Friday, July 31, 2009

Day 134 - Shrimp Boil, Fresh Cocktail Sauce, and Green Goddess Dressing

David came over tonight to watch the So You Think You Can Dance? results show. Yes, we're voting in a pool for that show, too. I'm completely out of the running, but David was in a top position. Until tonight... :-(

Since tonight wasn't one of David's legendary cheat meals, I knew he'd be very picky about what he'd be willing to eat, and shrimp, so low in fat and so high in protein, is safe. The sauces are another story....

Shrimp Boil (p. 243)

I don't think I've ever cooked raw shrimp before! I've bought packages of frozen shrimp from Trader Joe's, but this was my first time handling raw shrimp.

Martha was right, they are easy to peel when they're raw, so I went ahead and did that. The water that they cook in is slightly flavored with celery, carrots, lemon, peppercorns, salt and thyme, and I'm not sure exactly how present those flavors are in the final product, but I will say that these shrimp tasted wonderful. Full of shrimp flavor, perfectly cooked, a little taste of the sea (the salt?), delicious. Not to mention, easy and quick.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Fresh Cocktail Sauce (p. 243)

I do like a nice cocktail sauce with my shrimp. And while this sauce had an interesting flavor, it was quite different from your average cocktail sauce.

First of all, I'm not sure if it was my tomatoes, but my tomato puree showed up practically salmon colored, resulting in a very pale cocktail sauce. It wasn't nearly that red, bloody mary color that we're used to.

Secondly, Martha's measurements for Tabasco are very generous. She says 1.5 teaspoons, or to taste, which I thought meant I might want to add more. But in fact, I would have preferred less. Much less. This was waaaay too spicy for me. It overwhelmed the flavor.

Thirdly, even after letting the tomato puree drain for 10 minutes, this sauce was a little too watery for me. It wasn't thick enough to really hold onto the shrimp.

It's great to taste a fresh sauce, and all the ingredients in this sauce contributed to some bright flavors, which went well with the shrimp. But it is a bit of a distance from the cocktail sauce we all know and love.

Jeff: A
Martha: A-
(too much Tabasco)

Green Goddess Dressing (p. 359)

I think this may be my last dressing in the book! Martha mentions it goes well with boiled shrimp, so I thought this was as good a time as any....

Yum! This positively drips with herbs, and it's delicious. There's a fair amount of chopping to do, and I didn't do it in the food processor because Martha says "finely chopped" and to me, that means by hand.

There are many flavors in here, but interestingly, the one that really pops is the tarragon. I thought the anchovies would be prominent, but I can't even find them in the big picture.

The color of the dressing is beautiful: a pale, pale, bright green. And Martha's right: this does taste great with boiled shrimp. Mmmmmmmm.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

David with the shrimp and sauces (there's no white stuff in the cocktail sauce - that's the glare from the flash bouncing off the oil on the surface...)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Day 129 - Boiled and Steamed Lobsters, How to Remove Lobster, Lobster Rolls, Sautéed Zucchini and Corn, and Sour Cherry Pie

It's a Martha marathon! Five recipes in one day! I invited my writing buddy, Annie, her husband, Charles, and my BFF Ryan over for some seasonal summer specials.

Boiled and Steamed Lobsters (p. 239)

I may have missed soft shell crab season, but I hit lobster season right on the nose. I've been to Fairway at least a million times, but I've somehow managed never to notice the lobster tank at the end of the fish counter. I even walked the whole fish department and missed it. But then it occurred to me that I shouldn't be looking at the ice, I should be looking for water. (Sometimes I can be so brainless!) And I went back, and there was a giant tank! Duh! And to top it all off, I think the price was pretty good too! ($10/pound)

It somehow slipped my mind that I'd be carrying these home alive, and that they'd be in my refrigerator alive. But when the fishmonger poked breathing holes in the bag, it came rushing back to me that the idea was to keep them alive until being cooked, i.e. I'd have to murder them myself. Well, at least I wouldn't have to do what Julie Powell (Julie and Julia) did, i.e. cut into their brains while they're still squirming.

I decided to serve Lobster Two Ways: cook two lobsters for lobster rolls, and serve the other two hot with tarragon butter. I wanted to try both steaming and boiling, so I steamed the ones for the lobster rolls and boiled the ones for dinner.

Steaming is less confronting in that you can gently place them in a steamer basket, put the lid on the pot, and not be distracted as they squirm themselves to death. I thought that steaming might also make for a better, more tender texture, but I think the opposite ended up being the case. The steamed lobsters were a little more rubbery, and they didn't have the benefit of the salt in the boiling water. Time-wise, it's pretty similar, with boiling going a little faster than steaming.

All in all, it's quite easy to cook lobsters, as long as you can get past the concept of putting something alive and squirming into a boiling hot pot.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

How to Remove Lobster (p. 240)

I was happy for this lesson, as I have little experience with removing lobster meat. And as I didn't have any special lobster tools, I appreciated the fact that you can do this with just a knife and kitchen shears. Who knew that you could cut through lobster shell?

Martha doesn't get fussy and have you look for meat in weird places. She just explains dealing with the tail and the claws. I think I spent the most time trying to get little pieces out of the claw knuckles (the skinny part that connects the meaty claw to the body). Otherwise it went pretty well and pretty quickly.

When I was getting ready to serve the two boiled lobsters with dinner, Charles suggested that I cut them in half, as we'd be splitting them between the four of us. He explained that I could do it with a chef's knife, a great idea that I never would have thought of myself. The only downside was dealing with all kinds of crazy stuff coming out of the main body cavity, which I could have lived without seeing.

There was green stuff (tomalley, i.e. liver), red stuff (lobster roe), and black stuff, which Charles' research reveals is undercooked lobster roe, although I'm suspicious. Why would some of the roe be red and solid, and the other roe be black and runny, in a lobster cooked for the same amount of time? In any case, it's pretty disgusting with all that barfy looking stuff squirting everywhere. (If you're going to do this, do it next to the sink.)

