Saturday, May 28, 2016

Grilled Skirt Steak - Costco RYC Arrachera Steak Review

Skirt steak is not only a summer grilling favorite, but it's also a popular cut for fajitas and Chinese stir fry. I was recently asked if you could substitute flank steak for skirt steak, and you certainly can.

Grilled Skirt Steak
Skirt stake is preferred because it is usually just a bit thicker, but not substantially better than flank. Both come in large flat strips suitable for grilling or frying. Flank steak has a tender, wide-textured grain that makes it great for marinades. Skirt steak has an even looser texture that also absorbs marinades very well. Both have a rich, beefy flavor and are prepared in the same fashion. If you can get the very rare hanger steak, which is similar to skirt and flank, buy it. It is the most tender.

I provided you with my grilled flank recipe previously, so I will just send you there if you are looking for that. But today I wanted to give you a report on a piece of skirt steak I purchased at Costco.

Sold at Costco as a Pre-Marinated Skirt Steak
It's sold in the meat case under the RYC label as an Arrachera Beef Inside Skirt Steak. Arrachera beef is a savory Mexican specialty that is said to have originated with vaqueros driving their herds to south Texas in the 1930s. This RYC beef has been seasoned and marinated, which I thought would be a good thing, as I usually purchase mine at least a day in advance and spend the time marinating it with either a liquid marinade or dry rub. Unfortunately, I was not very pleased with the product.

A huge case of RYC Arrachera Beef Skirt at Costco
When unwrapping it, I found three pieces of meat, which in itself is just fine. The first was the largest piece which I unfolded into the typical rectangular shape. The second was the same but smaller. The third however, appeared to be scrap. This piece was in the center, with the nicer pieces wrapped around it. While it added to the weight to make the package labeling correct, it wasn't suitable for grilling and serving on its own. I will have to cut it up and use it for small pieces of beef in Chinese stir fry.  But this isn't my primary complaint.

The meat in the package is seasoned as noted and said to be marinated so it will be tender. Tender it certainly is. Almost fork tender. Whatever the marinade is, it certainly is absorbed into the meat and tenderizes it beyond recognition. There was no hearty beefy flavor left, just the flavor of the seasoning. It wasn't a bad flavor, just not a beefy flavor. It was rather salty. Worse yet, the marinade seems to have changed the texture completely. One of my guests thought it was ham. It does have a very similar texture, even if the look on the outside is more like beef.

Looks like beef. Texture like ham. An unhappy surprise.
The combination of the strange texture and the non-beefy flavor causes me to not enjoy the product. If you like processed meats, and don't mind your steak feeling like a soft piece of ham, then you might enjoy this. It is certainly tender. But not at all what I want when I'm looking for skirt or flank steak for either grilling or making into fajitas. I'd rather buy a fresh piece of unadulterated skirt steak and season it myself so it actually feels and tastes like beef. While I'm usually a great fan of Costco products, this time I'm giving it pass.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Quick Weeknight Chicken Cordon Bleu

Literally translated from French as 'blue ribbon chicken', this recipe is actually a chicken breast stuffed with ham and Swiss cheese. This is the simple week night version you can put together in a few minutes and then bake it while you finish up other side dishes.

Julian's quick Chicken Cordon Bleu
Chicken Breast Stuffed with Ham and Cheese
The classic version requires pounding out the chicken and then stuffing and rolling. But this version, just slices a pocket into the boneless, skinless chicken breast, slips in the cheese and ham and closes it with trussing needles or toothpicks. Granted, some of the cheese may melt out of the chicken while baking, but you still have plenty left for flavor. While pounding and rolling is more effective at keeping the cheese inside, the effort is more than I'm willing to do on a weeknight.

While the name may lead us to believe this is a French dish from the famous cooking school of the same name, the origins of the dish are as a schnitzel filled with cheese from Switzerland. It is thought to have been first referenced in a Swiss cookbook from 1949. The earliest American reference to "chicken cordon bleu" was in The New York Times in 1967 and of course referred to classic pounded and rolled version.

Making the breast pocket.
Ingredients (serves 4)
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
4 slices deli ham
8 slices Swiss cheese
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1 tablespoon butter, melted
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Food release or canola oil

Preheat oven to 350F degrees.

Slice the chicken breasts lengthwise but not cutting all the way through. You are making more of a pocket in the breast.

Place a ham slice, folded in half in necessary into the breast pocket. Do the same with the cheese. Each breast half gets two slices cheese. Using toothpicks or a trussing needle, close the pocket as tightly as possible with the cheese and ham inside. Transfer the chicken to a baking dish prepared with food release (Pam) or canola oil.

Into the melted butter, stir in the bread crumbs, salt and pepper. Spoon the breading on top of each piece, patting down with your finger.

Bake 20-30 minutes until cooked through a meat thermometer reads 165F in the center. Remove from the oven and serve.

Pinned closed with a turkey trussing needle before baking.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Biscuits with Sausage Gravy

This is a favorite breakfast dish in the south, and is certainly hearty if you are planning on a day of hard field work. I'm not sure it's good for you otherwise, but it certainly does taste wonderful.

Julian's Skillet of Sausage Gravy
This dish became popular after American Revolutionary War in the late 1700's , when food was in short supply. It was usually made up of leftover pan drippings from the night before, sausage bits and day old soft country biscuits. Today I'm using my 7-Up biscuits, that have been around for a few days. They are still soft and delicious so I thought I'd make Sunday brunch that includes this southern classic dish.

