Sunday, July 31, 2011

TBIR: India

One of my biggest gripes with this lousy town that the Navy sent us to is that there's very little ethnic food, and absolutely no Indian food. None. I'd have to drive three hours to San Antonio to satisfy my cravings. Because of this, I'm really interested in learning to cook my own, but also really intimidated by it. I'm not sure why it makes me so uncomfortable. Cooking is cooking. You go through the same motions to add spice, regardless of which spices you're using. I guess I'm just afraid that it won't taste right, and because the spices aren't flavors that I'm used to cooking with, I won't be able to fix it. Practice is the only solution to that particular problem, so I decided to jump in head first and cook one of my very favorite things in the world: Saag Paneer, aka Fresh Cheese with Spinach Sauce (pg 452). Actually, in the book, the Indian name for the dish is written in teeny letters beneath the English translation, but that didn't seem right to me. I also made Naan, aka Indian-Style Flatbread (pg 440). In combination, these two basic dishes took me a long time to make.

First up, the naan. I've been making bread and bagels on a weekly basis for the past few months, so the idea of kneading dough and letting it rise and all that jazz doesn't intimidate me nearly as much as it used to. I feel like I've gotten pretty good at using a recipe's description to get the right texture/look of the dough. Not this time. I suspect that the naan dough was not as it should be, but I can't really say, because the book abandoned me, in terms of what the dough should look like when it's ready. The reason I think there's a problem was that one step is to roll the dough into balls. In my experience, you need a dough with some structure to do this. This was a sticky, wet mess, impossible to roll. I added flour and made it work, but I'm not 100% sure it's right.

The instructions say to heat up a heavy pan super-hot, and then throw the flattened dough on, flipping it now and then, until the bottom is "speckled and deep golden brown in spots." Ummm. Yeah. These things burned SO fast. My pan is a mess.

This bread is in the right spirit as naan. It doesn't taste like what you get in a restaurant, though. There was something harsh about the flavor, which I think is due to the burned bits. As Matt said, "When it's cooked in a kiln, the burned bits taste good. When it's cooked in our pan, it just tastes burned." Oh well, it was a good first effort, and certainly better than the pre-made naan that we made the mistake of buying in the supermarket once. Shudder.

Conclusion: Just okay. It needs some work.

Now, on to the main event. The hardest part about the saag paneer was that you make your own cheese. WHAT??? It wasn't really that hard. I just felt very unsure of myself the whole time. All you do is boil milk and salt, then add vinegar until it curdles. Pour it into cheesecloth and let it drain in a colander for a bit. Twist the ends of the cheesecloth to release as much moisture as possible, then put the packet in between two plates and balance a dutch oven on it. Whaaaaaaaaaaat? You know how hard it is to balance a dutch oven on a rickety structure? Mine and Matt's combined skills couldn't make it work, so I ditched the oval dutch oven and used a bag of flour instead. After a half hour under pressure, it's cheese! It tasted like a solid, dry ricotta.
I have named my cheese Sebastian.
The sauce was easy to make. It's really just vegetables (onion, spinach, tomato) cooked with spices in water, then cooked down. Puree 1/3rd of the vegetable mixture with more water, add the puree back to the pan, and cook it down again. Gently fold in cubes of your homemade cheese. YUM.

If I served this with rice instead of the naan, (and if our damn AC didn't stop working mid-preparation) the whole production would have been much less stressful. Not the best Indian food I've ever had, but I'm proud of myself.

Conclusion: Liked it. It needs a bit more something, spice-wise, but I'm not sure what.

Oh, and my landlord magically wrangled an HVAC repairman to come out at 8 pm on a Sunday night. Huzzah!

Booze and Scones

I took the day off yesterday, while bracing myself for tonight's outside-my-comfort-zone Indian meal. I'll be so sad if it doesn't turn out well. Anyway, I did mix up a pitcher of Planter's Punch (pg 51) to go with the steaks Matt grilled. Does a drink count as a recipe? Sure, why not?
Snapped mere seconds before Charlie's greedy mitts reached for it. "No, dear, that's Mommy's juice."
Planter's Punch is rum with orange, pineapple, and lime juice, plus grenadine and a pinch of salt. It tastes just as you'd expect--fruity and refreshing. At the risk of sounding like a lush, I'm going to say that this recipe could use more alcohol. There is only 1 cup of rum per 4 cups of juice. If I hadn't made it, I wouldn't know there was booze in my glass. Still, it's a really nice combination of juices.

Conclusion: Liked it.

For breakfast, I made Lemon-Blueberry Scones (pg 105). I'm not much of a scone expert. I've never been to England, and hate the ones served at Starbucks, so I pretty much stay away from scones. My understanding of them was that they're dry and dense, and that in England, they aren't sweet.
These scones were delightful. They're not dry at all. They're not very sweet (just three tablespoons of sugar), and have a lovely mild lemon flavor. I may add a bit more zest next time. Blueberries, obviously, are always welcome. The crumb is soft and moist, and, considering the cup of cream that goes into the batter, they're remarkably light. The book offers an assortment of variations (Cranberry-Orange, Ginger, Cakey Scones), and I'll probably make them all at some point. There's also a separate recipe for Oatmeal Scones, and a list of variations, so I'm sure to give those a shot, as well.

Conclusion: Liked it. Tasty and easy. Works for me!