The boiled lobster was good, better than the steamed by a hair, but overall, I wasn't that impressed. But I think this is a personal thing. I've never been one of those people that lives and dies for lobster, and I don't imagine I'll be plunging any other lobsters to their bubbling death anytime soon.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Lobster Rolls (p. 239)

I've never had a lobster roll before, so this concept was new to me.

It's traditional to serve lobster rolls on hotdog buns, but I couldn't bear to put my freshly cooked lobster meat in a store-bought bun, so I made some from scratch with this recipe. I was going to skip the part about buttering the outsides of the bun, but then I mentioned to my mother that I was serving lobster rolls, and she said, "Of course you going butter the buns, right?" and I thought, oh geez, I guess I have to go through with it.

I'm so glad I did. I actually had to slice off the sides of my homemade beauties, to create surfaces that could be buttered and grilled. But it was so worth it, adding a nice element of richness/decadence to the sandwich.

The only ingredients in this lobster salad are lobster meat, a small amount of mayo (I made homemade mayo too!), chopped chives and tarragon or chervil (I used tarragon). Martha says the herbs are optional, but I would completely disagree. I think the herbs really drove it home.

I served these as the first course with potato chips, just in case I had any purists in attendance. (Confession: I didn't make the chips from scratch. One has to draw the line somewhere!)

This course, really a meal in itself, was a total success: delicious, unique, special. Come to think of it, maybe there will be more lobster killing in my future. :-)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Side Note: I also served some homemade cole slaw with the sandwiches. I'm generally not a cole slaw fan - it's always too mayonnaise-y. But my Nana Hilda made a famous cole slaw, the recipe for which she took to the grave. My cousin Mindy and I have oft lamented the absence of that cole slaw (and Nana) in our lives. Given my new kitchen savvy, I attempted to recreate the recipe, and I think I got pretty close!

Here's what I did: shred a head of cabbage and a couple of large carrots. Add roughly a 1/2 cup of fresh lemon juice, 1/2 cup of mayo (homemade in my case), a tablespoon or so of honey, a heaping tablespoon of celery seed, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir until blended, and for best taste, let sit overnight in an airtight container, stirring a time or two. Very light and lemony, and not like picnic cole slaw at all.

Sautéed Zucchini and Corn (p. 325)

Again, I'm capitalizing on some very in-season foods. I couldn't choose between yellow squash and zucchini, so I used a little of each in this. (I sliced the rest of the squash and served it with my homemade hummus. Yes, that's right: homemade hummus, made with homecooked chick peas. What can I say? I'm amazing.)

This vegetable dish is deceptively complicated. Not in how it's prepared, because it looked easy to prepare and it was easy to prepare. But more in how it tastes. On the page, it looks like your average veggie dish, fresh garden flavors, no big whoop. But on the plate, it's like an explosion of flavors, delicious but veering toward overkill.

There are very few ingredients here: leeks, squash, corn, butter, a bit of cream, basil, salt and pepper, and lime juice. The end. There's a layering of flavors, and it's an interesting combo, but I was surprised how assertive they all were. It was like leeks vs. corn vs. basil vs. lime vs. cream, and instead of playing well together, they all sort of said "Notice me!" I don't think I helped matters, with my overly generous addition of lime juice. I should probably try this again without the heavy lime push.

Jeff: A-
(for overliming)
Martha: A

Sour Cherry Pie (p. 444)

Ever since I read the dessert chapter in this book, I've thought, What the heck are sour cherries? Who sells sour cherries? I'd never seen or heard of a sour cherry in my life!

So when sour cherries popped up at Fairway last week, I grabbed two containers lickety split! They've probably been there every summer, and I just never noticed them before. Because unless you're looking for them and you're going to cook with them, why would you ever want to eat a sour cherry?

I find it fascinating how different these are from the sweet cherries that I love (and eat pounds of every summer). They're smaller, a whole other color and texture, and not even in the same galaxy of sweetness. (Duh #2. They're sour.)

Pitting these is an ordeal, and that's even with a cherry pitter. I'm still finding little red spots of cherry splatter on my countertop and everything in the vicinity of the pitting ceremony. You have to pit a lot of sour cherries to get to two pounds, so you want to leave some time for that.

This was my first crust in an air-conditioned apartment, and Paula was right, it did make a huge difference. She had also suggested that if I floured my work surface more, I'd have a better result, and again she was right. I actually rolled out these crusts with no drama! It was almost easy! But I was too hasty to finish things up and get it in the oven, and I did a terrible job of crimping the edge, so the pie looks pretty clanky. Not sure if you can see this in the picture below, but I had some leftover dough so I cut out some star shapes and decorated the pie with them. (Awwwwww.)

(There was still a bunch of dough left after that, and you know me, I can't bear to throw anything away. So I rolled it out, filled it with peach preserves, folded it over, and baked it like a pop tart. And then I ate it. Yum! I'll suture my mouth shut tomorrow....)

I was worried about this pie, pre-baking, because the cherry filling wasn't as abundant as the other fillings I'd made. I was also surprised that there was only one cup of sugar in the filling. Seemed like sour(!) cherries would require a little more sweet support.

But all my fears were unfounded. The pie filling level was just right, and the degree of sweetness was, to me, perfection. As far as I'm concerned, this was my first home run pie. The fruit tasted fresh, the filling was a great consistency (none of that weird cornstarchiness or wateriness), and the crust was buttery and flaky. An excellent pie, all the way around.

I should mention another tip Paula passed on to me, having to do with the filling. Because I'm the type to follow a recipe to the letter, I never leave anything out. And in the case of fruit pie fillings, that has included using all the juices that collect in the bowl with the fruit. But my pies and tarts are consistently overly runny. Paula suggested I reserve the fruity liquid, and only use it if it seems necessary. (Duh #3!)

With the cherries, a lot of liquid had collected after the pitting process, so I strained it off. Then, once I had made the filling, again a fair amount of liquid collected at the bottom of that bowl too, so I used a slotted spoon to fill the pie, leaving the juice behind. And I'm so glad I did. I think that the extra liquid only leads to a watery filling, and by leaving it out, I got a perfect filling consistency.

