Ribs Guaranteed to Fall off the Bone

One of my favorite aspects of summer is the opportunity to use my grill. I almost don't want to cook inside, at all; it just feels unfortunate not to take advantage of the sun and warmth after spending nearly three quarters of the year without that option. Our grill even has a single burner on one side, so I'll cook everything I possibly can out on my porch; I just fill up a jelly roll pan with all my prepared food and utensils, grab a drink, and park myself outside.

If I can make everything fully on the grill, I'll one hundred percent do it. For some meals, though, that simply isn't an option. Anything that's going to take several hours to cook in order to yield moist, tender meat, I'll cook first in the oven and only finish off on the grill to bring in a smoky flavor. I'm just not confident enough in my grilling skills, yet, to try otherwise. A lot of people look down on that method because it's not "real" barbecue--even just using the grill isn't "real" barbecue--but who cares? I think all that matters is that your meal is delicious and to your liking :) 

The same goes for how your food turns out. There's always a "right way" for something to taste or a "right" texture it should yield, but it's really just a matter of opinion. Do I believe pasta should be cooked al dente? Yes. Do I believe steak and hamburger should be moist, tender, and pink inside? Yes; do I think the meat's been wasted if cooked well done? Certainly! That's just my personal preference, though. Of course, I do partake in judging food that I feel wasn't prepared properly (everybody does, whether they admit it or not)--like lasagna made with browned ground beef rather than mashed up meatballs. But, truly, if that's how you like it best, that's how you should make it and you shouldn't let anyone put that down--not me and not any "expert."

I say all this because I've heard many, many times that rib meat should never be tender enough to fall off the bone; if it is, you've overcooked it. Overcooked?? To me, that means I've cooked something so long, I've rendered it completely unappetizing; for meat, that would mean drying it out. Last summer, I cooked a meal for my boyfriend's family and we accidentally grilled the chicken at too high a temperature for too long, creating something horribly dry that I didn't even want to eat, let alone serve; THAT, to me, is overcooked. Astonishingly delectable, fork-soft meat is not overcooked. If you want to devour pounds and pounds of it, it must be cooked just right ;) So, in my opinion, rib meat so tender it slips right off the bone is cooked just right, and I know loads of you out there agree!

As with pancakes (which I spoke about in a previous entry), I grew up eating only my dad’s ribs, which are cooked first in the oven and then finished on the grill, where he layers on sauce to caramelize. I’ve never ordered ribs in a restaurant because I’m picky about the sauce; it just never lives up to my expectations and I prefer to be safe rather than find myself disappointed while out. So, when it comes to texture, I know only what I’ve had at home, which is almost always tender enough to pull easily off the bone. Until last year, I didn’t know anything more tender than my dad’s ribs.

When my best friend started dating her current fiancé, Steve, though, I got my first taste of someone else’s. I have to say, I was a bit wary because I just find that a lot of people dry out meat and I’d never eaten any of Steve’s food before, so there was no way to know how the meal would turn out. Yet, his ribs soared past my expectations!

Steve’s method for cooking ribs is, actually, nearly identical to my parents’; he also cooks them first in the oven and then finishes them off on the grill. There’s one key difference, though. My parents lay the ribs in a roasting pan covered in foil while Steve lays his in a pan with a layer of plastic wrap covering it before the top layer of foil. By using plastic wrap, a perfect seal is created, allowing the meat to, essentially, steam itself. This method, I swear, is flawless for creating the most supple meat imaginable. With such a low temperature (250 degrees), there’s no worry about the plastic melting, either.

Using Steve’s method, I allow the ribs to cook for about six hours, at which point I could try to lift one side with a pair of tongs and the meat would slip right off the bone. In order to finish it on the grill, I carefully lift the rack with a large, metal grilling spatula and, once on the grill, I don’t move it. My dad will turn the rack over in order to sauce both sides, but that’s too tricky with meat this soft and you can get plenty on the one side. Once it’s to my liking, we’re ready to serve! Billy and I just pull the meat off and eat it with a fork because it’s truly impossible to eat these ribs the traditional way. If you’d prefer that the meat at least stay on the bone, just reduce the cooking time. You’ll still have superbly tender meat, but will at least be able to eat it with your fingers :)

Remember this from last year? Delicious!