Friday, July 29, 2011

TBIR: Latin America and the Caribbean

In preparation for tropical storm Don, which is heading straight for me and will be here within the hour (ominous, no?), I shopped for recipes whose ingredients were minimal and inexpensive, in case the power goes out and I lose what's in the fridge. This led me to Venezuelan Stuffed Corn Cakes (pg 46) with Chicken and Avocado Corn Cake Filling (pg 48). I'm just going to count this as one recipe.

The idea, which I still believe is a good one, is to make a corn cake that is fried until brown, and then baked briefly (10 minutes) until they "sound hollow when tapped on the bottom." Once done, supposedly you can split them like an English muffin and stuff them with filling. This did not work out for me.

I claim full responsibility for the corn cake failure. The recipe calls for Masarepa Blanca. The book breaks down a number of corn products and defines them. Masarepa Blanca is a "pre-cooked corn flour." I could not find this in the supermarket. I expected to be able to, because I live in south Texas. There's a huge Mexican population here, so H-E-B is extraordinarily well stocked with relevant foodstuffs. I already had Maseca (masa harina) at home for making tortillas, so I decided to just use that and forge ahead with the recipe. Lesson learned.
Hockey puck, anyone?
I guess the pre-cooked nature of Masarepa Blanca is important. My corn cakes were nowhere near cooked after frying and then baking for ten minutes. Or twenty minutes. Or thirty minutes. Then I gave up and tried to serve them anyway. I "split" one, and it was still mushy in the middle. I served them anyway, but just piled the filling on top of them, as if they were pancakes. Shockingly, what bit I ate sat like a lead balloon in my belly. Yuck.
Despite my mistakes with the corn cake, I blame the book for the bland, flavorless filling. The shredded chicken and avocado is seasoned with minced cilantro, scallions, lime juice, and a scant 1/4 tsp of chili powder. Yuck. This packed no punch. Matt asked me if he was eating fish. He was not. Ugh.

Conclusion: Disliked. I respect the concept, and if I were in Venezuela, I would certainly try one. I have no interest in pursuing this recipe further.

For dessert, I made Baked Bananas (pg 56), which is served with vanilla ice cream. This couldn't be easier to make. Just sprinkle brown sugar and dots of butter on bananas, cover with foil, and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake another half hour.
Nasty to look at, delicious to eat.
The finished product looked vile, but tasted delicious. It's a prime example for how I try to look at food, which is to try anything and everything, regardless of how it looks or what you assume about it. I thought this would be slimy and wet. It was actually a very strange, spongey texture. In the future, I would take this out of the oven faster, because too much of the syrup in the pan burned. The drippings tasted like banana caramel--I would have liked to eat more of it.

Conclusion: Liked it very much.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

TBIR: British Isles and Ireland

In flipping through The Best International Recipes, I was looking for a meal that appealed to my stuffed-up, cold-ridden self. Colcannon Soup (pg 86), with its butt-load of kale, potatoes, and leeks, sounded cozy and right. It appears that all the best international recipes begin with a base of onions cooked in bacon grease. All the ones I choose to cook do, at least. ha! I expect that will change once I wander away from chilly Northern European realms. 

I've never had Colcannon Soup, so I can't say if this is an authentic version of it. I suspect that's going to be a problem for me throughout this book. Regardless, this soup was damn good. According to the introduction, this soup is most commonly made with cabbage instead of kale, but that kale does appear in a number of versions, so they included it as a variation. I opted for the kale, because I need the leafy greens.
Behold the creamy, bacony goodness. Oh yeah, there's kale in there too.
This soup's flavor, with its base of bacon and wine and chicken stock, garlic, onions, and leeks, and topped with crumbled bacon and chives, was more complex than I assumed it would be. The heavy cream that is added at the last minute thickens the soup and makes it feel luxurious in your mouth.

Conclusion: Loved it. This would be even better if the weather were cold, but even at 95 degrees, it hit the spot. This could easily become a winter staple.

The Best International Recipe: Central Europe and Scandinavia

I'm back from New York, and ready to start working through The Best International Recipe. As I mentioned earlier, my plan is to cook a meal from each geographic chapter, and then loop back around to try out runner-up recipes.

I'm feeling ambivalent about what I cooked for dinner last night. I'm not sure if my problem with dinner was the actual taste of the food, or if external factors dampened my enthusiasm for it. A) Congestion settled in my ears and lungs, so I'm cranky and tired, B) The recipe didn't quite work flawlessly, and C) My stupid salmon had a million bones in it, which made it super annoying to eat.

The main dinner component was Cold Poached Salmon with Dill-Sour Cream Sauce (pg 127). I don't like cold fish, so I served this hot. This recipe is easy, but it didn't work out right. You're supposed to simmer a broth of water, wine, lemon, onion, carrot, thyme, garlic, and peppercorns for about a half hour, to make it flavorful. Then you add the salmon so that all the pieces are submerged. I couldn't even submerge ONE salmon fillet in this amount of liquid, and it would have been a disaster if I were attempting to cook the six fillets the recipe calls for. I don't think it's even that so much liquid evaporated. It wasn't enough to begin with. If I weren't sick, and my brain was working properly, I would have just added more water. Instead, I flipped the salmon over halfway through, then tried to do the same with Matt's piece, but by the time I was done with his, the liquid had boiled away and both pieces of fish were still raw in the middle. I put them in the oven for a few minutes, and they turned out fine, but it was still really irritating.
I wasn't so sure about the sour cream (I used yogurt) and dill sauce before I started, because I'm used to light lemon, garlic, and wine sauces on my fish. I never ate sour cream on salmon before. It actually worked together nicely. I approve. Now, if only the damn bones had been removed from the fish, I may have enjoyed eating this. GRRRR.

