Friday, November 27, 2009

Day 255 - Perfect Roast Turkey, How to Carve a Turkey, Perfect Gravy, Chestnut Stuffing, and Potato and Turnip Gratin

Such procrastination! It has taken me forever to write this entry! And not because it was a disaster dinner... it was actually quite good! But I've taken a HUGE (dangerous) cooking break since Thanksgiving, and I haven't been able to face writing this until now. Apologies to anyone who thought I might have given up the ghost. I'm still very much in the game, and fyi, I'm back cooking again.

Now, on to Thanksgiving!

It's become a tradition for me to cook Thanksgiving for my parents and their friends in Florida. It all started a few years ago, when an ex-boyfriend of mine was sufficiently disappointed by a Blumenkrantz Thanksgiving meal at "The Clubhouse" that he swore he would only come back if Thanksgiving were home-cooked. I presented that to my mother and promised her I would do the lion's share, and she relented. She has little interest in cooking, and entertaining is a pain for her because no one but she can clean up in a way that's acceptable to her. Still, I twisted her arm, and here I am, back for my third (or is it fourth) Thanksgiving as Head Chef!

Preparations for this meal started about two months ago. Since I'm now cooking publicly, I felt like I had a reputation to uphold, so I was taking this particular Thanksgiving meal VERY seriously. Of course, I knew I'd be doing the turkey, stuffing, and gravy from the book, but all those sides! How to pick? And dessert: homemade or store-bought? And how much is too much? And who's coming? And when do I make what? etc.

There were shopping lists and schedules and printouts and graphs and spreadsheets.... I was not leaving anything to chance. Dishes were ruled out because they couldn't be made in advance. I didn't want to risk being overburdened on the day.

I arrived in Florida on Tuesday night and didn't stop cooking until I sat down to eat on Thursday night. It was a ton of work, but thanks to a spacious, beautiful kitchen, some sous chef assistance from my mom, and lots of advance preparation, it all went really smoothly! I should mention that my parents did all the shopping in advance. Thanks you guys!

Perfect Roast Turkey (p. 149)

This turkey recipe is quite similar to the one I've been cooking for the past few Thanksgivings, Roast Turkey with Quince Glaze. It was the success of that very turkey recipe that began my Martha-love. The only significant difference is that this recipe omits the quince glaze.

If you've never brined a turkey, you absolutely have to try it. You will be amazed at what a positive effect it has on the bird, both flavor-wise and moistness-wise. It takes some forethought, because the brine gets boiled and then has to be cool in time for the turkey to be placed in there 26 hours before going in the oven. (24 hours in the brine in the fridge and then 2 hours resting at room temperature.) I made the brine late on Tuesday night, so it would cool overnight and I could put the turkey in it on Wednesday morning. Martha puts all kinds of flavory ingredients in her brine, but she confesses that you can use just salt, sugar, and water to similar effect. Of course, I did it as written, with all the bells and whistles.

FYI, our brining technique involves a big plastic ziploc brining bag from Bed Bath and Beyond. We put the turkey in the bag, then pour in the brine, and then put the filled bag in a giant stock pot. The pot insures against a refrigerator disaster (the bag leaking or breaking), and it also helps contain and raise the level of the liquid. You want to keep all or or as much of the bird covered with liquid as possible.

Cooking the turkey was very by the book. I'd experienced all these techniques before, so it was sort of old hat: stuffing, buttering the skin, trussing, cheesecloth, brushing with butter and wine, basting, etc.

The interesting thing that happened here had to do with doneness. I started checking the temperature of the bird when Martha suggests, after 2.5 hours total cooking time. I think about an hour after that, the thigh temperature had hit 165°, so I turned the bird around just to doublecheck the temperature of the other thigh. It was in the 170°'s, so I deemed it definitely done. Took it out, let it rest for about 45 minutes.

However, when I cut into the thighs, there was a redness to the meat, and the juices were pink! I started to freak out, but I decided to trust the process and let it be. And in the end, I'd say the turkey was sufficiently cooked and well-cooked. In fact, the white meat seemed to be dancing dangerously near over-done. I'm not sure why there was so much pinkness with the dark meat, but it was extra moist, and it was all gone by the end of the night. And as far as I know, no one got sick afterward. (Wouldn't that have been horrible!)

The turkey came out well, but I think my two previous brined turkeys were even moister and more flavorful. At 19.5 lbs, this one was a bigger bird than the others, by about four pounds. I wonder if bigger birds are more difficult to cook, i.e. denser meat, less fat....

In the end, everyone was very complimentary, so I'm calling it a hit.

FYI, I dispensed with the optional garnish (lady apples, sage leaves, and chestnuts) and it's fine that I did. No one was taking any art shots. Besides, one of the wings on our turkey was partially amputated and couldn't be tucked back. That definitely would have been an end to the modeling career of our otherwise picturesque turkey.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

How to Carve a Turkey (p. 152)

When I cut into that turkey and saw all the pink and red, I have to confess, I got a little stressed out. In my panicked state, I needed some serious focus, and I was really grateful that Martha's directions were so straightforward and easy to follow.

The carving went very quickly, the most complicated part being getting the thigh meat off the bone. My mother usually carves the turkey with her electric knife, which allows her to make thinner slices, and though mine were thicker, they seemed more elegant. That hacksaw creates a kind of threading of the meat, while my slices were clean and smooth.

One weird part of the directions involved removing the stuffing on the neck end of the bird. Martha says to make an "oval incision that allows you to remove the stuffing with the skin intact." Well, I did it, but I wasn't exactly clear why I would want to do it. I had a big scoop of stuffing with a turkey skin top. Was I supposed to serve it that way? That doesn't seem appetizing. I ended up putting the turkey skin at the bottom of the stuffing dish. Why? I don't know. It felt weird to throw it away after making that beautiful oval incision.

At the time, I felt like I was racing through the carving and doing a sort of half-assed job, but I got so many compliments on it! Sometimes I think I'm too hard on myself...

I'm going to grade myself based on those compliments. :-)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Perfect Gravy (p. 154)

This gravy requires an hours-long process. There's a stock of vegetables and giblets that gets made while the turkey is cooking, and then the process stops until the turkey is out of the oven. Then you hustle.

First, you deglaze the roasting pan.

Then comes the part of the process that was so weird and not what I was expecting... I don't know how this got so off from what it looks like in the book. I must have done something very wrong, but I thought I was following the directions so carefully!

I heated 3 tablespoons of pan drippings in a saucepan and whisked in 3 tablespoons of flour. The next instruction is "continue whisking, cooking until mixture is fragrant and deep golden brown, about 9 minutes."

