Thursday, May 28, 2009

Day 71 - Chicken Soup with Spring Vegetables and Leek Frisée

After a wonderful, long weekend in Santa Fe with FNBF, I awoke with a sore throat, which deepened to a full-blown cold by the time I got on the plane. 3000 tissues later, I got back to my apartment late on Tuesday, where I've been holed up ever since, only leaving long enough to get the ingredients for this remedy recipe. I had plans with my cousin Harriet tonight, but I didn't want to cancel because seeing Harriet always makes me feel better. So I invited her over for soup.

Chicken Soup with Spring Vegetables (p. 45)

This is a variation on the basic Chicken Soup recipe. Funny that I've done the variations first, without having done the main recipe, the other variation being Matzo Ball Soup.

Harriet is a Reiki healer, the president of her synagogue, and a domestic goddess from East Brunswick, NJ, and she has made her share of chicken soups. She's always subscribed to the belief that to cook a successful chicken soup, one must boil for hours and hours. She's curious to try the sparkly Martha soup, simmered for merely a fraction of the time. She's skeptical, so I'm intent on doing Martha proud.

The recipe is very straightforward - it's the old standards: carrot, onion, celery, parsnip, parsley, etc. However, this time, instead of putting in fresh carrot and parsnips at the end, you put in a different array of veggies, specifically peas, green beans, and watercress.

I made a couple of small changes to Martha's recipe. It seems as if she intends for you to either discard or save the back of the chicken, but I added it to the pot. Also, my understanding is that this variation is to be served without adding the cooked chicken, but I wanted that chicken in there, so I put it in.

Because my taste buds are out of whack with this cold, I had to trust Harriet that it tasted good, because I knew I was only tasting a fraction of its flavor. Harriet loved it! She said that she could understand my description of this soup as "sparkly," how fresh it tasted. I think that because there was no extra added carrot at the end, as in the Matzo Ball Soup, this broth didn't end up as sweet as the Matzo Ball Soup broth did. The peas and beans and watercress gave it a very specific flavor, which was delicious, but not as sweet and sparkly as I remember the Matzo Ball Soup being. Harriet and I were fascinated how the heat of the soup tamed the watercress. We were expecting its bitterness to overwhelm, but it didn't at all.

The only thing I missed in this soup was color. It was all green and beige. I think some carrots would have gone a long way....

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Leek Frisée (p. 75)

Here's another one of Martha's soup add-ons. This was the only one that seemed like a decent match for this soup.

I had a bit of a disaster while trying to make this. I got the oil all hot (300°) in a small saucepan, just like Martha said, but when I put a handful of julienned leeks in there, the oil basically exploded, bubbling over the top of the pot and spilling all over my range. Not a small amount, roughly a cup of oil, lying in the well around the burners. Ugh. So I cleaned that up and tried again.

I think my leek explosion happened because the leeks I added were still a little wet, so it was probably the water in there that reacted to the hot oil. I dried the rest of the leeks, and the oil behaved after that. It still bubbled up when I put the leeks in, but not as much. Also, the oil line was much lower at that point, so less likely to overflow.

These didn't drain that well on paper, so they ended up somewhat oily. They sort of reminded me of Durkee's Fried Onions, only more refined. When added to the soup, they softened up and disappeared in the broth. There was nothing lost by adding them, but I'm not sure there was anything gained.

I have a feeling this would be better paired with a soup that has more body, like a pureed soup. If added to that kind of soup, the leek frisée would sit on top as an interesting texture, retaining some of its crunch, unlike here, where they got soggy immediately.

Probably won't try this again. I hate frying.

Jeff: B (For the Exxon Valdez moment)
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

My Cousin Harriet, first Kazouist of the East Brunswick Orchestra, with the soup and the leek frisée

Friday, May 22, 2009

Day 65 - Red Wine Vinaigrette, Pureed Mixed Vegetable Soup, Frico, Pan-Seared Steak with Balsamic Sauce, and Poached Apricots

I'm leaving tomorrow for Memorial Day weekend to visit FNBF on location in New Mexico, which is great! But it leaves me kitchenless and cooking-free for five whole days! How can I live without my Martha?? I'd better cram in five recipes before I go!

It's another Marcy veggie special, but I threw a steak in there for myself.

Red Wine Vinaigrette (p. 357)

This is the last of the vinaigrettes, the only one to be made in a blender. Interesting... I liked the idea of macerating a crushed garlic clove in the vinaigrette and then discarding it. It's just enough garlic to provide flavor but not overwhelm.

This is SUPER easy. I kept the blender on the lowest setting, and poured in the oil in a slow stream, as directed, and it worked perfectly. Who would have thought that this dressing would turn out yellow? I was expecting something very red, but then I always think red wine vinegar is going to look like balsamic. It doesn't. It's quite light.

This is going to get a LOT of play in my life, especially if I need to make a lot of dressing at one time. Easy, fast, and delicious!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Pureed Mixed Vegetable Soup (p. 67)

This is the main event tonight, at least for Marcy. (I have a steak coming.) Marcy wants hers dairy-free, but I'm going whole hog, or whole cow. I didn't put cream in hers, but I forgot to tell her about the butter. Oops.

This is another very straightforward recipe, although there's a small detail missing in the book. The recipe begins with onions and garlic being sautéed in butter, and Martha says to coarsely chop the onions, but for the garlic, she merely says “peeled.” I doubt she wants me to throw the clove in there, whole, so I coarsely chopped the garlic, too. Martha, care to specify?

Martha says you can use chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water as the base of this soup. I opted for half chicken stock and half water.

This cooks up quite quickly, and pureeing it makes for a nice velvety texture. I ended up adding all the reserved liquid back in at the end, but I like the technique of putting it aside to use only if needed.

The one thing I didn't care for in this soup was the taste of very-cooked broccoli. I like my broccoli barely-cooked; if it goes too long, as I think it did here, it gets that hospital-food smell and flavor. Marcy's plain version was just a little less tasty than mine, to which I had added cream and extra salt. (It’s amazing how significantly even a small amount of cream can enrich a soup.)

All in all, this is a very respectable, hearty, veggie soup.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Frico (p. 75)

Martha has a whole page of soup add-ons, sweet little touches to fancy up your soup presentation, and I thought I’d do one tonight.

Frico was the name of a restaurant that used to be on the corner of 43rd and 8th, where Esca is now. Their specialty was this eponymous Italian delicacy: fried cheese, crisped in the oven and served almost like a flat bread. Unbelievably delicious. All the great taste of cheese, with a lot of the naughtiness (i.e. fat) cooked out of it, and with an amazing, crispy texture.

Martha’s version involves creating lacy circles of grated parmesan on a silicone baking mat and baking it for a few minutes. Next – get this! – you peel them up while still hot and press them into the molds on a mini-muffin pan, where they harden. What could be cuter than delicate, little, fried cheese cups??

