Thursday, April 30, 2009

Day 43 - Omelet with Caramelized Onions

Laura Patinkin and I have been close friends since 1986 - she and Casey (from Day 37) and I met all those years ago performing together in the Equity Library Theatre production of The Pajama Game, my first show in New York City. It will always hold a special place in my memories, particularly for having introduced me to two such great people.

Now that Laura lives in Westchester with her husband and three children, I don't get to see her nearly enough. But we recently joined forces to do a couple of concerts in the Holy Land, aka Boca Raton, which gave us a great excuse to have to spend a lot of time together. And now that the concerts are over, we miss each other! Hence, breakfast today.

Omelet with Caramelized Onions (p. 89)

Yes, it's yet another omelet variation. Would you believe I still have three more left?

This one involves sautéing, well, actually, caramelizing onions for quite a long time, about 45 minutes, the first five minutes or so at a high heat, and then the last 40 with the flame lowered.

I went with Martha's suggestion to add a teaspoon of sugar, to enhance the onion's natural sweetness. It was subtle and just right for this application, given that I also threw a little goat cheese in there. This was a great-tasting omelet.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

I'm posting a picture of Laura with omelet, although she had just been working out and is very self-conscious about how she looked. I have to mention that she's still a total babe (or MILF, I should say) and just to make sure she feels well-represented, I'll show you her headshot, so you can see how she usually presents herself.

Incidentally, I just dug my good camera out of the rubble, and I'll have much better pictures from now on!

Until we eat again....

Laura, post workout, pre omelet

Laura's Headshot

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Day 42 - Mango Sorbet

And it was all going so well...

Mango Sorbet (p. 485)

Martha, Martha, Martha... you're not going to like your grade today.

The last thing I want to do is to give my beloved professor a low grade. But this was a real turkey.

The sorbets have been a real surprise for me: I'd never been a sorbet eater. All I tasted was the sugar. But Martha's recipes were so fruity and sparkly, they put all other sorbets to shame. And I couldn't wait for mango! Who doesn't love mango???

I followed the instructions for mango, which involved chopping three of them and pureeing with some water in the food processor. So far, so good.

Then, it was time to put it through a fine sieve. The first sieve I tried, literally not a drop would pass through. Then I remembered that this sieve is too fine for fruit puree, so I moved it over to a less fine sieve, the one that has worked for both strawberry and pineapple puree.

After much stirring and pressing, the majority of the puree passed through. I added the simple syrup and did the egg trick. Have I told you about the egg trick? The trick is, if you have the right balance of puree to syrup, the egg (a whole, raw egg in the shell) will float, revealing a quarter-size piece of itself. If the egg reveals more of itself, you need to add more puree. If the egg is sinking lower, you need to add more syrup.

Well, the egg didn't show at all. So I added more syrup.

Still nothing.

A little more syrup, although it's getting awfully sweet.


Can't put any more syrup in, because it will be all sugar. But that egg isn't moving from the bottom!

So I start adding water.


More water.


Float, damn you, float! I added so much water that I doubled the size of the mixture.


Screw it, I said, I'm going ahead and freezing this anyway.

Cut to: the dullest, wateriest, most nothing sorbet you've ever tasted. Too sweet and no fruity zing. Booooooooo!

I should have chucked the egg trick right away and frozen the sorbet without adding anything extra, but there's a whole passage about getting the sweetness just right, and the egg is the sweet-o-meter, and I wanted to see that quarter-sized piece of egg that I've always seen before...

Martha, you should notate an exception for dense fruits that will never allow an egg to float!

What a disappointment. Next time this happens, I'm skipping the egg trick and taking my chances.

Jeff: F
Martha: F
(Now I'll never be on the show!)

Until we eat again....

Day 41 - Omelet with Chopped, Blanched Asparagus and Roasted Winter Squash

Yikes, got a day behind! Let's see if I can remember this far back...

Omelet with Chopped, Blanched Asparagus (p. 89)

Yet another omelet variation from Martha. I would not have thought to blanch asparagus for an omelet, but it's a nice fresh option, with crunchy, bright-green, oil-free asparagus. Tastes great.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Roasted Winter Squash (p. 313)

I had high hopes for roasted butternut squash. I tossed it with some fresh sage and thyme, and I didn't go for the honey/maple syrup option because I thought there'd be a fair amount of natural sweetness, and as FNBF pointed out, roasting often seems to unleash a lot of natural sweetness in veggies.

Turns out, not so much. The texture of the squash was just right: moist and fibrous, and browned perfectly. But the flavor was a disappointment. Almost bitter, it wasn't anywhere near sweet. I wish I had taken the sugary detour.

Meanwhile, I'm almost done with the roasting vegetables page! All that's left is corn!

Jeff: B (for not sweetening)
Martha: A- (for not making the sweetening mandatory)

FYI, I made another Perfect Roast Chicken tonight, this time with sage and thyme instead of rosemary, and I skipped the bed of onions. Again, very delicious, but the first time was definitely tastier. I'll return to the rosemary and onion version again.

But why does this chicken make my oven smoke so much?? My apartment was positively cloudy!

Until we eat again....

Monday, April 27, 2009

Day 40 - Rosemary-Olive Butter

There was so much eating out this weekend... and no chance to cook! I couldn't let the weekend go by without making anything, so I threw together a new compound butter, because it's always nice to have a compound butter around the house.

Rosemary-Olive Butter (p. 167)

Alysha's going to be so mad, because she's been angling for olive butter since I started this whole thing. This is probably the easiest and tastiest compound butter of all. Total ingredients? Butter, rosemary and olives.

It may not be terribly versatile, and it may not be terribly attractive, but Rosemary-Olive Butter tastes damn good. And everyone loves an olive butter. Right, Alysha?

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Note: As some of you may have surmised, I have two best friends named Tracy. When I referenced the picky eater, Tracy, a few entries ago, I was referring to Tracy Christensen, whose website I linked to when I mentioned her. I thought that would be enough to distinguish which Tracy I meant. Alas, Tracy Katz Paladini's friends (and husband!) thought I meant her, which caused her great embarrassment and distress.

So I am hereby proclaiming that:
Tracy Katz Paladini is not a picky eater.

She is a stubborn eater.
Proof: it took her five years to try sushi, eight years to try Pad Thai, and ten years to try tofu, all of which she now loves and eats constantly.

But no, Tracy Katz Paladini is not a picky eater. :-)


Saturday, April 25, 2009

Day 38 - Veal Stew with Artichoke Hearts, Fava Beans, and Peas, and Long Grain Brown Rice

Here's another main course that's been on my mind for a while. Especially every time I pass the fava beans at Fairway. I was waiting for the shell peas to arrive, but they haven't, and I figured it would be better to substitute frozen peas for fresh than to pass up an opportunity to use fresh fava beans.

Veal Stew with Artichoke Hearts, Fava Beans, and Peas (p. 205)

This is definitely a workout. There are some cool things to experience while preparing this dish: making a sachet, working with favas, learning how to trim a fresh artichoke to use the heart, making a roux, making a velouté, and tempering yolks (again - twice in one week!). And it's not that anything is terribly challenging - it's just a lot of work. And dishwashing.

First, you make a sachet with herbs, spices, and vegetables (what Martha calls "aromatics"). This is only annoying if you forgot to buy a carrot and have to go out just for that.

Then you deal with the fava beans. This is probably the most aggravating part of the recipe. Shelling fava beans is a pain. Mostly, these pods don't spring open, so you're pulling and cracking and twisting, etc. My fingernails are still messed up from it. Meanwhile, I don't think I've chosen my favas well, since some of them are large (although not as large as I thought they'd be) and some of them are downright small.

Then you have to blanch them, which means waiting for the water to boil. Then you have to move them to an ice bath and drain them. (How many bowls am I going to have to wash for a lousy cup of fava beans?) Then, if all that wasn't bad enough, you have to remove the outer layer to get to the actual fava bean inside! Ugh. Too hard. No wonder Hannibal Lecter liked them. Preparing them could drive me to murder, too.

The veal goes in a saucepan with wine, water, and salt, which you bring to a boil. This creates a considerable amount of veal foam, which gets scooped away. Then you add the sachet and simmer for a while.

While that was happening, I got to work on the artichokes. In the list of ingredients for this recipe, Martha writes: "3 Large Fresh Artichoke Hearts, prepared as directed on page 296, and each cut into sixths." I am 99% positive this is a typo/mistake. Page 296 is a recipe for steamed artichokes, which are served whole. Page 305 is the recipe for Marinated Artichoke Hearts, which contains the exact information you need to prepare 3 Large Fresh Artichoke Hearts. (Is anyone paying attention, re: Second Printing? And just in case I have your ear, please note the misspelling of "beurre" several times on pp. 223-224.)

