Thursday, February 20, 2014

Tilapia with Artichoke, Caper, and Cherry Tomato Sauce

It felt like it took a long time to prepare dinner tonight, but that's really only because it took me forever to clean the giant bag of brussel sprouts that Matt pulled from our garden. I've found enough little buggies and mystery matter (eggs? I don't know) hiding in loose leaves, that I'm psychotic about pruning the sprouts before cooking them. Regardless, the brussel sprouts had nothing to do with this recipe. The Tilapia with Artichoke, Caper, and Cherry Tomato Sauce (pg 246 of The Epicurious Cookbook) took very little time to prepare.

I was skeptical that the breadcrumb and parmigiano mixture would adhere to the fish without any egg, especially after I followed the instructions to pat the fish dry before dredging it, but it did, in fact, stick. Surprise!

I'm out of onions, so I left it out. I cooked garlic for a few seconds, then added in the halved canned artichokes, cooked it a few minutes, added halved cherry tomatoes and capers, cooked it a few minutes, until the tomatoes started to mush up a bit, then added in the water from the canned artichokes, some chicken stock, and a little butter. The mixture reduced for a few minutes, and dinner was ready. Perfetto!
Conclusion: Loved it. Easy and tasty.

Nigella's Pancake Redemption

I had a hankering for pancakes again this morning, so decided to give Nigella a second chance, regarding pancakes. This time, I made Feast's Banana Buttermilk Pancakes. To make things super-easy, Nigella has you toss all the ingredients (pretty standard--flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, buttermilk, a banana) in a blender and let her rip. Mix in a little melted butter before cooking.
Unlike her Cheesecakelets, these pancakes cooked beautifully. They might be the prettiest pancakes I've ever made. They tasted lightly banana-ey. Fruit is one thing I have no trouble getting Charlie to eat, but I imagine you could trick your kid into eating a banana with this recipe. Because the batter is blended, it's smooth and has no texture that might put a kid on guard.

Conclusion: Liked it. Nigella, you're forgiven for the Cheesecakelet debacle.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bookending Bologna

On Friday, two hours before we were scheduled to leave for the train station to head up to Bologna for the weekend, Charlie requested pancakes. This kid asks for specific food so infrequently that I decided, sure, let's have pancakes for lunch.

I've had Nigella's Cheesecakelets (pg 191 of Feast) in my head for quite a while, ever since I first saw her whip them up on her tv show. Despite the name, these don't much resemble cheesecake. They have cottage cheese in them, and she says that they remind her of her grandmother's cheesecake. Who am I to argue with an individual's food associations?

There's not a ton of flour involved (only 1/3 cup), especially when taking into account that there are 3 eggs. The eggs are separated, the whites whipped, then folded into the batter.

I found these pancakes to be impossible to handle. They stuck to the griddle and were very slow to cook through, meaning that I kept flipping too-wet pancakes to try to keep the glued-on bottoms from burning. It was a hot mess. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe my pan was too hot. I didn't heat the pan any differently than I normally do for pancakes.

I managed to get one to stay intact for Charlie, and he ate it (including cottage cheese) without complaint. I wound up with the torn up messes, and didn't bother cooking the remainder of the batter. The flavor wasn't unique or interesting enough to make this recipe instead of a normal pancake recipe, especially when taking into account how difficult they were to actually cook.

Conclusion: Dislike. Pain in the ass. I may try and slip some cottage cheese into our normal pancake recipe in the future though, for extra protein, since it didn't seem to bother Charlie that it was in there.

I made sure I had all the ingredients on hand to make Penne alla Vodka (pg 133 of Feast), because it seemed like it would be easy enough to throw together on Monday, after a day of travel. It was. This was very delicious, and it tasted like home. Not my actual home, because vodka sauce was not something my mother ever made, but my neighbors did, and I used to like ordering it in restaurants. Kids need vodka too. What? haha.
One thing I found odd, and that I'm not sure I would do again, is that, instead of adding the vodka to the sauce, which is the only way I've ever seen this made, Nigella has you mix butter and the vodka in with the drained pasta, prior to adding it to the sauce. This made it much more obvious that vodka was involved, which may be why she prefers it. I don't know. I think it tastes smoother and less jarring when mixed with the sauce. Also, on Monday night, I'd pulled out Charlie's pasta prior to adding the vodka, and he inhaled his entire plate of pasta and sauce. Last night, I tried to give him the leftovers (which included the boozified pasta), and we fought about it for two hours. In retrospect, I'm wondering if he could taste the difference. It's equally likely that he was just being a pain. The majority of our meals turn into fights, so who knows.

Conclusion: Loved it.

