Friday, April 26, 2013

Apéritif Friday - Seafood Smörgåsbord

I feel like I'm beating a dead horse over here, but I can't stop Genuinely Speaking about the seafood obsession that took hold of my family after our return from California. A few days later, it was the mussels. A week later, I wanted shrimp, but Mr. Musky had other oceanic crustaceans on his brain. So we compromised, and cooked an all out Seafood Smörgåsbord.

We rarely go out to dinner anymore, for a variety of reasons. Primarily, the cost. We can prepare a satisfying, delicious meal at home for a fraction of the cost, and we enjoy spending time together in the kitchen. The price of our beloved apéritif alone could break the bank in Chicagoland, not to mention the obligatory glass of wine with dinner and the meal itself. So instead, we declare Friday afternoons "Date Day" and go out to lunch together. Sometimes we'll catch a movie, sometimes we'll go shopping, sometimes I struggle with placing a golfball into a tiny hole. We try to do this once every couple of weeks in the fall, winter and spring. Summer will find us on our boat at the cabin nearly every Friday Happy Hour.

So after a light lunch in nearby Naperville a few weeks ago, we meandered around a couple of shops (code: Apple store for him, kitchen store for me), then made our way to a seafood shop. Mr. Musky picked out a couple of lobster tails and some king crab legs for our feast later that night.

Meanwhile, I received texts from my eldest demanding, "WHERE ARE YOU MOM?!?!" I guess I'm not allowed to venture out while leaving my car in the garage, because visions of alien zombie vampire kidnappers race across the imaginative brain of a hormonal teenager who requests a ride to the mall at precisely 3:32 p.m. because OH MY GOSH I WANT TO USE MY BABYSITTING MONEY TO BUY A NEW TOP FOR THE PARTY TOMORROW NIGHT CAN YOU PLEASE GET HOME AS SOON AS POSSIBLE BECAUSE WE TALKED ABOUT THIS AND WE ARE LATE PICKING UP MY FRIENDS!"


So the minute we got home and I saw the teenager waiting in the garage for me, I hopped into the car and we were off.

"Oh by the it OK if we go to the outdoor mall since it's so nice outside and can you pick up my friend who lives across the interstate?"

"Yes. And Yes."

Sigh. I truly did tell her that I'd drive her and her friends to the mall, but I didn't realize that one of them lived two minutes away as the crow flies, yet 40 minutes away by automobile thanks to the incompetent Illinois Department of Transportation who lays out the roadways around here. now it was 5:00. On a Friday. In Chicago. Which is at the very top of the list of Why I Left Corporate America.

Rush Hour Traffic. It is Satan hard at work to make people positively insane.

So needless to say, I called Mr. Musky on my way home and asked for a little favor. To pretty please, with sugar on top, make me a giant Sapphire Martini, straight up, with a lemon twist. I needed the big guns to get my head back to its happy place, and he willingly obliged. I walked into the door to this:
Goodness, I love that man. He also asked me what music I wanted to hear. Feeling a bit melancholy after all that traffic, I requested Sarah McLachlan on Muse. However, three songs later and ready to commit myself for depression therapy, I asked him to sauce it up. I closed my eyes, inhaled the aroma of juniper berry and nine other exotic botanicals, and felt my hips start to sway as Stevie Ray Vaughan's sexy, raspy, bluesy voice began serenading me.

Not only does he make a killer drink, but that man o' mine also knows what gets my soul.

While I was out fighting every other car in suburbia, he split the king crab legs with kitchen shears, prepared the lobster and assembled the ingredients I'd need for our Shrimp Two Ways.
So yes - Shrimp Curry. I've never made it before, but I had coconut milk in the pantry. Because obviously, all midwesterners have that on hand at all times. Riiight. Actually, my mother-in-law gave me some when she moved to Palm Springs. Which might just be the biggest puzzler of all. Why would she ever have coconut milk gathering dust on her shelf?

The only thing I can come up with is to make Pina Coladas. That has to be it. And clearly, that didn't happen because my pantry was the proud recipient of her failed apéritif. So the Coconut Milk, along with 1T red curry paste, 1-2T fish sauce, 2 and 1/3 cups chicken stock, 1 cup wild rice blend, 1/2 pound of peeled and deveined shrimp, 2T of brown sugar and 1/2 cup frozen peas are all you'll need for this creamy, curiously delicious and not-too-spicy dish.

