Wednesday, June 16, 2010

P.S. How to Clean Soft-Shell Crabs

Finally! Soft-shell crabs are in season, and I was able to get my hands on some fresh ones and finish the last piece of the puzzle!!

How to Clean Soft-Shell Crabs (p. 123)

I headed down to Chinatown the other day, and while I didn't have my pick of them, I did find one seafood place selling soft-shell crabs. I brought four of them home in a bag of ice, where they sat in my fridge for a few hours until I was ready to clean them.

Marcy was here (of course), and she was concerned that they might still be alive, but I assumed they would probably have suffocated or died of hypothermia by then.

So I started cleaning them.

First was cutting off their face. Actually, their eyes and mouth. Nice image, right? Then you scoop out the "soft matter just behind this cut." I'd just seen people doing this on TV, so I knew the soft matter should be a yellowish-white, but all I could see was a clear, jelly-like substance. I had to stick my finger inside its head (which is also its torso - talk about short-waisted!) and scoop out the clear jelly to get to the aforementioned "soft matter" hiding behind.

Next thing to cut off is the apron, on the other side of the crab. That was easy, uncomplicated.

And finally, you cut off the gills, which can be found underneath the shells on either side - they're sort of flappy, chrysanthemum petal-type things.

So I clean two crabs, very successfully I might add, and then I pick up the third one, and it's twitchingly alive. Ugh. Just like with Lobster Fest, I have to confront my murderer side and cut off the face of a living thing. A thing that I'm going to be eating in a matter of minutes.

Marcy was literally hiding her face at this point.

And what did I do?

I cut its face off. And then I put it down and waited until it stopped moving, which took a good couple of minutes. Thankfully the fourth crab was DOA, so I cleaned that one, while #3 took his last breaths.

I am a murderer, what can I say?

Martha's lesson is very thorough, and the photos definitely help confirm what's what. As long as you can deal with the idea of cutting a living thing's face off, you should be fine here.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

FYI, while I haven't been cooking nearly as much as I did this past year, I have definitely kept up my skills with occasional dinner parties and cook-stravaganzas.

In case you were wondering, here are the things from this book that I've repeated since completing my project:

Basic Chicken Stock
Chicken Soup
Pureed Vegetable Soup (various)
Rosemary-Olive Butter
Sautéed Skate Wing
Indian-Spiced Split Pea Soup (of course)

I know this list looks pretty meager, but mostly I've been trying all new things. This experience definitely instilled in me a desire to explore and stretch and be adventurous in the kitchen, so now I'm enjoying either trying something I haven't done before, or seeing how another recipe compares to one I've already made. I do love cooking. :-)

Until we eat again....

Saturday, March 20, 2010

My Graduation Speech

As you can probably tell from the lag between Day 365 and this entry, I'm in denial about ending this project. It's been such a fun and jam-packed year of cooking and talking/thinking about cooking that I'm finding it hard to let it go! But as every student must do when his education is complete, I proceed.

When I think about the things I've learned, the benefits I've received from spending this year in Martha Stewart's Cooking School, I don't even know where to begin, so I've created some random categories to help bring order to my thoughts.

What I've learned about cooking:

I'm not going to lie. Yes, I cooked everything in the book. But could I recreate everything in the book without using the book? No way. I have learned and had the experience of performing many cooking techniques this past year, but I am still a cook who needs a recipe/directions. It would take repeating these recipes over and over again, or studying and memorizing proportions and timings and temperatures to be able to whip them out with no notice.

Some things I have picked up along the way, though:

I have cooking instincts now! I know that a recipe is working or if it's not working. I know what to do to get it closer to the desired result. I know that it needs more salt, or it needs to be hotter, or it needs to be reduced, or it needs more water. And that's a big plus in the kitchen.

I have a new appreciation for lemon juice and lemon zest (fresh, of course). I used to ignore lemons completely, but now I know what a big lift a dish can get from a last minute shpritz from a lemon.

While we're on the subject, I have an appreciation for fresh herbs, too. There was never a day this year when I didn't have one herb or another in my fridge. What a difference from dried herbs - really, no comparison. As different as raw meat and dried meat.

I know now how important it is to be prepared before I start cooking, to have read the recipe a few times, to have as much laid out as possible, to really understand the concept of the cooking process.

What I've learned about entertaining:

I really enjoy it! I like feeding people. (I am Jewish, after all.) I also like bringing people together, friends or strangers, causing conversation and creating relatedness. Sharing a meal is a perfect backdrop for this, and I'm happy to be the host.

Entertaining is not as hard as I think it's going to be. And even if it is hard, it's worth it, for reasons mentioned above.

People are much more forgiving than I am of myself. The worst food I served this year was still met with a smile and a thank you. No one spit anything out, no one stormed out screaming or crying or vomiting, my greatest failures were mostly in my head.