You may remember, the day I was making the salad that included Marinated Artichoke Hearts, there were no fresh artichokes in any market, so I had to skip it. But today, I got a crash course in getting to the heart of an artichoke. It took messing one up to really figure it out, but I think I have the hang of it now. It's a little dicey, because if you don't work fast enough, the artichoke turns brown. You have lemon water and a lemon half standing by to keep the artichoke well-colored, but if you drag your feet along the way, that little guy will turn so fast....

Making an artichoke heart is one of those things that I never thought I'd have to do in my life, but knowing how to do it makes me feel like a better person somehow.

Eventually, the artichoke hearts go in the simmering veal, as do the peas at the last second. Then the sachet gets removed (beware, a peppercorn slipped through the cheesecloth and ended up in FNBF's mouth - he was not happy - maybe it's best to use extra cheesecloth). The liquid gets strained off and the veal and friends are reserved for later use.

Then the roux: the saucepan is wiped out and butter is melted. Then flour is whisked in and cooked for a little. That's a "roux." Then the strained veal liquid is whisked into the roux. Now, it's called a "velouté."

Then you whisk an egg yolk with some heavy cream, and temper the yolk by adding some velouté slowly and whisking until it's incorporated. This is now called the "liaison," probably because it's what connects the yolk to the hot velouté. You add the liaison to the velouté and cook until the sauce is thickened.

At this point, my sauce is so thick that it's in the realm of Cream of Mushroom soup. Did I do something wrong? It looks so light and liquid-y in the pictures...

The veal and friends go back in, along with the favas, and a splash of lemon juice and a sprinkle of parsley finish it up.

It tastes great. It's a creamy, white stew, with Martha's signature layers of flavors. The frozen peas taste great - I can't imagine fresh ones tasting that much better. The fava beans are practically invisible, mixed in with the peas. The artichoke hearts are cooked perfectly, the veal is tender, and the whole package is really tasty. And crazily filling. But it's so much heavier than Martha's pictures. I can't help thinking that I overcooked the sauce somewhere along the way.

I'm so glad to have made this, but I daresay this will be the first and last time. (Too rich for my blood.) Meanwhile, there's a variation on this recipe that I will have to do, called "Blanquette de Veau," and I'm seriously confused about this one. Martha (or staff), if you're reading, could you specify whether or not there's a roux/velouté step? There's too little information in the book....

Jeff: B
(for over-thickening the sauce)
Martha: A

Long Grain Brown Rice (p. 412)

Here's another winner in the grains department. Martha's instructions, which again differ from those on the package, deliver a great end product. And the rice was well-matched with this stew.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Incidentally, I also served a Martha green salad with Lemon Vinaigrette, topped with the leftover mussels from the other day. Creative, right?

Until we eat again....

FNBF ate his veal with fava beans and a nice Chianti. OK, it was actually Chenin Blanc.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Day 37 - Perfect Roast Chicken, Brown Rice Pilaf with Currants, Pineapple Sorbet, How to Truss a Chicken, and How to Carve a Chicken

One of my first NY friends, Casey and I have know each other for over 20 years, and he's one of my favorite people ever. In my stable of friends, he is second only to Tracy for the title of Pickiest Eater. So my invitation to cook for him tonight was met with this response:

Oh my God! This is awesome! I would love for you to cook,..but you know how picky I am - so maybe we should discuss and then you can say "FXXX you, you pain in the aXX we're going out" if I'm too difficult.

(Censoring by me, fyi.)

As it turns out, I offered him some very safe fare, so there was no cursing, just good honest eats and a picky eater happy and accommodated.

Perfect Roast Chicken (p. 127)

I have to say, I thought this was a very immodest name for a recipe. Until tonight. And now I know, it is completely accurate. This roast chicken is absolutely perfect.

In my other favorite Martha book, Everyday Food: Great Food Fast, there's another recipe for "Perfect Roast Chicken," which is a sort of variation on this one. Tonight, I followed the recipe in my book to a tee, but I did incorporate one thing from the other recipe. I cooked the chicken resting on a bed of sliced onions. Yum!!

This chicken was defrosted and came out great, so my theory from an earlier entry blaming the toughness of the chicken on its having been frozen is now debunked. The chicken gets rinsed and dried, then salted/peppered inside and stuffed with loads of lemon slices, rosemary and garlic. Then, you rub it all over with butter, truss it, salt and pepper the outside and stick it in a skillet in a super-hot oven for not even an hour. Pull it out, transfer it to a plate, deglaze the skillet and make a sauce (Martha, I'm not sure that the sauce needed that extra tablespoon of butter), and then serve.

So easy. So quick. And SO delicious. The rosemary and lemon and garlic deliver so much intense flavor - unbelievable. The chicken is beautiful, browned and perfectly shaped (tucking the wings back and trussing helps in this dept.), and the meat is moist and flavorful. Casey didn't even want the sauce, it was so moist.

The bed of onions are there just to impart flavor during cooking, i.e. you're supposed to discard them after the chicken is done, but I think they're a special secret treat for the chef to enjoy while he's making the sauce. They're basically burnt, but they taste amazing! Mmm.

If you roast chicken, this is definitely a must-try for you. You will not believe the flavor - plus Martha mentions a ton of variations to try, so you can play with an infinite number of combinations and experimentations. This recipe is a perfect example of what I love the most about Martha: she shows us a definitive way of doing a very basic thing.

Jeff: A
Martha: A+

How to Truss a Chicken (p. 113)

I have a countertop rotisserie oven (don't ask), and I've made a handful of chickens in it. And every time I've tried to truss the chicken, it's been disastrous. Following this primer was so easy, now I'm trying to remember how I made it so complicated. This is a 30 second lesson, and it works like gangbusters.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

How to Carve a Chicken (p. 130)

After taking the How to Cut Up a Chicken lesson, this is a piece of cake. The only thing is that the chicken is hot, so it's a little harder to handle. Plus, Casey wanted the whole breast, so I didn't have to do any fancy breast slicing. I served the chicken whole and carved at the table, but maybe next time I make Perfect Roast Chicken, I'll go for the whole pre-carving thing and serve cut-up pieces on a platter. (Uh oh, I'm going to need to get a platter...)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Brown Rice Pilaf with Currants (p. 415)

This is a variation on the basic Rice Pilaf recipe, where rice gets sautéed in butter before being cooked in the oven. Once I got the go-ahead from Casey that he'd eat rice with currants and almonds in it (you have to check!), I took that variation detour, and it was delicious. The rice cooked perfectly in the oven (I'd never cooked rice this way before). Admittedly, I was expecting something a little more spectacular or exotic, given the sautéing of the rice and the oven cooking and the fact that I used the homemade chicken stock, but this turned out with a very traditional taste and texture. Delicious, for sure, but more traditional than I expected.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Pineapple Sorbet (p. 485)

Every once in a while, as a chef (I use that term loosely), I've had the experience of thinking, "I've nailed this." For some reason, usually dumb luck, I've hit on some special combination of flavors that seem impossibly well-suited to each other. Well, today I feel confident in saying: I've nailed this. I was looking for a companion for the Vanilla Ice Cream - it was so rich and so sweet, and it needed a friend to bring it down a notch or two.

Pineapple Sorbet is absolutely the perfect companion. It's tangy and tart and sweet and fresh, and it somehow makes sense of the creaminess and over-the-top richness of the custardy ice cream. One ball of each frozen treat, side by side in a bowl? Heaven!

Again, Martha's measurements are spot on. These sorbets practically make themselves! Just the right balance of fruitiness and sweetness, and great texture. I'm such a fool for turning up my nose at sorbet all those years!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again...

Casey presents Perfect Roast Chicken

My perfect frozen combo

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Day 36 - Vanilla Ice Cream

With the ice cream maker burning a hole in my consciousness and that sorbet tasting so great, I couldn't stop thinking about what frozen treat I could make next! Hence -

Vanilla Ice Cream (p. 468)

As Martha points out, this is no ordinary ice cream. It's not enough to use just heavy cream and sugar. No. This is a frozen custard, aka French ice cream, so we need to get six egg yolks in there! Holy cow....

Making this ice cream is pretty straightforward. The one thing I did that I'd never done before was tempering yolks. Basically, the cream and milk and vanilla bean and half the sugar get heated on the stove. The other half of the sugar gets whisked with the egg yolks. Then you slowly add a ladle full of the cream mixture to the yolks, whisking all the while. Then, repeat with another ladle full. This ensures that the yolks don't cook like yolks usually do. You can't barrage them with heat, or they'll clump up. So you basically dilute them with some of the cream mixture, which then makes them safe to add to the rest of the cream mixture to heat some more.

