Friday, February 26, 2010

Day 347 - Thyme, Shallot, and Lemon Marinade, French Fries, and Cauliflower Puree

I'm on a deadline, and I can't catch a break!! First the flu, and now: snow!

This was going to be a much more coherent meal as originally planned. My cousin Harriet was supposed to come in from NJ bearing an untrimmed beef tenderloin, with which we were going to give ourselves Martha's lessons on trimming and tying. Alas, the snow has postponed this tutorial, and I'm left with these rather meat-inspired side dishes.

Meanwhile, Marcy was available for dinner, so I pulled out my last marinade and took a seafood detour.

Thyme, Shallot, and Lemon Marinade (p. 173)

marinade makes sense on the page and in my mind, but when I made it, I was a little confused. It's full of chunks of things, lemons, shallots, thyme leaves, but there's not a whole lot of liquid involved.

Since Martha said this pairs well with shellfish and fish fillets, I picked up some cod fillets and scallops to try both. The cod went into ziploc bags, so the fillets were pressed up against all the chunks. And the scallops sat in the bowl with the rest of the marinade. I guess the chunk thing didn't deter any marinating from happening, but it's just so chunky, it threw me.

I pan-seared the scallops and served them with the Cauliflower Puree, a complete rip-off of a previous recipe. And I pan-fried the cod plain, so we could really taste the marinade.

The scallops tasted great, but I couldn't get much of a bead on the marinade flavor. The puree was actually the star of that dish.

The cod, on the other hand, was obviously beautifully seasoned. It is a really balanced, delicate, French-y flavor that allows the fish to shine without overwhelming it. I offered Marcy an extra squirt of lemon, and she said no thanks, because the flavoring was so right on.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

French Fries (p. 333)

Can I just say how happy I am that this recipe marks the end of my deep-frying career??

As much as I've complained about having to deep fry so much, I will say that it has definitely given me an appreciation for well-fried foods. Frying is not an easy thing to do. At least without a Fry Daddy. (I'm told Fry Daddies will regulate the temperature of the oil automatically. No fair!!)

I was actually excited about making fries because I do like my fries a certain way (extra crispy), and I figured I'd be able to control how they came out. Alas....

Warning: this recipe requires a 4-24 hour soak!!

Accordingly, the day before, I cut all the fries and put them in cold water in the fridge. The starch run-off wasn't as extreme as when I grated potatoes for the rosti, but there was some sludge at the bottom of the bowl the next day.

The frying happens in two stages. The first is blanching, at 300°, to soften them, and the second is the browning, at 350°, to get them crisp.

As usual, my oil temps were all over the place. I think what I should have done was to get the temperature to the right place to start, then just before I put in the fries, crank the flame really high. Because what kept happening was that the temperature would drop horribly once the fries went in, and it would barely rise throughout the cooking process. I tried to play around with the flame, but I was scared of overheating the oil because I had no extra oil on hand to bring the temperature down if I overshot it.

(If I loved fried foods, I would definitely invest in a Fry Daddy.)

As for the fries, they were just OK. A little soggy, definitely not crispy enough. Again, I think it's a temperature issue. If the oil in Part 2 had been hotter, I think I could have achieved that crisp on the outside, soft on the inside thing. As it was, they were only slightly crispy, which was fine, but not my dream.

I tried adding the optional rosemary and lemon zest, but I don't think it made much of a flavor impact.

For the last batch, I left the fries in the oil until they were a lot darker, which still didn't get me the results I wanted. These were overcooked, with no white inside, and they still weren't super-crispy. I think for that kind of result, I probably should have heated the oil even higher, maybe 375° or more. (?)

It's funny - whenever I order fries in a restaurant, I always say "extra crispy - have them cook the crap out of them," because I've always imagined that crispiness is a function of cooking time, so why can't they just cook mine longer? But it's really not as simple as that. They'd probably have to have multiple fryers going at different temperatures to accommodate requests like mine. I'm going to be much more forgiving now.

The next time I make fries, I'm definitely going to try...

Kidding! I feel pretty confident saying that I'm never, ever going to deep-fry again.

But I will definitely give props to well-fried food from now on.

Jeff: B- (not even close to having worked out the oil temperature thing...)
Martha: A

Cauliflower Puree (p. 310)

This recipe is a variation of the Fennel Puree recipe, hence the scallop-pairing idea. Using cauliflower is even easier, in that once the cauliflower is softened and pureed, there are basically no solids to filter out. Every bit went right through the sieve.

There's a crazy taste thing that happened here. Marcy and I both caught it. The cauliflower is cooked in milk and pureed with just a small amount of that milk, then it's seasoned with salt, white pepper, and a touch of nutmeg. Pretty basic, right?

Well, for some strange reason, we both tasted smoked meat, i.e. bacon. There's no logical connection that I can think of, but we both went there.

The only possible explanation is that the flavor came from the browned part of the scallop, but we were both pretty sure we were tasting it in the cauliflower puree. Go figure.

In any case, this is a beautiful vegetable side, simple and flavorful. And while it may be time-consuming, it's not difficult.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

I also served this Celery Root and Apple Slaw, which we liked, but I'm not sure if it's going to make it into my regular repertoire. I actually love celery root, but I'm a little put off by all the muddy crevices.

And since I had hot oil going on my stove, I fried up the remaining corn tortillas from last week's Mexican fiesta. Freshly fried tortilla chips are a nice snack to serve. In fact, that might be one of the few things that could get me back to the fryer.

Until we eat again....

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Day 344 - Kamut

I picked a lousy time to get the flu. Three weeks left to do 26 more things, and I'm down for the count. Just to keep myself in the game, I thought I'd knock off a grain.