There's nothing a little olive butter can't fix. What I mean by that is, everybody has their own likes and dislikes, some people won't eat this, some never eat that, but it seems like everyone loves fresh bread and is inexplicably dazzled by olive butter. So always serve bread and olive butter, and no one will go home hungry/unhappy.

The best recipes for entertaining are the ones that don't require major fussing and managing as serving time draws near. (Frankly, I'm not sure when it's a good time to cook those....) In the future, I'll choose dishes that are either mostly done by the time the guests arrive or take only minutes to prepare just before serving.

Having too much food is so much better than not having enough. Too much = leftovers. Too little = embarrassing.

What I've learned about taking on projects:

Anything is possible.

Declaring a project openly and blogging about it is a great way to put myself on the line for finishing it. I can have an idea for something that I want to do, but unless I've declared it, it's going to be really tempting/easy to quit the second it becomes annoying or something else comes up. By taking on this blog, I didn't give myself an out. And even though there were times that little jeff wanted to walk away, Big Jeff knew that there was something to be gained from doing it completely.

It's a good practice to expand the limits of one's comfort zone. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have gotten all the benefits listed here.

What I've learned about blogging:

Blogging is a big undertaking. Being responsible for writing/journaling on a regular basis is time-consuming, especially when you're neurotic about grammar and spelling like I am. Also, getting the layout right was complicated, finding places for the photos so that the text laid out nicely around them. Sometimes I'd have to edit an entry 10-12 times before it looked right.

But again, no blog, no accountability. So the blogging was what had me finish it.

What I've learned about myself:

I like entertaining, feeding people, hosting meals.

I like cooking.

I like following directions, i.e. recipes. (Unlike other people who resist/hate using recipes.)

I like lemon.

I don't hate okra.

I still hate peppers.

My new(ish) apartment lends itself really well to dinner parties.

What I forgot about myself:

What did I eat before 3/17/2009? With the leftovers slowly disappearing, it was time to shop for food yesterday. And without a shopping list in hand at Fairway, I stood there, stupefied. Eventually, I had a vague recollection of eating fresh fruit with cottage cheese and yogurt. Right....

Why I'm glad I did it:

I ate really well for a year.

I accumulated lots of interesting kitchenware.

I developed a cook's intuition.

I got to hang out with and feed a lot of amazing people.

Even with all the purchased kitchenware and groceries and feeding many people, I think I ended up spending less on food this past year than I have in past years of eating out/ordering in.

It gave me a mission, a goal, something to talk about.

And last but not least, I met Martha Stewart and got a private lesson from her on her show!!

What I'm going to do next:

I'm not sure yet. Maybe a project around writing. Maybe a continuation of this, possibly blogging once a month with recipes from the MSLO magazines.

Order in.

Write a musical or two.

Perform in Anyone Can Whistle in just a few weeks!

FYI, I just scheduled my first post-Jeff and Martha dinner party for next Wednesday. And I get to cook whatever I/we want!

Big Confession

There is one lesson in the book that I did not do: How to Clean a Soft-Shell Crab, and it's not for lack of trying.

You may remember that soft-shell crab season sneaked by without my finding soft-shell crabs. Fairway never had any, and I didn't know that Chinatown was a good resource until I had already ordered frozen ones, which incidentally come pre-cleaned.

The day I saw fresh soft-shell crabs in Chinatown, I had forgotten about having to do this lesson, so I didn't buy any. And I haven't seen them since, there or anywhere else. At my cream puff graduation party the other day, I was talking about this issue, and Adinah said "I saw some at Chelsea Market," and I got all excited. But I checked, and it turns out they only sell frozen ones there. At least at this time of year.

So even though my project is done, and I feel complete about that, I'm going to do one final entry when I can get my hands on a dirty (i.e. fresh) soft-shell crab that can be cleaned.

Or maybe Martha can teach me how to clean one on her show!!

In Conclusion

It's my hope that people will be inspired by my journey to:
  • Take on a similar project
  • Entertain more
  • Cook more
  • Challenge themselves
  • Use my blog as a resource before setting off to cook a recipe from this cookbook
  • Check my blog as a curiosity after cooking a recipe from this cookbook

And I hope that people will continue to discover the blog and post comments, even though my year is complete.

It's been a pleasure sharing my odyssey with you all, and I thank you for reading and commenting and being my inspiration for finishing, whether you knew it or not.

Until we eat again....

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Day 365 - Cream Puffs, Pastry Cream, Berry Glaze, and Chocolate Glaze

It's come at last.
At last, it's come.
The day I knew would come at last has come, at last.

I know I said Day 363 was my penultimate entry, but I lied. I'm going to write about Cream Puff night here, but I'm also going to do an overall wrap up entry later, because it's just too big a bite for me to take right now. (There's that nostalgia thing creeping back...) Plus, I'd like a few days to digest and reflect.

