Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Day 15 - Baked Eggs with Morels

OK, I confess, I'm being a little sneaky here. I was planning to make this dish for myself and the FNBF this morning, but it turned out that he had a crazy early work call today, so instead we had it as a midnight snack last night. But I'm counting it for today. :-)

Baked Eggs with Morels (p. 90)

In case you missed yesterday's shopping episode, my introduction to morels came with a hefty price tag, i.e. $68/pound. Now, it's fun to make a big deal out of it and shock you with that price, but I should also divulge that the amount of morels needed to prepare this recipe for two cost a mere $8. Still, $8 for a half a cup of mushrooms is expensive, but I didn't want you to think I served a $200 Mountain of Morels. (I cut the recipe in half, if you're following along.)

When you're preparing $68/lb mushrooms, you REALLY don't want to get it wrong, because starting over means waiting to shop again and spending another $8 on a paltry half a cup of mushrooms. So I was very careful with the cleaning of the morels, which are so delicate that just touching them seems to set them acrumble. I brushed them, I soaked them, I dried them, and then it was time to cut them to use. I halved the first morel, and waiting inside was a very special treat: a mama and baby grub, amazingly, still alive. In fact, mama just went crawling right out. (So much for grubs' maternal instincts.) Gross, yes, but it seemed to be an indication that these were relatively fresh, so I took it as a good sign, disposed of the little critters, rewashed that morel, and carried on. (FYI, there were no more hidden treasures in the rest of the pile.)

The flavors of this dish are very delicate (shallots, morels, chives), and then there's that half a cup of heavy cream, which makes for an interesting mix. The creamy shallot and morel mixture gets poured into little gratin dishes with whole eggs, and the dishes get baked for roughly 10 minutes. The dish is traditionally served with toast soldiers (bread cut into finger-shaped slices and toasted). Improvising, I served it with English Muffin Soldiers.

Sadly, I overcooked it a tad. Martha said to "bake until egg whites are just set (they should be firm to the touch)" but I kept feeling then, and they still felt so wet. Turns out, I was feeling the cream sauce, which was covering the already-set egg whites. By the time these came out of the oven, even the yolks had started to set, which is not supposed to happen. :-(

All in all, the result is lovely, refined, as FNBF said, "what Brooke Astor would have for breakfast." For me, it's a little too precious. I can definitely appreciate the lovely flavors and the adorable serving style and size, but I prefer my egg dishes on the heartier side. I can't imagine ever serving this to anyone.

And yet, I did enjoy eating it. In fact, I was hungry for another one. (Maybe this would have seemed more satisfying as a morning meal?)

I'm very happy to have been introduced to morels, though. It's always fun to experience a new food, even at $68/pound.

Jeff: B (points off for overcooking)
Martha: A

Until we eat again...

Blurry picture of a large whole morel and a small halved one. Looks like brain, right?

The finished dish!

Day 14 - Jasmine Rice and Mayonnaise

I thought I'd be taking today off, but it turns out that my kitchen will be off-limits this Thursday (painters) and then I'll be spending the weekend in Florida with my parents. (Dinner in their glam kitchen, perhaps?) Given these circumstances, I thought I shouldn't waste a perfectly good cooking day. Plus, I was hungry. :-)

Jasmine Rice (p. 412)

I've cooked rice before. Everyone's cooked rice before, right? But I knew Martha would show me how to do it better.

The two ways that Martha's method veered from the package directions were: Martha suggested that I rinse the rice (until the water ran clear), and Martha said that if I changed the rice:water ratio from 1:2 to 1:1.5, I'd get a fluffier rice.

As usual, Martha was spot on. The rice was perfect. Fluffy, not even slighty gummy. Steamy and delicious. Just needed some salt and pepper. (Dinner tonight was rice with the discarded chicken left over from Basic Chicken Stock. Five pounds of chicken is a lot!)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

So, there I was, I was eating my chicken and rice and talking on the phone with Annie about the pros and cons of emulsified salad dressings. (Her husband, Charles, swears by a James Beard method that involves coating everything with oil and then tossing the other dressing ingredients into the salad.) And as we were discussing the wonders of emulsification, I thought, Why don't I make some mayonnaise??

Mayonnaise (p. 95)

Now, mayonnaise is one of those things that I think very few people have made. And after having made it, I'm wondering why that is. Yes, it involves a certain amount of concentration and arm work, but by combining a little mustard, egg, lemon juice and salt with a cup of oil, in short order you have this miraculously creamy pile of mayo, seemingly from nowhere!

This homemade mayonnaise tastes so completely superior to store-bought, it actually seems like a wholly different animal. Now, I should qualify this by saying that I only ever buy low or non-fat mayo, which, of course, tastes horrible (until you mix it with canned tuna, after which it tastes fine). But the mayo that I made following Martha's recipe tastes like... well, it tastes like France to me, and if something tastes like France, that can only be a good thing. Yes, it's oily, but it's also light and delicate and tastes... the word I'm left with is "fresh."

For the first time in my life, I'm trying to come up with ways to use more mayonnaise.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again...

Look at that creamy, yellowy, mayonnaise-y goodness!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Just shopping...

Wouldn't you know it? Stopped by Fairway today and there were MOUNTAINS of fresh artichokes... Argh!

Meanwhile, I just bought morels for tomorrow's Baked Eggs with Morels. I wasn't even sure they were morels, because there was no signage around them or the things that surrounded them (fiddleferns and some other glamor mushroom). And it's a good thing there were no signs, because the sticker shock would've sent me running for the bargain mushroom bin. $68 a pound!?!? Martha, these things better change my life, that's all I'm saying.

I've also been doing a little kitchen equipment fortification, with an emphasis on Martha's Macy's products. Nice stuff, Ms. M! I'm now the proud owner of Martha's ceramic baking dish, pastry blender, cookie scooper, batter bowl, and gratin dishes, and various other brands of new pots and pans (all on sale!) which Martha thinks I'll need to cook my way through her book. Between Costco and Macy's, I'm running out of space in my kitchen!

I think I'm going to take today off.

Until we eat again...

Day 13 - Tomato Petals

So there I was in the Westbury Costco today. (Note: If at all possible, avoid the Westbury Costco on Sunday afternoon at 3:30.) And I was hitting myself for not being more organized about making a project-related shopping list. There are so many ridiculously low-priced things at Costco, particularly giant packages of meat. And I have so many meat recipes to do. But I wasn't totally sure exactly what I needed, so I held back.

Meanwhile, I knew I'd be making something tonight, and I had a vague memory of a simple recipe that involved tomatoes, so I took a chance and bought the jumbo-sized container of plum tomatoes. That's how I came to cook Tomato Petals tonight.

Tomato Petals (p. 317)

The name is a little twee, isn't it? Makes you think that they're ultimately going to get arranged into some kind of tomato rosette, which is not the case.

This recipe could also be called "slow-roasted tomato slices" because that's basically what it is.

My favorite part of this recipe involved a detour to another recipe (Marinara Sauce) for a mini-lesson on peeling tomatoes. Martha explains a technique that works so well, it boggled my mind. It involves blanching and cooling the tomatoes, so that you can peel them practically like a banana. How do people figure these things out??

Once my tomatoes were peeled, seeded and sliced, they got tossed in oil, honey, thyme and salt and put in the oven to roast at a low temperature (275°) for two hours. Martha said they should stay in until "slightly shrunken and almost dry." Well, at two hours, these little guys still looked so wet, so they got an extra half hour or so. And many of them were still wet-ish when I took them out. Kind of hard to judge this one....