Conclusion: Liked it. It won't be replacing my normal salmon preparation, but it's nice for a change now and then.

As a side, I made German Potato Salad (pg 118). Hard to say what I think of this. It was delicious right after it was made, while it was hot. The bacon was crisp, the onions had caramelized in the bacon fat, and there was a balanced back-note of vinegar and mustard. I stood at the pot, eating it compulsively. I made it late in the afternoon and let it sit at room temperature until dinner, to try and save some time later. It was gross at room temperature, though Matt still loved it because it had bacon in it. In fairness, the instructions DO say to serve this warm. I barely touched what was on my plate. After two hours, the potatoes had absorbed all of the dressing. It was dry and tasted more mustardy than it did when it was fresh. Yick.
Conclusion: I'll give this a "Liked it," because it was really good right off the stove, which is when they tell you to serve it. I very much disliked this after two hours, though.

FFwD: Citrus-Berry Terrine

Anybody know what a Citrus-Berry Terrine (pg 399 of Around My French Table) is? Anybody? Yeah, neither did I. It sounded tasty, but looking up the word terrine in the dictionary (defined as a casserole dish made of pottery or a pate of meat, fish, or vegetables that is baked in a dish and served cold) didn't help at all. Best I could figure after reading Dorie's intro and studying the picture, this was a recipe for orange gelatin with pieces of fruit in it. I have no strong feelings about Jell-o, one way or the other. I convinced myself that this was Dorie Jell-o, and so, must be a more delicious, more sophisticated version of the familiar neon dessert.

The oranges around here have been dried out and awful lately, so I swapped them for tangelos. They're a little tarter and more acidic, but they were juicy, so I'm glad I deviated. The recipe calls for two grapefruit. I hate grapefruit. Matt and my mom both insist that Ruby Red grapefruit are sweet, but they're wrong. Dumping sugar on it doesn't count. As far as I'm concerned, grapefruit ruins everything it touches, so there was no way I was adding it to this dessert. On the chance that omitting it altogether would also omit a vital sour element, I cut a lime into very fine pieces and added those. Otherwise, I stuck to the script, and tossed blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and the tangelo and lime bits in with the orange juice gelatin mixture.

One of the ongoing inconveniences of being a military family is that every time we move, things get lost and things gets broken. When we moved to Texas, six wine glasses and two lovely Pyrex loaf pans disappeared. I'm sure they weren't the only things in the box, but we still haven't figured out what else went missing. (In case you're wondering, a bookcase was our "something broken." How do you break a bookcase??) As such, I only own one crappy metal loaf pan now, and it's too small for all this gelatin. I used my souffle pan instead. It might as well get some use.
I'm fighting a cold, and think I've found my new immune-boosting secret weapon.
I'm officially fascinated with the idea of making my own gelatin. The hardest part of this recipe was resisting the urge to poke it during the hours it sat in the fridge. It's gorgeous (until I cut it, that is. How in the world did they manage such a neat, clean slice of it in the book's photo? Mine was a pile of glop.) Apart from the gelatin and the 1/3rd of a cup of sugar that you dissolve in with the orange juice, it's nothing but fruit, so I have no guilt about eating as much as I want. I also feel a whole lot better feeding this to my son than I would feeding him powdered, artificially flavored and colored Jell-o.

Conclusion: Love it. Light, refreshing, and vitamin-packed. I never would have tried this recipe on my own, so thank you, French Fridays with Dorie, for choosing it this week! It's a new favorite, and I can't wait to try variations.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Wrap Up and Up Next: The Best International Recipe

I've spent a lovely month with Giada. Only a few recipes were exceptionally delicious, but the majority produced good, easy meals. The stand-outs were the Sweet Basil Smoothie, Pasta Ponza, and the Ricotta (/Mascarpone) and Berry Syrup. This would be a great gift for someone with a teeny kitchen and few pots and pans, because the recipes rely so heavily on the grill pan.

Giada at Home is definitely a keeper.

I told Matt to select the next book I cook from, since he's been a good sport with this whole endeavor. He picked the mammoth The Best International Recipe from the America's Test Kitchen/Cook's Illustrated people.
I'm skeered.
I have to admit, I would not have chosen to do this one yet. I haven't recovered from the horrid ATK Healthy Family Cookbook before starting another one made by the same people. Plus, it's an intimidating book. It's 562 pages long and covers the entire globe, except the US and Canada. Poor Canada. If Mexico has its own section, shouldn't Canada be in there somewhere? They must have some unique recipes up North. Oh well.

I feel a glimmer of hope in that the one and only time we cooked from this book--and by we, I mean Matt--he made a German feast of spaetzle, weiner schnitzel, and red cabbage, and it was awesome. Matt studied in Berlin for a year in college, and he said this spaetzle was the closest thing he's had to authentic spaetzle since leaving Germany. I had no idea, from eating in restaurants here, that spaetzle could have so much flavor. YUM. It's ruined restaurant-spaetzle for me forever. Hopefully the other sections live up to this promise.

Another reason that I feel uneasy about this book is that there don't seem to be many simple, whip-it-up for lunch type of recipes. Most recipes are quite involved. Apart from the scones in the British Isles section, none of it is breakfast-appropriate. This puts a whoooole lot of pressure on dinner.