We adults ate Dominican Chimichurri Burgers (pg 152 of The Epicurious Cookbook) last night. The intro describes this as a "messy masterpiece." Messy, yes. Masterpiece? Let's not go crazy.
The basis of this burger--ground beef mixed with diced onion and red pepper, garlic, cilantro, oregano, soy sauce, and Worcestershire, topped with a mixture of mayo, ketchup, and mustard--was very good. I know, because I had the leftover patty for lunch today, minus all the extra unnecessary hooplah. The hooplah in question is sliced cabbage and shredded carrots cooked for two minutes until wilted (huh? Why? It was still crunchy. Not sure what the point of this step was.), grilled tomatoes, and grilled onions. I don't like all that messy crap on top of my burger. The whole thing fell apart while I was eating it. It's just a peeve of mine. The cabbage and carrot was especially unnecessary. Out with it!

Conclusion: Liked it, minus the toppings.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Comfort Foods

Since moving to Naples, I have become obsessed with the extra starches Italians add to pasta. Never, in my carb-conscious American life, would I add potato or beans to pasta, but they do, and the resulting miraculous textural amalgamation creates one of the world's great comfort foods. I always perk up when I find out I'm being served pasta fagiola (literally, pasta and beans). I say "when I find out," because it's rare to actually order your food around here. You sit down at a table, and they start bringing out food. Whatever is fresh, and whatever the chef makes well. It's marvelous. Anyway, I've never tried to cook Pasta Fagiola myself, and figured the recipe in The Epicurious Cookbook was as good a place as any to start.

This recipe produced a very nice tomato-based soup, chock full of sausage, onions, cannellini beans, pasta, and spinach. It would take well to any veg you may have laying around.
It bore no resemblance to any pasta fagiola I've had here in Italy, and misses out on all that creamy, starchy, thickening that the beans and pasta can give each other, but it was a good, cozy soup. I wish I made a plate for Charlie before adding the frozen spinach, because he refused to touch it once he saw green.

Conclusion: Liked it.

We (ie, Matt) planted a winter garden for the first time in our lives this year, just to see if we could produce some vegetables that are hard to find around here. Some seeds have done better than others. Swiss chard and turnips are growing like champs. Red carrots are slow and steady. We had no luck with parsnips or spinach. Our Tuscan Kale, which I thought would take off like a rocket, since we're in Italy and all, has remained quite small. Matt pulled up a bunch of turnips and a few carrots the other day, and asked if I could figure out a way to use them this week. He doesn't like pot pie much, but when I saw that Chicken and Fall Vegetable Pot Pie (pg 249) called for a pound of turnips and a few carrots, I was sold. Our turnip greens are inedibly bitter, so I used some of my swiss chard instead.
The crust is supposed to have extra pizzazz with the inclusion of fresh parsley and thyme. I was sure I had parsley in the fridge, but didn't find it until two minutes after I was done cooking. I threw dried thyme into the crust and called it a day. The pastry dough was surprisingly easy to work with (surprising, b/c pie crust type things usually infuriate me), and it turned out flaky, which I was afraid would not happen, as it was sitting on top of a puddle of goopy filling.
Tastes better than it looks.
Conclusion: Liked it. Matt ate it, too. I didn't try to figure out the WW points, and I don't want to know. Suffice it to say, there's enough butter, flour, and shortening in here to blow it off the chart.

Last night, I made Braised Chicken with Tomatoes and Olives (pg 52). This is an easy roast chicken recipe. Toss tomatoes, onions, olives, and sliced garlic with oil, herbes de Provence, fennel, salt and pepper, and dump it into a roasting pan. Rub the same mixture, sans fennel, into the chicken skin. Add chicken to the pan. Roast.
Next time, I'd rub the spices under the skin. I always pull the skin off, so the seasoning was lost on me. Still, some salty garlicky flavor did seep into the meat.

I've never roasted tomatoes alongside a chicken before, and it turns out to be a lovely combo. I didn't like the olives. Their time in the oven concentrated their saltiness until they were flat-out unpleasant to eat. I'd omit them next time. 

Conclusion: Liked it.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Blackened Steak Salad

Two nights ago, I made Blackened Steak Salad (pg 254 of The Epicurious Cookbook). The spice rub for the steak was delicious, and I will use it again (paprika, black pepper, salt, garlic powder, cayenne, oregano, thyme).
You can't see it, but there's a whole heap of greenery under there.
The salad component (lettuce, green pepper, sliced red onion (which I grilled, and know I liked better than I would have if I left them raw), tomato, and blue cheese) had too much roughage for me. I enjoyed the first half, but I was tired of chewing halfway through. Some salads are interesting, and give you different flavors with every bite. This wasn't one of them.

Conclusion: I'm going to say Liked It, because the steak part was mighty tasty. I won't make it as a salad again, though.