In the end, some were overcooked, some seemed just right. What they turned out to be was close to sun-dried tomatoes, but amazingly flavorful, fresh ones. That little bit of honey makes them really sweet, and the thyme is a great flavor to highlight the tomato. I'm not sure what I'm going to use them for - they'll only be fresh for three days. I'll bet they would taste great on a sandwich...

Jeff: A-
(just not sure if I nailed this one...)
Martha: A

Until we eat again...

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Day 12 - Grated Cheese Omelet

After last night's extravaganza (knocking off five recipes!), I thought I'd play it safe today and just go for one of Martha's omelet variations.

Grated Cheese Omelet (p. 89)

FNBF got to pick his omelet filling this morning, and he went for grated cheese. I had the better part of a hunk of Goat Gouda, which I'd bought for my guests last night. Goat Gouda is one of my favorite all-time cheeses, and until today, I had only eaten it sliced on a cracker. But it turns out, it grates really well and tastes great in an omelet!

This being my second Martha omelet attempt, I wanted to be sure not to repeat the tearing thing that happened the first time around. And while I don't think I got the pan hot enough at the beginning, I did manage to work it out and make a very nice, tear-free (and tear-free) omelet. The eggs were somewhat wet when I served it, which is not usually my M.O., but I have to say, it worked nicely with the cheese.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

The cool thing that's happening is: I'm starting to really understand how things work and am finding that I can troubleshoot things along the way that might have flummoxed me before. I can tell this is going to be a year of great expansion and development!

Until we eat again...

Day 11 - Poached Chicken Breast, Poached Chicken Breast and Spring Vegetable Salad, Leeks Vinaigrette, Lemon Vinaigrette, Buttermilk Herb Vinaigrette

Well, this was one of those days that I thought I was going to be hating this project and hating Martha, and it ended up swinging really far in the opposite direction!

I've been really cranky lately. About what? Too many things to enumerate, and nothing worth mentioning here. Let it suffice to say, I wasn't relishing the idea of plodding through another ƒ€‡%¡ recipe today.

I listlessly paged through the book, looking for something I might actually enjoy making. I created a bunch of potential shopping lists, so I could play it by ear at the grocery store. But, in truth, I was feeling totally uninspired.

The original plan was that I would cook an intimate dinner for two for myself and the FNBF. But then my friend, Tracy, mentioned she might be able to stop by, which changed everything because Tracy has a serious case of condiment-o-phobia and is interested in eating only the plainest, most straight-forward, shlar-free foods. Any kind of sauce is a serious no-go for Tracy.

And then, FNBF's BFF (Fabulous New Boy Friend's Best Friend Forever), Paula, joined the plan, and that changed things even more. You see, Paula, in addition to being a super-creative, crafty, fashion designer, is a total gourmand. I attended her Oscar night get-together, where she served all these fancy-shmancy hors d'oeuvres featuring sliced filet mignon and gruyère puff pastry, etc. Very impressive and delicious. According to FNBF, she has every known kitchen gadget in existence AND knows what to do with them and can make ANything EVer. And while she does not own Martha Stewart's Cooking School, she has every other cookbook in the galaxy and a subscription to Bon Appétit and Martha Stewart Living. (Have I ever mentioned how much I love my MSL subscription? Thanks, Greg and Leann!)

So I needed something that would satisfy one really conservative eater while allowing me to attempt to dazzle a dazzler, yet without pushing myself too far. As it turns out, I picked perfectly!

Most of the elements of this salad are made individually from other recipes in the book, and then they come together when finished, so my reporting will take the same format.

Poached Chicken Breast (p. 225)

Well, one day after making Basic Chicken Stock, here I am again... Basically it's all the same ingredients but using a slightly different technique. The chicken gets poached in the stock at a rather low temperature, just until the chicken is cooked through (160° at the thickest part). I got out my new, trusty candy thermometer to check the temperature of the water, and let me tell you, it was difficult to maintain this very medium temperature (170°-180°) throughout the cooking time (about 20 minutes). After the chicken is done, you strain the stock and let the chicken cool in it, which is great. You don't have to think about it, you don't have to worry about it drying out, just pour and walk away.

Once it had cooled and I was ready to serve it, I took it off the bone and sliced, per Martha's instructions, against the grain in one-inch slices. Actually, Paula thought it might be better to slice with the grain, so I did one her way and one Martha's way. The difference was minimal, but I'm going to give Martha a slight edge. I think cutting against the grain made for a somewhat cleaner and easier slice.

The chicken needed a flavor boost, which it got from salt and dressing, but the texture was perfection. Super moist! All in all, an excellent chicken preparation option. I'd do that again.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Lemon Vinaigrette (p. 357)

This was my first attempt at making a Martha vinaigrette. She talks a lot about emulsification, i.e. blending the acid (vinegar/lemon juice) and oil in such a way that the acid is suspended in the oil. It's like the balsamic vinaigrette you're used to getting in restaurants. The ingredients are olive oil, which is light green, and balsamic vinegar, which is dark red-brown. If you just poured them in a jar and stirred, it'd be like the Jets and the Sharks at the dance at the gym. But when you emulsify it, you get that out-of-nowhere light brown color. And once it's been emulsified, it pretty much stays that way. Cool!

This vinaigrette involves olive oil, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt and pepper, and instead of whisking it, you just shake it up in a jar. And it's totally magical what happens. It becomes that cloudy, pale yellow color, and tastes like a classic French vinaigrette. So simple, yet totally delicious. I may have to stop using store-bought dressings now... Martha, what are you doing to me???

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Leeks Vinaigrette (p. 305)

I've never prepared leeks before, but luckily I watched FNBF prepare them a couple of months ago, and he showed me the leek cleaning trick (slicing them lengthwise and fanning them out to rinse the grit from between the layers). Martha also explains this trick, but I'm not sure I would have found it as understandable as FNBF's private tutorial. :-)

The leeks got poached in five quarts of water with juice of half a lemon, two teaspoons of salt, and one thyme sprig added to it. One thyme sprig in five quarts of water? Talk about spitting in the ocean... Martha must have some reason for adding this, although I can't imagine what it could be.

Drain leeks, pour lemon vinaigrette on top, and wait for them to become delicious. Which they definitely did.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Buttermilk Herb Vinaigrette (p. 359)

This is the dressing that goes on top of everything. The base of the dressing is buttermilk and the acid here is white wine vinegar, for which I substituted champagne vinegar. (Champagne is basically white wine, right?) The olive oil gets emulsified by whisking, and I have to say, this took some doing, even with adding the oil slowly. I found a technique that I think sped it up, which involved whisking with my right hand and sort of jerking the bowl with my left. (Did I see this on TV?) In any case, it was finally done, and then it was time to add a pile of fresh herbs, which included tarragon, chives, and thyme. I'd never cooked with fresh tarragon before. Yum! I'm definitely developing a taste for fresh herbs - they really make a difference. (Oh my gosh, I think I'm becoming a food snob...) Another delicious dressing!

Jeff: A- (should have chopped the herbs smaller)
Martha: A

Conspicuously absent from this entry is Marinated Artichoke Hearts, p. 305, which is supposed to be a component of the salad, however it was not to be. Would you believe I visited Fairway, Citarella, Westside Market, and Zabar's, and there was not a fresh artichoke to be had!?! So, I bought grilled artichoke hearts at Zabar's and poured Martha's lemon vinaigrette on top. I'll have to catch this recipe another time....