Again, Martha scores big with an easy, delicious, and elegant touch.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Pan-Seared Steak with Balsamic Sauce (p. 259)

Here’s a variation on the Pan-Seared Strip Steak with Mustard Cream Sauce, which I absolutely loved. It would be hard to top this sauce, or even compete with it. It was perfection.

Couldn’t find strip steak, so I tried a different cut, sirloin tip, which was a definite disappointment. When I do the last variation, I will hold out for strip steak again.

This sauce couldn’t be simpler. After removing the steak from the pan, you pour some balsamic vinegar in there, deglaze, add butter, and serve, with a rosemary sprig garnish.

What a surprise! This sauce was incredible! I never thought this would taste like anything, but now I can’t wait until I can do this again! This is a must-try for anyone who can’t be bothered with complicated recipes. Fabulous! Even Marcy tasted it and loved it!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Poached Apricots (p. 490)

I wish you could have seen Marcy’s eyes as I poured all three cups of sugar into the pan… “You know, fruit has a lot of sugar in it already,” she said cheerily, hoping to get me to hold back on some of the sugar. Silly girl, doesn’t she know I’m doing this by the book? Literally?

The traditional apricots at Whole Foods were terribly unripe, but I noticed another kind of apricot with dark red skin, called Red Blush, and these were riper, so I bought them. They are absolutely beautiful! A little more expensive, but worth it for the novelty. They taste just like apricots, but they look more like plums. And when you poach them? Gorgeous! They stain the poaching liquid a bright pinkish red!

Speaking of the poaching liquid, it’s amazing. It’s a syrup, with a sugar and water base, a bit of lemon peel, a cinnamon stick, and some sliced, fresh ginger. Flavor galore! The apricots come out tart, sweet, spicy, zingy, citrus-y, ginger-y – like the lemon sorbet, there’s almost too much flavor per square inch. Perhaps a nice simple vanilla ice cream could calm these down....

Martha suggests mixing some of the syrup, post-poaching, with seltzer water for a refreshing spritzer, which of course I had to try. The syrup is so heavy that it requires some serious stirring to incorporate. The flavor is a little weird for a spritzer, almost too complex. (I think it’s the ginger that put me off.) But I want to use the syrup to make some sorbet. That should be amazing!

Jeff: A
Martha: A
Red Blush Apricots: A

That’s my creamed-up soup on the right, and Marcy’s darker, plain version on the left. And a plate of fricos!!

Bad steak, great sauce!

Are these BEAUTIFUL or what??!!

No new entries for a while! I'm on a cooking break! Catch you next week-

Until we eat again....

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Day 62 - Gnocchi with Basil Pesto, Basil Pesto, and Individual Chocolate Soufflés

To look at him, you'd never guess that my friend David is a psychopathic eater.

OK, maybe psychopathic is a strong word, but really he has some crazy eating rituals. First of all, he subscribes to that exercise-world concept of six meals a day, which he eats religiously, hungry or not. Add to that the fact that most of these meals are identical every day, i.e. the same broiled chicken and brown rice every day at 2PM, the same omelet every day at 11PM, etc.

However, after 41 of those meals each week, there comes what David calls his "cheat meal." This is when he allows himself to eat anything and everything he wants. Anything. And everything. This could mean three sundaes in a row, a bucket of fried chicken, a large pepperoni pizza, or all of the above. Usually, it's all of the above. This meal makes up for all the discipline and flavorlessness of the 41 meals leading up to it.

And tonight, David assigned his cheat meal to me and my cooking. Do you realize what a burden this is? I have to cook things rich and naughty and delicious enough to be worthy of the hallowed cheat meal! Here goes....

Gnocchi with Basil Pesto (p. 376)

Who doesn't love gnocchi? This is one of the ultimate comfort foods in my book. 22 years ago, I remember watching my girlfriend at the time (Karen, the one who taught me how to scramble eggs) make them. And about 20 years ago, I tried to make them myself using sweet potatoes. (Failure - too wet. I should try that again....) So this is a gnocchi homecoming.

Martha makes a big deal out of specifying that russet potatoes are the perfect and only ones for this recipe, so imagine my disappointment when Fairway has no potatoes labeled "russet." However, a quick Google search on my phone indicates that russet potatoes are also known as Idaho potatoes, i.e. your average baking potato, which Fairway has in spades. What did we do before phones with internet access??

So, I boiled the potatoes unpeeled and was fascinated to see how easy they were to peel after having been cooked! The skin slides right off. I put them through my food mill (Martha said to use a ricer, but I don't have one), and then I spread them on a baking sheet to cool. Once cooled, I mixed in the egg, flour, and salt and kneaded. The dough came together pretty quickly, and I used all the extra flour she said I might need to get it to be smooth and elastic. In fact, I always think my doughs are too sticky and I end up adding too much flour, so even though I also thought this dough was on the sticky side and wanted to add even more flour, I resisted and left it alone.

Next came the rolling and the shaping, which was well described in the book and easy to do. The only thing I'd add is that when shaping the gnocchi, I found that the dough was sticking to my fingers and the fork, so every so often, I would dip my thumb and the fork into some flour to keep it from sticking to the gnocchi, which was very effective.

Eventually, I had two trays of sweet little baby dumplings. (For the record, I halved the recipe, which is supposed to serve 8-10 people. Knowing it was David's cheat day, I figured we could probably polish off a serving for 4-5 people.)

All that was left was cooking them, which took almost no time, even less than the two minutes Martha predicted. You know they're done when they float. Unlike the ravioli from last week which floated right away, these sink to the bottom of the pot at first, but within a minute, they're floating and asking to be removed.

Drained and tossed with pesto, I have to say, I don't think these could have been better. Martha mentions that getting the texture of the dough just right is tricky and takes some experience, and that it's easy to end up with dense and rubbery gnocchi, or gnocchi that fall apart in the water... But these were perfection. I honestly don't think there's any way anyone could improve on the gnocchi that I served tonight. A bold statement, I know, but that's how great they were.

Obviously I can never make gnocchi again, because I stumbled into some weird wormhole where this challenging thing came really easily to me. But hallelujah! If all else fails, cheat meal was worth it for the gnocchi!

Jeff: A+
Martha: A

Basil Pesto (p. 379)

This recipe necessitated the purchase of a mortar and pestle, which I happened to find at Ikea the other day! Martha says you can make it in the food-processor, but it will be sweeter-tasting if you grind it. And I want the sweeter-tasting version.

I like the concept of boiling the garlic beforehand, which really does mellow the flavor. I had a mishap with my pine nuts (I overtoasted them and had to throw them out and start over), but eventually I was ready to mort and pest. (FYI, evidently the name "pesto" comes from the tool used to make it.)

It is definitely more time-consuming to grind it this way. My mortar isn't very big, so I had to add the basil and pine nuts a little at a time. But eventually, I got there, and while I can't say that it tasted appreciably sweeter than your average pesto, I will say it tasted damn good! I'm using a slightly upgraded olive oil, and I think that may be making a difference, too.