First of all, I had a ball of putty in 10 seconds. So I had this already deep golden brown ball of putty, which I was trying to whisk (?) and I had 8 minutes and 50 seconds yet to go! I knew there was probably a reason why you were supposed to cook it for 9 minutes, i.e. get the starchy taste cooked out, so I didn't want to blow that off. But what to do about my putty ball? I started adding more drippings, trying to get a little liquid action going, and after I had added all the drippings I'd reserved, it was still a ball.

So I kicked the ball around the pan with a whisk for 9 minutes. I mashed it and kicked it and mashed it and kicked it. Ours is not to reason why....

When, after nine ridiculous minutes, I added the stock to the saucepan, it seemed as if the ball would never dissolve, but eventually it did. And from then on, thankfully, the results were as indicated in the book.

In fact, I think this gravy was outstanding, probably the most accomplished thing I did that day. It had an amazing depth of flavor.

But why was that one stage so weird? I'm just developing a theory. I was probably supposed to use pan drippings without having separated out the fat, i.e. dripping that are mostly fat. Isn't that what a gravy thickener is? Equal parts fat and flour? That must be it. More (or even all) fat drippings would have gotten me closer to what is pictured in the book. That could have been made more specific....

Jeff: A
Martha: A-
(for not specifying "fatty" drippings)

Chestnut Stuffing (p. 156)

My typical stuffing is a kitchen-sink type stuffing. I always invent it on the spot and put all sorts of vegetables and fruits and meats and nuts in there: apricots and apples and sausage and walnuts and carrots and you name it. So it was a real departure to make this stuffing, which has very few ingredients: bread, chestnuts, butter, onion, celery, sage, chicken stock, parsley, salt and pepper.

Note to anyone who makes this: leave a ton of time for shelling the chestnuts. It's painstaking work! You score the chestnuts before boiling them, which is supposed to make them easier to peel, but this was in no way an easy task.

Also, there are 3 cups of chopped parsley used in this recipe, which means you need at least three giant bunches. I had to send my father out to get more. (He's such a mensch.)

And there are 4 cups of celery! And 4 cups of chestnuts, which I don't generally like. What is this going to taste like??

This stuffing was fabulous! I cooked a third of it in the turkey and the rest of it separately and then mixed it all together in a serving dish (sitting atop a hidden oval bed of turkey skin). It was moist and savory and delicious! The celery gave it crunch, and the chestnuts gave it sweetness. It was an eye-opening experience to realize that something can be this simple, have this few ingredients, and still be deeply flavorful and wonderful.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Potato and Turnip Gratin (p. 320)

This was the one side dish from the book that I incorporated into our dinner. It too is a simple recipe, involving only thinly sliced potatoes and turnips, covered in herb-infused cream and baked until brown.

The problem here was that the baking time was really off. It was not "golden brown and bubbling" at all after one hour of cooking time. I left it in there until it started coloring and bubbling, another 20 minutes or so, but even then, this dish was deeply undercooked. The vegetables were too crunchy and the cream hadn't thickened and the flavors just weren't there. Sadly, she was the least popular girl at the party....

The next day, I did an experiment and reheated it in the toaster oven, cooking it for another 30-45 minutes, until it was REALLY golden and bubbling. And then it came to life! It had flavor, texture, everything seemed right. Unfortunately though, at Thanksgiving, this was a bust.

Jeff: A
Martha: C
(I'm guessing something's really off in the recipe, either the cooking time or the oven temperature)

Incidentally, the other side dishes I prepared that night were Green Beans with Vinaigrette, Roasted Brussels Sprouts shpritzed with lemon juice, and a delicious Roasted Parsnip Bread Pudding. I also made an Apricot and Pine Nut Relish, which I thought was a Martha recipe, but I just found out that Real Simple is not a Martha publication! How could I have mixed that up? It's her competition! Ah well, I was trying to make it an all-Martha meal, but I blew it. Thumbs up on the relish recipe, though.

I should also add that my mother made cranberry sauce and her traditional jello mold. (It sounds bad, but it's actually good: two layers of fruit-packed strawberry jello, surrounding a layer of sour cream.) And our friend Vicki made an amazing Sweet Potato Pie!

For dessert, we had store-bought pies and vanilla ice cream, and I made the same Poached Pears I made for the Pavlova last month. Yum!

Until we eat again....

From left to right: Nancy (my mother), Stan, Leila, Evelyn, Aser, Ron, Zachary, Florence, Murray, Vicki, Tony, Audrey, and Harold (my father)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Day 251 - Shallow-Poached Fish Fillets

Marcy was coming over, as usual, for our weekly meal, and the plan was to make her the Scrambled Eggs with Caviar, served in egg shells. I'd even made my little egg shell serving "dishes" in anticipation of this event.

But then... I saw them. I'd been waiting for them for months. They were there when I started the project, and then they disappeared. But now they're back. Finally back. Of course, I'm talking about... kumquats!

Shallow-Poached Fish Fillets (p. 222)

This dish calls for a delicate white fish to be shallow-poached in a citrus-y liquid, then served with a citrus-y butter sauce. I opted for flounder, and it did not behave as I expected it to...

I definitely messed this one up, but I don't think I'm entirely to blame. Martha says that flounder is especially delicate and may cook in as little as 30 seconds. The indication that it's ready is opaqueness and flakiness when touched. Well, my flounder took even more than the predicted 30 seconds-5 minutes to get opaque and flaky. And it tasted overcooked. Now how did THAT happen? Plus, to add insult to injury, I had to do the fish in two batches since they were too big to fit in my pan in one pass, so those first two fillets were really unappetizing by serving time.

Similarly off was the making of the butter sauce. By the time the fish was done, there was not much liquid in the pan. Once strained, I didn't even have the three tablespoons I needed to make the butter sauce. I got a little extra liquid from what was collecting on the plate under the reserved flounder fillets. I incorporated the butter and ended up with a CRAZILY thick butter sauce. Practically spreadable. Tasty, but off.

As for the kumquats, I can't say it's the beginning of a love affair. They weren't very juicy. Martha says to squeeze them to release their juice, but I had nary a drop of juice released. Were they particularly dry, or is Martha just thinking wishfully? To me, kumquats are everything that's worth throwing away from an orange, without any of the "good stuff." Yes, you do get a big jolt of citrus flavor, but rind has never been my thing, and this is basically all rind.

That said, they were an interesting visual, they provided a lot of flavor, and it was fun to try them.

By the time my butter sauce was done, the fish was overcooked AND lukewarm. Not a good combination. Is it really possible to keep a piece of fish warm yet moist while it waits for you to make a butter sauce? If you think so, share your technique please.

In the end, this dish was a bust. Every element of the dish was off in some way. I have two more variations on this recipe to go, so maybe I'll be able to improve my technique with those.

Jeff: C-
Martha: B (Opaque=overcooked. Release juice? Not so much.)

Until we eat again....