Kamut (p. 413)

As a one-time vegetarian and somewhat health-conscious person, I've been aware of grains like kamut for a long time. Chewy, earthy, starchy nuggets of grainy goodness are an occasionally welcome addition to a dish/meal/life.

That said, I can't say I have any idea what distinguishes kamut from, say, spelt or farro or wheat berries.

OK, I just looked up the differences, and they do exist. But from a purely aesthetic eating standpoint, these seem pretty much of an overlap.

Martha's kamut recipe is very successful. The grains are perfectly cooked. And I enjoyed a biteful or two. But if these are going to play a part in my life, I'm guessing they will have to take a supporting role in a salad or pilaf. Alone, I'm just not that interested.

(Incidentally, in the picture, the kamut is cooked. It's in a strainer because it gets boiled and then needs to be drained.)

Jeff: A- (for whining about grains)
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Friday, February 19, 2010

Day 340 - Fried Fish, Fish Tacos, Tortilla Soup and Fried Tortilla Strips

It's not Cinco de Mayo, but it might as well be at my house tonight! I thought I'd knock out all the remaining Mexican dishes for a group of people I know will appreciate them: my friends from the TMLP. TMLP stands for Team Management Leadership Program, a course we all took together at Landmark Education in 2003. One of the things I learned in this course is how to create a project that inspires me and see it through to completion. It would be crazy to mention the TMLP (and Landmark) on this blog without acknowledging that I would never have had the vision, will, and follow-through to do a project like Jeff and Martha without that education.

Tonight, I've got Steve and Rory (yes, they're a couple and they've been together for about 100 years - amazing), and Vicki and Courtney (no, they're not a couple, but they act like they've been together for about 100 years). And they do like their Mexican food. And drink. Margaritas were the choice of the evening.

Fried Fish (p. 274)

I'm sure you're all tired of hearing me say how much I hate deep frying. I hate it so much that even though it's crazy to serve two big main courses to five people, I really wanted to kill two fried dishes with one fry stone. And since I was going to be frying tortilla strips, I thought, "Just do the fish too."

The batter is quite easy to put together. Cake flour, salt, beer, and eggs. Meanwhile, I was stalling to make the batter until the oil was ready, but then I reread the recipe and saw the part about refrigerating the batter for at least 20 minutes before using. Crap.

I can't believe how long I kept my friends waiting for this dish! Don't be afraid to make this batter in advance like I was! It can sit in the fridge for up to 2 hours!

One of the most maddening things about frying is keeping oil at a consistent temperature, something I definitely haven't mastered. In this recipe, Martha wants the oil to be 375° when the fish goes in, and between 350° and 375° for the duration of the cooking. My oil temp dropped way too low with the first batch. Accordingly, they were a little soggy. The second batch was a little better, but still the temperature was all over the place. The last batch was the best because I cranked the oil. Lesson: hotter is better.

Cod was the chosen fish tonight, and I was happy with the taste and texture of the cooked fish, but the batter seemed a little lackluster. I think it's probably a great batter for onion rings. It has that heavy/fluffy batter appeal. (This is a wet batter, i.e. dry and wet ingredients are pre-mixed, unlike a dip in flour, dip in eggs, dip in bread crumbs kind of frying.) I wonder if a little more salt would have resulted in a tastier breading....

PS Leftover update: reheating this fish in the toaster oven is very successful. They get crispy and brown with perfect texture. And a little salt solves the lackluster batter flavor issue.

Jeff: B- (bad temperature control, and points off for keeping friends waiting for food)
Martha: A

Fish Tacos (p. 276)

I've never eaten fish tacos before, so this uncharted territory for me. The garnishes are easy enough to put together. I already had the cilantro, lime, and cabbage on hand for the tortilla soup. The only extra things I needed to get were radishes and the cream. Martha doesn't specify amounts for the ingredients in the cream - she just says to add lime juice and chipotle adobo sauce to it. My ratios were roughly 1 C of sour cream, 1/4 C of lime, and 2 T of chipotle sauce, and Courtney, our resident fish taco expert, said that it was right on. For me, it was a little spicy, but I'm a wimp.

I don't know what a great fish taco is, but I don't think I served it tonight. My tortilla was a little tough. (Martha suggests serving double tortillas, but no one wanted that, and I don't blame them. Too much tortilla!) The fish wasn't crispy enough. And as much flavor as there was in the garnishes, it just didn't add up for me. Salting helped, but I couldn't find the "there" there. I can't help thinking that I'd prefer a fish taco with unfried fish.

That's Courtney, right, with a taco and some salad.

Jeff: B (tough tortillas and no "there" there)
Martha: B (we could have used more info about the sauce ingredient proportions)

Tortilla Soup (p. 47)

Here's another Mexican dish I've never experienced before. I took Martha's make-the-day-before option for this soup, and I'm so glad I did. This was a really interesting process to go through, with amazing results.

First of all, this soup starts with chicken stock and builds on top of that, so there's tons of flavor. First thing that happens is a cut-up chicken gets cooked in chicken stock. Then while that's happening, you make a puree out of sautéed onions and garlic, char-broiled tomatoes, and dried pasilla chiles that have been charred and then softened in water. Then you add this amazing-tasting puree to the super-enriched chicken stock. The resulting soup base is like nothing I've ever tasted before: smoky, complex, and delicious.

The cooked chicken gets shredded and refrigerated separately from the stock. Then on serving day, you reheat the stock and once it's hot, you add the shredded chicken and cook long enough just to heat through. I forgot to add the lime juice before serving (a common Jeff error), so I had to go around spooning lime juice into everyone's bowls. (Now THAT'S service.)