In the south they even have restaurant chains specializing in biscuits and gravy such as Biscuitville (North Carolina) and Tudor's Biscuit World (West Virginia). Of course national chains such as Cracker Barrel and Bob Evan's also find this dish popular.

In my recipe I like to include mushrooms, but that is not traditional and certainly optional. I think they add flavor and reduce the quantity of sausage required, but you can decide for yourself what your family likes best. Instead of homemade biscuits, you can also use the canned Pillsbury or other brand of round dinner biscuits. Whatever you use, you do not need to use them fresh. Day old is just fine.

Ingredients (serves 4-6)
4-6 day biscuits, day old preferred
8-16 ounces bulk pork sausage
1 small onion, chopped
4 ounces canned mushrooms, stems and pieces
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk, cream or half & half
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper

In a large non-stick skillet or well seasoned cast iron skillet set over medium-high heat, crumble the sausage and cook until browned, stirring frequently. Add the chopped onion and stir while cooking another 2-3 minutes. Stir in the optional mushrooms.

Sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir in with a wire whisk and cook for another minute while stirring. Gradually stir in milk/cream. Cook until mixture thickens, stirring constantly.

Warm the biscuits in a 200F degree oven if you prefer. Split biscuits in half and place on serving plates. Spoons the sausage mixture over biscuits and garnish with chopped parsley (fresh or dried).

Julian's plated biscuits with gravy.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Fresh Strawberry Bundt Cake

Fresh strawberries are in season so today I'm making another bundt cake. If you follow the blog regularly, you know I've made other bundts before and even discussed the history of the bundt cake. This one is made with fresh strawberries to really give it a nice full strawberry flavor and perfect in the spring and early summer here in Chicago.

Julian's Fresh Strawberry Bundt Cake
While the bundt pan was developed for a specific cake recipe from Germany/Austria, I believe the pan became so popular for two reasons. First, because the hollow central tube permits a large dense cake batter to bake more evenly (without over baking the edges to get the center done) the cake is more moist throughout with a better crumb. Second, the pans themselves are decorative and it doesn't take much, if any, extra decoration or frosting to make it look beautiful. Just a sprinkle of powdered confectioner's sugar is enough to highlight the many lovely cake molds. Here I did a quick drizzle of cream cheese frosting and strawberry halves, which took me only a few minutes and I used my classic original bundt pan mold.

I made this cake for a meeting at the office, so I took it along in a plastic portable cake server shown above I found on Amazon. This works particularly well with my flat cake plate which fits exactly inside so it doesn't slide around when in transit. The sturdy latches and handle make it easy to move without fear of coming apart, and the material it is made of easy to clean and never cracks, unlike some of the clear hard plastic models. If you are in need of a new portable cake server, I highly recommend this one. You don't need to use a plate with it, but I prefer too.

My recipe for this cake is adapted from Chrysta Wilson's "kiss my bundt" bakery recipes, which are easy to make and taste particularly good. I haven't varied from her ingredient list, but I do take some liberties with her techniques which haven't changed the great outcomes. If you make lots of bundt cakes, get her book.

8 ounces fresh strawberries
A pretty pink cake inside.
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
2 1/2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons strawberry gelatin powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups milk or cream
Powdered sugar or cream cheese frosting*

Clean and hull the strawberries and slice them in halves. Toss the strawberries in 1/2 cup sugar in a small saucepan. Add the lemon juice and stir over medium-high heat until the mixture boils, stirring occasionally. Boil for 5 minutes and then reduce heat to low and simmer for about 25 minutes more, stirring periodically, until the mixture is more of a jam consistency. The mixture will reduce and thicken as it cooks. Remove from heat and place in a bowl in the refrigerator and allow to cool to at least room temperature before continuing.

Preheat the oven to 350F degrees. Grease your bundt pan with butter and dust with flour. Make sure to get in all of the crevices and up the central tube. Turn the pan upside down over the sink or waste basket and pat the pan to release the extra flour. You can use Baker's Joy, the spray baking mixture, but do not try and use regular food release (Pam). Even with the baker's cooking spray, I've not always had good luck with it releasing the cake. I prefer to grease and flour the old fashioned way for ensured success.

Sift the flour, baking powder, strawberry gelatin and salt together. Set aside. 

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer at medium speed until creamy; about 2 minutes. Slowly add the sugar and beat on medium for an additional 2 minutes. Crack the eggs in to a separate bowl and add to the running mixer one at a time until well combined, about 2-3 minutes more. Turn the mixer to low, and add the cooled strawberry mixture until combined. Measure the milk and add the vanilla to the milk. 

With the mixer on low, slowly add 1/3 of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and then half of the milk. Add another third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and then the remainder of the milk. Finally, add the last third of the flour mixture to the batter and mix until will blended. 

Transfer the thick batter into the prepared bundt pan ensuring it is evenly distributed. Bake in the preheated oven for 45-55 minutes, until a pic comes out clean when tested. If making individual bundts instead of the large singe bundt, baking time will be shorter. When done, remove from oven and let cool for 5-10 minutes.

Place your cake plate over the the cake and invert until the cake releases onto the plate. Let cool. Recenter the cake if necessary. 

*Decorate if you prefer, either with powdered sugar or any drizzle you prefer. In these photos, I used a cream cheese frosting that I had on hand. However, you can also purchase a tube of cream cheese frosting for this purpose.