So for my swan song, I decided to cook swan.

No, I didn't cook swan. (Do they even sell swan?)

I saved cream puffs for the end because the recipe makes 36+ cream puffs, and I couldn't imagine serving them at the end of a dinner party. No, this called for a special event. A dedicated night of cream puffery. So I invited a handful of Jeff and Martha regulars to share in my completion celebration:

Adinah (l) and Harriet (r)



Kevin (l) and Dawn (r)



And, unphotographed, Ryan and Ken and David (who wasn't on his cheat meal, so he didn't even eat a cream puff). FYI, they're all linked above to their favorite Jeff and Martha meal.

Pastry Cream (p. 476)

I love a recipe you can make a day ahead. It takes some of the pressure off the big serving day.

I've made custards before, but this one stands apart in that the thickening agent, which is usually the egg yolks themselves, is cornstarch in huge amounts here.

First you heat milk with sugar, salt, and vanilla beans (no pod, so I took Martha's margin tip from p. 469 and I'm making vanilla sugar with it). Then you whisk egg yolks with sugar, and stir in a bucket of cornstarch. Then you temper the eggs with the milk mixture and bring it to a boil.

Now I know from pie-making that cornstarch kicks into action at the boiling point, but I've never seen it at work as plainly as I did here. The mixture was liquid, liquid, liquid, and then in one second, it came to a boil, and it was super-solid. Boom.

I took it off the heat and stirred in the butter. (The recipe says to stir in butter and vanilla, but there's no vanilla extract in the ingredients list. This must have been a holdover from a version that used extract instead of seeds.)

I was shocked at how yellow the custard turned out. It's probably a good giveaway as to whether a custard has been prepared with egg yolks (more yellow) or chemicals (less yellow). It had a nice vanilla taste. Since it was still hot, I couldn't make a determination about the consistency.

Off this went for a night in the refrigerator. To be continued....

Jeff: A
Martha: A
Martha's Editor/Proofreader: B-

Cream Puffs (p. 479)

I've dabbled in the land of Pâte à Choux before, trying my hand at gougères a few times, with varying degrees of success. It's kind of amazing that pastry will do that, and by that, I mean puff up into a hollow ball. I've never been able to get the consistency just right, though. Sometimes they were too wet inside, sometimes they didn't puff very much, never quite perfect. I'm trusting Martha will show me the way....

It's really easy to make the dough. It mostly happens on the stovetop, which is so unusual for pastry. You bring water, butter, sugar and salt to a boil, then stir in flour until it really comes together and dries out a little. Then it goes into the mixer where eggs are added one at a time. Martha says to start with four eggs and add a fifth a little at a time, only if necessary. I ended up having to add the whole fifth egg to get the right consistency.

Once the batter is ready, it gets plopped into a pastry bag and piped onto baking sheets lined with mats. FYI, I didn't have the right size tip that Martha recommended, so the best option for me was just going tipless and piping right through the hole in the bag. The piping went quite quickly. It's pretty easy to match the size, once you've done one or two that you know are the proper dimensions. (Martha says this recipe will yield about 36. I piped out 42.)

Once it's all out of the bag, you flatten down the tips using a combination of your fingers and diluted egg wash, and now they're ready to bake! One tray goes in the fridge, the other goes in a 400° oven for a bit, then it gets finished at 350°. It looked to me like phase one (400°) was where the major puffing happened, and phase two (350°) was more about browning and hardening the outsides. Out comes one sheet, in goes the other. (Don't forget to raise the temp to 400° again!)

Once they're all done, they need to cool off before anything else happens. I have to say, they seem incredibly well-structured and sturdy. I like how they each have their own unique shape and character.

Martha says to fill them from the bottom, but how? I grabbed a skinny-ended knife and twisted a hole into the bottoms. Then I put a narrow tip on my pastry bag, and I was in business.

Oops, I forgot to tell you about the pastry cream on day two. After a night in the fridge, the cream was roughly the consistency of ricotta cheese. (!) Even after some hearty stirring, it was still pretty rigid. I guess that's what you get when you add a bucket of cornstarch.

But wait, there's another step before filling the cream puffs: you fold 1/3 cup of whipped cream into the pastry cream to lighten it up! Once the whipped cream was folded in, the custard was a perfect consistency, of course. Martha, you scared me for a second, but I should have known you'd make it right.

So, now with a pastry bag full of perfect custard cream, I filled those bad boys. Filling a cream puff is tricky, because you have no idea how much you're putting in there. You can tell when there's too much in there when it comes oozing out of the hole, and you can tell a little bit from the weight of it, particularly when it's too heavy. But it's hard to know when there's too little in there.

About halfway through the filling process, I realized I was running through the cream too fast, so I started being conservative about my fills. Ergo, some of my puffs were bursting with cream, others had merely a delicate, little cream ball. If I had had more cream, I would have been more generous throughout. My advice would be to make some extra pastry cream if you like a plump cream puff.

