Friday, March 22, 2013

FFwD: Ispahan Loaf Cake

2009. Matt was deployed, and I was five months pregnant. To give myself something to look forward to, and to keep myself from going stir-crazy, my friend, Hilary, and I planned a trip to Paris. In retrospect, perhaps not the greatest destination for a woman who is medically prohibited from eating soft or unpasteurized cheese or drinking wine. As such, my focus turned to chocolates and sweets. I'd literally mapped out where the closest treat was to any given attraction, and dragged us into neighborhoods that we had no other interest in, just to buy chocolate. Even Hil, a sweet-tooth in her own right, was losing patience with the fervor of my mission by the end of our trip.
Favorite chocolatier: Patrick Rogers.
Favorite hot chocolate: Laduree.
Favorite non-chocolate dessert: This thing, from Pierre Herme:
I didn't know that I loved it and needed to photograph it until I'd already shoved my face in it, thus the reason it looks like it was eaten by rats. Dorie's description of this dessert sounds much more appetizing than my picture: "two disks of rose-colored almond-meringue cookies sandwiching a rose-flavored cream studded with lychees and raspberries."

I don't remember lychees, but they might have been in there. Otherwise, I'm pretty sure this is the dessert she's talking about.

In a long line of amazing sweets, this thing blew my pregnant mind.

This week's French Fridays with Dorie recipe of Ispahan Loaf was inspired by the very same dessert that I loved so much in Paris, and without a second thought, I spent the $50 to buy and ship the multi-sourced ingredients to Italy (rose extract, rose syrup, and almond flour, which, it turns out, the Commissary does carry, but I'd already ordered it by the time I spotted it).

When I saw the enormous bottle of rose syrup that arrived, all I could think was that this better be one amazing loaf cake, because I am never going to make a dent in these ingredients in the 2.5 years that I have left to me before I have to move again.
Doesn't look like a $50 cake.
 The cake came together without too much trouble, and looked plain and unassuming when complete. I expected the rows of raspberries to melt together more, but instead, they seemed to disappear while baking. They're pretty spread out in the end product. Weird. I could have used more raspberry, and a bit more rose flavor. Perhaps my expectations were too high, based off of the level of pleasure I derived from that macaron thang in Paris. I like this cake, but it just doesn't hit the same level, or even come close.

That said, Matt burst into the bathroom while I was brushing Charlie's teeth and said, "WHAT is this cake you baked??" I hadn't expected him to like it, and thought he was horrified. I said, "Oh, that's just the Dorie recipe this week." He said, "I don't know what it is, but you've done good!"


I said, "I thought you were going to ask why your cake tastes like flowers." He said, "Flowers? No. I don't taste flowers. I taste raspberry awesomeness."

Well okay, then. He took a chunk to work, and emailed me this morning to tell me that it went "perfecto" with his cappuccino. Who knew? He's a fan of the Ispahan Loaf. Don't get me wrong, I liked it. It just doesn't live up to my memory of what the flavor combo could be.

For dinner last night, I made last week's recipe of Orange-Scented Lentil Soup. I'd made this once before, and didn't really like it. This time, I used my red lentils (instead of brown, which was all I could find the first time), and had to substitute lemon zest for orange. Two weeks ago, there were still tangerines on the trees in the grove at my house. I foolishly assumed they were still there. Nope. Bummer. Had to pick a lemon, instead. It's a hard life.
Look at the sunset, not the hideous brown soup.
Personally, I prefer the lemon. I like oranges, but am not crazy about orange-flavored stuff. I don't know if it was the lemon or the use of red lentils, but this time, I thought the soup was quite delicious. Hooray!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

By Jove, It's Working!

I hesitate to even say this, for fear of jinxing it, but Charlie has been more cooperative and put up less of a fight in terms of trying dinner for the past few days. We've even had some bonafide successes! Vegetables are still a hurdle, but he's doing much better in the meat department. Yesterday, for lunch, he ate an entire tuna fish sandwich. WHAAAAT??? Maybe it's foolish, but I don't stress about the veg. This kid eats his weight in fruit. I'll keep presenting him with vegetables, but meat was a much bigger concern for me than vegetables were.

The Basic Dry Rub (pg 26 of Weight Watchers New Complete Cookbook) is a sweet mix of brown sugar, chili powder, cumin, paprica, oregano, garlic and onion powder, and salt. I rubbed it into a london broil, let it sit for a bit, then grilled that baby up to juicy perfection. Even Matt, the steak-master, was pleased. The biggest surprise, though, is that Charlie sat down without a fuss and promptly ate several chunks of steak. He has never--I repeat, never--eaten any type of steak. Word!