Jeff: A
Paula: A
Martha: A

Side Note Part 2: I had some extra sour cherries, and I noticed that another recipe in the book (Sausage and Sour-Cherry Stuffing) called for dried sour cherries. So I found and used these instructions for drying fruit. One especially interesting part of the process was making a pectin dip to keep the fruit from turning brown.

Until we eat again....

Earlier in the day, the steamed lobsters await being made into lobster salad, as the pie and the buns cool...

Annie and Charles are excited to try the lobster rolls!

Ryan helping himself to some Sautéed Zucchini and Corn (Corn? When did I have corn?)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Day 128 - Roasted Whole Fish

Marcy's back, and it's fish time. I thought about repeating the Steamed Whole Fish for her, but then I remembered this variation on the Salt-Baked Fish, with an option to use the same delicious Asian flavors...

Roasted Whole Fish (p. 141)

That steamed fish was so wonderful, I couldn't help but hope that this roasted fish would at least hint at the greatness of the flavors of that dish. Not so much.

Unlike the steamed version, which has herbs placed under, over, and inside the fish, this roasted version has herbs only inside. I should mention that I couldn't find any lemongrass, which is a pretty big omission, flavor-wise. But still, there must be something about the steaming process which really infuses the flavors of the herbs in the fish flesh itself.

This roasted fish was cooked perfectly, and it was as delicious as well-cooked snapper can be, but it didn't have the same intensity of flavor of the steamed one. In fact, it was hard to find any evidence of these aromatics at all. (Specifically, I used garlic, scallions, ginger, lime zest, cilantro, and a bit of fish sauce.) Ah, well. It was still a wonderful meal.

I will pass along a tip that my friend Annie gave me. The skin of the fish she was roasting adhered to the pan, making clean-up torturous. She had considered lining the pan with parchment, but the cooking temperature was too high and it would have been unsafe. (How thorough is she? She reads the boxes!) What she realized afterward was that tin foil would have done the trick. So that's what I used. It was a really effective time and clean-up saver.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Friday, July 24, 2009

Day 127 - Tomato Peach Chutney and Grilled Chicken Parts

Tomato Peach Chutney (p. 179)

I just love chutneys. Anything that involves fruit and savory elements usually appeals to me. This one's a breeze, and it's a great time of year to make it. The tomatoes and the peaches are perfect right now. And it's a great way to spice up the same old, same old chicken meal.

Remembering Marcy's question about why wasn't I chopping things in the food processor, I actually used it today. What a time-saver! Thanks, Marcy! So this baby came together in no time. Great flavors, great accompaniment to grilled chicken breast. Hmmm, what else can I put it on?? :-)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Grilled Chicken Parts (p. 169)

Again, I'm grilling on the stovetop, but it works! I deboned a chicken breast (still haven't worked out that whole sliding out the wishbone in one piece trick) and rubbed the breasts (and tenders) in a spice paste. (Confession, it's not Martha's spice paste. It's the spice rub recipe from the back of the Kosher salt box. It looked interesting, so I thought I'd try it. The only big difference between Martha's and this one is that Martha's has wet ingredients, i.e. chopped garlic and oil, and this one is all dry. So I added some oil to make a paste and rubbed it on.) The breasts "marinated" in the paste for a day+, and then I grilled them.

OMG, amazing. So much flavor! The breasts cooked up rather quickly, roughly 15 minutes, much faster than Martha's 30-35 minutes estimate, although I didn't try to imitate indirect heat. In fact, I didn't even lower the heat to medium, as per the recipe. (oops) Meanwhile, they cooked great and they taste great. I used a thermometer to gauge the doneness, which I definitely recommend, as the breasts don't get overcooked. (I use Martha's digital thermometer for Macy's - I set it at 160° for Poultry, and it beeps when the chicken hits that temperature. No more guesswork!)

This chicken, topped with the chutney? Unbelievably good. What a treat!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Chutney just finishing up in the pot....

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Day 125 - Steamed Salmon with Peas

I think this may be the only dinner-for-one recipe in the whole book. It seemed like a fitting time....

Steamed Salmon with Peas (p. 213)

Easy. Quick. Delicious. This is a very special meal for one. It's such an improvement on the usual dinner-for-one fare, i.e. a thrown-together sandwich or a thrown-together salad. It took me no time to prepare, and when it was done, I felt like I had treated myself like a king, with little effort.

I didn't opt to buy a bamboo steamer. It was something I thought I could do without, and Martha wasn't insistent on it. I used my big pasta pot with steamer insert, and I was able to fit everything together on one level, vs. the duplex approach in the recipe.

I've been seeing the English peas in the markets for weeks (months?) now and would you believe, when I finally want to buy some, they're gone? So I used frozen peas, which is not the end of the world, because I think peas are the least offensive frozen vegetables out there.

I treated myself to a beautiful piece of wild salmon, and I used Boston lettuce to line the steamer. The wine in the steaming liquid was a great addition to the flavor. And dill, an herb I don't use a lot, is so perfectly paired with salmon. The peas couldn't be cuter in their cabbage cup, dotted with butter. I have to say, this meal looks so sweet in the steamer basket before it's cooked, maybe even better than it looks when it's done.

Even though my fillet was rather thick, it was perfectly cooked in 8-9 minutes. The yogurt sauce, which is literally only yogurt, lemon juice, and salt, was such a perfect accompaniment. It was truly a perfectly-formed meal, just the right amount of food, amazing flavors, not a lot of clean-up, super-healthy. Martha, you should do a whole book of these!

Jeff: A
Martha: A+

Until we eat again....

This is before - isn't it sweet?

This is after. Not plated very well, but wonderful to eat.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Day 120 - Fourth Tally!

Four months... and so much has happened!

I've actually spoken to Martha on the phone (on live radio)!

The movie version of my inspiration for this project, Julie and Julia, is getting ready to open.