Knowing the rice alone (simmering, covered, with 2 cups of the chicken stock, 1T butter and a pinch of salt) would take 50 minutes to cook, I decided to start with a simple, yet oh-so-good shrimp appetizer.
Seasoned Shrimp sautéed in butter. The fancy salt - Flor del Delta - was my kitchen store purchase earlier in the day, and I'm smitten. Salt, dill, tarragon, star anise all combined for an instant seasoning. Yummy stuff. I simply sprinkled it on the shrimp, melted a tablespoon of butter in a cast iron skillet, and plopped in the shrimp to cook a couple of minutes on each side while the rice simmered away.
Then I whipped up a simple sauce to dip the shrimp in...because there's just something about dip. It's fun, versatile and makes something yummy taste even better. My new go-to?
Mayonnaise with a healthy squirt of Siracha Chili Sauce. We use it on burgers, chicken, turkey sandwiches and sausages, so why not for shrimp, too? Delicious. I added a squeeze of lemon and some of the zest for added freshness. Sometimes I'll throw in chopped cilantro, lime zest, garlic powder and a squirt of lime juice for an awesome POP that gets the back of your tongue. Good stuff.
Needless to say, our tasty little appetizer tided us over and went so very well with my hefty cocktail, which ended up being the only apéritif I needed all night. Meanwhile, out on the grill, Mr. Musky went to work on the crab legs and lobster while he sipped on some Charddonay.
I honestly don't know how he does this, other than just grill it until it's done, being careful not to overcook it so it's not rubbery in texture. He just cooks the meat until it's opaque. While I... down to business on the curry. I adapted the directions from the back of the Thai Red Curry Paste jar and it couldn't be simpler to make. I simmered the coconut milk with the curry paste for about five minutes. Then I added the brown sugar, 1/3 cup chicken stock and the peas. Oh...and the fish sauce. Let me pause for a minute. Have you ever smelled fish sauce? Out of a bottle? Well, I have. And it almost got the boot based purely on its funk. Like a hairy human who hasn't showered for months. I figured it's such a small amount, I might as well throw it in there. But not before asking Mr. Musky to give it a good whiff first.
Hee hee hee. To be polite and not swear, it smells like a rotten butthole. Miller probably wouldn't care and would like some on his dog food.
I cooked the sauce for ten minutes on low heat, then added the shrimp and simmered it for another 3-5 minutes. So pretty!
By then, the rice was perfectly cooked to al dente... I topped it with some of the Shrimp Curry.
And despite an underlying, forceful urge to schlurp it up and drink it like a neanderthal, I forced myself to wait for the rest of my family, and the rest of the buffet.
Which was unquestionably worth the wait. Look who magically appeared at the words Crab Leg?
He who has not yet a busy social calendar. Unlike some, who are happy as a clam to indulge in leftovers.
In the dark, with her biggest fan, while she shows and tells of her latest shopping triumphs.

And the fish sauce? Couldn't even taste or smell the fermented fishy odor once it was in the sauce. I liken it to Vinegar or Worcestershire. You wouldn't drink either of those straight from the bottle, but they are awesome ingredients to include when warranted. I put fish sauce on that same playing field. It brought a certain depth and another layer of flavor to the dish, which would certainly lack without it. But I won't be trying a Fish Sauce Challenge in my future. Ever.

Needless to say, I am soooo making Shrimp Curry again. It was divine, and the leftovers didn't last 24 hours.

Thank you, Scandinavians, for bringing us the uniquely adaptable and palate-pleasing Smörgåsbord.


Friday, April 19, 2013

Apéritif Friday - Chimichangas, by the Youngest

My thirteen-year-old recently began demonstrating interest in the kitchen. It began last fall with a desire for a grilled cheese sandwich the minute a certain mother finished cleaning up the mess from breakfast. Why do the children always know when you're flipping off the last light switch, abandoning all things culinary until dinner, and request a meal?

It's an uncanny sixth sense, I tell ya.

So I decided it was time for my youngest to begin acquiring some important kitchen skills of his own, like the refined art of making a grilled cheese sandwich and the disgusting, neon orange, mass manufactured pasta out of a blue box.

He's a quick learner, that one, and just a few months later asked to help prepare the Thanksgiving meal in Grandma's kitchen. He was immediately put to prep work, and found that he gains some bizarre sense of accomplishment by chopping onions while fighting back tears.