Survey says? Amazing. I was really proud of this dish. Even if there were no garnishes on hand, I would still stand behind this soup. I took a little poll of my guests how this compared to tortilla soups they'd had elsewhere, and the unanimous response was that this was definitely steps up from your average tortilla soup. (Go Martha!)

And everyone liked being able to choose their own garnishes - I served all the recommended ones in the book: onions, avocado, shredded cabbage, cilantro, lime wedges, tortilla strips, and cheese. I've never had cotija cheese, which I liked. That's Vicki with her soup, surrounded by garnishes.

Would I make this again? I just might. It's nice to be able to get the heavy lifting out of the way the day before. And as I said above, the flavor is stellar. I was worried about serving this a main course, but it's quite hearty, and I'd encourage others not to be self-conscious about that.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Fried Tortilla Strips (p. 75)

Homemade fried tortillas! Nothing to it! As long as you're willing to heat up a huge pot of oil. I had some of the same temperature control issues here that I had with the fish, although tortilla strips don't bring the temperature of oil down as drastically as chunks of battered fish. FYI, I fried these before the fish - I thought I'd rather have tortilla-tasting fish than fish-tasting tortillas.

Not much to say here other than it was easy and delicious, particularly on top of my tortilla soup. That's Rory on the left and Steve on the right.

There's definitely something special about freshly fried corn tortillas. And it occurs to me that if I wanted to serve a really tasty snack, this would be a good one. I wonder how little oil I could get away with using?

Jeff: A
Martha: A

I made this Pumpkin Flan for dessert, which was delicious, but not what I expected. You can see my comments on the linked page.

Until we eat again....

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Day 337 - Winter Squash Puree

Oh boy, I'm eating well today! Lunch started with a Poached Chicken and Lemon + Olive Relish appetizer (yum) and then a Macaroni and Cheese main course. Is it possible that it's even better the next day? OMG...

Now, for dinner, I'm cooking up some things that are about to expire in my fridge: a package of butternut squash chunks and that last duck confit leg.

Winter Squash Puree (p. 311)

This recipe is the height of fast, easy, and delicious. Boil water, add salt and chunks of squash, simmer 10-15 minutes, drain and dry in hot pan for a couple of minutes. Then puree with butter. (Martha says to use a blender, but that never works for me so I did it in a food processor.) Add salt and pepper. Serve.

Whole journey? Not even a half hour. Which makes this a perfect side dish for a thrown-together meal. But there's nothing thrown together about the end result.

Creamy, sweet, salty, smooth, rich, comforting, satisfying, colorful. And elegant, to boot. I'll bet this would even taste great without the butter....

Jeff: A
Martha: A

As for that duck confit leg, it was the first one I ate on its own. (The other five served as ingredients in a pasta filling and cassoulet.) The flavor is absolutely amazing. And the meat is nice and tender. But I have not had success with reheating these. It's not a big deal when you're removing the skin and putting it into another dish, but this one was out in the open, and it wasn't cute.

Martha says that 10 minutes in a low heat heavy pan, covered, with another five minutes on the flip side, will crisp the skin, but I haven't gotten anywhere near crispy skin. I've tried cooking them uncovered, I've tried draining the accumulated oil, I've tried leaving the accumulated oil, I've tried turning up the temperature a little, I've tried cooking them for three times that long, all with no success. I don't want to fry the hell out of it, but I would like to know how to prepare a perfect, crispy duck confit leg with skin intact. Any ideas?

Until we eat again....

Monday, February 15, 2010

Day 336 - Slow-Roasted Tomato Slices, Macaroni and Cheese, and Lemon and Olive Relish

It's Valentines Day! And what's a single guy to do on Valentines Day but throw a dinner party for other fabulous single types!

Tonight's roster includes Jeff and Martha regulars: Marcy, Ryan, and Tracy C. And on the menu, the greatest comfort food of them all...

Slow-Roasted Tomato Slices (p. 390)

This is sort of a weird name for tomato slices that are roasted for 20 minutes, especially considering that there are other tomato-roasting recipes in the book that roast for six + hours. I'd vote to change the name of this to "Quick-Roasted Tomato Slices."

Unlike the other recipe, these tomatoes are sliced thinnish and are cooked at a relatively high temperature (400°) minus garlic. Otherwise, the ingredients and flavors and results are very similar.

My question is - if you can get similar results with the 20 minute version, why would you opt for the six hour version? I thought these slices packed the same kind of super-tomato-ey punch that the other ones did, along with that nice olive oil/thyme marriage. I think I'll opt for this recipe, if I want roasted tomato in my life again.

As for roasted tomatoes on top of mac and cheese, I'm suspicious. It doesn't seem like an ideal match, but I'll wait until it's all done, and then I'll weigh in.

Jeff: A
Martha: A (although now I want to go back to the six hour recipe and give Martha an A- for making me work so hard for it)

Macaroni and Cheese (p. 389)

Probably the biggest American "classic" in the book, this is a dish I've never made from scratch, and I couldn't wait to experience Martha's interpretation. My workout buddy Ken had told me about a Martha mac + cheese recipe he'd made which was a big hit (he credits some hidden cayenne), so I had high hopes. This recipe has some hidden cayenne too!

FYI, Martha's serving suggestion for this dish is to bake it in individual serving dishes, but since I don't have the right sized dishes, I took the casserole option.

The first thing I did was grate the cheese. There were so many kinds to deal with, I just wanted to get it all out of the way before I started dealing with what looked like it might be a time-sensitive sauce.

