Thursday, December 31, 2009

Day 289 - Omelet with Slow-Roasted Tomatoes

David's here, and you know he only eats three things (when it's not his "cheat" meal), and eggs and tomatoes happen to be two of them. I warned him that there's butter involved here, and he's willing to look the other way.

Omelet with Slow-Roasted Tomatoes (p. 89)

I've made a bunch of Martha's omelets, but I think this may be the first time I followed her instructions to a tee, specifically in terms of the size of the pan and the implement used.

I normally lean toward a bigger pan (10" or 12") for omelets, and I typically use a traditional spatula. But this time, I went with Martha's suggestion to use an 8" pan and a flexible spatula. And as you would suspect, Martha knows how to steer us to a "good thing."

The smaller pan makes for a fluffier omelet. It may have a smaller footprint, but it's loftier, which is welcome. And the flexible spatula is a perfect tool for this assignment.

I like the butter-to-eggs ratio here much better than the scrambled eggs recipe. 1T of butter to 3-4 eggs vs. 2T for 4 eggs, scrambled.

The filling doesn't go in until almost the end of the cooking process, and I worried that my refrigerated tomatoes wouldn't be in the pan long enough to get hot, or even warm. I probably should have heated them up, or at least brought them to room temperature before adding them, but David claims that they weren't cold, so I guess it worked out OK. By the time I cooked my own omelet, they had warmed up.

The tomatoes are quite juicy, so this is a wet omelet, and it's very tasty. The garlic, thyme, and tomatoes are so flavorful, and everything pairs great with the eggs.

In fact, the next morning, I made myself yet another slow-roasted tomato omelet with the last few tomatoes I had!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Off to Spain for a vacation - Iberian ham and paella, here I come!

Just a little over two months left once I get back to finish my way through the book - There's going to be some major boogieing in the kitchen! Watch out!

And Happy New Year!!

Until we eat again....

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Day 288 - Slow-Roasted Tomatoes

Slow-Roasted Tomatoes (p. 316)

Here's another one of those 6 hour recipes... this is good if you know you're going to be home all day. Otherwise, guess you won't be enjoying anything with "slow-roasted" in the name.

It isn't tomato season, and the beefsteak tomatoes were looking pretty pekid, so I went with the smaller tomatoes on the vine which looked more flavorful.

I actually did these in the toaster oven, and it worked just fine. You cook them for a while at 300°, then you lower it to 250° and go for a few more hours, then you sprinkle on thyme leaves and garlic slices and continue for another few hours. Hours, I tell you, hours!

I expected these to be closer to sun-dried tomatoes, but I'd say they're more like stewed or regular-roasted tomatoes. But the cool thing is that the long, slow roasting really does narrow and highlight and underline the tomato flavor. These taste full-out! Juicy yet condensed.

I'm making them for tomorrow's omelets, but I wonder what else I could do with them....

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Friday, December 25, 2009

Day 283 - Stuffed Turkey Breast and Sausage and Sour-Cherry Stuffing

Christmas Eve - I have to make something festive and holiday-like, even if it is just Marcy and me.

And because it's the season of giving, I offered to make Marcy something she would actually enjoy, not just gamely endure. So we started our meal with Black Cod with Miso.

But then it was time for:

Stuffed Turkey Breast (p. 156)

This was a first for me, and I was excited to try it. Even though I've roasted several turkeys, the disembodied breast is foreign to me, seemingly from a completely different animal.

The breast I bought from Fairway had been trussed - to death - and there was some residual damage that concerned me. The twine was cutting right through the meat and the skin, and I wondered if I'd be able to pull this recipe off as written, given that my turkey breast was almost in strips.

The first order of business is butterflying the meat. This was a little confusing - I wasn't exactly sure where the best place to cut was - there seemed to be a few ways of going about it. Not to mention, the breast was naturally separating in a few places. My goal was to cut it in a way that would keep it all in one piece, and I did manage to pull that off.

Flattening the butterflied breast proved somewhat more complicated. The thicker side just didn't want to flatten out that much, and the other side was quite delicate. Eventually, I just had to call it done, because I'd been hammering holes into the plastic wrap and I thought if I struck that meat any more, it would either fall apart or spontaneously combust. Meanwhile, I pretty much pounded the truss ridges out of it, so that wasn't an issue any more.

At this point, I was pretty sure my turkey breast was going to be a disaster, and the next stage didn't give me much more hope. I laid the stuffing on the meat and started trying to roll it up, but the stuffing was falling out and the meat was disintegrating and I couldn't figure out how to hold the roll together, slap on that sad piece of skin, and wrap it all up in cheesecloth at the same time. Finally, I just forced it all together, shoving stuffing back into the sides. Even though I was hoping for something more like a spiral/jelly roll look, the meat layer was too thick for anything more than a stuffed circle.... Ah well. Then I tied up the cheesecloth package and slathered it with you-can't-believe-how-much butter and stuck it in the oven on a wing and a prayer.

I didn't stress too much because we'd already eaten the black cod, and I knew no one named Marcy would be going home hungry, but I was pretty sure this was going to be a gigantic failure.

My thermometer was behaving a little wonky with this meat. It read strangely low for so long beyond when the turkey was supposed to be done that I pulled out another thermometer, and that one read 155°, so I took it out right away and said another Christmas prayer that I hadn't overcooked it.

Cut to the unveiling (see right): Doesn't look too bad. It slices well and it's actually pretty, sliced, even if it is just one simple circle. And surprise of surprises, it tastes really good and it's cooked perfectly! Wait, how did THAT all happen??

Martha, even under less-than-ideal circumstances, your recipes still pull through!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Sausage and Sour-Cherry Stuffing (p. 158)

Now, THIS stuffing is right up my alley. Meat and fruit and bread! What could be better!

It's funny - for the Chestnut Stuffing, I was supposed to air dry the bread cubes, and for this recipe, I was supposed to give them a light bake in the oven to dry them out. I ended up doing them backwards, but now I know - both methods work perfectly!

I want to take this opportunity to brag here that my dried sour cherries were homemade. Yup, dried 'em myself. Way back when I made the Sour Cherry Pie, I had leftover sour cherries, so I pitted them, learned how to dry them (pectin wash, long+low heat, then stirring for days) and ended up with the perfect amount for this recipe!

The stuffing is easy and quick to make, and the only thing I feel I should mention is that I needed quite a bit more broth to dampen all the dried bread cubes. Even with the extra broth, it's a very loose stuffing, pre-cooking, i.e. it doesn't hold together. As I mentioned above, it kept falling out of the breast while rolling.

But it all worked out in the end. Given how dense and plain this breast meat is, the assertive flavors of sausage and cherry in this stuffing are particularly welcome here. It's a great pairing and a surprisingly effective dish.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Monday, December 21, 2009

Day 279 - Fried Shallots and Wine-Braised Short Ribs

One great thing that has come out of having to make all these dishes is that it has taken a lot of the "I don't wanna" out of cooking and entertaining. In the past, I'd think: "It would be great to have them over" or "I want to try to cook that" and then I'd convince myself it would be too much work, etc. With this assignment I've given myself, I don't have the luxury of slacking. And because I keep plowing through, now cooking and washing dishes and entertaining and shopping don't feel like such burdens. If you repeat something enough, it becomes second-nature! (I just started applying this to making my bed, too. We'll see if that "takes.")

Tonight's dinner guests are semi-regular Tracy and first-timers Carolyn and Bill. Carolyn and I were understudies together in the original Broadway production of Into the Woods, and although we performed Jack and Jack's Mother together only once onstage, we performed it together constantly in understudy rehearsals for 18+ months. She's a great performer and a really good time, and we've been friends ever since. FYI, her lawyer husband, Bill, is a good time, too.

To start tonight's meal, I thought I'd try yet another squash soup, this time Butternut. This recipe (not from the book) was a disappointment. Unlike the acorn squash, this squash was barely sweet. And there wasn't enough roasted garlic in the mix to make much of an impression. I tried adding a tiny bit of ground ginger for some subtle flavor, but that wasn't enough to register either. I will definitely go back to the Kabocha/Bosc with onion version if I ever do this again.

Meanwhile, you were probably wondering when those fried shallots were going to show up, weren't you!

Fried Shallots (p. 75)

I had these in the refrigerator from the other day, and luckily, I remembered to take them out in time to get them to room temperature.

First of all, I sliced these on my mandoline so I could get some really nice, even, thin slices. And they were really nice, even, thin slices. I heated the oil to 300° as directed, but when I put some slices in, the temperature dropped quickly. I bumped up the heat, but that first batch took some extra time to brown. The second batch had a more consistent temperature, so they browned more quickly and evenly.