This tastes great with the gnocchi, and you really don't need a lot of sauce to deliver a ton of flavor.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Individual Chocolate Soufflés (p. 460)

These were supposed to be the cheat-meal pièces de résistance, the lure that would make it worthwhile for David to cheat for a home-cooked meal. I know he's a sucker for a rich, chocolate dessert, and since Martha describes these soufflés as molten chocolate cake's "more refined cousin," I thought they'd be a shoo-in. (Incidentally, David brought me two beautiful white ramekins as a gift, to fill out my collection. Thanks, David!)

I have to confess, I've made chocolate soufflés recently. To celebrate my friend Marcia's birthday, a group of us took her to a private cooking class at Epicurean School of Culinary Arts in LA. We all divided up to make several courses, and my course was chocolate soufflés (see me at left, with batter). Since I had done this just a few months ago, I wasn't particularly daunted by the task.

One thing Martha was asking me to do that I know I didn't do the last time was to create these parchment "collars" for the ramekins. I guess they guide the soufflé to rise within bounds, but this seems a little like overkill. Also, Martha insisted that I put the ramekins in the freezer before filling. Hmmm.

By the time I finished making the soufflé batter, I have to say EVERY pot, utensil, and dish in my house was dirty. I should have taken a picture of it because it was CRAZY!

So, everything went fine, the eggs got separated, the yolks got tempered, the chocolate got melted, the egg whites got whipped into stiff peaks, the ramekins got filled, etc. And the soufflés rose! They did exactly what they were supposed to do.


As beautiful as these soufflés were, they were off. The flavor of the batter was great. Very chocolatey, nice and dark, just enough sweetness. But the consistency was wrong. Yes, it was fluffy and light, but it was cooked all the way through! Martha says "chewy exterior and warm, puddinglike center," and this was neither of those things. Instead of chewy, this top was downright delicate, and the soufflé was evenly cooked throughout. No pudding whatsoever.

I have a theory about why this happened. I've been using the convection feature on my oven. If you don't know what convection is, imagine that your oven gets hot in the same way, but instead of the heat just coming directionally from the heating coils, a convection oven blows a fan that spreads the heat around evenly, so everything cooks at the same temperature at all times.

It occurred to me that maybe soufflés depend on directional heat. Maybe the tops needed the heat beating down on them, and maybe the lower part of the ramekins needed less heat so they could stay puddingy. Can anyone corroborate or add their own theory? I'm curious to know where I went wrong.

In the end, the soufflés were more than edible - delicious, even. But not really soufflés at all. More like moist, puffy chocolate cake-ettes.

Not worthy of a cheat meal. :-(

Jeff: C-
Martha: A

I must add that David ate a ton more than I mentioned here. Not only did he have two and a half bowls of gnocchi and a soufflé, but he also had a slice of yesterday's pork loin and several portions each of Lemon Sorbet and Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream!

He is not one to waste a cheat meal!!

Until we eat again....

David was kind enough to pose with the pork loin that never got photographed on Day 61

Monday, May 18, 2009

Day 61 - Roasted Pork Loin

My apartment is still a long way from being done, but I do have a new dining table, which is HUGE (and gorgeous). I didn't have a dining area in my last apartment, so this is a real upgrade. Consequently, I didn't have much in the way of serveware (as you could probably tell from all my photos of vintage Pottery Barn ceramics).

Today, with the rental car I still had from last night (I attended a party in Westchester), I went on a field trip to Ikea to get some temporary fill-in items so I could serve at my new table. Holy cow! I got so much stuff for so little money! And maybe I have no taste, but these plates seem totally respectable - plain white with a rim, classic. Someday, maybe, I'll spring for elegant dishes, etc., but for now, these will do just fine.

And while I was at Ikea Brooklyn, how could I resist a trip to Fairway Brooklyn? I'm wandering the long, jam-packed aisles of the store, and I think: This is too great of an opportunity. I have to make something tonight. There's no one coming over, just me, but I'm going to make a big hunk of meat.

Roasted Pork Loin (p. 134)

At $8 and change, this two-pound pork loin was inexpensive enough for me to screw it up and not care. I was sort of shocked that it was so affordable - this is a nice chunk of meat. The joke is that the pancetta that gets wrapped around the pork is more expensive than the pork itself.

So, yes, I did roast a big pork loin for myself. It was relatively easy and completely delicious. All you have to do is brown this baby on all sides in a cast-iron skillet, let it cool, then rub it down with chopped rosemary (mmmmm), wrap it in slices of pancetta, slap a rosemary sprig on top, tie it up with twine, and stick it in the oven. Oh, and baste every so often.

Taking a suggestion from Martha, I threw a sliced pear and a sliced apple in there about halfway through the roasting time. Delicious!

Now, can we discuss flavor? This has it in spades! The rosemary and pork combination is a good thing. And pancetta-wrapped anything is a very good thing.

I was so excited to eat this that I forgot to take a picture of it, but you should know that it's quite cute when it comes out of the oven, pork gift-wrapped in pork.

The bad news is: No one was over last night to enjoy it with me.
The good news is: Leftovers!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Day 60 - Second Tally

Sixty days = two months = one sixth of the way through my project, and to be on track to finish within a year's time, I should have tackled 60 of the 360 assignments in the book by now.

And where am I?

Drum roll, please:

(drdrdrdrdrdrdrdrdrdrdrdrdrdrdrdrdrdrdrdrdrd - thunk)

One hundred and three!


Not only am I learning so much about cooking and entertaining and food and flavors and textures and techniques, but also I'm finding that, because of this project, I have a lot to talk about with people, especially strangers at parties. Turns out this project is a great conversation starter....

Until we eat again...

Friday, May 15, 2009

Day 59 - Kale and Shell Beans, Bulgur Wheat, and Roasted Corn

Every week, I make a meal for Marcy, who is so easygoing - she'll eat pretty much anything. But if I actually ask her what she really wants, like this afternoon when I texted her "Steak or fish?", the answer always comes back, "Fish, or just veggies."

Which I know means, just veggies. So here's yet another all veggie meal.

Kale and Shell Beans (p. 327)

This is the do-over that I deemed necessary after making this the first time around with dried black beans. Now that fresh cranberry beans are readily available, I was excited to try it again.

This is only the second time I've used fresh shell beans, the first time being the veal stew with favas. Cranberry beans are beautiful! And so much easier than favas. Favas required so much work, just getting them out of the shell was an ordeal, and then the blanching to get them out of the second shell?... Zzzzzzzzz.

Cranberry bean pods, on the other hand, open right up, releasing four or five big white beans speckled with cute little red spots. And they're ready to be cooked! For the record, those sweet red freckles disappear when the beans get cooked. :-(

The beans' cooking water smells so yummy: cinnamon sticks and oregano (I actually used marjoram) and salt and peppercorns. And then all that kale and garlic and red pepper flakes... great ingredients. The flavor that really makes this dish is the final splash of lemon juice. Amazing.

