Thursday, February 28, 2013

FFwD: Chicken Breast Diable

I'm not a huge fan of mustard-based sauces, but even I like Dorie's Chicken Breast Diable, from Around My French Table. The dish conjures no thoughts of hellfire and heat, so I think the title is a tad melodramatic. I mean, it's mustard. Mustard, diluted by heavy cream and wine. I feel a little bad for the French if, as Dorie says, mustard is the spiciest thing in their pantry. Then I remember their cheeses and chocolates and wines and buttery, delicious sauces, and I stop feeling sorry for them. They don't need my sympathy. They're doing just fine.
This recipe is easy, quick, and made from common pantry ingredients. Winner!

See those beans at the top of my plate? They're my new favorite things in the world: fava. Who knew? I thought fava was the same as lima beans, but they're not. My landlord's uncle keeps leaving me bags of pods outside my door. I do a dance of joy every time.
Aren't they pretty? The pods are velvet-fuzzy on the inside.
I am officially addicted to Marcella Hazan's "a la Romana" preparation of them from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Onions, oil, pancetta, pepper. Done. If you find yourself in possession of fava, try Hazan's recipe. It's incredible. I'm going to have to buy myself 400 bags of dried beans before I move back to the states, because I can never be without them again. I haven't come across them before. Maybe I just wasn't looking.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Want Some Feathers With Your Chicken?

The execution of My Mother's Praised Chicken (pg 223 of Nigella Kitchen) turned out to be fraught with drama. Okay, maybe not real drama, but considering that all I expected to do was boil a chicken with some vegetables, Italy threw me a curveball that I did not see coming.

Exhibit A:
Oh. My. God.
I unwrapped my chicken, and almost dropped it on the floor when I saw feathers and scaley ankles. Not to mention the fact that this poor bird looks like it was decapitated by an angry serial killer. I realized (two minutes later) that I was holding my breath and staring at the chicken from across the room. Common sense kicked in, I told myself to stop being an idiot, and started pulling feathers out, chanting all the while, "This chicken was a chicken. Chickens have feathers. This chicken was a chicken. Chickens have scaly feet." Thankfully, the feathers came out without too much trouble (except the ones on the wingtips. I just left them there, for lack of a better idea.)

One thing I noticed about the chickens in the supermarket here, is that the styrofoam tray is totally dry. There's no bloody water trapped in with the chicken. Based on absolutely no research into the matter, I've decided to settle on the explanation for this that I like best--that Italian chickens are not soaked in a vile vat of fetid water, the way American chickens are. (For me, this was the single most disturbing detail of Jonathan Safran Foer's interesting book Eating Animals. I can't buy poultry at home now without checking the package to see what percentage of the weight is from "water" absorption. I just threw up in my mouth.)

Sorry. All that has nothing to do with Nigella's recipe. Really, all you do is break the breastbone of the chicken, brown it, then boil it with some white wine, leeks, carrots, celery, and herbs. For a long time. It boils for 1.5 hours, then sits in the pot, off the heat, for another half hour. That's a long time for a carrot to boil.

The chicken was fine. The meat was tender and the broth tasted good on rice. The vegetables were mush. We ate them, but I'd prefer roasting a chicken and veg any day, for both the flavor it produces, and the time it saves.

Conclusion: Just okay. I won't make this again.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Quicky

Sorry I've been slow to post. A little old long-weekend trip to Barcelona interrupted the flow of things. I love Barcelona. That is all.

The day after Nigella's wonderful, gut-busting meatloaf, I figured that a lighter meal was in order. Vietnamese Pork Noodle Soup (pg 82 of Nigella Kitchen) caught my eye. I wasn't expecting greatness, but it seemed like a good way to use up some leftover roast beef that I had in the fridge (technically, the recipe calls for raw, thin-sliced pork, but I think Nigella would approve.) Much to my surprise, I was able to find bok choy at the Commissary. I used spaghetti instead of ramen noodles. In the end, the soup could have used a splash of hot sauce, but otherwise, it was pretty tasty, and a good way to breathe new life into that roast beef.
Conclusion: liked it, though I don't know that I'd go out of my way to make it if I didn't have leftovers on hand.