What is it with deep frying? There's such a fine line between the amount of flame that will maintain the temperature and the amount of flame that will raise the temperature... I'm still working on it.

These fried shallots had that Durkee's Fried Onions taste, which probably sounds like a dig, but I mean it as a compliment. I could eat them things right out of the can...

On the soup, they definitely provided visual interest, and while still dry, they delivered some crunch. I stirred mine in pretty quickly, thereby losing the crunch factor, though they still were a nice texture and flavor in the soup. I wonder if they'd be even better salted....

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Wine-Braised Short Ribs (p. 188)

Finally, I'm making the recipe that makes use of Glace de Viande, those ice cubes of incredibly reduced brown stock. If you added up the cumulative cooking time that went into this dish, between the Glace de Viande and the brown stock and the browning and marinating and cooking of the ribs, it'd total something like 845 hours. Consequently, I had some very high expectations for this dish....

Luckily, Fairway sells short ribs cut to Martha's specs (3-3.5 inches long). I didn't want to have to ask a butcher to cut 5.5 pounds of ribs in half. I'm scared of butchers. Are all butchers surly? All the ones I've encountered are.

The first thing that happens here is the ribs get browned. I did this (and the marinating and braising) in my 5.5 quart dutch oven, which is doable for this recipe, but Martha recommends a 6 quart pot, and she's right - I really could have used that extra half quart. I could only brown 5 ribs at a time, so I had to brown in four batches. Smelly!! And messy and time-consuming. But fine.

Then, you soften some veggies (carrots, garlic, onions, celery) and pour in a bottle of red wine. Then pop the ribs in there, add some herbs (peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme) and stick it all in the fridge for a day. I wasn't happy with the way the ribs were sitting in the pot: too many were above the liquid line. So I took a cue from the turkey brining bag, and I put the whole pots-worth of stuff in a ziplock bag just big enough to accommodate, and I put that bag in the pot. This created a nice snug fit which gave more marinade coverage. It also made it really easy to turn the ribs for even marinating.

Next day, empty the bag. Add the magical glace de viande, as well as 5-8 cups of brown stock. I used brown chicken stock, because that's what I had on hand, and Martha said that's OK. I could only get about 5 cups in there, because my pot was literally overflowing.

Word of advice: bringing this pot to a boil doesn't happen quickly, so leave some time for that step.

Once it's boiling, it goes in the oven for hours, which is nice because then you don't have to think about it for a while.

Eventually, you remove the ribs, strain the liquid, and then reduce it. Martha has this technique where you put the pot off to one side of the burner (depouillage), and it works! i.e. bubbles bubble on one side while "impurities" collect on the other, and it makes for easier skimming, although truth be told, there's not that much to skim off.

I had so much liquid! She estimates it should be 5 cups. I didn't measure, but I'd guess I was maybe closer to 7. I didn't waste any time and I cranked up the heat on that half-off-the-flame liquid-reducing-pot. Still, it was a long road to get down to 1.5 cups (I actually shot for 2 cups, since I was starting with more). Martha says 20-30 minutes for the reducing, but I think I went for 45, or maybe even more.

The last stretch involves pouring this reduced sauce over the ribs and putting them back in the oven to glaze and reheat. (They've been sitting out for a while, so they need a little heat.)

Then, finally, they're done! Hallelujah!

Serving these feels like crossing the finish line of a marathon. You really want them to taste great.

And they do! The meat is outrageously tender, literally falling off the bone. The sauce tastes deep and delicious, but not self-consciously overwrought. Just tasty. It's interesting that the only time salt and pepper shows up here is at the very beginning, used on the ribs before browning. I'm not sure if this is an oversight, but I didn't add any more S+P during the marathon, and it tasted balanced. (And for the record, I was using salt-free brown stock.)

I served this over fresh gnocchi, which was a nice combination, if somewhat heavy. It really tipped the meal into the realm of comfort food, which is where ribs truly belong anyway.

This dish may take 845 hours, but it's worth it.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Here's Tracy with the shallot-topped soup.

And here's Bill and Carolyn with the ribs and gnocchi.

Tried a new non-Martha Prosciutto Bread recipe. Awesome...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Day 277 - Fried Herbs and Blanquette de Veau

Marcy is basically the star of this blog... Does anyone's face show up as much as hers? Good thing she's so pretty. :-)

Soup has become a staple in the meals I serve her, and even though I've already made the Winter Squash and Pear Soup, I didn't serve it to Marcy, so I thought I'd give it another shot with some slight variations. Instead of Kabocha, I used an Acorn squash. And instead of a Bosc pear, I used a D'Anjou. Let me tell you, that made for some significant differences! I don't know if one acorn squash is very different from the next, but this one was amazingly sweet. That, combined with a sweeter and juicier pear, made for a much sweeter and thinner end-product. This was a totally respectable soup, but I definitely preferred the Kabocha/Bosc version.

But what did this version have that the other one lacked?


Fried Herbs (p. 75)

I thought I'd knock out two soup garnishes at once, the other one being Fried Shallots. I mean, why heat up a potful of oil any more times that you absolutely have to?

Since the shallots can be refrigerated for two days and the herbs have to be used immediately, I'm serving the herbs tonight. (Shallots will be appearing soon.)

I thought sage would be a perfect flavor pairing with the squash, and I threw in some parsley too, just for the heck of it.

Frying is so tricky. The temperature of the oil was up, down, up, down. How does anyone do this without a thermometer? Most of the herbs went into very hot oil (300° or above), so they cooked very quickly, and as far as I could tell, successfully.

This high temperature frying really changes the intensity of the herbs' flavor. Eating a fresh sage leaf is a major flavor experience, but eating a fried sage leaf is quite a subtle one. The leaf is flaky and almost meltaway. Same with the parsley.

While this garnish definitely complemented the dish visually, I can't say that it made a huge impact, flavor-wise.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Blanquette de Veau (p. 207)

Convincing Marcy to eat Blanquette de Veau could be a longshot, but I was banking on the cold weather to endear her to the idea of eating this creamy veal stew. And it worked!

Blanquette de Veau is a classic French dish, and if I'm not mistaken, it was one that Julia Child introduced to the US. I'd already made Martha's Artichoke Heart, Fava Bean, and Pea interpretation of this classic dish, but now it was time to do the classic variation, itself.

The way that this recipe is presented in the book is slightly confusing, in that you have to go back and forth between the original and the variation to make sure you don't miss anything. Even with all my care in this department, I ultimately missed a step that I think would have elevated the dish even more. But I'll come back to that later.

For all the folderol, this is a very modest dish - chunks of veal, small button mushrooms, and pearl onions in a cream sauce, totally beige. The charm of it for me is in the flavor of the stock.

Unlike a typical stock where everything swims freely in the same pot, here the aromatics are wrapped up in a cheesecloth sachet. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that while the veal is getting blanched, it's throwing off a lot of foamy glop which needs to be skimmed away, and maybe containing everything else in the sachet makes that easier. In any case, the veal and sachet simmer in water for a while, then the veal is put aside, the sachet is disposed of, and the liquid is strained and becomes the base for the sauce, i.e. velouté.

When I first started cooking from this book, velouté was a somewhat foreign concept, only visited occasionally for gravies at Thanksgiving. But now that I've made them countless times for soups and various main dishes, I can truly say that I get velouté, and it's really not a big deal.

Peeling the pearl onions for this dish was a cute exercise, thanks to Martha's tips on page 31. Her trick for peeling them involves a quick blanch, ice bath, and then cutting of the root end and squeezing them out of their "shells." It's fun, and a little dangerous. They really fly out of there.

The peeled pearl onions and button mushrooms get sautéed while the velouté thickens (look at all those French words with accents!). There's an optional step here in the fava bean recipe which involves a liaison, i.e. adding egg yolk and cream to thicken the sauce even further. Because we were going the classic route, I thought I should go whole-hog, so I liaised. Once the sauce was done, the veal and vegetables went back in and were brought up to serving temperature.

Sadly, this is where I missed an important step. The last line of the fava bean recipe is "Add lemon juice and chopped dill or parsley to taste." I didn't realize that the lemon juice is part of the traditional Blanquette de Veau recipe. I thought it was just one of Martha's add-ins, like the favas and artichoke hearts.

But just now, I did some cross-checking with other people's recipes, and I see that there's always lemon juice added at the end. Ah well.

The sauce of this dish is really tasty. For some reason, maybe because it's white, it tastes like a chicken cream sauce to me, i.e. too delicately flavored to be a meat sauce. It reminds me of the best possible tasting sauce from a chicken pot pie. The veal is nicely tender, and the mushrooms and onions are cute and sweetly old-fashioned. (We don't see button mushrooms and pearl onions much anymore, do we?)