And I've completed...


...175 of the 356* recipes in the book! I'm almost halfway there!!

I'd like to take this opportunity to voice a couple of random thoughts and concerns:

First of all, how did I miss soft shell crab season? I've been asking for them at Fairway for weeks, and they've never had them. And now I think I've missed the window completely. Crap.

Second, a piece of advice to pass on to you. If you are going to work with chilies or spicy peppers, wear gloves and/or wash your hands vigorously afterward. I was making a soup that called for a small dried chili, and I pulled out the seeds and the ribs to defuse some of the spiciness. I was also making chocolate cupcakes at the same time, and after I stripped the pepper, I popped the cupcakes out of the muffin tin. When I went to put a fallen crumb in my mouth, my tongue caught on fire! Everything I had touched, including several of the cupcakes, had been covered with a layer of invisible fiery dust! I washed my hands and put my finger to my tongue - still outrageously hot. Washed again, only slightly less hot. Three more times, and it started to equalize. Chilies are serious business!

Thanks for reading!

Until we eat again....

P.S. I should probably mention that FNBF and I have parted ways. It feels strange to be continuing this project without him - cooking with/for him was one of the things that kick-started this project to begin with. I'll always cherish the time we spent together and the meals we shared.

*You may have noticed that the total number of recipes in the book has changed from tally to tally. As I've become more familiar with the book, some of the things I originally counted as recipes or lessons now seem more like chapter headings (i.e. How to Cut Butter into Flour) so I've cut them, and other things that I overlooked, i.e. certain recipe variations like Brown Chicken Stock, have been added.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Day 119 - Watermelon Sorbet

Adinah was kind enough to take me on a Fairway Harlem run last week, and I took advantage of the door to door service by buying a whole seedless watermelon! Now, who doesn't love watermelon? And even though I could practically eat the whole thing in one sitting, I made sure to put some aside for...

Watermelon Sorbet (p. 482)

This recipe is the mother of all the sorbet recipes in the book. That is, Martha spells this one out in its entirety and then provides us with a spreadsheet with the guidelines for the other fruits.

Because watermelon is so watery, it's a really easy to fruit to sorbet-ize. Because the puree is so thin, I knew the egg test could be used. After adding 1 cup of syrup, the sugar balance tasted right, but the egg gave me only a dime-sized float. I added another 1/4 cup of syrup, expanding the float to a nickle-size, but then it tasted so sweet that I really couldn't bear to add any more. So I didn't.

The sorbet tastes OK. The texture is OK. And I have to say, I'm disappointed.

I'm developing a theory about sorbet. I believe that there are certain fruits whose flavor lends itself to being sorbet-ized, and there are other fruits whose flavor doesn't. Successful sorbets in my experience? Strawberry, lemon, pineapple. Unsuccessful sorbets? Mango (although that's another story), blueberry, watermelon. The first three completely changed my attitude about sorbet, from "who cares?" to "bring it on!" The latter three left me cold (no pun intended), tasting more like sugar than fruit.

I wonder if it has to do with the acidity of the fruit involved. Hmmmm...

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Day 118 - Spicy Hoisin Marinade and Grilled Carrots

Does it count if I grilled these on my cast-iron stovetop grill? I'm going to say yes, because Martha mentions that option in the book. Although she also says that a stovetop grill can never replicate the way charcoal grills food (or for that matter, gas). Still, we do what we can....

Spicy Hoisin Marinade (p. 173)

I definitely had a dimwitted moment when planning this one out. The recipe for this says: "Cook meat as desired, basting with marinade during first half of cooking to create a glaze." I read this, and I thought, "Oh, great, just slap some on while it's cooking." I forgot about the whole concept of MARINATING! Ugh. So the pork chops that were supposed to marinate for 6-24 hours marinated for more like 3 hours. :-(

I could sort of taste how good it would have tasted if it had gone the whole time. The marinade is really well balanced, great Asian flavors. I was particularly tuned into the presence of mustard. I could have used less orange zest, because that really dominates here, but it's yummy nonetheless.

I was disappointed that it didn't get glaze-ier... it seemed way too thin to take on that glaze quality. Martha says it turns into a "sticky, spicy, sweet glaze when cooked," but I didn't experience that. Hmmm....

Jeff: B- (For forgetting the whole concept of marinade...)
Martha: A

Grilled Carrots (p. 349)

This was not very successful either... The carrots get parboiled in salted water, then grilled. Well, I so oversalted the water that these carrots were basically inedible. I didn't realize how much the salt level in the water would affect the taste!

Between the boiling and the grilling, I sprinkled them with Martha's fennel spice mix, but these were really beyond help.

Of course I ate them anyway, but I'll eat anything....

Jeff: D
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Day 115 - One-Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes with Swiss Meringue Buttercream and Yellow Butter Cupcakes

Remember Paula? FNBF's BFF? The gourmet queen of the ravioli episode? Well, she celebrated a [milestone] birthday last week, and FNBF hosted the party on his patio on Saturday. I offered Paula any dessert she wanted, as long as it was in the book and I hadn't made it yet. :-) Paula chose the chocolate and yellow cupcakes....

One-Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes (p. 453)

One bowl? These really are easy. The only thing that held me up was the butter. I had read the recipe ahead of time (sometimes I don't do this), and I knew that I had to melt and cool the butter, but I just forgot. And there I was, adding the wet ingredients to the dry, and the butter was still cold. Booo! It didn't end up ruining the batter, but there was a hold-up in the process while I melted and cooled.

It's still amazing to me how chocolaty a batter can be with merely cocoa added. I had gone to the baking supply store for food coloring, and while I was there, I spied a package of Valrhona Dutch process cocoa, i.e. the good stuff, which I bought. :-) It made for a dark and delicious cake, if I do say so myself.

I like these cupcakes because the batter is not overly sweet, which is my general complaint with desserts. These are balanced really well and plenty moist. I can't wait to make the layer cake version!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Swiss Meringue Buttercream (p. 455)

This is the dream frosting you can't get enough of. Unlike the Easy Chocolate Buttercream Frosting that went on the Yellow Cake in June, which is fine but earthbound, this is heaven: light, fluffy, buttery, not too sweet, magically delicious.