I'm a little confused about the extra added corn syrup (three tablespoons at the end). I thought that the cream mixture tasted plenty sweet... But we're following the plan here, so I go along.

The end result is super rich and, as I suspected, super sweet (too sweet for me). It is delicious, but it is so much richer than I'm accustomed to, particularly since my ice cream eating is usually restricted to Tasti D-Lite and Edy's nonfat, no-sugar-added flavors. The vanilla presence is significant, or maybe it just seems that way because I can see the seeds. I can't help thinking that a scoop of tart, fruity sorbet would make a great partner to a scoop of this vanilla ice cream. (Hmm, I'm getting an idea for tomorrow!)

Jeff: A
Martha: A-
(I'm still cranky about the corn syrup)

Until we eat again....

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Day 35 - Steamed Mussels with Wine and Saffron and Basic Green Salad Mix

Today, I served lunch to my ice cream machine-giving friend, Adinah, and our mutual friend, Lynn. As luck would have it, just before they arrived, two pieces of furniture were being delivered and assembled in my living room, and there was nowhere for us to eat. So we moved my folding card table into my bedroom and ate in there! That's a first!

Adinah tipped me off that Lynn likes to eat light and that mussels are a favorite, so this menu seemed to fit the bill.

Steamed Mussels with Wine and Saffron (p. 217)

I've never cooked shellfish before! With the exception of shrimp, I have no experience with fish of the shell. So this recipe is a bit of an adventure.

I bought the mussels at Fairway. They came in 2 lb bags, so I ended up with 4+ lbs for three people, even though Martha thought I needed only 3 lbs for 4 people. One bag just looked too small. The mussels were quite clean, and there were only a few dead ones in there.

I prepared all the ingredients beforehand, because this cooks quickly. I'm finding this is the only way to handle cooking and entertaining at the same time. In the past, I'd be finding my way through the recipe (chopping, slicing, measuring) with people hanging around waiting to be served. So much pressure! Better to have everything ready to throw in. So I sliced the shallots and garlic, I chopped the tomatoes and parsley, and I measured out whatever was left.

Once the cooking begins, it's about 8 minutes to mealtime. And I think everything went pretty well. I think this is a dish that seems more laborious than it is. Maybe that's because I never knew how quickly mussels cook. Six minutes in a hot pot, and they're all open. So easy.

I forgot to put the chopped parsley on top at the end, so know that this assessment of the meal does not include the taste of parsley.

The consensus was that the flavors of the broth were great and that the mussels were well-cooked. (I'm learning that saffron is not my favorite flavor, though.) What we weren't crazy about was the mussels themselves. It could be the season, it could be that Fairway doesn't sell great mussels, it could be that they might have benefited from a little more cooking time. Some of them were perfect, some of them were fishy tasting, and some of them were gelatinous. I think the rule of thumb is that if it's open, it's cooked, but those gelatinous ones seemed like another minute of steam might have brought them together.

I don't think I'll ever find out, because I don't like mussels enough to repeat this, but it was really cool to make them once. And the whole shell experience is sort of fun, watching them pile up, then using bread to sop up the broth...

Lynn, who grew up in Montreal, showed us a French custom, which is that after eating the first mussel, you take that empty shell and you use it as your pincer utensil to eat the rest of the mussels from their shells. Does anyone else do that?

Incidentally, we ate about 3/4 of the mussels, so I think Martha's amounts could be more generous. I'd estimate a pound a person. It's mostly shell.

Jeff: A- (Could I have cooked them a little longer? Should I have held out for better mussels?)
Martha: A

Basic Green Salad Mix (p. 354)

I've been making Martha's dressings, but I haven't been serving them on Martha's green salad. I've been buying the easy bulk greens. (Heresy!) This is the first time I've actually followed Martha's tips for assembling a green salad, which today included a head of red leaf lettuce, a head of Bibb, and a bunch of watercress. These are chosen for texture and contrast, as outlined by Our Lady M. (I skipped the Boston lettuce because I knew I already had four times what I needed.)

There's no comparison between the ease of mesclun greens and the labor of rinsing, washing, spinning, drying, wrapping in paper towels, crisping, tearing, etc. But there's also no comparison between the taste. This green salad was so fresh and delicious. I added a little extra touch, which was shaved fennel on top, just one more fresh flavor in the mix. And I topped it with a whisper of Martha's Lemon Vinaigrette, my favorite dressing in the book so far.

It's classic, it tastes great, it's beautiful, and it's definitely worth the time. It's not for when I'm in a rush, but if I have the time, I will definitely make this again and play with some variations... other greens, other add-ins, etc.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Side note: Following up on the subject of barley, I've been adding the leftover barley to all sorts of foods and sauces and ingredients, and I have to say, I'm impressed how well it's adapted itself to many different environments. It's a great way to add healthy body to a dish. I'm becoming a barley-lover...

Until we eat again....

Lynn (L) and Adinah (R) at my bedroom lunch table!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Day 34 - How to Cream Butter and Basic Drop Cookies

I'm off to a game night at David's, and I thought it would be nice to bring cookies. Also, I knew I was going to have to make this recipe, and I thought it would be better to unload them on other people than to have them in my apartment, tempting me.

How to Cream Butter (p. 425)

There's a whole mini-lesson in this book about creaming butter, not to mention a note in the margin about "the right temperature for butter." And STILL, I think I screwed it up. I left the butter out so it would get room temperature, and I think what happened is that the butter was so not cold that it creamed together with the sugar very quickly. But I couldn't believe that it happened so fast, so I kept mixing, and then I overmixed it. It had started to break down...

I guess you have to make mistakes like this to develop and trust your instincts for the next time. (Always looking for the silver lining...)

Jeff: C-
Martha: A

Basic Drop Cookies (p. 425)

As you know, I had a not-quite-ideal butter creaming step. And I thought about putting the creamed butter in the fridge right then to bring it back together, but instead I opted to mix in everything else and then cool down the batter before I baked it. (Martha offers that as a tip to help regulate the spread of the cookie in the oven.)

This recipe is very straightforward. No surprises here. The old regulars: sugar, butter, vanilla, flour, baking soda, salt, eggs, and... your favorite add-ins!

Hmmm, what to put in there?? Martha suggests maybe splitting the dough in half and making two kinds with different add-ins. Fun!

I went for a classic Walnut Chocolate Chip, and then I made something I call Goobers + Raisinets, which has neither of those candies but does include raisins, chocolate chips and peanuts. (Did I just invent a new classic cookie??)

Martha warns that this recipe makes for a cakey cookie, and true, it is very cake-ified. But I like my cookies that way. She does detail what adjustments one could make for a chewier version, and perhaps I'll come up with another add-in variation or two and try the chewy detour next time. Meanwhile, all my fears about the butter creaming meltdown were unfounded. The cookies had a lovely, albeit cakey, texture. Totally respectable.

I broke in my cookie dough baller (like a melon baller) on these cookies, and I have to say, those measured scoops make for a beautifully even-shaped batch.

The cookies were a hit at game night. All gone. Phew.

Jeff: A- (if I hadn't overcreamed, would they have been even better?)
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Lisa, Allison, and Meghan (L to R) were the first gamers to go for the cookies.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Day 33 - Warm Lentils with Mushrooms and Brown Basmati Rice

It's dinner with Marcy again, and I found another veggie dish that I know will make her happy.

Warm Lentils with Mushrooms (p. 399)

I have to say, this doesn't seem like it should be that hard, but it's pretty labor-intensive. I was hanging out with my friend, Tracy Christensen, while I made this, and I felt like I was working pretty much the whole time. I could have saved a step or two by buying sliced cremini mushrooms, which I would have done, but they didn't have them at Whole Foods today.

The Le Puy lentils get cooked with all these delicious herbs and carrots and dried mushrooms, then the creminis get sautéed with minced garlic and shallot, and then you make a vinaigrette at the end to pour over it all. I like these baby French lentils. They're smaller than the soup variety, and they have a tighter, chewier texture, i.e. they don't break down in the same way that the other ones do.

The vinaigrette was a little nerve-wracking, as you're supposed to deglaze the pan with two tablespoons of red wine vinegar but not let it boil down. So you literally have 10 seconds to deglaze. Ha ha ha - not really possible, Martha. Once that vinegar hits the pan, it's practically vapor immediately.