Marcy was just happy for fish.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Day 250 - Orange Braised Rabbit and Perfect Soft Polenta

OK, OK, I know this is dated from before Thanksgiving, but I'm cheating with my time a little. I got so preoccupied with Thanksgiving preparations that I fell behind in my reporting, and I'm just now finishing an entry I started almost a week ago. But I'm going to predate this entry so as not to confuse. Follow?

Here I am, on Day 250, and I'm nervous because I'm serving dinner to the foodie-est group of people I've served so far. How do I know they're the foodie-est? Because they're willing to eat rabbit.

Dawn G., a regular commenter on this blog (thanks Dawn!), is a new friend - we met this past summer in a course at Landmark Education. She's super cool and fun and interesting, and so is her husband Kevin. I went to Dawn's birthday party a couple of weeks ago, where Kevin and Dawn and her mom whipped up some amazing Puerto Rican specialties, so it thought it was only fair to return the favor with some attempted Martha magic. (Also, I was quick to notice her impressive collection of back issues of Everyday Food, so I knew she'd appreciate....)

My "date" for the evening is my childhood friend, Barbara S. Our parents have been best friends since the year one, so Barbara and I have known each other literally since birth. One of the many stops along her very interesting and varied career path includes having attended the Institute of Culinary Education here in NYC. And while she didn't ultimately choose a career in cooking, she does have a wealth of knowledge that for me, tonight, was both very daunting and very helpful.

Orange Braised Rabbit (p. 190)

I've been eying the rabbit at Fairway for months, pondering this meal. I didn't end up buying Fairway rabbit, though, because of the way it's butchered there. Martha wanted me to buy the rabbit cut up as four legs and a deboned saddle in one piece (the saddle is the part of the rabbit equivalent to the two-sided breast of a chicken). The Fairway rabbit looked to be sliced down the middle, so that wouldn't work.

I went to Ottomanelli's on Bleecker for the rabbit, which was convenient because they also had the fatback I needed for the same recipe. (As I suspected, fatback is not salted like salt pork is. Hence my crazily salty pâté.) Unfortunately, the butcher was not willing to debone the saddle. Martha says "have the butcher do this for you" but I'm guessing Martha has her own personal butcher who is paid handsomely to do the RIDICULOUSLY painstaking job of deboning a saddle. I'm sure it wouldn't take a real butcher the 40 minutes it took me to do it, but it would probably take him a good ten minutes, and who needs to be bothered with that? I completely understand, Mr. Ottomanelli, but I'm not happy....

Finally, after cutting around the teeny tiny bones of a rabbit's spine, I had a clean saddle, which I filled with fatback and rosemary and tied up with twine to make a little roulade of sorts. Next, all the pieces were browned in olive oil on both sides. My pan got quite brown, so I did, indeed, have to do the optional deglazing. Then onions and garlic are sweated, a very small amount of cinnamon and red pepper flakes are added, and then comes the wine, orange juice and zest, rosemary and green olives. All told, a cup and a half of liquid. Reality check: that's not a lot of liquid.

I happened to talk to Barbara earlier in the afternoon as I was assembling all the ingredients. She was asking how the rabbit would be prepared, and I was describing it to her, and we were both curious about this small amount of liquid in this recipe. It is a braise, after all. Barbara suggested that if the liquid didn't cover, or at least almost cover, the meat, that I should add more liquid: stock, wine, even water.

So when the meager cup and a half of liquid was nowhere near covering the rabbit pieces, I knew I should take her good advice to throw some more liquid in there. I added a small amount of Basic Chicken Stock, some Brown Chicken Stock, and some more white wine, and then I was in business.

Now here's a little tip for you: Don't try to make this and another time-sensitive, hands-on dish at the same time. I was trying to coordinate this dish with Polenta (see below), and it was too much to manage, even for an expert (ha!) like me.

I moved the saddle to a warming oven, as Martha instructs, but I was so ahead of schedule that when the legs were deemed cooked through, instead of removing them to reduce the liquid, I put the saddle back into the liquid with the legs. I figured it was better to let everything sit in there, wet, than to let it all dry out in the warming oven waiting to be served.

Meanwhile, I was struggling with my polenta, and the minutes were passing, so the rabbit cooked for extra long. Eventually, I took out the saddle to slice it, but it ended up being way too early, and it dried up waiting to be served. The legs fared slightly better. They were in the liquid until almost the end. By the time I was serving the rabbit, the liquid had reduced a fair amount, so it took just a little more heat to finish it up.

Aside from the dried up saddle, I thought the rabbit tasted just fine. Not too gamey, sort of chicken-y, sort of turkey-y. The meat was fine-textured like chicken, but the taste was a little heavier like turkey. The flavors of the dish are nice... subtler than I expected. I think because the braise had cooked so long, the olives lost a lot of their saltiness, which surprised me. It wasn't a bad thing, but you expect olives to carry a huge flavor punch, and these were sapped.

I'd try this again with chicken legs for the flavors, but I don't think I'll go back for another rabbit experience, unless someone wants to bone my saddle.

(That sounds dirty.)

Jeff: C (for bad timing, over-cooking, and self-consciousness)
Martha: B- (for too little braising liquid and for assuming that all butchers debone saddle of rabbit)

Perfect Soft Polenta (p. 419)

You wouldn't think polenta could be a disaster, but I completely botched it.

This is another one of those dishes you have to attend to, right up until serving. Stir stir stir. It takes 45 minutes to make coarse-ground polenta (there are quicker-cooking grinds, but not for Martha).

I had measured my water (in two pots) and started them on the heat early so I wouldn't have to think about them later. Of course, by the time I got around to starting the polenta, a lot of the water had boiled away, and I had to add some more, so my water amounts entered the realm of guesswork. And I guessed really badly.

I was adding two ladles of water every five minutes, or maybe it was three minutes, or eight ladles, or four. It was very inexact, and what happened was, I added waaaaaaaaaay too much water, and there was no getting back. I stirred (actually, we stirred - Barbara pitched in, too) for over an hour, and it just wasn't boiling down. (I think the flame should have been higher, too.) Eventually, we threw in the towel and served it. It was watery, bland, bad. All my fault. Luckily, Barbara was there to force me to put extra salt in, to give it at least a modicum of flavor. A total bust. :-(

Jeff: F (that's what you get for not following directions well)
Martha: A

Other things I served that night:
  • A watercress salad (per Martha's recommendations) - I did that same thing with the shaved pears and fennel and chopped hazelnuts. FYI, it works better with a not-totally-ripe pear. It also works nicely with a crisp apple, e.g. Fuji.
  • Roasted Brussels Sprouts shpritzed with lemon juice - yum
  • A Pernod "French Kiss" cocktail - 4 parts orange juice, 1 part pernod, dash of grenadine. Have to do something with that bottle of Pernod I bought for bouillabaisse.... Here's a picture of the cocktail, courtesy of Kevin and Dawn.
  • Goat gouda, vegetable terrine, and membrillo with crackers, and radishes with butter and salt
  • Dawn and Kevin brought wine, and Barbara brought wine and 45 amazing desserts. No, she didn't make any of them.