It's also quite easy to make - there's a little nit-picky part at the beginning with whisking the egg whites and sugar over simmering water, but after that, the electric mixer gets the job done all by itself.

This portion is huge! I thought this would cover only the 24 chocolate cupcakes, but I ended up having so much left over that I used it to cover the yellow ones too!

Paula wanted pink frosting, so I had to dive into the world of food coloring. A little internet research led me to gel-paste food coloring, which is evidently less likely than its liquid counterpart to spoil the texture of frosting. There were about 15 pink choices at the baking supply store, and I ended up going with "Rose Petal." Everyone online cautioned to put some white frosting aside, shoot for a slightly over-saturated color, then add in the white to bring it back to the shade you want. They were very specific about adding only a drop at a time, with a toothpick no less. This must be some powerful stuff!

Not. After about 30 toothpick drops, I just started globbing it in there. I had been beating that frosting to a pulp every time I added a dot, just waiting for the frosting to collapse, but it never did - it held up great!

Next, I had some fun with my new pastry bag and pastry tips, as you can see in the picture. My first few cupcakes were pretty sloppy, but I had so much frosting left over that I just covered the bad layers with a cuter over-layer. (I called those duplexes.)

This frosting is genius, the ultimate, the only frosting anyone should ever make, period. It's flawless in every way. And the chocolate version should be even better!!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Yellow Butter Cupcakes (p. 432)

Again I say: why would anyone want a yellow cupcake when there's a chocolate one available? Meanwhile, these were SO much more popular than the chocolate ones at the party. What gives?

I halved the yellow layer cake recipe to yield 21 cupcakes, and these cupcakes ended up being somewhat smaller than the chocolate ones. Some didn't even quite clear the top of the paper liner. I thought they tasted a little overdone, but again, everyone flipped for the yellow ones... go figure.

I frosted these with the same pink frosting, although I took the pastry bag tip off and just blobbed on a swirl, sort of like soft-serve ice cream. They looked half cute and half like turds. (I know you were already thinking that.) Didn't stop anyone from eating them though....

I probably won't make these again, because, as I've made ever so clear, I'm not a fan of yellow cake. But I'm telling you, if you make these, people will kvell. Trust me.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Day 114 - Steamed Whole Fish

It's Friday, but it's not Marcy! Instead, it's my other veggie and fish-loving friend, Adrienne, whom I befriended at Stagedoor Manor in the late 70's (can you believe?). Adrienne is visiting from Los Angeles to promote her fabulous new product, Blankyclip, an adorable plush toy that also functions as a clothespin-type clip to hold a blanket to a stroller or whatever else your baby wants to pull it off of. They're really cute and make wonderful baby gifts. You can get them online at, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Buy Buy Baby or at Buy Buy Baby stores in the tri-state area.

Adrienne was very specific about no meat/no dairy, so I pulled out this fish recipe. (I also made that Indian Spiced Split Pea Soup, which is becoming a staple. I LOVE it.)

Steamed Whole Fish (p. 220)

After my last foray into the realm of preparing a whole fish, I recognize how important the quality of said fish is. Therefore, I bought a red snapper at Fairway today, and I watched the fishmongress scale and clean it myself. (Yuk!) So I knew that I was dealing with a beautiful, fresh fish. And let me tell you, you can really taste the difference.

This dish comes together pretty quickly. A bit of chopping, but otherwise, very straightforward. I'd never worked with lemongrass before, but I think I did OK. It's a little confusing, texturally, but the flavor was there in the dish so I guess it all worked out.

The fish gets steamed lying in a dish sitting on a rack inside a roasting pan resting on two burners on the stovetop covered in parchment-lined foil. (Did you follow that?) The fish gets stuffed and sprinkled with garlic, lime zest and juice, scallions, cilantro, lemongrass, ginger, and fish sauce. (I also threw in some baby bok choy to steam at the same time.)

I greatly underestimated the time it would take to cook the fish. (Martha gives you a guide based on the thickness of the fish, but I forgot to measure it before it was stuffed, so I was guessing from memory. In any case, I underestimated. And I took the fish out a little too early. There were some not-completely-cooked parts, but I'm OK with that when it's fish.

The flavors are amazing, and what's interesting is how flavorful the fish meat itself is, considering that it's merely been steamed together with the ingredients, not marinated or anything like that. It was truly delicious and other-worldly. (i.e. Asian) I'm going to have to make this for Marcy!!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

PS Adrienne loved the Blueberry Sorbet. It's a hit!

Until we eat again....

Mom-trepreneur, Adrienne, with the steamed whole snapper

Friday, July 10, 2009

Day 113 - Glace de Viande and Blueberry Sorbet

Glace de Viande (p. 52)

What a bizarre assignment... Take a quart of basic brown stock, boil it down by more than half, cool it in an ice cube tray, and then freeze it. Glace de Viande, i.e. super-concentrated frozen beefy cubes. I guess this is what you'd call gourmet bouillon.

I flipped through the book to see which recipes call for Glace de Viande, and I only found one: Wine-Braised Short Ribs on page 188. And in that recipe, glace de viande is optional. Clearly, I will be opting for glace de viande in that recipe.

As for the three cubes I'll have left over, I have no idea how or when I will use them, but I have three months before they expire. Hmmmm....

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Blueberry Sorbet (p. 485)

I've ticked off yet another entry in the sorbet column. I'm trying to hit each fruit as it reaches its seasonal peak.

This sorbet is delicious, if a little sweet. I ignored the egg test, because the egg didn't rise and the sorbet tasted plenty sweet. After the Mango Sorbet debacle, I've determined that the egg test only applies to very thin sorbet mixes, like lemon or watermelon. If there's any pulp involved, it will keep that egg submerged.

