Thursday, December 31, 2009

Day 289 - Omelet with Slow-Roasted Tomatoes

David's here, and you know he only eats three things (when it's not his "cheat" meal), and eggs and tomatoes happen to be two of them. I warned him that there's butter involved here, and he's willing to look the other way.

Omelet with Slow-Roasted Tomatoes (p. 89)

I've made a bunch of Martha's omelets, but I think this may be the first time I followed her instructions to a tee, specifically in terms of the size of the pan and the implement used.

I normally lean toward a bigger pan (10" or 12") for omelets, and I typically use a traditional spatula. But this time, I went with Martha's suggestion to use an 8" pan and a flexible spatula. And as you would suspect, Martha knows how to steer us to a "good thing."

The smaller pan makes for a fluffier omelet. It may have a smaller footprint, but it's loftier, which is welcome. And the flexible spatula is a perfect tool for this assignment.

I like the butter-to-eggs ratio here much better than the scrambled eggs recipe. 1T of butter to 3-4 eggs vs. 2T for 4 eggs, scrambled.

The filling doesn't go in until almost the end of the cooking process, and I worried that my refrigerated tomatoes wouldn't be in the pan long enough to get hot, or even warm. I probably should have heated them up, or at least brought them to room temperature before adding them, but David claims that they weren't cold, so I guess it worked out OK. By the time I cooked my own omelet, they had warmed up.

The tomatoes are quite juicy, so this is a wet omelet, and it's very tasty. The garlic, thyme, and tomatoes are so flavorful, and everything pairs great with the eggs.

In fact, the next morning, I made myself yet another slow-roasted tomato omelet with the last few tomatoes I had!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Off to Spain for a vacation - Iberian ham and paella, here I come!

Just a little over two months left once I get back to finish my way through the book - There's going to be some major boogieing in the kitchen! Watch out!

And Happy New Year!!

Until we eat again....

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Day 288 - Slow-Roasted Tomatoes

Slow-Roasted Tomatoes (p. 316)

Here's another one of those 6 hour recipes... this is good if you know you're going to be home all day. Otherwise, guess you won't be enjoying anything with "slow-roasted" in the name.

It isn't tomato season, and the beefsteak tomatoes were looking pretty pekid, so I went with the smaller tomatoes on the vine which looked more flavorful.

I actually did these in the toaster oven, and it worked just fine. You cook them for a while at 300°, then you lower it to 250° and go for a few more hours, then you sprinkle on thyme leaves and garlic slices and continue for another few hours. Hours, I tell you, hours!

I expected these to be closer to sun-dried tomatoes, but I'd say they're more like stewed or regular-roasted tomatoes. But the cool thing is that the long, slow roasting really does narrow and highlight and underline the tomato flavor. These taste full-out! Juicy yet condensed.

I'm making them for tomorrow's omelets, but I wonder what else I could do with them....

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Friday, December 25, 2009

Day 283 - Stuffed Turkey Breast and Sausage and Sour-Cherry Stuffing

Christmas Eve - I have to make something festive and holiday-like, even if it is just Marcy and me.

And because it's the season of giving, I offered to make Marcy something she would actually enjoy, not just gamely endure. So we started our meal with Black Cod with Miso.

But then it was time for:

Stuffed Turkey Breast (p. 156)

This was a first for me, and I was excited to try it. Even though I've roasted several turkeys, the disembodied breast is foreign to me, seemingly from a completely different animal.

The breast I bought from Fairway had been trussed - to death - and there was some residual damage that concerned me. The twine was cutting right through the meat and the skin, and I wondered if I'd be able to pull this recipe off as written, given that my turkey breast was almost in strips.

The first order of business is butterflying the meat. This was a little confusing - I wasn't exactly sure where the best place to cut was - there seemed to be a few ways of going about it. Not to mention, the breast was naturally separating in a few places. My goal was to cut it in a way that would keep it all in one piece, and I did manage to pull that off.

Flattening the butterflied breast proved somewhat more complicated. The thicker side just didn't want to flatten out that much, and the other side was quite delicate. Eventually, I just had to call it done, because I'd been hammering holes into the plastic wrap and I thought if I struck that meat any more, it would either fall apart or spontaneously combust. Meanwhile, I pretty much pounded the truss ridges out of it, so that wasn't an issue any more.