The dish tastes great, but I have to say, to me it tasted overly salty. The salt amounts in this recipe are specific throughout, unlike the majority of recipes where it says "add salt to taste." I was surprised how generous the salt amounts were... Marcy, who is sensitive to salt taste, said it didn't register for her as high, but I think she was being generous because I love salt, and this was too much, even for me.

Want to hear something funny? I craved the flavor of lemon here. After a month of silently griping about there always being lemon in this, lemon in that, I think I've come to appreciate the brightness of the flavor. And it would have been just the right thing to complement the salt....

Jeff: A
Martha: B+
(for too much salt)

Brown Basmati Rice (p. 412)

This is the first grain that didn't cook up well according to Martha's instructions. I'm partly to blame, because I didn't check on the rice when I took it off the heat. I didn't want to spoil the steam effect by opening the pot, I just trusted that the timings were right. But now I realize that taking a peek is essential. When I opened the pot to serve the rice, it was sitting in a 1/4 inch of water. Boooo. I was able to grab a layer of cooked rice off the top and serve it, but it wasn't a magical Martha grain experience, as I've become accustomed to...

Jeff: B (for not checking)
Martha: A- (for questionable timings)

Until we eat again....

Marcy loves her lentils!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Day 32 - Strawberry Sorbet

Today's episode of Jeff and Martha is brought to you by Adinah Alexander, my wonderful friend who presented me this week with an ice-cream maker! (If you happen to be reading this and feel inspired to "sponsor" an episode of this blog with the gift of a necessary kitchen appliance or gadget, may I direct you to my Jeff and Martha Amazon Wish List?

Strawberry Sorbet (p. 485)

Because of the way this recipe is timed out, I had to start it the night before, by making Simple Syrup, pureeing the strawberries, and mixing the puree and syrup together to achieve the perfect balance. Martha offers up a special trick here, involving an egg, which is quite brilliant, if it works. The mix tasted a little tart to me, but I decided reserve judgment. Then this mix has to be refrigerated for a few hours before it goes in the ice cream maker.

The ice cream maker Adinah gave me is SO much better than the one I used to have. That first one was so loud I had to put it in the other room to run it. And the ice cream came out like a rock. (Mind you, I was trying to make lowfat ice cream without chemicals, which I think is pretty much impossible...) This new ice cream maker runs almost silently, and the ice cream comes out like soft serve in a quick half hour. Once the soft serve is ready, you need to put it in a container and freeze it a little longer. So between having to let the simple syrup cool for a while, refrigerating the puree for a few hours, and freezing the final product for another couple of hours, you definitely need to think ahead when you make something like this.

But the result!! Amazing! So fresh-tasting and delicious. And sweet! The sugar balance was right on - the egg trick works! And what a great consistency - hard when it comes out of the freezer, but then it loosens up in a minute and is the perfect balance of solid and creamy. A total crowd pleaser. I'm not a big sorbet eater, so I don't have a point of comparison, but I've already served this to three people, and the feedback has been unanimous: they say it tastes like the best quality sorbet, and it tastes more like the fruit itself than does your usual sorbet.

I should probably mention that Martha wanted me to put the strawberry puree through a fine sieve, which I tried, but it was so fine that I literally ended up with a tablespoon of liquid in the bowl and 2 cups of strawberry puree on top of the sieve. I ended up switching to a looser sieve, which let pretty much anything through, but I don't think this diminished the sorbet. In fact, I think the seeds and the little bit of texture enhanced things.

For the record, I've been scooping it with an ice cream scooper, which is so much more appealing than chipping it out with a spoon. I'm convinced that serving it in perfect, little, cute, round scoops makes it taste even better.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Day 31 - Omelet with Sautéed Mushrooms, Shallot Vinaigrette, Braised Fish with Fennel and Tomatoes, Basmati Rice, and Simple Syrup

Wow, I didn't realize how many things I'd done today until I was titling this entry!

Omelet with Sautéed Mushrooms (p. 89)

One more omelet variation, which turned out exactly as I expected - mushrooms sautéed in olive oil folded into an omelet. I should probably have used more oil and salt with the shrooms, but I was thinking "moderation."

Making a Martha omelet has become second nature to me. I think it might be harder if I were making one for someone who wanted their eggs well done. I'd probably use a bigger skillet so the eggs would spread out and cook faster...

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Shallot Vinaigrette (p. 356)

I was pretty sure this would be my favorite vinaigrette, so I've been wanting to make it since the beginning. But I haven't been able to find sherry vinegar. Then, on Easter, Iron Chef Paula was using it, and she caught me admiring it and insisted I take her almost full bottle home with me. So sweet. Thanks, Paula!!

The dressing is delicious.

But I think my favorite so far is still the Lemon Vinaigrette.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Braised Fish with Fennel and Tomato (p. 192)

I've had my eye on this recipe for a while, too. It just looks really good and really easy. And it is pretty easy. You throw a bunch of things in a pan (sliced fennel, chopped tomatoes, garlic, lemon slices, etc.) and let them cook for about 15 minutes, then you plop some white, firm-fleshed fish fillets in, braise for another 8 minutes and serve.

I bought halibut this time. I wasn't going to take my chances with grouper again!

I probably could have cooked the fish thirty seconds longer, but I hate to overcook fish. And it was so close to being cooked perfectly.

The flavors of this dish are very subtle, more subtle than I expected. I was hoping for something with a little more flash, but FNBF really liked it. And it did taste good. But to me, it's just not a showstopper. Braising is a nice, gentle way to cook fish, though. Good to have in the ole repertoire.

The big shocker to me was the discovery that Martha didn't want me to serve the vegetables with the fish. The final instruction is: "Spoon some of the braising sauce into a shallow bowl, then top with fish. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with pepper." What about all this beautiful braised fennel and tomato?? Then, it occurred to me that they'd be perfect to serve with the next item!

Jeff: A- (for slightly undercooking the fish)
Martha: A

Basmati Rice (p. 412)

Martha strikes again. Excellent directions for grains. And basmati rice, which I don't know that well, is delicious. All by itself! It's one of those rices that you could just sit down and eat a plateful of... I served it under braised fennel and tomato, and it was perfect.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Simple Syrup (p. 485)

I can't hear simple syrup without thinking of mixed drinks. But there were no cocktails being made in Cooking School. This was in preparation for tomorrow's sorbet. Now that I have an ice cream machine, I had to use it ASAP!

In the future, I'll try infusing the syrup with some cute things, like herbs, vanilla, ginger, etc. But this first time, I wanted to make it straight.

It's very easy. Sugar, water, boil, stir, cool. Can't wait to have homemade sorbet tomorrow!!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

FNBF pointing to his fish, although you can't really see it, can you?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Day 30 - First Tally

No cooking today, but I thought I'd take a look at the big picture to see how I'm doing.

My "Cooking School" education is comprised of 357 recipes and lessons, and as of today, Day 30, April 16, I've completed....

60 of them!

It's amazing to me how even a month's worth of cooking school has made a noticeable difference in my abilities in the kitchen. And to think how confident I'll be 11 months from now after I've made cream puffs, country pâté, and spatchcocked a chicken! I'm excited!

Thanks for following along so far!

Please feel free to leave comments, make suggestions/requests. Do you want to hear more about this, less about that? It'd be nice to have this become interactive somehow.

Until we eat again....

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Day 29 - Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Barley, and Kale with Shell Beans

Oh my... where do I begin??

I should start off by saying that Tracy Katz Paladini is my BFF times 1000. Seldom does a day go by that we haven't talked 10 or 12 times, but the face to face times are few and far between. Tonight, she's visiting from Virginia Beach with her children, Samantha (11) and Ben (9), my godkids. When Tracy announced she was coming to town, we started planning what their Martha meal would be. Macaroni and cheese? Too ordinary. Her kids are adventurous eaters. Rabbit? She blanched. Not that adventurous. Fried chicken? Deal.

I thought I'd make some unusual grain, too, just so the kids could eat something they'd never tried before. Barley - familiar, yet off the beaten path as a side dish. Perfect.

And Samantha is preparing a prose performance piece for a forensics tournament, and in it, she mentions kale, so Tracy thought that would be a fun addition.

Hence, tonight's menu. (I also roasted broccoli and potatoes, to have a backup, sure thing.)

Kale with Shell Beans (p. 327)

Just to clarify right up front, Martha doesn't mean green beans, or string beans. She means the kinds of beans that we usually buy dried in bags, or canned, except that she wants us to buy them still fresh in the pod/shell. I knew this recipe was coming up, and I thought I had seen some nice shell beans at Fairway last week, but this week all I found were Fava beans. And Martha wanted me to use Cranberry/Borlotti beans. What to do? Yesterday, I swept Whole Foods and Gristede's, to no avail. So today, I was holding out for a day-of miracle.