Conclusion: Loved it. The recipe makes enough rub for 2 meals, so I happily have some stored away in a jar.

Wild Rice Salad with Pecans and Cranberries (pg 94) seemed like a good idea. It originally caught my eye because it would use up the wee cup of wild rice that moved here from Texas with my pantry items. Then, I thought it might stand a chance with Charlie, because it includes red grapes and dry cranberries, which are two of his favorite things. It also has toasted pecans, celery, parsley, and a vinaigrette mixed in. Sounds like it could be good, but it wasn't really. It was missing pizzazz. I couldn't figure out how to brighten it up.

Conclusion: Disliked. A waste of a variety of tasty ingredients.

Like the rice salad, Sweet and Sour Grilled Fennel (pg 270) sounded good, and failed. Perhaps I sliced it too thick, but it there was no way to cook it through without burning it. The recipe also suffered from poor instructions. After grilling it for four minutes per side, you are instructed to brush it with a balsamic vinegar/brown sugar mixture, then grill for another minute. I couldn't figure out whether this was supposed to be grilled face up or face down for this extra minute. I opted for face-down, but I'm still not sure it was correct. Anyway, these turned out burned (not caramelized. Burned) on the outside and crunchy on the inside. The balsamic dressing totally overwhelmed the subtler fennel flavor. No me gusta.

Conclusion: Hated it.

The next night, I made Chicken with Olives and Dates (pg 184). The title is a bit disingenuous. The recipe calls for two dates. TWO DATES. With 1/4 chopped apricot, it should be called Chicken with Olives and Apricots. I digress.

Once again, this sounded better than it was. Chicken is marinated for at least an hour with oil, garlic, fresh ginger, cumin, paprika, turmeric, cinnamon, and salt. Cook the chicken, covered, with a bit of broth (I needed to add more several times, because 1/4 cup of broth evaporates very quickly). After 15 minutes, flip the chicken and add apricots, your two stupid dates, chopped olives, and lemon zest. This is supposed to cook for another 15 minutes. Again, I added a good bit more broth to keep all these sugary dried fruits from burning to the pan.
I like the idea of this dish. The sweet to savory balance was off. It was very sweet, but with a strong enough garlic flavor that it made the fruit taste weird. In a bad way. Matt said he couldn't taste anything but the sweetness. Charlie ate all the chicken I put on his plate. Even though we weren't big fans of this dish, I may make it again, just because Charlie seemed to like it. He didn't eat any of the fruity part--just the chicken, so maybe I'll like it better if I just marinate the chicken, and cook as-is.

Conclusion: Just okay. The fact that Charlie ate it tips the scale in its favor, from dislike.

Most of the time, Matt is pretty indifferent to this cookbook exploration of mine. But then there are nights like last night, when he probably wishes I would just stop trying new things and stick to some foolproof recipes. With dishes like Tofu Stir-Fry (pg 228), I can't blame him.

This is the first recipe I've cooked from this book that screamed "diet food." The only reason I tried this is because I'm trying to be extra-good this week, to mitigate the damage when I eat with abandon at our Italian friends' house this coming weekend (which also happens to be our 6th anniversary, so I'm bringing a chocolate cheesecake, dammit! Diet? What diet?)

I like stir fry. Sometimes, I even like tofu. However, to like tofu, it needs to be browned and a little crispy on the outside, and to have absorbed a lot of flavor. In this dish, tofu is tossed in with all the cooked vegetables during the last four minutes. The only flavoring in this stir fry is a small amount of soy sauce, a small amount of sesame oil, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. I added chili and ginger powder and extra salt to even make it edible. Matt and I were both starving, so we ate two bowls of this, with brown rice. By the second bowl, we were both gagging on the now-cold, mushy textured tofu. Our stomachs were growling again by the time we went to bed.

This was my first time cooking tofu. If I didn't know it could be done better, it would be my last. Martha Stewart's book, Meatless, arrived yesterday. Because of the night's dinner disappointment, her recipe for tofu stir fry jumped out at me. Step one: Brown the tofu. Thought so!

Conclusion: Hated it. Oh, how I hated it. I gave some to Charlie, but opted against pushing him on it, for fear of undoing our progress. He did eat his brown rice.