So, for guaranteed tender, moist ribs, lay your rack of meat (seasoned with a rub, if that's what you're into) directly in a roasting pan (sans roasting rack), seal the pan completely with plastic wrap and top that with foil. Place it in a 250 degree oven and allow to cook for approximately 4-6 hours, depending on what texture you’re looking for. Don't worry if you have to let the meat go for over six hours, either; Steve had it in the oven for about ten, once, and the meat hadn't dried out! Once it's finished cooking to your liking, carefully lay the rack on the grill to bring in that classic, smoky flavor and to caramelize your sauce (if using). If you don’t finish it on the grill but want caramelized sauce, put your ribs under the broiler and just keep a close eye so that it doesn’t burn.

If you’ve cooked your meat to fall-off-the-bone tenderness, pull out some forks; otherwise, prepare yourself for a most awesomely sticky mess!


Roasted Garlic and Tomato Pasta

I can't deny that I'm a bit of a pasta freak...I suppose, actually, a big pasta freak. It's generally quick, easy, and there are so many flavor and texture options. As a person who has trouble planning meals, pasta is one of my last-minute, go-to meals, along with risotto; I can't tell you how often Billy and I eat these two dishes compared to anything else during the week! This particular pasta, I created years ago, in college. I can't even recall what inspired me, but, up until that point, I really only ever added butter, olive oil, and a bit of garlic powder to my noodles. One evening, though, I got adventurous and created something that, I think, is truly spectacular. 

After having made it on several occasions by now, I've tweaked it a bit...When I first made the pasta, it was dinner for my mother and I while my dad was away on business. For two people, I used a full head of roasted garlic; the flavor was phenomenal. Honestly, I'd continue to use that amount if it weren't for some of the adverse effects that much garlic can have on your body. I'll spare you the details, but if you're not worried about any after-effects, please go ahead and use the ratio of a whole head per two people. Your taste buds, at least, won't be sorry!! Otherwise, I now stick to a much safer half a head per two people; though, I use quite a large head of garlic :) of course

The general preparation is to cook down some fresh, diced tomatoes with chopped, fresh basil; make a thick sauce out of roasted garlic and olive oil; and mix it all together with the ultimately ooey, gooey, stringy wonderfulness of fresh mozzarella. The resulting meal is like a comfort food classic with the sweet tomato playing upon the fragrant garlic while the melty mozzarella softens every bite. Diced, fresh tomatoes are absolutely necessary in order to keep the flavors of garlic and tomato separate; otherwise, you end up with a garlic tomato sauce. Of course, if you know someone who likes to pick around the chunks of tomato (like Billy!), feel free to cut them up much smaller, but don't bring it to the point of a puree. As you can see in the photo above, I chopped the tomato quite finely so it would be impossible for my wonderfully picky boyfriend to avoid it, yet each bit is clearly separate from the garlic-coated noodles.

In the same vein, fresh mozzarella cannot, without a single doubt, be replaced with any other cheese and expected to give the same flavor or texture. The dish is completely transformed without this element; it's still wonderfully delicious, but the strings of gooey mozzarella add that extra something, bringing the pasta to the next level. No matter what, do not replace it with shredded mozzarella from a bag. If you're not going to go the whole way, just grate some Parmesan over the top. In my opinion, once you've experienced melted fresh mozzarella, you'll wish you could easily find a pizza shop that uses that instead of the sad, boring alternative. There's just nothing like it! 


Melt-in-Your-Mouth Buttermilk Pancakes

Like so many friends, I grew up eating Jiffy Mix pancakes. Every Sunday, my dad would get up early (which he did in the first place, anyway) and, as my brother and I were waking up, he'd have the batter mixed and ready to pour onto the griddle. For those unfamiliar, Jiffy Mix is an all-purpose baking mix in which all the dry ingredients are combined, leaving your only "work" as adding liquid and fat (eggs, oil, etc); it's really just another version of box mix cake. From my own personal experience, it seems most people, nowadays, use these types of ready-mixes for pancakes (just as they do for cake), rather than making the batter fully from scratch. I do have to say, my dad's pancakes were always satisfying!

