Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Fingers Crossed

Charlie was sick to his stomach all night. Around 5:30 this morning, Matt got sick, too. I figure it's only a matter of time before I'm taken down, so while I'm exposing myself to contagion, snuggling with wee man on the couch, I might as well catch up on a few recipes that I've neglected to post about. If I'm lucky, it'll distract me from the annoying voice of Annie on Little Einsteins. In general, I really like this show (and am always surprised and delighted when I'm listening to Ben Folds and Charlie announces, "That piano sounds happy"), but seriously. Annie has to be a producer's daughter or something. Her voice is nails on the chalkboard of my brain.

Last week, I made Roasted Lamb Chops with Charmoula (pg 62 of The Epicurious Cookbook). This was easy (score: 1). Blitz cumin seeds, parsley, mint (which I couldn't get my hands on), cilantro, garlic, paprika, salt, cayenne, and lemon juice in a food processor. Still running the machine, add olive oil. You're supposed to marinate the lamb in this mixture for 4-24 hours. I only marinated mine for the time it took me to prepare the rest of the meal. Still good. The recipe instructs you to place a rack on a baking sheet and roast the chops in the oven. My cooling racks are coated with something, so I wasn't about to put them in the oven. I grilled the chops on the stove instead. This seems faster and more straightforward to me, anyway.

Conclusion: I seem to love every lamb recipe I come across, and this one is no exception. Delish! 
I made Creamed Spinach from Nigella's Feast (pg 207) to accompany the lamb. Holy moly. I could have eaten the entire pot myself. With a stick of butter and a cup of heavy cream, this is way too caloric to be anything but a special occasion vegetable, but it is so, so good. It makes me laugh that Nigella says to "heat the butter -- using less if this amount frightens you." It did frighten me, Nigella. I used half a stick of butter, and didn't miss the other four tablespoons.

I've only had creamed spinach out of a can, and never liked it. This homemade version is rich and nutmeggy and cozy. I added a can of while beans to it, just for kicks, and Matt said he loved it with the beans, and didn't think he'd like it as much without the beans, for textural reasons. I could eat it either way.

Conclusion: Loved it. Dangerously delicious.

Back to Epicurious, I made Black Bean Soup with Cumin and Jalapeno (pg 220). In hopes that Charlie would taste some, I toned down the heat. Instead of using an entire hot pepper, seeds and all, I only used the flesh. I don't think including the seeds would have changed my opinion of this all that much, though. It was kind of bland. I might feel more favorably toward it if I wasn't already in love with Nigella's black bean soup from How to Eat. Nigella's is more time-consuming (though not that much more actual work), but it's also a lot more flavor.
Conclusion: Just okay.

Last night, I made Salmon Cakes (pg 25 of TEC). A few things concerned me during the process, but it all turned out ok. The salmon in my freezer had skin on it. I worried that it would be hard to cut the skin off, but it really wasn't. Then, after I was midway through cutting my second fillet into bits, I felt bones. Nooooooo! the fillets were supposed to be boneless. I felt around, picked a few out, and hoped for the best. Fortunately, I didn't find any while I was eating them.

The raw salmon is mixed with torn up bits of pita bread, mayo, an egg, coriander, cayenne, and lemon zest (though I used tangerine zest, b/c that's what I had). There's also supposed to be chives in there, but I didn't have any. Then you just make patties and cook them in a little oil for a few minutes. I worried that they'd fall apart. I worried that they wouldn't cook through. Everything worked perfectly.
Conclusion: Loved them. Crispy on the outside, soft, yet solid on the inside. Chives would make them even better. I might try them with only one pita bread instead of two. I think I'd prefer a different bread to fish ratio, assuming that messing with it doesn't impact how it sticks together. Really good, just as it is, though. It's supposed to be served with a lemon yogurt sauce, but I omitted that part b/c I'm doing WeightWatchers again. In case you care about point values of things, best I can tell, each patty is 7 points. I served it with a delicious 3 pt serving of Warm French Lentils from Barefoot Contessa's How Easy Is That? Yummy meal.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

FFwD: Christine's Simple Party Soups

This week's French Fridays with Dorie recipe is basically one recipe that applies to a trio of soups: asparagus, red pepper, and broccoli. I only made the broccoli, because I'm too lazy to make three bland-sounding soups that no one but me will eat. In general, I love Dorie's soups. These just sounded so uninteresting. The recipe, in its entirety is: boil broth. Cut veg into small bits. Add salt and pepper. Boil until it's soft enough to puree.