One of the disadvantages of sending your kid to bed without a full belly is that they wake up hungry. Shocker, right? On Sunday, Charlie marched into my room at 630 am, poked my face, and barked, "GET UP. BREAKFAST." Not the most pleasant way to start the day (and certainly less pleasant than his normal, cheerful, "Good moooooorning!") I made the mistake of asking him what he wanted instead of just putting a bowl of cereal in front of him. He wanted pancakes. I'm not a big fan of making pancakes pre-coffee, but I sucked it up. I hesitate to count this as a distinct recipe, since I already did the buckwheat variation, but this time I made the Whole Wheat Pancakes (pg 39). I noticed, in my uncaffeinated haze, that the WW pancake recipe includes a lot of sugar. 1/3 of a cup. I asked Matt how much sugar he usually puts in pancake batter (he's the from-scratch pancake guy. I usually just open a box of Krusteaz.) His normal recipe, based off of How to Cook Everything, only uses 2 tablespoons. Hmmm. Something stinks in the land of Weight Watchers.

Like with the buckwheat, these pancakes were not exceptionally whole wheatey, and all that sugar calls the nutritional value into question. I'll probably just stick with Bittman, and toss some whole wheat flour in.

Conclusion: Just okay.

Friday, March 15, 2013

No Complaints

Much to my surprise, all of the Weight Watchers recipes that I cooked this week were good, and most were dishes that I'd be willing to work into a fairly regular routine. One critique is that, for nearly everything I've made, I've needed to use more oil than they call for. It is totally unrealistic to cook these meals with one measly teaspoon of oil. It just doesn't work.

First up, Chicken with Apples and Noodles (pg 169). I wasn't totally sure what this dish was supposed to come out like. You brown apple slice, then remove them from the pan. Add chicken to the pan, and brown it on both sides. Remove from pan. Add onions, broth, apple cider vinegar, and honey, then return the chicken to the pan until it cooks through. The apples go back in for the last two minutes, and then it's meant to be glopped on noodles. I'm glad that I chose to serve this with brown rice instead of noodles. There was not a lot of sauce left by the time I was finished, and it never would have coated pasta. A little sweet, a little tart, and plenty filling.
I forgot to take a picture until I was halfway done.
Conclusion: Liked it.

Charlie's a buckwheat fan, so I made the WW recipe for Buckwheat Pancakes (pg 39). This is a recipe for someone who doesn't like buckwheat. 1/2 cup of buckwheat flour, diluted by 1 1/2 cups of all purpose flour does not create a very buckwheatey pancake. They were fluffy, and basically tasted like a normal pancake.

Conclusion: Liked it, but wouldn't be my go-to recipe.

I was feeling a little homesick, and decided to make a BBQ-ish meal. I smeared Smoky Barbecue Sauce (pg 14) on chicken breasts, grilled them, then smeared more sauce on. Have to say, the bbq sauce was really good. I've never made my own before. It had a whole lot of flavor (and it should, with onion, garlic, ketchup, brown sugar, cider vinegar, molasses, chili powder, smoked paprika, dry mustard, ground ginger, and cayenne all simmered together). Matt said that he's not a fan of chicken with BBQ sauce that hasn't been thrown on a charcoal grill, but he was a fan of this.
A three-fer!
Conclusion: Loved it.

Rainbow Slaw (pg 91) seemed like a natural companion to the bbq chicken. I do admit that I used normal mayo and sour cream, rather than fat free versions, so I don't know how much healthier it turned out to be than a normal slaw, but there were a whole lot of vegetables involved, so I'm not losing sleep over it. The picture in the book clearly has no dressing on it, b/c after two minutes of sitting in the dressing, my red cabbage turned the whole bowl of green cabbage, carrots, yellow pepper, and scallions purple. I'd hoped that the dish's purpleness would attract Charlie. No dice.

Conclusion: Just okay. I ate plenty of it, but the leftovers have been sitting in the fridge for a week. They're destined for the trash.

Continuing my quest for decent non-greasy fries, I gave their recipe for Oven Fries (pg 260) a shot. Folks, we have a winner. Usually oven fries end up reminding me more of a roasted potato than a french fry. Not these. These tasted and had the fluffy-on-the-inside consistency of normal french fries. The difference between this recipe and others that I've tried, is that you soak the potatoes in slightly salted, slightly sugared water for 15 minutes, then dry them, before tossing them together with a little oil and paprika, and spreading them on the baking sheet. I don't know what that 15 minute soak does, exactly, but it's key! Charlie has never been fooled by an oven fry before. He usually takes one bite and spits it out. He ate his plate of these, and then asked for more.

Conclusion: Loved them. My search for a good oven fry is over.

Lastly, I made Garlicky Red Beans and Pork (pg 152). I wish I'd doubled this recipe, because it tasted good, and now I have half a pork loin sitting in the fridge, without a plan. It may be bad by now. This wasn't especially garlicky. Cumin  was the dominant flavor. It was good, though, and Charlie took several bites of it.