So I was not much surprised when he came to me a few weeks ago asking if he could cook an entire meal start-to-finish. Thrilled to kick back and focus on my apéritif for a change, I conceded. I carefully chose a meal in his wheelhouse that required plenty of chopping, a bit of spice, heavy on the meat but also with some vegetables cooked into the concoction. But a dish we've never had before, so he could call it his own. Call me crazy, but I'm constantly searching for subtle ways to boost my kids' confidence without employing the over used, annoyingly cheery statement, "Good job!"

I think we need to give our kids tasks, whether they are willing participants or not, and let them master things on their own in order to feel their own sense of triumph. We don't need to hover, and we definitely don't need to baby them. There's too much of that crap going on. Let them do something on their own and feel the sense of pride that comes along with it naturally.

Like cooking a kick-assed meal (because seriously, that's what it was) and listening to your family rave about how tasty it is. Not "Wow Jakey, what a good job!"


Ok - off the soapbox...I think I've been reading too many mommy blogs that talk incessantly about touchy feely crap and Seven Steps to Ensure your Child's Happiness. I am just so over it. Oprah quit, people. Time to move on. Miller certainly has.
Knowing that Mr. Dr. Pepper loves a little spice and has infinite patience when it comes to chopping, we agreed that baked chimichangas would be a great meal for him to prepare for us. Plus...he loves ordering chimis out at the local Mexican restaurant.
Ingredients for this yummy edition include: Ground Turkey, Taco Seasoning, Cumin, Bell Peppers of Varying Colors, Onion, a Jalapeno Pepper, Garlic, Cilantro, Rotel Tomatoes, Chopped Cilantro, Sour Cream, Rondele Spreadable Cheese (we used garlic herb), Pepper Jack Cheese and Large Flour Tortillas. We ended up ditching the black beans because the chef doesn't fancy them. And the avocados were for guacamole that barely made it to the final dish.

We began with a lesson from Mom.
This just cracks me up. Clearly, I am busting his kahunas over something, based on his hand gesture and his closed eyes and exasperated expression. And I'm not loving it or anything.
He insisted that he do all the prep work for the meal. Which included a lot of chopping.
On our recent family vacation, Uncle John warned Jake that the knife he was using "is the real deal, dude. I'm serious." So now, anytime someone in our house picks up a sharp kitchen tool, we confirm.
"Dude. That's the real deal. Just so you know."

We used that phrase once or fifty times while he made the Chimichangas. Uncle John's ears were surely ringing across the country.

Meanwhile, I got down to business of my own. Apéritif time! Obviously, I needed a Grand Margarita given our menu.
BUT! The NERVE! Someone drank all of our Patron! I have my suspicions, and she might just be visiting our house tomorrow. But I won't name names. So instead, I had to substitute Cuervo Silver for the Patron.

My head did not thank me the next morning.

I mixed equal parts of Tequila and Grand Marnier with 1/2 part fresh lime juice in a salt-rimmed glass. Mr. Musky stuck with the standard (code: BORING!) Sapphire and Water, and Jake opted for a diet Ginger Ale.
Music for the night varied widely. We started with The Masters coverage on the TV in the kitchen. Then Jake got smart and lined all the peppers up to chop them at the same time. Before this, he chopped one slice at a time, and Mr. Musky lamented that we weren't going to eat until Sunday.
Noticing his revelation, I commented: "Well look at at the big brain on Brad!"

So naturally, we then listened to the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. Followed by what Kahley wanted, since she'd been sick for four days and we all felt sorry for her. Then she reciprocated by playing Dad's favorite - a little Springsteen.

That's what I love about these kinds of nights. It's just us, but we all want to make each other happy. And playing the music that someone else likes best is a good way to do that.

Not to mention, allowing Mama to join in the cooking. Well, just to make the guac. Since Jake doesn't eat it, he didn't mind me making it for the rest of us.
After chopping for hours, Jake swirled some EVOO in a pan and browned up the turkey. He then added all of his chopped vegetables, the tomatoes, a good amount of taco seasoning and cumin. He continued to stir and break up the meat until it resembled the size of small pebbles.
Meanwhile, because the natives truly were becoming restless, I mixed the spreadable cheese with shredded pepperjack and about a cup of sour cream. I may have slipped in a squirt or two or Siracha chile sauce, some lime juice and a good hunk of cilantro, too. We added the meat mixture to the cheese mixture and, I must admit, it looked a bit like...


But don't let it deter you, or your hard working, live-in servant!