Until we eat again....

That's Kevin and Dawn, with their rabbity plates.

Here's Barbara, gamely pretending that she's about to eat decent polenta.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Day 248 - Herbed Rosti with Wild Mushrooms, Wiener Schnitzel, and Double-Crust Apple Pie

Annie and Charles are back for dinner! Definitely not one of the lightest meals I've ever made, but maybe one of the best....

Herbed Rosti with Wild Mushrooms (p. 329)

When I saw the picture of this in the book, it looked enormous, but when I reread the recipe, I saw that it's meant to be made in a 10" pan. Which is not enormous. So the picture is a little deceiving...

This is basically an over-sized, super-deluxe potato latke. (That's pancake, for those of you who don't speak Jewish.) Same general idea - you grate potatoes, add an onion-y taste in there, and top with something creamy.

But Martha's version is much more refined. Instead of onion, it's leeks. And instead of sour cream, it's goat cheese. And then there are the wild mushrooms....

The first thing you do is grate, soak, and drain the potatoes. When I went to rinse out the bowl in which I'd soaked them, I was shocked to find a half inch layer of starch silt on the bottom. Potatoes really ARE starchy! I grated in advance, and put the potatoes in the fridge, and when I pulled them out later, they had developed a rusty color, which I'd also noticed in the soaking water. Happily, they went back to their regular color during the cooking process.

You brown the grated potatoes with some julienned leeks on the stovetop on both sides, and then you pop it in the oven for extra crispness. Meanwhile, you sauté the mushrooms with some more leeks. I thought I had bought chanterelles, but I just did a google image check, and turns out I bought some other very expensive wild mushroom. No matter. Martha says you can use any wild mushroom, and these worked nicely.

In the end, you put the pancake on a plate, dollop some goat cheese on top, cover with mushrooms, and serve.

What I realized when I was serving this dish was that there was no opportunity during the cooking of this dish when I was able to check the dish for taste, salt, flavor. I just prepared it as directed and put it on the table. At the last second, I thought, I have no idea what we're about to eat!

Well, it was heavenly. I mean, so perfectly balanced. Salt, crunch, light, heavy, creamy, herby, meaty. We polished that thing off so fast and probably would have eaten another, if it had been there. It was the ideal meeting point of comfort food and gourmet cooking.

I was very aware that Martha's proportions are excellent here. More cheese, and it would have been overkill. More salt would have been too salty. More butter or oil, too oily. More leeks, too leeky. Everything was just right...

...except the portion size. What was supposed to serve 4-6 was gobbled up by 3 in a hot second. If we had been six, there would have been an outcry, because a small portion of this dish would never have been enough.

Jeff: A
Martha: A+

Wiener Schnitzel (p. 267)

No one knows what Wiener Schnitzel is! Probably because of that hot dog place, which doesn't even serve it! It's a close cousin to Veal Milanese, i.e. a breaded and pan-fried cutlet served plain/dry with lemon wedges.

Which means I'm frying again - not my fave.

Word to the wise: don't try to make this and the rosti at the same time. I tried, but there were too many balls in the air. I had to pause the veal and serve the rosti as its own course.

I made my own bread crumbs! I cubed some beautiful white bread the night before and food processed them today. I thought those cubes would break down easily, but they put up quite a fight. I had to run the chopper for a few minutes!

This is a double breading process, like the Indian chicken cutlets. Flour, egg, bread crumbs.

I think the real trick for this dish to be successful is getting the right temperature of the oil. I have a candy thermometer, but when the oil is just a quarter inch high, there's no way to use it to gauge the temperature. I tried the trick where you throw in bread crumbs and if they sizzle, it's hot enough. They sizzle, but it wasn't hot enough. The first batch of cutlets sat in the oil too long. But the next two batches cooked perfectly, i.e. browned in a minute or two.

There's a decadent touch here. You pan fry the cutlets in oil, then drain them on paper towels in a warming oven, while you prepare a butter bath. Then you dip them in butter (!), drain, and serve with chopped parsley and lemon wedges.

So, veal, oil, butter, breading, lemon - what could be bad? It tasted great. And it had a nice texture. My cutlet, which was a little thicker than the others, cooked absolutly perfectly, still a little pink in the middle. My only complaint was that the breading was pulling away from the meat. I was hoping for the kind of breading that adheres to the meat.

It's a tiny thing. Overall, this was a delicious and well-made course.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Double-Crust Apple Pie (p. 442)

If you read the comments section on this blog, you may remember that when I mentioned that I still had the apple pie recipe to make, Annie asked me to save a slice for Charles.

So instead of saving him a slice, I just made him the whole pie. :-)

I'm happy to report that I'm finally getting the hang of pies. One big help was seeing an episode of The Martha Stewart Show last week, when Martha showed Rachael Ray how to make a pie crust. I'd never seen anyone make a pie crust, and there were conceptual things that I missed or ignored, like turning the dough an eighth of a turn after each roll of the pin. For the first time, I had circular crusts, with a normal amount of overhang! (My old crusts were so misshapen that I was trimming off giant blobs of crust and patching, etc.)

I chose a variety of apples for the pie: Fuji (my favorite - sweet and spicy, and it holds its shape), Granny Smith (for tartness) and Gala (I forget why). I made the filling, and I let it sit for a while so that some of the liquid would drain and settle. I didn't want an overly gooey pie.

I think one of the nice twists here is the addition of a little ground ginger in the filling. It's a tiny undertaste, but it's very welcome.

The pie baked perfectly. Martha says 10 minutes at 400°, then 70-85 minutes at 375°. Mine went the whole 85. I used a silicone pie crust protector (thanks again, Walter), and it worked beautifully. I thought maybe the crust wouldn't brown because it was covered, but it browned just right.

EVERYTHING about this pie was just right. The crust was flaky and light, but also rich and substantial. The filling was sweet, tart, spicy, and buttery, in perfect balance.

Charles who is obsessed with apple pie declared it the best apple pie he's ever had. And Annie, who isn't even a pie lover, declared it the best any-kind-of-pie she's ever had. Charles went back for a second slice. Annie just licked her plate. :-)

Jeff: A+

Martha: A

Until we eat again...

Incidentally, I served two other non-Martha courses tonight.

First, a salad, my own creation, which turned out really well! I made the shallot vinaigrette and lightly dressed some baby arugula. Over that, I put some shaved fennel and bosc pear which was also lightly dressed. And on top of that, some chopped toasted hazelnuts. A perfect combo.

I also made a red cabbage dish to go with the veal. It had bacon and apples and raisins and vinegar and caraway seeds. Very German and very delicious, if slightly overcooked.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Day 243 - Brown Chicken Stock

Brown Chicken Stock (p. 52)

I made this days ago, and I forgot to write about it!