At this point, I was pretty sure my turkey breast was going to be a disaster, and the next stage didn't give me much more hope. I laid the stuffing on the meat and started trying to roll it up, but the stuffing was falling out and the meat was disintegrating and I couldn't figure out how to hold the roll together, slap on that sad piece of skin, and wrap it all up in cheesecloth at the same time. Finally, I just forced it all together, shoving stuffing back into the sides. Even though I was hoping for something more like a spiral/jelly roll look, the meat layer was too thick for anything more than a stuffed circle.... Ah well. Then I tied up the cheesecloth package and slathered it with you-can't-believe-how-much butter and stuck it in the oven on a wing and a prayer.

I didn't stress too much because we'd already eaten the black cod, and I knew no one named Marcy would be going home hungry, but I was pretty sure this was going to be a gigantic failure.

My thermometer was behaving a little wonky with this meat. It read strangely low for so long beyond when the turkey was supposed to be done that I pulled out another thermometer, and that one read 155°, so I took it out right away and said another Christmas prayer that I hadn't overcooked it.

Cut to the unveiling (see right): Doesn't look too bad. It slices well and it's actually pretty, sliced, even if it is just one simple circle. And surprise of surprises, it tastes really good and it's cooked perfectly! Wait, how did THAT all happen??

Martha, even under less-than-ideal circumstances, your recipes still pull through!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Sausage and Sour-Cherry Stuffing (p. 158)

Now, THIS stuffing is right up my alley. Meat and fruit and bread! What could be better!

It's funny - for the Chestnut Stuffing, I was supposed to air dry the bread cubes, and for this recipe, I was supposed to give them a light bake in the oven to dry them out. I ended up doing them backwards, but now I know - both methods work perfectly!

I want to take this opportunity to brag here that my dried sour cherries were homemade. Yup, dried 'em myself. Way back when I made the Sour Cherry Pie, I had leftover sour cherries, so I pitted them, learned how to dry them (pectin wash, long+low heat, then stirring for days) and ended up with the perfect amount for this recipe!

The stuffing is easy and quick to make, and the only thing I feel I should mention is that I needed quite a bit more broth to dampen all the dried bread cubes. Even with the extra broth, it's a very loose stuffing, pre-cooking, i.e. it doesn't hold together. As I mentioned above, it kept falling out of the breast while rolling.

But it all worked out in the end. Given how dense and plain this breast meat is, the assertive flavors of sausage and cherry in this stuffing are particularly welcome here. It's a great pairing and a surprisingly effective dish.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Monday, December 21, 2009

Day 279 - Fried Shallots and Wine-Braised Short Ribs

One great thing that has come out of having to make all these dishes is that it has taken a lot of the "I don't wanna" out of cooking and entertaining. In the past, I'd think: "It would be great to have them over" or "I want to try to cook that" and then I'd convince myself it would be too much work, etc. With this assignment I've given myself, I don't have the luxury of slacking. And because I keep plowing through, now cooking and washing dishes and entertaining and shopping don't feel like such burdens. If you repeat something enough, it becomes second-nature! (I just started applying this to making my bed, too. We'll see if that "takes.")

Tonight's dinner guests are semi-regular Tracy and first-timers Carolyn and Bill. Carolyn and I were understudies together in the original Broadway production of Into the Woods, and although we performed Jack and Jack's Mother together only once onstage, we performed it together constantly in understudy rehearsals for 18+ months. She's a great performer and a really good time, and we've been friends ever since. FYI, her lawyer husband, Bill, is a good time, too.

To start tonight's meal, I thought I'd try yet another squash soup, this time Butternut. This recipe (not from the book) was a disappointment. Unlike the acorn squash, this squash was barely sweet. And there wasn't enough roasted garlic in the mix to make much of an impression. I tried adding a tiny bit of ground ginger for some subtle flavor, but that wasn't enough to register either. I will definitely go back to the Kabocha/Bosc with onion version if I ever do this again.

Meanwhile, you were probably wondering when those fried shallots were going to show up, weren't you!

Fried Shallots (p. 75)

I had these in the refrigerator from the other day, and luckily, I remembered to take them out in time to get them to room temperature.

First of all, I sliced these on my mandoline so I could get some really nice, even, thin slices. And they were really nice, even, thin slices. I heated the oil to 300° as directed, but when I put some slices in, the temperature dropped quickly. I bumped up the heat, but that first batch took some extra time to brown. The second batch had a more consistent temperature, so they browned more quickly and evenly.