This is a great dish for a vegetarian, and the portion in the book that "serves 4" is just right for a main course for two.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Bulgur Wheat (p. 413)

I was surprised to see that bulgur cooks up like couscous, just longer, i.e. pour boiling water over it, cover, and let absorb for 30-45 minutes. I've only eaten bulgur as an ingredient in tabbouleh, but it totally works as a side grain.

We were ready to eat before the water had all been absorbed, so I did a quick stir, waited a few minutes, and then grabbed the dry grain from the top of the bowl, which tasted great. And by the end of the meal, the water in the remainder of the bulgur was completely absorbed.

This is easy and hearty and tasty! The only downside is, after sitting for 30-45 minutes, it's not hot.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Roasted Corn (p. 313)

Maybe it's a little early for really good corn, but I saw it at Fairway and couldn't resist.

This corn is roasted in the husk. I wasn't sure how it would work to slit the husks and remove the silk, but it went fine. I put sprigs of thyme and marjoram in there, with some butter and salt, but I left out one really big step: tying them up with kitchen twine. Eeek!

One of the ears cooked up with the husk mostly closed, approximating what a twined version would be, and it was great! Moist and fresh!

The ears that cooked with more open husks were equally good, but different: a little more dried out, almost like grilled corn.

Though all the herbs were dried up, and we couldn't taste any herb flavor around the corn, these tasted terrific.

I think I'll be trying this again with the twine, just to see if it keeps the herbs fresh and infuses more flavor.

Almost done with the roasted veggies. Just mushrooms left!

Jeff: B
(for forgetting the twine)
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

If it's Marcy, it must be veggies.

Day 58 - Roast Rack of Lamb and Garlic and Rosemary Potato Puree

Tonight's meal was one of those examples of a situation that could have been tragic and turns out to be magic.

My dinner guest tonight was my longtime friend and colleague (and ex-cousin) Colleen. We met over 20 years ago as fellow understudies in Into the Woods. She walked into the dressing room on her first day and said, "Which one of you is Jeff Blumenkrantz?" "That would be me." "Hi, I'm Colleen Fitzpatrick, and we're cousins." Uhhh, I don't think so! I was pretty sure that there were no Fitzpatricks in my family.

Turns out Colleen's ex-husband was my father's first cousin's wife's cousin. (So what did that make us? Second cousins, once removed, by marriage x 2?) But now that she's no longer married, we're just good friends.

Colleen is very savvy, about art, about music, about theatre, food, wine, you name it. And she's picky about what she eats. So I felt a little bit on the line....

Roast Rack of Lamb (p. 142)

One of the potential disasters tonight was that I was working with frozen meat from Costco. Now, I happen to think Costco products are generally very high-quality, but working with frozen meat from anywhere is a crap shoot, and I've never dealt with rack of lamb.

The recipe is very clear and straightforward. Brown the fat side of the lamb, then spread it with yogurt, pack on the green crust, and roast.

One thing I'd never encountered is the concept of fresh bread crumbs, i.e. not from dried bread but from moist, fresh bread. The bread crumbs, along with parsley, mint, garlic, lemon zest, and S+P, make up the crust. At first I just broke the bread apart, but then I realized it would benefit from being run through the food processor, so I threw it in there after having made the mint mixture, which was smart because it sort of cleaned out the food processor for me.

This is a dish that requires very little work in the moment, i.e. a good call for entertaining. If you make the crust ahead of time, then you can brown the meat, serve and eat a salad while it's resting, then slap the yogurt and crust on, and pop it in the oven.

The presentation is very dramatic and impressive, and you barely have to do anything!

After 18 minutes of roasting, the meat was cooked beautifully (thankfully, Colleen likes her meat very rare, like I do). And the meat itself was wonderful, in taste and texture. Colleen was shocked to hear that it had been frozen. At first, the abundance of mint in the crust caught me off guard, but once I got used to it, I really enjoyed it. The yogurt is a nice taste touch, as well as an interesting visual one.

This is a winner! Easy and delicious! And it earned a thumbs-up from savvy Colleen!

Jeff: A
Martha: A
(Costco: A)

Garlic and Rosemary Potato Puree (p. 309)

I made a rustic version of this earlier, and I couldn't imagine improving on it, so I went into this with a little bit of an attitude. Rosemary-infused cream? Peeled and food-milled potatoes? Please...

It's actually not that much more difficult. Just extra dirty dishes and accessories.

Putting the potatoes through the food mill (finest plate) was a surprise. I wasn't expecting the angel hair effect, but that's exactly what the potato looked like after passing through the mill: angel hair, but super-fine. Once stirred and combined with the butter and cream, the texture was very refined. The garlic had been boiled with the potatoes, so the taste was more subdued, and the rosemary was a subtle, almost indistinguishable background flavor. Delicious.

My only complaint about using the food mill is that by the time the potato has passed through, the heat is reduced dramatically. To serve these hot, it would have meant reheating them pretty aggressively, which I didn't do. We ate them lukewarm, which was fine, though I'm curious if there's a way to get the same result without losing all that heat.

Another thumbs up from Colleen!

Given a choice between this version and the more rustic version, I think I'd go rustic. I like using the skins, I like a little bit of chunk and color. But if I were serving something very delicate, like fish, this more refined version would be the way to go.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

For the record, I also served a salad with Martha's Shallot Vinaigrette, which Colleen loved. The vegetable was steamed green beans, and dessert was a homemade Fresh Mint Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream (not Martha). A great meal all around, and great company and conversation. It's nights like this that epitomize what I love about this project.

Until we eat again....

Colleen could never pass for a Blumenkrantz, right? :-)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Day 56 - Spinach Pasta Dough, Ravioli with Ricotta Filling, and Marinara Sauce

So this morning, I'm working out with my workout buddy, and I say, "Ken, I made pasta last night." Now Ken has heard all about my various cooking expeditions, and he's an experienced cook, himself, but he seems unimpressed. So I repeat, "No, I actually made pasta last night." "What???" Finally, the response I was looking for....

Making pasta is one of those things that feels like a major accomplishment. It almost doesn't compute. We're so used to opening these boxes of hard noodles, or these packages of already-made fresh noodles, or in the case of ravioli, these cans of stuffed noodles. (I used to eat a can of Buitoni Ravioli every day after school. No wonder I was fat...)

So, to create pasta really feels huge, like a chef's rite of passage.

It's so huge, in fact, that I didn't think it was wise to do it alone. I called in the big guns. Enter Paula, gourmet queen, FNBF's BFF, and owner of two ravioli molds.

Let me just say for the record that if Paula weren't there, it would have been past midnight before there was cooked ravioli. As it was, we didn't sit down to eat until 10:45! But this was an amazing adventure, and as always, totally worth it!

