Thursday, July 31, 2008

32. Lemon Semolina Cake with Raspberries and Whipped Cream (p. 708)

I really didn't know what to expect from this recipe, since it's so different from any other cake I've ever made. But, in the end, I was very happy with how it turned out, and I'll probably make it again when I'm looking for an impressive-looking, yet easy-to-make dessert for a spring or summer gathering.

The first thing that's unusual about the cake is its use of semolina flour. Up until I came across this recipe, I had only ever heard of semolina in the pasta context. So, when I went to the grocery store to look for semolina flour, all I was able to find was pasta flour. It said "semolina" on the box, so I figured that it must be the right thing. But I just learned, thanks to Wikipedia, that there are two kinds of semolina: durum semolina (which is made from hard wheat and is used to make pasta and couscous) and soft wheat semolina (which is also known as farina or, more commonly, as Cream of Wheat). So, I'm not sure if I used the right thing, but I don't really care since I was happy with the end result.

Another strange thing about the recipe is the inclusion of ground almonds in the cake. The Book calls for exactly twelve whole blanched almonds, finely ground in the food processor and incorporated into the batter. Why twelve? Would something horrible happen if I used thirteen almonds? Since I'm still in the early stages of The Project, I haven't yet acquired the bravado to flout The Book's directives, and so twelve almonds it was. But I'm still puzzled by their inclusion. The Book's blurb says that the ground almonds give the cake a "pleasant grainy texture." They did. But beyond that, it wasn't clear what else they contributed to the cake. There wasn't any perceptible almond flavor. And anyway, since when is "grainy texture" a positive attribute in a cake? Next time I make this, I'll probably leave them out. (See, that bravado is already starting to develop.)

The last wierd thing, at least for me, was the absence of any chemical leavening agent, like baking powder or soda. Instead, the lift in this cake comes from the beaten egg whites folded into the lemon-juice-and-zest-infused batter just before baking. The fluffy egg whites, along with the absence of any butter or other fat, make for a very light, airy cake. If I knew more about my cake types, I could tell you if it technically qualified as a "sponge cake," but it clearly had that light, springy texture that you'd expect a sponge cake to have.

After the cake comes out of the oven, with a nice golden top I might add, you let it cool in the pan for ten minutes and then invert it after running a paring knife around the edge a couple of times. You let it cool completely, and then slice it horizontally. I've done this a few times before, but it always makes me very nervous. Here's the beautiful cake that you've slaved over, and, just like that, you could wreck it with one little slip of the knife. When you're frosting the cake, you can salvage some errors by covering them over with the frosting. Here, the cake is unfrosted, so there's no hiding. I held my breath and sliced. Miraculously, I was left with two perfect cake halves. (Not bad considering that my inexperience in this regard is exacerbated by the fact that my serrated knife is only eight inches long - the same length as the diameter of the cake. I really should get a bigger serrated knife if I'm going to be doing this kind of thing on a regular basis.)

The bottom cake half is topped with a half cup of plain whipped cream and six ounces of fresh raspberries. (I was really lucky to get some beautiful-looking and fresh-tasting raspberries at my local mega-market). I took this picture because it's just so gosh darn pretty that it's a shame to cover it up with the other cake half, but that's exactly what The Book tells you to do. The next time I make this, I might repeat the whipped cream and raspberries on the top as well as the middle. (More bravado by the minute!) Would that be too much whipped cream? Is there such a thing as too much whipped cream?

The cake is finished off with a dusting of confectioner's sugar. (The raspberry garnish on top was my idea.) As I said at the beginning of this post, I was really happy with how this cake turned out. It was sweet and delicious while still being light and airy. The cake has a great spongy texture (With the "pleasant graininess" from the almonds. Whatever!) and just a hint of lemon flavor. At first I was surprised that the whipped cream isn't sweetend or flavored with anything, but after I took a bite, I realized that I wouldn't want it anyother way. The slight tang of the plain whipped cream was a nice counterpoint to the super-sweet raspberries.