Then, this morning, my dear friend Adinah happened to offer to take me on a Fairway Uptown run. (For those of you who live outside of NY, Fairway Uptown is in Harlem, and it's like Fairway on 74th Street, but bigger and better. At least in my memory of it. I've only been there once.) Desperate as I was to go, I had a doctor's appointment and couldn't accept her offer, but I did ask her to call me when she got there and give me the bean rundown, which she agreed to do.

She called, having found the afore-mentioned Fava beans and flat beans. A quick Google search indicated that flat beans would be close enough to what I needed. So I gave her the go-ahead and, angel that she is, she not only bought them but delivered them right to my door! Savior! I was booked so tight today, and it would have been a major burden to go fetch these, so I bow down to you, Adinah, for going A and B the C-O-D. (Above and beyond the call of duty.) I should also mention that she gave me an early birthday present of an ice cream maker, so I can make all of Martha's ice cream and sorbet recipes! THANK YOU!!!

Meanwhile, once I saw the beans, I knew I had a problem. These flat beans weren't what Google led me to believe they'd be. These are like enormous, wide, green beans. (They looked just like Roman Beans, pictured in the book on p. 302.) The beans themselves are tiny, negligible - it's the pods that are the main attraction. I didn't want to waste these beautiful beans, so I blanched and refrigerated them and the kids gobbled them up as a snack while waiting for me to finish cooking. But I was still shell beanless.

Luckily, Tracy had mentioned that her kids loved black beans, which reminded me that I had some dried ones with exactly enough time to quick soak them and use them for the recipe. So tonight's dish should be retitled: Kale with (Dried) Black Beans, and I will make this again when fresh Cranberry beans pop up. (Summer? Fall?)

Turns out, the beans cooked à la Martha are delicious, with cinnamon sticks, oregano, salt, and peppercorns. And the flavors in the dish overall are great. By the end, there's garlic, red pepper flakes, the salty beans, olive oil, and that final, bright splash of lemon juice which I always think I'm going to hate, but always love.

Let's talk about kale for a minute. First of all, I developed a trick for getting rid of the thick spines. I run the leaf through my fingers backwards, like a feather, and strip the greens off them. Like pulling the needles from a rosemary stem. Makes quick work of it.

I blanched the kale for a minute or so, so it was slightly wilted and bright green. Later, when I added the greens to the pan, they sat on the heat for quite some time, and they never turned even slightly brown or icky. Bright green and almost crunchy to the end! I was pleasantly surprised about that. Kale can take a beating and come shining through!

This dish will be a pleasure to repeat, which I will have to do because I don't think this round counts, delicious though it was.

Jeff: Incomplete
Martha: A

Barley (p. 413)

As common as barley is, my guess is that most people haven't experienced it outside of Mushroom Barley or Beef Barley Soup. At least, I hadn't.

It cooks up like rice, i.e. absorption method, 2:1 water to grain, boil, simmer and cook, cover and steam, serve. This barley steamed extra long, so it was really fluffy. I served it completely straight, so we could get the full impact of naked barley. It was fine, completely edible, even tasty, but I think some sauce, flavoring, herbs, something in there would have put it across even better. I have quite a bit left-over, so maybe I'll get creative with it.

As for Martha's instructions, as far as I could tell, they were right on. And the extra steam time didn't seem to hurt it.

Jeff: A- (for oversteaming)
Martha: A

Buttermilk Fried Chicken (p. 269)

Frying is a pain in the butt. And it's smelly. And messy. And fried food is bad for you and gives you indigestion (if you're over 35).

However, it tastes really good. Really, really good.

This adventure began last night, when I cut up a chicken (no prob to marinate the parts overnight in buttermilk with salt, cayenne, and Old Bay Seasoning, which I'd never tasted before and I was surprised to find to be pretty spicy. I wondered if this fried chicken would be too spicy for the kids....

Today, the the parts got dredged in a flour, cornmeal, more cayenne, and S+P combo, while the oil heated up in the pan. Now, here's the part of frying I hate. Regulating the temperature of the oil. I have a candy thermometer, and thank god, because how else would I ever know what the temperature is? But my oil got so hot so fast, too hot. I turn down the heat, nothing happens. I turn it down more, it drops too low. What a pain! Finally, it's 375°. Hallelujah. In goes the chicken.

Now, Martha has warned me that the temperature is going to drop a lot once the chicken goes in, and I'm supposed to do whatever it takes to keep it around 340° while the chicken is cooking. The thermometer says 290° now, and I want to turn up the heat, but I don't want to overshoot it again and burn the chicken. Plus I'm supposed to cover the pan so the chicken cooks through. I can't do all these things at the same time!?!

And then, I'm supposed to take the internal temperature of the pieces to know that they're done. So much work! And spattering all the way....

I think I turned the chicken over too soon, as the second side got quite dark and the pieces weren't cooked enough yet. I ended up turning them back to the first side, which did the trick, but my chicken ended up two steps shy of burnt.

That said, YUM! The flavor of the chicken was great! Not too spicy at all... couldn't even locate the spice. The breading was perfect, not too chunky, just a light coating with a little bit of texture. I prefer my fried food very crispy and very brown, so the almost-burnt thing was happy-making for me, but my little guests were wary, so they peeled off their skin. (The best part!?! OK, more for me!)

Like all the fried recipes I've done so far, I'm so happy to have had the experience, and I'm so happy to be done with it. I'll think I'll leave the frying to Popeye and The Colonel.

Jeff: C
(points off for bad oil management, over-browning, and whining)
Martha: A

In the end, I'd say the kids were very game. They tried everything, they were very polite and complimentary, perfect dinner guests, and I'm pretty sure that their favorite part of the meal was the blanched flat beans. Thanks again, Adinah!

Saving the best for last, I have to tell you about the incredible present that Tracy, Mark (her husband, in absentia), Sam, and Ben gave me. When they arrived, I was in a flurry of cooking, at that phase when three or four dishes are mid-process and there's no room for distractions. Why is Tracy insisting on giving me a present now, not later? Then, it occurs to me that it might be a thing I've really wanted for weeks... an apron.

And she does, in fact, whip out an apron, but not just any apron. A very special, very personalized, hysterical, absolutely genius apron, my new favorite kitchen accessory of all time, which I will wear constantly this year. Paladini's, you are the best!! (See picture below)

Until we eat again...

The Paladini's! From left to right, Ben, Tracy, and Sam

My amazing apron! Can you see what the picture is?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Day 28 - Braised Spring Vegetables and Orange-Oregano Butter

Before I launch into my stories about today's recipes, can I just say how gratifying it was to make that Panna Cotta Tart the other day?? I never make "event" food like that, so it was a little nerve-wracking, but I have to say, in the end, it was totally worth it. I'm thinking about when I can make another one!

I had plans and ideas about what I'd cook tonight and I ended up throwing them all out right at the last minute. It was going to be omelets and a salad for Alysha and me, but there I was at Whole Paycheck and I found the ever-elusive chervil, so I picked up the makings for Braised Spring Vegetables. But then I thought I needed some meat to balance it, so I bought a couple of pork chops, not knowing exactly what I'd do with them....

Braised Spring Vegetables (p. 340)

I'd been trying to make this for weeks, but I couldn't find chervil to save my life! Then, there it was yesterday, so I now own and have tasted chervil. I have to say, it's a very subtle flavor, even eaten by itself. Not nearly the punch of thyme or oregano, or even parsley.

This is one of those dishes that doesn't really come across on the page - it just seems like a bunch of onions, mushrooms, and potatoes in a brothy base. But it's actually kind of lovely and surprising.

I didn't have morels... (Morels and chervil on the same day? Not a chance.) But I did have a cute mushroom blend, which seemed to work just fine. And I bought these adorable (i.e. expensive) baby potatoes, which came in red, yellow, and my new favorite, dark purple, the last being particularly exotic, dense, and delicious.

This was the first time I was called on to use my homemade Basic Chicken Stock! And I'm sure it lent good support in the flavor department.

The interesting thing about this recipe is that after you brown the onions, add the mushrooms and potatoes, and braise them until they're tender, you then boil the crap out of it all so that the stock reduces and thickens "to a syrup." I have to confess, mine didn't get syrupy, per se, but I was very happy with the consistency. (It looked just like the photo in the book.)