Poached Chicken Breast and Spring Vegetable Salad (p. 226)

Here's the great thing about this salad: you can serve everything at room temperature. Which makes it a very low-stress salad. You don't have to time it perfectly. In fact, you can basically do one thing at a time. The chicken, the dressings, the leeks, the potatoes, the artichoke hearts, the asparagus, and once they're done, just forget about 'em. In some cases, the longer you let them sit, the better they taste!

The salad came together like a dream. Everything tasted just right together, and it was really well-balanced. The simplicity of the potatoes and chicken paired with the freshness of steamed asparagus and the tang of marinated leeks and artichoke hearts, all dressed with a creamy herb-laden dressing? Heaven. And all at room temperature.

FNBF was held up on set, so he came really late, and the meal tasted just as good, even at that point. Oh, and Tracy ate some poached chicken breast, plain, and some boiled potatoes and steamed asparagus that I had put aside, undressed, for her.

What a versatile recipe! This is going in my permanent repertoire, for sure! (Annie, you should try this one - it has no garlic in it!)

Jeff: A- half grade off for unspectacular presentation and pre-cooked artichoke hearts
Martha: A

Until we eat again...

That's Paula on the left and Tracy on the right. They just met tonight!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Day 10 - Basic Chicken Stock

It's only Day 10, and already, I can't tell you how many times I've earmarked my next recipe to tackle, only to realize that I need Basic Chicken Stock as an ingredient. Meanwhile, I have five containers of Pacific Natural Foods Organic Chicken Stock gathering dust in my pantry. I am tempted to just use the packaged stuff, but I wasn't comfortable doing it until I could hold my own taste test to determine firsthand how much is lost by going commercial.

Basic Chicken Stock (p. 41)

Martha suggests using the kinds of chicken parts that many stores in NYC don't even carry: wings, necks and backs. Necks and backs? Not at Whole Foods, Martha. My chicken stock will be featuring wings and legs.

The stock is really basic - boil the parts, reduce to simmer, add the vegetables, skimming all the while. It's really easy, but it's a little smelly, and it's a smell that lingers. Is it worth it? Wait and see.

Once the stock is done, it gets put through a cheesecloth-lined sieve, and the solids are discarded. (FNBF and I had a mini-feast of carrots and chicken, and there's still enough chicken left for two or three lunches. By the way, the chicken was falling off the bone tender, but flavorless. A little salt fixed that right up.) Next, the stock is supposed to cool completely before going into the refrigerator, but I made this stock too late in the evening to do that, so it cooled a little, then I put it in tupperware containers to cool some more and ultimately put them in the fridge.

This AM, I skimmed the fat off the top. Interestingly, there was little fat to skim. It seemed so oily last night... The stock, refrigerated, had become completely gelatinous, which came as a surprise to me. I repackaged it in 2-cup containers and put them in the freezer for use in later recipes. I ended up with about 12 cups of broth! That should keep me in broth for a while!

Now, for the taste test:

When I tasted the stock last night, still warm, it didn't taste like much. There's no salt in there, just whatever flavor the chicken, carrot, celery, onion, bay leaf and peppercorns impart. Martha doesn't want me to add any other seasonings until it goes into the next recipe, which I completely understand. But chicken stock without salt just seems blah.

However, this morning, I tasted Martha's stock and the Pacific Natural Foods stock side by side. It was impossible to do a blind taste test, because they looked so different. Martha's stock is clear and light, PNF's stock is darker and cloudy. To even the playing field, I salted Martha's stock, and I heated them both.

And as much as I would love to say they are interchangeable, they most definitely are not. Salted, Martha's stock completely comes alive. All of a sudden, you can taste all the freshness of the mirepoix (carrots, onion, celery). And the visual clarity of the broth is matched by a truly startling flavor clarity. Next to that, the PNF stock didn't have a chance. It tasted dull and unspecific. Serviceable, I guess, but not very chicken-y, or flavor-y for that matter.

In conclusion, what I'm saying is - I will make best efforts to use Martha's Basic Chicken Stock when it's called for in her recipes, acknowledging that it really does make a difference. Argh. :-)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Day 9 - Observation

No recipes or lessons today. Just an observation:

This project is already having an impact on my confidence around cooking. Two things happened today that would never have happened otherwise.

My cousin (and dear friend) Harriet was at my apartment, and we were enjoying a glass of wine before heading out to dinner, and I thought - Gee, I'd love to serve some kind of snack. I wish I'd picked something up...

Then I remembered I had salsa and corn tortillas from Huevos Rancheros a few days ago. It occurred to me that there must be a way to turn those soft tortillas into tortilla chips... so I fried them, just like I fried up that tempura last night. And the chips were amazing! I never would have thought to do it before, let alone attempted it. But having experienced frying firsthand, it seemed totally within my grasp. And turns out, it was!

Then, we were eating at Uncle Nick's, a neighborhood Greek place, and Harriet ordered flounder, which was served whole. I had a flashback to the Dover sole that the FNBF and I just made, and I offered to fillet the fish for her. And it was actually going well until the part where I tried to show off and lift the fish skeleton away from the bottom fillets. Turns out flounder skeleton and sole skeleton do not behave identically....

But still, I'm developing skills and a confidence that are paying off in unexpected ways.


Meanwhile, I'd like to congratulate Martha on the James Beard Foundation Award nominations she received today, but especially her nomination for Best General Cooking Cook Book: Martha Stewart's Cooking School. As far as I'm concerned, you got it in the bag!!! (Congratulations also to the book's designer, William Van Roden, who can take much credit for the book's allure and success.)

Incidentally, I'm working out a system to track which tasks I've covered and what's left to tackle. It's not complete and refined, yet, but my early estimates point to a total of roughly 360 lessons, recipes, and variations that make up this project. And as of today, Day 9, I have completed 24 of said tasks. Not bad, right? That's 6.6%.

And before I forget, if any New Yorkers would like to lend me their ice cream maker or meat grinder, I promise I will take really good care of it/them and return it/them after completing my grinding and ice-cream making tasks. Thanks!

Until we eat again...

(FYI, my friend Annie says that the Carnegie Deli has a theme song that includes the phrase "until we eat again." I am not referring to that song. I wasn't even aware of that song, until now. I was just looking for a catchy sign off.)

Day 8 - Dashi, Miso Soup, Tempura Vegetables, and Tempura Dipping Sauce

Tempura vegetables... doesn't that sound kicky and fun? Well, I thought so. Until last night, that is, when I actually made them. Exhausting!! So exhausting, in fact, that I couldn't muster the energy to write about it until today.

So, I've been friends with Ryan and Judith since forever. Forever Plaid, that is. (I'm so corny!) We met working on the Off-Broadway production of that show at the end of 1991.. Ryan and I were acting in it, and Judith was the company manager. The show is incredibly fun to do - it positively breeds warmth and fun and collaboration, some of my favorite things about musical theatre. So it's not surprising that I came away from that experience with several lifelong friends.