Next, I boiled the pasta. Yes, even Martha uses dry elbow macaroni for this recipe. I followed her instructions to the letter, re: undercooking the pasta, but I was very skeptical. It just seemed way too hard/chewy. Still, I obeyed like a good student.

Starting the sauce with diced onion was an interesting twist. I was talking to Tracy P. on the phone while I was sauteing the onion, and she found it quite distressing that there should be any onion at all in mac + cheese. Purist. She's convinced her kids wouldn't want to eat this, that they're only interested in the Kraft-style boxed version, but I think she's underestimating her kids' palates and I intend to prove her wrong someday! :-)

After the onion is sweated in some butter, then flour is added, cooked briefly, then a bunch of milk is whisked in. Once that's thickened (about five minutes), you add most of the grated cheese and season with salt and pepper and a small amount of both cayenne and nutmeg.

I could tell at this point that the flavors were going to be pretty great, but I didn't want to count my chickens.

I added the pasta into the cream sauce and then poured it all into the buttered 1.5 quart casserole, which looked amazingly measly for a dish that's supposed to serve eight people. Eight side dish portions maybe, but eight entree portions? This casserole looks like it will barely serve four!

Final touches: the rest of the grated cheese goes on top next, then fresh white bread crumbs which have been tossed in butter (I can't remember the last time I bought a loaf of Wonder Bread), and finally, the tomato slices. In the version with individual-sized serving dishes, Martha puts one tomato on top of each serving, making a total of eight slices, but since I had enough tomatoes to completely cover the casserole, I did. (Fifteen slices.) I figured we could peel them off if we didn't like them.

After 25-30 minutes in the oven, it was bubbly and brown, just as Martha predicted.

The verdict? Eight thumbs up, for sure. This is so far beyond Kraft, it's not even funny. The cheese flavors are great - it's a really nice balance with America (sharp cheddar) leading the way, but subtle undertastes of Switzerland (gruyere) and Italy (parm and fontina). The cayenne and nutmeg are indistinguishable yet contribute to an overall awesome taste. The consistency is right on, and Martha's advice re: undercooking the pasta really paid off. This macaroni was perfectly done.

As for the tomatoes, I thought they were a great match, an extra burst of flavor sort of underlining any Italian connection you may have made. Also, the tomatoes were a way of measuring portion sizes. (Do you want one tomato or two?)

Considering that I thought this wouldn't be enough for the four of us, I was amazed how far it went and how much I had left over. The guys each had three tomatoes worth, the girls had two or less. With a total of 15 tomatoes on top, that means this dish makes up five pig-out portions or eight I-can-show-some-moderation portions.

This is a definite home-run mac and cheese - I can't imagine anyone, adult, child, dog, gerbil, not loving this one.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Lemon and Olive Relish (p. 179)

Boy, this one really confounded me on the page. I kept reading this recipe thinking, What is THAT going to taste like? And what would I want to pair it with? I couldn't wrap my mind around a whole diced lemon, chopped onion, olives, lemon wedges, and sugar all wrapped up in one relish.

But then I made it. And amazingly, it works! It's not too sweet, and it's packed with beautifully balanced flavor, a running theme in Martha's recipes.

I'm not sure what the ideal pairing is, but I don't think it's meat or fish. Probably chicken or pork is the way to go. Even though this is in the grilling section of the book, I felt like making poached chicken to go with it, so I did.

A few warnings to those who are making this: Plan ahead. It takes a long time to suprême seven lemons. Also, I think it was a mistake to add all the lemon juice that had collected in the bowl where I was putting the suprêmed wedges. My relish came out a little looser that I would have hoped.

Still, great flavor! Martha scores again!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Also served in this meal, a green salad with fennel, pear, and walnuts, and this Pumpkin Custard, which seems plenty naughty but is actually not as bad for you as you might think.

Until we eat again....

Friday, February 12, 2010

Day 333 - Fish Fumet

Here's another one of those things I've been stalling on... When I drag my feet around making something, it usually has to do with the difficulty of getting one of the ingredients. In this case, that ingredient was: fish heads and bones. Yuck.

Fish Fumet (p. 55)

Fish Fumet is my last broth!! Yay!! It's an ingredient in a clam dish I have coming up, but I'm only going to need a couple of cups for that, so I'm not sure what I'll be doing with the rest of this. I mean, how often do you have the need for a fishy fish broth?

Back to the fish heads.

I thought I was going to have to buy a bunch of big fish and fillet them to get enough heads and bones. It never occurred to me to just ask at Fairway if they sell those parts separately. Turns out they do, and cheaply, to boot: $1/pound.

I asked for two pounds, and the fishmonger proceeded to butcher a bunch of heads for me. He was doing quite a bit of cleaning, chopping them down the middle and taking out a bunch of stuff that looked like liver. It was probably fish brain or something equally distasteful, and I was really glad he was doing it because otherwise, I would have had a very brainy soup.

I ended up with three relatively big fish heads, which went in a cauldron with eye of newt and three cat whiskers. Not really. The ingredients were normal, but the smell was a little "double, double, toil and trouble."

The rest of the ingredients were chopped leeks and celery, then some white wine that got reduced, and finally, a bunch of water, a bay leaf, and peppercorns. The potion is cooked for a comparatively short amount of time, 35 minutes, before being strained and cooled.

I'd been skimming the stock throughout the cooking process, but after putting the cooled stock in the fridge overnight, I was shocked to see a thick grey layer covering the top of the stock in each of the containers, resembling the kind of stuff I'd been skimming during the cooking process. I don't now what it was (fat? impurities? brain juice?) but I was happy to be able to spoon it all away.