I think, after getting used to eating my dad's pancakes so often, I became a bit picky about them. They're thin and tender, like the perfect marriage between a crepe and a pancake, and they're probably shorter, in diameter, than the full length of my hand. Restaurants, though, tend to serve thick, plate-sized masses that I wouldn't necessarily consider tender, despite appearing fluffy. They're the complete opposite of what I've always been used to, so I've only ordered them under the most desperate of circumstances! 

When I moved out of my parents' house, nearly two years ago, I had to get my dad's recipe so that Billy and I could carry on the weekend pancake tradition. One morning, though...what I thought was one very sad morning...we found ourselves with an empty box of Jiffy Mix. There was no way I was going to let us go without pancakes and I felt terrible making Billy go to the store, so I decided I'd bite the bullet and make them from scratch using a recipe I'd seen in Martha Stewart's Favorite Comfort Food. They at least looked beautiful and I trust Martha's expertise...so I was willing to try something different for one weekend!

Let me tell you, after making that first batch from scratch...I will never...never...make another pancake using any other recipe. I am now even less willing to order a plate of giant, tough, brown restaurant pancakes because, well...why settle for anything less? These pancakes are fluffy and so incredibly tender, they melt in your mouth. Billy and I usually end up with a few left over and, they're so delicious, I just roll them up, hours later, and eat them plain. Leftover pancakes are not generally tasty, especially the texture, but these sure are! I wish I had a plate right now...I'm sitting here smelling the hopefully delicious pulled pork in garlic-lime marinade that's been roasting in my oven for the past two hours and all I can think about is having a big plate of Martha's buttermilk pancakes. 

I know I'm overly against food in which any part is pre-made, but here it really does make a difference. I will admit that a box mix cake has the same texture as a homemade oil cake...but you cannot get these pancakes from a box! You can't get those beautiful little holes of tenderness out of a box...you need to add the flour, baking soda, powder, and sugar yourself. In all seriousness, measuring out a few dry ingredients is not hard work. This isn't the difference between throwing a frozen dinner in the microwave or putting together something from scratch. This is about measuring maybe four extra items into a bowl rather than measuring one pre-mixed item plus all the extras you have to add and mix by hand anyway! The extra "effort" is beyond...beyond well worth it. If I could just show up to the homes of everyone I know and make these to get the word out, I would, without a doubt!


Cannoli Cream Gelato

Can you think of anything that sounds more delicious than the sweet, creamy, cinnamony filling of cannoli turned into gelato? I can't!! Every time I go to a gelato shop, I wish I could find one based on that flavor, but I never, ever do. And why not? You'd think someone would have come up with this idea by now! And maybe someone has, but I haven't been able to find that person yet.

When Billy got the ice cream maker for his birthday, I quickly started looking for gelato recipes online because I'd always wanted to try homemade gelato; that's when I found out that, generally, it's made with a milk base rather than heavy cream. At the same time, I read that Sicilian gelato tends to be made with a base of milk and cornstarch and found a recipe for dark chocolate gelato using exactly that. As I read the recipe, I realized that, outside of the cocoa powder used to flavor it as chocolate, it looked eerily similar to my family's biancomangiare recipe (biancomangiare is the term for cannoli cream), which has a base of half and half, cornstarch, and sugar, with canella (a unique type of cinnamon) used as flavoring. Traditional cannoli filling is made with ricotta cheese rather than the pudding my family uses; however, our version is incredibly common, at least in America; it would be rare to step into an Italian bakery here and not find one filled with a white pudding rather than ricotta.