I went with Martha's suggested amount of syrup, and while it is on the sweet side for me, I think most dessert lovers will be happy with the balance. I haven't served it to anyone yet, though. I have to say, this sorbet is an amazing color....

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Day 112 - How to Bone a Chicken Breast, Risotto, and Brown Stock

How to Bone a Chicken Breast (p. 112)

I've boned chicken breasts before, just instinctually, but this is my first time doing it a la Martha. She calls this "making a suprême," like the citrus, i.e. isolating the most supreme parts.

Overall, it was a moderate success. She directed me to fish out the wishbone with my fingers, but it didn't happen quite that way. I broke off two pieces and eventually made a small cut to get the rest out. Everything else was de rigeur, although I'm not used to separating the tender (i.e. the slender fillet attached to the breast). It always seemed to be part of the breast, but I guess it's not supreme enough. :-)

FYI, I marinated the chicken pieces in the leftover marinade from the lamb (i.e. the Fresh Herb and Garlic Marinade) and then grilled it on the stove in my new cast iron grill/griddle combo, and I have to say, it was the best chicken breast I've ever eaten in my life. Period.

Jeff: A-
(Wishbone malfunction)
Martha: A

Risotto (p. 416)

FNBF had some oral surgery today, and he was yearning for something noodle-y and buttery, and I remembered this recipe. I scrambled around in my cupboards and fridge looking for all the ingredients, and amazingly, I had them all! I mention this because risotto sounds like a burdensome, time-consuming dinner, and it's actually easy and quick! And if instead of making the stock from scratch, I'd used store-bought or pre-made, it would have been even easier.

Like the Farro Risotto, this is a scary dish to make only in that there's almost no flavor until the end when you salt it. If you taste it during the process, it's almost tasteless. But once it's all cooked and seasoned, hidden flavors magically emerge.

FNBF was into it, but I was lukewarm. I could have used more flavor. Martha had me make that very delicate stock for the rice, but the next time I do this, I'll use something stronger, maybe even the brown stock I'm about to describe.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Basic Brown Stock (p. 50)

Attention: there is nothing basic about this stock.

Let me rephrase that. There is nothing basic about making this stock. It is possibly the most time-consuming recipe I've done so far. In my life. Ever. Don't start this recipe after 1PM because it's 10 hours until it's done cooking, and then it has to cool before you can refrigerate it!! I started at 2:30PM. Nuff said.

For five measly little containers of stock, this sure was a lot of work (and a lot of meat bones)! On a whim at Fairway, I had picked up the ingredients for this monster and started throwing it together. If I had read through the recipe carefully, maybe I would have waited until another day.

First is the browning/roasting of the bones, then the continued browning of the bones, with added tomato paste and vegetables. That's about two hours. Then the bones go in a pot, the roasting pan gets deglazed, and then you add the deglazed stuff to the pot, along with a lot of water, and simmer for eight, yes eight hours, adding some herbs along the way.

I will say this. My apartment smelled great! That is, if you like the smell of browning meat.

Amazingly, after all that cooking, the stock doesn't taste like much. However, I'm sure this is yet another example where a little bit of salt will unleash the wealth of flavor inside. I thought the stock would evaporate more and I'd have to add water, but the bones were covered the whole time, so I didn't. I was disappointed to only get 2.5 quarts of stock out of this when Martha estimated 3.5 quarts. Mind you, I was so tired at the end that I was spilling it everywhere, so that might account for losing a cup or two, but four? Hmmmm...

As promised, after an overnight stay in the fridge, the fat hardened on top and could be skimmed off. Like the chicken stock, when this is cold, it's completely jellied.

So, three containers have gone into the freezer (for French Onion Soup someday!) and the other two are getting ready to become Glace de Viande, which is even more precious than Basic Brown Stock.

After making this, I checked out all the recipes in the book that call for brown stock, and it looks like I will only have to make this stock one more time to complete them all.

Phew. What an ordeal!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Day 109 - How to Bone and Butterfly a Leg of Lamb, Fresh Herb and Garlic Marinade, Grilled Butterflied Leg of Lamb, Rhubarb Pie, and Fruit Galette

Fourth of July BBQ at FNBF's! And I grabbed the opportunity to bake as well as make Martha's Grilled Butterflied Leg of Lamb. Martha says to use a boneless leg of lamb, but Fairway was featuring only boned legs, so I figured, Hey, it's an opportunity to take Martha's Leg of Lamb boning lesson.

How to Bone a Leg of Lamb (p. 114)

There were three lamb leg options at Fairway: Whole Leg of Lamb (huge, too big by three for this size group), Lamb Shank, and Lamb Butt. The butcher told me I should go for the Shank, which I did. But I just did a little Google research and the butt (aka half-leg sirloin) might have been a better move. The butt is the top of the hind leg, the shank is the lower part, the butt is considered to be meatier and more tender, and the shank is described as leaner, tougher, chewier, flavorful.

I have to say, the process of boning the leg of lamb was quite time-consuming for a neophyte. The first step involves trimming away all the fat and sinew on the outside of the leg, and this is something you can spend hours doing. There's an endless amount of fat and sinew on this thing.

Cutting the bone out is pretty straightforward, although there's a joint in there that slowed me down for a while. Once the bone was cut out, I did a little more trimming, and the meat almost unfurled before me. Eventually there was one large piece of meat and then all these little islands of pieces, barely connected. I think maybe I got a little overambitious with my trimming of sinew, and I ended up separating what would normally have been bigger chunks of meat.

In any case, I feel like I know my way around a Lamb Shank now.

Jeff: A- (Too much trimming?)
Martha: A

How to Butterfly a Leg of Lamb (p. 115)

Since there was only one piece of the leg that was thick enough to butterfly, this ended up being quick and easy. Butterflying makes a lot of sense. You slice all but one inch of the meat in half, then you open it up and flatten it out. This is all so the meat will cook evenly. Brilliant. I'm going to do this with chicken breasts!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Fresh Herb and Garlic Marinade (p. 173)

The lamb recipe calls for a double recipe of this marinade, i.e. two cups of chopped herbs and 24 cloves of chopped garlic. And you have to do it the day before you want to serve the lamb, because it has to marinate for a while. I made this the same day I made dinner for Marcy. I was telling her about this recipe and how long it took for me to chop everything, and she said, Did you do it in the food processor? Doh! I felt really stupid.... Next time.

