Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Rescue: A Champagne "Brunch," Of Sorts

Background: When Denise Holton moves to her mother's hometown of Edenton, North Carolina with her four-year-old son, Kyle, she has no clue how much it will change her life. Kyle struggles with an auditory processing disorder that makes it difficult for him to speak clearly, and Denise works diligently and lovingly to help Kyle through his difficulties. (If you've read Nicholas Sparks' Three Weeks With my Brother, the memoir he co-wrote with his brother Micah, you might recall his emotional accounts of similar challenges that he and his wife Cathy faced with their son Ryan.) One stormy night as Denise and Kyle are driving home from a long day of tests in Raleigh, she swerves to avoid an oncoming car and skids across the wet pavement into a tree. Denise is knocked unconscious, and when she wakes up she discovers the back door open and Kyle gone. Enter Taylor McAden, a firefighter who is called upon to help with the search. He finds Kyle after many hours hiding in a duck blind in a nearby swamp. He immediately bonds with the little boy, and his natural fatherly connection to Kyle eventually leads to a romance with Denise. (The fact that Taylor blames himself for his father's death makes him wary of relationships, and gives The Rescue a nice healthy dose of melodrama. I love it.)

One night Taylor and Denise go out to a nice restaurant for dinner while Taylor's mother watches Kyle for the evening. When they return to Denise's house, they top off the evening with strawberries and champagne. The next morning ('cuz he stayed at her place all night, don't ya know), Taylor cooks them all pancakes, eggs, and bacon. Now, I cook pancakes, eggs, and bacon all the time. This was going to be a no-brainer. Then I thought, why not have a champagne brunch? Okay, a champagne breakfast-for-dinner. We could pretend it was brunch. With my favorite pancake recipe, some strawberries, a little twist to my usual scrambled-eggs-with-cheese, and some little two-serving bottles of champagne I found, I could put together a quick and delicious meal that Taylor and Denise would love.

I used my favorite pancake recipe from my favorite cookbook, The Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook:

2 cups all-purpose flour (sometimes I use half white flour and half whole wheat. Not this time.)
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten (or 1 heaping tablespoon Egg Replacer with 1/4 cup water)
2 cups buttermilk (since Moe is allergic to dairy, I use a combination of soy milk, rice milk, and "regular" milk)
1/4 cup vegetable oil

Combine first 5 ingredients, stir well. Combine eggs, buttermilk, and oil in a bowl; add to flour mixture, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. For each pancake, pour about 1/4 cup batter into a hot, lightly greased griddle. Cook pancakes until tops are covered with bubbles and edges look cooked; turn and cook other side. (It says you can save any unused batter in a tightly sealed container for up to one week. I always cook all of the batter and if there are any leftover pancakes, the boys eat them for breakfast during the week.) Yield: 18 4-inch pancakes.

After cooking a few "plain" ones,

I added a little grated apple and some cinnamon. We all have different tastes when it comes to what we like in our pancakes.

For the eggs, I chopped up an onion and a red bell pepper, and sauteed them in olive oil until they started to get soft. .

I cracked about eight eggs into a bowl, added a little milk, salt and pepper, and a teensy bit of cheddar cheese. (Curly was in charge of cooking them.)

Once the eggs were cooked to a consistency that I--er, Curly--liked, we put them into a serving bowl and sprinkled shredded cheese on top. Just before serving, we melted the cheese in the microwave.

A couple of strawberries and a nice thick slice of bacon on the side--Brunch (uh, Dinner) Is Served!

Champagne for the grown-ups. The boys had sparkling apple cider in their mugs.

Today I found a new butcher in town. You don't know how excited that makes me, because now I can get local free-range meat year-round, and I can get just the amount and the cuts that I want. My next project will probably be beef stew (which Moe and I both love, and the rest of them don't care for--too bad for them), and I might even take a stab at venison later if I can get it for a reasonable price without having to buy half a deer or something. This new butcher will love me and my blog, and Nick might just be his new best friend--although I would probably be a regular customer anyway, with or without this crazy cooking adventure of mine.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Message in a Bottle: Delicious Grilled Steak (Courtesy of Garrett Blake)

"So what's so special about these steaks?"

Our leading man, Garrett, has invited Theresa to his beach house for a steak dinner. They've only just met a couple of days earlier, and he wants to impress her by cooking something delicious. He shares the secret recipe for grilled fliet mignon that his father had passed down to him. When Theresa asks what it is about HIS steaks that make them better than most, Garrett is happy to demonstrate.

Clearing his mind, he poured some brandy into a shallow bowl. "There's a few things. First, you get a couple of thick filets like these. The store doesn't usually cut them this thick, so you have to ask for it special. Then you season it with a little salt, pepper, and garlic powder, and you let them soak in the brandy while the coals are turning white."