It's a perfect winter stew, and I think I executed it very effectively (even with the missing lemon juice), but I'd be hard-pressed to think of an occasion where I'd pull this out again.

Jeff: A- (missed the lemon juice)
Martha: A- (could have been a little more specific in the variation description, thereby helping me to avoid missing the lemon juice)

I thought it was worth mentioning that I made Glazed Radishes to serve with this meal. Cooking radishes was a novelty for me, and I was surprised that they came out well. They retained their crunch, but lost much of their heavy pepperiness. What was left was definitely root vegetable-like, but without the heaviness of a carrot or parsnip. Also interesting was what happened with the color. I used a bunch of classic round red radishes which were on the small side, so I left them whole. While they cooked, the color faded from the skins and drained into the cooking liquid. By the time they were done cooking, the glaze was cherry red, and the radishes were a pale pink. Cute. I should have halved them, because they were difficult to pin down and cut. The glaze had a salty/sweet/sour taste - it seemed like a sauce that couldn't make up its mind what it wanted to be. This was an interesting experiment, but again, not sure if/when I'd ever revisit it.

Until we eat again....

Monday, December 14, 2009

Day 272 - Scrambled Eggs with Caviar in Eggshell Cups and Herbed Crème Fraîche

Brunch with Marcy, version 87.0, and look how fancy we are today!

Scrambled Eggs with Caviar in Eggshell Cups (p. 87)

Have you ever? This is too cute. Seriously. Overly cute. And completely impractical.

As you might imagine, I've accumulated a ton of utensils, implements, appliances, and servingware/cookware pieces in order to execute this project. However, I have drawn the line at buying an egg topper, i.e. scissors to cut the top off an egg shell. I knew that it was something I'd use only this once, and I'm trying to avoid bringing any useless things into my new apartment.

To make my eggshell cups, ghetto-style, I cracked a couple of eggs carefully, and created a big enough opening to allow a spoon into. That's the crazy thing about these tiny cups. You need to use baby spoons to eat from them. So impractical. Yet cute.

This was my first time making Martha's scrambled eggs, which are seriously buttery. Two tablespoons of butter per four eggs? That's excessive, I think. Don't get me wrong - they were delicious, but I think you could have achieved a similar effect with half as much butter. And you'd probably add a couple of years to your life.

Piping scrambled eggs into eggshell cups is incredibly twee, but fun. It's difficult to be refined with the next steps, i.e. dolloping crème fraîche on top and spooning caviar on top of that. My technique was lacking, and what should have been dainty and refined ended up sloppy and goopy.

Looks aside, though, it was yummy! Sinfully buttery, creamy, salty - a great trio of flavors. Since I'd only prepared two eggshell cups, we ate the rest from bowls. Not as cute, but just as delicious. I think I'd serve this again, but maybe I'd serve it on toast...

Jeff: A- (completely unrefined presentation, but I'm giving myself points for just trying)
Martha: A

Herbed Crème Fraîche (p. 75)

I knew the eggs wouldn't be a whole meal for us, so I whipped up a Martha-style broccoli and potato soup. And then I figured, since I have the crème fraîche on hand, I should probably make this soup garnish.

For herbs, I used roughly 1.5 tablespoons of parsley, a half tablespoon of thyme, and a hint of sage. (I thought it might be too strong a flavor to use any more.)

Stirred into the soup, it adds a nice richness and flavor, without being overpowering.

And you can make designs!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Day 270 - Spinach Cream Soup, Prosciutto Crisps, Lamb Tagine, Basmati Rice Pilaf with Pomegranate Seeds, and Ninth Tally!

It's my nine month anniversary with Martha! But before I announce my current stats, I have to tell you about tonight's meal!

Dawn and Kevin are back for more, so I guess the rabbit meal didn't scare them away. The new face is Jackie, not just my friend and wonderful actress, but also my real estate agent who helped me find my new apartment and sell my old one.

Tonight, the food is much more familiar to me than it was on rabbit night. In fact, Lamb Tagine is one of the few recipes I had already cooked from the book before having started this project. It's like being reunited with an old friend.

But first, some soup....

Spinach Cream Soup (p. 65)

It seems like I just did this soup a few days ago, but in fact that was Creamed Spinach and this is Spinach Cream Soup.

Several things are different here. First of all, the spinach at Fairway today was the heartier kind, so the cleaning went much more quickly.

Also, the way the spinach gets cooked is different.

This spinach is blanched, i.e. boil some water, push all the spinach into it, leave it alone for 30 seconds, then move all the spinach to an ice bath.

In the creamed spinach recipe, the spinach is wilted, i.e. you put the still-wet leaves in a pot over heat, then stir them around until all the leaves wilt and turn bright green.

Both techniques are equally successful and require roughly the same amount of work, although wilting requires one less bowl (for the ice bath).

Remembering my last dinner party and how much I left my guests waiting for food while I prepared everything à la minute, I did as much in advance as possible. I made the velouté (soup base) and blanched the spinach in the afternoon, and right before they arrived, I blended the cooled velouté with the spinach and started it on low heat. By the time we were ready for soup, it was perfectly hot.

Again, spinach and cream together make a great combo. There's a brightness to dishes prepared with fresh spinach, and this is no exception. The soup, for all its creaminess, tastes fresh and light and clean.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Prosciutto Crisps (p. 75)

Here's a soup garnish I can really get behind! What's better than cured pork? Crunchy cured pork!

This is so easy: lay prosciutto strips on a baking sheet and cook until crispy. Simple and effective.

Not sure if this is the best soup pairing for this garnish, but that didn't stop everyone from gobbling these up. Definitely a popular, can't-miss garnish.

Jeff: A

Martha: A

Lamb Tagine (p. 207)

The first time I made this dish, it blew me away. The smells coming from my oven transported me to another world, on the other side of the globe. I couldn't believe that by simply combining those familiar ingredients, I had created something so other-worldly. And the taste was as magical as the smells indicated it might be.

Since that first try, the magic has definitely faded. Maybe I'm getting jaded. Or just experienced. I've definitely tasted a lot of world flavors since starting this project, and there have been some amazing smells coming from my oven over the past nine months. That's not to say this recipe isn't solid. It is. I guess that first time is just special....

Martha says you can use bone-in or boneless lamb stew meat for this recipe, and I thought I was doing something nice by using some of each. The bone-in meat looked kind of meager, so I wanted to pump it up with some solid meat. But in the end, the bone-in pieces were much more delicious and tender than the boneless chunks. My recommendation would be to use all bone-in meat, but to buy extra, because much of the weight is bone, and you won't have enough meat to satisfy.

One of my gripes about this recipe is the instruction to spoon off some of the fat in the middle of the cooking process. I think if I were being really conscientious, I would have taken the pot out of the oven, lifted one side and properly spooned it off. Instead, I was trying to do it while it was in the oven, and of course it was unwieldy and awkward, and I gave up after a few tries. Plus, it's hard to tell what's fat and what's liquid. It's all the same color.

Maybe if I had spooned off more fat, my final product would have been thicker and not so liquidy. I took the lid off the pot as Martha suggested to speed up the thickening process, but even so, I ended up with a pretty loose stew. Nice taste, but not great consistency and concentration of flavor. And as I mentioned before, some nice tender meat, but also some tougher boneless chunks.

Also, the apricots had lost a lot of their sweetness in this batch. I missed it on the plate. Next time, maybe I'll add some prunes....

Jeff: B (should have skipped the boneless meat and spooned off more fat)
Martha: A

Basmati Rice Pilaf with Pomegranates (p. 415)

Here's the last of the pilaf recipes, basmati rice instead of white, with some added saffron and pomegranate seeds on top.

The rice itself was cooked perfectly. The saffron gives it a nice yellow cast, although I wished it had more flavor. The pomegranate seeds are a nice touch, though.

I've never understood pomegranates. I remember some kids used to bring them to school for lunch, and I'd be jealous, but now I can't imagine how anyone could ever eat one in the school cafeteria. They're so messy and staining, and what a terrible effort/payoff ratio!

Still, they provide some amazing color. I started with a very modest sprinkling on top, but my guests grabbed the dish of seeds and covered their rice in them. I think pomegranates are an "event" food, and people love to celebrate them.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

That's Jackie, with the soup and the prosciutto crisps.

And that's Kevin and Dawn, with the lamb, the rice, these carrots, and the garnishes for the lamb: toasted almonds, parsley, and harissa. Yum!

Ninth Tally

Nine months in, and 274 recipes and lessons have been completed. Wow. That's a lot!

Clearly, I've lost my lead, but I'm not daunted. I can keep up the one a day average until March.

Even with a ten-day vacation coming up.


Until we eat again....

