Saturday, November 12, 2011
Fancy-Pants Dinner: Cheat
This week has been kind of unusual for me: I stopped by the Albert Heijn on my way home on Thursday to get food.
But not just any food, oh no: a friend of ours had been invited to dinner on Friday, which meant that after a long day of doing lab stuff, I would have to come home and make a dinner. Karel, having just come off a night shift, would hardly be in any condition to handle getting food to his mouth, much less the sharp pointy objects that tend to be involved in making food.
Here are two things I've come to realize about making nice dinners: 1) Risotto is always impressive, and doubly so if you pony up for the fancy mushrooms, and 2) any sins of the meal can be repented for with a chocolate fondant cake.
Risotto is relatively easy to throw together: chop an onion, and fry in olive oil until translucent. Add the raw rice, and stir constantly for a few minutes, until the grains become translucent. The only real secret to risotto is the next step, which is to add hot broth to the rice until it's covered. If you use cold broth, then the temperature difference "shocks" the gelatinous outer coating of the rice that had been cooked, and it falls apart and you get more of a congee mix than a real risotto. Check on it every 5-10 minutes or so, and add more liquid as needed, but stir it as little as possible. Cook until the rice is tender (~30 minutes). For this reason alone, it's the perfect fancy-pants cheat if there ever was one.
I make risotto with mushrooms, and you're supposed to fry the mushrooms with the onions, take them out, and add them back to the risotto at the end. So far, nobody has complained when I add the mushrooms at the 15-minute mark. Don't slice the mushrooms too thin, and you'll end up with a creamy risotto with chunks of decadently tender mushrooms.
As for the chocolate fondant cake: supposedly a notoriously fickle dessert, one that chefs always screw up on shows like MasterChef and TopChef, the truth of the matter is that once you've gotten used to your oven, it's REALLY simple to make. Recipes abound all over the place, but it doesn't matter which one you use as long as you remember to set the timer when you slide the cakes into the oven. It is simply a matter of knowing your oven: 11 minutes at 200° C in our oven works great, and produces a cake with a thin layer of cake and as much gooey middle as feasible. Dorie Greenspan's recipe says 13 minutes at 400° F. And no, I don't use ramekins: we have silicon muffin cups, which are so much easier to handle.
I always set aside the ingredients mis-en-place before I sit down for dinner (when we have guests--the recipe I use serves 6). Then it's merely a matter of taking fifteen minutes to melt the chocolate, beat up the eggs, stir it together with the flour and cocoa powder, and bake. For truly fancy-pants dinners, Karel likes to make his own ice cream to accompany it, but most people are so agog by the fact that you can make a chocolate fondant cake at home that the ice cream, as tasty as it is, tends to be an afterthought. A bit of fruit syrup (from a jamming episode gone dreadfully wrong) elevates the fancy-factor by ten.
I even cheated on the main course, which was a roasted chicken: I used one of those pre-seasonedbradzakken chickens, which is a plastic bag which the chicken is baked in. The plastic bag traps the steam, and the end result is a juicy, tender bird with as much effort as it takes to turn on the oven.
There are, of course, times when anything less than real cooking will simply not do. But there are also times when spending time with a dear friend is more important, and the veneer of good food is good enough.