My friendship with Judith and Ryan has centered all these years around a ritual event which has come to be referred to as "H.O.V." It goes like this: we meet up at Judith's Soho loft, hang out for a minute or five, then start the 20 minute walk down to Chinatown, where we dine at either House of Vegetarian (HOV) or Buddha Bodai, two vegetarian Chinese restaurants on Mott Street. (Judith is still a vegetarian, I used to be one, Ryan is just easygoing.) Then, after dinner, we walk Judith back home, making a pit stop for Italian cookies at La Bella Ferrara on Mulberry Street in Little Italy.

In the past 18 years, we've made this journey probably close to 100 times. Ritual is nice, right? Well, last night I thought I'd mix things up by inviting them to my new pad and, what else? Cooking! And it only seemed right to keep things vegetarian and Asian. Hence, the following menu.

Dashi (p. 60)

Dashi is the stock which serves as the base for Miso Soup and Tempura Dipping Sauce. The ingredients are water, kombu (kelp), and bonito flakes (shaved, dried tuna). Good thing I live near Koreatown, where all things Asian are abundantly available.

Dashi is easy to make, although I wouldn't want to drink it straight.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Miso Soup (p. 61)

For me, miso soup is one of those things that you take for granted, assuming that there's nothing to it, but it's actually somewhat complex. There's the whole dashi base thing. Also, once the miso goes in (after having been diluted in a small amount of dashi), you can't boil it, for risk of dimming the flavor of the miso. And then, there are the subtle finishing touches like tofu, wakame, and scallions. I've actually tried to whip up miso soup before, and I failed miserably.

This recipe, made exactly to Martha's specifications, tasted completely authentic. And when that happens, as Martha says, "it's a good thing." Actually, it's really exciting. One of the most empowering things about my cooking journey has been achieving a flavor profile that I've experienced and appreciated in the world but could never have imagined creating myself. And that's what happened with this miso soup (and, similarly, last week's Indian-Spiced Split Pea Soup). Cool!!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Tempura Vegetables (p. 335)

A few hours before Ryan and Judith arrived, I reread the recipe for Tempura Vegetables, and noticed the very specific instruction: "Heat two inches of oil in a heavy pot over medium heat to 375°F." Hmmm. How was I going to know when the oil was exactly that hot? So I ran out to KMart and bought myself a Martha Stewart Candy Thermometer, and I'm so glad I did. I never would've waited as long as it ultimately took for the oil to get up there.

I sliced a ton of vegetables: zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant (couldn't find Japanese so I bought Italian), broccoli, and sweet potato, as Martha suggested, and I also threw in onion and green beans. I had the batter ingredients out and ready to go. Then I went to start heating the oil. I measured where two inches was in my Martha Stewart Dutch Oven and poured in the oil. Which barely made a dent in the pot! Now, I'm not a stupid guy, but I missed this completely. It never occurred to me that I would need more than one bottle of oil... Doh!

So, recalling our ritual walk to Chinatown, we put on our coats and trekked down to Whole Foods, where I bought several gallons of safflower oil.

The batter came together no problem, and the vegetables fried up beautifully. Once I figured out the best utensils to use, this went pretty easily. (Tongs to dip vegetables into the batter and drop into the oil, slotted spoon to flip veggies and remove them from the pot.) The only problem with making Tempura Vegetables is: you never stop working. You can only fry six or so pieces at a time. (I think this has to do with not wanting to lower the temperature of the oil too much.) So you're dipping, you're frying, you're flipping, you're draining, you're salting, you're serving, you're dipping, you're frying, you're flipping, ad nauseaum. And all this, over a pot of hot oil. Ugh.

That said, the results were quite good! The vegetables cooked up well and quickly (only the sweet potato needed some extra time), the batter was light and tempura-y, and it really wasn't that oily. I've become very sensitive to fried food in my old age (43), but this didn't upset my stomach at all. My personal favorites were the broccoli and the "onion rings." The green beans were also popular, but everything was delicious and authentic-tasting.

My only regret is that, at the time, I didn't think to use the extra batter and pot of oil to experiment with tempura-frying some kooky things. Like Oreos, cheese, sausage, grapes, popcorn, anything. I mean, how often in this lifetime am I going to have a bowl of tempura batter and a pot of 375° cooking oil ready to go? (I daresay, never again.) Ah, well....

Jeff: A-
(half a grade off for misgauging the oil situation and making my guests walk to Whole Foods)
Martha: A

Tempura Dipping Sauce (p. 336)

Unlike the recipes for Miso Soup and Tempura Vegetables, which I think are as good as authentic versions of same, this recipe I found to be an improvement. It had a little more presence and punch than your standard restaurant tempura dipping sauce, yet it didn't overwhelm the vegetables. Go, Martha!

Jeff: A
Martha: A+

I'm seeing my cousin, Harriet, tonight. I was going to cook for her, but that tempura meal wiped me out, and I've decided to take today off.

Although I'm leaving a small window open for some cookie-making. :-)

Until we eat again...

This is Judith eating what looks like sweet potato. (Can you see my paper-covered floor in the background? Apartment still under siege...)

This is Ryan with an "onion ring."

Look, FNBF swung by later as we were finishing up the tempura! Isn't he cuuuuute?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Day 7 - How to Make an Omelet and Herb-Filled Omelet

I was going to take today off, but then, it appeared before me: a recipe that served one. It was the AM, it involved eggs, I was hungry, and I had all the ingredients! Even clarified butter! (Especially clarified butter. It would have sucked if I had used up all the clarified butter, only to discover that I needed it for this.)

How to Make an Omelet (p. 87)

I have to confess, the omelet-making method Martha describes is not new to me. It is not, however, the method of omelet-making I grew up with. My mother belonged to the "scramble, dump, and leave" school of omelet-making, so I didn't know there was any other way until 1987, when I dated Karen Sullivan, who was quite the gourmand. (Yes, there were girlfriends in my past...) Karen was the first person to show me the technique where you lift and move the eggs around, achieving that ripply, fluffy, great egg texture. (In retrospect, I actually learned a lot about food and wine from Karen in the few months we were together - if you're reading, thanks!)

What was new for me was the idea of using clarified butter, which definitely seems to allow for a hotter pan. Also, the cute flip-and-serve technique is a nice touch. Thanks, Martha! I'm going to lower my grade for making a little tear in the omelet, but I'm pretty sure I can solve that the next time around. And there are several filling variations I'm looking forward to trying!

Jeff: B+
Martha: A

Herb-Filled Omelet (p. 87)

Martha suggests a mixture of fresh herbs, so I chose parsley, chives, and thyme. (Sound familiar? See Herbed Compound Butter from Day 6.) I was a little dubious about an omelet with just herbs in it. That seemed overly spare, given the things I'm accustomed to have spilling out of my omelets. But you know me, I'm a good little student, I do it by the book.

And I was pleasantly surprised! I'm always amazed how potent the flavor of fresh herbs is, and the eggs were a beautiful foundation for those flavors. The clarified butter was also a nice clean taste. And the eggs were cooked perfectly, if I do say so myself. Yummy!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Tomorrow, I'm cooking Japanese for my friend Judith's birthday: Miso Soup and Tempura Veggies!

Until we eat again...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Day 6 - Sole à la Meunière, Boiled Parsleyed Potatoes, and Sautéed Snap Peas and Baby Turnips

First of all, can I have some props for properly using all those accents aigus and graves in this entry's title?