What is it with deep frying? There's such a fine line between the amount of flame that will maintain the temperature and the amount of flame that will raise the temperature... I'm still working on it.

These fried shallots had that Durkee's Fried Onions taste, which probably sounds like a dig, but I mean it as a compliment. I could eat them things right out of the can...

On the soup, they definitely provided visual interest, and while still dry, they delivered some crunch. I stirred mine in pretty quickly, thereby losing the crunch factor, though they still were a nice texture and flavor in the soup. I wonder if they'd be even better salted....

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Wine-Braised Short Ribs (p. 188)

Finally, I'm making the recipe that makes use of Glace de Viande, those ice cubes of incredibly reduced brown stock. If you added up the cumulative cooking time that went into this dish, between the Glace de Viande and the brown stock and the browning and marinating and cooking of the ribs, it'd total something like 845 hours. Consequently, I had some very high expectations for this dish....

Luckily, Fairway sells short ribs cut to Martha's specs (3-3.5 inches long). I didn't want to have to ask a butcher to cut 5.5 pounds of ribs in half. I'm scared of butchers. Are all butchers surly? All the ones I've encountered are.

The first thing that happens here is the ribs get browned. I did this (and the marinating and braising) in my 5.5 quart dutch oven, which is doable for this recipe, but Martha recommends a 6 quart pot, and she's right - I really could have used that extra half quart. I could only brown 5 ribs at a time, so I had to brown in four batches. Smelly!! And messy and time-consuming. But fine.

Then, you soften some veggies (carrots, garlic, onions, celery) and pour in a bottle of red wine. Then pop the ribs in there, add some herbs (peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme) and stick it all in the fridge for a day. I wasn't happy with the way the ribs were sitting in the pot: too many were above the liquid line. So I took a cue from the turkey brining bag, and I put the whole pots-worth of stuff in a ziplock bag just big enough to accommodate, and I put that bag in the pot. This created a nice snug fit which gave more marinade coverage. It also made it really easy to turn the ribs for even marinating.

Next day, empty the bag. Add the magical glace de viande, as well as 5-8 cups of brown stock. I used brown chicken stock, because that's what I had on hand, and Martha said that's OK. I could only get about 5 cups in there, because my pot was literally overflowing.

Word of advice: bringing this pot to a boil doesn't happen quickly, so leave some time for that step.

Once it's boiling, it goes in the oven for hours, which is nice because then you don't have to think about it for a while.

Eventually, you remove the ribs, strain the liquid, and then reduce it. Martha has this technique where you put the pot off to one side of the burner (depouillage), and it works! i.e. bubbles bubble on one side while "impurities" collect on the other, and it makes for easier skimming, although truth be told, there's not that much to skim off.

I had so much liquid! She estimates it should be 5 cups. I didn't measure, but I'd guess I was maybe closer to 7. I didn't waste any time and I cranked up the heat on that half-off-the-flame liquid-reducing-pot. Still, it was a long road to get down to 1.5 cups (I actually shot for 2 cups, since I was starting with more). Martha says 20-30 minutes for the reducing, but I think I went for 45, or maybe even more.

The last stretch involves pouring this reduced sauce over the ribs and putting them back in the oven to glaze and reheat. (They've been sitting out for a while, so they need a little heat.)

Then, finally, they're done! Hallelujah!

Serving these feels like crossing the finish line of a marathon. You really want them to taste great.

And they do! The meat is outrageously tender, literally falling off the bone. The sauce tastes deep and delicious, but not self-consciously overwrought. Just tasty. It's interesting that the only time salt and pepper shows up here is at the very beginning, used on the ribs before browning. I'm not sure if this is an oversight, but I didn't add any more S+P during the marathon, and it tasted balanced. (And for the record, I was using salt-free brown stock.)

I served this over fresh gnocchi, which was a nice combination, if somewhat heavy. It really tipped the meal into the realm of comfort food, which is where ribs truly belong anyway.

This dish may take 845 hours, but it's worth it.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Here's Tracy with the shallot-topped soup.

And here's Bill and Carolyn with the ribs and gnocchi.