I showed Jake how to roll the chimichangas up, but he schooled me on this one. He truly rolled them perfectly, and wasn't bashful about letting me know.
Mine on the left, Jake's on the right. Clearly he excels at Chimi wrapping.
He sprayed the Chimichangas with cooking spray, placed them on a rack over a baking sheet in the oven and baked them at 400 degrees until golden brown.

They truly were delicious, and everyone gushed about how tasty they were. We will definitely be quarantining him in the kitchen again soon when we all want a fix. I peered in the refrigerator the next day for one at about 4:00, and they were all gone. Apparently, everyone else had the same idea for a mid-afternoon snack.

I loved cooking with Jake. I look forward to doing this for several more years, until he leaves for college. Then I look forward to going to his house for dinner.
Ten years ago, conversations between the two of us would go something like this:

"Jakey, will you tell me you love me when you're sixteen?"

"Yes, Mommy."

"Yes, what?"

"Yes, I will tell you I love you when you're sixteen."

How sweet, that he thought I was aging backwards.

And true to his promise, he still tells me he loves me. 


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Question of the Day: Is Moby Dick a Sperm Whale?

Mr. Musky, to put it politely, is not that great with young children. The younger they are, the more he cringes. Suffice it to say, he has a downright aversion to infants. He feels like their necks are broken, he'll cause irreparable damage by holding them the wrong way, he gets zero satisfaction from cuddling a soft, mushy ball of baby and does not try to inhale them as I do.

However, he is the best dad ever now that our kids are older.
He excels at bathroom humor fit for the most obnoxious teenager. Our son could be in the worst of moods, but cannot help but crack a smile when his dad leans over to whisper "butthole" in his ear. It gets him every time.

Recently he started a "Question of the Day."

"Is Moby Dick a Sperm Whale?"

At first, I didn't get it. It caused me to wonder...what was Moby Dick? Was he really a Sperm Whale? Maybe a killer whale. Humpback? Blue? Meanwhile, my kids could not stop giggling at the perplexed look on my face. What's so funny about that question? I chuckled to avoid the label of dense lame-o mother, and moved on. Later that day at a fancy restaurant, he asked my mother this no less than ten times, to more stifled giggles from our kids. Unlike me, she talked the question out loud to come to the conclusion that yes, Moby Dick was indeed a Sperm Whale.

The kids were positively in fits.

Two days later he asked his own mother the same question. "Hey Mom! Is Moby Dick a Sperm Whale?"

"Well, no. Obviously. Because Moby Dick was huge and sperm is small."

Her innocent response nearly brought my kids to tears. I guess the mere words "dick" and "sperm" used in the same sentence carries huge comedic relief for those of you mature adults who still don't get it.

Another question of the day from my beloved: "Hon, where are you going to get new gym shoes?"
"Dick's Sporting Goods Store."
"What was that?"
"DICK'S! And why is everyone laughing! What's funny?"

Smirks and snorts and nervous, embarrassed twitters from the peanut gallery. Oh. Then I got it. Hearing Mom say that word is just too much.

A few Saturdays ago. "Kahley, we have a new Question of the Day. Does King Kong have a Dong?"

"BWAHAHAHAHA! Good one, Dad!" In fact, it was so good, she repeated all of his questions of the day to the kids in gym class, who were also in fits and look forward to hearing what's next. Pretty soon I'll have the high school calling us in for questioning.

I asked him what his deal is. Why he thinks of these things.

"I honestly don't know. It just comes to me."

Last week, he messed it up a little. "Does the sphincter have a...wait. I meant, does the Sphinx have a Sphincter?" He got some blank stares from the kids, then Jake asked what a sphincter is.


Needless to say, he ached for redemption and longed to right the train on the track, so without any sort of introduction at dinner last night, while watching a robin hop along our deck outside, he blurted:  "Does that bird have a turd?"

Jake nearly spewed his taco pie across the table. Mr. Musky looked down at Miller, who was only interested in the dinner crumbs on the floor. "Does the dog have a log?"

Whooeeee. We have a twofer.

Lord, please help me. I've got another seven years of this, assuming that maturity overtakes banal bathroom humor for my youngest by the age of twenty. Then again, I'm not sure what his father's excuse is, so it looks like I'm in this for the long haul, and I might as well show amusement and the proper level of appreciation for any statement containing bodily functions or genitalia for the next sixty years.

Because that'll be us. 100 years old, married for 77 and my spunky husband whispering "Butthole!" in my ear.