This is like the Brown Stock, except instead of beef bones, you use chicken bones. And unlike the Brown Stock, this only takes 3-4 hours, instead of 11-12 hours. There are a few other little changes: omit garlic, use less tomato paste and fewer herbs. But overall it's the same concept.

Interestingly, Martha says this chicken version is appropriate for use in more robust dishes, like braised meats. I think I can understand what she means. You'd think the beef version would have a more aggressive flavor, but it's actually quite delicate. The chicken version is definitely more assertive.

And a whole lot easier. :-)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Friday, November 13, 2009

Day 241 - How to Peel and Devein Shrimp, Stir-Fried Shrimp and Sea Scallops with Black Bean Sauce, and Spicy Stir-Fried Vegetables

It's Chinese New Year! Well, not really.
But I did make a Chinese banquet tonight! My guests were Ryan and Judith, who you may remember were my guests for miso soup and tempura vegetables way back when. Since our ritual excursion together for the past 18 years is to a restaurant in Chinatown called House of Vegetarian, I redubbed my dining room "House of Not-Entirely-Vegetarian" tonight. And I actually did my shopping for this meal in Chinatown, which is always an amazing experience. I could spend hours looking at all those exotic products and produce and sauces, etc.

How to Peel and Devein Shrimp (p. 122)

This is sort of a no-brainer. Peeling shrimp is really easy, especially with nice sized shrimp like these (16-20 is the size description, meant to imply how many there are in a pound's worth). It's easy to see the vein, make a precise cut, and get that thing out.

I noticed that with the peeling, sometimes I peeled right to the tail, and sometimes I left that last inch on. When I was eating the shrimp later, I'd wished I'd peeled right to the tail every time, which is what I'll do if I ever stir-fry shrimp again. The extra inch of shell is nice if you're going to be eating the shrimp with your fingers, but in a hot dish, who needs it?

Jeff: A- (should have removed all the shells)
Martha: A

Stir-Fried Shrimp with Black Bean Sauce (p. 265)

This is the book's original black bean sauce recipe that spawned the cubed pork variation that I cooked a few months ago. Tonight, I'm knocking out the original (shrimp) and another of the variations (sea scallops). They both call for the same sauce, so I'm making it easy for myself by doing them together. :-)

The funny thing about this dish is that while it takes a bit of time to chop and dice and mince the ingredients for the sauce, the actual cooking time is roughly 5 seconds. You get that pan so hot and the shrimp cook so fast, and then the sauce goes in for a blink of an eye, and then it's done!

This was definitely the highlight of the meal, according to all of us. There's something about this treatment of shrimp, i.e. a light coating in cornstarch and then a quick stir-fry in hot oil, that is just brilliant, and the sauce could not be a better accompaniment. This is quite a simple recipe with a very authentic tasting result. Try it! Your friends will be amazed at your Asian flair!

As Martha warns you in the book, there's no extra sauce here. It's almost dry. But while there may not be sauce, there is a TON of flavor. Fabulous!

Jeff: A
Martha: A+

Spicy Stir-Fried Vegetables (p. 337)

This was Ryan and Judith's other favorite dish of the night. I was luke warm on this one.

This preparing of this dish is a little more labor intensive. Again, there's a lot of washing and trimming and chopping and slicing: snow peas, mushrooms, scallions, ginger, garlic, jalapeños, plus a sauce and a slurry (cornstarch mixed with water). All the vegetables get cooked individually, then the sauce gets heated and they all go back in at the end.

Now, THIS dish is very saucy! And spicy! It calls for something called doubanjiang, i.e. broad bean paste with chili. When I asked for it at the Chinatown supermarket, the guy looked at me quizzically, and then he figured out what I was trying to say, and he flat out laughed at my pronunciation. Well, I tried.

It's a tricky thing, shopping for Asian products, because there are a million ways to spell everything. The thing I ultimately bought was called Toban Djan, which I'm guessing is another way of spelling doubanjiang.

Martha called for 1/2 cup of the stuff, and I started out with 1/4 cup, because I'm a spice wimp, but then I thought, that's not in the spirit of this project, and I put the other 1/4 cup in.

Now here's the big mistake I made, entirely my own fault. There was so much happening at the time (excuses, excuses) and I got distracted. The overview of the recipe is that you cook each vegetable separately, then you put them all together at the end. Well, I was reading haphazardly, and I thought it said to put all the oil in the skillet and cook the snow peas. What it really said was "put 1 Tablespoon of oil in the skillet..." but it was too late. I was cooking the snow peas in four tablespoons of oil.

Luckily, I was able to mitigate it somewhat by leaving much of the extra oil behind, so I didn't add the next tablespoon of oil to cook the scallions. Still, by my calculations, there were two extra tablespoons of oil in this dish, and that's never good.

I was using a skillet, not a wok, and I wasn't able to get the seared, browned-in-spots, quality that Martha was pushing for with the snow peas and scallions. I had the heat turned up pretty high, but I'm guessing it would have to have been up all the way for some browning action.

Once the snow peas and scallions are cooked, then you soft up some cut up ginger, garlic, and jalapeños, then add the very thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms, cook that for a while, then you make the sauce.

Like any well-prepared cook, I had my whole mise en place going, i.e. everything was chopped, washed, measured out, and waiting in little bowls all around my stovetop. I had made the slurry, i.e. water and cornstarch, earlier, however when I went to use it, it had separated into a solid lump of chalk and water. I frantically broke up the lump and revived it quickly, but it was a scary minute there. As I mentioned, this dish has lots of sauce: about two cups of liquid go into the mushroom mixture, and then the slurry thickens it up into one of those classic Chinese sauce consistencies. It really works!

ltimately, the dish was a crowd pleaser. (Crowd=Ryan and Judith) It was a little spicy for all of us, but not too spicy for any of us. (We're all spice wimps. I removed all the seeds and ribs from all chile peppers used tonight.) I think I would have liked it better if it had had more substantial vegetables in it (broccoli, zucchini, etc.). But all in all, it was an entirely credible, Chinese dish.

Jeff: B (for not reading the recipe more carefully, re: oil)
Martha: A

Stir-Fried Sea Scallops with Black Bean Sauce (p. 266)

These are the scallops made with the same sauce used with the shrimp above. I have to say, the scallops paled in comparison to the shrimp. I think it has to do with how they took to this particular cooking method.

While the shrimp browned right up, the scallops would not sear. They cooked fine, but they never developed any brown. I had dried them well, because I know that scallops have to be dry to sear, but maybe I didn't dry them well enough?

In any case, once the sauce went on, you couldn't tell that they weren't browned. And they tasted well-cooked, i.e. not over or under cooked. But they just weren't as fabulous as the shrimp.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Incidentally, I made two other things for this meal.