FFwD: Boeuf a la Ficelle (Beef on a String)

I genuinely hope that the other Doristas feel more favorably toward this week's French Fridays with Dorie recipe than I do. To make Boeuf a la Ficelle, you take a beautiful (ahem, expensive) beef tenderloin, cut all the fat off of/out of it, bind it up with string, then boil it in a broth you spent the afternoon making. Serve it with some root vegetables that had been previously boiled in the broth.
Who's got two thumbs and doesn't know how to tie up a piece of meat? This gal.
Here's the thing. Beef tenderloin can be one of the most delicious things on the planet. If I'm going to spend the money on this cut--which generally only happens on Christmas Eve--I want it to be as delicious as possible. I don't know what my husband usually does with it, but it involves garlic and roasting, which are, off the bat, two things that set it ahead of Dorie's "boil it" method.

Despite my pathetic job of tying up the roast, the ends were cooked through and the middle was pretty raw after 17 minutes of boiling and 10 minutes of sitting. Dorie says that if it's undercooked, just pour some of the hot broth over your slice of beef in your bowl and it will cook it more. That didn't work. Guess my broth cooled off too much during the 10 minute sit. Fortunately, I like very rare beef, so I ate this and it was fine, but I would have preferred if it was a little less raw looking.
Matt said, "It's like she took a poor man's recipe that's supposed to be for a cheap cut of meat and threw a tenderloin into it." Yup. I understand that a cheap cut of meat wouldn't turn out to be as tender with such a short cooking time, but I don't care. For me, beef tenderloin is a luxury meat, and I expect the rest of the meal to match up to it. Boiled potatoes and turnips do not pass the test.
Hey! Look what I grew! Gardens are magic.
I might feel more kindly to this recipe if it didn't cost so much for the meat. This is definitely not the tastiest way a tenderloin can be prepared. There's not a chance I'd make it again.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Another Round-up

I really need to start posting about these recipes closer to the time I've prepared them. Some are a little fuzzy in my memory. Maybe that should tell me something.

Peruvian Grilled Chicken (pg 143 of The Epicurious Cookbook) doesn't resemble any Peruvian chicken I've ever had. Once in a blue moon, for a treat, my dad's best friend would stop at a Peruvian chicken place and bring a few birds to my house, where we all descended upon them like a pack of rabid zombies. They were salty and juicy and delicious. Same goes for the ones we used to get when we lived in Norfolk. This version was tasty enough, when looked at objectively, but did not come anywhere close to being delicious enough to be called Peruvian chicken. It was, however, easy. Just marinate chicken parts overnight, then roast them in the oven for a half an hour at really high heat. It was good, but not great. It will not satisfy a Peruvian chicken craving.

Conclusion: Just okay. If it were called Soy Sauce Chicken, I might score it higher, but this is no substitute for the real thing.

Southwestern Lime Chicken (pg 145) is another marinate, then grill recipe. There are other spices in the mix, but the only two flavors that stand out are lime juice and soy sauce. If limey and salty, with a finishing touch of melted Monterey Jack, is your thing, then this is a recipe for you. I liked it. My chicken took a lot longer to cook through than the designated ten minutes. Another easy recipe that I'm glad to have in my pocket.
Sorry, I cut them all to make sure they were done, so it looks a bit dismembered.
Conclusion: Liked it. Can anyone tell me how to use a cast-iron grill pan without smoking out my house?

Thai Fried Eggplant with Basil (pg 273) is technically supposed to be a side dish. I probably should have paid attention to that fact prior to preparing it. This was mighty tasty (especially to my deprived-of-Asian-food tastebuds), and healthily veggie-laden (4 WW points, without counting the rice), but Matt and I were both starving by bedtime. Stomach-growling hunger. No good. However, the protein of your choice could easily be tossed into the wok and stir fried with the rest, so I'll know better next time.
Conclusion: Liked it.

Last night, as a side to a rotisserie chicken, I made Wild Rice with Pecans, Raisins, and Orange Essence (pg 354). Despite the fact that I cut a tablespoon of olive oil, and halved the pecan and the raisins, in order to bring the points value into a more reasonable range (7 pts), this was still very good. There's lots of good flavor here, with the zest and juice of one large orange (or 2 tangerines, in this case), balsamic vinegar, mint leaves, nuts, raisins, and green onions. It's meant to sit for an hour or two, then be served room temp, so it's another easy do-ahead recipe.

Conclusion: Loved it. This tastes extremely orangey, which I like. The whole "essence" business made me expect less flavor.

Lastly, as part of Charlie's Curious George themed birthday party, I made monkey and banana shaped cut-out cookies, using Nigella's recipe in Feast. I can't say I was very impressed. Matt and Charlie had a stomach virus earlier in the week, and I came down with it the night before his original party date, and was congested before that, so it's possible my tastebuds were off, but these cookies didn't have much flavor. They cut well and were fairly sturdy, but if they don't taste delicious, I don't need them in my life. Unfortunately, I wound up having to toss them out because we were all too sick to be interested in eating them before they went bad, and I didn't get a chance to make new ones for his belated party, this past saturday. If I had made new cookies, I would have used a different recipe.
My icing skills need some work.
Conclusion: Disliked. Don't care if they look cute. I want my cookies to taste good.