Thursday, June 4, 2009

Day 78 - Cucumber Ranch Dressing, Mixed Bean Crudité, Spaghetti, Fresh Tomato Sauce, Peppercorn-Crusted Beef Tenderloin, and Braised Broccoli Rabe

Oh dear lord, where do I begin?

First of all, let me just say that I celebrated my 44th birthday yesterday with nine of my favorite people in the world, which was wonderful! That said, I also spent yesterday preparing and serving dinner for ten, so I'm exhausted! And the thought of writing this entry is daunting! There are a million dishes to discuss and stories to tell.... Here goes:

Cucumber Ranch Dressing (p. 359)

This was something I made two days ago, because I could make it in advance, and in fact, I thought the flavors might even improve with a couple of days to mellow. It involves a fair amount of chopping and dicing, etc. Grated cucumber, chopped chives and parsley, and of course, I had to make homemade mayo to put in there. :-)

It came out fine. Considering all the effort, I was hoping for something transcendent. One problem with it was the consistency. It was too watery to work as dip, and this after I even drained the liquid from the grated cucumber, which isn't specified in the recipe. I don't think you could catch enough dressing on the beans to really appreciate the flavors. Maybe it's better as a salad dressing....

As for the flavors, it's quite jam-packed with major ingredients... lemon juice, buttermilk, sour cream, chives, these are big flavor players, and together they pack a lot of punch. Maybe overkill? And maybe extra salt would have taken it out of sourland and pushed it into saltyville, which is closer to the ranch we all know and love. Still, the consistency....

Jeff: A
Martha: A-

Mixed Bean Crudité (p. 303)

Very straightforward, this. And I was not a stranger to blanching, so this was old hat. I think if I had never blanched a vegetable before, this recipe could have been a revelation.

I'd never tried wax beans before, and they were a nice surprise. Because of their yellow, translucent color and the name "wax," I expected them to have a weird texture, but really, they're yellow string beans, fresh and crunchy and delicious. There were no Roman beans in the market, so I substituted sugar snap peas, and as you can see, they were the most popular of the three beans.

That's my workout buddy, Ken, sampling them with the Cucumber Ranch. He's an activist and author, and his first novel, The Marrying Kind, is going to be published next year!!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Basic Pasta Dough (p. 365)

So, the basic pasta dough recipe makes 12 ounces of pasta. But how many does that serve?? Can you compare this to dry pasta, where 2 ounces is supposedly a serving (but it's not really enough)? Should I double this recipe? Triple it?

Because I'm Jewish, and culturally, we're required to serve oversized portions and have leftovers, I'm very distrustful of Martha's portion predictions, and in this case, there weren't even any hard numbers! So I tripled it.

Big mistake! In the end, I cooked 2/3 of the pasta I had made, and of that giant bowl of pasta, we finished maybe half of it, maybe not even half. Granted, everyone was saving room for the main course. Still, I probably could have gotten away with making just the original recipe size. Ah well...

I kept reading about this 00 flour. It's a super-fine, low-protein pasta made in Italy, which is considered especially ideal for making fresh pasta. I thought I'd give it a whirl and found it, without too much difficulty, at Buon Italia at Chelsea Market. It really is super-fine, almost like corn starch.

I piled up the flour, made a well in the middle, and poured in the egg. I guess my well wasn't deep enough, because the eggs spilled over the side and across the counter! I should add, there's something about this flour that makes it almost water-repellent. It took a while to get the egg mixed in there.

Once it all came together (fyi, it took somewhat less flour than the recipe stated), the dough took on a nice consistency, and after about ten minutes of kneading, I achieved that smooth and elastic consistency that you keep hearing about in dough recipes. Then I wrapped up in plastic and let it rest overnight in the fridge before rolling it into sheets. So far so good.

To be continued....

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Spaghetti (p. 367)

After my ravioli experience, I was no stranger to the pasta machine. Rolling out this dough came quite easily, and by the last of 24 sheets (!), I was pretty quick with it. My personal secret is brushing the dough with flour a couple of times during the rolling process. I'd put it through at #1 (meaning the widest roller setting), fold it in thirds, turn 90°, and repeat that a couple of times, then #2 (slightly narrower), then brush both sides with some flour (using a pastry brush), then #3, #4, #5, #6, one more brushdown with flour, then #7, #8, and hang it up to dry.

