Beef Tenderloin Stuffed with Roasted Red Peppers, Goat Cheese, Basil and Spinach

Yesterday was my mom’s birthday, so I wanted to cook something a bit nicer than usual. Many years back, my dad made a beef tenderloin from a recipe in Bon Appetit (at least he says that’s where it was from — I found no record of said recipe on the internet). It was spectacular — buttery soft tenderloin with the earthy sweetness of red peppers and the tang of goat cheese. I’ve asked him a few times since to make it, but to no avail — it is quite a bit of work, so not necessarily an everyday recipe.

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I’ve never made a tenderloin before, and I did find myself intimidated — as far as meat comes, tenderloin is pretty expensive and relatively unforgiving. Cut it wrong, and it will be very difficult to stuff properly. Overcook it, and there is very little buttery fat to hide the sin. After unwrapping the package I got from my local butcher, I stared down at it for a good three or four minutes, trying to figure out how I was going to butterfly it. The tough part is the thicker end, where the loin is basically two pieces, so one cut won’t butterfly both.
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I ultimately opted to give each part its own cut and stuffing (although I left them connected). The next step was stuffing it with the red peppers, basil and goat cheese mixture. Layering these ingredients over the butterflied meat (which I also pounded to about 3/4″ thin) was easy — tying it all up, however, was more of a challenge. The thing that really saved me was the butcher’s knot, which I had come across earlier that day as I investigated the best way to tie up a roast. A butcher’s knot is designed to allow the cook to cinch tighter by simply sliding the knot up the string.
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I cooked it to a beautiful medium rare, and served it with bay-scented domino potatoes and garlic sauteed green beans.

 

Recipe:

 

[If you look at the recipe — I made the port wine sauce, but ended up not serving it. The sauce recipe as it stands was too tomato-y for me, so if you make it, I would suggest starting with only a spoonful of tomato paste, and adding more as you see fit.]
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Boxed wine?!

Ok, I’m going to go out on a limb here, and hope that my wine-loving family and friends don’t completely write off my judgement after this post. The subject, which is obvious from the title, is boxed wine. 

I’m a big fan, in theory, of wine from a box (well, technically a BiB, or bag-in-box, but you already knew that). I like the idea of being able to have a single glass on a weeknight without worrying about finishing off a bottle — the opened boxes last for about a month. I like the efficiencies of distributing wine in compact, lightweight, energy-saving packaging. About the only thing I don’t like is losing the ritual and anticipation that you get as you uncork a long-awaited special bottle. But on a normal night, when I just want an easy glass of above-average wine, a box is perfect.
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I’ve read a few articles (in Wine Spectator and elsewhere) about rising quality in boxes, so I’ve set out to try a few lately. My first one was a California Cabernet by way of a Bota Box. Overall, not bad, but not really what I like in a wine — it was too fruity for me, with a bit of cloying sweetness. Not a “dump the rest in the sink” failure, but not something I’ll likely buy again. However, if you like a lot of juicy, berry fruitness and not a lot of tannic acidity, this might be the right one for you. 

The next time I was in Binny’s, I asked one of the guys what he thought about the boxed wines they carried. Having talked to this particular person before, I trusted what he had to say, and was interested to hear him recommend “any wines that aren’t made in California”. The rationale here was that many other countries don’t ascribe the same stigma to wines that come in a bag, and therefore feel like they can box some of their decent products. This in mind, I chose a Tempranillo (the grape from Spain that is used in Rioja) called Charla.

I’m drinking a glass now, and I’m very happy with the choice. Charla has much less of the fruity sweetness that I didn’t care for, and more of the back-of-your-tongue, balanced tannins that I really like in a wine. It’s exactly what I look for in an everyday bottle, and it comes in the vastly superior (at least for weekday wine) bag format. It pairs perfectly with some casual stemless wine glasses for some no-nonsense, “I’m in it for the wine, not the snobbery” drinking.