With all the cream puffs filled, there was naught to do but glaze them. I decided to serve 1/3 plain with powdered sugar, 1/3 with berry glazed tops, and 1/3 with chocolate glazed tops.

But before I move on to the glazes, allow me to discuss my overall feeling about my cream puffs.

I think I executed them very well, and I think the recipe is as sturdy as the cream puffs themselves. The pastry was easy to make, and the results were very consistent. Everything went as described, and there were no curve balls. For a seemingly complicated French pastry, this was surprisingly straightforward. For the record, the puffs are smaller than I expected. I thought people would want one or two, but some people were eating four +. Plan accordingly.

Again, as I've said so many times this past year, this isn't a food I particularly love or cherish, so I'm not likely to revisit this, but it's a great skill to have in my wheelhouse. I'm not much for custard, however I could see myself making a slightly larger puff and doing a profiterole take with some of this amazing Coffee Ice Cream.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Berry Glaze (p. 481)

This glaze calls for 2 tablespoons of strained red preserves, but Martha doesn't tell us how to strain them. Luckily, I've been down this road before, so I knew that I had to heat them, maybe even add a touch of water, to get them to be strain-able. The strained preserves (I used raspberry) get mixed with a little lemon juice, a little salt, a little water, and a bucket of sifted confectioners' sugar, so much so that the preserves go from deep red to pale pink.

It's tricky getting the consistency of this glaze just right. When I first mixed it up, it was like peanut butter. So I started adding water, a little at a time. Then it was like tahini, and finally, I quit when it was like maple syrup. I wanted it to be loose enough to run down the sides of the puffs a little bit.

I think I might have gone a little too wet, since it was still tacky at serving time, but maybe another hour of drying would have solved that.

What surprised me about this glaze was the concentration of raspberry flavor. It was much tastier than I expected. But it's just so sugary. I'm pretty much anti any kind of sugar glaze, and this one only slips by because of its great berry flavor.

Jeff: A
Martha: A- (there should be a mini-lesson on straining preserves for the uninitiated)

Chocolate Glaze (p. 481)

This glaze involves only three ingredients: sugar, light corn syrup, and finely chopped semi-sweet chocolate. You bring the first two to a boil with water, then you add the chocolate and stir to smoothness.

It's very sweet, and though it looks very chocolately, it tastes only somewhat chocolatey. It was not quite smooth either. Not terrible, but slightly blotchy on the cream puffs. It didn't have the dense, impenetrable black-and-white cookie chocolate glaze. This was glossier and thinner.

Not bad. Just not fabulous. I wonder if there's a way to make this glaze that uses less sugar and delivers a stronger chocolate punch. Maybe using bittersweet or even unsweetened chocolate would balance all that sugar and corn syrup....

By the way, there was a ton of it left over. I made some fruit platters, and we were dipping the fruit in the leftover chocolate glaze, a la fondue. :-)

Jeff: A- (was the not-quite-smoothness my fault?)
Martha: A- (or was it Martha's?)

Here are the fruit platters (I had to put a picture in because I thought they turned out so pretty)

Me in my chef's hat!

I got some beautiful, congratulatory presents last night, but one that I thought you should know about: Kevin and Dawn gave me glamour knives!! I'm actually going to be able to slice things well now! We laughed about how it would have been great to have had them a year ago, but I'm so excited to use them now and so grateful for the gift. Thanks, you guys!!

Until we eat again...

Stay tuned for my project wrap-up - Coming soon!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Day 363 - Pot-au-Feu, Buckwheat Groats/Kasha, and Kiwi Sorbet

How is it possible that this is my last Jeff and Martha dinner party? Tempus fugit, you guys, tempus totally fugit....

I'm so happy to have squeezed in another one of my favorite couples for a first/last visit, right under the wire: Lady Susan Blackwell and Lord Steven White. You may remember Susan from my Lemon Curd entry, but at that time, she tasted the fruits of my labor via satellite. Tonight, she and her husband, Steve, are really a "part of it all," along with some other [title of show] peeps, hilarious Heidi, marvelous Michael, and [tos] friend and supporter, remarkable Ryan. Rounding out the group is my childhood friend and J+M semi-regular, beautiful Barbara.

Pot-au-Feu (p. 235)

For this very special, penultimate episode of Jeff and Martha, I'm preparing Pot-au-Feu, also known as The Thing That I Stalled Making For 362 Days Hoping It Would Go Away.

This recipe features one of the longest ingredients lists in the book, not to mention a time-consuming preparation which Martha suggests might best be spread out over two days. Yikes! And what are you serving when all is said and done? Boiled meat, chicken and vegetables. Hmph. If I'm going to be putting in that much time and ingredients, I want to be serving turducken. (Not really... I have turducken-o-phobia.)