He did this as he spoke, and for the first time since she'd met him he looked his age. Based on what he'd told her, he looked at least four years younger than she was. "That's your secret?"

"It's only the beginning," he promised, suddenly aware of how beautiful she looked. "Right before they go on the grill, I'll add some tenderizer. The rest of it involves how you cook them, not what they're flavored with."

As I've been skimming and speed-reading Nicholas Sparks' novels these last few weeks for ideas for this blog, I'm discovering that Nick very rarely specifically describes how to cook something. Even though people often cook and share meals together (and I suppose if I paid attention to most novels I read, that would be true for just about any story, no matter who the author is), most of the time it's just a casual mention of the food that's on the table. What's eaten isn't as important as the drama. When I cooked these steaks, I wanted to follow Nick's--er, Garrett's--method as closely as I could. (I already cheated with Noah's crabs. I wasn't about to do that this time.)

Now, I NEVER use meat tenderizer, EVER. I don't have anything against it, mind you; it's just not something that I do. But I reluctantly plunked down 6 bucks for a package of it the other day, thinking to myself, "This sure as heck better be worth it." (See what a loyal fan I am, Nick? You know that when I finally break down and buy that dang crab pot, I'll be thinking of you.) When I went to pick out the meat, the store only had three filets in the meat section, and since New York Strip was on sale, I bought a little of both. I don't think Nicholas will begrudge me for trying to save a little money, especially since we were cooking for five people instead of two. Anyway, I already had some brandy on hand (I have no idea why. Probably leftover from some exotic concoction we were trying to make last New Year's or something.)

Following Garrett's directions, I seasoned the meat, put them in a shallow dish, and poured the brandy--cognac, to be precise; I still don't remember why we had it in the first place--while my husband fired up the gas grill. (Garrett cooked with charcoal, so no, I didn't cook it EXACTLY like he did.)

"Will you show me the rest of your secret recipe?"

"With pleasure," he said, as they rose from their seats. In the kitchen he found the tenderizer and sprinkled some on top of the steaks. Then, removing both filets from the brandy, he added some to the other sides as well. He opened the refrigerator and removed a small plastic bag.

"What's that?" Theresa asked.

"It's tallow--the fatty part of the steak that's usually trimmed off. I had the butcher save some when I bought the steaks." "What's it for?" "You'll see," he said.

Of course, the steaks I bought were already cut, and there wasn't much fat on them to cut off. I managed to find a little bit on the New York Strips, though, and cut it off and saved it just like Garrett had. When I explained to my husband the Grill Master what he was supposed to do, he thought I was nuts, but he humored me. I love my husband.

He took the tallow, which had been cut into smaller pieces, and put the pieces on the briquettes, directly below the steaks. Then he leaned over and blew on them until they burst into flame.

"What are you doing?"

"The flames from the tallow will sear the juices and keep the steak tender. That's the same reason you use tongs instead of a fork."

This didn't quite work as it should have, probably because we use propane instead of charcoal. The tallow pieces that we managed to get under the steaks did not burst into flame, and some of them fell down underneath the heat source.

I don't know if it was the brandy, the tenderizer, or that they were pretty good cuts of meat--but let me tell you they were AMAZING. Our youngest son Moe (for the record, that's not his real name. For blogging I call our boys Larry, Curly, and Moe, and my husband is called Joe. That's not his real name, either) was particularly impressed. This is definitely going in my "To Definitely Cook Again" pile. As for the meat tenderizer I bought, it will NOT go to waste.

Garrett served baked potatoes and salad along with the steaks. He had a store-bought bag of salad in his refrigerator and Theresa added some tomatoes. I wanted to put one together myself, so I used some things I happened to have: lettuce and watercress I had picked up at the farmers market, plus I still had some red cabbage leftover from our picnic. I found this recipe online for a watercress salad with oranges; my version was a lettuce-watercress-cabbage salad with mandarin oranges. That one wasn't the big hit that the steaks were, but that's because the men in my life are picky eaters. I thought it was yummy, especially with honey-mustard dressing. (Unfortunately I was so excited about the watercress and oranges and honey-mustard that I forgot about putting in tomatoes. Shoot!)

I found these great potatoes at our local farmers' market.

Easy-peasy honey mustard dressing. Larry ate the salad only because he liked the dressing.


When they'd finished eating, Garrett and Theresa took a walk on the beach. We don't have a beach, so we went trick-or-treating instead.

(See my other blog, Musings of a Catholic Mom, for more adventures from last weekend. The italicized passages in this post are from Chapter 8 of Message in a Bottle.)

I think my next project will come from one of my all-time favorite Nicholas Sparks books, The Rescue. There is a lot of cooking and eating going on in that one, so I'm not entirely sure what I will be sharing with you next. Maybe--just maybe--a champagne brunch? Stay tuned!