Tell me to quit my whining and move on. Okay. To the task at hand...

In this book, the globe is divided into 14 chapters. My strategy will be to cook at least one recipe from each chapter, and then loop back around to runner-up recipes that caught my eye along the way.

We're flying back to NY to visit fam for a week, so there will be a brief hiatus until we return. I'll start my month with The Best International Recipes when I come back. I planned to get a head start this weekend by cooking Indian food. I went to the store and bought all the ingredients, except for garam masala. Couldn't find it anywhere. Grrrr. I'll have to look for it in Brooklyn and start when we get back.

Update: My friend just brought it to my attention that the South Pacific (ie, her homeland of New Zealand) is also not represented. I would say that English-speaking countries (Canada, NZ, Australia) didn't make the cut, except that The British Isles make up an entire chapter.  Beats me.

Popeye Would Approve

My farewell dish from Giada at Home was Orecchiette with Greens, Garbanzo Beans, and Ricotta Salata (pg 81). This is an excellent way to get yourself to eat loads of leafy greens, but the recipe is a blank slate that needs some work. It's pretty bland, as written, but plenty could be done to improve it.
First you cook two crushed garlic cloves in oil until they're brown, then remove them. As I discarded them, I thought, "Wait! Why would I get rid of the garlic??" As someone who is perfectly happy eating garlic raw, this pasta needed more than garlic-flavored oil.

Cook a butt-load of swiss chard and baby spinach in the oil, then add cherry tomatoes and garbanzo beans. Mix lemon zest and some ricotta salata cheese into the pasta, stir in the veg, then add more cheese on top. I never had this cheese before. It's pretty salty, so it was the predominant flavor. As you can see, any number of things could be done to this pasta to improve it. Fresh herbs, more zest, lemon juice, some onions, garlic, etc. The only real appeal of this is that it gets you to eat lots of green things.

Conclusion: Just Okay. This is nothing special. A dull note for Giada to go out on, but I won't hold it against her.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Meatloaf, Shmeatloaf, Double Beetloaf.

Quick, name that movie reference!

I hate meatloaf. I've eaten versions that I've hated more, and versions that I've hated less, but none that I really enjoy, though my mother-in-law's, wrapped in bacon, comes pretty close.

Despite my distaste for it, long before I started this blog, I tried Giada's recipe for Turkey Meatloaf with Feta and Sun-Dried Tomatoes (pg 120) for two reasons. 1) It's a departure from any other meatloaf I've had and 2) my mother-in-law had gifted me with a meatloaf pan, so I figured I should use it once. What, you may ask, is a meatloaf pan? It's a loaf pan with an insert. There are holes in the bottom of the insert so that the grease can drain out of the meat. Maybe that would be beneficial for a loaf made with fattier meats, but it turned the turkey meatloaf into a dry brick. Still, the idea of this recipe intrigued me enough that I wanted to try it again, in a normal pan.

I'm trying to use up stuff we have in the fridge before heading to NY to visit my family next week, so this recipe took care of parsley, a chunk of feta, and the rest of the slow-roasted tomatoes I made from Around My French Table earlier this week. You're supposed to add 1/4 cup of olive oil to the meat, which just so happened to be the amount of oil the tomatoes were packed in, so I used that for extra flavor. I'm guessing that adding the oil compromises any idea you may have of this being healthier than a standard meatloaf. Olive oil is probably a better type of fat than that in ground meat and bacon, but it certainly ups the calories. Oh well. It's necessary to keep the meat moist. Mix these things with breadcrumbs, eggs, garlic, salt, and pepper, combine the mixture with ground turkey, and bake.
Think we liked it?
I'm happy to say that this time around, the meatloaf was SO GOOD. It stayed moist, and the flavor from the chopped tomatoes disbursed evenly throughout the meat. The chunks of feta melted enough to infuse the meat, but stayed firm enough that there were still lovely solid cheesy bites. Charlie, who refuses to eat meat, no matter how I prepare it, ate half an adult-sized slice of this, which made me very happy.

Conclusion: Loved this. I can see myself making it pretty regularly.

Just in case you're wondering, I didn't get around to cooking the French Fridays with Dorie selection this week. I just didn't feel motivated. It was Cold Melon-Berry Soup, which I already made for Mother's Day. I planned to play with turning it into a pitcher of boozy goodness, and maybe I would have if we had some company or something, but the occasion didn't really present itself this week. Oh well.

Oh, and that movie reference is from A Christmas Story, which is one of the greatest movies of all time, Christmas-themed or otherwise.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

See? I Told You She Had Long Titles

Chicken and Shrimp with Pancetta Chimichurri (pg 118) may have suffered from inaccurate expectations on my part, or maybe it was just bad.

I've never had chimichurri. The closest I've gotten to it is watching Tony Bourdain talk about it on Travel Channel. This tasted like salad dressing, which shouldn't have surprised me, since it's a butt-load of olive oil (what a waste of a cup of oil), red wine vinegar, processed with parsley, oregano, garlic, and lemon juice. Is chimichurri supposed to taste like a vinaigrette? If it is, then I guess this was a successful one, and now I know I don't like it. If it's not supposed to taste like salad dressing, this failed utterly.
I curse thee, chimichurri.
I omitted the shrimp, because I'm on a budget this week, and just grilled up chicken, seasoned with salt, pepper, and oregano. This took forever and the cutlets were burning on the outside long before they cooked in the middle. The kitchen filled with smoke. When I expressed concern as to how this was going to taste, Matt said, "I have to admit, it doesn't smell good." No, it did not. The only good thing about this was the browned pancetta sprinkled on top. Not even baconish meat can save this.