Second, the maximum number of characters for Blogspot titles wouldn't allow for the entire title of this entry, so here it is, in all its glory:

Day 6 - Sole à la Meunière, Boiled Parsleyed Potatoes, and Sautéed Snap Peas and Baby Turnips, plus Skinning Dover Sole, Serving Sautéed Dover Sole, Clarifying Butter, and Herbed Compound Butter

This was actually going to be a quiet cooking day, possibly even a day off, but the FNBF (Fabulous New Boy Friend) graciously relented to a night of being my sous chef, so I went for it, and tackled three (seven?) recipes, one of them a doozy.

Where do I begin?

First of all, tonight was basically a butter orgy. The whole thing started with:

Clarifying Butter (p. 88)

I needed this for cooking the sole, because butter has a higher burning point (i.e. you can make it hotter) if you remove the milk solids. So, two sticks of butter becomes... well, less than that. It's easy to do, and it feels like you end up with something that's still butter but somehow healthier, maybe?

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Herbed Compound Butter (p. 166)

This was an option to replace plain butter in the snap pea recipe, so I thought, why not? Who doesn't like a little jujjed up butter? (How do you spell "juzh" anyway? Zhuzh?) Basically, it's a stick of butter with fresh herbs and salt mixed in, and if you're really fancy, you roll it up in a parchment log and harden it so you can serve it in sweet, little, round pats. I'm not that fancy. Mine is in a ramekin. I haven't tasted it yet outside the peas, but I'm looking forward to enjoying it this week. Incidentally, there are four other compound butter variations for me to try, so you'll be hearing about this again.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Now, on to the doozy:

Sole à la Meunière (p. 250)
Skinning Dover Sole (p. 250)
Serving Sautéed Dover Sole (p. 252)

Dover Sole is a fish that has existed totally outside my radar. I've always gravitated toward steaky, fleshy, meaty fish (tuna, salmon, halibut, etc), dismissing the more delicate ones as wimpy, precious, much ado about nothing. But the FNBF zeroed in on this recipe, and today was as good a day as any to give it a whirl.

I shopped today, as I often do, at Fairway, which had everything I needed - except for Dover Sole. So I ducked into Citarella next door and - success! However, I was quite stung by the price tag on the skinny mini: $29 a pound! I thought to myself: A) so much for my project being economical, and B) I'm about to massacre a $34 fish. Whatever... it's all in the name of art, cooking, and education. (Could this be tax deductible? Does anyone know?)

The fish counter person (is he called the fishmonger?) offered to skin it, but having read the recipe several hundred times, I knew that I needed to keep the skin on one side, and I needed to learn how to remove the skin on the other side. So I asked him merely to trim it. I thought this meant he would remove all of the icky inside things. How wrong I was... But don't let me get ahead of myself.

The fish came out of the paper smelling REALLY fishy. P. U. And strangely, the skin on this fish is dark grey on one side and white on the other. Looking at the picture that accompanied the Skinning Dover Sole lesson, I surmised that I wanted to be ripping off the grey side, which went pretty well, thanks to Martha's fine instructions. (Jeff: A, Martha: A)

Next was the dredging, which included my introduction to Wondra flour, wondrous because it is processed to not clump, so evidently it is a chef's favorite for coating fish.

Without going into every last detail about the final steps of cooking the fish, I will say this. I don't think I had the right pan for cooking this fish. I used my biggest pan, which was still a little too small. It's a beat up, old, non-stick number, but I think this fish would have seriously benefited from having been cooked in a beautiful "copper oval sauté pan," which is what Martha recommends. (Doh!) Ah, well.

Getting the fillets from the fish (i.e. the Serving Sautéed Dover Sole lesson) was a mixed bag. At first, everything seemed to be going well, exactly as instructed. The skinless-side fillets lifted off nicely, and the spine came right out. The bottom fillets were more problematic. The skin wasn't separating from the fish, so I had to get my fingers in there, which was not cute.

And I made an outrageous oversight. Seems that the fishmonger cleaned out much of the fish, but left me a couple of presents in there, specifically the roe sacks. I noticed and removed one when I was serving the fillets, but I missed the second one, and it ended up on my plate, unrevealed until I had eaten part of it. (Ugh.) All I have to say is - beware. (Jeff: B-, Martha: A-)

As for the overview of the Sole à la Meunière experience, I'd say that the flour side of the fish was too soggy - we were wishing it had been crisper. (Maybe I should have let it brown more? Made the pan hotter?) The flavor of the fish was terrific, delicate and totally un-fishy. (How did THAT happen?) And the texture was also great - perfectly moist and cooked just enough. But at $17 a serving, I wanted something heavenly, and for me (and the FNBF), this was earthbound.

Finally, I have two little gripes with the recipe. First, the recipe calls for "1 Whole Dover Sole (1 to 1 1/2 pounds), trimmed and skinned." Clearly, Martha, you don't mean skinned because in the margin, you teach us how to skin one side, and in the recipe, you talk about cooking it with the skin still on the other side. So, one half grade off for that. Second, what's with the addition of another half stick of butter at the end of this preparation? I thought there was still plenty of butter already in the pan. That was butter overkill, even for a butter orgy.

Jeff: B+
Martha: B+

Boiled Parsleyed Potatoes (p. 304)

The FNBF took the lead on these last two recipes, wonderful sous chef that he is, and both were prepared well. The potatoes were exactly what I expected, which is not much. I've never cared for potatoes plain. I like my potatoes disguised, either with crunchiness (fries, chips), or with creaminess (mashed, au gratin). When potatoes are boiled or baked plain, I'm just not inspired. These were adorable little red and yellow creamers, flecked with parsley and glistening with butter. Any potato lover would kvell, but for me, no big whoop.

Martha: A

Sautéed Snap Peas and Baby Turnips (p. 323)

This recipe also left me a little cold. I do love sugar snap peas, which I usually steam or blanch, and I didn't mind the addition of butter (especially that sassy Herbed Compound Butter), but I thought the vinegar, turnip, and scallion add-ons detracted from the proceedings.

To be fair, I couldn't find baby turnips, so we used a small regular turnip. But unless baby turnips have some magical flavor-uniting properties, I think this is a combo that I don't need to revisit.

Martha: B

Wow, that was epic! I may have to take tomorrow off, just to recharge!

Until we eat again...

That's the white skin side, with FNBF's finger pointing at the price tag!

And that's the grey skin side. Weird, right?

This was after the skinning lesson. Look at the teeny weeny fin I had to cut off. It's that little thing to the right of the shears.

Before I butchered it...

Like a cartoon fish skeleton...

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Day 5 - How to Poach an Egg, How to Fry an Egg, Huevos Rancheros, and Roasted Asparagus

How to Poach an Egg (p. 81)

Lesson for the readers of this book: When Martha tells you to do something, just do it. If you think you know a shortcut or a better method, just let it go and surrender to the all-knowing Martha.

I set out to poach an egg, and Martha called for a "large, deep saucepan" to poach four eggs. So I thought, I can get away with a smaller saucepan to do only one, right? Wrong. There are reasons for everything she's written, I'm finding. The reason why the saucepan needs to be large is that you have to gently tip the egg from a small dish into the water, and if the mouth of the saucepan is too small, what happens is you freak out that you're going to burn your hand and then you do these pathetic, contorted, jerky movements that obliterate the possibility of a clean poached egg.

That said, this was surprisingly easy. Martha prepared me for some failure, but even with my jerky moves, this egg was absolutely respectable. There was definitely some egg white drop soup happening in the pan, but the egg itself turned out a nice size and shape, and the consistency was perfect. I didn't really get the whole concept of using a spoon "to 'fold' the edges of the white over the egg" while it's in the water. It seemed as if those attempts made it worse than better, disturbing the shaping process, but even with that, it was a serve-able poached egg.

