream to stiff peaks. Fold about one-quarter of it into the chocolate custard, then pour the custard into the large bowl and fold in the remaining whipped cream. Fold gently, using a rubber spatula to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl. You don't want to knock the air out of the whipped cream. In fact, it's okay to stop folding when the mousse is still lightly streaked brown and white. Or you can continue folding until the cream is completely incorporated in the chocolate.

"Mousse" means "foamy" in French, just like the stuff you put on your hair. And that's the texture--more or less--you want to end up with when you serve the finished dessert. You can either place the entire bowl in the fridge and divide it into individual servings later, or you can scoop the mousse into cups (or cocktail glasses, if you want a really elegant effect) and place those on a sheet pan that fits in your refrigerator.

I think you'll be quite proud of yourself when you see how good this is.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Kids Make Cheese Fondue

Hang on to your bread!
By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Years ago, in another lifetime as a budding newspaper reporter, I wrote a rather snooty piece for the Washington Post about the proper way to make Swiss fondue.

I suppose having lived a couple of years in Switzerland I felt entitled to pontificate on how frequently the American version of fondue strayed from the authentic Swiss original I had come to know. Fondue should only be made with a blend of classic Swiss cheeses, I intoned; only the true Swiss wine--Fendant--will suffice; corn starch should never be used as a thickener in place of potato starch; the mix must contain a generous splash of Kirsch, the cherry liqueur.

Well, guess what. You can make a decent fondue with the processed Harris Teeter brand Swiss cheese at our local supermarket. Corn starch and a generic alcohol-free white wine work just fine. And the kids never missed the Kirsch. In fact they had a blast with this fondue, forming a conga line around our prep table to take turns dipping their cubes of bread in the bubbling brew.

You don't need a fancy fondue set for this either, although it helps to have a small, heavy pot in which to melt the cheese into the wine. Ours is a Le Creuset--enameled cast-iron. Also, we did not have any of those fancy, long fondue forks. We used inexpensive wooden skewers from the grocery store.

If you really want to impress your friends, by all means do seek out a pound of real Swiss cheese. Opt for 1/2 pound Gruyere, 1/4 pound Emmentaler, and 1/4 pound Raclette. These are all good melting cheeses. Your local wine merchant may carry Fendant. Otherwise, almost any dry white wine will do. You'll need 1 1/2 cups. And a good liquor store will assuredly carry Kirsch. You only need a couple of tablespoons, though, and you can substitute wine.

We used non-alcoholic wine with the kids in our classes, for obvious reasons.

First, cut a loaf of sturdy country bread into 1-inch cubes. I like to toast these a little in a 350-degree oven while we are preparing the rest of the fondue.

While the bread is in the oven, grate  1 pound Swiss cheese over the large holes on a box grater. In a small, heavy pot, meanwhile, bring 1 1/2 cups white wine almost to a boil, then gently add the grated cheese to the wine. (This is usually done on the stove top, the finished fondue later transferred to a special fondue stand over a can of sterno or some other heat source. We made our fondue on our portable butane burner at our prep table, which worked perfectly.)

Stir the cheese continuously until it is completely melted and incorporated in the wine. Then add 2 tablespoons corn starch (or potato starch) thoroughly mixed with 2 tablespoons Kirsch (or white wine). Continue stirring, seasoning the mix with 1/4 teaspoon white pepper, a generous pinch of ground nutmeg, and salt as needed. When the fondue begins to bubble, lower the heat. You want to keep the cheese melted, but you don't want to burn the bottom.

Now you are ready to start dipping your bread. Make sure the bread is firmly skewered. The rule is, any girl who loses her bread in the pot has to kiss all the boys at the table. Any boy who loses his has to buy everyone a round of drinks.

This recipe will easily make a meal for six or eight people. In fact, I challenge you to finish the whole thing.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Kids Make Strawberry Shortcake

It doesn't get any better than this
By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

If there's a better dessert any simpler than strawberry shortcake, I don't know what it is.
Our food appreciation classes are tooling around central Europe on their virtual world culinary tour, but I couldn't resist all the strawberries showing up lately in the grocery store. So we took a break from our foreign travels to whip up one of my favorite classic U.S. desserts: strawberry shortcake.

We don't go for that sugary, spongy stuff the supermarkets sell for shortcake. No, to my mind a genuine strawberry shortcake depends on a biscuit with perfect crumb, a biscuit with just enough savoriness to show off the ripe berries with a sweet dollop of whipped cream.

But before you get to the biscuits, you'll want to macerate your strawberries in a little sugar. Trim and cut 1 pound of strawberries into bite-size pieces, then toss them in a bowl with a tablespoon or more of granulated sugar. Set them aside while you prepare your biscuits. The sugar will draw the juices out of the berries--you'll want that to pour over your shortcake later.

For the biscuits, whisk together in a large mixing bowl  1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, 3 teaspoons baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt. Into the mix cut 6 tablespoons butter into small pieces. This is your shortening, and the really fun part for the kids, because you need to "cut" that butter into the flour, meaning pinching the flour and butter together with the tips of your fingers until the mix resembles beach sand.

This takes a bit of practice. Some of the kids want to grab handfuls of flour and butter. So I work right alongside them, pinching, pinching, pinching. Each kid gets a turn, and in a few minutes it's perfectly done.

Now into the dry mix stir 3/4 cup milk. The milk activates the baking powder, causing the biscuits to rise in the oven. The dough may be a little sticky at this point. If so, just sprinkle in some more flour. The key to a great southern biscuit is not overworking the dough. You just want to incorporate all of the ingredients, then turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead it a couple of times until it holds together.