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Day 267 - Chicken Consommé, Pork Shoulder Braised in Hard Cider, and Creamed Spinach

Tonight's dinner party was originally conceived to be a tribute to the wonderful Broadway musical [title of show] and its brilliant cast and creative team, but turns out several of them were unavailable, so it became a general tribute to fun people of the theatre world.

On the guest list: [title of show]'s brilliant lady star, Heidi, its brilliant director, Michael, Broadway (and Running Charades) diva, Celia, Heidi and Celia's uber-talented beaux: Ed and John, and everybody's favorite ex-actor/ESL teacher and dinner party regular, Ryan.

This was one of those crazy hodgepodge meals, i.e. Which dishes haven't I done yet that I can throw together into one barely cohesive but hopefully edible meal? Thankfully, I had an incredibly easygoing crowd that went with the lack of flow. Gotta love theatre people!

Chicken Consommé (p. 72)

You can't believe how much time, effort, and how many ingredients it takes to make this absolutely clear, simple broth.

The best thing I can say about this recipe is that everything is coarsely chopped - there's no 1/4 inch dice or julienne cutting, which is always a time-sucker, esp. for me with my crappy knives and lack of technique.

The first thing you do here is make the "clarification mixture," which is chopped onion, carrot, and celery, mixed with ground chicken and egg whites. This chills in the refrigerator, while you char an onion and chop it and a tomato. Then it all gets whisked into chicken stock and brought to a boil.

Eventually a "raft" forms, basically a giant floating chopped meat and veggie lifesaver, which pulls all the impurities out of the soup, leaving a super-clear and intensely-flavored broth, i.e. consommé. I have to confess I've never done or even seen anything like this, which I always appreciate. That said, it seems like a lot of effort for clear broth.

Next, the liquid is strained through a cheesecloth-lined sieve and then a second time through a coffee filter. (Really?) The sieve part went fine, but when I tried to use a cone filter for part two, the first one tore and the second one allowed through roughly one tablespoon per hour. Eventually, I gave up on that and used a paper towel, which worked perfectly. This seemed like an acceptable alternative considering that the next thing I was supposed to do was to sweep a paper towel over the soup to remove the fat on top. By the time I put it through the paper towel filter, the soup had cooled off, and the fat was left just sitting on the paper towel, so I think I killed two birds with one paper towel.

Martha indicates that the soup should be garnished, but she doesn't specify anything in particular, so I trolled around the web for ideas. I eventually settled on blanched julienned carrots and green bean rounds.

I must confess my big mistake. I should have doubled (or at least 150%'ed) this recipe. As written, it serves only 4-6 people, and we were seven. So yes, the portions were incredibly small. But hey, this is a very refined dish. If you pretend you're at Le Bernardin, a tiny portion seems entirely acceptable.

When I tasted the soup near the end of the "raft" stage, it had that magical soup sparkle, very delicious and fresh and flavorful. But I think it lost something in the reheating of it. By the time it was served, it tasted very much like a garden-variety chicken broth. Tasty, absolutely, but nothing I'd repeat, given the journey to get there.

Jeff: A- (for not serving big enough portions)
Martha: A- (for a very low effort-to-payoff ratio)

Pork Shoulder Braised in Hard Cider (p. 183)

This was one I was really looking forward to, being that it has two of my favorite things in the title alone: Pork and Hard Cider. I'm not a big drinker, but the one alcoholic beverage that I find irresistible is hard cider, so I was very excited to cook my favorite meat, pork, in it!

No easy coarse chopping in this dish! This one requires lots of 1/2 inch dicing, mincing, and fine chopping. Leeks, garlic, parsnips, and celery root are the aromatic components, along with some fresh herbs in a cheesecloth sachet. This dish starts on the stove for the browning of the pork shoulder and the softening of the aromatics. Then the pork and liquids are added, brought to a boil, and ultimately it goes in the oven for the bulk of the cooking time.

Similarly to the rabbit recipe, the amount of liquid suggested in the recipe was not enough to come "halfway up the sides of the pork," so I ended up adding more cider, stock, and even some water to bring up the level of the liquid. (Martha says to add more stock if this comes up, but I didn't have enough extra on hand. If you make this, you will definitely want to plan on having a nice amount of extra stock around.)

As with the chicken soup recipe, when this dish nears completion, you get rid of all the vegetables that have been cooking and flavoring the stock and you replace them with new versions of the same vegetables, in this case, sliced leeks, parsnips, and celery root, which go back in the liquid and get cooked until tender.

Once the new vegetables are done, then so is the meat, and they both get put aside, covered, while the sauce is prepared. I was supposed to reduce two cups of cooking liquid down to one cup, but there was closer to four cups in there! I turned the heat up really high, trying to reduce it as quickly as possible, which would have gone faster if I were going from two cups to one, but I wanted all that flavor so I used all four cups and just waited it out.

Martha had me make a beurre manié for this sauce, i.e. mix together a tablespoon each of flour and butter with my fingers. I'd never seen this before, the finger mixing, that is. It's a very effective, though messy, way of creating a smooth gravy starter. Eventually, the sauce thickened up nicely, and I finished it with cream and grainy mustard.

Surprisingly, after all that time sitting covered, the meat had stayed quite hot on the bone, so after shredding it onto the platter, it was still warm by the time it hit the table. The vegetables, though, had seriously cooled.

Martha says this dish serves eight, but I bought a slightly larger piece of meat (she says 3 lbs, and my pork shoulder was roughly 3.3 lbs) and I think we just barely had enough meat. I'd suggest serving this portion to 6 people or getting for a larger shoulder. The vegetables, on the other hand, were plentiful.

As much as I love pork, I wasn't blown away by the flavor or texture of this meat. It was tender enough, and it tasted fine, albeit somewhat bland. The vegetables were more interesting to me, flavor-wise, though visually, they were all a pasty beige, much like the meat, so this isn't a particularly attractive dish to look at.

The real star here is that sauce, full of flavor: sweet, salty, creamy, sharp, delicious, magically elevating the rest of the ingredients and giving the dish lift-off. Definitely do not skip this very important component.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Creamed Spinach (p. 297)

This recipe, I remembered to double. Unfortunately, that meant washing and trimming five pounds of spinach. Do you realize how time-consuming it is to wash five pounds of spinach? Also, the day I shopped for this meal, the spinach at Fairway was the fine leaf kind, not the heartier kind. Ugh. After spending 45 minutes washing and trimming the first three pounds, I had to quit, just to get some snacks out before my guests arrived.

And there I was, with guests and two pounds of dirty spinach. Enter my savior, Heidi (pictured here), who stepped in as sous chef and finished cleaning the spinach.

My only previous experience of creamed spinach was my mother's version, which was 100% from canned ingredients. Canned spinach, canned mushrooms, and canned cream of mushroom soup. Tonight's version, of course, is in another galaxy completely.

As I've come to expect, Martha's timing for thickening the béchamel is way off. She says two minutes, mine went for more like ten. (It may have been even longer. I felt like I was keeping my guests waiting forever... At one point I was stirring the béchamel and the pork sauce with one hand each. Now that's coordination!) Admittedly, my creamed spinach looked a lot thicker and creamier than the spinach pictured in the book, but I think that's a good thing.

Needless to say, it was fabulous. Fresh and green (unlike my mother's brown version) and heavy and light at the same time. A hint of nutmeg and a nice amount of salt sealed the deal. Now, if I could find prewashed spinach, I might consider doing this again!

Jeff: A
Martha: A- (I don't think two minutes of thickening is even remotely realistic)

Warning: Both the spinach and the pork dish will keep you busy right up until serving time, which makes them terrible choices for dinner parties. Doing them together was a near-fiasco, as I was very distracted bouncing back and forth from one to the other. I kept my guests waiting a ridiculous amount of time before the main course was served. And this, after feeding them merely a tablespoon each of consommé. Eek! Note to self: must plan better next time....

Lovebirds Celia and John, with their thimbles of consommé.

Real men eat pork! (from l to r: Ryan, Michael and Ed)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Day 255 - Perfect Roast Turkey, How to Carve a Turkey, Perfect Gravy, Chestnut Stuffing, and Potato and Turnip Gratin

Such procrastination! It has taken me forever to write this entry! And not because it was a disaster dinner... it was actually quite good! But I've taken a HUGE (dangerous) cooking break since Thanksgiving, and I haven't been able to face writing this until now. Apologies to anyone who thought I might have given up the ghost. I'm still very much in the game, and fyi, I'm back cooking again.

Now, on to Thanksgiving!