Boiling something that much after it's been cooked through seems very counter-intuitive to me, because I'm always so careful not to overcook things, especially vegetables. I guess you could remove the vegetables, reduce the liquid, and add the vegetables back in at the end, but the fact is that the dish worked, even boiled to death. It was like light, vegetable comfort food, and the reduced stock ends up almost creamy. I'm sure this dish would benefit from having morels, since the dish really features the flavors of the individual ingredients, but even without, it's a lovely side, and it's not difficult to make at all.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Orange-Oregano Butter (p. 167)

This is a completely random addition, but I just bought oregano for tomorrow night's feast with the Paladini's, so I figured, What the heck?

This is one of the variations on Herbed Compound Butter, and there's something one might overlook, if one weren't as painstakingly anal as I am. Martha gives you substitutions for parsley and thyme, but she doesn't mention chives. It would be easy to make this butter without the chives, but it's my opinion that the intention is to include them. And that's what I did.

It just so happens that I was in a baking mood yesterday, and I whipped up a loaf of Black Bread, one of Martha's website recipes, but NOT in the book, I repeat, NOT in the book. The bread came out really well (cooked through - yay! - I think I've finally heard the hollow "it's done" sound). And it was really nice to have a special butter to spread on it. Making a special butter is so easy - it's a great way to personalize a meal.

Of course, Alysha tried to pick out all the orange zest. And I admit, orange zest and butter isn't my favorite flavor combo either, but still, compound butter is a nice thing.

Jeff: A
Martha: A-
(I lowered Martha's grade, because of the chive question and because I would have appreciated a suggested use for this unusual flavor combo)

Incidentally, the main course of our meal was the afore-mentioned pork chops and a spicy applesauce that I whipped up on the spot. (I felt really chef-like last night! I was improvising and everything!) Actually, I was attempting to correct a somewhat unfortunate meal I made for FNBF on Valentine's Day. It was a recipe from an older Martha book called Martha Stewart's Healthy Quick Cook, and I think there must have been a typo in the ingredient list, because it really didn't come out well that night. I'm happy to report that I have conquered that recipe now - the pork chops were cooked just right, and the spicy applesauce was great. (Who but Martha would think to put red pepper flakes and cayenne in applesauce? Shouldn't work, but does!)

I'm amazed at the strides I'm making in my cooking...

Meanwhile, pride cometh before the fall, doesn't it? Tomorrow I'm frying chicken for the Paladini's. Wish me luck!

Until we eat again...

Alysha brandishing Braised Spring Vegetables

My Black Bread!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Day 26 - Soft Cheese Omelet and Panna Cotta Tart

Today is really about a tart, but first a short detour to Eggland.

Soft Cheese Omelet (p. 89)

I made myself a new omelet variation today, and I altered things a little from Martha's original instructions, so I thought I should report.

This was a one whole egg, two egg whites omelet vs. Martha's three whole eggs, and instead of whisking them, I took the easy road and mixed them with a fork. The good news is, there was nothing sacrificed in the final product. Of course, the eggs were less rich, but all in all, it was a delicious, goat cheese omelet. (What's interesting is that I'm starting to prefer my omelets just-cooked-through, as opposed to how I always used to eat them: well-done.)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Now on to the main attraction!

Panna Cotta Tart (p. 447)

So - the dough for the crust (yesterday's Pâte Sucrée) was cooling overnight in the refrigerator. (Only later did I understand why that is so important.)

The search for the 4"x14" fluted-edge, removable-bottom tart pan was going very badly. Saturday night involved several panicked calls to Paula, and fruitless searches at Bed, Bath, and Beyond and Macy's. And Sunday morning's call to Zabar's turned up nothing. However, I did a Google search for the pan to see what I might find, and lo and behold, Williams-Sonoma sells one, so I called over to the Columbus Circle location, and my savior, Jenna, had one and promised to throw her body on top of it until I could get there to purchase it. Which she did and I did. Phew!

Back home to roll out the dough and get it into the tart pan. Here's why dough needs to cool: because it's all butter and if you don't do what you need to do with it in about ten seconds, it starts getting warm, i.e. really droopy.

I've floured my counter and I'm rolling out the dough, but I don't have a lot of experience with rolling dough, so it's taking me a while. Eventually I get it to the right-ish dimensions, and when I try to pick it up to mold it in the pan, it's not cooperating at all! Completely stuck to the counter. So I had to get a spatula and unstick it (time-consuming but effective) and I eventually got it in the pan. (n.b. Paula says that if you flip the dough to get some flour onto both sides of it as you're rolling it out, this is less likely to happen.)

The nice thing about Pâte Sucrée is that it's forgiving enough that you can do a little patchwork with it, and no one's the wiser. So I mushed a little here, I mushed a little there, and ultimately I had a cute little crust going. (See picture below.) Martha recommends something called "docking," which involves piercing the bottom of the crust all over with a fork, to keep the dough from puffing during baking.

Then, into the fridge to get cold again. (Maybe it browns too fast if it's not cold when it goes in the oven...)

I took this opportunity to run out and get some dried beans, which I needed for the next step.

Blind-baking is something I'd never experienced before, probably because I've never made anything as adorable and labor-intensive as Panna Cotta Tart. It involves baking the crust by itself, lined with parchment and filled with pie weights (or dried beans) to preserve the shape of the finished crust. (No wonder these kinds of pastries are expensive to buy! So many steps!)

About 2/3 of the way through the blind-baking, you remove the parchment and the beans and let the crust brown. Then you take it out and let it cool. Normally, you'd remove it from the tart pan at this point, but I left mine in the pan so it could travel the 8 blocks to Felix and Eric's groovy apartment, unscathed. (FNBF is friends with Paula, who is friends with Laura, who went to college with Felix, whose partner is Eric.) By the way, if you're making this tart, you should know that my crust shrunk a bit while baking, so I think it's normal for it to end up a little smaller than the pan.

Now to make the panna cotta... What IS panna cotta anyway? It translates as cooked cream, but in this case, it's a little misleading. The majority of this cream is whole milk yogurt. (I wonder if this would work with that fat-free Greek yogurt? Hmmm...) And instead of butter as a thickener, which I guess is typical, Martha uses gelatin here. The other ingredients are heavy cream, a vanilla bean, sugar, and salt. With very easy-to-follow directions, the filling comes together quickly. Then you pour it in the pastry shell and refrigerate. I'm very aware of the vanilla seeds in the cream. Is this going to taste too vanilla-y, I wonder?

When I went to put it in the fridge, I got a crash course in how not level those shelves are... the cream was rolling all over the crust, and I thought I might have ruined the look of the tart, but it recovered. I finally found a level shelf (the top one), and by the time we were ready to leave for dinner, it was completely set and quite cute.

I brought some berries along to macerate "on site." Martha's recipe suggests cherries, but those aren't in season, so I substituted blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries.

Meanwhile, we feast on Paula's masterworks, from a wide range of cookbooks and inspirations, none of them Martha. But all of it amazing! Get this: Puff Pastries topped with Duck Liver Paté and Fig wrapped in Prosciutto, Salad of Leeks with Candied Walnuts and some kind of Bleu-ish Cheese, Rack of Lamb with fancy crust, Sautéed Swiss Chard, and Potatoes au Gratin. Every course was outrageously great, and Paula is very inspiring in how laid-back and confident she is as a cook, trouble-shooting with ease, nothing ruffles her feathers... unlike me, jittery, obsessive, stressed! I could learn from her....

After eating the main course, I excused myself to macerate (i.e. toss berries with lime juice and sugar to break them down a little bit). I had suggested to Paula that she bring a dessert, just in case I had a Panna Cotta Tart Melt-Down, and she made a killer flourless chocolate cake with whipped cream. Which was wonderful served next to...

Panna Cotta Tart!!

It actually came out! I have to say, I LOVED this dessert. And that's saying a lot, because I never like cream-filled anything. The crust was great (it seemed so thin when I was making it, but on the plate, seemed much thicker), and the cream filling tasted almost like cheesecake, in the best possible way. :-) Not too vanilla-y at all. And the berries on top were a perfect complement. Wow! That was somewhat of a chore to make, but completely worth it!! Martha, you came through big-time!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again...

Here's my uncooked crust with lots of docking holes.

Here's my blind baked crust, with the "pie weight" beans alongside.

Here's my beautiful little baby, covered with berries!

From left, clockwise, that's Eric, FNBF, Laura, Felix, and Iron Chef Paula Curtz.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Day 25 - Pâte Sucrée

Remember FNBF's BFF, Paula? She's the gourmet diva who was over with my friend, Tracy, for the Poached Chicken and Spring Vegetable Salad? Well, Paula has invited us to her Easter Feast, which she is preparing at her friend, Felix's house. Typically a menu tyrant, Paula is relaxing her standards and allowing me to bring a project dessert. (She stopped at Barnes and Noble to peek at the book and see which desserts she thinks will fit with her meal.)