I'm launching a "No, you can't have an english muffin. You're eating what we're eating" mission. I don't care if he eats it all; I just want him to taste everything on his plate. I'm cautiously optimistic that this will work. It's only been a few days, but after a prolonged period of screaming tantrums, he eventually breaks down and tries what's on his plate. He even ate a whole bowl of cauliflower soup the other night (after refusing to taste it for 45 minutes.) Wish me luck.

Conclusion: Liked it.

Friday, March 8, 2013

FFwD: Cheesy Creme Brulee

I didn't really think through my dinner plan for this week's French Fridays with Dorie recipe, Cheesy Creme Brulee. I read through some comments about it on the FFwD website, looked up the recipe, said, "Hey! I have all the ingredients for that!" and made it, despite the fact that it's an appetizer recipe. If I served it with a salad or something, it would have seemed a little more reasonable than sticking two ramekins of cream, egg, and cheese in front of Matt for dinner. Woops.

My first problem with this recipe is that my stupid oven's lowest setting is 190 degrees Celsius, which is 374 degrees Farenheit. Much higher than the recipe requires. Because of this, I didn't have a gently-baked custard. Mine boiled, which made it pretty difficult to determine when it was done. There was no clean insertion of a fork into a calm custard. I took a wild guess as to whether or not they were ready to come out, let them sit for a while, and they turned out fine. The custard de-liquified as it cooled. Phew!

I couldn't ge tthe cheese on top to brown much in the broiler. Oh well. 

I don't know if it was because of the boiling, if it was the cheese I used, or if they were meant to be this way, but mine were very greasy.

One ramekin's worth tasted good. The second ramekin felt heavy and too rich.

These were surprisingly easy to make, and with a nice fresh salad, one would make a lovely lunch. I do not recommend eating two with nothing else to lighten it up, though.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Easing Into It

Over my many years of dieting, I've found that chili recipes lend themselves pretty well to being healthified, because it's easy to fill them out with lots of veg. Some recipes are better than others, but in the end, if you keep adding spices, you'll probably turn out something edible.

This is the serving size. Not too shabby.
To give the WW New Complete Cookbook a fighting chance of making a good impression, I figured I'd start with their Beef and Bean Chili (pg 141), which they say to put on top of some brown rice.

I have to say, it was pretty good. There was a good bean and beef to vegetable ratio, and it was thick instead of watery, which has been a problem with some versions I've made in the past. It stays pretty dry because the only fluid added is a can of fire-roasted diced tomatoes. I approve.

For once, I did not tinker with the spices. It could have used a bit more of everything (cumin, oregano, chili powder, salt, pepper), but I thought there was a chance Charlie would eat some, so I left it as it was. As it turns out, he did eat several chunks of beef, and then asked for "more beef" an hour later. Wouldn't touch the beans or the veg, but that's recipe victory, as far as getting any of it in his mouth is concerned. Non-dairy protein is the hardest thing to get him to eat, so I was pleased. Matt remarked, with surprise, "This is good! Needs tabasco, but it's good!"

Conclusion: Liked it. I'd make this again. Especially if I could get Charlie to eat more of it.

Quinoa-Fruit Salad (pg 95) caught my eye when I first flipped through the book. I love quinoa, vanilla yogurt, and fruit, so it sounded like a pretty sure thing. It was disappointing. I thought it would be sweeter and creamier from the yogurt. However, 1/4 cup of yogurt (mixed with oj and mint), created a very thin coating for the fruit and quinoa.

I did have to change a few things, but I don't think they'd have saved the recipe. The biggest is that the recipe calls for 1/3 cup of fresh mint. I just planted my mint two weeks ago, and it's not sturdy enough yet to support that kind of trimming. I cut a few sprigs off, but probably only ended up with a tablespoon, at most. I did not taste mint in the finished product.

Strawberries, kiwi, and canned mandarins are the suggested fruits. I used as many strawberries as I had, which was a lot less than the required 1.5 cups, frozen blueberries and raspberries, canned mandarins, and a banana.

Honestly, the not-sweet-enough nature of the dressing and fruit brought the bland flavor of the quinoa to the forefront, somehow.

Conclusion: Just okay. I like the idea of this recipe, but it needs a lot of playing around before it tastes good.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Wrapping Up and (Gulp) Up Next...

I'm cutting Nigella a little short. I don't feel too badly about this. While I've only covered 13 recipes for the blog, when I include those that I cooked before re-starting the blog, my total comes to 32. That seems like a sufficient exploration to decide that yes, I am most definitely keeping Nigella Kitchen.  I hit some duds prior to cooking for the blog, but by and large, most of what I made while focusing on the book was easy, satisfying, and I'd make it again. There are lots and LOTS of tempting desserts in this cookbook that I haven't touched. I look forward to trying them in the future. As far as I can tell from past baking, Nigella knows her sweets. I'm not too concerned about the success of her dessert recipes.