It's become a tradition for me to cook Thanksgiving for my parents and their friends in Florida. It all started a few years ago, when an ex-boyfriend of mine was sufficiently disappointed by a Blumenkrantz Thanksgiving meal at "The Clubhouse" that he swore he would only come back if Thanksgiving were home-cooked. I presented that to my mother and promised her I would do the lion's share, and she relented. She has little interest in cooking, and entertaining is a pain for her because no one but she can clean up in a way that's acceptable to her. Still, I twisted her arm, and here I am, back for my third (or is it fourth) Thanksgiving as Head Chef!

Preparations for this meal started about two months ago. Since I'm now cooking publicly, I felt like I had a reputation to uphold, so I was taking this particular Thanksgiving meal VERY seriously. Of course, I knew I'd be doing the turkey, stuffing, and gravy from the book, but all those sides! How to pick? And dessert: homemade or store-bought? And how much is too much? And who's coming? And when do I make what? etc.

There were shopping lists and schedules and printouts and graphs and spreadsheets.... I was not leaving anything to chance. Dishes were ruled out because they couldn't be made in advance. I didn't want to risk being overburdened on the day.

I arrived in Florida on Tuesday night and didn't stop cooking until I sat down to eat on Thursday night. It was a ton of work, but thanks to a spacious, beautiful kitchen, some sous chef assistance from my mom, and lots of advance preparation, it all went really smoothly! I should mention that my parents did all the shopping in advance. Thanks you guys!

Perfect Roast Turkey (p. 149)

This turkey recipe is quite similar to the one I've been cooking for the past few Thanksgivings, Roast Turkey with Quince Glaze. It was the success of that very turkey recipe that began my Martha-love. The only significant difference is that this recipe omits the quince glaze.

If you've never brined a turkey, you absolutely have to try it. You will be amazed at what a positive effect it has on the bird, both flavor-wise and moistness-wise. It takes some forethought, because the brine gets boiled and then has to be cool in time for the turkey to be placed in there 26 hours before going in the oven. (24 hours in the brine in the fridge and then 2 hours resting at room temperature.) I made the brine late on Tuesday night, so it would cool overnight and I could put the turkey in it on Wednesday morning. Martha puts all kinds of flavory ingredients in her brine, but she confesses that you can use just salt, sugar, and water to similar effect. Of course, I did it as written, with all the bells and whistles.

FYI, our brining technique involves a big plastic ziploc brining bag from Bed Bath and Beyond. We put the turkey in the bag, then pour in the brine, and then put the filled bag in a giant stock pot. The pot insures against a refrigerator disaster (the bag leaking or breaking), and it also helps contain and raise the level of the liquid. You want to keep all or or as much of the bird covered with liquid as possible.

Cooking the turkey was very by the book. I'd experienced all these techniques before, so it was sort of old hat: stuffing, buttering the skin, trussing, cheesecloth, brushing with butter and wine, basting, etc.

The interesting thing that happened here had to do with doneness. I started checking the temperature of the bird when Martha suggests, after 2.5 hours total cooking time. I think about an hour after that, the thigh temperature had hit 165°, so I turned the bird around just to doublecheck the temperature of the other thigh. It was in the 170°'s, so I deemed it definitely done. Took it out, let it rest for about 45 minutes.

However, when I cut into the thighs, there was a redness to the meat, and the juices were pink! I started to freak out, but I decided to trust the process and let it be. And in the end, I'd say the turkey was sufficiently cooked and well-cooked. In fact, the white meat seemed to be dancing dangerously near over-done. I'm not sure why there was so much pinkness with the dark meat, but it was extra moist, and it was all gone by the end of the night. And as far as I know, no one got sick afterward. (Wouldn't that have been horrible!)

The turkey came out well, but I think my two previous brined turkeys were even moister and more flavorful. At 19.5 lbs, this one was a bigger bird than the others, by about four pounds. I wonder if bigger birds are more difficult to cook, i.e. denser meat, less fat....

In the end, everyone was very complimentary, so I'm calling it a hit.

FYI, I dispensed with the optional garnish (lady apples, sage leaves, and chestnuts) and it's fine that I did. No one was taking any art shots. Besides, one of the wings on our turkey was partially amputated and couldn't be tucked back. That definitely would have been an end to the modeling career of our otherwise picturesque turkey.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

How to Carve a Turkey (p. 152)

When I cut into that turkey and saw all the pink and red, I have to confess, I got a little stressed out. In my panicked state, I needed some serious focus, and I was really grateful that Martha's directions were so straightforward and easy to follow.

The carving went very quickly, the most complicated part being getting the thigh meat off the bone. My mother usually carves the turkey with her electric knife, which allows her to make thinner slices, and though mine were thicker, they seemed more elegant. That hacksaw creates a kind of threading of the meat, while my slices were clean and smooth.

One weird part of the directions involved removing the stuffing on the neck end of the bird. Martha says to make an "oval incision that allows you to remove the stuffing with the skin intact." Well, I did it, but I wasn't exactly clear why I would want to do it. I had a big scoop of stuffing with a turkey skin top. Was I supposed to serve it that way? That doesn't seem appetizing. I ended up putting the turkey skin at the bottom of the stuffing dish. Why? I don't know. It felt weird to throw it away after making that beautiful oval incision.

At the time, I felt like I was racing through the carving and doing a sort of half-assed job, but I got so many compliments on it! Sometimes I think I'm too hard on myself...

I'm going to grade myself based on those compliments. :-)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Perfect Gravy (p. 154)

This gravy requires an hours-long process. There's a stock of vegetables and giblets that gets made while the turkey is cooking, and then the process stops until the turkey is out of the oven. Then you hustle.

First, you deglaze the roasting pan.

Then comes the part of the process that was so weird and not what I was expecting... I don't know how this got so off from what it looks like in the book. I must have done something very wrong, but I thought I was following the directions so carefully!

I heated 3 tablespoons of pan drippings in a saucepan and whisked in 3 tablespoons of flour. The next instruction is "continue whisking, cooking until mixture is fragrant and deep golden brown, about 9 minutes."

First of all, I had a ball of putty in 10 seconds. So I had this already deep golden brown ball of putty, which I was trying to whisk (?) and I had 8 minutes and 50 seconds yet to go! I knew there was probably a reason why you were supposed to cook it for 9 minutes, i.e. get the starchy taste cooked out, so I didn't want to blow that off. But what to do about my putty ball? I started adding more drippings, trying to get a little liquid action going, and after I had added all the drippings I'd reserved, it was still a ball.

So I kicked the ball around the pan with a whisk for 9 minutes. I mashed it and kicked it and mashed it and kicked it. Ours is not to reason why....

When, after nine ridiculous minutes, I added the stock to the saucepan, it seemed as if the ball would never dissolve, but eventually it did. And from then on, thankfully, the results were as indicated in the book.

In fact, I think this gravy was outstanding, probably the most accomplished thing I did that day. It had an amazing depth of flavor.

But why was that one stage so weird? I'm just developing a theory. I was probably supposed to use pan drippings without having separated out the fat, i.e. dripping that are mostly fat. Isn't that what a gravy thickener is? Equal parts fat and flour? That must be it. More (or even all) fat drippings would have gotten me closer to what is pictured in the book. That could have been made more specific....

Jeff: A
Martha: A-
(for not specifying "fatty" drippings)

Chestnut Stuffing (p. 156)

My typical stuffing is a kitchen-sink type stuffing. I always invent it on the spot and put all sorts of vegetables and fruits and meats and nuts in there: apricots and apples and sausage and walnuts and carrots and you name it. So it was a real departure to make this stuffing, which has very few ingredients: bread, chestnuts, butter, onion, celery, sage, chicken stock, parsley, salt and pepper.

Note to anyone who makes this: leave a ton of time for shelling the chestnuts. It's painstaking work! You score the chestnuts before boiling them, which is supposed to make them easier to peel, but this was in no way an easy task.

Also, there are 3 cups of chopped parsley used in this recipe, which means you need at least three giant bunches. I had to send my father out to get more. (He's such a mensch.)

And there are 4 cups of celery! And 4 cups of chestnuts, which I don't generally like. What is this going to taste like??

This stuffing was fabulous! I cooked a third of it in the turkey and the rest of it separately and then mixed it all together in a serving dish (sitting atop a hidden oval bed of turkey skin). It was moist and savory and delicious! The celery gave it crunch, and the chestnuts gave it sweetness. It was an eye-opening experience to realize that something can be this simple, have this few ingredients, and still be deeply flavorful and wonderful.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Potato and Turnip Gratin (p. 320)

This was the one side dish from the book that I incorporated into our dinner. It too is a simple recipe, involving only thinly sliced potatoes and turnips, covered in herb-infused cream and baked until brown.