What was left underneath was a clear fish stock, which I was surprised to see had that same kind of jellied consistency that the chicken and beef stocks have. Magic!

I'm excited to make the clams now, but I'm going to have to find some other recipe where I can use the rest of this stock. Cioppino, maybe?

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Day 332 - Rosemary Balsamic Marinade and Grilled Steak

Since Adinah was going to be spending a few hours here, watching me set up her new computer, I thought I'd take the opportunity to feed her.

I started her off with the last of the Cassoulet. (Big hit. I had added some liquid to the leftovers, so they were wet. Yummy!)

Then, I did some more indoor grilling....

Rosemary Balsamic Marinade (p. 173)

Martha says this goes really well with steak, so it seemed crazy not to use it on the Grilled Steak recipe.

It's quite easy to put together: it's just coarsely chopped garlic and rosemary sprigs, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. (But wait- can one really coarsely chop rosemary sprigs? Mine were so twiggy, I ended up having to snap them instead.)

It's curious that there's no salt in this marinade. Is it a mistaken omission? Intentional? Maybe I'll be able to tell when I eat the steak....

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Grilled Steak (p. 164)

Porterhouse: it sounds so 50's/Mad Men. Translation? A nice big steak with a bone through the middle.

This steak sat in the marinade for 3 hours refrigerated and 1 more hour as it came to room temperature. Then I tied some twine around it. I was very excited about tying it. In fact, at the store, I flipped through a bunch of steaks until I found one that looked like it would benefit from some tying. (I don't want to miss a thing!)

Martha says season generously with salt and pepper on both sides, so I went to town with the S+P.

The first side went on the very hot grill, and after rotating once, the cross-hatch marks were a thing of beauty. Then I repeated on the other side and turned down the flame for the "continue cooking with indirect heat" part of the process.

Now, I'm grilling this on a stovetop cast iron grill, so there are certain things I can't quite achieve, i.e. cooking with indirect heat. I try to simulate the heat environments by raising or lowering the flames on the burners, but the way that cast iron conducts heat, I'm not sure if this is terribly effective.

The biggest indicator that it's not effective is that my steak reaches it's desired internal temperature in about 5 minutes, when it's supposed to take 14-16 minutes. Granted, my steak isn't outrageously thick, but still, that seems fast. Ah well.

The texture? Just OK. A little tough. Maybe it's the meat, maybe it's that part two of the cooking process went too fast at too high a temperature.

The flavor? Pretty good. The marinade isn't overwhelming, after four hours of service. It's a nice background flavor, but it's not changing my life.

Meanwhile, what happened to all that salt? It was as if I hadn't salted or peppered this meat at all! I guess I could have seasoned more generously. Or maybe there was supposed to be salt in the marinade...

I almost forgot to top this with compound butter but remembered right under the wire. Not sure if it brought anything to the experience, other than a few more calories.

As you can probably tell, I was underwhelmed by this marinade/steak.

But here's the crazy thing. When I ate the leftovers cold today as the filling in a sandwich, it tasted completely amazing! Much better than when it came right off the grill. Go figure....

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Day 330 - Eleventh Tally

What?? Wait!! How did that happen? I'm a month away from my deadline?!? I feel like I just started!

I've been getting sentimental about this year... remembering certain meals, certain failures and successes, friends, flavors, and a ton of dish and pot washing....

I can't believe how much I've learned, how much I've eaten, how many I've served, how many groceries and housewares I've bought, how infrequently I've eaten out... Wait - this is starting to sound like my farewell entry, and though I've completed a total of 318 recipes and lessons, I still have another 48 yet to do!


48 recipes in 35 days. Whoa.

Can he do it? Will he do it?

I can and I will. If it means throwing a dinner party every other night. If it means making a leg of lamb just for myself. If it means staying up through the night filling cream puffs. I will finish this thing, by God!

I had a reader request (my first!) for pictures of my "wellworn" cookbook, which frankly doesn't look that bad. Maybe it's the dark colored cover that hides how much it's been abused... I tried to find a couple of angles that exposed the wear and tear: cracked binding and frayed creases.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Cathy H for her sweet gift of the KitchenAid mixer sausage attachment. There are no sausage recipes in the book, but I put this on my wish list anyway because who doesn't fantasize about making their own sausages? (Um... actually, Jeff, you're the only one who fantasizes about making his own sausages.) OK, fair enough. But if I don't get around to making sausages and writing about them on this blog, it's only because I have
48 recipes left, not because I don't love my new sausage attachment. Thanks again, Cathy.

And look what arrived in my email box today - my photo with Martha!! Jeff and Martha, for real! Photo credit: Nick D / ‘The Martha Stewart Show’

Until we eat again....

Monday, February 8, 2010

Day 329 - How to Coddle Eggs

This was supposed to be for Marcy and me, but she called in sick to our weekly date, so I'm treating myself to a special breakfast.

How to Coddle Eggs (p.

This sounds like a children's story....

Coddling eggs, in fact, is cooking them in coddlers (or in my case, ramekins wrapped tightly in foil) that sit in simmering water, first uncovered for four minutes, then once the heat is turned off, covered for another 4-7 minutes. Before the egg goes in, though, the coddler is brushed with butter and filled with a teaspoon of cream to keep the egg moist.

The finished effect is really quite adorable. It's like naughty soft-boiled eggs (naughty because of the added butter and cream). One of mine was cooked through, and the other was softer. I liked both, but I think this is better with a slightly runny yolk. Of course, it's impossible to judge how cooked your eggs are if you're using ramekins vs. glass coddlers, so you just have to guess. Or peek. I checked one at 4 minutes, but it looked undercooked, so I left them in for another minute or two.