The calendar turned to March, and I've launched into full-on panic-mode. See, my brother is getting married in July. I'm a bridesmaid. I sent my future sister-in-law my measurements back in September, when I was a stress-ball whirling dervish of activity who had no time to eat and was running all over base while living in the hotel there. During those two months we lived on base, I lost 9 pounds without even trying.

Let's just say I've gained some back.

Yeah. "Some." That's a nice, vague description.

I've actually just hit the number that consistently in my adult life has made me put on the breaks, rock in a fetal position in a corner for a while, then decide that something must be done.

Something must be done. Now, while I still have enough time to fit into that bridesmaid dress.

Now. I'm not pursuing a particular diet at this time. I've established some general guidelines for eating habits that I know make a difference for me (drink 64 oz water a day, eat lots of fruit and veg, baking is forbidden, exercise). Without actually doing Weight Watchers, which I've never been very good at, as I hate weighing each piece of food, hate eating easily-trackable processed foods, and hate figuring out points of non-WW recipes, I plan to cook from the Weight Watchers New Complete Cookbook, which I bought a few years ago when I was on the diet.
Be brave.
I will not track points. The recipes, in general, are healthier than what I normally cook, so I'm hoping the sheer fact of cooking them instead of a bacon coated meatloaf will help me in my plight.

There are a few things that WW, and this cookbook, push, which I just can't get behind. I will not use butter substitute (like Promise butter spread), egg substitute, powdered egg, fat free half and half,  or any other chemically-altered/too-far-removed-from-its-native-form product. As far as cheese goes, I'd rather use less of the full-fat version than more of a tasteless fat free version.

I also tend to triple the spices required in any given recipe. Spices don't add calories, do they?

Really, I want to be cooking from Ottolenghi's Jerusalem. That book is gorgeous. Plus, my friend just went to Morocco and brought me back a bunch of spices that I need. Squeeeeeal! Honestly, most of the recipes look pretty well-rounded, veg-rich, and healthy. It'll be my reward follow-up book for giving the Weight Watchers cookbook a chance.

I'm not expecting a whole lot from the WW recipes. Maybe I'll be surprised? Wouldn't that be nice. PLEASE, if you have this book and have found a good recipe or two, I beg that you direct me to them.


I had misgivings about Nigella's Speedy Seafood Supper (pg 193 of Nigella Kitchen) from the outset, based upon the fact that I don't really trust frozen seafood. Especially shellfish. There are certain things in the world that just seem to demand they be eaten fresh. Mussels are one of them.

Still, every supermarket around here prominently displays packets of frozen seafood. It's usually a mix of calamari, mussels, and little shrimp. I figured I'd give it a shot, rather than potentially miss out on some easy way to keep seafood on hand.
Should have gone with my gut. I don't know that there was necessarily anything wrong with the seafood. I'm very careful when I cook fresh mussels, though, and if the shell is cracked or open and won't close when tapped before it gets cooked, I toss it without question. If the shell refuses to open after all of its buddies have given up, I toss it without question. The fact that the mussels in this frozen mix were already split in half meant that I couldn't check for these telltale warnings.
I made too much pasta. Woops.
The sauce for this seafood is quite nice. It's a lightly-flavored mix of saffron, tomato, garlic, scallions, tarragon, and white wine. But then you dump the still-frozen seafood in and only cook it for 3-4 minutes. The shrimp hadn't turned pink yet in that time, so I let it go longer. A crustacean who was in the pack (I forget what they're called. It looks like a miniature combo of a shrimp and a lobster) didn't change color at all by the time the shrimp looked done. I know when I had one of these guys in my pasta at a restaurant, it was definitely not a pale blue color. I let the sauce simmer a little longer. I don't know how you tell when mussels are done, if they aren't capable of opening their shell.

I just couldn't get past my distrust for the seafood. The mussels looked weird. I can't explain it.

Matt thought his first bite tasted nasty, but liked the rest of it.

We didn't get sick, so that leads me to believe that the seafood was fine and I'm a drama-queen. I don't think I need frozen seafood in my life, though. Matt asked me why a person would use frozen seafood when they have access to fresh. Before I started to eat, I told him that it's all about being able to throw together a nice dinner in no time, without having to stop at the store. After eating, I have to agree with him. I'll save seafood for nights when I have time to deal with the fresh stuff.

Conclusion: Dislike. The sauce would be good for fresh seafood, though.