To make matters worse, I had to eat mine cold, because I was pushing up on my wee laddy's bedtime, and he pitched a fit just as we sat down to eat.

Conclusion: Have to say, I hated this.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Chicken Milanese with Tomato and Fennel Sauce

Man, Giada's recipes have long titles. If my family invented Chicken Milanese with Tomato and Fennel Sauce (pg 113), we'd probably call it "Breadcrumbed Chicken with Glop." Exotic, no?

This is a pretty standard recipe for breadcrumbed chicken: dredge in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs. She adds dried basil, dried thyme, and a load of Parmesan cheese to the breadcrumbs. Upon ripping apart my fridge, I discovered I was out of Parmesan. Bummer. I added a touch of salt to the breadcrumbs and moved on, pan-frying the cutlets in vegetable oil.
Crunchy goodness
The sauce is what makes this dish different from the breadcrumbed chicken I grew up with. Once the chicken is done and removed, add a touch of olive oil to the pan drippings, then cook sliced fennel until soft. Add halved cherry tomatoes, garlic, and fresh thyme. Remove it from heat and add some mascarpone cheese.

I had no idea what the sauce would taste like. It was creamy, with a nice, light sweetness. I always expect fennel to taste as full-on licorice cooked as it does raw, and I'm always surprised when it doesn't. You'd think I'd learn by now.

Conclusion: A good, strong Liked It. It was good as it was, and adding all that Parmesan that I was missing would, of course, only make it better, because Parmesan kicks ass.

Grilled Vegetable, Herb, and Goat Cheese Sandwiches

I look for any excuse to pay good ol' Dorie a visit in Around My French Table, so when I saw that the recipe for Grilled Vegetable, Herb, and Goat Cheese Sandwiches (pg 56) in Giada at Home required sun-dried tomatoes, Dorie's recipe for Slow-Roasted Tomatoes (pg 342) seemed like the perfect replacement.

Like many of Dorie's recipes, the tomatoes are simple as can be. Halve cherry tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, some rosemary or thyme sprigs (I did both), and a few cloves of smashed, unpeeled garlic. Stick them in the oven on low heat for a few hours. They come out richly tangy and sweet/tart. To store the leftovers, she says they'll keep for a few weeks if you top them with oil and refrigerate. Once the tomatoes are gone, she suggests using the oil for salad dressing. Will do!
My camera refused to focus on the tomatoes. They're prettier than they look here.
Conclusion: Love. These would be a flavor-packed addition to all sorts of pasta dishes, and I'm daydreaming about topping a nice, juicy burger with them. mmmmm

Now, on to the sandwich! I'm going to say up front that this was unexpectedly delicious. I thought it would be good, but it's one of those examples of all the components coming together to make a better whole. The quality of the ingredients is a huge factor in this sandwich, and between Dorie's tomatoes, my homemade bread, and the fresh goat cheese that I bought from a brand new vendor at my weekend farmer's market, it was shockingly good.
Feed my face.
First you mix together the chopped up tomatoes, a good bit of oil, fresh basil, tarragon, and thyme. I used oregano instead of tarragon, because my plant is enormous. Slice a zucchini and a Japanese eggplant lengthwise, then coat the slices in the oil/herb/tomato mixture. Grill them.

To assemble the sandwich, smear the remaining tomato mixture and then the goat cheese on the slices of bread. This was harder than I expected, because the goat cheese didn't want to adhere. I'd let it warm up a little next time, so it's more spreadable. Layer the grilled veg on one side of the sandwich, and put some spinach on the other side. Smash together, and devour.

Conclusion: Loved this, with the caveat that it needs to have superior ingredients. It wouldn't be as great with a supermarket baguette and a jar of sun-dried tomatoes. We had this for dinner, and I didn't miss meat. Matt said he would accept not eating meat for dinner because he'd had a pulled pork sandwich for lunch. Eye roll.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Giada's Final Lap

Giada at Home has the finish line in its sights, so I'm trying to plow through as many of the remaining recipes as I can.

I cooked up Pancetta and Cinnamon Waffles (pg 228) for breakfast yesterday. They're pretty self-explanatory. Add diced, browned pancetta and cinnamon to a boxed waffle mix, and top it with toasted walnuts (I used almonds) and maple syrup. I enjoyed this, but prefer normal, homemade waffles with a little vanilla extract in the batter. The nuts bothered Matt. I liked them. These won't be replacing plain old waffles, but they're nice for a change once in a while.
Yep. That is, in fact, a waffle.
Conclusion: Liked it. Nothing mind-blowing.  It's exactly what you expect it to be from the title.

Dinner was Grilled Salmon with Citrus Salsa Verde (pg 132). While I know that parsley and mint are green, in my unprofessional opinion, I don't feel that their presence defines something as a salsa verde. To me, salsa verde=tomatillos and cilantro. The word salsa is altogether misleading here, compared to the end product. What do I know?
Where's the "verde" in my citrus salsa verde?
 If this were simply called Citrus Grilled Salmon, I would have nothing to complain about. It's light and refreshing and delicious.

Brushing maple syrup or amber agave nectar on the salmon before grilling helps it brown with beautiful crusty grill-marks, without making it taste of maple. 