For some reason, the poached egg was much more appetizing to me than the soft-cooked one. Maybe it has to do with runny whites and yolks vs. just runny yolks. Who knew?

Jeff: B+
Martha: A

Eggs, eggs, and more eggs! I was going to end the entry there, because the FNBF and I were going to eat dinner out tonight, but then we started backpedaling, and I already had the makings for Huevos Rancheros, so the egg festival continues. Besides, I have some amazing leftover soup from yesterday. It's an unconventional meal, but homey.

How to Fry an Egg (p. 84)

The fried egg method was different from my usual style only in that there was butter involved (I'm more likely to use Pam... diet-freak) and that Martha wanted me to spoon said butter over the yolk "to cook it slightly." That didn't really happen, because there just wasn't enough butter to make a difference, and what little there was kept getting caught in the crannies of the egg white. In fact, I was trying to salvage some of the cranny butter to respoon, and I inadvertently picked up some egg white, creating an adorable white freckle on the face of the yolk. (Not sure Martha would think it was so adorable...)

Jeff: A
Martha: A- (points off for the spooning of the butter)

Huevos Rancheros (p. 85)

I made these absolutely to the letter, but the FNBF thinks he's had Huevos Rancheros that were somehow different, so perhaps there's another variation out there? In any case, here's another dish I would never have chosen voluntarily. There's something about the corn tortilla and salsa in general that just doesn't tickle my flavor fancy. After a few burned tortillas, I finally got the hang of toasting them over the open flame. I used a fresh red salsa, but I noticed that Martha pictured a salsa verde, so maybe I missed the boat there.

Overall, I think this was well cooked, and I'd say it's a nice recipe... if you like that kind of thing. :-)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Roasted Asparagus (p. 313)

I don't think I've ever had roasted asparagus before, and let me tell you, it's nice! The tips get a little crunchy, and it takes on a flavor that somehow recalled sharp cheese. I think it's my new favorite asparagus treatment. This will definitely make another appearance.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Incidentally, we ate leftovers of the Indian-Spiced Split Pea Soup and the Roasted Pineapple. The soup definitely survived reheating, although the bright lime and cilantro flavors were definitely dimmed. The pineapple tasted a little better today, I think.

Until we eat again...

Huevos Rancheros, freckle and all

Friday, March 20, 2009

Day 4 - Indian-Spiced Split Pea Soup, Roasted Fennel, and Roasted Pineapple

If you read this blog thoroughly, including the comments section, you may have noticed the very sweet comment under yesterday's entry posted by William Van Roden, the designer of not only Martha Stewart's Cooking School but also the equally amazing Everyday Food: Great Food Fast.

You have to understand: these two books have whipped me into a frenzy about cooking. And while they are undeniably loaded with great content, I honestly believe that what puts them over the edge is the outrageously beautiful design. The typefaces, the photography, the colors, the layouts, everything is immaculate and clear and aesthetically impeccable. (There's that word again.) So the fact that WVR, the man responsible for these WORKS OF ART, has found this blog rocks my world! And that he posted something so nice?

WVR, you and your partner are definitely welcome to come for any recipe you choose, even one of those five-page, crazy-over-the-top, so-hard-you-shouldn't-try-it-at-home recipes. But not until my apartment is all snazzed up (summer or after). Flip through the book, pick a recipe, and email me your choice, and we''ll set it up. (How cool is this!!!)

Now, on to today's attempts:

I have a weekly date with my friend, Marcy. We met nine years ago in a class at Landmark Education, hit it off famously, and ever since, it's a rare week that goes by without our sharing a meal. We used to eat out whenever we met, but then I started getting interested in cooking, and lately we've been eating in. (Well, actually, I cook for us three times, and Marcy takes us out the fourth. She doesn't have the cooking gene.)

Last night, as I was planning what I'd cook for her tonight, the Braised Spring Vegetables seemed like a bull's-eye. After all, it is the first day of spring. However, I awoke this morning to full-on SNOW, so I reconceptualized, as you can see from the name of this entry.

I think it's worth mentioning that the ingredients for this entire meal, purchased at Fairway today, came to a paltry $20, and that included two new jars of spices (mustard and cumin seeds), so if I had already had these in my spice cabinet, it would've cost only $14. So, this project is very well timed, economically. Of course, when I'm buying hundreds of dollars worth of meat and fish (and a food mill?) further on down the line, I may be less chipper.

Indian-Spiced Split Pea Soup (p. 401)

Do you know how some recipes seem to almost make themselves? They happen so effortlessly and the results are so spectacular, and you're not really sure how you did it, but you know you did? This is one of those recipes. The effort/payoff ratio is AMAZING! Yes, there's a bit of mincing in the beginning (and mincing is never cute), but then there's this big stretch where you get to walk away for 45 minutes or so. And then, when you return, you just add a couple of finishing touches, and voilà! Food magic!

This is a truly delicious layering of flavor that was entirely unpredictable. I thought it was going to be just another split pea soup, but instead it was salty, limey, cilantro-y, Indian goodness, with those fried seeds (fried seeds!) giving you occasional crunchy bursts of flavor. Other worldly! This will definitely go on the permanent list.

Jeff: A
Martha: A+

Roasted Fennel (p. 313)

I've decided to tackle all the variations on the multiple-recipe pages, so in the case of page 313, titled "Perfect Roasted Vegetables," I'll be making my way through all fifteen of them. This will be easy, since my mother drummed it into my head that no meal is complete without a vegetable (preferably a green one, right, Mom?) And tonight, it was fennel's turn. I love fennel raw, and I've enjoyed fennel braised, but I have to confess that my roasted fennel tonight was just okay. A little too browned for my taste, actually. I cooked it for the recommended 40 minutes, but I think it may have been a little too long, at least in my oven. (I just learned that the regulations around consumer oven temperatures are pretty loose, i.e. an oven is deemed effective, even if the variation from accurate temperature is something ridiculous like 50 degrees.)

Don't get me wrong. The fennel was edible. Marcy even thought it was good and took home the leftovers. But I thought it was just okay. Next time, I'll cook it less and toss it with extra oil, I think.

Jeff: B
Martha: A

Roasted Pineapple

Marcy had requested vegetables and fruit for dinner (health nut), but I don't think this is what she had in mind (i.e. all that sugar and butter). And as it turns out, she doesn't even like pineapple.

However, she really enjoyed this dish!

I, on the other hand, feel like I blew it. I cooked it in this weird, extra stovetop oven-thing I have, which has these terrible baking sheets that warp in the heat, and I made the mistake of covering them with foil, and all the liquid went under the foil and burned, and the pineapple wasn't that great to begin with, blah, blah, blaaaaaaah.

The fact of the matter is, this recipe is clearly a winner, with a great effort/payoff ratio. I could tell that if I hadn't blown it, it would've been a home run. Maybe even one for the permanent file, like Mr. Indian-Spiced Split Pea Soup up there. Roasting it with sugar and butter gives the fruit a pineapple-upside-down-cake richness, without the cake, and the rosemary gives it that extra Martha twist that I love. I'm going to declare this a redo. Stay tuned for Roasted Pineapple, Take Two.