The problem here was that the baking time was really off. It was not "golden brown and bubbling" at all after one hour of cooking time. I left it in there until it started coloring and bubbling, another 20 minutes or so, but even then, this dish was deeply undercooked. The vegetables were too crunchy and the cream hadn't thickened and the flavors just weren't there. Sadly, she was the least popular girl at the party....

The next day, I did an experiment and reheated it in the toaster oven, cooking it for another 30-45 minutes, until it was REALLY golden and bubbling. And then it came to life! It had flavor, texture, everything seemed right. Unfortunately though, at Thanksgiving, this was a bust.

Jeff: A
Martha: C
(I'm guessing something's really off in the recipe, either the cooking time or the oven temperature)

Incidentally, the other side dishes I prepared that night were Green Beans with Vinaigrette, Roasted Brussels Sprouts shpritzed with lemon juice, and a delicious Roasted Parsnip Bread Pudding. I also made an Apricot and Pine Nut Relish, which I thought was a Martha recipe, but I just found out that Real Simple is not a Martha publication! How could I have mixed that up? It's her competition! Ah well, I was trying to make it an all-Martha meal, but I blew it. Thumbs up on the relish recipe, though.

I should also add that my mother made cranberry sauce and her traditional jello mold. (It sounds bad, but it's actually good: two layers of fruit-packed strawberry jello, surrounding a layer of sour cream.) And our friend Vicki made an amazing Sweet Potato Pie!

For dessert, we had store-bought pies and vanilla ice cream, and I made the same Poached Pears I made for the Pavlova last month. Yum!

Until we eat again....

From left to right: Nancy (my mother), Stan, Leila, Evelyn, Aser, Ron, Zachary, Florence, Murray, Vicki, Tony, Audrey, and Harold (my father)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Day 251 - Shallow-Poached Fish Fillets

Marcy was coming over, as usual, for our weekly meal, and the plan was to make her the Scrambled Eggs with Caviar, served in egg shells. I'd even made my little egg shell serving "dishes" in anticipation of this event.

But then... I saw them. I'd been waiting for them for months. They were there when I started the project, and then they disappeared. But now they're back. Finally back. Of course, I'm talking about... kumquats!

Shallow-Poached Fish Fillets (p. 222)

This dish calls for a delicate white fish to be shallow-poached in a citrus-y liquid, then served with a citrus-y butter sauce. I opted for flounder, and it did not behave as I expected it to...

I definitely messed this one up, but I don't think I'm entirely to blame. Martha says that flounder is especially delicate and may cook in as little as 30 seconds. The indication that it's ready is opaqueness and flakiness when touched. Well, my flounder took even more than the predicted 30 seconds-5 minutes to get opaque and flaky. And it tasted overcooked. Now how did THAT happen? Plus, to add insult to injury, I had to do the fish in two batches since they were too big to fit in my pan in one pass, so those first two fillets were really unappetizing by serving time.

Similarly off was the making of the butter sauce. By the time the fish was done, there was not much liquid in the pan. Once strained, I didn't even have the three tablespoons I needed to make the butter sauce. I got a little extra liquid from what was collecting on the plate under the reserved flounder fillets. I incorporated the butter and ended up with a CRAZILY thick butter sauce. Practically spreadable. Tasty, but off.

As for the kumquats, I can't say it's the beginning of a love affair. They weren't very juicy. Martha says to squeeze them to release their juice, but I had nary a drop of juice released. Were they particularly dry, or is Martha just thinking wishfully? To me, kumquats are everything that's worth throwing away from an orange, without any of the "good stuff." Yes, you do get a big jolt of citrus flavor, but rind has never been my thing, and this is basically all rind.

That said, they were an interesting visual, they provided a lot of flavor, and it was fun to try them.

By the time my butter sauce was done, the fish was overcooked AND lukewarm. Not a good combination. Is it really possible to keep a piece of fish warm yet moist while it waits for you to make a butter sauce? If you think so, share your technique please.

In the end, this dish was a bust. Every element of the dish was off in some way. I have two more variations on this recipe to go, so maybe I'll be able to improve my technique with those.

Jeff: C-
Martha: B (Opaque=overcooked. Release juice? Not so much.)

Until we eat again....

Marcy was just happy for fish.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Day 250 - Orange Braised Rabbit and Perfect Soft Polenta

OK, OK, I know this is dated from before Thanksgiving, but I'm cheating with my time a little. I got so preoccupied with Thanksgiving preparations that I fell behind in my reporting, and I'm just now finishing an entry I started almost a week ago. But I'm going to predate this entry so as not to confuse. Follow?

Here I am, on Day 250, and I'm nervous because I'm serving dinner to the foodie-est group of people I've served so far. How do I know they're the foodie-est? Because they're willing to eat rabbit.

Dawn G., a regular commenter on this blog (thanks Dawn!), is a new friend - we met this past summer in a course at Landmark Education. She's super cool and fun and interesting, and so is her husband Kevin. I went to Dawn's birthday party a couple of weeks ago, where Kevin and Dawn and her mom whipped up some amazing Puerto Rican specialties, so it thought it was only fair to return the favor with some attempted Martha magic. (Also, I was quick to notice her impressive collection of back issues of Everyday Food, so I knew she'd appreciate....)

My "date" for the evening is my childhood friend, Barbara S. Our parents have been best friends since the year one, so Barbara and I have known each other literally since birth. One of the many stops along her very interesting and varied career path includes having attended the Institute of Culinary Education here in NYC. And while she didn't ultimately choose a career in cooking, she does have a wealth of knowledge that for me, tonight, was both very daunting and very helpful.

Orange Braised Rabbit (p. 190)

I've been eying the rabbit at Fairway for months, pondering this meal. I didn't end up buying Fairway rabbit, though, because of the way it's butchered there. Martha wanted me to buy the rabbit cut up as four legs and a deboned saddle in one piece (the saddle is the part of the rabbit equivalent to the two-sided breast of a chicken). The Fairway rabbit looked to be sliced down the middle, so that wouldn't work.

I went to Ottomanelli's on Bleecker for the rabbit, which was convenient because they also had the fatback I needed for the same recipe. (As I suspected, fatback is not salted like salt pork is. Hence my crazily salty pâté.) Unfortunately, the butcher was not willing to debone the saddle. Martha says "have the butcher do this for you" but I'm guessing Martha has her own personal butcher who is paid handsomely to do the RIDICULOUSLY painstaking job of deboning a saddle. I'm sure it wouldn't take a real butcher the 40 minutes it took me to do it, but it would probably take him a good ten minutes, and who needs to be bothered with that? I completely understand, Mr. Ottomanelli, but I'm not happy....

Finally, after cutting around the teeny tiny bones of a rabbit's spine, I had a clean saddle, which I filled with fatback and rosemary and tied up with twine to make a little roulade of sorts. Next, all the pieces were browned in olive oil on both sides. My pan got quite brown, so I did, indeed, have to do the optional deglazing. Then onions and garlic are sweated, a very small amount of cinnamon and red pepper flakes are added, and then comes the wine, orange juice and zest, rosemary and green olives. All told, a cup and a half of liquid. Reality check: that's not a lot of liquid.

I happened to talk to Barbara earlier in the afternoon as I was assembling all the ingredients. She was asking how the rabbit would be prepared, and I was describing it to her, and we were both curious about this small amount of liquid in this recipe. It is a braise, after all. Barbara suggested that if the liquid didn't cover, or at least almost cover, the meat, that I should add more liquid: stock, wine, even water.

So when the meager cup and a half of liquid was nowhere near covering the rabbit pieces, I knew I should take her good advice to throw some more liquid in there. I added a small amount of Basic Chicken Stock, some Brown Chicken Stock, and some more white wine, and then I was in business.

Now here's a little tip for you: Don't try to make this and another time-sensitive, hands-on dish at the same time. I was trying to coordinate this dish with Polenta (see below), and it was too much to manage, even for an expert (ha!) like me.

I moved the saddle to a warming oven, as Martha instructs, but I was so ahead of schedule that when the legs were deemed cooked through, instead of removing them to reduce the liquid, I put the saddle back into the liquid with the legs. I figured it was better to let everything sit in there, wet, than to let it all dry out in the warming oven waiting to be served.

Meanwhile, I was struggling with my polenta, and the minutes were passing, so the rabbit cooked for extra long. Eventually, I took out the saddle to slice it, but it ended up being way too early, and it dried up waiting to be served. The legs fared slightly better. They were in the liquid until almost the end. By the time I was serving the rabbit, the liquid had reduced a fair amount, so it took just a little more heat to finish it up.