So, back on topic, when I realized the base for gelato was generally identical to the base for biancomangiare, I knew that would have to be my very first attempt at gelato...or ice cream...or any frozen dessert made at home. I immediately found our biancomangiare recipe and compared the amount of half and half to the amount of milk so that I could calculate how much canella to add. After a few other flavor tweaks, I poured the base into the machine, adding chopped chocolate and pistachios at the very end. When the gelato had finished freezing and I took my first bite...I nearly died. It was perfect...identical to the flavors of my absolutely positively favorite dessert of all time...and it was so creamy and soft, just as I like it. So, I filled a container, placed it in the freezer, and quickly emailed my mother to brag, who then said I should bring it for the Fourth of July!

A few hours later, I went back to the freezer for another taste...and my heart sank. My soft, creamy gelato had become hard, gritty, icy...the texture was incredibly unappetizing, especially with the chocolate and pistachios mixed into the icy cream. I did some research to find out what had gone wrong and it simply appeared that this is a common problem with homemade ice creams! They're great right out of the machine, but icy and gritty out of the freezer. It bothered me because who wants to make just enough ice cream to immediately eat? Billy and I had wanted pints and pints of flavors in our freezer to enjoy at the drop of a hat! And what was I to do for the Fourth of July? Make the gelato that very afternoon and hope it doesn't melt at my aunt's before it gets eaten? I don't think so.

That's when I found Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home, which I mentioned in my last entry. It was actually probably the third book I looked at. First, I browsed a couple gelato books because...you know...I'm just obsessed with gelato a bit more than ice cream! Since the results were lacking, though, I decided to search for ice cream books, instead, and the very first one I saw was Jeni's, which I had to click on because I'd heard of her ice cream!

In Michigan, we have a store called Plum Market, which is like most markets...they sell amazing looking produce, wines, deli meat and cheese, grocery items, etc. It's a lot more amazing than most markets, though...The quality and selection are supreme; there are things you can find there that you probably can't find anywhere: belgian dark chocolate spreads, dark chocolate dulce de leche, home baked breads like quarkstuten (unless you've been to Germany, have you even heard of this?), the largest selection of frozen yogurt you'll find anywhere and, imported from an ice cream shop in Ohio...Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. Though I've never purchased any, I've always lusted after her ice creams; with flavors like Brown Butter Almond Brittle, Wildberry Lavendar, Rockmill Golden Ale and Apricots, and (seemingly everyone's favorite) Salted Caramel, how could I not? How could anyone not? There are even unique sorbets, frozen yogurts, and ice creams made with goat cheese!

So, I clicked the link to read about her book and knew I had to search no further; only one reviewer gave it fewer than four stars (and that person sounded like a giant crab) and the whole foundation of the book was about finding the perfect recipe for homemade ice cream so that it retained the same texture as anything you could buy in the store. Hello! Exactly what I was looking for! The next day, Billy went out, bought the book...and we immediately got to work :) Flipping through her recipes, I realized...this homemade ice cream was, really, closer to homemade gelato. Could my day get any better? Her ice cream base does contain heavy cream, but the ratio is nearly two parts whole milk to only one part heavy cream, so that's good enough for me. Despite the preponderance of unique ice cream flavors, I quickly located one for a simple vanilla bean and decided that would be the basis for my Cannoli Cream Gelato--the only thing I would have to do is add the unique flavors of biancomangiare, so it was truly meant to be :)

This time around...once the gelato had set up in the actual freezer...I ran a spoon through it, took a taste...and my smile must have reached from ear to ear or as close as it could get. Jeni knows what she's doing! Her technique for adding chocolate (so that you can make something like mint chocolate chip ice cream) is exactly what Billy and I were looking for too; she calls them "chocolate freckles" and they're amazing. So, I used that technique to imitate the chocolate chunks we mix into the biancomangiare before spooning it into cannoli shells or cassata cake...or simply our mouths. All I left out, this time, were the chopped pistachios, which is because Billy isn't a fan of nuts and I wanted him to try the gelato so he could give his opinion on the chocolate bits (for future use in his mint chocolate chip!). Something like that could be added later, anyway, so the outcome was still exactly what I was looking for and exactly something I would be proud to present to my family.