The one interesting note is that each is topped with a different flavored whipped cream. The broccoli is paired with a curry whipped cream.

Against my better judgment, I bought broccoli at the commissary, because I was there and didn't want to make a trip out in town just for broccoli. The produce at the commissary is abysmal. For some mysterious reason, they chop heads of broccoli into pieces and saran wrap them together instead of simply selling heads of lettuce. I guess it stretches each head farther this way, because I'd need to buy 3 to constitute a normal head of broccoli. I find their broccoli repulsive and unappetizing, because it's often moldy in parts that you couldn't see when you bought it, and it's always dried out and brownish where it's been cut.
I didn't cut this. This is how it came. This is two packs of broccoli.
Anyway, I made the soup. It's disgusting and bitter. I'm guessing that's some funky flavor from my funky broccoli. The curry cream sort of improved things, but not enough to make me eat more than two spoonfuls. Even if it weren't bitter, it would still be B-O-R-I-N-G.

Now what can I have for lunch?

This week, I also made up one of the group's early recipes: Michel Rostang's Double Chocolate Mousse Cake. Our Italian friends invited us over for dinner, and this was a perfect dessert to bring. They loved it. Me? Knowing the number of steps involved (make chocolate mousse. Bake a portion of it in a springform pan. Let cool. Layer on the remainder, and bake that), I'd rather just have an easier and more luscious brownie. Don't get me wrong. This was good. It just wasn't worth the amount of work involved for me.


I'd made Epicurious' Chicken Chili (pg 251 of The Epicurious Cookbook) when my in-laws were here. At the time, I remember a) being able to blitz the soup base in my food processor without any overflow, b) being surprised at how thick the chili was, and c) loving it. It reminded me of the inside of an enchilada at Don Pablo's.

I decided to make it again, in what I thought was exactly the same way, apart from the fact that this time I used pinto beans instead of white beans. The recipe actually calls for "pink beans," but I don't even know what that means. The cannellini worked better than pinto, flavor-wise. Both times, I used canned chiles in adobo sauce instead of "dried New Mexican or guajillo chiles."

I don't know what happened, but this time, when I whirred the broth, chiles, canned tomatoes, onion, garlic, cilantro, peanuts (!!), cumin, cilantro, and salt, it was too much fluid for my food processor and it leaked out all over my counter. The finished product was much soupier than it was last time.
Did I forget to add the broth the first time I made this?

I have no idea. I think I must have. I really need to try it again and figure out what the difference was, because I preferred it before.

Another problem this time was that, because my food processor was leaking, I didn't blitz the base well enough. Instead of turning into a nice, thick puree (I must have forgotten the broth before), the peanuts were too chunky. Last time, they helped thicken the soup. This time, they were annoying to chew.

Conclusion: liked it, but loved it the first time. I must determine what I did "wrong" on the first go.

Several weeks ago, I made Nigella's Cornbread-Topped Chilli Con Carne (pg 399 of Feast). I'd totally forgotten about it until I flipped by it in the book, so that should tell you something. The chili itself was okay. Not disgusting, but not good. Unmemorable. I baked the cornbread separately, in a pan, rather than dolloping it on top of the chilli and baking the whole in the oven. This recipe serves 20. I was serving 2. I had a hunch that cornbread was going to turn into a soggy, vile mess upon sitting in the fridge and reheating. Anyway, the cornbread itself was disgusting. Totally flavorless. It would have been gross whether I followed her instructions to bake it on top of the chili or not.

Conclusion: Disliked.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

FFwD: Baked Apples Filled with Fruits and Nuts

I've never met a baked apple that I didn't like. It's possible that so much time has passed since my last baked apple that this week's French Fridays with Dorie recipe, Baked Apples Filled with Fruits and Nuts (pg 394) seemed especially wonderful, or maybe it really was that good, but I LOVED this.

I followed Dorie's directions to peel mid-way down the apple, make a shallow cut around the apple, where the peel begins, then rub the cut with lemon. This seemed overly fussy, and I doubt I'd bother in the future. She says it will keep the apple from splitting. Mine did remain intact, but it was an annoying step for a dessert that would otherwise be super-fast to set up.