Tried a new non-Martha Prosciutto Bread recipe. Awesome...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Day 277 - Fried Herbs and Blanquette de Veau

Marcy is basically the star of this blog... Does anyone's face show up as much as hers? Good thing she's so pretty. :-)

Soup has become a staple in the meals I serve her, and even though I've already made the Winter Squash and Pear Soup, I didn't serve it to Marcy, so I thought I'd give it another shot with some slight variations. Instead of Kabocha, I used an Acorn squash. And instead of a Bosc pear, I used a D'Anjou. Let me tell you, that made for some significant differences! I don't know if one acorn squash is very different from the next, but this one was amazingly sweet. That, combined with a sweeter and juicier pear, made for a much sweeter and thinner end-product. This was a totally respectable soup, but I definitely preferred the Kabocha/Bosc version.

But what did this version have that the other one lacked?


Fried Herbs (p. 75)

I thought I'd knock out two soup garnishes at once, the other one being Fried Shallots. I mean, why heat up a potful of oil any more times that you absolutely have to?

Since the shallots can be refrigerated for two days and the herbs have to be used immediately, I'm serving the herbs tonight. (Shallots will be appearing soon.)

I thought sage would be a perfect flavor pairing with the squash, and I threw in some parsley too, just for the heck of it.

Frying is so tricky. The temperature of the oil was up, down, up, down. How does anyone do this without a thermometer? Most of the herbs went into very hot oil (300° or above), so they cooked very quickly, and as far as I could tell, successfully.

This high temperature frying really changes the intensity of the herbs' flavor. Eating a fresh sage leaf is a major flavor experience, but eating a fried sage leaf is quite a subtle one. The leaf is flaky and almost meltaway. Same with the parsley.

While this garnish definitely complemented the dish visually, I can't say that it made a huge impact, flavor-wise.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Blanquette de Veau (p. 207)

Convincing Marcy to eat Blanquette de Veau could be a longshot, but I was banking on the cold weather to endear her to the idea of eating this creamy veal stew. And it worked!

Blanquette de Veau is a classic French dish, and if I'm not mistaken, it was one that Julia Child introduced to the US. I'd already made Martha's Artichoke Heart, Fava Bean, and Pea interpretation of this classic dish, but now it was time to do the classic variation, itself.

The way that this recipe is presented in the book is slightly confusing, in that you have to go back and forth between the original and the variation to make sure you don't miss anything. Even with all my care in this department, I ultimately missed a step that I think would have elevated the dish even more. But I'll come back to that later.

For all the folderol, this is a very modest dish - chunks of veal, small button mushrooms, and pearl onions in a cream sauce, totally beige. The charm of it for me is in the flavor of the stock.

Unlike a typical stock where everything swims freely in the same pot, here the aromatics are wrapped up in a cheesecloth sachet. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that while the veal is getting blanched, it's throwing off a lot of foamy glop which needs to be skimmed away, and maybe containing everything else in the sachet makes that easier. In any case, the veal and sachet simmer in water for a while, then the veal is put aside, the sachet is disposed of, and the liquid is strained and becomes the base for the sauce, i.e. velouté.

When I first started cooking from this book, velouté was a somewhat foreign concept, only visited occasionally for gravies at Thanksgiving. But now that I've made them countless times for soups and various main dishes, I can truly say that I get velouté, and it's really not a big deal.

Peeling the pearl onions for this dish was a cute exercise, thanks to Martha's tips on page 31. Her trick for peeling them involves a quick blanch, ice bath, and then cutting of the root end and squeezing them out of their "shells." It's fun, and a little dangerous. They really fly out of there.

The peeled pearl onions and button mushrooms get sautéed while the velouté thickens (look at all those French words with accents!). There's an optional step here in the fava bean recipe which involves a liaison, i.e. adding egg yolk and cream to thicken the sauce even further. Because we were going the classic route, I thought I should go whole-hog, so I liaised. Once the sauce was done, the veal and vegetables went back in and were brought up to serving temperature.

Sadly, this is where I missed an important step. The last line of the fava bean recipe is "Add lemon juice and chopped dill or parsley to taste." I didn't realize that the lemon juice is part of the traditional Blanquette de Veau recipe. I thought it was just one of Martha's add-ins, like the favas and artichoke hearts.

But just now, I did some cross-checking with other people's recipes, and I see that there's always lemon juice added at the end. Ah well.