Friday, April 12, 2013

Apéritif Friday - Mon Ami Gabi Mussels

In trying to think up a good answer to "Why do we cook this stuff?" for the star of this week's Apéritif Friday, I had to dust off the cobwebs in my mind and go back to Long Lake, Minnesota, circa 1985.

I was but a mere pipsqueak on vacation with my family at my Grandma Kahling's trailer on the lake. My cousin Heather and I, bored out of our skulls, took to foraging along the shoreline to see what we could come up with.

Mussels. We cracked them open on the dock with giant rocks to see what they looked like inside. Because, well...obviously.
Photo complements of Wikipedia.

The insides were nasty, and I shuddered from there on out every time I ever saw mussels on a restaurant menu. How anybody in their right mind would actually put that ball of yellow snot into their mouth, chew and swallow escaped me.

Fast forward to 1999, an adorable yet demanding baby in my presence, and a house that needed some serious decorating magic. Broke, exhausted and ready for some quality spouse time, I met my mother half-way and gifted her with her grandchild for a weekend, with no overbearing first-time mother to deny her quality cuddle time. Mr. Musky and I stayed home to relive our PreKid days and get all funky and groovy and hot and bothered.

In other words, we painted the kitchen and family room. Sweet.

But...I did have some AmEx gift cards from my employer burning a hole in my pocket. The prudent choice would have found me at the local K-Mart purchasing diapers and such. Instead we bailed on the paint project in lieu of a nice dinner in the city. We agreed on a place that neither of us had been - Chicago's oldest restaurant, Italian Village.

So off we went, and despite the words "Fresh Mussels and Clams" in the description, I could not resist Frutta Di Mare Linguini. They had me at scallops, squid and shrimp, and I decided I would just push the clams and mussels to the side, feigning some imaginary mollusk allergy as an excuse for not trying the stars of the dish.

But I forced myself to eat just one, and something magical happened. I closed my eyes, willing away the image of crushed goobers on Grandma's dock, and just tasted what was in my mouth. It was curiously good. Reminiscent of the ocean, fresh, interestingly textured, slightly sweet and salty all at the same time, with hints of the acidic, delicious red sauce throughout. I ate another. And another. Finally, Mr. Musky jolted me out of my seafood reverie.


"Yes. Good. Fantastic. I'm in love."

Since then, we've grown our mussel loving palates into connoisseurs of sorts. We make them at home in both red and white sauces. We try them at most any reputable establishment, and I say that in all honesty because obviously, like sushi, a mussel must be fresh or it's nasty. There are either good mussels or bad mussels - no in-betweenies on that scale.

However, there are good mussels and then there are out of this world oh-my-goodness-let-me-take-a-bath-in-the-broth DIVINE mussels. And on a recent Friday afternoon date, that's just what we found at Mon Ami Gabi in Oakbrook. Right there, in that little French restaurant, we both confirmed that we would never be able to eat mussels anywhere else ever again. We found the absolute best crock of mollusk goodness EVER. Both obsessed, we vowed to figure out how to make them at home. I googled "Mon Ami Gabi mussel recipe." And guess what?

The heavens opened and a choir of angels started singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Meaning, Chicago Tribune published the secret to Mon Ami's formula. If you'd like to skip the rest of my blathering (I totally understand! I get long winded!) then go here for the recipe.

So here we were, a couple of Fridays ago, all depressed and funk-filled because our West Coast vacation and Spring Break extravaganza neared its end. To keep the good vibes rolling, we had yet another meal of seafood, since eight out of the previous eleven weren't enough. Dave Matthews Band Radio serenaded us on Muse.