When I was shopping in Chinatown, I was intrigued by so many things, and I thought, I'm going to buy something unusual and find a recipe for it. So I bought long beans, which are these crazy 20 inch long green bean type things. I used this Jean-Georges recipe with a couple of variations (no bell pepper, shallot instead of onion), and I had another mise en place incident, when I mistakenly added salt instead of sugar. (Didn't get too far before I figured that one out.) The beans came out well, but I think I overcooked them a little, and they weren't a crowd favorite, although I preferred their dryness to the sauciness of Martha's veggie dish.

Also, I finally made Jeffrey's (who's this other Jeffrey?) Sticky Rice, a recipe from Martha's website that I've been dying to try. I remembered it when I was in the Chinese supermarket, and I grabbed a bag of Thai glutinous rice.

To get that sticky rice taste and texture, you soak the rice overnight, then you literally steam it to cook it. Lo and behold, it's sticky rice, just like in the Vietnamese restaurants!! I wrapped it in cheesecloth to steam it, and a fair amount stayed stuck to the cheesecloth. I'm wondering if anyone has another idea of how to wrap it for steaming....

Finally, let me mention that cooking a meal like this definitely calls for some ventilation. I wish I had opened a window or two beforehand, because it's a day later, and my whole apartment and all my clothes smell like the kitchen at Shun Lee at the end of a busy night.

Until we eat again....

That's Ryan with the spicy veggies and Judith with the beloved shrimp.

And now Ryan has the scallops and Judith has the long beans.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Day 240 - Eighth Tally

Well, here I am, eight months into this extravaganza, and I'm still having the time of my life. So many culinary adventures, so many great meals shared with wonderful people, so many new kitchen utensils!

Before I started this "project," I'd watch cooking competition shows knowing that I'd have no idea what to do if faced with challenges like that. And frankly, I'm still completely stumped by some of the things they throw at contestants on Top Chef or Chopped or The Next Food Network Star.

But at the same time, I'm seeing so many foods and dishes I've prepared and understanding how they work. Now, whether I'd be able to balance the flavors if forced to work with Twizzlers, jicama, and pastrami remains to be seen, but I know things like how to deglaze and make a reduction and fry and roast and grill and butterfly and so much more. So, I guess what I'm saying is, I'm ready to be The Next Iron Chef.


My lead is pretty much gone, I'm afraid. It's day 240 and I've completed 251 recipes and lessons. I've got to hustle now! I guess I'm going to be giving a lot of holiday dinners with some crazy menus. Wiener Schnitzel and Tortilla Soup and Cream Puffs. Perfect.

Wait a second. I just reread that last paragraph. I've completed 251 recipes and lessons. In eight months. That's pretty amazing.

Meanwhile, is there anyone out there who'd eat rabbit? So many of my guests are side-stepping that one. Dawn? What do you say?

Until we eat again....

Monday, November 9, 2009

Day 237 - Creamy Tomato Soup and Herbed Croutons

Help! I'm running out of vegetarian soups to make for Marcy! I'm going to have to start serving her meat dishes! :-)

Creamy Tomato Soup (p. 69)

I don't think I've ever eaten plain tomato soup before. Yes, I've had it as the base for Manhattan Clam Chowder or Minestrone, but plain? No. I think I've had a lifelong aversion to thin tomato liquids, i.e. juice and soup. However, something amazing happened earlier this year, after having made a recipe from the book that called for tomato juice. (I think it was the grilling sauce recipe.) I had a mostly full bottle of tomato juice in my refrigerator, and one day, I poured myself a glass. And I liked it! So I was ready to try this soup with an open mind.

This is pretty much the easiest soup of them all. It's the kind of thing you could probably make at any time with no notice. Most people have a can of tomatoes lying around, and the only other things you need are an onion and some garlic.

Martha indicates that you can use either canned or fresh tomatoes here, but it seems as if even Martha thinks canned tomatoes are the way to go, in that she mentions them first. This is unlike Martha's typical M.O., where she urges you to go the extra mile with fresh ingredients.

Because of all the liquid in the canned tomatoes, not to mention the stock or water you've also added, this is a thinner soup than most. I reserved more than a cup of liquid before pureeing, and the consistency was still quite thin without adding any liquid back.

I didn't finish with the optional cream, because I know Marcy prefers things without. I would say that the soup tasted pretty decent, if a bit undersalted. It had that tomatoey-acid thing, which is not my favorite, but the onion/garlic flavors softened that a bit. I think I might prefer it with the cream, but my guess is that that would really change the whole character of the soup. And I was glad to taste it unadulterated.

This is a nice option for a quick, last-minute, colorful, flavorful soup.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Herbed Croutons (p. 75)

Martha suggests these as a perfect garnish for the tomato soup, and she's right. By the way, it's really easy to make croutons, and they're SO much better than those horrible packaged ones, which are either too greasy or overly seasoned with chemical-tasting flavorings.

I decrusted and cubed up some nice Italian bread (Martha says to use white sandwich bread, but this Italian bread worked just fine), tossed the cubes in melted butted (I also added a little of my homemade basil oil), and baked them until golden. Then, I tossed them in some chopped basil, a perfect flavor match for the tomato soup.

The great thing about the croutons in this soup was the range of textures they provided. Crunchy for the first few bites, the croutons that hung out in the soup for a while puffed up and became fluffy, doughy chunks that reminded me of a Tuscan bread soup. Mmmm.

FYI, I made those basil oil and mozzarella crostini one last time. It just seemed like too good a match for this meal.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Day 235 - Pico de Gallo

It's quick visit from the Paladinis! Tracy, Mark, and the kids came up north for a Bar Mitzvah this weekend, and I hosted a mini-gathering of Tracy's "people." What could I make for a casual afternoon shmoozefest? Pico de Gallo!

Pico de Gallo (p. 179)

This is what, in the past, I would probably have referred to as salsa, but now I can see the difference between this and most other salsas. Pico de gallo is all raw, uncooked, whereas many salsas have that cooked-through consistency.

You can pretty much guess what's in here, because you can literally see the ingredients: tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, onion, cilantro, and garlic, all chopped or minced. The only things you can't see are the salt and lime juice.

There's some work involved here with the chopping, even more so today because I made a double batch. But it's not terrible. The thing I should mention is that the window for eating this is quite small. Martha says it should sit in its own juices for an hour at room temperature before serving, and it should be consumed on the same day it was made.

As someone who doesn't like spicy foods, my first thought was to put in way less jalapeño than in the recipe, even though I was removing all the seeds and ribs for less heat. I started out with a third of the amount in the recipe, and I tasted it right after it was made. It was plenty spicy.

But something happened when the flavors melded, because when I tasted it an hour later, there was very little spice to it. So in the end, I added the other two thirds of the peppers, ultimately following the recipe's proportions exactly.