This is a classic French dish, but it's not fancy. It's really quite basic. But since it's French, it's also somewhat complicated. Or maybe because it's Martha, it's somewhat complicated. All I know is, I've never used so much cheesecloth and twine in one day. Almost everything in the pot gets wrapped or tied. (Incidentally, I decided to do the one day version.)

Amazingly, Fairway had almost everything I needed to make this. Short ribs (cut to 3 inches), veal bones, marrow bones (although the Fairway cut isn't a cross section cut like Martha shows in the book), brisket (first-cut only, though), and of course, chicken. What they didn't have was savoy cabbage. Turns out neither did Whole Foods or Gristede's. And given that I was shopping for this meal in the horrible, horizontal rain storm of 2010, I wasn't about to search any wider. Green cabbage was going to have to do.

It all begins with the wrapping of the short ribs in cheesecloth. These, and the veal bones and brisket, go in a gigantic pot (I bought a 16 quart Martha Stewart for Macy's pot for the occasion) and get covered with water and brought to a simmer. Martha said this would take 35 minutes, and for the first time ever, it actually took less time than she said! (About 30 minutes.)

After simmering for another half hour, you add another special cheesecloth package filled with herbs and spices, as well as some onion halves (one charred, another studded with cloves), celery, carrot, and salt, and that simmers for another two hours.

By now, the meat is cooked, so that gets put aside, covered. I actually had to stall for about 45 minutes here, because I knew if I kept going, my food would be done too early. Conveniently, this gave me plenty of time to peel, trim, and wrap my carrots, trim, wash, and wrap my leeks, peel and slice the turnips and cabbage, and wrap the marrow bones in cheesecloth.

Once I was ready to start the clock again, I brought the broth back up to a boil and put the chicken in, whole, for a 15 minute head start. Then, the rest of the vegetables went in, along with the marrow bones. (The baby potatoes are cooked separately - I almost forgot to make them!)

This is definitely the home stretch, so don't start the chicken until you know you're only an hour or so away from serving. About a half hour after the veggies go in, this baby is done.

Thank god I had Barbara there. She was totally my sous chef! I was trying to assemble a Shaved Beets with Orange over arugula salad while all this was going on, and she was setting up plates for me, and basically reading my mind and doing whatever I was about to ask her to do. Sous chef - what an amazing concept! FYI, she went to ICE and worked at Aureole, so she knows her stuff. In fact, as a present tonight, she gave me her ICE graduation chef's hat and wrote "Chef Jeff" on it. :-)

I was very concerned about the brisket and the short ribs, which had been sitting in a covered pot and were definitely not anywhere near warm at this point, not to mention dry. Barbara encouraged me to get them back in the broth for a little while to warm them up, which I thought was a great idea. So she arranged the veggies and the marrow bones while I reheated the beef. Then she laid out the meat and chicken, as I carved it, very badly, I might add. Brisket gets so thready... Barbara said you can put it in the freezer, which makes it very easy to slice, then put it back in the hot liquid to reheat. Interesting....

See that picture of the platter above? That was merely one of two identical platters!

Long story long, I served the food exactly as Martha prescribed, with broth ladled over it and also served on the side, along with grainy mustard, fleur de sel, cornichons (baby pickles), croutons, and fresh grated horseradish.

Can you believe, I mindlessly threw away a half of a horseradish root last week, forgetting that I'd need it again for this recipe? This is the one I bought this week. Kind of makes you wonder how this root got its name. :-)

I was very self-conscious about serving such boring fare to all these nice people. I mean, boiled meat, boiled chicken, and boiled vegetables? It sounds like institutional food.

Well, it couldn't have been further from the truth! It was surprisingly good! Everything was cooked well and all, but I think what really made this dish was the accompaniments. Brisket tastes fine, but then you add some mustard or horseradish or a bite of cornichon, and all of a sudden, it's a whole new world, or I should say, un tout nouveau monde.

The best compliment I got was from Barbara and Michael who've eaten this before, and they said it tasted very authentic and French. Yay! Mission accomplished.

I feel pretty confident saying I'll never make this again. I probably won't even ever order it in a restaurant. But it's really satisfying to capture and experience the taste, style, essence of another culture thousands of miles away.

Jeff: A
Barbara: A
Martha: A- (reheating the meat is such a good idea, it almost seems like an element that's missing from this recipe)

Buckwheat Groats/Kasha (p. 413)

Here's another grain gratuitously and inappropriately wedged into a meal. Nothing French about kasha, that I know of.

My experience of kasha has been confined to kasha varnishkes, which is a Jewish dish that combines this grain with bow-tie pasta. The big difference between the two preparations is that in the Jewish version,
the kasha gets mixed with egg before being cooked, which seals the grain and prevents the kind of fluffiness that happens here when it's simply cooked in water.