Willing Spring to arrive in the Midwest already, I opted for an Elderflower Gimlet. Two parts of the lovely Mr. Sapphire, one part Elderflower Liqueur and 1/2 part Lime Juice.
Refreshing with a hint of floral. The Elderflower mellows out the gin and the lime gives it a pop. Yummy. Na zdrowie!
Too early to start in on the mussels, we began with a staple in my house growing up, with an update of sorts.
Cheese and crackers. If you've ever met my dad, you know that he could live on four foods: eggs, bacon, cheese and crackers. But in my advanced age, I find that I need things to go a bit beyond the standard Ritz and yellow cheddar. I prefer thin La Panzanella Croccantini crackers, which translates from Italian to "crunchy little bite" and has the best texture, mild taste and low caloric quality of any cracker. Why waste calories on the base when it's really all about the toppings?
Goat Cheese...mmmmm.....I love it in salads, desserts, on pasta, steak, anything. But most of all spread thinly on a piece of Croccantini with orange fig spread and a hunk of proscuitto.
Other toppings included cream cheese, tomato basil cheddar and smoked salmon. More items that never graced the Kahling cheese board. But they are so yummy with an apéritif on a Friday. Look! My firstborn's sixth sense kicked in and she came running at the first whiff of smoked salmon.
There was some kind of animated discussion that night about the worldly and diverse origins of her group of friends, so she pulled out her yearbook to show Dad pictures of the schoolmates she's always talking about. Meanwhile, I rooted around the freezer for a substitute for Jake since he does not yet appreciate a good mussel or smoked salmon. I baked some "Pizza Puffs" that were left over from a few months ago. It's an oldie but really goodie that my mom used to make for Christmas Eve every year. I'll highlight it here at some point.
I can't stress enough how good this dish is, not to mention how easy and relatively cheap it is to make. The most important factor, obviously, is the freshness of the mussels. I have purchased them at both Costco and Whole Foods, and I prefer Whole Foods because they are cleaner, there are less beards to remove and I can buy exactly two pounds versus the bulk bag at Costco. They are slightly more expensive at Whole Foods, but the shells are all intact and unbroken, unlike Costco's. Even still, I don't think I've ever paid more than $5 per pound, and the recipe calls for two. Ideally, the fish monger will put them in a plastic bag with crushed ice without sealing the bag so they stay fresh and alive. You can keep them in your refrigerator on ice for a couple of days without an issue, but make sure the ice doesn't melt and they sit in your tap water, or they'll die.

I bought these on a Thursday morning and cooked them Friday night, and just changed out the ice cubes Thursday night and Friday morning.
Before you start, inspect the mussels. Throw out any that have broken shells. If there are any beards remaining (like the one above), remove them by pulling them off with your fingers, cutting them off with scissors, or by holding one side with a paring knife and the other side with your thumb and yanking them off.

And if any of them are partially open and don't close up when you handle them, throw them out.
They're dead.
We found Fish Stock in the frozen section at Whole Foods, and I think it takes the dish to an entirely new level. While Chicken Stock will work, the fish stock perfectly marries up with the rest of the ingredients and adds complexity and depth to the final product.

Not pictured but absolutely critical to the dish? Bread. Really good French Bread, with a crusty, chewy exterior that everyone can rip off like animals, dip into the broth and soak up the juice. I forgot to include it in the picture, but definitely don't forget the bread on this one!

Once you've picked over the mussels, prep all the other ingredients because this one goes really fast. Start by sautéing a couple of chopped shallots (or a small onion) and a diced rib of celery in butter for two minutes. Add in some minced garlic and sauté for another minute. Then add 1/2 cup stock, 1/4 cup wine, 1/4 cup heavy cream, a pinch of salt and a bit of cracked black pepper to taste (go easy on the salt because the mussels release salty brine when they cook). Increase the heat to high and add the mussels. Cover the pot (I use a large sauté pan with a lid) and cook for three minutes - DO NOT OVERCOOK or the mussels will lose their tender texture and will become chewy and tough. Blech.

After three minutes remove the lid, take the pot off the heat and add some chopped parsley. Throw out any mussels that didn't open. It's a good idea to pour them into a serving dish, give them a quick stir and wait for a minute or two before serving, so any residual sand that was released when they were cooking can drift to the bottom of the bowl. I've only tasted sand once or twice, but it was no big deal.

That night the natives were restless and wanted their fix NOW without a pretty serving dish. So they dove in like vultures.
And my culinary wonder vanished in minutes.

Happy Friday!


Friday, April 5, 2013

Apéritif Friday - Homemade Pizza, with a Throwback Friend and a Dash of Rick Springfield

Despite it's accidental appearance as a key ingredient in our stuffed pork tenderloin, I loathe Pizza Hut. My aversion stems from the fact that I consumed it every Saturday night between the ages of twelve and sixteen due to its convenient proximity across the street of the Showcase Cinemas in Milan, Illinois where I grew up. Tribes of teenagers ruled the roost at the Hut after seeing Top Gun, or Nightmare on Elm Street (shhh - we snuck in) or Dirty Dancing.

Man, I miss '80s movies.