Arugula and Lemon Couscous (pg 90) accompanied our Valentine's Day steak. This tasted fine. Nothing special. It was very difficult to eat, though. Tiny couscous pebbles are not a complementary shape to long, unwieldy leaves of arugula.

Conclusion: Disliked, not because of the flavor, but because it was super annoying to eat.

I kept feeling like something was amiss with my Chicken with Greek Herb Sauce (pg 102). The photo in the book shows chicken that has clearly been seasoned with dark spices--paprika or something. The recipe does not instruct you to season with anything other than salt and pepper. Matt came home from the store with boneless thighs instead of bone-in, so instead of roasting the chicken, I grilled it, which I think I prefer anyway. The herb sauce was a nice mixture of yogurt with scallions, green chile, garlic, cucumber, cilantro, and mint.
Conclusion: Liked it. Easy.

FFwD: Cheating on Winter Pea Soup

Keeping it brief today, because nothing about this week's French Fridays with Dorie recipe excited me much, before or after making it. Cheating-on-Winter Pea Soup is a quick soup made using frozen peas, and, for a twist, a head of romaine lettuce. I've made similar soups before, so I was surprised that  no extra herbs were used to flavor Dorie's version. It could have used some oomph.

Thanks to warnings about a fellow Dorista's immersion blender shorting out when a piece of romaine tied up the blade, I chopped my romaine into a million pieces, and experienced no pyrotechnic malfunctions. Huzzah!

I'm pretty indifferent to this soup. I didn't dislike it, but I doubt I'll ever make it again. It made me want real pea soup, slow cooked with a ham bone and meat. First I need a ham...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

In Ascending Order of Greatness

It's been drizzly and cold for the past week. Not blizzard-cold, but damp and stormy, in the 40-50 degree range. Fortunately, Nigella Kitchen is packed with comfort food recipes that sound just right on a blustery day. I assume this has to do with Nigella's ingrained Englishness, because it's certainly not something that can be said for every cookbook out there.

I've covered quite a few recipes in the past week, so I'll start with the bad news, and work my way up to the glory that was last night's dinner.

Italian Tomato and Pasta Soup (pg 470-471) is a simple enough recipe. All you do is cook sauteed onion and "6 large, ripe, fabulous tomatoes" (peeled and chopped) in water, salt, pepper, and sugar for 40 minutes. Puree. Boil again. Cook pasta in the soup.

"Fabulous tomatoes" is the most important part of this recipe. My tomatoes were not fabulous. They were average. I'll give the recipe the benefit of the doubt that this was the cause of the soup's downfall. This was vile. It tasted like slightly-sweet water. I didn't even serve this. I didn't bother adding (ie, wasting) the pasta after I tasted it. It was not salvageable. We ate leftovers for dinner.
That is one sad soup.
Conclusion: Hated it, but with the disclaimer that perfectly ripe tomatoes may make a huge difference. I doubt I'll try it again in peak season, though.

I've never been a big gnocchi fan. It's entirely possible that I've never had "good" gnocchi, but every time I have had it, it's just a plate of heavy dumpling bombs that make my stomach hurt. Every supermarket here has packs of nice looking gnocchi in the refrigerator, though, so I thought I'd give Nigella's Rapid Roastini (pg 68) a try. No boiling involved. All you do here is fry the gnocchi in oil for four minutes per side. Mine browned up in a lot less time than that. If I left them for four minutes per side, they'd have burned. I don't recommend taking your eyes off of them. I kept rolling them around so all the sides browned nicely.

Nigella says that these taste like roasted potatoes. That's not true. They are tasty, though. I couldn't eat very many, because, like all gnocchi dishes, they felt too heavy in my tum. Matt finished mine.
Conclusion: Liked them. A nice, easy side dish that I can see myself making again, just because it takes so little effort. I'm sure Charlie would have liked them if he'd been willing to try them. It is so frustrating to have a kid who won't even try new food. I wouldn't care if he tasted it and didn't like it. It drives me crazy that he won't even put it in his mouth, though. I had no idea a child could survive on nothing but English Muffins with cream cheese, and fruit. Doesn't that get boring?? Ugh.