Now, don't get me wrong - I'm not complaining about fluffy buckwheat. In fact, I think it makes the grain a little more approachable, less forbidding, less nutty. And by nutty, I actually mean nut-like, not zany.

I wouldn't say this was an obvious pot-au-feu accompaniment, but in the end, I thought it was a nice, unexpected side. That's Susan and Steve cradling the kasha.

Jeff: B (I overcooked it - thought I'd turned the heat off but hadn't)
Martha: A

Kiwi Sorbet (p. 485)

It's been a long road for me and sorbets. And you may remember, I went from being one who dismissed sorbet to being one who appreciates, even loves it, but only under certain conditions. And I've pretty much determined that those conditions are 1) a great focus of that fruit's flavor, and 2) an element of tart or acid to offset the sugar.

How does Kiwi Sorbet rate? Very high, I'm happy to say. Not only is there great kiwi flavor and tartness here, but there's also the extra added unique mouth experience, which is a sort of numbing sensation. After tasting it, one of my guests was convinced there must be pepper in it. Nope. Just lots of kiwi. Ultimately, it's a really interesting treat.

It should be said that the taste of the sorbet will really depend on the actual fruit used. There are ripe kiwis and less ripe kiwis, tart ones and sweet ones and everything in between, so it's not really fair to judge the sorbets simply on my one-time versions.

However... in case you're interested, here's my sorbet wrap up, with all the flavors listed in order of my favorite (top) to my least favorite (bottom):


Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Here's the group: from l to r, far side is Michael, Susan, and Steve, near side is Barbara, Heidi, and Ryan.

Pot-au-Feu had very few cares...
(10 points if you can finish that line)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Day 362 - Shallow-Poached Fish Fillets with Beurre Rouge and Wild Rice

It's my last Jeff and Martha dinner for Marcy!

Ugh, I'm doing that thing people do when they start getting sentimental when something's about to end: "It's my last drink as a 30-something!" "It's the last time we'll ever perform this show together!" "It's my last fish dish from this cookbook!"

Actually, it IS my last fish dish from this cookbook!

Shallow-Poached Fish Fillets with Beurre Rouge (p. 224)

I've done versions of this dish twice now, once with flounder/kumquats and then another time with turbot/lemongrass. This last variation is actually the simplest, eliminating most of the ingredients and adding only tomato puree, hence the rouge of the beurre. (My edition of the cookbook has the word "beurre" misspelled five times in this recipe alone! WTF?)

Since Martha recommend three kinds of fish for shallow poaching, I thought I'd try a different one each time. Neither flounder nor turbot was particularly pleasing to me, so I had high hopes for sole. At Fairway, I had the choice of Dover Sole or Lemon Sole, same look, same price, same size fillets. I opted for the Lemon Sole because it was wild, and I know Marcy likes her fish wild.

So here's the drill: melt butter, sweat a minced shallot, add 1/2 cup white wine and 1 T tomato puree, bring to a simmer, salt fish, add it to the simmering pan, cover with a parchment round, and cook until opaque. Once the fish is done, put it on a platter, strain and reduce poaching liquid, stir in a bunch of butter, season and serve over fish.

First of all, let me say that I finally got the butter sauce right.  The first time, it was too thick, the second time, too thin, this time, juuuuuuuust right. And what I thought would be a weird combo, i.e. tomato, white wine, and butter, worked beautifully. I think this had to do with how little tomato puree is used. The sauce, as you can see from the picture, would be more aptly named beurre saumoné.

Now, on to the Lemon Sole. Finally, we have a winner! This fish is delicate without being fishy. Hallelujah! And I managed to cook it perfectly, just done enough without tipping over into flaky, dry land.

I still have the issue with the fish cooling off while the butter sauce gets made, but fine, whatever. Marcy and I aren't that picky, and truth be told, I'm probably never going to shallow-poach another fish fillet again, because of this very reason.

Overall, I'm pleased because this was so much better than the other renditions.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Wild Rice (p. 412)

My last rice! :-)

I don't think I've ever had 100% wild rice. It's always  an ingredient in those wild rice mixes, but you rarely see it solo. It's completely black, long skinny black grains. Was this going to be edible?

Survey says: yes!

My rice took a bit longer than Martha said it would, probably about an hour total. I was surprised to see how fluffy it got! It starts out black, but it ends up more "salt and pepper." And it's delicious full-strength. Super nutty and fibrous. I'm a fan.

That said, it's definitely not a perfect match for tonight's fish. But at this point, it isn't about making perfect matches. It's just about getting it done. :-)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Friday, March 12, 2010

Day 360 - Roast Leg of Lamb and Wheat Berries

What? Day 360? Completion is getting very real to me....