Give boxed wine a shot. I’m tossing around the idea of throwing a wine tasting party, and I might sneak in some Charla and try to win a few converts. As more people buy into the format, more good products will come. At the very least, the research is far from grueling.
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Fresh Sardines, or the Most Aggressive Thing I’ve Cooked

I cook a lot of different foods from a lot of different cultures. I’ve made paneer cheese for saag paneer, stuffed sausage for brats, and cleaned squid for grilled calamari. However, up until very recently, I’d never cooked a whole fish from start to finish. Something about the process of cleaning, preparing and figuring out how to eat it always struck me as something to leave to the pros. 

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One of my recent go-to favorites is sardines. Unfortunately, many people have an instant negative reaction to sardines — they think of the smelly cans of fishy-tasting fillets that are usually considered low-class food. I sprinkle some herbes de provence, pepper, olive oil and lemon juice and then broil them for a few minutes. Voila! A delicious, healthy and very sustainable food devoid of any fishiness or negative stereotypes (if something called “herbes de provence” doesn’t elevate the status of sardines, I don’t know what will — I don’t have anything in my spice rack with a more pretentious name :-).

With the canned variety under my belt, the next step was fresh. Several recipes caught my eye, and the glimmering pile of fresh sardines at my local fish market seem to beckon to me. I went there once or twice, resolute on picking up a batch, but wimped out. Finally, a day off of work and a determination to conquer whole fish brought me back to the market, bag in hand. Not even the fish market’s refusal to clean fish that small could break my spirit; I bought 8, and brought them home, ready to do some gutting.  
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The gutting and scaling, while not hard, is relatively time consuming. There are a ton of videos and guides online for gutting sardines, so I won’t bore you with the details. The one thing I’d recommend very strongly is to avoid the sardines that have a rough spine-like bone along the side of the tail (you can see this “spine” in the front fish in the top photo). They are typically yellow around the edges. These are much, much harder to clean due to their bone structure.

After the cleaning, I was left with 5 decent sized fillets ready for the broiler (I basically had to discard the yellow bony ones). I layered the insides with fresh lemon slices and drizzled a mixture of olive oil, herbes de provence, salt and pepper inside and out. They then went under the broiler for about 10 minutes, until the outside skin started to brown.

The verdict? Not bad, but not all that much better than the canned ones. Given the amount of work that went into the prep, I’ll be sticking with Brunswick canned sardines from now on. The bright side of the endeavor is that I’m now no longer hesitant to make whole fish — I’ve done the hardest ones. 
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Puffy Oven Baked Apple Pancake

Perfect apple picking weather requires about 55 degrees, clear sky, and bright sun. Yesterday was perfect, so Sara and I headed to Kane County and harvested about 15 pounds of fruit, mainly Jonagold. About half of the bounty immediately went into apple sauce to be frozen and eaten over the next few months. The rest will be split up between pies, smoothies, regular ol' eating, and apple pancakes. It is apple pancakes that I came to speak of.

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I'm a huge fan of light, airy, eggy foods like crepes, popovers, and Yorkshire pudding. Baked pancakes, at least the ones I've had and the ones I make, are basically crepe batter with some cinnamon poured into a skillet (cast iron ideally) with apples and baked until lofty and golden brown. The result is better than any normal, boring buttermilk — crispy, a bit chewy, and cinnamon-y. They're great with just a bit of maple syrup (don't disgrace them with Aunt Jemima), lemon and sugar, or, best of all, the juice left over after you toss the apples in lemon, brown sugar, and cinnamon. It's a perfect Sunday breakfast, and actually comes together surprisingly quickly — about 10 minutes of prep and 20 minutes of baking. Try it now, while the apples are still delicious and the weather is crisp.

Puffy Oven Baked Apple Pancakes (serves 4)

Ingredients
  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 apple, sliced thinly
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 or a bit more cinnamon
  • about 2 tablespoons lemon juice (either fresh or bottled is fine)
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla (optional)
Directions
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 

Put your skillet on the stovetop and let it get hot. Turn off the heat, and add the butter so that it melts and coats the bottom. Set aside.