Maybe I dislike Pizza Hut because I've since grown to love Chicago pizza - both deep dish and thin - and am now a verifiable snob about the pizza I consume.  Don't get me wrong - I like Harris in the Quad Cities and Imo's in St. Louis, but neither holds a candle to Chicago pizza.

Once I tried New York style pizza on a hotel room bed during a business trip, then gagged and ran for the bathroom. Fold it in half? Gross. My crust. Must. Be. Crispy. Cracker-like. Unless you're going for deep dish, which is an altogether different culinary experience. A good one, yes, but not one that I would want to consume with as much regularity as the thin version. Thin-crust pizza might be Mr. Musky's greatest culinary achievement, and I'm highlighting it today.

Kinda. He'll kill me if I give away all of his hard-learned secrets.

So let's get the essentials out of the way, shall we? Apéritif for the evening?
Manhattans, with Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey, a gift from a former employee at ATT (Hi Tim!), an assortment of bitters and Antica Formula Vermouth, another gift (Hi Rob and Kara!). I love making cocktails with gifted I can smile and think of those who love and know me so well. For this one, I combined two parts whiskey to 1/2 part Vermouth and added 7 drops of Bolivar Bitters, 5 drops of Orange Bitters and 3 drops of Cherry Bark Bitters. Or...a dash of Angostura works just as well. I shook it vigorously in a cocktail shaker and served over ice.

Mysterious guest with the adorable scarf in the background?
My homegirl Michelle Hughes. We've been friends since third grade, with a brief hiatus thanks to husbands and babies and such, but I'm pleased to say we are once again rejoined at the ear. Since we rocked it out on the ski hills of Andalusia and in the classrooms at Reynolds Grade School, we've mastered the ability to talk for hours-on-end about virtually nothing.
For the diligent observer: Yes. Later in the evening our Aperitif morphed into a homemade vodka and orange juice concoction.
Girlfriend gets me. She'll finish my sentences and understands my propensity for the weird and bizarre. Example: I can text her that I just shopped for two hours at Costco and Meyer with a booger on my left nostril, and she tells me its reason #923 why she loves me. Needless to say, we played '80s music on Muse for Pizza Night, but saved the best song for last. More to come on that (be afraid). Mr. Musky is a very patient man.

Anyway - back to the pizza - it started the night before, with the sauce. I don't have a photo of the sauce ingredients, but here's what you'll need:

Tomato Puree (a large can...28 oz?)
Fresh Basil (one of the plastic containers)
Garlic - couple of cloves?
Shallot - one, I'm guessing?
Red Pepper Flakes - to your liking for spicy
Honey - to your liking for sweet
Salt and Pepper - crank to taste
Dried Oregano - palmful?
Olive Oil - clueless

I can't tell you what proportions, because it's a closely guarded secret. I can't tell you in which order to mix them, because I honestly don't know. The husband is very secretive about his killer sauce, but I know the ingredients as I usually do the grocery shopping around here. I love to watch him make pizza, because he smiles while he works and doesn't even know it.
Here's what I can tell you - he put it all in a food processor, blended it together, then gradually added the olive oil through the tube until the sauce was a consistency he liked. Then he tasted it.

Have your spouse taste it. Give your kids a taste. And adjust the honey, red pepper flakes, salt pepper and oregano to your liking. Make it a day or two ahead of time so the flavors can get married in the refrigerator. When you're ready to assemble your pizzas, nuke it for a few seconds to make it more spreadable.

On to the crust. Ingredients are:
Flour, Kosher Salt, Baking Powder, Garlic Powder and Olive Oil. Oh - and some warm water. Again, I'm no help on proportions. I used to make the crust, but threw a bit of a temper tantrum one day and have since been demoted from the title of Crust Maker to Observer with an Apéritif at the Counter. I guess Mr. Musky didn't appreciate his crust hanging in sticky blotches from the kitchen ceiling, and doesn't like Boboli as an answer to the base for his greatest masterpiece.
Again with the hint of a smile. Sigh. I'm still smitten.
So - dump about a cup of flour, a teaspoon of baking powder and a healthy pinch of kosher salt and garlic powder into a large bowl. Whisk it together. Then add a tablespoon of oil and warm water while working it with your hands until the dough begins to form a ball. It'll be a bit sticky, but resist the urge to throw it across the room. Channel your patience, work it and knead it so the ingredients all come together. Add a bit more flour if it gets too wet and sticky. Wrap it in plastic and put it in the fridge. Repeat for as many crusts as you need. We made four.