Irish Oaten Rolls (pg 87) are quick little soda breads made out of whole wheat flour and oats. Guinness and honey give the rolls a sweet backnote, but the main flavor is of the whole wheat. The crumb is moist and delicate (I wish my butter was softer, because it ripped up my roll). These are a really nice vessel for a smear of butter and a glob of marmalade.
Nom nom nom
Conclusion: Liked them. Charlie kept singing about cookies while I was taking them out of the oven, so he was mighty disappointed when he bit into his roll. The look on his face was priceless.

How have I lived 32 years without ever putting cheddar cheese in my mashed potatoes? Nigella's method for making mashed potatoes strikes me as overly complicated. Do people really boil whole potatoes for 40 minutes?? I cut those babies up and cooked them in half the time. I just made the potatoes as I normally do, then mixed in the cheddar cheese.

Conclusion: Cheddar Mashed Potatoes (pg 407) are genius. Love them. Am certain Charlie would have liked them if he were open to tasting it. I smeared some on his tongue while he was trying to avoid the fork, and he promptly licked my shoulder to get it off. I can't win. He better get used to them, though, because I'm going to be making these every day for the rest of his life.
We had spinach, too, lest you think I never eat a vegetable

And now, the coup de grace. Ed's Mother's Meatloaf (pg 458). I wish my mother cooked like Ed's mother. My mom's meatloaf was ground beef, mixed with raw onions, slathered with tomato sauce, and baked until gray and dry. Gross.

Matt's mom makes a good meatloaf, involving multiple types of ground meat, and covered in bacon. Even I like it. It's Matt's favorite thing that his mom cooks, and it's what he asks for when we go back for visits.

Matt took one bite of Nigella's recipe and announced, "This destroys my mom's meatloaf." 

I wasn't sure it was going to turn out so great as I was putting it together. For one thing, There are hard boiled eggs in the center. Huh? That's weird. Matt says it's not that weird--that German's are always sticking hard boiled eggs into assorted loafed meat recipes. After eating it, I have to agree that it works. It's weird, but it works.

The only other flavoring agents are onions and worcestershire sauce. This worried me, because it struck a little too close to home, regarding my own mother's "recipe." The difference is that these onions are cooked until soft and sweet for 25 minutes in a heap of butter before being mixed with the meat. The loaf is covered in bacon, which crisped nicely in the oven, and the bottom of the loaf was caramelized in salty bacony greasy goodness.

Don't make this if you're on a diet.

Do make this if you want a delicious meatloaf.

Me: I think the slow-cooked onions are what make this so good.
Matt: I think the everything about it is what makes it so good.

He then asked me if I can cook this regularly. I'm going to need to start eating more salads.

Conclusion: Loved it so much.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

FFwD: Fresh Orange Pork Tenderloin

Sometimes taking initiative with a recipe is not a good idea. Dorie's recipe for Fresh Orange Pork Tenderloin (pg 273 of Around My French Table) calls for four large oranges. We're still hauling in mandarins from the last tree in my landlord's grove that we haven't picked clean. He has orange trees, too, but the fruit doesn't taste like anything. I chose to use the mandarins instead.

I've been making batches of marmalade out of them (OH MAN--SO GOOD), and the marmalade recipe allows using the entire mandarin peel, pith and all, since the skin is so thin. It works beautifully for marmalade.

The same concept of using the entire peel does not work beautifully for pork. This whole dish turned out bitter. Really bitter. It was unpleasant. Those cups of sugar that go into the marmalade do a good job tempering the bitterness. Maybe if I add cups of sugar to the pork....

Just kidding.
I don't blame the recipe. This defeat was all my own doing. I'll give it another shot with normal orange zest one day.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Don't I Look Like a Well-Balanced Eater?

According to Nigella, "apples long past their prime make for magnificent muffins." Good to know. I made her Apple and Cinnamon Muffins (pg 128-29 of Nigella Kitchen) with two crisp apples, but I regularly have a few sitting around that have gone soft, so now I know they can be salvaged and transformed into muffins.

This recipe is forgiving, which is a blessed relief to me after yet another Baking with Julia disappointment. I didn't realize until I'd already mixed most of the ingredients together that I only had one egg, rather than the required two. I crossed my fingers and hoped that the omission wouldn't make much difference. It didn't. Phew! These muffins poofed nicely, with a moist, light crumb. Sweetened by honey and brown sugar, they're just sweet enough without overdoing it, and the inclusion of chopped almonds in the batter makes them feel substantial. One muffin for breakfast was enough to hold me until lunch.
With the fruit and nuts and non-white-sugar sweeteners, I don't feel guilty, like I'm feeding Charlie cake for breakfast. 