Aside from the dried up saddle, I thought the rabbit tasted just fine. Not too gamey, sort of chicken-y, sort of turkey-y. The meat was fine-textured like chicken, but the taste was a little heavier like turkey. The flavors of the dish are nice... subtler than I expected. I think because the braise had cooked so long, the olives lost a lot of their saltiness, which surprised me. It wasn't a bad thing, but you expect olives to carry a huge flavor punch, and these were sapped.

I'd try this again with chicken legs for the flavors, but I don't think I'll go back for another rabbit experience, unless someone wants to bone my saddle.

(That sounds dirty.)

Jeff: C (for bad timing, over-cooking, and self-consciousness)
Martha: B- (for too little braising liquid and for assuming that all butchers debone saddle of rabbit)

Perfect Soft Polenta (p. 419)

You wouldn't think polenta could be a disaster, but I completely botched it.

This is another one of those dishes you have to attend to, right up until serving. Stir stir stir. It takes 45 minutes to make coarse-ground polenta (there are quicker-cooking grinds, but not for Martha).

I had measured my water (in two pots) and started them on the heat early so I wouldn't have to think about them later. Of course, by the time I got around to starting the polenta, a lot of the water had boiled away, and I had to add some more, so my water amounts entered the realm of guesswork. And I guessed really badly.

I was adding two ladles of water every five minutes, or maybe it was three minutes, or eight ladles, or four. It was very inexact, and what happened was, I added waaaaaaaaaay too much water, and there was no getting back. I stirred (actually, we stirred - Barbara pitched in, too) for over an hour, and it just wasn't boiling down. (I think the flame should have been higher, too.) Eventually, we threw in the towel and served it. It was watery, bland, bad. All my fault. Luckily, Barbara was there to force me to put extra salt in, to give it at least a modicum of flavor. A total bust. :-(

Jeff: F (that's what you get for not following directions well)
Martha: A

Other things I served that night:
  • A watercress salad (per Martha's recommendations) - I did that same thing with the shaved pears and fennel and chopped hazelnuts. FYI, it works better with a not-totally-ripe pear. It also works nicely with a crisp apple, e.g. Fuji.
  • Roasted Brussels Sprouts shpritzed with lemon juice - yum
  • A Pernod "French Kiss" cocktail - 4 parts orange juice, 1 part pernod, dash of grenadine. Have to do something with that bottle of Pernod I bought for bouillabaisse.... Here's a picture of the cocktail, courtesy of Kevin and Dawn.
  • Goat gouda, vegetable terrine, and membrillo with crackers, and radishes with butter and salt
  • Dawn and Kevin brought wine, and Barbara brought wine and 45 amazing desserts. No, she didn't make any of them.

Until we eat again....

That's Kevin and Dawn, with their rabbity plates.

Here's Barbara, gamely pretending that she's about to eat decent polenta.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Day 248 - Herbed Rosti with Wild Mushrooms, Wiener Schnitzel, and Double-Crust Apple Pie

Annie and Charles are back for dinner! Definitely not one of the lightest meals I've ever made, but maybe one of the best....

Herbed Rosti with Wild Mushrooms (p. 329)

When I saw the picture of this in the book, it looked enormous, but when I reread the recipe, I saw that it's meant to be made in a 10" pan. Which is not enormous. So the picture is a little deceiving...

This is basically an over-sized, super-deluxe potato latke. (That's pancake, for those of you who don't speak Jewish.) Same general idea - you grate potatoes, add an onion-y taste in there, and top with something creamy.

But Martha's version is much more refined. Instead of onion, it's leeks. And instead of sour cream, it's goat cheese. And then there are the wild mushrooms....

The first thing you do is grate, soak, and drain the potatoes. When I went to rinse out the bowl in which I'd soaked them, I was shocked to find a half inch layer of starch silt on the bottom. Potatoes really ARE starchy! I grated in advance, and put the potatoes in the fridge, and when I pulled them out later, they had developed a rusty color, which I'd also noticed in the soaking water. Happily, they went back to their regular color during the cooking process.

You brown the grated potatoes with some julienned leeks on the stovetop on both sides, and then you pop it in the oven for extra crispness. Meanwhile, you sauté the mushrooms with some more leeks. I thought I had bought chanterelles, but I just did a google image check, and turns out I bought some other very expensive wild mushroom. No matter. Martha says you can use any wild mushroom, and these worked nicely.

In the end, you put the pancake on a plate, dollop some goat cheese on top, cover with mushrooms, and serve.

What I realized when I was serving this dish was that there was no opportunity during the cooking of this dish when I was able to check the dish for taste, salt, flavor. I just prepared it as directed and put it on the table. At the last second, I thought, I have no idea what we're about to eat!

Well, it was heavenly. I mean, so perfectly balanced. Salt, crunch, light, heavy, creamy, herby, meaty. We polished that thing off so fast and probably would have eaten another, if it had been there. It was the ideal meeting point of comfort food and gourmet cooking.

I was very aware that Martha's proportions are excellent here. More cheese, and it would have been overkill. More salt would have been too salty. More butter or oil, too oily. More leeks, too leeky. Everything was just right...

...except the portion size. What was supposed to serve 4-6 was gobbled up by 3 in a hot second. If we had been six, there would have been an outcry, because a small portion of this dish would never have been enough.

Jeff: A
Martha: A+

Wiener Schnitzel (p. 267)

No one knows what Wiener Schnitzel is! Probably because of that hot dog place, which doesn't even serve it! It's a close cousin to Veal Milanese, i.e. a breaded and pan-fried cutlet served plain/dry with lemon wedges.

Which means I'm frying again - not my fave.

Word to the wise: don't try to make this and the rosti at the same time. I tried, but there were too many balls in the air. I had to pause the veal and serve the rosti as its own course.

I made my own bread crumbs! I cubed some beautiful white bread the night before and food processed them today. I thought those cubes would break down easily, but they put up quite a fight. I had to run the chopper for a few minutes!

This is a double breading process, like the Indian chicken cutlets. Flour, egg, bread crumbs.

I think the real trick for this dish to be successful is getting the right temperature of the oil. I have a candy thermometer, but when the oil is just a quarter inch high, there's no way to use it to gauge the temperature. I tried the trick where you throw in bread crumbs and if they sizzle, it's hot enough. They sizzle, but it wasn't hot enough. The first batch of cutlets sat in the oil too long. But the next two batches cooked perfectly, i.e. browned in a minute or two.

There's a decadent touch here. You pan fry the cutlets in oil, then drain them on paper towels in a warming oven, while you prepare a butter bath. Then you dip them in butter (!), drain, and serve with chopped parsley and lemon wedges.

So, veal, oil, butter, breading, lemon - what could be bad? It tasted great. And it had a nice texture. My cutlet, which was a little thicker than the others, cooked absolutly perfectly, still a little pink in the middle. My only complaint was that the breading was pulling away from the meat. I was hoping for the kind of breading that adheres to the meat.

It's a tiny thing. Overall, this was a delicious and well-made course.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Double-Crust Apple Pie (p. 442)

If you read the comments section on this blog, you may remember that when I mentioned that I still had the apple pie recipe to make, Annie asked me to save a slice for Charles.

So instead of saving him a slice, I just made him the whole pie. :-)

I'm happy to report that I'm finally getting the hang of pies. One big help was seeing an episode of The Martha Stewart Show last week, when Martha showed Rachael Ray how to make a pie crust. I'd never seen anyone make a pie crust, and there were conceptual things that I missed or ignored, like turning the dough an eighth of a turn after each roll of the pin. For the first time, I had circular crusts, with a normal amount of overhang! (My old crusts were so misshapen that I was trimming off giant blobs of crust and patching, etc.)

I chose a variety of apples for the pie: Fuji (my favorite - sweet and spicy, and it holds its shape), Granny Smith (for tartness) and Gala (I forget why). I made the filling, and I let it sit for a while so that some of the liquid would drain and settle. I didn't want an overly gooey pie.

I think one of the nice twists here is the addition of a little ground ginger in the filling. It's a tiny undertaste, but it's very welcome.

The pie baked perfectly. Martha says 10 minutes at 400°, then 70-85 minutes at 375°. Mine went the whole 85. I used a silicone pie crust protector (thanks again, Walter), and it worked beautifully. I thought maybe the crust wouldn't brown because it was covered, but it browned just right.

EVERYTHING about this pie was just right. The crust was flaky and light, but also rich and substantial. The filling was sweet, tart, spicy, and buttery, in perfect balance.

Charles who is obsessed with apple pie declared it the best apple pie he's ever had. And Annie, who isn't even a pie lover, declared it the best any-kind-of-pie she's ever had. Charles went back for a second slice. Annie just licked her plate. :-)

Jeff: A+

Martha: A

Until we eat again...

Incidentally, I served two other non-Martha courses tonight.