The "salsa verde" has oranges, lemon juice and zest, oil, scallions, capers, crushed red pepper flakes, parsley, and mint. The pepper flakes gave the salsa the slightest bit of spice, but it was mostly sweet.

Conclusion: Liked it. The oranges I had were okay, but not the greatest ever. The better the orange, the better this dish.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Chocolate Crack Cookies

With all this socializing I'm doing lately, Ready for Dessert may be less of a long-term project than I expected. Then I can move on to Dorie's Baking, which I finally broke down and bought. Mwa ha haaa! I guess word got out that if you invite me to something, I will bring sweets. That's fine--I'm not above buying friendship with sugar.

Matt's colleague invited us over to his pool for the evening. He's always exceedingly grateful and sends me thank you emails for any leftover desserts that I send to work with Matt, so I figured he deserved something that wasn't three days old for once. Chocolate Crack Cookies (pg 190) sounded good to me, because the title includes three of my favorite things. Just kidding about the crack part. Lebovitz named them for their appearance, not for any drug-related reason, though when he baked them back in his days at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, he had to come up with other, less offensive, names for them. I think his alternate of "baked chocolate truffles" gives a pretty accurate description of the finished product.
I need another hit.
These are small, one-bite cookies that are a little too easy to eat. They sort of melt in your mouth right until that millimeter before your teeth meet, when there is a slight crunch, because of the toasted almonds that are pulverized in with the flour. If there's one thing David Lebovitz knows how to deliver, it seems to be chocolate.

Conclusion: Love. It's like a brownie and a cookie had a baby.

I swear, I really did bake up a few dud recipes from this book before I started this blog. Everything I've made lately has been other-worldly good, but I definitely had my doubts about whether or not I'd keep this book at the outset. I just don't want to give the false impression that everything is flawless. The Nonfat Gingersnaps (pg 200) were inedible, and much to my mortification, I'd baked them as a gift, and had no time to make a replacement. Horrid. The Nectarine-Raspberry Upside Down Gingerbread (pg 41) was okay, but the flavors didn't really jive. Happily, I have many more unique recipes to try, so we shall see how it goes. If only I had an ice cream machine. There's an entire chunk of this book that I can't even touch. Sigh.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Roast Beef and Tomaters

You'd never know it by looking at her, but Giada sure does like her mayonnaise. From the way these recipes are portioned, she must slather an inch of mayo on everything she touches.

Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Basil-Curry Mayonnaise (pg 109) was a snap to make. Crush cumin and coriander seeds, then toast them. Make a paste of garlic and salt, then add the spices and some oil and stir until smooth. Smear it all over the meat. I used a modest eye round roast instead of a tenderloin. I roasted it for a few minutes less than Giada says, because mine weighed a bit less than specified, and it cooked to a perfect medium rare.

She pairs the meat with mayo mixed with mascarpone, curry, smoked paprika, and fresh basil. The recipe, as written, would produce well over a cup of mayo. I made an eighth of the recipe, and it's more than I will ever use.
There are too many round things on this plate.
I prefer the meat without the mayo. On its own, just with the spice rub, this beef was delicious. Spicy and garlicky and salty. The mayo tasted mostly of curry. Didn't love it and I didn't think it improved the meat. That said, I could see it being a nice component of a sandwich with cold leftovers.

Conclusion: The meat gets a solid, resounding "like." As I said, I don't like the mayo, but the meat itself is good enough that I won't let it detract from my rating.

To go with the beef, I made Roasted Tomatoes with Garlic, Gorgonzola, and Herbs (pg 155). I substituted feta for the gorgonzola because I had half a cake of it in the fridge. I think gorgonzola, with its stronger flavor, would work better.

Halve and seed a tomato. Roll the tomato halves around in oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Mix the cheese and bread crumbs together, then fill the tomato and bake.

Conclusion: Just okay, but I reserve the right to adjust that ruling when I try it with gorgonzola. There was nothing especially remarkable about this, but it would be a good use of overflow tomatoes if your plants have run amok and you don't know what else to do with them.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bland Soup and a Sugar Rush

Giada's Butternut Squash Soup with Fontina Cheese Crostini (pg 52) was a huge disappointment. Blech. This recipe differs from any other butternut squash soup recipe I've made in a couple of ways, and now that I've tasted the result, I can confidently say that none of these differences are for the better.

First key variation: instead of cutting the squash in half and roasting it, which I think imparts a deeper, more caramelized flavor to it, she instructs you to peel, cube, and boil it in chicken stock with a carrot, an onion, and some garlic. Ever peel a squash? They're slippery little buggers. I don't know what the hell happened to my hand during this stage of the process--whether it's an allergic reaction or the wax adhered to it--but after I washed my hands, the one that had been holding the squash was shiny and tight. I spent the day rubbing at it, and now it's mostly off, so I guess it was from the wax, but no amount of washing would clean it. I looked like a burn victim. Mark 1 against Giada.

Instead of the standard nutmeg/clove/ginger type spices that are usually used in butternut squash soup, Giada uses a whole heap of fresh sage. I've never used fresh sage before, so I had no expectation of how it would turn out. The herb smelled pungent, so I worried that it would overwhelm the dish. I needn't have been concerned. This soup tastes like nothing. In a blind taste test, I doubt I could identify it as butternut squash. That's messed up.

It's meant to be served with fontina and sage topped crostini. I just shredded the fontina on top of my soup, because I didn't have crusty bread. Again, ew. I've never had fontina. B-L-A-N-D.
Conclusion: Dislike. Yuck, yuck, yuck. I froze some of it for Charlie, but the bulk, I'm sorry to say, set sail on a fateful voyage down the drain. What a waste.