Thanks to Diane for the tip to use the melon baller to carve out the apple core without breaking through the bottom. I was making a hell of a mess of it with a knife, until I remembered that I do, in fact, own a melon baller. That made life much simpler.

I packed the apples with a mix of honey, raisins, dates, dried cranberries, and chopped almonds, poured apple juice, butter, and the reserved apple peels into the pan. (Why use the peel? Does the pectin in the skin thicken the sauce a little? Is it a flavoring agent? Why, Dorie? Why?) I thought it would be a pain in the butt to baste the apples every 15 minutes, but it wasn't.
Yeah, boyeeeee!
I don't think my apples ever reached the desired consistency. I basted faithfully for the full 75 minutes, and they never quite became "spoon tender." I did need to use a knife and fork. There's only so much time I'm willing to wait for a stinking baked apple. 75 minutes appears to be my limit. They were golden, on their way to brown, by the time I pulled them out, so I'm happy I didn't wait any longer.

In addition to the delightful textural contrast of the nuts and fruit inside the not-quite-spoon-tender, but still soft apple, my favorite part was that some of the honey (or maybe it was the dates? Couldn't tell.) caramelized into stick-to-your-teeth, chewy surprises. Yum.

I revisited last week's Dressy Pasta Risotto for dinner, and used the last two spoonfuls of mascarpone left in the container to top the apples. Perfetto!

In addition, I caught up on the Goat Cheese Mini Puffs. I brought them, along with a lasagne and Dorie's Provencal Olive Fougasse (one of my favorite recipes from the book) to a friend's house on New Years Eve. She was providing the location for a party a mere 3 hours after her plane from Venice touched down. She supplied booze and space, guests brought food. It was an excellent trade.

I'm glad I made the puffs, to cross them off the list. I'd pick gougeres over these any day. They were fine, and the entire tray disappeared quickly, but I won't be making them again.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Flavor of Pain

The first dish I selected from The Epicurious Cookbook was Indo-Chinese Lettuce Wraps (pg 45). Because of its carblessness, it's ground chicken, and its veg component, it seemed like a nice, light recipe that would still have a lot of flavor (2 tsp each of garam masala, cumin, and coriander, plus a bit of cayenne, jalapeno, garlic, ginger, and cilantro).

I added black beans to the mix, had to use a hot red pepper instead of a jalapeno, and added a splash of lime juice at the end, but otherwise stuck to the recipe.
My eyes hurt just looking at them.
Twenty minutes later, my mouth is still throbbing. Are red peppers spicier than jalapeno? I don't know. I don't know if it's because of the hot red pepper or because 1/2 tsp of cayenne is more than my mouth can stand, but this lit my tongue and lips on fire. The lettuce helped cool it off, ever so slightly, but this could definitely have used some sort of yogurt sauce component, or a lot less cayenne. Or both. Or rice. Or something.

Conclusion: Just okay. I'd try it again, cutting back on the heat, but as written, it's more than I can handle.

If this recipe is any indication, I will not be complaining at the end of this book that its recipes were bland. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to guzzle a gallon of milk.

Update: Matt, who has a very high spice tolerance, reacted thusly: "All this tastes like is hot. It's burning my sinuses."

I'm downgrading this to a Dislike.

Wrapping Up, and Up Next

I'm moving on from Rome. It's a beautiful book, in terms of full page photos of the Eternal City, and lots of information about how and what Italians eat. Lots of information. Lots of information. This book has 192 pages, and only 50 recipes. As such, I consider my preparation of 13 of them to be a sizeable statistic. That's what? 26%? If I'd been a better math student, I'd be able to stake that claim with more confidence.

There are some excellent, easy recipes that I will (and have already) make many times. Favorites are Spaghetti alla Carbonara, Rigatoni con Guanciale e Cipolla, Petti di Pollo in Padella, and the Tozzetti. Apart from the cacio e pepe, nothing I tested was downright bad.

I'd only recommend this book to people who really want to look at pictures of Rome. For a book that only has 50 recipes, they included some pretty lame-sounding ones. Grilled Eggplant? Asparagus Frittata? Salad of Roman Field Greens? Thanks, but I'm not interested.

I'm keeping it, because the recipes that I love, I really love. I begrudge it the space it occupies on my shelf, though.