The sauce of this dish is really tasty. For some reason, maybe because it's white, it tastes like a chicken cream sauce to me, i.e. too delicately flavored to be a meat sauce. It reminds me of the best possible tasting sauce from a chicken pot pie. The veal is nicely tender, and the mushrooms and onions are cute and sweetly old-fashioned. (We don't see button mushrooms and pearl onions much anymore, do we?)

It's a perfect winter stew, and I think I executed it very effectively (even with the missing lemon juice), but I'd be hard-pressed to think of an occasion where I'd pull this out again.

Jeff: A- (missed the lemon juice)
Martha: A- (could have been a little more specific in the variation description, thereby helping me to avoid missing the lemon juice)

I thought it was worth mentioning that I made Glazed Radishes to serve with this meal. Cooking radishes was a novelty for me, and I was surprised that they came out well. They retained their crunch, but lost much of their heavy pepperiness. What was left was definitely root vegetable-like, but without the heaviness of a carrot or parsnip. Also interesting was what happened with the color. I used a bunch of classic round red radishes which were on the small side, so I left them whole. While they cooked, the color faded from the skins and drained into the cooking liquid. By the time they were done cooking, the glaze was cherry red, and the radishes were a pale pink. Cute. I should have halved them, because they were difficult to pin down and cut. The glaze had a salty/sweet/sour taste - it seemed like a sauce that couldn't make up its mind what it wanted to be. This was an interesting experiment, but again, not sure if/when I'd ever revisit it.

Until we eat again....

Monday, December 14, 2009

Day 272 - Scrambled Eggs with Caviar in Eggshell Cups and Herbed Crème Fraîche

Brunch with Marcy, version 87.0, and look how fancy we are today!

Scrambled Eggs with Caviar in Eggshell Cups (p. 87)

Have you ever? This is too cute. Seriously. Overly cute. And completely impractical.

As you might imagine, I've accumulated a ton of utensils, implements, appliances, and servingware/cookware pieces in order to execute this project. However, I have drawn the line at buying an egg topper, i.e. scissors to cut the top off an egg shell. I knew that it was something I'd use only this once, and I'm trying to avoid bringing any useless things into my new apartment.

To make my eggshell cups, ghetto-style, I cracked a couple of eggs carefully, and created a big enough opening to allow a spoon into. That's the crazy thing about these tiny cups. You need to use baby spoons to eat from them. So impractical. Yet cute.

This was my first time making Martha's scrambled eggs, which are seriously buttery. Two tablespoons of butter per four eggs? That's excessive, I think. Don't get me wrong - they were delicious, but I think you could have achieved a similar effect with half as much butter. And you'd probably add a couple of years to your life.

Piping scrambled eggs into eggshell cups is incredibly twee, but fun. It's difficult to be refined with the next steps, i.e. dolloping crème fraîche on top and spooning caviar on top of that. My technique was lacking, and what should have been dainty and refined ended up sloppy and goopy.

Looks aside, though, it was yummy! Sinfully buttery, creamy, salty - a great trio of flavors. Since I'd only prepared two eggshell cups, we ate the rest from bowls. Not as cute, but just as delicious. I think I'd serve this again, but maybe I'd serve it on toast...

Jeff: A- (completely unrefined presentation, but I'm giving myself points for just trying)
Martha: A

Herbed Crème Fraîche (p. 75)

I knew the eggs wouldn't be a whole meal for us, so I whipped up a Martha-style broccoli and potato soup. And then I figured, since I have the crème fraîche on hand, I should probably make this soup garnish.

For herbs, I used roughly 1.5 tablespoons of parsley, a half tablespoon of thyme, and a hint of sage. (I thought it might be too strong a flavor to use any more.)

Stirred into the soup, it adds a nice richness and flavor, without being overpowering.

And you can make designs!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Day 270 - Spinach Cream Soup, Prosciutto Crisps, Lamb Tagine, Basmati Rice Pilaf with Pomegranate Seeds, and Ninth Tally!

It's my nine month anniversary with Martha! But before I announce my current stats, I have to tell you about tonight's meal!

Dawn and Kevin are back for more, so I guess the rabbit meal didn't scare them away. The new face is Jackie, not just my friend and wonderful actress, but also my real estate agent who helped me find my new apartment and sell my old one.