Martha serves these with toast soldiers, so I did too. (I'm such a good student. Teacher's pet...)

It's some extra effort to pull this off, but if you're looking for a cute twist on an egg breakfast, this is a good one.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Day 328 - Pan-Seared Scallops with Fennel Puree and Cassoulet

I was very excited when my incredibly accomplished friend, Emily, invited me to be a part of a small group of people with whom she wanted to watch her new HBO movie Temple Grandin, which she executive produced. The film centers around an actual woman named Temple Grandin (played brilliantly by Claire Danes) who is famous not only for revolutionizing cattle slaughterhouse design but also for being autistic. I was so touched by Emily's invitation that I offered to host a dinner party around the movie-watching, and she accepted.

My guests tonight are Emily and her husband Andy, and Emily's (and my) Northwestern University classmates: James, of the Duck Breast and Bolognese dinners, and newbie Beverly, with her husband Philippe.

Note: Philippe is French, and I'm making Cassoulet. What am I, crazy?

Pan-Seared Scallops (p. 260)

How easy is this? Very!

And quick too. It's a little messy, what with very hot oil involved, but it's over really quickly. Just be prepared to turn on the fan for a minute or two.

All you have to do is cut the scallops in half (to make two thinner circles, not half-moons), salt both sides, get oil very hot, throw the scallops in the pan for not even a minute, flip them over for another 30 seconds, drain on paper towels, and Voilà! Delicious hors d'oeuvres in seconds!

My first batch didn't stick at all, but I think the pan got a little residue-y and the second batch was a little tricky to flip. Still, there were no scallop casualties.

I should take a moment to mention something I've learned from this Cooking School experience. I've learned that if I want to have six perfect portions of scallops, I should plan on making eight. One of the raw scallops might be split (as one of my was) or one of the scallops might stick to the pan and tear.

If I don't care what my food looks like, I won't overbuy, but if I care about the presentation, I now make extra.

I was just talking to my friend David about how steamed scallops can taste icky. And I'm also remembering how the Chinese scallops were my least favorite of all the Black Bean Sauce variations.

But these scallops are perfect! They really don't need any seasoning other than salt to shine. Seared is definitely the way to go!

That's Emily, James, and Andy, from left to right.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Fennel Puree (p. 310)

How easy is this? Not very.

The fennel gets trimmed and chopped, then simmered in a milk bath, then pureed, then strained, then strained again, then reheated. And all this for 3/4 C of puree. Humph.

That said, it tastes pretty great. And it tastes great with the scallops, which is Martha's serving suggestion. (She serves one scallop half on each plate, but I served two.)

I do want to say that I got a little confused by this recipe, but having reread it, I now see that it's totally clear.

Here's the confusing paragraph, verbatim, which comes after having pureed the cooked fennel:

"Transfer to a fine sieve set over a large bowl or liquid measuring cup and press with a rubber spatula to extract as much puree as possible. Discard remaining solids and rinse sieve thoroughly. Return puree to the sieve and set over a bowl to drain for 1 1/2 hours longer."

First of all, when I use my finest sieve for jobs like this, it never works out. I always try, but then inevitably nothing pushes through, and then I have to swap it out for a less fine sieve. You'd think I'd learn my lesson, but no.

So I'm on my second sieve, I've pushed the puree through the sieve with my spatula, and now I have a slightly more refined puree (very few solids left in the sieve). Then I wash the sieve and put the puree back in it.

For some reason, I've got it in my head that I'm going to have to push this puree through again. But after letting it sit for an hour, it's clear that the only thing coming through that sieve is liquid, no puree. That's when I realize that Sieve Part 1 is for keeping solids out, and Sieve Part 2 is for getting liquids out.

Yes, I now realize it says "drain," but for some reason, I missed it before.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Cassoulet (p. 403)

I can't believe I'm finally making Cassoulet. It's been a punch line for me for the past 11 months, often inserted as an example of some terribly complicated
, arcane dish (e.g. "It was tricky, but it was no Cassoulet.")

One of the reasons I've waited so long is that I needed to have made duck confit to proceed. But with that task completed, I was anxious to give this a try.

I've never made Cassoulet. I've never even eaten Cassoulet. I was so perplexed by it that I called Martha on her radio show to ask what I should serve with Cassoulet. (Her answer was: a green salad and a citrus-flavored dessert.)

I'm not going to lie- there were a few curveballs in the recipe. But if you're reading this and contemplating making Cassoulet, I can at least save you from some of those confusions/potholes.

It all begins with an overnight soaking of navy beans. (Well, it really all began with the duck confit last week, but you already knew that.) Next is the assembling of a bouquet garni, i.e. herbs and vegetables tied up in a little cheesecloth package. Then, some fatback (or pork belly, which is what I used) is cooked to render the fat in which to cook the pork shoulder pieces.

Here's the first divergence - Martha says that the pork pieces should brown in about 5 minutes. After about 10 minutes, mine were cooked but still not brown, so I moved on. FYI, at this point, she says to pour off all but 1/4 cup of fat. I didn't even have that much in the pan.

Now comes the cooking of the beans, with various added ingredients: onion (unpeeled?? and halved with one clove stuck in), canned tomatoes, the bouquet garni, a ham hock (in my case, three small pieces of ham hock - same weight), and a carrot, halved. Martha says 8 cups of water will cover the ingredients by 2 inches, but I needed more like 12.

She also specifically states that the beans should be cooked in an 8 quart pot and the casserole should cook in an 8 quart Dutch oven. I actually bought an 8 quart Dutch oven specifically for this purpose. And I'm here to tell you that I think I would have been fine doing this in my 5.5 quart Dutch Oven. Both the beans and the final casserole didn't come anywhere near the top of either vessel, so if you only have a 5.5 to 7 quart pot, I think you'll still be OK.