Finally, I was really happy that the cake held up well to refrigeration. I was worried that the whipped cream would deflate and leave a yucky, creamy mess. But, we were able to enjoy the cake days after I made it.

Date Cooked: July 27, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

31. Golden Potato Wedges (p. 568)

Meat and potatoes. It's a classic combo for a reason. I usually order steak frites whenever I go to a French bistro, and that's what I had in mind when I was looking for a potato dish to go with my Steak au Poivre. These potato wedges seemed like just the thing.

Recipes don't get much easier than this. Just peel two pounds of potatoes and cut them into wedges. Toss them in a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast them for about 45 minutes turning once.

I followed The Book's suggestion to use Yukon Gold potatoes, but I didn't need much convincing since they're my potato of choice for most recipes. (Of course red and russet are better in some situations, but Yukon Gold are my favorite all-around potato.) The Book says to cut each potato into six wedges, but because my potatoes were on the large-ish side, and because it's not that easy to cut a cylindrical potato into six wedges, I cut them into eighths, with no ill effects.

The Book says that the large surface area of the wedges provides lots of crispiness surrounding a creamy tender center. That's exactly right. These potatoes were great. The outsides were crispy and well browned. The centers had the texture of creamy mashed potatoes. This recipe could easily become my go-to basic roasted potato recipe. I'll definitely make these again.

As I was writing this post, I thought of the one thing that would have made these potatoes perfect ... a dollop of sour cream!

Date Cooked: July 25, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

30. Steak au Poivre (p. 426)

My wife went out to dinner with a friend on Friday night and left me all alone. But don't feel too bad for me, because look what I made myself for dinner! As I mentioned before, my wife doesn't eat red meat, so I take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself to get my hands on a steak. So, as soon as I knew that I'd be fending for myself, I started planning my bachelor's feast. I flipped through the Beef, Veal, Pork, and Lamb chapter to pick just the right dish. I had my eye on Steak Diane (p. 427), but I didn't want my wife to think that I was having dinner with another woman. I settled on the Steak au Poivre.

I left work a little early on Friday, and paid a visit to McKinnon's, probably one of the best butcher shops in Southern New Hampshire (McKinnon's can't hold a candle to Jeffrey, Victoria's butcher over at Cooking Zuni, but I'll take what I can get), and picked up this beautiful New York strip steak.

While I was at McKinnon's I decided to pick up a bottle of wine (live it up, right?). I was really happy to find a bottle of Dry Creek Vinyard Heritage Zinfandel on the shelf. When my wife and I went to wine country last year, one of the highlights of our trip was our bicycle tour of the vineyards in the Healdsburg area, and a nice picnic lunch at Dry Creek. The wine went great with my dinner, and brought back nice memories of a great trip.

I got home, poured myself a glass of wine and got to work. First, I had to prepare the poivre. I started with about a tablespoon of peppercorns (the recipe calls for three tablespoons, but the recipe feeds four, and I was only cooking for one). Now, under normal circumstances, I wouldn't eat a tablespoon of black pepper on a bet, but something magical happens to the pepper as you cook this dish that takes such a quantity of pepper from stunt to sublime.

I put the peppercorns in a small plastic bag and crushed them with a frying pan. It took a little bit of effort and some time, but it was worth it. The consistency of coarsely crushed pepper is key to this recipe, you can't get away with a pepper grinder, or (perish the thought!) ground pepper from one of those tins. The great fragrance of black pepper filled the air as I pressed down with the pan, and I was left with a little bag of black gold, that was destined to become the crunchy, spicy crust on my steak.

I patted the pepper into both sides of the steak and let it rest at room temperature while I prepared the Golden Potato Wedges (check back tomorrow) and the watercress garnish.

After the steak was well rested, it went into a skillet with some butter and oil. The only thing better that the sound of a sizzling steak, is the aroma that it gives off. As soon as that smell enters your nostrils, your mouth starts to water, and your stomach starts to grumble. Good thing the steak cooks quickly: just a few minutes on each side.