Oh, a little tip for those of you who core pineapples. Martha says to "remove 'eyes' with the tip of the knife," however I used the tip of a potato peeler, and it made quick work of it.

Jeff: F
Martha: A

FYI, you'll be happy to know, my plastic bubble is gone!! Not sure if it's coming back on Monday, but for the weekend, I am free!!

Until we eat again...

Here's Marcy with the soup and fennel.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Day 3 - How to Boil an Egg, continued

Please don't give me a hard time. This is what my kitchen looks like today.

When I'm in there, I feel like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble Kitchen.

Which is why I tackled only the soft-cooked egg today.

How to Boil an Egg, continued (p. 81)

Truth be told, I've never been a fan of the soft-cooked egg. When my friend, Marcy, orders her scrambled eggs "runny," that kind of gives me the willies. I'm not salmonella-phobic, nor am I one of those texture freaks who won't eat anything mushy or saucy (you know who you are). But I've never been drawn to the loose egg.

When I was a kid, my mother would eat a soft-cooked egg in a bowl every morning for breakfast. It always seemed like there was no there there...

Well, today, after attempting Martha's soft-cooked egg, I feel completely... the same. That's nothing against Martha, of course. This is just one of those tasks that requires me to prepare something I'm not that excited about. (David, my grammar police friend, would correct me and say "you mean, it requires you to prepare something about which you're not that excited" but I say that blogs are more colloquial and a little bad usage is not just OK, it's mandatory.)

While we're on the subject of tasks I'm not that excited about, let me just say that I've been looking more closely at this book, and it's daunting. There are some recipes in here that involve 14 weeks of marinating, a butter churn, and the marrow from 12 spotted anteater carcasses. OK, I'm exaggerating, but the Soups and Stocks chapter alone is going to occupy a month of my life. Not to mention, I'm going to be making things that I would NEVER eat in a million years. Like grilled peppers. (Anyone out there hate bell peppers like I do?) And lemon curd. And tortilla soup. And okra. Which I guess is part of the fun of it all. But I digress.

My soft-cooked egg came out just fine. Interestingly, Martha tells us to do something I've always been told is a no-no: place the egg into rapidly boiling water. Isn't that supposed to shatter the egg into a billion pieces??? Evidently, it does no such thing. The egg performed brilliantly. Once it went in, the pot came off the heat, and the egg bathed for five minutes. Martha suggested four to six, so I went with the middle. If I were to do it over again, I would have gone with six, because I'm just not that into the runny thing. That said, as far as soft-cooked eggs go, this one seemed entirely respectable.

My only gripe is that Martha didn't give me any tips for handling the egg, which, after five minutes in that pot, is super hot. She did tell me how to crack it if I wanted to eat it out of the shell, and she did tell me how to crack it if I wanted to empty it into a bowl, however she did not tell me how to crack it without burning my hands on one incredibly hot egg. And for that, Martha, I'm going to have to give you an A-.

Jeff: A
Martha: A-

Note, this is the first time I gave myself a higher grade than I gave Martha. I'm guessing it may also be the last.

I'm doing some real cooking over the next few days, plastic bubble or not, so stay tuned!

Until we eat again...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Day 2 - How to Boil an Egg

OK, I know everyone thinks they already know how to boil an egg. I know I did. You put an egg in a pot with water and boil it until you're 100% positive it's cooked through, i.e. about 10 minutes or so. Concern about over-cooking? Nah. It won't burn, it won't explode, it'll be fine.

But - is everybody listening? - this is EXACTLY what's so great about Martha Stewart's Cooking School! Martha is offering us tips that will elevate even the most mundane kitchen assignments.

How to Boil an Egg (p. 81)

Case in point: the hard-cooked egg. (Martha points out that "hard-boiled" is a misnomer, since hard-cooked eggs "should never actually be boiled for any length of time.") I followed Martha's lesson, which involved bringing the egg and water to a boil and then taking it off the heat and letting it sit for 13 minutes, and I was rewarded with a beautiful, tender, easy-to-peel egg. The yolk was solid, but still quite deep in color, as opposed to the dried up, chalky yolks of my waaaaay overdone BM (Before Martha) eggs.

There's also a little lesson in the margin about how to peel hard-cooked eggs, which was helpful and accurate.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

I know, I know, I should take some points off for ease. And I officially only did half of the lesson (haven't done soft-cooking an egg yet). But after getting my ass kicked yesterday on my debut meal, don't I deserve a little breather? And then there's the fact that my apartment is completely covered in plastic sheeting! (Electrical work = drilling into concrete ceilings = mucho dusto = I can live with the plastic for a couple more days.)

FYI, I ate my perfectly hard-cooked egg on a slice of the multigrain bread I baked yesterday, which, as I got to the center of the loaf, I discovered was undercooked. I was supposed to bake them until they were dark, golden brown and sounded hollow when tapped on the bottom, but I couldn't be sure if that sound screamed "hollow" or not. And the loaves had browned up so quickly that I was concerned that I would burn them if I kept them in the oven any longer. So I decided that that's exactly what hollow sounds like. I now realize that I have yet to experience the hollow sound of a thoroughly baked loaf of bread. (Apologies to Michael, my next-door neighbor, from whom I usually spare my lesser baking efforts.)

Incidentally, I know it must seem as if I'm leaving out major parts of these lessons and recipes, which I most definitely am. First of all, it would be boring if I tracked every step of the journey, and secondly, it would also be copyright infringement. I'm giving you the greatest hits of my experiences with MSCS, and it is my hope that you will be entertained and/or inspired to pick up this book, or any cookbook, and make a beautiful meal for yourself and some lucky others.

Until we eat again...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Day 1 - Yikes!!

Dear Lord- what was I thinking? It's 5PM, and I'm already exhausted over this meal!!

So here's the plan - I'm having my friends Alysha and David over for dinner as guinea pigs to eat my first project meal and to watch American Idol, since we all vote in an A.I. pool together. (Alysha and David are currently in second and third place, while I am a paltry third from last... Let it be known, though, that I won the pool in '07.)

The menu will be:

Roast Duck (p. 145-6)
Glazed Turnips (p. 347)
Roasted Brussels Sprouts (p. 313)

As for the duck recipe, I need to talk to Martha about a couple of things. First of all, one "whole Pekin duck (5 1/2 to 6 pounds)" is supposed to serve two people? That stressed me out at Fairway, since the biggest duck I could find was 4.83 pounds, and I might be serving four!

(My Fabulous New Boy Friend, who, from now on, will be referred to as FNBF, may also be attending, if his high-pressure, big-budget film schedule allows. I'm referring to him as FNBF in an effort to protect his privacy because I'm not sure how he feels about being discussed in this blog. Also, I think it's funny that it sounds like "effin' BF," which will be a useful nickname if I'm ever pissed off at him. Which seems inconceivable right now, because I think he's so fabulous. Also, I want to mention that I never use the word "fabulous." Only when I'm talking about him. And how I'm going to be cooking this whole year.)

So, my other gripe with this recipe is that it calls for Pomegranate Molasses. Really, Martha? I trolled the aisles of Fairway AND Zabars, two stores very well-stocked with specialty items, looking for Pomegranate Anything (other than juice), and all I could come up with was a jar of Pomegranate Jelly, which I bought. And I don't even like pomegranates!! But I'm trying to honor the spirit of this recipe, so I've decided to use half pomegranate jelly and half molasses and that will have to be that, Ms. S.