I got one of those pasta hanging "trees," so I'd roll out eight sheets, hang 'em up to dry for a bit, then put them through the spaghetti-cutting roller, then hang the strands up for more drying, then store it. I had a small factory going....

It's tricky to cut pasta. The sheets of dough have to be wet enough not to break, but dry enough to allow themselves to be cut without sticking together. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. And sometimes a ripple in the sheet as it was going through the cutter made for a little clumping action.

The clumping action was coming up with some regularity, so I decided to rename this pasta "Clump-etti." Turns out it wasn't as disastrous as I thought. Some people who used more sauce actually found that the wetter it was, the more the clumps actually worked themselves out.

But I have to say, it's hard to roll these sheets through the pasta cutter, keep the sheet side lined up properly while catching the cut side, all the while maintaining smooth motion with the crank, because when you hesitate, you get another little clumping moment. It takes a lot of coordination, and if I were any less coordinated, it would have been even worse! :-) Then to hang the spaghetti up in a way so that it dries as separate pieces? I have no technique for doing that....

Cut to the cooking: fresh pasta cooks in about five seconds. I put this pasta in the water and tasted it after 30 seconds of cooking and I thought, it's overcooked! It's so fresh and delicate! I felt compelled to leave it in there for at least a minute or two, because I thought, it couldn't be hot enough to serve yet! I have to at least cook it through! But honestly, I could probably have passed it once under hot water, and it would cooked through. This bears no similarity to cooking dry pasta....

As for the taste, I thought it tasted pretty average, no offense to Martha or 00 flour. It reminded me of Vietnamese rice noodles, very light and plain, not chewy, not a lot of body or character, very... light. Again, I could probably have salted more generously, both the pasta and the water.

And more to the point, I think a different sauce might have made for a better complement....

Next time, I think I will go for the bigger cutter size, which is roughly fettuccine. Or maybe I'll cut wide noodles, i.e. pappardelle! That'd be fun!

Jeff: B (Clumpetti. Nuff said.)
Martha: A

Fresh Tomato Sauce (p. 381)

It would never have occurred to me to serve hot pasta with a fresh sauce like this, but according to Martha, it a very Italian thing (salsa crudo), and Alysha says her step-father, Doug, who's quite the cook, makes this in the summer, and it's refreshing. So I went for it.

Like the pasta, I made waaaaaaaay too much. Doubled the recipe. Sauce for days....

This is pretty much what you'd put on bruschetta: chopped tomatoes, lots of fresh herbs (oregano, parsley, basil), garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, the end. And it tastes just fine. It probably tastes as good as the tomatoes are, which are still only OK this time of year. I should have waited until optimum tomato season to make this....

Also, I can't help thinking that this would be better paired with dry pasta. The lightness of fresh pasta is very special, and I think it's too delicate to go with something as hearty as salsa crudo. Martha says slender strands are best for this sauce, so if I were to make this again, I'd serve it with boxed, dried angel hair, which would have more body and bit. But not this tender fresh spaghetti. It just didn't match up.

Yet again, I think I could have salted more. I try to be so sparing with the salt, because people can add their own, but in the end, I think food always tastes better when it's heavily salted.

That's David with the clumpetti and Laura with the sauce.

Jeff: B (Should have waited for better tomatoes)
Martha: A- (Would have been great to know that this is not a good match with fresh pasta)

Peppercorn-Crusted Beef Tenderloin (p. 132)

Martha suggests a 4 pound piece of beef to serve 8 to 10, but there's that Jewish thing again. We don't trust gentile portion suggestions. So I was set on finding something closer to 5 pounds. Meanwhile, Fairway didn't have a beef tenderloin bigger than 2.5 pounds, so I ended up buying two. Perfect, I thought, I'll make one exactly according to the recipe, and then I'll add a little something extra to the second one. Martha suggests some alternate crusts: fresh horseradish or garlic or herbs, so I chose a rosemary/thyme combo, since I was going to be roasting potatoes with those herbs as well.