And finally, the toppings:
Now don't be like me. Please. The toppings are absolutely critical to a fantastic pizza, and they must be as fresh as possible. So don't wait until the last minute to pick up these fine ingredients, with Walmart as the only viable option because you are so pressed for time and are on the other side of town from Caputo's, the delightful Mom and Pop grocery store where everything is tons cheaper and fresher. Normally I'd purchase Caputo's homemade italian sausage, have pepperoni sliced by their master deli counter, pick out mushrooms in bulk and peruse the thousands of cheeses before picking out the ones I need.

Not to mention that Walmart doesn't even have block smoked provolone. The nerve. I had to settle with sliced mumbo jumbo.

So this cheese thing. Last fall Mr. Musky went to a Green Bay / Bears game in Wisconsin and stopped along the way in Door County. There he went to a local pizza pub, and absolutely fell in love with the cheese on it. He asked the owner about it, and was sheepishly surprised to find that it is Provel. At the time, I was staying with my other friend Michele in St. Louis and her husband Mike CRACKED UP that Mr. Snobby Chicago Boy had to concede that something originating in St. Louis was superior. I then received a homeschool lesson on Provel cheese by Professor Mike, ending in his trip to the store to buy me some so I could take it home for our next pizza experiment.

And true to self, like a dufus, I forgot the cheese.

But it didn't matter. Because Provel cheese, as Mr. Musky quickly researched, is a combination of Smoked Provolone, Swiss and White Cheddar. Equal parts. So we make our own. It's Miller's favorite part.
Speaking of family members, the offspring all assembled on this fine evening, completely intrigued by my mysterious guest and her very mature demeanor.
Video games, school friends, texting and teen parties all took a backseat to this:
And they were all in to see how far down the ridiculous path of inappropriateness we'd spiral. Not to mention the stories of mama's good old days, circa 1987, told by she who holds nothing back.

Right - the toppings. We like to pre-cook all of our ingredients so once it's on the pizza it can just warm up and ooze together with the cheese without releasing too much moisture and ruining the crispy crust. So Mr. Musky squished the sausage out of the casings, browned it over medium-high heat (be not afraid of glugging some wine on it) and drained it on some paper towels. He did the same with the sliced green pepper, mushrooms and pepperoni. Rather then actually help cook this meal, I danced with my baby while we belted out some Poison.
Because obviously, every rose has it's thorn.

Next Mr. Musky pulled the dough out of the fridge and began rolling it on a liberally floured surface. Again, his patience prevails, and he rolls it as thin as he can possibly get it before putting it on a greased (with cooking spray) holey metal pizza pan.
He then trimmed the crust around the edge and baked it in a 350 degree oven, just until it could be lifted off the pan with a spatula without bending all Gumby-like. Finally -  assembly time! He schmeared a healthy layer of sauce over the crust, sprinkled on the cheese and finished it off with the pre-cooked toppings. Through trial and error, he's learned to not overwhelm the pizza with loads of toppings, or the crust will get soggy and the tip of each piece will sag down in a droopy, tragic manner. Ideally each cooked piece should remain perpendicular to the counter when picking it up and bringing it to your lips.
Assembled Pizza, pre-baked
Mmmmmmm.  I'm getting hungry.

He baked the pizza at 450 degrees for about ten minutes directly on the oven rack, watching carefully to remove it when the cheese was melted and gooey and the edges of the crust were brown. The pepperoni can burn easily since you pre-cooked it, so be careful!

Meanwhile, back at the looney farm, my whack-a-doo girlfriend told my youngins that they'd better watch themselves, because loopyness was overtaking our faculties. And soon they'd find themselves in the corner, rocking back and forth, doing this:
Miller heeded her warning. "Mama? I'm really scared of this mystery guest! Make her go away!"
But there was no stopping either of us. Especially when we realized that we don't need our curling irons and bottles of Aqua Net for microphones. Parmesan cheese containers and tonic bottles work just as well.  "YOU KNOW, I WISH THAT I HAD JESSE'S GIRL!"
And that, my friends, put Mr. Musky over the edge. He started making out with his bottle of Sapphire. He cradled and snuggled her for continued patience and guidance, asking for her to intercede and show him the way in dealing with his lunatic wife and her crackbrained friend.
Praise the Lord, the pizzas saved us all and were ready to eat, after resting on the counter for a few minutes.

So we dug in and watched Rock of Ages. Naturally.