Conclusion: Loved them, and Charlie approved!

Peanut Butter Hummus was fine. Nothing spectacular. Apparently, Nigella prefers the flavor that peanut butter lends better than tahini. I prefer tahini. This tasted saltier than I would like. I read a blog post by The Tipsy Baker the other day in which she realized that the reason one of the bread recipes in her book (Make the Bread, Buy the Butter) came out too salty for one of her readers was because the reader used Morton's salt, while Tipsy used a different brand. I had no idea that different brands made a difference. Did you? Perhaps this explains my salty hummus. I've always bought Morton's out of habit. It may be time to try a new brand.
They have purple carrots in the local supermarket here! Hee hee!
Conclusion: Just okay. Most supermarket brands taste better to me than this did. It reminded me that I wanted to retry the hummus recipe from Around My French Table now that I have my proper food processor back.

Monday, February 4, 2013

TwD: Foccaccia

As of this post, I officially move my Dorie posts back over to Cookbook Immersion Project, rather than My Mandatory Fun. Since I decided to restart my cookbook blog, it makes more sense to keep all the cookbook-related posts together. If you're at all interested in keeping up with my Italian adventure, please keep reading about it on the other site.

I'm fairly confident that I will once again be in the minority when I say that this week's recipe from Baking with Julia didn't work for me. I wanted the focaccia to succeed so badly. I let my dough sit in the refrigerator (aka my spare bedroom. It gets cold in these uninsulated Italian concrete houses!) for the full 36 hours. I very gently flattened the balls of dough and tugged them into a semi-rectangular shape.

I guess I wasn't gentle enough. These babies didn't poof in the oven. At all.
They were crispy in the center, which was the thinnest part. At first I thought maybe I messed it up by using a knife to slash the dough instead of the specified razor, but that wasn't the case. I didn't slash the third ball at all, and it looked exactly the same when it was done baking as the previous two.

I'm sorry, folks. I think I'm finished with Baking with Julia. I haven't loved any of the dozen recipes I've made. My favorite was the white bread, but it murdered my KitchenAid, so I won't be repeating that mistake. For whatever reason, these recipes just don't seem to work for me. They work for other Doristas, so it may well be my fault. Perhaps I'm too distracted by my toddler to execute the recipes properly. Perhaps I'm too rough with the dough. I don't know, but I'm tired of being disappointed in the product. I'd much rather concentrate my baking time on Dorie's Baking, which I want to bake through, but was too late to the party to join Tuesdays with Dorie in time for it (or Dan Lepard's Short and Sweet or The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion). I'll see the Tuesdays with Dorie crew in a few years, when hopefully Dorie will have published another book of her own wonderful (and more forgiving) recipes for us to bake together!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

What Would Bob Marley Think?

I'm not an aficionado of Caribbean food, but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Nigella's recipe for Rice and Peas (pg 344-5 of Nigella Kitchen) is not altogether authentic, and errs on the side of being bland. I added an extra onion and two extra cloves of garlic, swapped the red chile for a jalapeno pepper because that's what I found at the store, and added shredded chicken to the pot. Maybe if there were less rice involved (the recipe calls for 2 cups), the flavors would be more pronounced. Or maybe she keeps it bland because in the book, she pairs it with Jerk Chicken. In hopes that Charlie would eat some, I opted against the Jerk Chicken. It's entirely possible that the creamy blandness here is designed to offset the chicken's spice.

That may sound like a bashing of the recipe, but I must say that the blandness didn't really bother me. In fact, I found my steaming bowl of coconut milk-flavored carbohydrates to be cozy and warm, like a good bowl of oatmeal can be. Matt, however, dumped what looked like a whole lot of salt and pepper into his.

Hard to tell if Charlie liked this or not. He ate a few spoonfuls of rice and beans, and then I got cocky and tried to slip a piece of chicken in. Mistake. He spit out the whole mouthful and refused to try any more. Sigh.

Conclusion: Liked it. As with many of Nigella's recipe, it can be pulled together from a well-stocked pantry. I'll be making this one again. I think I'll try to work a vegetable into it, too. Unfortunately, a girl can not live on white food alone.