Tonight's group is partly "old-timers" (Laura, who's been here at least a couple of times and Marcy, who's been here a million times), one second-timer (Megan, who's back in town for the spring to do a limited run of Lips Together, Teeth Apart at the Roundabout!), and two newbies, Jeff (wonderful playwright - Visiting Mr. Green, anyone?) and his longtime partner, Gary (wonderful nurse - NYU School of Medicine, anyone?) whom I've been trying to schedule for some time. They made it just under the wire!

Compared to most of my dinner parties, this one was actually pretty laid back for me. There was one crazy phase where I had to abandon the soup course while I made gravy and cooked the spinach, but otherwise, it was definitely do-able.

I'm starting to learn which kinds of dishes work for entertaining and which are too labor-intensive to accommodate simultaneous socializing. (That sounded very academic, but I think you get what I mean.)

For instance, I made Winter Squash and Pear Soup, but I roasted the squash and pears the day before, saving myself some busywork on serving day. In fact, I could have made the soup completely in advance and reheated it, but I knew that I'd have a window while the lamb was cooking, so I waited. (I thought it might be nice to serve the soup with Spiced Pepitas on top, but it turned out to be a bust. They got soggy in there. But I should mention that I used my remaining White Beef Stock as the base for the soup, and it worked great.)

Also, I'm getting good at repurposing. I had leftover Roma tomatoes and white bean spread from Alysha's dinner, so I made some cute little canapes by slicing the tomatoes and topping them with the spread.

But on to the real items at hand:

Roast Leg of Lamb (p. 136)

Again, this is something I've never prepared before. It's a sort of imposing cut of meat, conjuring images of Renaissance fairs, if not Renaissance times. It makes you want to serve wine in goblets.

The first part of the prep involves trimming the extra fat and putting slits all over the meat and filling the slits with slivers of garlic and bits of rosemary and thyme. I wasn't entirely clear how deep or wide to cut - Martha says "1 inch slits." I ultimately settled on a squarish, 1x1 cut, which worked well, especially for the larger pieces of garlic. The meat was sort of elastic so I could really push that stuff in there.

For the record, my leg of lamb was pretty lean, so I didn't have too much extra fat to trim.

The vegetable preparation is pretty straightforward: onions, carrots, celery, and potatoes get roasted alongside the meat. Other than some peeling and slicing, there is very little labor involved here.

Really, this is a breeze until the lamb is cooked. Then there's a spurt of activity needed to make the gravy. (FYI, my vegetables were definitely done before the lamb, so I took them out early, but I left the potatoes in the whole time, because I like a well-cooked potato.)

Once the lamb is removed to a platter, the instruction is to pour the fat from the roasting pan. Meanwhile, there was no fat in my roasting pan. (I told you my leg was lean!) What there was was piles of herbs. I wasn't sure whether or not to remove them, but then I read ahead and saw that I'd be putting this through a strainer soon, so I left them in. Reduced some red wine, added mustard and brown stock, reduced that, then strained it into a saucepan.

My gravy base was so reduced at this point that when I started to add the beurre manie (flour and butter kneaded together), it thickened up like crazy! I frantically started looking around for some liquid I could add to thin the gravy. I was wilting spinach at the time, and I'd just used up the last of the brown stock to get that going.

Then, I spied the liquid I'd reserved from the soup before pureeing, which I hadn't needed to add back in - hallelujah! Thank god I never throw anything away! It worked great, and the gravy was done.

Slicing the lamb was challenging. I tried to follow Martha's directions, but I ended up sawing, not really able to get the thin, pretty slices she suggested.

As for the end product, it was very good, not quite great. There was a huge range of doneness with this meat. The first few slices were almost well done, the meat closer to the bone was very rare. It was all nicely tender, though.

I thought that the garlic and herb slit deposits would deliver a lot of flavor, which they did when you actually got some in your bite, but I wish their flavor were more present in the meat overall. Also, I thought I had salted the outside of the meat liberally, but you really can't salt a piece of meat like this enough. The gravy turned out well, though, and filled in any big flavor holes.

All told, I'm going to say that this was a relatively successful endeavor but probably not a cut of meat I'm going to revisit. And this is coming from a lamb lover.

What I want to know is, why is there no lamb shank recipe in the book? If anyone has a great lamb shank recipe, I want to hear about it. That's my all-time favorite lamb cut.

Jeff: A- (points off for awkward slicing)
Martha: A

Wheat Berries (p. 413)

I have a confession to make. I just threw this in there because it was on the list of things to finish. There was nothing about wheat berries that I thought would contribute an important element to this meal.

What's worse, I didn't even eat any. I tasted them to check on their doneness, but they didn't grace my plate at all.

I've sort of given up on these whole wheat grains. Unless I can repurpose them in a salad or something, I think I'm done.

But don't Gary (l) and Jeff (r) look cute flanking the wheat berries?

Jeff: A- (points off for apathy and dismissiveness)
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

The whole gang, from left to right: Marcy, Laura, Megan, Jeff and Gary.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Day 357 - Beef and Stout Stew

There's nothing that says birthday like Beef and Stout Stew.