Tonight, the food is much more familiar to me than it was on rabbit night. In fact, Lamb Tagine is one of the few recipes I had already cooked from the book before having started this project. It's like being reunited with an old friend.

But first, some soup....

Spinach Cream Soup (p. 65)

It seems like I just did this soup a few days ago, but in fact that was Creamed Spinach and this is Spinach Cream Soup.

Several things are different here. First of all, the spinach at Fairway today was the heartier kind, so the cleaning went much more quickly.

Also, the way the spinach gets cooked is different.

This spinach is blanched, i.e. boil some water, push all the spinach into it, leave it alone for 30 seconds, then move all the spinach to an ice bath.

In the creamed spinach recipe, the spinach is wilted, i.e. you put the still-wet leaves in a pot over heat, then stir them around until all the leaves wilt and turn bright green.

Both techniques are equally successful and require roughly the same amount of work, although wilting requires one less bowl (for the ice bath).

Remembering my last dinner party and how much I left my guests waiting for food while I prepared everything à la minute, I did as much in advance as possible. I made the velouté (soup base) and blanched the spinach in the afternoon, and right before they arrived, I blended the cooled velouté with the spinach and started it on low heat. By the time we were ready for soup, it was perfectly hot.

Again, spinach and cream together make a great combo. There's a brightness to dishes prepared with fresh spinach, and this is no exception. The soup, for all its creaminess, tastes fresh and light and clean.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Prosciutto Crisps (p. 75)

Here's a soup garnish I can really get behind! What's better than cured pork? Crunchy cured pork!

This is so easy: lay prosciutto strips on a baking sheet and cook until crispy. Simple and effective.

Not sure if this is the best soup pairing for this garnish, but that didn't stop everyone from gobbling these up. Definitely a popular, can't-miss garnish.

Jeff: A

Martha: A

Lamb Tagine (p. 207)

The first time I made this dish, it blew me away. The smells coming from my oven transported me to another world, on the other side of the globe. I couldn't believe that by simply combining those familiar ingredients, I had created something so other-worldly. And the taste was as magical as the smells indicated it might be.

Since that first try, the magic has definitely faded. Maybe I'm getting jaded. Or just experienced. I've definitely tasted a lot of world flavors since starting this project, and there have been some amazing smells coming from my oven over the past nine months. That's not to say this recipe isn't solid. It is. I guess that first time is just special....

Martha says you can use bone-in or boneless lamb stew meat for this recipe, and I thought I was doing something nice by using some of each. The bone-in meat looked kind of meager, so I wanted to pump it up with some solid meat. But in the end, the bone-in pieces were much more delicious and tender than the boneless chunks. My recommendation would be to use all bone-in meat, but to buy extra, because much of the weight is bone, and you won't have enough meat to satisfy.

One of my gripes about this recipe is the instruction to spoon off some of the fat in the middle of the cooking process. I think if I were being really conscientious, I would have taken the pot out of the oven, lifted one side and properly spooned it off. Instead, I was trying to do it while it was in the oven, and of course it was unwieldy and awkward, and I gave up after a few tries. Plus, it's hard to tell what's fat and what's liquid. It's all the same color.

Maybe if I had spooned off more fat, my final product would have been thicker and not so liquidy. I took the lid off the pot as Martha suggested to speed up the thickening process, but even so, I ended up with a pretty loose stew. Nice taste, but not great consistency and concentration of flavor. And as I mentioned before, some nice tender meat, but also some tougher boneless chunks.

Also, the apricots had lost a lot of their sweetness in this batch. I missed it on the plate. Next time, maybe I'll add some prunes....

Jeff: B (should have skipped the boneless meat and spooned off more fat)
Martha: A

Basmati Rice Pilaf with Pomegranates (p. 415)

Here's the last of the pilaf recipes, basmati rice instead of white, with some added saffron and pomegranate seeds on top.

The rice itself was cooked perfectly. The saffron gives it a nice yellow cast, although I wished it had more flavor. The pomegranate seeds are a nice touch, though.

I've never understood pomegranates. I remember some kids used to bring them to school for lunch, and I'd be jealous, but now I can't imagine how anyone could ever eat one in the school cafeteria. They're so messy and staining, and what a terrible effort/payoff ratio!

Still, they provide some amazing color. I started with a very modest sprinkling on top, but my guests grabbed the dish of seeds and covered their rice in them. I think pomegranates are an "event" food, and people love to celebrate them.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

That's Jackie, with the soup and the prosciutto crisps.