This marinade is really flavory. Every time I tasted it, it was positively spicy with garlic.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Grilled Butterflied Leg of Lamb (p. 171)

Martha says to marinate the meat for 8-24 hours. I always like extra flavor, so I went for the whole 24. You could smell this marinade from a mile away, so garlicky!

Because FNBF's grill doesn't have a lot of power, we had to cook the lamb a little longer than Martha indicated (so what else is new?). I have to confess, I forgot to do one step of this, the part where you add more marinade after you turn over the lamb.

No matter. This lamb was DELICIOUS! And it was cooked perfectly. We took it off when the thickest part was 125°, as directed, and it was just right. Mostly medium rare, with some medium areas and some rare areas for those who preferred. The flavor was incredible, and the texture was great, too.

This should be a BBQ staple!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Rhubarb Pie (p. 444)

Again, I made pie crust in a hot apartment. Recipe for disaster....

Since I knew I wanted to make the Fruit Galette for the BBQ, and it requires half a Pâte Brisée recipe, I thought I'd just use the other half for a pie while I was at it. Of course, this pie wouldn't be a double-crusted pie, since I'd only have half of the Pâte Brisée recipe, so I made the Rhubarb Pie recipe from the book with no top crust. (Plus, I felt like I had to hurry up with the rhubarb recipes because Tori Landau scared me into thinking that it was going to be out of season soon... and I have the shortcakes with rhubarb compote yet to do!!)

I scoped around my cookbooks and the internet to see if there are common adjustments to make if you switch a recipe from double-crust to single, but I couldn't find anything, so I went ahead with the recipe as written, minus the top crust.

Rhubarb is a strange creation. I wasn't sure what to make of it, which parts of it were usable, which weren't. The rule of thumb I invented was, if I can cut it, I'm putting it in. There were parts, mostly the bottom of the stalks, which I literally couldn't cut, and I thought that I should probably leave those out. The stalks switch from white to red to green, and I was being very equal opportunity about the color. I hope that I didn't put anything inedible in my pie....

Rolling out the crust is still a disaster for me. I definitely need remedial crust-rolling. I will look online for a Martha video, or I'll make Paula come over and tutor me. But not before I have air-conditioning. :-)

Crust aside, the pie baked seemingly well. After baking it for 10 minutes at 400°, then Martha says 50-80 minutes at 375°. I left it in the whole time, because I didn't see any good bubbling action until around 80 minutes, and I know that it's important for it to bubble to activate the cornstarch. I had to tent it with foil around minute 65, because the crust was getting brown, but ultimately, it came out looking pretty decent, if a bit rustic.

I have to say, it tasted pretty great! I was concerned that the rhubarb wouldn't be sweet enough, but there's enough sugar added that it tastes plenty sweet and very satisfying. I daresay, it was a hit.

Jeff: A- (For possible misuse of rhubarb and horrifying rolling technique in a hot kitchen)
Martha: A

Fruit Galette (p. 440)

And then there was the Fruit Galette...

This is probably as close to a true disaster as I've experienced in this project so far.

This is a tart-y kind of creation. A pie crust gets rolled out, fruit gets plopped on top, and then the crust is folded over the fruit creating an intentionally rustic pie.

Because of the hot kitchen, the crust was a drag to roll. Also, I think I put in too much fruit. And I probably should have reserved some of the fruit liquid.

I say all this because before I even had a chance to fold the crust over the fruit, there was fruit juice running everywhere, and the crust was getting soggy and unfoldable. One side of the crust was completely compromised, and once it started baking, there was a constant stream of juice pouring out of the galette. Eeek.

Thank goodness I cooked this on one of those silicone baking mats, because the clean up would have been horrifying: there was a tarry, black crust of fruit juice surrounding the whole pie by the time this was done baking.

The next thing that happens is: you put it (with the mat) on a rack to cool for 15 minutes. Transferring the mat to the rack was tricky, but do-able. Then, after that's cooled, you move the tart off the mat onto the rack to cool some more. This was when I became fully aware of how disastrous things really were. Separating the tart from the mat was nigh impossible. That layer of juice tar was both sticky and crunchy, so sliding it off wasn't an option. Additionally, the crust itself was soggy and unmovable. I used an offset spatula to disconnect it from the mat, and then I tried to do a tricky move where I rolled the mat out from under the tart, carefully delivering it to the rack underneath. You can see in the photo how that went.

So I had a plum tart in 6 pieces. Luckily, the pizza-sized tupperware that I used to transport it was a little smaller than the tart itself, so I assembled the pieces in the container to look like one continuous tart. It's all in the styling....

Meanwhile, it just didn't taste that good. I used plums, as did Martha in the book, and since I knew my plums were not that sweet, I used a little extra sugar, but clearly not enough. This tart was TART!

The crust tasted OK, but that tarry undertaste was unpleasant. This was edible, but it was most definitely NOT a hit.

Jeff: C (Need I explain?)
Martha: A

Until we eat again...

Clockwise from left: Ryan (one of my BFFs), Jim (my good friend and one of Ryan's BFFs), Antonio (Paula's FNBF), Paula (my FNBF's BFF), and in front of Ryan, the amazing, sliced lamb.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Day 108 - Vichyssoise

Dinner with Marcy, and what am I going to do today? Ignore Marcy's health-consciousness and go for broke!

The meal was two courses, and one course was a recipe from Martha's magazine, Everyday Food, so I'm not going to discuss it here, but it was good. (Not great, but good.) The other course was inspired by the hot weather and the fact that I STILL HAVE NO AIR CONDITIONING! Arrrgggghhh!

Vichyssoise (p. 69)

Something cold! Even though I had to use the stove to make the soup, the thought that I wouldn't have to turn on the oven at mealtime was very attractive here.