Once the beans are tender, you remove the onion, carrot, bouquet garni, and the ham hocks, from which you remove the meat and dice to put back in.

Next, you rub the Dutch oven with garlic halves. I didn't think this would make much of an impact, but I really could taste it in the end. Interesting flavoring technique.

Then you layer half the bean mixture in the bottom of the Dutch oven, place the duck confit and French garlic sausage on top, and then cover with the rest of the beans.

Side bar: When Martha and I were chitty-chatting about this meal, she recommended a great place for me to get this sausage (aka saucisson a l'ail), Salumeria Biellese, which just happens to be two blocks away from my apartment! I went over there to pick up the sausage, and I mentioned that Martha sent me. I'm so glad I started a conversation with the guy behind the counter, because he offered up some info without which I would have been sunk. He said I should leave the sausage out (i.e. unrefrigerated) overnight, and then before using, put it in cold water, bring to a boil, and let simmer for a half an hour. I was confused, and I explained that I was making cassoulet, so the sausage would cook in that, but he said if I didn't simmer the sausage, it would fall apart in the cassoulet. I nodded and thought, Whatever, and figured I would make a judgment call in the morning.

Well, when I cut into the sausage, I realized why he made this suggestion. The sausage was uncooked! I thought I was buying a cooked sausage... So I cut the one pound sausage in half and followed his instructions. When the half hour was up, I looked at the cooked sausage and I thought, hmmm, that looks a lot smaller than what I started with. When I weighed it, it was only 4 ounces! And I needed 8 ounces! Yikes! I quickly cooked the other half, and it all worked out fine. But clearly, the lesson is, you will need one pound of raw sausage to get a half pound of cooked.

Martha doesn't really deal with this in the recipe at all. She says to cut the sausage into 1/2 inch thick half moons, so I'm assuming she means cooked sausage as uncooked sausage would never be able to hold that shape. But you should know that if you buy this sausage raw, which I guess is how it's typically sold, then you should plan some extra time into your preparation, and double the weight.

Once the cassoulet is assembled, it goes in the oven for hours and hours. I started mine at 300° with the convection fan going, but there was no bubbling after a half an hour (which there should be) so I switched the fan off and raised the temperature to 325° and I got a nice steady bubbling around the sides. I only had to add liquid once, as the level barely dropped the whole time.

Finally, I added the buttered bread crumbs.

Another side bar: What does Martha mean when she says "Fresh Bread Crumbs?" Does she mean not dried, i.e. take some fresh bread and make crumbs in the food processor and use that? She probably does. I actually let my bread crumbs dry overnight, but I think I may have gotten this one wrong. Ah well.

For the last hour in the oven, the bread crumbs brown and the stew finishes cooking.

I had started my cassoulet a little early, and then we ate a little later than I expected, so my cassoulet was done about 45 minutes before we were ready to eat it. I didn't want to cover it, because I didn't want it to get soggy, so I decided to turn off the oven and leave it in there... without checking to see what was going on underneath all those breadcrumbs.

Alas, the cassoulet was totally dry. I have to say, I really liked it anyway. Even Philippe said that though it was definitely drier than the cassoulet he'd eaten in France, he enjoyed this consistency.
(Maybe he was just being polite. That's him, pictured to the right with Beverly.)

I take full responsibility for having dried this out. I should have checked to see how dry it was when I shut off the oven. However, I will say that it would have been nice to be offered some ideas of how to stall the serving of this dish. I mean, it's in the oven for 3 to 3.5 hours. It's impossible to know at 3:30PM precisely what time everyone will be ready for the entree.

Flavor-wise, I really didn't know what to expect. I was concerned that there was no seasoning whatsoever, not a speck of salt added anywhere along the way. Yet this was a plenty salty dish! Must have been a combination of the ham hocks and the sausage. The flavors are really unique, and the overall effect is homey, comforty, and hearty. I sort of felt like I was eating gourmet Franks and Beans.

I probably won't make this again - as much as I enjoyed eating it and relished the experience of having made it, there are a hundred other things I prefer to eat that are easier to pull off. Still, it was fun pretending I was French for a couple of days.

Jeff: C (major points off for drying it out, but major points added for the rest of the efforts)
Martha: B
(we could have used more info about the sausage and also some tips for stalling the serving of it)

I should mention that Emily's film was sensational, truly compelling and quite moving. I'm so proud of Emily, who in addition to being a very successful personal manager, is also a wife and mother of two teen-aged sons (one just started his freshman year at Northwestern, the other is autistic), and a major mover/
shaker around raising money and awareness for autism issues. She accomplishes more in a week than I do in a year.

After watching the movie, we ate my beautiful Lemon Curd Tart, elements culled from several other recipes in the book. It looks great, but I'll own up to some mistakes made along the way. (The little tart baby was made with the extra ingredients.)

First of all, I should have used the optional gelatin when making the Lemon Curd. Even though I served it cold, the lemon curd was oozing out of the slices.

Second, I should have let this get to room temperature before I served it. The crust was too hard and it didn't taste nearly as good when I served it as it did an hour later. (Although can you imagine how oozy the lemon curd would have been? Oy.)

Until we eat again....

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Day 325 - Lime Sorbet

If you've been listening to Ask Martha, Martha's call-in show on Sirius Radio, then you know that I've become somewhat of a fixture lately. I can't seem to resist calling Martha with the most trivial of questions, and why? Because I CAN! I can literally pick up the phone and get advice straight from the queen once a week, as long as I'm willing to do it on the air.