For the record, Paula is very much her own woman in the kitchen, i.e. if she intuitively feels that by changing something in a recipe, she's going to improve it, then she just does it. It must have been horrible for her every time I insisted on doing it Martha's way. In a couple of instances, I deferred to Paula's expertise, and she was absolutely right. (Paula, why don't YOU write a book??)

Spinach Pasta Dough (p. 368)

This dough is nothing like what you're imagining. You're picturing that dull green (khaki), heavy pasta that surrounds vegetable dumplings, right? This, instead, is a beautiful, bright green, the color of just-steamed spinach, and the dough is flecked with little bits of actual spinach leaves. (Commercial spinach pasta must be made with spinach powder, i.e. the color is so even.)

I cleaned a bunch of spinach, steamed it, and drained it (this took wringing it out and then squeezing it in paper towels about 50 times before it was dry). Then it went in the food processor with eggs and salt, and ultimately, flour. Once it came together, I kneaded it on the counter for ten minutes until it got "smooth and elastic." Then it went into the fridge for a couple of hours wrapped in plastic wrap.

Then, it was ready to be rolled. I was prepared with my handy-dandy Atlas Original Pasta Maker. It was great having Paula there to hold my hand through this stage, because rolling pasta for the first is overwhelming. Paula hadn't ever rolled pasta before, either, but just having someone there to confer with makes such a difference. It's actually quite straightforward, but when you're staring at that stainless steel contraption, it just doesn't seem possible that anything good is going to come of it.

But then you stick a blob of green dough in there, roll it through, and it comes out the bottom, flatter. And then you put it through again, and again, and again, always tightening the gap between the rollers, and before you know it, there's a ridiculously long sheet of paper-thin spinach pasta. And when I say ridiculously long, I mean almost three feet long. The roller thickness setting goes from one (the largest gap, i.e. where you start) to nine (the thinnest setting, for filled pasta, like ravioli). By the time you get to eight (which is the setting for cut pasta, like spaghetti), you can't believe how delicate the sheet of pasta is. So going to nine seems like just asking for trouble, but somehow it works. Paula begged me to stop at eight, but I pressed on. (Martha said "nine.") And even though there were holes and tears here and there, it's amazing how resilient fresh pasta is (see below).

Paula thought that my dough might have benefited from being more elastic, which would probably have meant kneading it longer in the beginning. But even with the dough as it was, it totally worked. By the third sheet, we pretty much figured out how to finesse the shaping of the sheet and manage the texture with extra flour, etc.

We ran out of filling, so I ended up with an extra sheet's worth of dough, which I rolled out to a number eight thickness, with the intention of cutting it into fettuccine. After rolling it out, you're supposed to hang it to dry until only slightly tacky. Unfortunately we got carried away eating our ravioli and by the time we went to roll it, it was basically lavash. I tried to revive it with a sprinkle of water, but it was a lost cause. Ah well. But really, who cares? We conquered pasta-making!

Jeff + Paula: A
Martha: A

Ravioli with Ricotta Filling (p. 373)

For my first pasta experience, I came up with this combination for a couple of reasons. I picked ravioli because Paula offered to bring over her cute ravioli molds which would make the pasta-shaping that much easier. And I picked the ricotta filling because, frankly, it was the least complicated one, and really, there was enough on the agenda tonight. :-)

Martha tells us how to shape the ravioli without molds, and thanks to Adinah, who gave me her pastry cutter (again my benefactress), I will attempt that the next time I make ravioli. In the meantime, Paula's old world ravioli molds were adorable, especially the one with the mini rolling pin that made teeny weeny ravioli. (Raviolini? Ravioletti? Ravioli-ettes?) Basically you lay the bottom sheet of dough on top of the mold, make pockets by slightly pressing into the holes, wet the edges of each piece with a damp pastry brush, fill the pockets, and then lay the second sheet of pasta on top. Then you roll over the whole mold with a rolling pin, which creates the serrated edges around each piece. When you turn the mold over, out pops the most ADORABLE sheet of raviolini. Beautiful!

After making two trays of those, we moved on to regular-size ravioli, same idea, just bigger. I was being very conservative with the filling, seeing that we were running low. Paula was not having it and encouraged me to stuff one batch with a ton of filling. It looked like way too much to me, but I went along, begrudgingly.

Then, we cooked them. Martha says to leave them in boiling water until they float, but they started floating immediately! My instinct was to take them out after a very short time, but Paula suggested we go longer, in order to make sure that the filling gets heated through. (Smart!)

The amazing thing to me was that there was a handful of ravioli with a lack of "structural integrity," i.e. holes and tears. I was sure these would completely come apart in the pot, and that all the others would take a beating upon contact with the slotted spoon. But it was completely the opposite! This pasta is super-resilient! The ravioli stayed perfectly perfect every step of the way! Even the torn ones held their shape in the pot, the filling stayed in, they were totally serve-able. Amazing!

As for the taste? Absolutely delicious! And impossibly delicate! Truly one of the lightest things I've ever eaten, no resemblance to any ravioli I've ever had before. The pasta is so thin. I, myself, couldn't find any spinach flavor there, but Paula thought she might have caught it. The ricotta filling was simple and great, and the ones that were the most successful were the ones that Paula made me overstuff. There was a perfect balance between the creaminess and the dough. (Paula knows best.)

NB: if you're planning to make a filled pasta, make extra filling!

Jeff + Paula: A
Martha: A-
(for the misleading instruction about the floating pasta being done)

Marinara Sauce (p. 381)

Unfortunately, thia sauce was the one element of the meal that brought it down a notch.

This is my first tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes. For this recipe, I bought the best tomatoes I could find given the season, some vine-ripened tomatoes, but they weren't great. I loved revisiting that nifty, tomato-peeling trick.

The recipe is super-simple. Peel the tomatoes, give some chopped garlic a quick sauté in olive oil with a dash of crushed red pepper, then add tomatoes, salt, and pepper. (Martha doesn't tell you to chop them, but they're chopped in her picture, so I chopped.) Then bring to boil and simmer for about 15 minutes, until "tomatoes are falling apart and juices are reduced slightly." Then put through the finest blade of a food mill and serve.


My sauce was simmering for way longer than 15 minutes, and the juices were showing no signs of reducing. In fact, the sauce was downright watery! After about 40 minutes, I thought, "Enough already!" and I started putting it through the food mill. Paula said "Whoa, Nelly!" and suggested that I put through just the solids, because if I used all the liquid, it wouldn't be Marinara Sauce, it would be Tomato Water. So I put just the solids through, and still it was incredibly watery. Paula taught me to press the solids through the food mill, since the mill wasn't pressing that hard itself. We got a lot more puree that way, and still, the sauce was quite loose.