Whisk together the brown sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon in a large bowl. Add the apple slices and toss until they're all thoroughly coated. Leave them in the bowl.

Add milk, eggs, salt and vanilla together in a blender or food processor. Start it up, and gradually add the flour. Turn it up high for 5-10 seconds — the goal is to whip air into the mixture to cause it to puff up more when you bake it. If you are mixing by hand, whisk vigorously for about 30 seconds. Don't blend for more than 10-15 seconds or it could cause the batter to over-stiffen.

Pour the just-mixed (if you've let the batter sit for more than a few minutes, whip it up for a few more seconds) batter into the skillet coated with melted butter. Arrange the apple pieces on top. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the pancake has puffed and the middle is beginning to turn golden brown.

Serve with some butter on top and drizzed with maple syrup, brown sugar, or (best of all) the juice left over in the bowl from the apples.
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Seared Ahi Tuna on Arugula

Sometimes Pizza Fridays needs a bit more than just pizza. Tonight I seared some Ahi tuna before my pesto, buffalo mozzarella and cherry tomato pizza.

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If you can find a great piece of tuna (look for Atlantic Ahi tuna, it’s not horribly overfished like many species out there), this dish is super easy but a huge crowd pleaser. Simply combine equal parts toasted sesame oil and soy sauce, and add a minced clove of garlic, some minced green onion, and grated ginger. Whisk it all together with a drop of dijon mustard (it will emulsify the oil and soy sauce without really changing the flavor). Feel somewhat free to substitute — if you only have powered ginger or raw sesame oil, it will work, since the quality of the fish is the real star. Marinade for at least an hour — a ziplock bag is perfect for getting the marinade in contact with all of the fish.

Now, get a pan screaming hot — crank up the heat as far as it goes. Don’t put any oil on it until the last minute, since there’s going to be a lot of smoke. Use a cast iron pan if you have one, since they’re ideal for the best sear. Right before you add the tuna, add a small amount of cooking oil to the pan. Sear each surface of the fish for about 1 minute (or possibly more if you like a bit more doneness), and then remove from the heat. Take your sharpest knife and slice into quarter inch pieces.

I served it on top of a bed of arugula (my favorite leafy green) lightly dressed with a vinaigrette made of sesame oil, lemon juice, a drop of mustard, and freshly ground pepper.  
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Bruschetta Lasagna

Sara and I recently moved into a new place, so, of course, a housewarming party was in order. We’ve thrown parties in the past, mostly casual BYOB affairs with some chips and dip on the table. This one, however, we wanted to take up a notch and provide food and [of course] alcohol for all of our guests. We sent out the invitation a few weeks in advance, got back about 20 “yes”-es, and set the shopping list. One of my biggest fears is running out of food or alcohol, so I ended up buying 14 bottles of wine, 60 bottles of beer, and lots of hard liquor. Food-wise, I made bruschetta, and bought cheese, dips, and raw materials for 48 slider mini-burgers to whip up on the grill.

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Ok, so maybe a little overboard. One of my critical oversights was that several of my friends are still “college partiers”, which means an RSVP of “Hey, I’ll be there with my 3 roommates” really means “Ya, we’ll probably show up, but who knows, we might end up hanging out at our place watching South Park instead”. All in all, we ended up getting about 14 people — a perfectly fine turnout. Except when you have food and drinks for 30.

The alcohol isn’t really a problem — it won’t go to waste as football season gears up. Bruschetta, 5 lbs of ground beef, toasted bread and tons of cheese, on the other hand, doesn’t have much of a shelf life. Rather than throwing out huge quantities of perfectly delicious food, I tried to think of a great dish that would use these ingredients and keep for at least a few days. Eggplant Parmesan Lasagna fit the bill perfectly — bruschetta mixed with the ground beef sounded about right for the sauce, toasted bread turned into crumbs would make for delicious crispy eggplant, and leftover cheese could top it all off.