I took the beef out of the refrigerator an hour beforehand, as directed, to get it to room temperature. Then when I opened up the packages, I was devastated! Instead of being bloody and red and perfect, the meat was darkened, brown, horrible! And it smelled weird too! I literally turned to a tableful of guests and said: Oh no! The meat's gone bad!

My friend Laura, mother of three, major cook, and fellow Martha lover, came running over. Lemme see, she said. She looked, she smelled, and she pronounced the beef fine. She said it was a byproduct of oxidation and room temperature. Phew! Still, I couldn't help but laugh, thinking about all my guests secretly fearing for their lives, girding themselves to eat "spoiled" meat because it's the host's birthday.

I ended up putting the ground green peppercorns and the herbs on both roasts because, well, because I just did. I didn't want to discriminate, and I knew all the meat would end up in the same serving dish.

I popped them in the oven and checked after 18 minutes (Martha says 20-30 minutes, but she was talking about a four pounder, and mine were almost half that size). The temperature of the meat was just right, so out they came.

I can't tell you how perfect they were. Like textbook pictures of beautiful meat. Browned on the outside (I seared them first), and perfectly pink/red on the inside. Red enough to satisfy people who like rare or medium rare, and cooked enough on the ends to satisfy those who wanted it medium.

It's not called tenderloin for nothing - this meat so tender! As Martha says: "It's also one of the more expensive cuts, so you'll want to take care to cook tenderloin properly. Fortunately, this is spectacularly easy to do." She is absolutely right! It would have been difficult to screw this up. It is so easy and so rewarding!!

I appropriated the mustard cream sauce from the Pan-Seared Strip Steak recipe, but frankly, this meat didn't even need sauce. It was fabulous. And it didn't taste spoiled at all.

(Meanwhile, it's the next day, and nobody's called me with a food poisoning story. Hallelujah!)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Braised Broccoli Rabe (p. 343)

By the time I started cooking this dish, I was so overwhelmed that I barely remember it happening. I have so much leftover uncooked broccoli rabe (always too much) that I think I'm going to make it again tonight, so I can really give this recipe its due.

Some commented that although the broccoli rabe hadn't been blanched, the bitterness level was nicely low. It still tasted quite bitter to me, but I think that's just part of the broccoli rabe experience, regardless.

It's a nice recipe, easy and straightforward. There's lemon zest in there, a nice addition, and I think this could have taken a squirt or two of lemon juice as well....

Very nice and classic.

Jeff: A- (I was so distracted at this point, I'm not sure what I served)
Martha: A

Here's the meat, the broccoli rabe, the mustard cream sauce, and some trusty roasted potatoes.

May I just take a moment to mention some of the non-project things I also served?

A "Martha" green salad, with Boston, Red Leaf, Radicchio, Endive, Watercress, Radishes, Marinated Shaved Fennel, Beets, and French Feta in a Sherry Vinaigrette.

Coffee Ice Cream
(maybe the biggest hit of the evening...)

Vanilla Frozen Yogurt

Pineapple Apricot Sorbet

Birthday Cake from The Cupcake Cafe (I love their chocolate flavor - nice and dark and not too sweet, and the buttercream frosting flowers? Heaven, to look at AND taste.)

My amazing friends, from left to right: Tracy, Alysha, Adinah, Harriet (hiding... Harriet, if you can't see the camera, the camera can't see you!), Ryan, Marcy, Ken, David, and Laura

P.S. The Marinated Roasted Red Peppers were a big hit! Here's Adinah, posing with them. They were so popular, in fact, that Alysha, who doesn't usually like peppers, loved them and insisted that I try one because she was sure that these would override my detestation of peppers. Unfortunately, one small bite was enough to tell that they would not. However, I'm happy to report that they were loved by all pepper-eating people present. Therefore:

Marinated Roasted Red Peppers (p. 315)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....


  1. Whew! I had to have a lie-down from just reading all that went into this marathon. I can't imagine what it was like to do it all. You're amazing (so what else is new?). I'm sure your guests appreciated the love that went into it (for them and for Martha).

  2. You needed a lie-down? I needed a vacation! I literally left dirty dishes from that dinner on the counter for a whole day! :-) I couldn't bear to go back into the kitchen until the next night. Thanks for posting!