To end the day on a better note, I decided to make Candied Cherries (pg 250) from Ready for Dessert. Lebovitz says that they keep for at least six months in the fridge, so I figured I could make them now, while cherries are in season, and have them through the Fall without actually having to eat much of it today. I've recently become fascinated with the idea of preserving food, so this was me dipping my toe in. I'm kind of confused as to how these keep for so long without boiling the filled jars, or any of the other botulism-prevention methods that people use for jelly. Anybody know the science of preserves? Would the boiling/vacuum seal action be for things that you intend to keep longer than six months? Am I going to die if I eat these in November?

I doubled the recipe, because two cups of cherries didn't look like much. I'm glad I did, because even though the original recipe says it will yield two cups of product, my four cups of cherries only yielded two cups of product. Not sure what happened there. It doesn't seem like the type of thing that could be so drastically off, unless cherries in France are the size of golf balls. 

Pit the cherries, then cook them with water, half a lemon, and sugar for 15-20 minutes. I wish he specified that it would take a lot longer if you were doubling the recipe. He gives advice on doubling elsewhere (ie to use a half a lemon instead of just a squirt), so there would have been a place for it. Fortunately, he provided a target temperature, so I relied on the candy thermometer to tell me when it was done. Before you pour it in your jar, you have the option of adding a touch of amaretto. Well, if I must.

Taking my aunt's advice about using turbinado sugar instead of granulated sugar in fruit recipes to tone down the sweetness, I used turbinado. Holy moly. I should have halved it. I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but this was so sweet that I could feel my eyebrows vibrate. I was afraid to cut the sugar, because I didn't know if it would "candy" properly with less. I'd try it next time, though.
A little bit of these cherries and syrup goes a long way. It was more pleasant drizzled on a little scoop of vanilla frozen yogurt, rather than eaten straight. Lebovitz suggests a number of ways to use these cherries, including to spoon some over lemon desserts. I wouldn't have thought of that, but think it would work perfectly. Warm vanilla pudding would be good, too.

Conclusion: Liked it. I would definitely fiddle with the sugar next time, but it makes me happy to know that I have a lovely jar of cherries waiting patiently for me in the back of my fridge.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Dessert to Celebrate My New Stove

For the past few months, I've only been able to use the two small burners on my stove. The big ones were busted. I asked my landlord to fix or replace it months ago. First they were waiting for a good used range to appear, then they were waiting for a sale on new stoves, and finally they bought one. It was delivered last week, but there was one small problem. The stove was about half a foot too short for the counter, so the delivery men took it back until someone came in to build up the floor. I nearly lost it. Long story short, as of this afternoon, my shiny new stove is installed and working, and I've cleaned all the sawdust out of my kitchen.

We have a giant tub of mediocre blueberries sitting in the fridge, so one of Giada's dessert recipes caught my eye, because these berries aren't good for anything but sauce. The recipe is for Ricotta with Vanilla-Sugar Croutons and Berry Syrup (pg 175). I made a few variations.

I omitted the croutons altogether, because I didn't feel like going overboard with the dessert. Sweetened cheese and fruit sounded healthier in my head than sweetened cheese and fruit and buttered, sugared bread.

I undermined my own efforts at healthfulness. I needed mascarpone cheese for the recipe I'm making for dinner tomorrow, so I decided to use that instead of ricotta, rather than buying both. I'd never had mascarpone on its own before, but I knew that it was used in tiramisu, and I've seen Giada use it a lot on tv, so I figured it would work just fine. What I didn't realize was that mascarpone tastes like a solid version of heavy cream. I haven't looked at the nutritional stats on the package, because I was already in, but I'm sure they're not in the same ballpark as ricotta.

The instructions say to make vanilla sugar by whirring the contents of a vanilla bean with sugar in the food processor. I didn't feel like buying vanilla beans, so I just added some extract and sugar to the cheese. Then, you zest an orange and a lemon into the cheese. YUM.

For the sauce, dissolve sugar in the juice of the lemon and orange. I used half the sugar that Giada calls for, and I'm glad I did, because it was quite sweet. Honestly, I could have halved the amount that I did use, and I think it would have still been good, if not better. Once the sugar is dissolved, add a heap of blueberries and quartered strawberries, and cook for a few minutes until they're soft.

This dessert was sooooooo good. I know the mascarpone was a mistake, calorie-wise, but man, it was good. The flavor of the cream and the zests stood up to the sweetness of the sauce. I could taste all the flavors individually and as a whole simultaneously. Matt said it was the best dessert ever. He's a blueberry fanatic, though, so take that as you will. I don't miss the croutons.

Conclusion: Loved it. I'll try it again with ricotta.

FFwD: Salmon and Tomatoes en Papillote

I was a little nervous when starting this week's French Fridays with Dorie dish: Salmon and Tomatoes en Papillote (pg 302), because Matt has a long-held aversion to dinners prepared by this method, where the meat is wrapped up in a loose foil packet and baked in the oven. I agree with him that this often produces bland food, but it doesn't bother me as much as it bothers him. This dish was going to have to jump through hoops to impress him.

Fortunately, it did. This is the best thing I've ever cooked en papillote. I don't know how Dorie did it, but she infused the fish with flavor.