The sauce was really the standout rock star of the dish. I started with last night’s bruschetta, a combination of tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes, basil, olive oil, parmesan, garlic and balsamic vinegar (just keep adjusting until it tastes good). I pureed about 2 cups in the blender until it was the consistency of pasta sauce and added it to a few patties-worth of ground beef that was browning in a saucepan. I cooked that for about 10 minutes, and then added the last cup of the bruschetta to create a flavorful sauce with chunks of juicy tomatoes and ribbons of fresh basil. 

I thinly sliced the eggplant, salted it and let it drain for about an hour. I then lightly coated the slices with flour, dipped them in beaten egg, and coated them with bread crumbs from last night’s toasted baguette. I arranged the slices onto a sprayed cookie sheet and baked them at 425 until the tops were golden brown and crispy, about 20 minutes.

The middle cheese was simply a mixture of cottage cheese (which I prefer to ricotta), spinach (optional, had some in the fridge), parmesan and an egg. 

Now, I just made a few layers — sauce on bottom, then eggplant (or lasagna noodles), cottage cheese mixture and more sauce — until I filled up the pan. Topped it all off with shredded cheese (mozzarella or whatever you have), and baked it for about 30 minutes or so, until the top got just a little bit golden brown. Don’t brown the top too much, or the cheese won’t be as chewy and delicious.

A huge leftover win, if I say so myself. Most importantly, I learned some valuable lessons — bruschetta sauce is awesome, battered and baked eggplant is way better than noodles, and aim for enough food to feed about half of the RSVP’ed guests. The alcohol — well…who knows. You’d hate to run out. 

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Grilled Peaches with Blue Cheese, Toasted Walnuts and Honey

Make this now.

Nothing screams nice weather like fresh farmstand fruits, grilling, and lighter meals. We just came back from Michigan with a huge bag full of ripe peaches that we bought right at our favorite U-Pick farm, Twin Maple Orchards. Most of the fruit (meticulously peeled and pitted by my wonderful wife) went into either canned preserves or jam, ready to be opened on a dreary January day. However, a few particularly ripe fruits came home with us for what might be the ultimate use of fresh peaches.
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The assembly is as simple as could be. Get the grill nice and hot and throw your peach halves on there. Give it about 5-10 minutes to let some of the sugars in the peach caramelize and the flesh get warm and soft. Take it off, top with blue cheese crumbles, walnuts, and a drizzle of honey. I toasted the walnuts in a skillet on the stovetop for a few minutes, but you don't even need to do that. Eat voraciously and contemplate making another helping.

The best part about summer cooking is just how easy it is to make things taste great.
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No Wimpy Bagels Here

I still vividly remember the first time I had a real, New York bagel — I was an intern in lower Manhattan, about a week into my first rotation in the world of finance. Fridays anywhere are permeated with that pleasant tingle of an impending weekend, but something about the 13 hour days in my old office made everyone extra giddy when that last day rolled around. That specific Friday, one of the salespeople brought in bagels and lox for breakfast — maybe nothing special to the veteran New Yorkers in the room, but to a guy that had previously only eaten Einstein's and Great American Bagels, these were a revelation.

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New Yorkers are infamous for claiming that everything about their city is "the best". Pizza, bagels, hot dogs — even the water — is held in almost absurdly high esteem by Big Apple natives. Being a Chicagoan, I was unimpressed by their floppy pizza, boring hot dogs and ordinary water (not that Chicago water is better…it's all just water). Bagels, on the other hand, might be the single food that actually is the best when it's from NYC. 