First, a salad, my own creation, which turned out really well! I made the shallot vinaigrette and lightly dressed some baby arugula. Over that, I put some shaved fennel and bosc pear which was also lightly dressed. And on top of that, some chopped toasted hazelnuts. A perfect combo.

I also made a red cabbage dish to go with the veal. It had bacon and apples and raisins and vinegar and caraway seeds. Very German and very delicious, if slightly overcooked.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Day 243 - Brown Chicken Stock

Brown Chicken Stock (p. 52)

I made this days ago, and I forgot to write about it!

This is like the Brown Stock, except instead of beef bones, you use chicken bones. And unlike the Brown Stock, this only takes 3-4 hours, instead of 11-12 hours. There are a few other little changes: omit garlic, use less tomato paste and fewer herbs. But overall it's the same concept.

Interestingly, Martha says this chicken version is appropriate for use in more robust dishes, like braised meats. I think I can understand what she means. You'd think the beef version would have a more aggressive flavor, but it's actually quite delicate. The chicken version is definitely more assertive.

And a whole lot easier. :-)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Friday, November 13, 2009

Day 241 - How to Peel and Devein Shrimp, Stir-Fried Shrimp and Sea Scallops with Black Bean Sauce, and Spicy Stir-Fried Vegetables

It's Chinese New Year! Well, not really.
But I did make a Chinese banquet tonight! My guests were Ryan and Judith, who you may remember were my guests for miso soup and tempura vegetables way back when. Since our ritual excursion together for the past 18 years is to a restaurant in Chinatown called House of Vegetarian, I redubbed my dining room "House of Not-Entirely-Vegetarian" tonight. And I actually did my shopping for this meal in Chinatown, which is always an amazing experience. I could spend hours looking at all those exotic products and produce and sauces, etc.

How to Peel and Devein Shrimp (p. 122)

This is sort of a no-brainer. Peeling shrimp is really easy, especially with nice sized shrimp like these (16-20 is the size description, meant to imply how many there are in a pound's worth). It's easy to see the vein, make a precise cut, and get that thing out.

I noticed that with the peeling, sometimes I peeled right to the tail, and sometimes I left that last inch on. When I was eating the shrimp later, I'd wished I'd peeled right to the tail every time, which is what I'll do if I ever stir-fry shrimp again. The extra inch of shell is nice if you're going to be eating the shrimp with your fingers, but in a hot dish, who needs it?

Jeff: A- (should have removed all the shells)
Martha: A

Stir-Fried Shrimp with Black Bean Sauce (p. 265)

This is the book's original black bean sauce recipe that spawned the cubed pork variation that I cooked a few months ago. Tonight, I'm knocking out the original (shrimp) and another of the variations (sea scallops). They both call for the same sauce, so I'm making it easy for myself by doing them together. :-)

The funny thing about this dish is that while it takes a bit of time to chop and dice and mince the ingredients for the sauce, the actual cooking time is roughly 5 seconds. You get that pan so hot and the shrimp cook so fast, and then the sauce goes in for a blink of an eye, and then it's done!

This was definitely the highlight of the meal, according to all of us. There's something about this treatment of shrimp, i.e. a light coating in cornstarch and then a quick stir-fry in hot oil, that is just brilliant, and the sauce could not be a better accompaniment. This is quite a simple recipe with a very authentic tasting result. Try it! Your friends will be amazed at your Asian flair!

As Martha warns you in the book, there's no extra sauce here. It's almost dry. But while there may not be sauce, there is a TON of flavor. Fabulous!

Jeff: A
Martha: A+

Spicy Stir-Fried Vegetables (p. 337)

This was Ryan and Judith's other favorite dish of the night. I was luke warm on this one.

This preparing of this dish is a little more labor intensive. Again, there's a lot of washing and trimming and chopping and slicing: snow peas, mushrooms, scallions, ginger, garlic, jalapeños, plus a sauce and a slurry (cornstarch mixed with water). All the vegetables get cooked individually, then the sauce gets heated and they all go back in at the end.

Now, THIS dish is very saucy! And spicy! It calls for something called doubanjiang, i.e. broad bean paste with chili. When I asked for it at the Chinatown supermarket, the guy looked at me quizzically, and then he figured out what I was trying to say, and he flat out laughed at my pronunciation. Well, I tried.

It's a tricky thing, shopping for Asian products, because there are a million ways to spell everything. The thing I ultimately bought was called Toban Djan, which I'm guessing is another way of spelling doubanjiang.

Martha called for 1/2 cup of the stuff, and I started out with 1/4 cup, because I'm a spice wimp, but then I thought, that's not in the spirit of this project, and I put the other 1/4 cup in.

Now here's the big mistake I made, entirely my own fault. There was so much happening at the time (excuses, excuses) and I got distracted. The overview of the recipe is that you cook each vegetable separately, then you put them all together at the end. Well, I was reading haphazardly, and I thought it said to put all the oil in the skillet and cook the snow peas. What it really said was "put 1 Tablespoon of oil in the skillet..." but it was too late. I was cooking the snow peas in four tablespoons of oil.

Luckily, I was able to mitigate it somewhat by leaving much of the extra oil behind, so I didn't add the next tablespoon of oil to cook the scallions. Still, by my calculations, there were two extra tablespoons of oil in this dish, and that's never good.

I was using a skillet, not a wok, and I wasn't able to get the seared, browned-in-spots, quality that Martha was pushing for with the snow peas and scallions. I had the heat turned up pretty high, but I'm guessing it would have to have been up all the way for some browning action.

Once the snow peas and scallions are cooked, then you soft up some cut up ginger, garlic, and jalapeños, then add the very thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms, cook that for a while, then you make the sauce.

Like any well-prepared cook, I had my whole mise en place going, i.e. everything was chopped, washed, measured out, and waiting in little bowls all around my stovetop. I had made the slurry, i.e. water and cornstarch, earlier, however when I went to use it, it had separated into a solid lump of chalk and water. I frantically broke up the lump and revived it quickly, but it was a scary minute there. As I mentioned, this dish has lots of sauce: about two cups of liquid go into the mushroom mixture, and then the slurry thickens it up into one of those classic Chinese sauce consistencies. It really works!

ltimately, the dish was a crowd pleaser. (Crowd=Ryan and Judith) It was a little spicy for all of us, but not too spicy for any of us. (We're all spice wimps. I removed all the seeds and ribs from all chile peppers used tonight.) I think I would have liked it better if it had had more substantial vegetables in it (broccoli, zucchini, etc.). But all in all, it was an entirely credible, Chinese dish.

Jeff: B (for not reading the recipe more carefully, re: oil)
Martha: A

Stir-Fried Sea Scallops with Black Bean Sauce (p. 266)

These are the scallops made with the same sauce used with the shrimp above. I have to say, the scallops paled in comparison to the shrimp. I think it has to do with how they took to this particular cooking method.

While the shrimp browned right up, the scallops would not sear. They cooked fine, but they never developed any brown. I had dried them well, because I know that scallops have to be dry to sear, but maybe I didn't dry them well enough?

In any case, once the sauce went on, you couldn't tell that they weren't browned. And they tasted well-cooked, i.e. not over or under cooked. But they just weren't as fabulous as the shrimp.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Incidentally, I made two other things for this meal.

When I was shopping in Chinatown, I was intrigued by so many things, and I thought, I'm going to buy something unusual and find a recipe for it. So I bought long beans, which are these crazy 20 inch long green bean type things. I used this Jean-Georges recipe with a couple of variations (no bell pepper, shallot instead of onion), and I had another mise en place incident, when I mistakenly added salt instead of sugar. (Didn't get too far before I figured that one out.) The beans came out well, but I think I overcooked them a little, and they weren't a crowd favorite, although I preferred their dryness to the sauciness of Martha's veggie dish.

Also, I finally made Jeffrey's (who's this other Jeffrey?) Sticky Rice, a recipe from Martha's website that I've been dying to try. I remembered it when I was in the Chinese supermarket, and I grabbed a bag of Thai glutinous rice.

To get that sticky rice taste and texture, you soak the rice overnight, then you literally steam it to cook it. Lo and behold, it's sticky rice, just like in the Vietnamese restaurants!! I wrapped it in cheesecloth to steam it, and a fair amount stayed stuck to the cheesecloth. I'm wondering if anyone has another idea of how to wrap it for steaming....

Finally, let me mention that cooking a meal like this definitely calls for some ventilation. I wish I had opened a window or two beforehand, because it's a day later, and my whole apartment and all my clothes smell like the kitchen at Shun Lee at the end of a busy night.

Until we eat again....

That's Ryan with the spicy veggies and Judith with the beloved shrimp.

And now Ryan has the scallops and Judith has the long beans.