Marcy, Francophile that she is, wondered as to the origin of the name of the dish. A little research turns up that a French chef invented the soup while cooking at the Ritz Hotel in NYC in 1917, inspired by a soup his mother made, which he and his brother would cool down with milk in order to eat it sooner. He named the dish for the town Vichy, which was near where he was raised.

This recipe is so simple! There are amazingly few ingredients in this: leeks, butter, potatoes, water or stock, cream, buttermilk, and salt/pepper to taste. And it comes together very easily. The only thing is, you have to think ahead here. I made it in the mid-afternoon, and it took a while to cool down, so it didn't go in the refrigerator until 5:30ish. When I served it at 8, it was just a touch cooler than room temperature. So you'll want to make this in the morning to serve it nice and cold.

Even at that temperature, it was delicious. I used half chicken stock and half water, and there was a subtle chicken-y undertaste, but I think it would have been just as good with water only. This is a simple, classic soup, and it's irresistible.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Day 106 - How to Spatchcock a Chicken, Grilled Spatchcocked Chicken, Grilled Celery Root, Portobello Mushroom, Radicchio, Sweet Potato, and Tomato

As if FNBF weren't fabulous enough, guess what else he comes with? A backyard and a grill! Yes, hidden behind his East Village apartment building is a private garden wonderland of his own creation and curation. When he moved into this rental three years ago, the backyard was one big cement slab, but last summer he sledgehammered it to death, carried away the rubble, and brought the soil back to life, and now it's a veritable forest/English garden. (I'm just realizing I have no pictures of the garden to display... next time.)

How to Spatchcock a Chicken (p. 113)

OK, some words are just too interesting, and spatchcock is one of them. Martha speculates on the origin of it, but I'd rather use my own imagination.

For some reason, I had imagined that this was going to be a really complicated procedure, with lots of deboning, but then when I actually read the instructions and did it, it took about a minute and couldn't have been easier. All you're doing is cutting the back from a chicken and flattening it out, so that it will cook evenly on the grill. 1-2-3 done.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Grilled Spatchcocked Chicken (p. 167)

I do love a brine, yes I do. Having brined a few Thanksgiving turkeys and a chicken or two, I'm here to say that the enhancement in taste can't be beat. Why does so much flavor come from a simple salt and sugar soak? I don't know, but trust me, it's worth the time and effort! (especially with turkey)

This brine is quick and easy, particularly now that I have my new microplane grater to zest a lemon and an orange in no time! :-) I chose to let it brine in the refrigerator for three hours, but you can also do it for one hour sitting out.

We did run into a little problem when grilling time came around. First of all, the chicken starts skin side down, covered by a pan filled with bricks to weigh it down, and after 8-10 minutes, the chicken is supposed to release itself easily to be flipped. Well, it did no such thing. The skin was holding on for dear life. Two theories: 1) sometimes skin just sticks (especially when it's being pressed into the grill with a weighted pan), or 2) the grill wasn't hot enough and the chicken wasn't as cooked as it needed to be to release itself.

I put forth theory #2 because it became clear later in the cooking process that the chicken wasn't done when it "should" have been. (Again, my crazy timings aren't matching up with Martha's.) We left it on a good 15-20 minutes longer than she said, and it turned out to be cooked just right. So who knows... grill temperatures are impossible to keep constant.

I felt like I had to mention the skin thing because in the pictures, it's clear that something happened there, and I wanted you to know what it was.

Meanwhile, the chicken is DELICIOUS! There's a sweet glaze that gets brushed on a few times after the chicken's been flipped, and it's fab. And the brine gives the meat great flavor. My chicken needed no seasoning on the plate.

I should add that we ate that whole chicken ourselves. So much for "serves 5."

This is a GREAT way to grill chicken, so much better than chicken parts, and only a little more complicated. Totally worth it!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Grilled Celery Root (p. 349)

Having experienced Celery Root when I made the Puree, I thought I knew my way around it. Well, color me wrong. I peeled that bad boy, and it is not an easy job to peel a celery root. They're knobby and dirty, with lots of nooks and crannies. And I thought I did a pretty good job.

Then we parboiled them, which was fine. But we tasted a par-boiled piece, and it had a very fibrous outer layer to it. This fibrousness only got worse as the pieces were grilled. By the time it was served, the vast perimeter of each piece was like an inedible crust, which we had to nibble around. Which was too bad, because the celery root was delicious.

I wonder if I should have peeled it more deeply... possibly, but I peeled it the same way when I did the puree, and I don't remember it ever being this thready and thistly. Or maybe it was a strangely fibrous specimen. In any case, great taste, weird consistency.

Jeff: A- (Just in case I did something wrong...)
Martha: A

Grilled Portobello Mushroom (p. 350)

Yum! Meaty and dense and delicious, perfect for grilling, no muss, no fuss, just yummy, bringing out the absolute best of the mushroom flavor.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Grilled Radicchio (p. 350)

I loved this, FNBF not so much. But I think it has to do with your affection for radicchio to begin with. (I love it, FNBF not so much.) Grilling it gives it a kind of smoky flavor, but it's not soggy, like it gets when it's braised. I prefer the grilled version much more than a vinegary braise. I'd do this again.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Grilled Sweet Potato (p. 350)

Wonderful. Simple. Delicious. Exactly what you'd expect. I'm surprised Martha says 2-4 minutes each side, because ours took considerably more time than that. But all our food did, so why am I surprised?

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Grilled Tomato (p. 350)

Eh. Just OK. This has so much more to do with me than the recipe. I've never enjoyed grilled/stewed/broiled tomatoes. I will say this, though. It's the first tomato I've eaten this season that had a good tomato taste.

FNBF thought this could have used another flavor... That might have made it more appealing to me... a splash of balsamic?

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

It's a festival of grilled veggies, with a splayed chicken in the middle!

Weird lighting, but you can see our sweet bird and a little bit of FNBF's lovely garden.