We put it back on the stove and kept cooking it, for another hour even, and eventually, it started behaving like a sauce, texture-wise. But this was clearly not a successful endeavor. If I had followed Martha's directions to a tee, the sauce would have been unusable.

Another issue: The salt level is way too high, I think. The saltiness of the sauce overwhelms the pasta, which is salty in its own right.

Clearly, the less-than-ideal tomatoes were a big factor here. Maybe they were crazily watery.

I think Paula was right when she commented that straining the juice from the chopped tomatoes before adding them to the pot would have made a big difference.

Martha, why did this come out so wrong?

Jeff: B
Paula: A
Martha: C

Until we eat again...

Paula with the first batch of ravioletti!

Close up on our little babies! Aren't they adorable? (I used Adinah's pastry cutter to help separate the pieces.)

Cheers! FYI, pasta and sauce by us, sausage by Whole Foods.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Day 54 - Squash and Goat Cheese Frittata

It's Mother's Day, and I'm playing chef at my brother's house! I've offered to cook a special brunch for my mother and my Aunt Natalie (her identical twin sister). Also in attendance are my father, my brother, and his four beautiful children: Daniel (11), Maddie (8), Lilly (6) and Emma (4). Their mother, my sister-in-law, Frani, is celebrating Mother's Day with a friend on a trip to the UK. (Jealous.)

I've planned some family favorites: French Toast (with Raisin Challah), crispy bacon, and fried salami for the kids.

And then, I've imposed a dish from the project:

Squash and Goat Cheese Frittata (p. 93)

This is a misnomer today, as since my father clearly expressed his dislike of goat cheese, I took Martha's option of replacing it with Gruyère. Therefore, I'm restating this as:

Squash and Gruyère Cheese Frittata (p. 93)

There was a little bit of a breakdown in the making of this dish, but in the end, it didn't really matter. No one could tell, and I certainly didn't fill them in. And since no one in my family seems to be able to find their way to this blog, I'm not concerned about them finding out. :-)

The frittata is a great dish because it can be served at room temperature, and it still tastes good. It's basically an omelette, but it's finished in the oven, where it (usually) puffs up and gets a nice brown crust.

Today, everything was going fine. The onions and squash were sautéed, the eggs were all whisked and ready to go. Then the eggs went in, and the drama began. The pan, which may have been non-stick at a time in the distant past, was hyper-sticky now. Unbeknownst to me, a burnt-on crust was developing on the bottom of the pan. Once I realized it, all I could do was lift it up and stir it around. Luckily, the crust hadn't burnt to the point that it ruined the taste of the whole dish. I just hoped that those few sheets of brown eggs might be a nice flavor addition. In any case, I never got those large curds that Martha was trying to coax out of me. Instead, I got little, panicked curds marbled with burnt brown patches of leather. :-(

In place of the goat cheese, I drowned the thing in grated Gruyère and Parmagiano. (If in doubt, overdo it on the cheese, right?) So when it got under the broiler, I'm guessing it was the weight of the cheese that prevented the eggs from puffing up. Either that or the burnt eggs were angry and wouldn't let the good eggs puff up for Daddy.

By the time we ate, the frittata was room temperature, which was as planned, and the taste was quite good. (Really, what could be bad? Squash, onions, chives, basil, eggs and cheese!) The texture was also fine, although I noticed that there was a pool of liquid on the plate under the "pie." As for the burnt part, I actually forgot about it and can't remember tasting it or seeing it at all.

I might have enjoyed this more if it were hotter, but even cooled, I think it turned out to be a successful dish. (All the adults ate it. The kids wouldn't come anywhere near it. Well, Daniel accepted a piece on his plate but couldn't bring himself to eat any.)

I will definitely make more of these again. It's a great way to serve eggs to a lot of people and also to prepare something in advance that doesn't have to be served hot. And it will be fun to come up with some new flavor combos.

Jeff: B (for burning the eggs and for piling on too much cheese)
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

(Picture to come)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Day 52 - Soy-Ginger Vinaigrette, Steamed Asparagus and Bok Choy with Soy-Ginger Vinaigrette, and Lemon Sorbet

I know the title of this entry seems a little redundant, but they're separate recipes!

If it's the weekend, it must be Marcy! I was going to attempt a somewhat fancy fish dish tonight, but Fairway just wasn't cooperating (no kumquats or lemongrass) so I threw in the towel and made one of my favorite non-book Martha recipes, Moroccan-Spiced Chicken. It's fast and easy and so delicious!

But I did do some Cooking School accompaniments:

Soy-Ginger Vinaigrette (p. 357)

I made a Martha green salad which I dressed in this vinaigrette. Incidentally, when I say "Martha green salad," that implies that I've actually washed and crisped greens vs. dipping into the mesclun mix basket.

I have two things to say about this dressing. First of all, in a rare departure from my usual, going-exactly-by-the-book M.O., I chose to decrease the amount of grated ginger in this dressing by half. After making a different Martha ginger dressing (from another book) which was inedible because of being over-gingered, I took matters into my own hands here. The result? Great flavor, just right, according to me.

However, I couldn't get this dressing to emulsify. I whisked, Marcy whisked. It would hang together for a minute, but then it would separate. Was it the missing ginger?

In the end, it didn't detract from the taste. The salad was delicious. But I wonder why the oil wouldn't cooperate...

Jeff: A- (did I do something wrong?)
Martha: A

Steamed Asparagus and Bok Choy with Soy-Ginger Vinaigrette (p. 294)

I'd been avoiding this recipe because I didn't have a bamboo steamer yet, but then I reread the chapter, and Martha said it was OK to use my metal steamer insert.

Meanwhile, I COMPLETELY blew it. For some reason, these vegetables were outRAGEously undercooked. They greened up the way steamed vegetables do, and they were in the steamer significantly longer than Martha's timings, but they were barely cooked! Accordingly, the dressing couldn't really make any indentation. All you could taste was raw vegetables. Not good....

Jeff: D
Martha: A

Lemon Sorbet (p. 485)

Yes, I'm dipping my toes back into sorbet water, after my mango fiasco.

I'd been fantasizing about making a sorbet with another flavor involved, and I came up with Lemon-Ginger. So I made some simple syrup infused with slices of fresh ginger. (It tasted really ginger-y! Would it overwhelm the lemon?)

Then I juiced eight lemons, strained it and mixed it with the syrup, and did the dreaded egg trick. For the first time, the egg floated too high! So I juiced a couple more lemons, and the egg lowered a bit! Success!

Frozen, this sorbet is insane! Not insanely good, just insane. So extremely lemon-y - you've never tasted anything this lemon-y. The ginger taste is almost completely obscured by full-out LEMON! I don't think you could serve this as a palate cleanser. You'd almost lose your ability to taste after eating it. It's so tart and bright.

If you love lemon flavor, this is probably right up your alley, but for me, this is overwhelming. But I do appreciate the freshness of it. Now, is there a way to dilute this to the point where I could enjoy it...?