And it was a perfectly delicious, typically flavored pico de gallo. My only complaint had to do with all the liquid. Between the tomatoes and the lime juice, this is a very juicy salsa. I started serving it with all the liquid, but I finally wised up and drained it. I'm sure it's nice for it to sit in the liquid to develop its flavor, but once that's done, I think it's OK, nay better, to serve it drained. Makes it easier to enjoy.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Here's the gang at one point in the afternoon. Clockwise, from top left: Benny P, Tracy P, Dana E, Mark P, Adinah A, Jenny T, and Samantha P.

I also cut up one of my leftover poached pears from pavlova night. Isn't this so pretty??

Until we eat again....

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Day 233 - Roasted Mushrooms, Bolognese Sauce, and Pavlova

It all started with Tracy C. Having been her travel buddy for years now, I know her eating idiosyncrasies inside and out, and I knew there was only a handful of things in this book that she would eat or actually relish. And meat sauce was at the top of that list. So from the beginning, I've planned to center that meal around her.

Then Emily called, asking when she was going to get to come over for dinner again. And since Emily and Tracy and I are all Northwestern University, School of Speech/Communication, Class of '86 grads, it was a short leap to a college mini-reunion dinner party.

Added to the mix were fellow classmates (and former roommates) James (who had already dined at Jeff and Martha's with Emily), Dan, and Victoria. Given that all my guests are distinguished entertainment-world movers and shakers, it was a miracle that we could actually schedule this and pull it off! And I'm so glad we did.

Working backwards from the pasta sauce, I came up with a menu. I knew I wanted to make a salad, so I decided to build one around Martha's roasted mushrooms. I took Martha's suggestion to serve the Bolognese with pappardelle, which I augmented with those yummy mozzarella crostini that I served Marcy last week. And although I originally intended to bake a cake for dessert, my workout buddy, Ken, talked me into choosing something lighter, given that the entree was heavier (i.e. pasta). Good call, Ken. Enter Pavlova.

Roasted Mushrooms (p. 313)

Who doesn't love roasted mushrooms? I chose shiitake and oyster mushrooms, and I slathered them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh thyme, and then popped them in the oven. Of course, while they were in, people were arriving, and I lost track of them, and they got a little... crispy.

Now, I actually love things crispy like this, so I was fine with it. And it added a crunch to the salad, which was welcome. But I'm sure Martha would have tsked.

I do want to describe the salad they topped, because this was my own creation, inspired by some other things I've made from this book. And I was proud of what I think was a successful combo. With lemon vinaigrette, I lightly dressed baby arugula and roasted yellow beets, and put the crunchy mushrooms on top, along with some shaved parmesan. That's Victoria and James pictured with the salad course.

The only thing I might have done differently was the dressing. Maybe a shallot/cider vinaigrette would have been a better match, something a little less zingy...

In any case, I was very happy with this course. And can I just say, the inside of a roasted yellow beet is a beautiful thing to look at.

Jeff: B- ("A" for the salad, but "B-" for over-roasted shrooms)
Martha: A

Bolognese Sauce (p. 383)

Thankfully, this was something I could make in advance of the dinner party, since I didn't have a lot of time for cooking that day. I've made meat sauces before, sort of winging it, but I've never done one as detailed as this.

I think this recipe is quite traditional, as I checked out some other Bolognese recipes online, and they mostly stick to the same formula. Brown pancetta, sauté diced carrots, celery, and onions, brown meat, add tomato paste, wine, milk, stock, tomatoes, and various herbs, in this case thyme and bay leaf, and of course, salt and pepper.

Things that stood out to me:
  • I'm curious about the use of the word "brown" when referring to how the meat is cooked. Do we say "brown" because the meat goes from pink to brown, or is it that this meat should actually be getting a dark brownness from being cooked at a high heat, like a slight char? If it's the former, I did it just right. If it's the latter, I messed it up. There were no brown bits sticking to the pot. It was slightly liquidy (with grease) the whole time....
  • Again, I had a strange cooking-time situation here. Martha says to cook this "low and slow," i.e. for a long time at a low temperature. So once everything's in the pot, you bring it all to a boil, then "reduce heat to a very low simmer and cook, partially covered, 3 to 3 1/2 hours... (until it has) the consistency of a loose chili." At three hours, it was nowhere near loose chili. It was more like a big pot of soup with meat sunk to the bottom. Since I had to leave my apartment for a while, I turned the heat down to the lowest setting and came back two hours later to find it had barely reduced. That's five hours. Then I turned it back up to "very low simmer" and waited another couple of hours. Still soupy. Finally, I brought it up to what I'd call a steady medium simmer, and in another hour, I had loose chili. So... eight hours total. Oy. Well, it was definitely low and it was DEFINITELY slow.
  • I like the way she handles thyme here. What you do is, you tie a bunch of thyme springs into a bundle with cooking twine, and the bundle sits in the sauce as it cooks. And what happens is, all the little thyme leaves fall away, leaving a bundle of bare thyme twigs for you to remove at the end. Neato. Be sure to tie the bundle tightly - mine wasn't tight enough, and I had to fish for some errant twigs.
As I mentioned, I cooked the sauce in advance, so I had to wait for it to cool, then refrigerate it, and then reheat it on the night of. I can't say it was my favorite sauce ever, but it was absolutely respectable. I actually don't have a lot of knowledge about this specific cuisine... my experience of Italian food was formed more by red-checked tablecloth joints (i.e. Sicilian American) than by the traditional foods of Emilia-Romagna. As Martha describes it, the sauce is "hearty, but profoundly elegant." I think that's accurate. It doesn't have that Southern Italian tomato-y-ness that hits you over the head. Here, you get a nice balance of tomato, meat, milk, and herb.

The homemade pappardelle came out just OK. Similar to the pasta I made for the Ravioli with Butternut Squash Filling, this pasta had an unwelcome heaviness, unlike the lightness of my first few pasta efforts. What's happening? I thought my pasta would get better each time I made it, not worse!

However, unlike all my other pasta, which floated upon hitting the boiling water, these noodles stayed low until they were done, and then they rose. Hooray!

One of my frustrations about serving homemade pasta is that it cools so quickly once plated. One of my readers suggested heating the bowls. (Too complicated for tonight.) I also considered putting the pasta in a covered serving bowl and letting people serve themselves. But then, I'd worry about it sticking together, which it did, in fact, start to do once I'd drained it. So I doled out the pasta into six bowls, brought them to the table, and then put the sauce on each portion at the table. And this completely solved the issue. The sauce was super hot, and it kept the noodles hot. This doesn't work when you're serving ravioli with melted butter, but when you can slather on a bunch of meat sauce, you're golden.