And that's Kevin and Dawn, with the lamb, the rice, these carrots, and the garnishes for the lamb: toasted almonds, parsley, and harissa. Yum!

Ninth Tally

Nine months in, and 274 recipes and lessons have been completed. Wow. That's a lot!

Clearly, I've lost my lead, but I'm not daunted. I can keep up the one a day average until March.

Even with a ten-day vacation coming up.


Until we eat again....

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Day 267 - Chicken Consommé, Pork Shoulder Braised in Hard Cider, and Creamed Spinach

Tonight's dinner party was originally conceived to be a tribute to the wonderful Broadway musical [title of show] and its brilliant cast and creative team, but turns out several of them were unavailable, so it became a general tribute to fun people of the theatre world.

On the guest list: [title of show]'s brilliant lady star, Heidi, its brilliant director, Michael, Broadway (and Running Charades) diva, Celia, Heidi and Celia's uber-talented beaux: Ed and John, and everybody's favorite ex-actor/ESL teacher and dinner party regular, Ryan.

This was one of those crazy hodgepodge meals, i.e. Which dishes haven't I done yet that I can throw together into one barely cohesive but hopefully edible meal? Thankfully, I had an incredibly easygoing crowd that went with the lack of flow. Gotta love theatre people!

Chicken Consommé (p. 72)

You can't believe how much time, effort, and how many ingredients it takes to make this absolutely clear, simple broth.

The best thing I can say about this recipe is that everything is coarsely chopped - there's no 1/4 inch dice or julienne cutting, which is always a time-sucker, esp. for me with my crappy knives and lack of technique.

The first thing you do here is make the "clarification mixture," which is chopped onion, carrot, and celery, mixed with ground chicken and egg whites. This chills in the refrigerator, while you char an onion and chop it and a tomato. Then it all gets whisked into chicken stock and brought to a boil.

Eventually a "raft" forms, basically a giant floating chopped meat and veggie lifesaver, which pulls all the impurities out of the soup, leaving a super-clear and intensely-flavored broth, i.e. consommé. I have to confess I've never done or even seen anything like this, which I always appreciate. That said, it seems like a lot of effort for clear broth.

Next, the liquid is strained through a cheesecloth-lined sieve and then a second time through a coffee filter. (Really?) The sieve part went fine, but when I tried to use a cone filter for part two, the first one tore and the second one allowed through roughly one tablespoon per hour. Eventually, I gave up on that and used a paper towel, which worked perfectly. This seemed like an acceptable alternative considering that the next thing I was supposed to do was to sweep a paper towel over the soup to remove the fat on top. By the time I put it through the paper towel filter, the soup had cooled off, and the fat was left just sitting on the paper towel, so I think I killed two birds with one paper towel.

Martha indicates that the soup should be garnished, but she doesn't specify anything in particular, so I trolled around the web for ideas. I eventually settled on blanched julienned carrots and green bean rounds.

I must confess my big mistake. I should have doubled (or at least 150%'ed) this recipe. As written, it serves only 4-6 people, and we were seven. So yes, the portions were incredibly small. But hey, this is a very refined dish. If you pretend you're at Le Bernardin, a tiny portion seems entirely acceptable.

When I tasted the soup near the end of the "raft" stage, it had that magical soup sparkle, very delicious and fresh and flavorful. But I think it lost something in the reheating of it. By the time it was served, it tasted very much like a garden-variety chicken broth. Tasty, absolutely, but nothing I'd repeat, given the journey to get there.

Jeff: A- (for not serving big enough portions)
Martha: A- (for a very low effort-to-payoff ratio)

Pork Shoulder Braised in Hard Cider (p. 183)

This was one I was really looking forward to, being that it has two of my favorite things in the title alone: Pork and Hard Cider. I'm not a big drinker, but the one alcoholic beverage that I find irresistible is hard cider, so I was very excited to cook my favorite meat, pork, in it!

No easy coarse chopping in this dish! This one requires lots of 1/2 inch dicing, mincing, and fine chopping. Leeks, garlic, parsnips, and celery root are the aromatic components, along with some fresh herbs in a cheesecloth sachet. This dish starts on the stove for the browning of the pork shoulder and the softening of the aromatics. Then the pork and liquids are added, brought to a boil, and ultimately it goes in the oven for the bulk of the cooking time.