So the other day, I called because I'm gearing up for a dinner party this weekend where the main attraction will be Cassoulet. I've never had Cassoulet before, but just looking at the recipe, I can tell that it's a pretty distinctive, all-encompassing kind of meal. And my question for Martha was: What do you serve around Cassoulet? Her advice -- actually, their advice (she was working in tandem with a special cohost - Anna Last, editor of Everyday Food) was: green salad before, citrus dessert after.

Martha went on to talk about Lemon Cream, but my mind went straight to Lime Sorbet, since this is something I still need to tick off my master list.

Lime Sorbet (p. 485)

The first few sorbets I made, I stayed absolutely true to the recipe, no extra-added flavors or ingredients. But I reread the sorbet "lesson," and it seemed that Martha was encouraging me to be adventurous, try some interesting combinations.

So then I moved into my experimental sorbet phase, which brought such treasures as a pineapple sorbet with apricot/ginger/cinnamon syrup (leftover from the Poached Apricots recipe) and my recent orange "Christmas" sorbet, both pretty great.

Since the Cassoulet meal is going to be very Frenchy, I thought I'd swing out by Frenching up this sorbet with a splash of Pernod (still making my way through that bottle I bought for Bouillabaisse). I've read that adding liqueur to a sorbet can give it a better texture, so that might be an added bonus. Plus, I'll be serving fennel puree with an hors d'oeuvre, and it'll be cute to bookend the meal with anise flavored dishes.

Martha estimates that eight limes will generate two cups of juice, but she must be talking about some special jumbo limes, because it took me more like 13. Just to drive home the limey citrusiness of it all, I steeped the syrup with a few strips of lime zest. I couldn't really taste a whole lot of extra limeyness in the syrup, but who knows? Maybe it'll come forward once frozen.

I mixed the juice with the syrup, did the infamous egg test (perfectly balanced) and then splashed in about two tablespoons of Pernod. (I did the egg test again, just to make sure I didn't screw anything up.) It tasted fine, maybe not the most spectacular flavor combination, but interesting. Not sure about the sourness, though. Seemed pretty sour.

I chilled the mixture, then froze it in the ice cream maker. Still tastes pretty sour. I'm feeling even less confident about the flavor combo.

After a night in the freezer, I tasted it once more. OK. Now I'm sure: I can't serve this for dessert on Saturday. It's not that it's terrible, it's just not right for that meal. For the record, there was a significant texture improvement - the sorbet was scoopable right out of the freezer. It's amazing that such a small amount of alcohol could make that much of a difference. Too bad it tastes so weird... Maybe I could serve it as a kind of bizarre, between-courses palate cleanser? Nah.

I'm now making what I'm sure is going to be a beautiful Lemon Curd Tart (taking the Pâte Sucrée recipe and filling it with Lemon Curd instead of Panna Cotta). See, I'm learning to mix and match!

It must be noted that this degree of analysis about dessert appropriateness is a completely new phenomenon.

Jeff: B (maybe I should have tasted lime juice and Pernod before contaminating a whole batch)
Martha: B (eight limes = two cups of juice? oh, eight elephant limes...)

Until we eat again...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Day 324 - Chicken Soup

I'm finally doing this perennial favorite, after already having completed its two variations, Matzo Ball Soup and Chicken Soup with Spring Vegetables. Based on the variations, I have high hopes for the original....

It's just Tracy and me tonight, reminiscing about our dreamy trip to Spain last month.

Chicken Soup (p. 43)

This soup is the best example of what I think is so brilliant about Martha's soup technique. Instead of the ancient (Jewish?) tradition of throwing everything in a pot, cooking it all to death, and then just serving it, Martha's version involves more ingredients and more dirty dishes and utensils, but it's so worth it.

In a nutshell, you bring chicken, herbs, and coarsely chopped vegetables to a boil, then simmer. Once the chicken is cooked (in my case roughly 10-15 minutes), take it out, remove meat from the bones and put bones back in the stock. (Chicken goes in the fridge until ready to use.) Simmer for another hour, then strain into a clean pot and skim fat.. Put all NEW vegetables in and cook until tender. (I actually like mine with a little crunch.) Then add chicken back in and heat through.

What you end up with is this amazingly bright, almost sweet stock with amazingly bright, almost sweet vegetables and perfectly cooked chicken floating in it. There's no mushy, overcooked carrots, no soggy or falling apart chicken pieces. It's just sparkly and fresh-tasting, delicious and nutritious. We were in soup heaven.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Extra Credit :
Caramelized [Bananas] (p. 490)

There's no recipe for Caramelized Bananas in the book, but there is a little lecture about caramelizing fruit (before the Caramelized Figs recipe). I've made the figs about ten times now, so I thought I'd branch out and try something new.

I followed the recipe for the figs exactly, substituting bananas as the fruit, and white rum as the deglazing liquid. As you can see, I did some experimental slicing to see what would work best. I sliced too thin, though, because the bananas got too soft by the time they browned and it all pretty much became mush. I think it I were going to do it again, I'd slice the bananas as inch-thick disks, so they might retain their shape.

I wondered whether or not to do the final lemon juice squirt, but I ultimately decided yes, and it was a good call. Bananas are so sweet, and then there's the added sugar, not to mention caramelization. So the sweetness definitely needs some mitigation. I think I'd also add more rum next time, maybe twice as much, for extra flavor. The little bit I used disappeared flavor-wise.

All told, it's really great. I mean, how could it be bad? Bananas, sugar, salt, rum, butter, lemon juice. Killer.

Until we eat again....