On the eve of Alysha's birthday (and mere weeks before her Broadway debut!), I wanted to throw her a special, little celebration wingding, so we invited a bunch of her fabulous, fun friends to feast on my fresh and fabulous food.

Celebrating with us tonight was NY's hysterical hostess of the gay cabaret scene, Emily, lovely and amazing singer/actor Anna, Alysha's awesome American Idiot castmate Rebecca (check her out on the Grammy's!), and Jeff and Martha regular who's currently appearing Off-Broadway in Yank - David (who's using up his "cheat meal" on this dinner, fyi). Also, with us only for the first course, adorable, up-and-coming TV personality, Matthew. Such an entertaining bunch!

Beef and Stout Stew (p. 195)

Having never eaten Boeuf Bourguignon, which is the inspiration for this recipe, I wasn't sure what to expect here. The substitution of stout for red wine really confounds my expectations. I can imagine this with the wine, but stout?

I start this recipe with what I hope is not going to be a major blunder. Instead of using a clear oil (sunflower/safflower) as instructed, I mindlessly pour olive oil into the pot with the bacon. I know this oil has different burning properties, not to mention different flavor, and I hope the switcheroo doesn't bite me in the ass.

Also, I wasn't able to find cipollini onions, as listed in the recipe, so I settled for pearl onions, as used in the traditional
Boeuf Bourguignon version.

This is a recipe that would really benefit from a complete mise en place, which I didn't do. Consequently, I'd get to a stage of the recipe and realize, crap, I never trimmed and cleaned the mushrooms. And everything would have to go on hold while I took care of that ingredient/task. I should know better by now....

The first part of this recipe involves browning some bacon and the beef. There was some confusion about how to slice the slab bacon. The instructions say to cut it into 1 inch lardons, which I did, but this seems like a weird proportion. The bacon is about an inch thick, so the 1 inch lardon ends up being shaped like a 1 inch square, i.e. postage stamp. (All I'm saying is, doesn't leave you with a great mouth feel as you're gnawing on a big lardon.)

Next, you slice the beef into 2 inch pieces. (Again, 2 inch cubes? 2 inches by 1 inch? 2" x 10"?) There was a fair amount of fat and silver skin on this meat, and I wasn't sure if I was supposed to trim all the fat away or leave it be. I started to trim, but I eventually decided that a little bit of fat is probably a good thing, so I went halfsies.

After the meat is browned and the pot is deglazed, you sauté some chopped onion and garlic and then throw in the mushrooms. When everything is soft, you add some flour and mustard, cook it for a minute, then you add the meat back with the liquids (stout and stock) and bay leaves and thyme.

Meanwhile, since Emily and Anna are vegetarians, I'm making a seitan and tofu version alongside the meat version. I tried to match it, step for step, so it would have a similar taste and texture, but I could only get so close with the faux meat.

After the stew has cooked for an hour, you throw in halved fingerling potatoes and the cipollini (or pearl in my case) onions and cook for another half hour or so, until everything is soft.

At the half hour mark, the potatoes weren't that soft, and thank god, because it wasn't time to serve the entree. My stews cooked for an extra 30-45 minutes, and I think it only made them better. The beef stew wasn't thick enough when I first checked (I took the lid off and raised the heat), and the veggie stew was too thick (I put the lid on and lowered the heat).

By serving time, everything had a decent consistency. I threw the postage stamp sized lardons in, seasoned with S+P, and served it over a bowl of egg noodles, with the prescribed accoutrements (julienned carrots, chopped dill, and horseradish). The horseradish was incredibly overwhelming. Merely grating it reduced me to tears, the fumes were so aggressive. Flavor-wise, a scant 1/4 teaspoon would have been sufficient per portion.

Overall, I was pretty happy with the dish. It was plenty hearty, very comfort food-y. The meat was incredibly tender. The balance of ingredients was maybe a little potato heavy for my tastes, but good. The stout ended up being a very background flavor, but an interesting one, not as overwhelming as I'd feared. For the record, I couldn't taste any olive oil weirdness, so I think I got away with it.

If I were cooking it again tonight, I might add a few more mushrooms and lose some potatoes, but all in all, it's a great recipe and a yummy, rib-sticking meal.

Jeff: A- (had to take a little off for my olive oil mishap)
Martha: A

Also served that night: White Bean Dip (nice), pain d'epi with olive-garlic butter (very popular), an arugula salad with basil, bocconcini, artichoke hearts, and Slow-Roasted Tomato Slices, roasted brussels sprouts with balsamic vinegar, and in honor of the impending special day, Chocolate Layer Cake with Swiss Meringue Buttercream.

Until we eat again....

Clockwise from the left, that's Alysha, Rebecca, Emily, Anna, and David (Matthew was gone by beef time).