Of her choices, I've picked Panna Cotta Tart, which will be tomorrow's entry (e.g assuming we can find that rare and elusive 4x14 fluted tart pan with the removable bottom that Martha says we need). In the meantime, we can make the dough for the crust for the recipe the night before!

Pâte Sucrée (p. 445)

Knowing that these crusts from scratch were coming up, I cajoled FNBF into bringing over his state-of-the-art food processor the other day, and just in the nick of time, too, because it made quick work of this dough recipe. The whole thing came together in about a minute!

Flour, salt, sugar, pulse, pulse, pulse, butter, mix for 10 seconds, egg yolks, pulse, pulse, water, mix for 20 seconds, mush into rectangles, wrap in Saran, the end.

It's a double recipe, so now I have my dough for the tart and more dough for some other goodie!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Tomorrow, I'll blind bake for the first time! Wheee!

Until we eat again...

Day 24 - Sautéed Pork Medallions and How to Make Pork Medallions

Just in case you might think I'm an observant Jew because of my Matzo Ball Soup from yesterday, today's meal ought to dispel any false impressions: Pork for Passover!

I've been eying this recipe for a while. It seemed simple yet delicious. And although I've been a bacon-lover all my life, I have very little experience with "the other white meat."

Buying a pork tenderloin feels like a sort of rite of passage. Pork tenderloin isn't something you pick up for the heck if it. Even a steak can be a casual supermarket buy. "I'll just throw it in a pan and see what happens." But when you buy a pork tenderloin, you'd better have some plans. Which I did.

How to Make Pork Medallions (p. 115)

First stop on the road to this dish is turning the tenderloin into medallions. There was a small amount of clean up involved, removing the "silver" skin-like stuff and trimming a bit of fat, but this meat is amazingly lean. Then, it's just about slicing and pounding, and this meat is so malleable that all one need do is smush it with one's palm between two pieces of plastic wrap. So easy, and sort of fun. Why haven't I ever tried this before?

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Sautéed Pork Medallions (p. 256)

Once started, the cooking of this dish happens rather quickly, so like a good little cook, I had all my tools and ingredients laid out, pre-measured, and ready to go. The spatter factor is a big issue when cooking the medallions (in olive oil). I'm guessing there's no way around it, so just embrace the mess and know that a complete stove-top clean-up is in your future.

The medallions cooked easily in two batches. I think my medallions might have been a little thicker than prescribed. (Martha suggests between 1/8 to 1/4 inch, and I'm guessing mine were closer to 1/3. Am I crazy or did they puff up in the refrigerator waiting to be used? I thought I had made them thinner...)

Once the pork is cooked, the sauce gets made. Into the pan goes butter, thinly sliced shallots, raisins, and diced apple. (Marcy was very impressed with my "perfect" dice.) Here's the part where I get confused, because this stuff often takes me longer than Martha thinks it should. I wonder if my heat levels are off. She thought the apple should get brown and tender in four minutes, and it took almost double that, with me raising the temperature bit by bit. I used a Fuji apple, which I've noticed takes quite a beating before it starts to break down, so that might be an explanation....

The pan deglazed so easily, maybe even too easily. I used my stainless steel stick pan, i.e. not a non-stick pan, so I thought I'd get some crazy bits, but turns out stainless steel isn't that sticky either. (Deglazing is using liquid to dissolve the browned bits that are stuck to the bottom of the pan after cooking something, in this case, the pork. The bits are very flavorful, and you want to dissolve them and incorporate them into the sauce. Smart, right?)

Once the apples were cooked to my satisfaction, I added the brandy (again, took twice as long to reduce as Martha predicted) and then, the cream (also, twice as long to thicken), and finally it ended with the sage "ribbons" and the S+P 500 to taste.

Marcy, who is the least likely person to take to this dish, was really into it! As was I. It was delicious. Creamy, yet light. Sweet and savory, my favorite combination. Unlike my mother, I love meat dishes that incorporate fruit.

The pork was cooked just right, perfectly tender and slightly browned. And the sauce is a Martha special, in that it reveals itself in layers: the brandy a far-off but important note, the sage bright and dominant, the shallots tangy, the fruit sweet, and the cream smooth.

While I thoroughly enjoyed and devoured this dish, I don't think this will become a regular in my repertoire. Though it is delicious and light for a creamy dish, there's something in my DNA that still says cream sauce is a no-no. I am, however, interested in the possibilities of pork. And I'm looking forward to tackling the other pork recipes to come!

Jeff: A- half a grade off for confusion around the temperatures and thickening time
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Friday, April 10, 2009

Day 23 - Matzo Ball Soup, Roasted Sweet Potatoes, and How to Cut up a Chicken

Happy Passover! It would be ridiculous not to take the opportunity to make Martha's Matzo Ball Soup on Passover, right? Meanwhile, though Jewish I am, religious I am not. So there is no seder to which to bring this soup, just a goyishe (i.e. gentile) boyfriend to feed. This is my first shot at Martha's Chicken Soup recipe, not to mention my first attempt at matzo balls from scratch. Wheee!

How to Cut up a Chicken (p. 110)

So remember my trip to Costco a couple of weekends ago? One of my purchases was a frozen chicken duo. And I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to use one. I didn't have enough time to defrost it the "right" way (in the fridge) or the patience to do it the "still OK" way (in a succession of cold water baths). I left it on the counter in the morning and hoped it would thaw in time. Which it didn't. When I went to cut it up, it was still a little icy in the middle, but not terrible.

The cutting-up-the-chicken tutorial is very good and very clear. It helps to have eaten enough chickens to know what the anatomy is, where the joints are, what the pieces look like when butchered professionally. In my excitement to finish the lesson, I ended up cutting it into too many pieces (I halved each breast when I should have left them whole). But I don't think that had any effect on the outcome. And this was good practice for the fried chicken I'm going to be making next week for Tracy and her kids!!

From an economical standpoint, knowing how to cut up a chicken is valuable because whole chickens have the lowest per pound price. It doesn't take that long, and it's so straightforward that I almost think I could do it without the instructions next time. Yet another empowering lesson from Martha Stewart. :-)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Matzo Ball Soup (p. 46)

I'm not going to lie. This recipe involved pretty much every pot and bowl that I own. But hang in there. It's worth it!!

It starts out normal enough. Throw the chicken pieces and a variety of veggies and herbs into a big stock pot with water. (I threw in the giblets minus the liver and the whole back of the chicken too. I figured, why not?) Boil, then simmer until the pieces are cooked, which happens pretty quickly, between 7-15 minutes. Remove pieces now, so that the chicken isn't overcooked, take meat off the bone, and put bones back in. Simmer for another hour.

See, I never knew that you could overcook chicken in the pot. I thought that the longer it sat in there, the moister it would get. Strangely, the chicken meat I pulled off the bone seemed quite dry and flavorless. Was it that it had been frozen? Hmmm...

In the normal chicken soup recipe, this meat is reserved so it can be added back into the soup later, but Matzo Ball Soup doesn't include it. So while the soup was simmering, I decided to do something with it. To compensate for the dryness and flavorlessness, I turned it into a curry chicken salad, not a Martha recipe, a Jeff recipe, which involves mayo, curry powder, celery and raisins. FYI, I tried an Alice Waters olive oil mayo recipe for the chicken salad, and it just doesn't hold a candle to Martha's mayo.

Back to the soup:

Once the stock is done, you put it through a sieve. This is the step that always shocks me. All those vegetables getting thrown away! (I was raised in a house where you wasted nothing!) The truth is, those vegetables have been sapped of all goodness, so they are, in effect, garbage. But it feels like a crime to chuck all those beautiful chunks of carrot and parsnips and celery...

Now that you have clear broth, you can start making the matzo balls. The thing that makes these matzo balls magical is that the eggs get separated. The yolks go into a bowl with chicken fat, stock, parsley and matzo meal. And the egg whites get whipped hard (to stiff peaks) and then stirred into the matzo meal mixture, which gets refrigerated for 30 minutes. See, there's all this air puffed into the matzo balls! How brilliant is that?! We're so used to those dense, heavy, impenetrable matzo balls, but these are not even in the same galaxy!

Meanwhile, you have two pots on the stove, one is heating a watered-down, salted-up stock for cooking the matzo balls, the other is the soup broth, which is getting reheated with carrot "coins" added.