Pat the dough out to a thickness of 3/4 to 1 inch--thicker of course will result in taller biscuits. In our classes, we used a paper drinking cup with the bottom cut out to cut the dough into rounds. This made 15 2-inch biscuits, a perfect size for our classes. But if you want fewer biscuits but larger, just choose a bigger biscuit cutters.

Place the biscuit rounds on an un-greased baking sheet and bake in a 450-degree oven until the tops begin to show just a bit of brown, about 13 minutes. Set the biscuits aside to cool.

To assemble the dessert, mash the macerated strawberries with a potato masher. Slice the biscuits in half, or pry them in half with a fork. Spoon a generous portion of berries and their juices over the bottom half of the biscuit. Top this with a dollop of vanilla-flavored whipped cream. Then place the top half of the biscuit over the whipped cream, or cock it to one side for show.

I'll bet you've never had a springtime dessert better than this.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Kids Make Wiener Schnitzel

It takes a tough kid to make a tender schnitzel
By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Our food appreciation classes have landed in Austria on their virtual world culinary tour and we went straight for a classic dish: Wiener schnitzel. That means veal cutlet in the Viennese style, traditionally pounded thin with a mallet, then dredged in bread crumbs and fried.
Many people object to veal--the meat of a male beef calf--because of the way it is raised. Too often the calves are confined to small crates, prevented from moving to keep their flesh tender. They may be deprived of iron to keep the meat pale.

Veal is a natural consequence of the dairy industry. Cows must give birth in order to produce milk and half the calves they bear are males, which do no good in the dairy barn. Despite the controversy surrounding veal, we don't want to shiled our kids from the issues, but rather teach them how to make better choices without eliminating entire chapters from the culinary lexicon. So we bought our veal from Whole Foods, which assures customers that its veal calves are raised on pasture, where they can romp with other cows.

But if you still have a problem with veal, you can substitute chicken breast in this recipe. (I don't know of a vegetarian option.)

Figure 1 pound of veal cutlets for four to six persons. First you'll need to make some bread crumbs. Two thick slices from a country-style loaf should do. Tear the white part from the crust in small pieces and bake these in a 350-degree oven until they are completely dry and show the first signs of browning around the edges. When they've cooled, you can chop them fine, or run them through a food processor.

Next, use a tenderizing mallet or another heavy object such as a rolling pin to pound the veal cutlets thin. They will of course grow wider and longer as they get thinner. For our classes, we placed the cutlets between sheets of plastic wrap to keep our mallet clean.
Schnitzel with red cabbage and Caesar salad
To fry the cutlets, you'll want a large, heavy skillet filled with cooking oil to a depth of about 1/8 inch. Nearby, make a dredging assembly line. We used three aluminum pans for this, one containing about 1 cup all-purpose flour seasoned with salt, the second containing 2 eggs beaten with a bit of water, and the third containing our bread crumbs. Heat the skillet over moderately high heat until the oil is hot and shimmering, then dredge one of your cutlets first in the flour, then in the egg mix, then in the bread crumbs. Lower the cutlet into the oil and fry until golden on both sides. You'll probably want to fry two cutlets at a time. Drain them on paper towels and hold in a warm oven before serving.

We used our portable butane burner for this so that we could set up the entire dredging and cooking operation on our prep table in front of the kids. In smaller groups, the older kids can take charge of the dredging and frying, but they must be very careful around the hot oil.

You can serve the finished schnitzel with almost any kind of side dish: french fries, braised cabbage, spaetzle. Use your imagination, but by all means include a wedge of lemon. Our kids could not get enough.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Kids Make Spaetzle

Spaetzle: messy but good

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Marco Polo notwithstanding, most food cultures seem to have some version of a noodle in their culinary arsenals. Germany may have the messiest. Called "spaetzle"--or "little sparrows"--this noodle starts with a sticky dough that falls somewhere between pancake batter and library paste and must be pressed through holes into a pot of boiling water.

What? You say you don't care for clouds of steam billowing up your sleeve? You aren't ready to make a gooey, sticky mess out of your favorite box grater? Pish, posh. Spaetzle, it turns out, are quite delicious and worth a little extra pain in the kitchen. Think of a noodle that's almost a pastry, flavored with a bit of nutmeg.

The great dilemma in non-German culinary circles is that most kitchens are not equipped with the standard spaetzle making tool, which looks like a long grater or a plain with large holes. It typically comes with a metal cup to hold the dough, the cup sliding back and forth over the holes. The holes cut the dough, which then dribbles into the boiling water to form the "little sparrows."

Some cooks improvise by pressing the dough through a colander. I think the holes in most colanders are too small, so I opt for my box grater. You have to hold the box grater at an angle over the boiling water so that the dough falls through the opening and not onto the opposite inside wall of the grater.

Once you've got all that figured out, making the actual spaetzle is a snap.

In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 cup all-purpose flour with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper and 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg. In a second bowl, beat two eggs with 1/4 cup milk. Pour the egg mix into the dry ingredients and stir until a smooth, sticky dough forms.

Over a large pot of boiling water, using a stiff rubber or plastic spatula, scrape portions of dough against the large holes of a box grater (or your favorite spaetzle tool), allowing the dough to dribble into the water and cook. Repeat this process until you've used all of the dough. When the noddles are fully cooked, drain them into a colander.

For the finishing touch, melt about 4 tablespoons butter in a large skillet. Over moderately high heat, add the spaetzle and cook, tossing frequently, until the noodles show just the slightest hint of browning.

We served the finished noodles with some brown gravy. They make an ideal side dish to a typical German meal of sausage and braised red cabbage, in which case they are even better dressed with a little gravy.