As for the portion sizes, I did a little snooping around Martha's website, and it turns out that, according to some other recipes, a five pound duck should serve four, no problem. So I guess that's a misprint. Although, after roasting this duck all afternoon, I have to tell you that I'm pretty sure four pounds of fat have just melted off that bad boy. All I've done so far is make some cross-hatch cuts through the skin and then roast it and poke it and watch that bird drain away. Later, there'll be a glaze (with my makeshift pomegranate molasses, remember?).

As if it weren't enough to be taking on my first roast duck, I'm also attempting to make Martha's Multigrain Bread recipe from her website. I'm newly obsessed with baking, ever since my next door neighbor gave me his extra electric mixer. (Thanks, Michael!!) So between the rising and the pounding and the poking and the rendering, it's been a full afternoon!!

And have I mentioned that my apartment is being renovated?? Not really renovated, per se, but there will be electrical work, painting, and more for the next couple of months, so this is really going to be an adventure!

Have to go start the glazed turnips now - I should confess that I'm not using the Brown Stock but am taking the apple cider option instead. Not because I'm a vegetarian, but because I peeked at the Brown Stock recipe, and it would take me about a day to make it, not to mention four pounds of veal bones. (Where do you even get them?!) I'm sure it's amazing, but it will have to wait. And besides, cider glaze sounds good.

OK! Meal's over, company's gone, dishes are washed, and I have tales to tell...

First of all, the hardest part of this whole cooking thing is definitely the timing. You can read your recipes ten times, plan them all out in your head, figure out when you need to start this, switch to that, etc., but then when you're actually doing it, all that planning goes right out the window. My timing tonight was desperately off! And yet, the food was pretty darn good.

The timing issue with the duck was that I was ready for the glaze before the glaze was ready for me. So I had to take the duck out of the oven, where it sat for 5 or 10 minutes waiting for the glaze to thicken. Not ideal...

Then, I started the turnips late, and they also took a long time to cook down, so the duck and the brussels sprouts (who ever knew that the word was "brussels" with a third "s"?) were all served room temperature. Fortunately, my guests were very easy going and happy to eat luke warm food, i.e. delicious luke warm food.

Some observations:

Roast Duck:

The FNBF didn't show, and it turns out there was the perfect amount of duck for David, Alysha, and me. Ergo, I conclude that a 4.83 lb. duck serves three. The skin tasted fantastic: crispy and salty and sweet from the glaze, and the meat was moist and delicious.

Can we discuss how much fat there is in a 4.83 lb duck? I threw away over two cups of rendered fat from this little guy. Ugh. But I guess that's what makes the skin so delicious. FYI, I wouldn't stress out over trying to find Pomegranate Molasses. Any kind of sweet or fruity gooey substance would work well here.

Jeff: B-
Martha: B+
(great lesson, but points off for the "serves two" typo and for using Pomegranate Molasses as an ingredient)

Unfortunately, I definitely failed the "How to Carve a Duck" lesson. I couldn't find the shape of the backbone and ultimately pulled the thing apart with my hands, and then carved the eventual pieces. Martha would not have approved....

Jeff: D-
Martha: B+
(could have used a few more details)

(Since it's Cooking School, I thought there should be grades. So I'm grading myself on how well I executed the plan, and I'm grading Martha on how failsafe I think the plan is.)

Glazed Turnips

These came out great! As I mentioned above, I went with cider vs. Brown Stock, and the turnips were quite sweet, Alysha thought almost dessert-like. I cooked them in a medium-sized saucepan, which I now think was my mistake - I needed more cooking surface area. As a result, the turnips didn't brown as much as I would have liked, and the liquid took much longer than expected to reduce (timing!!). But the end result was completely satisfying and a great accompaniment to the duck.

Jeff: B-
Martha: A

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Martha has definitely turned me on to roasting vegetables, something I never did BM (Before Martha). And I used to swear by my stove top recipe for brussels sprouts. Now, I am a roasting convert. Alysha commented that roasting them seemed to allow all that is great about brussels sprouts to come forward, without any excess oil or sauce or shlar (as my friend Tracy Christensen likes to call it). I agree. Plus, it's really easy!

Jeff: A-
Martha: A

As for the bread, wow. It is really amazing to bake a loaf (actually, two) of bread from scratch. I used to have a bread machine, which was fun, but to actually mix the dough and then handle it and let it rise and punch it down and shape it and slide it onto the stone, etc. is incredibly fulfilling. And filling. (I'm definitely going to have to work out 2x/day this year.) The bread came out beautifully, very grainy and moist and crunchy and hearty. I hope my next door neighbor, Michael, will like his loaf as much as I like mine. (I've been leaving him goodies on his doorstep to thank him for the mixer.)

FYI, no grades for the bread because it's not a recipe or lesson from Martha Stewart's Cooking School. It's basically extra credit. I always was a teacher's pet... :-)

Who knew this was going to be such an outrageously long posting? If you're still reading, thanks for beginning this journey with me.

Until we eat again...

David and Alysha: Post-duck, pre-Idol

Monday, March 16, 2009

Welcome to Jeff and Martha: My Year of Cooking Fabulously

Anyone who knows me knows that when I take something on, I don't mess around. In my life thus far, that's included mastering things as varied as acting, knitting, playing the piano, composing music, writing lyrics, portrait photography, book publishing, dating, and podcasting.

So when I happened upon Julie Powell's book, Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, I knew I had found a kindred spirit and an inspiration for a new project. And given my late-breaking obsession with the great Martha Stewart, it was a no-brainer choosing the book which I would commit to tackling.

So here it is - the official announcement:

This year, I will be attending (and graduating from?) Martha Stewart's Cooking School.

For those of you who don't know what MSCS is, click on the link, buy it, and expect to be dazzled. This book from Ste. Martha is filled with "lessons and recipes for the home cook," and if you've seen any of Martha's publications, you know that everything She publishes is beautiful and inspiring, with magical photos, brilliant layouts and graphics, and excellent content. And this is the jewel in the crown, if you ask me.

OK, I'm going to stop with the religious allusions and the capital S for "She," because I'm sure that can get annoying, but please know that I truly believe that Martha is a goddess. I know Julie Powell took some potshots at Martha in the book and on her blog, choosing, instead, Julia Child for her adoration and respect. But I unabashedly choose Martha. Martha is unstoppable, Martha is versatile, and above all, Martha is impeccable. I know she uses the phrase "good things" a lot, but as far as I'm concerned, Martha always steers me to the best things, and that is why I am excited to dedicate a year of my life to attending her "Cooking School" and learning from her extensive experience and great taste.

Over the next year, I will take every "lesson" and cook every recipe in this gorgeous book, documenting my progress on this blog. I'm not going to go in any kind of logical order, like Julie did. It's going to be random, but I will be thorough and complete. And it is my hope that at the end of the twelve months, I will have achieved a new level of comfort, sophistication, and expertise in the kitchen, I will have fed the people in my life some beautiful food, and I will have, in some small way, incorporated into my own life Martha's amazing commitment to excellence.

Those of you who are concerned whether I will still be writing songs during this project, have no fear. Songwriting is definitely my first love and my front burner gig, i.e. my day job, just like Julie's day job, except that she dreaded hers and I love mine. One of the things that excites me about cooking is that it's creative, yet in a way that's completely different from the way I usually create. And I wonder if a project like this might expand and inform my songwriting in ways that I could never predict... Stick around and see! Tomorrow it begins!!