Jeff: A
Martha: A

PS I was a busy little bee yesterday. I also made Quinoa Muffins (delicious) and two Challahs (one plain, one with raisins) for the Mother's Day feast I'm preparing for Sunday. French toast!!

Until we eat again....

Marcy with veggies, Version 8.0

Quinoa Muffins and French Toast-to-be!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Day 50 - Pan-Roasted Chicken, Celery Root Puree, and Farro

It's crazy that it's taken me this long to invite Annie and Charles over for dinner. Annie and I are writing buddies, so she's at my apartment all the time, although we've been on a buddy break since the work on my apartment began. FYI, "writing buddies" doesn't mean collaborators, although we have collaborated in the past, most notably on the song "I Won't Mind" (music by me, lyrics by Annie Kessler and Libby Saines). It's sort of like being workout buddies - you might not push yourself as hard if your buddy weren't there. Heck, you might not work out at all! I love writing in the same room with Annie. We can bounce ideas off each other... and take breaks together! :-)

Annie's husband, Charles, is an wonderful artist and fellow blogger, and you should definitely check out his blog if art is your thing.

If you read this blog regularly, you might know that Annie is a somewhat regular commenter here. You may remember her recent boast that she beat me to cooking Martha's Bolognese Sauce, although she REALLY overstated the part about screwing it up. Turns out that the only things that went wrong were that the carrots never browned and the sauce took longer than expected to cook down. Horrors! :-)

I thought I'd go for broke with this dinner, so I not only cooked the recipes below but I also served up a green salad with fennel, shaved parmesan, and lemon vinaigrette and a panna cotta tart for dessert!

Pan-Roasted Chicken (p. 131)

This dish is really a breeze, only complicated by the fact that you might not be able to find boneless, skin-on chicken breasts too easily. I ended up buying two whole chickens and cutting them up. (I like a challenge! Plus, I'm gearing up for a few more soups, so I could use the parts.)

This recipe has very few ingredients and it requires very little effort. And it's one of those throw-it-together-and-forget-about-it dishes, so I think it's a good call for when you're entertaining. (Annie and I were discussing how complicated it is to cook and entertain at the same time! You have to choose dishes that you can make beforehand. Or easy ones to assemble in the moment, like this.)

You basically brown the skin side of these breasts in a skillet on the stove, and then throw in grape tomatoes, capers, and kalamata olives, stick it in the oven, and 15 minutes later, you're good to go! There's no chopping, no mincing, no herbs, no deglazing, no reduction, no gastrique, etc. Just good plain food that comes together simply and easily. There are probably a million variations on this general dish, and Martha hints at some other options, but if you're not feeling creative, this recipe, followed exactly, gets the job done quite well.

The only thing we thought was curious was Martha's instruction to heat the skillet over high heat and wait until it shimmered. Not the oil, the skillet. We didn't see any skillet shimmer. But maybe we didn't wait long enough.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Celery Root Puree (p. 310)

I've never used celery root before, so I was looking forward to the adventure. First of all, these are some ugly, hairy, ornery roots! Just trimming them was an ordeal - caked-on mud, lots of nooks and crannies, these boys needed a lot of attention.

Eventually they got chopped and boiled to tenderness, and even though I should have known better and put it straight into the food processor, I followed Martha's directions like a good little boy and put them in the blender with milk and butter. Thus began the 15 minutes of attempting, in vain, to puree this in the blender. I added more and more milk, but alas, it was never going to work there. I finally gave up and put it in the food processor, and it pureed perfectly.

I'm not sure why I had to bother with the sieve because the whole puree went sailing through, no problem. Maybe it was all that extra added milk....

The taste was nice, very creamy and celery-ish. Maybe it wasn't the best complement for the hearty chicken, but it was fun to try something new. And I think if I'm planning to serve something more refined (fish?), I would consider serving it on a bed of celery root puree.

Jeff: B- (too much extra milk - should have skipped the blender)
Martha: B (for not recommending the food processor)

Farro (p. 413)

My new friend, farro, made another appearance this week, not as risotto but as a simply cooked grain. I was going to make rice, but then it occurred to me that this chicken dish was hearty enough to stand up to a hearty grain. And it did!

I liked the taste of these two together. And I liked the taste of the farro alone. I always think that plain cooked grains are going to taste terrible served unadorned and unseasoned. But in fact, it's great to taste them in their naked glory. And usually there's enough flavor elsewhere on the plate that the simplicity goes a long way.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Annie and Charles, such a happy couple!

Panna Cotta Tart! The last time I made it, I didn't get a good closeup. Isn't she beautiful?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Day 48 - Duck Breast with Orange Gastrique, Sicilian-Style Sauteéd Greens, and Marinated Artichoke Hearts

You know how there are some friends that, no matter how long it's since the last time you've seen them, you can pick up as if no time has passed at all? That was dinner tonight! It was a mini-college reunion, myself and three friends from Northwestern University, School of Speech, Class of '86.

Allyson, who used to be a soap star, now runs The Total Human, a California-based company that offers workshops and retreats around creativity and empowerment and yoga and other cool stuff like that. She's in town to promote her new women's coloring books, which are a great combination of beautiful, spiritual, and whimsical.

Emily is a superstar entertainment manager and my one-time, fantasy fiancée. (By the end of college, I think she figured out that that wasn't going anywhere, and she married someone else. Smart move.)

James is a superstar entertainment lawyer, and I couldn't find any links for him, even though he's a superstar.

Marinated Artichoke Hearts (p. 305)

You might remember that I was supposed to make these for a composed salad a month ago, but I couldn't find fresh artichokes to save my life! Now they're everywhere! So I thought I should put my recent, artichoke-cleaning skills to good use and marinate!

James called these "Roman artichokes," which I'd never heard before.

I cleaned them down to the hearts, boiled them until tender, then marinated them in my favorite Martha dressing, Lemon Vinaigrette. Delicious.

The only thing I could have done better is clean the insides more thoroughly. There were some coarse leaves still attached and a little bit of fuzz.

Meanwhile, if you plan to clean an artichoke, beware of stained hands. The artichoke "juice" turns brown very quickly, and it soaks into your skin! My fingernails and cuticles look filthy, and I've scrubbed!

Jeff: B (should have trimmed and cleaned them better)
Martha: A

Duck Breast with Orange Gastrique (p. 262)

I couldn't understand why the all duck breasts at Fairway weighed 2+ pounds. Martha said to get a 1 pound breast, and all the ducks I've seen have been in the 4-5 pound range, so 2+ lbs just wasn't adding up. Then, when I unwrapped it, I saw that there were two in there! Well, actually four! It was the double-breasted section from two ducks. So I went from thinking I had one giant breast to actually having four little baby breasts.

Similar to the roast duck (Day One!), the skin gets cut in a cross hatch, for extra rendering. The breasts get cooked entirely on the stove, so you're pouring fat out every few minutes. They get turned a few times, until browned and crispy, then set aside to wait for the gastrique.