It was a nice course. People seemed happy with it, especially Tracy (see right). I don't mean to sound like a perfectionist, but I wish the pasta were lighter and the sauce were... tastier? Saltier? I don't know. It was good. I'm going to shut up now.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Pavlova (p. 452)

Per Ken's suggestion, I redirected to this lighter choice for dessert. Pavlova is a meringue shell, hardened on the outside, chewy inside, which gets topped with whipped cream and fruit. In Martha's recipe, she uses Poached Apricots and fresh blackberries, which I'm sure taste amazing with it, but apricots are out of season, so I went digging for a seasonal match option, which I found in a Pear Pavlova recipe from Martha's website!

The meringue shell was another thing I could make in advance, so I put it together the night before. It's quite easy, actually, assuming you have an electric mixer. (My new electric mixer is CRA-MAZING, by the way. It whips/mixes things in a fraction of the time you'd expect!) So, you whip egg whites into a frenzy, add small amounts of vinegar, cornstarch, and salt, then a large amount of superfine sugar, and finally a touch of vanilla. Then you transfer it to parchment on a baking sheet, form it into a round with a well in the middle, and bake it at a very low temperature (200°) for 1:40, and let it cool in the oven overnight.

Easy. Done. Until... I tried to get it off the parchment in the morning, and it completely fell apart (see below). There was an ooziness around the edges, which was not a good sign. Did I over mix the egg whites? Undermix them? It was pretty much doing what it was supposed to do, texture-wise, but it was supposed to "lift easily off the parchment" and this shell did nothing of the kind.

Luckily, I had the ingredients I needed to make a second one, so I did. And this one was even oozier than the first! But I'm no fool. I didn't even try to take it off the parchment. I thought, I'm serving this mother on the paper, so there!

The poached pears were a revelation. They were poached in a syrup concoction involving a bottle of red wine, then refrigerated overnight in the poaching liquid, so by dinnertime they were deeply red and gorgeous! Then, the poaching liquid is reduced to a thick syrup, which gets drizzled over everything. And it tasted amazing! While I think the poached apricots and berries would have served as a nice tart contrast to the super sweet meringue, these pears worked just fine.

The meringue on the other hand... oozy. Some of the egg white mixture had separated during the baking process, and there was like a syrup that settled at the bottom of the shell, which glued the meringue to the paper. So serving this was a nightmare. They were the ugliest dessert portions ever, broken pieces of hard meringue, and globs of gluey marshmellowy stuff and whipped cream and pieces of pear. (That's Emily and Dan pictured with the pavlova, and theirs are the two cutest portions!) But it tasted good. For me, it was overly sweet, but that's my personal sensitivity. Other people didn't mind that.

It was definitely an interesting experience, and if it had come out well, I might even consider making it again, since it's sort of an event, and it's not that hard to execute. But two consecutive pavlova failures does not bode well for a repeat performance.

If anyone has insight into why mine came out so gluey, please be in touch, either via email or comment below.

Jeff: C (this would have been an F, except that it was edible, and the pears were an A+)
Martha: A

And before I forget - again! - here's a very belated thank you to Walter H., who was so sweet to send me something from my Amazon wish list: a pie crust protector! I can't wait to use it on my apple pie!

Until we eat again...

Doesn't the Class of '86 look great?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Day 230 - Potato and Cauliflower Soup, Crostini, and Basil Oil and Mozzarella Crostini

Eek! Such a big gap -10 days since my last cooking venture. To be fair, I was working, first teaching in Virginia, then doing some writing here in NYC, so I wasn't avoiding... just busy.

But I'm back, and so is Marcy, for a vegetarian special. Can you say "comfort food?"

Potato and Cauliflower Soup (p. 69)

Again, here's another very simple, pureed vegetable soup which is deceivingly, dare I say, outrageously creamy. With no cream!

The only ingredients: butter, onion, garlic, chicken stock, cumin, coriander, salt, pepper, potato, and cauliflower. But you'd swear there was a bucket of cream in there.

I know what you're saying... what about the butter? Well, it's just two tablespoons to get the onion softened.

This soup is strangely pure, almost too mild. It tastes like savory, no-flavor soup, but not in a bad way. It's just that the potato and cauliflower flavors are very subtle, the small amounts of cumin and coriander don't really pop, and aside from the background flavors of onion and garlic, there's no dominant taste guiding this soup. It'd be perfect for a kid who won't eat anything with a strong flavor. Or a pregnant woman who gets sick if she smells or tastes something intense.

I peppered it quite heavily, which was nice.

The consistency is amazingly dense. This is the first time that I reserved a cup of broth before pureeing, and ended up adding it all back in. And even so, the soup was super-thick.

Don't get me wrong - it's delicious. And it's fascinating to see the difference some potato in the mix will make re: texture. But if you're looking for a wow factor, I'd recommend the carrot ginger soup over this.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Crostini (p. 75)

I have so many soup garnishes to get through, so I thought I'd take these on today. I was just going to make the mozzarella toasts below, but when I realized I had everything I needed to do these crostini too, I thought, "What the heck?"

This is basically fancy toast. You cut up a loaf of Italian bread, brush the slices with olive oil, sprinkle a little salt on, and then broil. It's a nice way to elevate bread. No one's going to lose any weight here, but that was never the point of cooking my way through this book, so enjoy!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Basil Oil and Mozzarella Crostini (p. 75)

This recipe takes crostini to the next level...
i.e. cheese!!

I'm still not 100% sure I interpreted this recipe properly. Let me explain. The recipe reads: "Make crostini, leaving slices whole. Remove from broiler and immediately brush with a bit of basil oil..."

The part about leaving the slices whole is there because in the crostini recipe, she has you cut the slices in half, so that's not the confusing part.

For me, the confusing part is, does she want me to make the crostini with oil, i.e. brush bread with olive oil and broil it, and then put basil oil on it? Or does she want me to make crostini leaving out the oil, then put basil oil on this dry bread?

I chose the former interpretation and put on oil both times.
Err on the side of more oil, I always say. And I'm thinking I was probably "right."

This toast, with the first brushing of olive oil and salt, then a second brushing of basil oil, and finally a topping of mozzarella cheese, was delicious! It's like a cheesy garlic bread, only without the garlic.

And that basil oil is a cute little trick. It's not a recipe in the book, per se, but Martha describes techniques on page 23 for infusing oil with herb flavors. In this case, you put fresh basil and oil in a blender until finely chopped, let it steep overnight in the fridge, then strain out the pieces and voilà, basil oil!

The only warning I'd offer is: keep a close eye on the oven. This toast goes from perfectly browned to burnt in a hot minute, so you don't have a lot of time to play with here. Also, I'd err on the side of undercooking the bread in the first go-round, because in the second go-round, if the edges of the crusts are already browned, you don't have much time to melt the mozzarella before the browned edges start going black.

Still, even with charred edges, this is irresistible. A nice twist on grilled cheese.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....