Similarly to the rabbit recipe, the amount of liquid suggested in the recipe was not enough to come "halfway up the sides of the pork," so I ended up adding more cider, stock, and even some water to bring up the level of the liquid. (Martha says to add more stock if this comes up, but I didn't have enough extra on hand. If you make this, you will definitely want to plan on having a nice amount of extra stock around.)

As with the chicken soup recipe, when this dish nears completion, you get rid of all the vegetables that have been cooking and flavoring the stock and you replace them with new versions of the same vegetables, in this case, sliced leeks, parsnips, and celery root, which go back in the liquid and get cooked until tender.

Once the new vegetables are done, then so is the meat, and they both get put aside, covered, while the sauce is prepared. I was supposed to reduce two cups of cooking liquid down to one cup, but there was closer to four cups in there! I turned the heat up really high, trying to reduce it as quickly as possible, which would have gone faster if I were going from two cups to one, but I wanted all that flavor so I used all four cups and just waited it out.

Martha had me make a beurre manié for this sauce, i.e. mix together a tablespoon each of flour and butter with my fingers. I'd never seen this before, the finger mixing, that is. It's a very effective, though messy, way of creating a smooth gravy starter. Eventually, the sauce thickened up nicely, and I finished it with cream and grainy mustard.

Surprisingly, after all that time sitting covered, the meat had stayed quite hot on the bone, so after shredding it onto the platter, it was still warm by the time it hit the table. The vegetables, though, had seriously cooled.

Martha says this dish serves eight, but I bought a slightly larger piece of meat (she says 3 lbs, and my pork shoulder was roughly 3.3 lbs) and I think we just barely had enough meat. I'd suggest serving this portion to 6 people or getting for a larger shoulder. The vegetables, on the other hand, were plentiful.

As much as I love pork, I wasn't blown away by the flavor or texture of this meat. It was tender enough, and it tasted fine, albeit somewhat bland. The vegetables were more interesting to me, flavor-wise, though visually, they were all a pasty beige, much like the meat, so this isn't a particularly attractive dish to look at.

The real star here is that sauce, full of flavor: sweet, salty, creamy, sharp, delicious, magically elevating the rest of the ingredients and giving the dish lift-off. Definitely do not skip this very important component.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Creamed Spinach (p. 297)

This recipe, I remembered to double. Unfortunately, that meant washing and trimming five pounds of spinach. Do you realize how time-consuming it is to wash five pounds of spinach? Also, the day I shopped for this meal, the spinach at Fairway was the fine leaf kind, not the heartier kind. Ugh. After spending 45 minutes washing and trimming the first three pounds, I had to quit, just to get some snacks out before my guests arrived.

And there I was, with guests and two pounds of dirty spinach. Enter my savior, Heidi (pictured here), who stepped in as sous chef and finished cleaning the spinach.

My only previous experience of creamed spinach was my mother's version, which was 100% from canned ingredients. Canned spinach, canned mushrooms, and canned cream of mushroom soup. Tonight's version, of course, is in another galaxy completely.

As I've come to expect, Martha's timing for thickening the béchamel is way off. She says two minutes, mine went for more like ten. (It may have been even longer. I felt like I was keeping my guests waiting forever... At one point I was stirring the béchamel and the pork sauce with one hand each. Now that's coordination!) Admittedly, my creamed spinach looked a lot thicker and creamier than the spinach pictured in the book, but I think that's a good thing.

Needless to say, it was fabulous. Fresh and green (unlike my mother's brown version) and heavy and light at the same time. A hint of nutmeg and a nice amount of salt sealed the deal. Now, if I could find prewashed spinach, I might consider doing this again!

Jeff: A
Martha: A- (I don't think two minutes of thickening is even remotely realistic)

Warning: Both the spinach and the pork dish will keep you busy right up until serving time, which makes them terrible choices for dinner parties. Doing them together was a near-fiasco, as I was very distracted bouncing back and forth from one to the other. I kept my guests waiting a ridiculous amount of time before the main course was served. And this, after feeding them merely a tablespoon each of consommé. Eek! Note to self: must plan better next time....

Lovebirds Celia and John, with their thimbles of consommé.

Real men eat pork! (from l to r: Ryan, Michael and Ed)