So, if you own an ice cream maker and are a fan of cannoli, I highly, highly encourage you to make this recipe. If you've never had a cannolo...I'm sorry...and beg you to either go out and buy one or at least make the cream at home if your particular location is void of proper Italian bakeries. Of course, you could always just make this gelato because, I promise, it tastes exactly the same :)


Almond Marsala Gelato

I have to admit that I don't eat ice cream often unless I go somewhere like Maggie Moo or Baskin-Robbins where I can get a nice fat waffle cone and sit outside enjoying it in the summer heat with a friend; if I happen to buy something for home, it tends to stay neglected in the freezer, despite my love for the confection. I think it has something to do with memories of adolescent summers, meeting friends at an ice cream shop and hanging out on the trunks of our cars, idly chatting while we relax with our treat. Sitting inside eating a bowl of ice cream simply isn't the same, so I really almost never buy it unless I find something that looks truly delicious (like mascarpone ice cream with hazelnuts and fudge ribbons).

Billy, on the other hand, is an ice cream FREAK. You can bet that nearly every single night he makes himself a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream sprinkled with extra chopped bits of bittersweet chocolate from our pantry. Of course, he adds the extra chocolate because he's never able to find a brand that adds chocolate in just the right amount using just the right method; if he does happen to find that brand, he usually gets one container of ice cream out of it before it's completely disappeared from the store. That's why, when we saw this Cuisinart Ice Cream Maker, we just had to have it. Finally, Billy could have the mint chocolate chip he'd always dreamed of and I could put my culinary creativity to good work and make as many crazy flavors as I please...scooping them into a cone to enjoy on my back porch, of course ;)  

Yesterday was my family's Fourth of July celebration and, after having made an experimental batch of Cannoli Cream Gelato, my mom suggested I bring that as my dessert. I thought it was a great idea considering the heat and decided to take the chance to make even more and have a little ice cream bar with it all. So, I came up with the second idea of Almond Marsala (inspired by my favorite pie crust), while Billy picked out a wonderful dark chocolate recipe from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home, a book I needed to own after reading reviews that it had recipes for homemade ice cream that actually stayed soft and creamy rather than turning into a gritty, icy mess, which is exactly what my experimental batch of Cannoli Cream Gelato had done. It was so perfectly creamy right out of the machine, but a disaster out of the freezer...more on that when I blog the recipe, though.

So, my original idea for dessert was essentially an ice cream bar where we'd have three ice creams, cones, chocolate sauce, fruit...you know, all the general staples of an ice cream bar, plus the cakes and pies others were going to bring. I had also wanted to make a nectarine tart, though, simply because I have a ton of ripe nectarines on hand and thought it would be really refreshing, especially topped with ice cream (I didn't end up making the tart, yet, but that's beside the point). My problem was that I didn't feel like the two ice creams Billy and I were definitely going to bring were right to serve with fruit and I really wanted something to go with it. So, I racked my brain trying to think of something that would be unique, but would taste wonderful alongside roasted nectarines or fresh, macerated strawberries. That's when I thought of Marsala wine and almonds, which I use in many pie crusts to complement the fruit inside. It seemed like the perfect combination for my purpose, so that's exactly what I did!  

Because I'm absolutely no expert on the chemistry behind ice cream, though, I chose to use recipes from my new cookbook as bases for my own, simply altering the flavors. You know how I love to tell people to take a recipe and make it their own! By doing so, I was able to make an ice cream with great texture, but still have the ability to take credit for the taste. For the Almond Marsala, I used Jeni's "Cognac Ice Cream" recipe, simply replacing cognac with Marsala (actually, doubling the amount, taking the chance that the ice cream would be softer because of the extra alcohol) and adding homemade almond paste as well as chopped almonds. I made sure to reference a recipe containing nuts, though, so I'd know what amount would be proper; I didn't want to end up with only a crunchy bite every so often or having more crunch than cream.

The resulting gelato has a light, overall almond flavor with just the right hit of sweet, fruity wine at the end, a combination that, I find, pairs perfectly with a bowl of fresh strawberries...

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