The matzo balls cook to perfection! Salty, flavorful, and brilliantly light! And the broth is a total work of art!! All those vegetables and bones and chicken leave behind the brightest, clearest flavors, honestly like nothing you've ever eaten. There was a sweetness to this broth that blew us away. (Parsnips? Carrots?) The carrot coins are so simple but so delicious, just barely tender. This simple-looking bowl of soup, which used every pot in my kitchen (Oy, the cleanup!) was the most delicious and complex taste sensation you can imagine. Heaven!

Who would have thought that a shiksa like Martha Stewart would have the quintessential recipe for Matzo Ball Soup?

There are two other chicken soup recipes to go, the original and a Spring Vegetables variation. I can't wait to make them!!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Roasted Sweet Potatoes (p. 313)

Yup, still roasting vegetables. Again, a fabulous result. They browned perfectly, cut into spears. (Martha asked for wedges, but we didn't know what she meant so we went for spears.)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

FYI, I also roasted a chayote squash, one of my favorite vegetables, not mentioned in the book. The chayote is very watery, so it probably didn't need to be roasted as long as I roasted it (20 minutes). But like every vegetable I've used, it tastes great in the roaster!

Straight A's again!

What is the nice Jewish boy cooking tonight? Why, Pork Medallions, of course. :-)

Until we eat again...

FNBF said it was the best he'd ever had...

The chef and his Balls

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Day 21 - Quinoa

I know, I know... after an entry so chock-full it couldn't even fit in the title space, today I make just Quinoa? Well, I still have leftovers to eat. And I wanted to make something! (Speaking of leftovers, those mashed potatoes were just as amazing the second time around. Not sure, but I think it must be the garlic or the potatoes themselves - I used too little butter and cream to be swept away by that.)

Quinoa (p. 413)

Does everyone know what Quinoa is? I got tight with Quinoa back during my vegetarian days in the 80's and 90's. Then we lost touch for a while but got reacquainted last year when I got parasites and went on some crazy diet that a homeopath prescribed (it didn't work - don't ask).

Quinoa is famous for being a "perfect" grain, in that it has the most complete protein of them all. If you haven't tried it, you should pick some up in the bulk section at your local health food store. It's cool just to experience a grain other than rice.

And quinoa is pretty unusual. First off, it looks like a little disk with a tiny ribbon around it. And then, it has a unique taste that would be difficult to describe. (The closest I could come is to say that it tastes like it definitely comes from the earth, like slightly bitter plant life.) By the way, it's pronounced keen-wah.

Just like millet, Martha's instructions diverge significantly from the package's cooking directions. The package wants me to use a 2:1 ratio, water to grain, boil first, then simmer for 12 minutes, remove from the heat and let steam for 15 minutes, then fluff and serve. Martha wants me to toast for 2 minutes, use a 1.5:1 ratio, and boil then simmer for 10-15 minutes and serve.

I love pitting Martha against the package - sort of like Iron Chef America or a Quinoa Throwdown.

First of all, toasting for two minutes doesn't seem to change much. I've toasted grains until they were seriously browned, and that you notice. Also, I'm used to making quinoa with chicken stock, so using just barely salted water is a switch.

After ten minutes of simmering, the quinoa isn't remotely absorbed. Even after 15 minutes, it's still pretty wet. Around 18 minutes, the quinoa was dry enough to eat, and I served it up, no steaming, no fluffing. And I have to say, it tasted pretty great! I don't know if it was the brief toasting, the pinch of salt, or the quinoa itself, but it was cooked very well and seemed unusually flavorful, even sharing a plate with such strong-flavored foods as a salmon burger and my killer mashed potatoes.

I'm going to have to call this one for Martha!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Day 20 - Pan-Seared Strip Steak with Mustard Cream Sauce, Steamed Artichokes with Tarragon Butter, Mashed Potatoes, and Oven-Poached Garlic with Thyme

Again, my title was cut off by Blogspot's space limitation...

Officially, the title of this entry is:

Day 20 - Pan-Seared Strip Steak with Mustard Cream Sauce, Steamed Artichokes with Tarragon Butter, Mashed Potatoes, Oven-Poached Garlic with Thyme, Roasted Parsnips, and Roasted Turnips

It's exciting to knock out six things in one night, even if it means cooking like a chicken with my head cut off. :-)

I'm exaggerating. This wasn't even that hard. I'm definitely getting better at masterminding the overview. Even with FNBF's erratic and can-change-at-the-last-minute arrival times.

I'm going to describe these in the order I started cooking them.

Oven-Poached Garlic with Thyme (p. 306)

This was a last-minute addition, and luckily I had all the ingredients. I was conceiving a very crude version of mashed potatoes for this meal, a variation that Martha offers at the end of a recipe for a much more refined Potato Puree. In the puree recipe, the garlic gets boiled with the potatoes, but this oven poaching sounded much more flavorful! A whole head of garlic and sprigs of thyme poached in olive oil?? Please... that sounds amazing! And it is. The garlic slides out like toothpaste, and it's deluxe. And I got some flavored oil in the bargain!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Steamed Artichokes with Tarragon Butter (p. 296)

I saw the piles of artichokes at Fairway again, and I thought, why not? Turns out, steaming them is a breeze. The artichoke prep that Martha prescribes is super-easy and effective. Then, you just pop them in the steamer, and when they're almost done, make some Tarragon Butter, and voilà! I think it's worth mentioning that these sat in the steamer a bit longer than Martha indicated. (I started them too early.) But there was no visible consequence. They seemed cooked just right.

My only questions is: Why a sprig of tarragon in the steamer water, Martha? Does that really make a difference?

Also, I must confess, I've never understood the allure of the artichoke. All that work, peeling off leaf after leaf (or are they called petals?). The heart is a nice reward, but by the time we got there, our butter was congealed.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Roasted Parsnips (p. 313)

I don't have a lot of experience with parsnips. I've put them in soups, knowing they'd somehow deepen the stock, but I'd never tasted one out in the open. What a nice surprise! They're rather sweet and delicious. FNBF described them as a cross between a sweet potato and a turnip. I'd throw carrot in there too. Great for roasting, by the way. I'll do this again for company, just to give people the experience of eating something unusual.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Roasted Turnips (p. 313)

These, on the other hand, were not my favorite, although FNBF gave them a thumbs up. There must not be as much natural sugar in these as in parsnips, as they were more in the bitter camp. If you like turnips, you will like them roasted, but I think I'm not a turnip lover. (However, I did LOVE the Glazed Turnips recipe from Day One.)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Mashed Potatoes (p. 309)

These were amazing, if I may say so myself. As I said above, the recipe in the book is quite refined, involving peeling, pureeing, infusing cream with rosemary. And I WILL do that at some point. But for tonight, I wanted something more casual, more bistro. :-) So I left the skins on, I popped in some of that amazing oven-poached garlic, I mashed it with a fork and added a surprisingly small amount of cream and butter, and they were to-die. Who knew it was so easy to make mashed potatoes? Why would anyone ever buy flakes??

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Pan-Seared Strip Steak with Mustard Cream Sauce (p. 257)

First of all, there were no strip steaks at Fairway, so I asked the butcher there, and he directed me to the shell steaks saying they were the same thing. (A quick Google search confirms this.)

I don't eat steaks a lot, and I was using my cast-iron Emeril skillet for the first time (sorry, Martha), so I was very excited for this assignment. Worth noting: Butter gets melted in the skillet before the steaks go in. The steaks are handled with tongs (so as to avoid piercing them with a fork and losing juices, I'm guessing.) The steaks didn't seem to be getting cooked through on the second side, so I flipped them one extra time. I could have cooked them longer, but we were happy with our donenesses. (I'm pretty sure that's not a word, but you know what I mean.) The mustard cream sauce tasted great! No sign of the vermouth that makes up a large portion of it. Just great flavor, great texture from the cast-iron surface. Good stuff, Martha!!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Wow, Martha and I both got straight A's today! :-)

Until we eat again...

FNBF with the bistro feast before him

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Day 19 - I'm a star!

Some of you may have noticed that logo off to the right - the one that labels my blog as a member of The Friends of Martha Blog Network. Well, The FOMBN has just started a weekly feature which highlights one of the member blogs, and Jeff and Martha was chosen to be featured first!

Check out my e-interview with FOMBN founder, Kenn. Also, check out Kenn's cool blog, House Blend.

While I'm discussing The FOMBN, I also want to give props to another member blog, Martha and Me, by Brette Sember. She focuses on recipes and projects featured on Martha' s TV show and in Martha's magazines, and I've lost many an hour delving into her accounts of giving herself, her family, and her home a "Martha makeover."

FYI, I'm back from Florida, and my kitchen is up and running once more!

Until we eat again...