First, sear cherry tomatoes in oil, just to get them going. Dorie says that this step is "not necessary but will intensify their flavor." That's like saying, "Feel free not to sear them, but you're food won't be as good as mine." Needless to say, I seared my tomatoes.

The remaining steps are simple. Line a few basil leaves on the center of the foil. Top it with the salmon, drizzle with some oil, add salt and white pepper. Add the tomatoes to the side of the fish, and zest a lemon over everything. Sprinkle sliced scallions on top. Spritz some lemon juice, then make your fish look all pretty with slices of thinly sliced lemon, a basil leaf, and sprig of thyme. Seal 'em up in the foil and bake them on a baking sheet. Easy. To make it even easier, you could also prepare this ahead of time, and then toss it in the oven when you're ready.
The salmon cooked perfectly--flaky, but moist. All those flavors of the lemon and scallions and thyme and basil really came through in the fish. The tomatoes were exceptionally sweet and delicious. I wished that I'd made loads more of them, because I wanted one in every bite.

Matt, the ultimate en papillote critic, lit up when he took his first bite. His tone implied that he couldn't believe the words coming out of his mouth as he said, "It''s GOOD!! But how?" Beats me. Magic, I guess.

Conclusion: Liked it. This method basically steams the fish, so, paired with Dorie's timing instructions, this seems like a foolproof way to cook a perfect piece of salmon.

Friday, July 1, 2011

This Ain't Shrimp Cocktail

I knew that Sauteed Shrimp Cocktail (pg 34) wasn't a traditional ketchup/horseradish shrimp cocktail. I mean, the ingredients of the sauce are yogurt, mayonnaise, mustard, maple syrup, turmeric, and fresh basil leaves. Clearly Giada's scribbling outside of the lines here.

In her intro, all she says is that "the usual shrimp cocktail is served ice-cold pretty flavorless." She prefers it warm. That's fine. I do, too. She says nothing about her cocktail sauce, other than that it's "an interesting combination." No it's not. It's pretty gross. It tasted like diluted mustard, with a sweet aftertaste. Weird. Matt thought it tasted okay, as long as he didn't put too much of it on the shrimp. I ate my shrimp un-dipped.
The shrimp, by itself, was seasoned with herbs de provence (which Giada seems to throw in everything), salt and pepper. Who needs to dunk perfectly good shrimp in a vat of gross mustard sauce?

I'm also shocked that Giada thinks that one pound of jumbo shrimp is enough for 4-6 servings. Matt and I got six shrimp each. So, six people would get two shrimp each. Come on. It's technically in the appetizer section, but it still seems skimpy, especially since twelve shrimp would never use up the amount of sauce the recipe makes.

Conclusion: Disliked. The only thing that saved this dish from being hated is that the shrimp, by itself, was good. The sauce was the dish, though, and the sauce was baaaaad.

Ready For Dessert: Pistachio-Cardamom Cake

I wanted to bake a dessert yesterday so that I didn't show up to my first book club meeting empty handed. In my experience, it's easier to make friends when you come bearing cake. I had no time to factor in a supermarket trip, so I needed a recipe that I already had all the ingredients for. Nothing from Giada at Home fit the bill, so I moved on to Ready for Dessert. My lack of chocolate or quantities of fresh fruit limited my choices. Then, I found it. Of all the bizarre recipes in the world, the only one that I had every ingredient for was Pistachio-Cardamom Cake (pg 57). I thank Dorie and Around My French Table for stocking my pantry with pistachios (from her wonderful Beggar's Linguine) and cardamom pods, which showed up in a whole bunch of her recipes.

This is not really a great cake to make during your toddler's naptime, as it utilizes every appliance in the kitchen. Live and learn.

First, melt butter in a cake pan, then evenly distribute sugar and sliced almonds in the pan. In a food processor, pulse pistachios with flour until the nuts are finely ground. With a mortar and pestle (or, in my case, a hammer and the concrete garage floor), crush cardamom seeds. Don't worry, I put the seeds in a baggy first. It was at this point that I began to worry about presenting such an off-the-wall cake to strangers. Would I be the weird girl with bad beet and onion breath who bakes weird cakes? I shrugged it off and added the cardamom to the pistachio mixture.

In a mixer, beat butter and sugar. Add eggs, then a flour/salt/baking powder mixture, then the pistachio mixture. This is a thick batter, so you drop globs of it into the pan and then spread them out with a spoon, trying not to disturb the almonds too much.

All the nut and pod shelling made this cake pretty labor-intensive. Do you know how many cardamom pods it takes to get two teaspoons of seeds? Approximately a million.  Okay, maybe not that many. Easily twenty, though.

This cake smelled amazingly warm and spicy as it baked, and I knew as soon as I turned it out onto a plate and saw those pretty brown almonds that I would love it, even if no one else did.
You and I are going to get along just fine, Cake.
I'm happy to report that the cake was a HUGE hit at book club. Two women went back for thirds, and one took a chunk home with her and requested the recipe. I snagged one slice to bring home for Matt, but I may have accidentally eaten it for breakfast this morning. Woops.

Now that I know better, in the future I would serve it more as a breakfast or tea cake. The crumb was a little dry for dessert, but was perfect with a cup of coffee this morning. The pistachios provide more texture than flavor. The recipe calls for unsalted pistachios. I used salted anyway, because it's what I had, and I actually liked it when every now and then there would be a hit of salt in the bite. This cake is perfectly balanced--not too sweet, with exactly the right amount of cardamom.

Conclusion: Loved it. This is a new favorite.