Next, I'll mosey about with The Epicurious Cookbook: More Than 250 of Our Best-Loved Four-Fork Recipes For Weeknights, Weekends, and Special Occasions. Phew. That was a mouthful.
You probably know this alread, but is a nifty little website and search engine in which you can find user-rated recipes, both professional and home recipes submitted by normal people, for pretty much anything you can think of. This book highlights a selection of their highest rated (Four Fork) recipes.

Off the bat, the broken-down-by-season thing doesn't work for me in this book. I don't mind it in some cookbooks. That type of breakdown is least offensive in books that predominantly focus on produce.

This book does not focus on produce. Why in the world should Soft Scrambled Eggs with Ricotta and Chives be in the Spring section? Yes, chives grow in the Spring, but they're pretty standard in any grocery store year-round, right? Same goes for the Buttermilk Biscuits with Green Onions, Black Pepper, and Sea Salt that can be found on the following page. If green onions are enough to qualify something as a "Spring" recipe, then everything I've ever cooked would belong in that section. Again, with the Cuppa Cuppa Cuppa Dip. Mayo, Swiss, and minced onion are mixed together and baked. How is that seasonal? (Also for Spring, if you were wondering.)

Anyway, that says  nothing about the success of the recipes, but it just doesn't seem like an appropriate layout for these particular recipes. Because of it, it's nearly impossible to find a recipe that you mentally flagged. It could be anywhere. I'd much prefer a standard Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner/Dessert or Appetizer/Soup/Chicken/Beef/etc breakdown. Perhaps, as I use the book, the layout will begin to make sense. We'll see.

On the plus side, this book has a huge variety of recipes for every different meal of the day, and they all sound good to me.

Rome: Cacio e Pepe

My #1 favorite, can't-resist-ordering-it, when-it's-done-well-it's-the-best-thing-ever pasta dish that I've fallen for since moving to Napoli is cacio e pepe. I know damn well that this dish is "simple" and that it hardly costs anything to prepare, as the list of ingredients looks a little something like this: pasta, peppercorns, salt, olive oil, pecorino romano cheese. Cheap, cheap, cheap. Good, good, good.

My favorite restaurant in Rome adds truffles to their version. Mother of God.

I must learn to make cacio e pepe, or else I'll be plunged into a tastebud depression when I move back stateside. It was a no-brainer that I would test out the recipe in Rome (pg 109).

Rome's version taught me that a simple list of ingredients does not mean that it's a simple recipe to get right. My cacio e pepe was a mess.

First, toast the peppercorns, then bash them with a rolling pin until they're coarsely ground. Straightforward enough.

Boil pasta until nearly done. Easy.

Add a ladle of the pasta's cooking water and some olive oil to a pan, add a handful of cheese, and mix vigorously. Add the pasta, then add the rest of the cheese, the crushed pepper, and as much water as is necessary to make a sauce.

Sounds simple, right? Wrong.

Mix as I might, the cheese refused to combine with the water and oil. It clung to the pan, and the oil kept separating from the water. Adding the pasta did not spread things out. I added the remaining cheese, which also, once mixed, stuck to the pan, the spoon--everything but the pasta. Adding water did not help.
Disgracing the name Cacio e Pepe.
Ever eat pasta with globs of intensely peppered, re-solidified cheese scraped on top? Unpleasant. Very unpleasant. 

I refuse to believe that cacio e pepe must be prepared by professionals. I will figure this out. (Amy, back me up if I ask Vera to teach us!)

Conclusion: Hated it. Disaster.

Friday, January 3, 2014

FFwD: Dressy Pasta "Risotto"

I have no idea why Dorie calls this week's recipe "risotto." She doesn't even seem to know why she calls it that, saying up front that "this is a risotto the way that finely sliced apples are a carpaccio." I thought this came out more like an alfredo sauce, but whatever. I don't really care what you call it--it's delicious and easy to make.

I was a bit startled by the direction to cook pasta in chicken broth (why have I never done that before??) for 25 minutes, until most of the liquid was absorbed. 25 minutes sounded like an awfully long time, but much to my surprise, the pasta did not turn into a mushy pile of goo. During the last few minutes of cooking, add cream, then parmesan and mascarpone.

I shredded a rotisserie chicken and stirred it in when I added the cream, because I didn't feel like preparing this pasta as a side to something else.
Yum. This was complete comfort food. Charlie ate his whole bowl.

It's a keeper. An indulgent keeper, but a keeper, nonetheless.