The gastrique is a new concept for me. I was amazed that I could put sugar alone in a saucepan, leave it on the heat, and it would become liquid. Allyson and I kept re-reading the recipe, looking for the liquid part to add. But in the end, I trusted my girl, Martha. And there it was, bubbling brown sugar. Once I added in the vinegar, I had my typical frustration, which is that my sauce never reduces and gets syrupy in the time that Martha thinks it should. Five minutes becomes ten, and it's still thin! Now, I've learned to just crank up the heat. I added the orange juice and zest, turned up the heat some more, and finally, it showed some signs of thickening.

By the time the gastrique was ready, the duck was fully room temperature, which is OK, but not ideal.

The gastrique tasted pretty good, but I think it would have tasted better without the zest. The zest had been boiled for a few minutes to reduce the bitterness, but it was still too bitter for my palate.

The other thing that didn't work about the duck is that the breasts were rather small, and I couldn't cook them long enough to render enough fat from the skin to make the skin fully crisp and edible. And crisp duck skin is such a treat! Ah well, we trimmed it off. If I could do it over again, I think I would try cooking the duck in a hotter pan to attempt to melt the fat away faster and more thoroughly.

Jeff: B (Fatty duck skin. Boo.)
Martha: A

Sicilian-Style Sauteéd Greens (p. 321)

Martha suggested serving bitter greens with this duck, so I complied! (I love a good pairing hint.)

Allyson helped me with some of the mincing and chopping. (Thanks, Al!)

This is pretty straightforward. In fact, I've made this kind of dish before, with spinach and pine nuts and raisins. This version involved raisins, almonds, and chard, which I've only cooked with a few times. One interesting twist in this recipe is that, instead of discarding the chard stems, Martha had me dice up a cupful of them to add to the dish. I've become so used to Martha having me discard perfectly usable things, I thought this was a notable exception.

This recipe has the trademark splash of lemon juice at the end, which I've come to love. And I have a new citrus press, so making lemon juice just became that much easier!

This was very popular with my guests, by the way. They all agreed that it should go in the "likely to repeat" folder.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

On a side note, I'm sad to say that Martha Stewart's Cooking School lost the James Beard Award last night to Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. Accordingly, I am going to discontinue cooking from Martha's book, and switch over to Mark's.

Just kidding! I'm all Martha, all the time! :-)

Until we eat again...

Emily and the "Roman" artichokes

James looks like he's getting away with something

Allyson was a great sous chef!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Day 45 - Farro Risotto with Wild Mushrooms and Vegetable Tian

When I first told my friend, Adinah, that I was doing this project and blogging about it, she was... how shall I say?... indifferent. Supportive about the cooking, yes, but not even remotely interested in the blogging. I actually had to strong-arm her into merely glancing it at just once.

Would you believe - now she's my staunchest supporter! Not only does she read every entry, but she has also delivered beans to my door, she gave me an ice-cream machine, and today, she took me to Fairway Uptown (and a garden center in NJ)! And rumor has it that she might also be hooking me up with a meat grinder, via her mother!

Best of all, no one oohs and aahs like Adinah. She loves food, and she really gets what's special about preparing food and having food prepared for you.

Farro Risotto with Wild Mushrooms (p. 419)

Knowing Adinah as long as I do (almost 20 years), I know that she loves her some mushrooms, so this is an apt choice. Also, she's been enjoying farro at her favorite Italian restaurant and was excited to try it a new way.

I'd never made risotto before, so it was odd to start with this non-rice version. But I'm not one to back away from a challenge!

This recipe mimics the risotto recipe exactly, except it adds a mushroom topping, and it substitutes farro for rice. For those of you unfamiliar with farro, it's a whole grain wheat, very similar to spelt.

I used oyster and shiitake mushrooms, which I browned in olive oil and then kept warm in the toaster oven while I made the risotto. (I should have covered them, as they got a little dried out by the time I served the risotto.)

As for the risotto, instead of using chicken stock, as I'm guessing most recipes do, Martha directs us to make a unique stock for this dish, a very mild stock so as not to overpower the dish. (Celery, carrot, parsley, onion, garlic.) Personally, I think it would be safe to go with stronger flavors here, because the farro and mushrooms are heartier than the simpler risotto recipe.

It was interesting to taste this dish during each stage of the process. You start with diced onion sautéed in olive oil, then add farro, then white wine, and then the barely flavored broth goes in a little at a time. After adding it by half-cupfuls over the course of 20-25 minutes, I was shocked by how little flavor had accumulated in the pot. I thought I might be serving up a loser.

Then, I added the butter and parmagiano-reggiano and salt and pepper and parsley, and instantly, it became incredibly rich-tasting and delicious. Topped with mushrooms, I got the big oohs and aahs I was hoping for! I think this is another example of the whole layering effect. You can't really predict what it's going to taste like until it all comes together at the end.

I know there's a fair amount of olive oil, butter, and cheese in there, but for some reason, eating risotto made with farro seems almost healthy. Not this-tastes-like-cardboard-but-I-can-choke-it-down healthy. More like I'm-getting-my-fiber-and-I-can't-even-tell healthy.

I'd make this again...

Jeff: A- (for drying out the mushrooms)
Martha: A

Vegetable Tian (p. 319)

I picked this dish because it seems very South of France to me, which is right next to Italy (land of farro and risotto). The term tian was unknown to me before this book, but Martha defines it as a baked vegetable dish, similar to a gratin but without added cream or liquid to bind it together. Turns out a tian is actually a conical, earthenware cooking vessel as well as the braised vegetable dish cooked within.

My Martha Stewart rectangular baking dish isn't remotely conical, but I know it's going to work fine.

I slice up the squash, tomatoes, onion, and eggplant, but all my slices are different sizes! How am I ever going to get those perfect, overlapping rows of vegetables like Martha features in the book? Well, I'm not. I should have thought of this earlier and bought identically proprortioned produce. Alas, my rows are haphazard, uneven, hardly any sense of order at all.

But frankly, who cares? This dish is great, absolutely simple and straightforward and satisfying. All the vegetables get to shine individually and together. There are fresh herbs scattered about which dry up during roasting, leaving a crispy ash of flavor, as well as unpeeled garlic cloves, which come out mushy and delicious. The vegetables cook perfectly, and the end result is in the taste neighborhood of ratatouille, but cleaner and better. (No peppers!)

Another thing I like about this dish is that it's easy to assemble ahead of time, with nothing lost. Perfect for when you're making something else that needs constant attention. (Like... risotto?) I think this might become a regular vegetable side dish in my repertoire!

Jeff: A-
(for less-than-perfect assembling)
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Adinah as Lady Tian (a little King and I joke)

Hey look, my camera's out of storage! Better pictures, right? Now you can really see how dorky my plates are... Risotto in a fish bowl??