Most people claim it's the NYC tap water that creates the chewy outer shell surrounding soft inside that characterizes a New York bagel. In reality, it's a dose of alkalinity (lye, or absent that, baking soda), but the myth remains. For me, a great bagel is all about a jaw-exhausting chew and a heft crunchy coating of chopped onions, garlic, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and kosher salt. Since I have yet to quite find this chewy, crunchy combination in Chicago (although there are some good places, NYC Bagel Deli and Bagel Art in Evanston come to mind), I set out to make my own.
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The recipe I followed was out of Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice. I've had great luck with other breads out of this outstanding book (the pizza dough is featured heavily in this blog, and the french baguettes are incomparable), so I figured the bagels would likely also be astounding. The recipe, like many great bread recipes, is a bit time-consuming due to several stages of rising and fermentation — but the results are worth it. Mixing up a big batch of dough on a Thursday or Friday evening and then boiling and baking the next day will yield about a dozen delicious bagels. They may not be authentic H&H, but they're almost as delicious.
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Heirloom Tomatoes are Always the Star

If there is one item of produce that I most eagerly await every summer, it is the heirloom tomato. They’re definitely good enough to eat by themselves — I usually just slice them up and add a bit of salt — but added to a dish, they take the food to another level. Dishes with heirlooms should keep other flavors simple and clean, so that the bright freshness of the tomatoes isn’t hidden behind loads of other strong tastes. They simply don’t need it.

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I got some beautiful Black Krim and Yellow Brandywine varieties at a nearby farmers’ market, and used them for a grilled thin-crust pizza. Keeping it simple, I brushed the top of my crust (Peter Reinhart’s recipe) with a bit of olive oil, added a thin layer of shredded mozzarella cheese, slices of de-pulped tomatoes, and finally a few sprinkles of goat cheese. I chose shredded mozzarella to lessen the amount of liquid on the pizza so that the crust would stay crisp (since the heirlooms are very juicy), but you could use fresh mozzarella if you prefer. I grilled it on a stone at about 500 degrees for around 10-13 minutes, until the crust looked well browned and the bottom was slightly charred. A final sprinkle of fresh basil rounded everything out.
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The crust was outstanding — perfectly crisp, with a nice crunch as you bit into it. Of course, the heirlooms were the star of the dish — every bite burst with a tangy sweetness unmatched by off-season tomato impostors. Since the pizza itself is very simple, I paired it with a plate of roasted red and yellow bell peppers and italian sausage to create a full late-summer meal. But hurry! The farmstand bounty is waning as fast as the days of summer.

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Drink Rooibos

This summer, I lost air conditioning mere days before a 90+ degree, month-long heat wave. Some might say it was my fault for selling my window AC on Craigslist a few weeks too early in anticipation of a move to a climate-controlled building, but the fact remains that it was HOT. Without any sort of air cooling, I resorted to drinking large quantities of cold beverages, with lots of ice, to stay cool and hydrated. 

Rooibos

I frequently make iced tea in the summer, but until recently, it has been primarily random green and black teas that I wanted to get rid of. Inevitably, the brew timing would be off (it's difficult to extrapolate tea quantities and steeping times from cups to gallons) and the tea would end up either too weak or overpoweringly astringent. Furthermore, the caffeine content of even green tea was too much for me to drink at night, so my iced tea would often sit in the refrigerator for weeks at a time while I drank bland water to keep from drying out.

At the beginning of this heat wave, however, I found myself with several tins of rooibos in iced-friendly flavors (cocomint, if you must ask). I boiled 2 gallons of water, added about a half cup of tea to a spice infuser bag that I had laying around (although a tea ball would work just fine), and let it steep for about 4 hours. One of the beautiful things (which I knew beforehand) about rooibos is that its low tannin content means that it is impossible to oversteep. Boil, dunk, and let it cool on the stove. Presto!

The resulting brew is a tad sweet, simply from the natural sweetness of the plant, and full of all sorts of nutritional benefits. The dark, almost wine-red color is packed with antioxidants, and it has no caffeine, so it's great for drinking at any time of the day. It comes in just about any flavor you can imagine — cocomint was perfect, although Adagio Teas has many others — and is one of the least expensive teas out there. 

I fill up 2 pitchers at a time, and can get through both of them on a hot week. You'll love it.
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