Once the steak was ready, I removed it to a plate, and got started on the pan sauce. Even though it tasted great in the end, I don't think that my sauce worked out the way it was supposed to. My pan was way too hot, and so the shallots and butter cooked way too fast, the cognac and cream reduced in a matter of seconds rather than a matter of minutes. The result was a very, very thick, almost jam-like sauce. But, it was rich and delicious, and it was just fine by me.

I enjoyed the steak with a good sized mound of watercress like The Book suggested. I love watercress because it's crisp and cool, and it's got a nice peppery bite of its own that went well with the steak. And the steak! That crunchy, peppery crust yielding to the tender, juicy medium-rare steak! If you have to eat alone, this is the way to do it.

Date Cooked: July 25, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A

Friday, July 25, 2008

29. Watermelon Rind Chutney (p. 905)

For me, this recipe was all about the saying, "waste not, want not." Not only did this recipe make use of the rinds from my Watermelon Gazpacho, it also was an opportunity to get another recipe under my belt.

The recipe is pretty easy. First, cut the rind into two-inch-wide strips, peel off the outer green skin with a vegetable peeler, and remove any remaining pink flesh so that you're just left with the white part of the rind. Then cut the rinds into 1/2 inch dice and combine them with cider vinegar, water, sugar, minced hot pepper (I used pickled serranos, because fresh chilies are still suspect), minced garlic, crushed black peppercorns, and an obscene amount of minced fresh ginger. Simmer it for about an hour until the rind is tender and the liquid is syrupy. If I were to make this again, I might simmer it a bit longer, because it ended up being thinner than I wanted it to be, even after it cooled.

The dominant flavor in this chutney is ginger, but the undertones of black pepper, cider vinegar and garlic still come though, and after each bite, you're left with a pleasant amount of heat from the chili. The one thing that you don't get from this chutney is any watermelon flavor. The rind is a totally blank slate that absorbs the other flavors in the chutney.

The Book suggests making little canapes of crackers and cream cheese topped with a little bit of chutney. What a great treat. I also enjoyed the chutney on sandwiches of grilled chicken and baby spinach for my brown-bag lunches all week. Tasty! This recipe was a pleasant surprise.

The recipe yields three cups, and even though it keeps for up to a month in the fridge, that's a whole lot of chutney, so I halved the recipe.

Date Cooked: July 20, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B+

Thursday, July 24, 2008

28. Lime Molasses Vinaigrette (p. 171)

I decided to make a salad to go with my Watermelon Gazpacho, because, as I was reminded by my Mango-Spacho experience, by itself, "Soup is not a meal, Jerry."

I came across this vinaigrette in the salads section of The Book, and it looked light and interesting. The combo of molasses and lime isn't something that I'd ever seen before, and I was intrigued.

The vinaigrette comes together very easily. You just whisk together some molasses, lime juice and Tobasco in a bowl. Then you quickly cook some chopped scallions in some oil and then whisk that into the other ingredients. The vinaigrette is meant to be served warm or at room temperature.

I poured the dressing over sliced grilled chicken on a bed of mixed greens (bagged, don't judge), cucumbers and grape tomatoes. I really liked this dressing. Each of the components remained pretty distinct, so you got the sweet smokiness of the molasses, cut with the acidity of the lime and the heat from the Tobasco. Overall, it was a nice change from the usual vinaigrette.

Date Cooked: July 20, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B+

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

27. Watermelon Gazpacho (p. 89)

Recipes like this are what The Project is all about. This is the type of recipe that I might come across while flipping through a cookbook and say, "Watermelon Gazpacho?" and keep on flipping. But, since one of the goals of The Project is "to learn new things and try new foods," I gave this recipe a little more consideration. And since another one of the goals of The Project is to cook every recipe in The Book, I have to make this sometime, and with watermelons in season and cheap (44 cents a pound!) there's no time like the present.

The Book's blurb about this soup suggests that if you served it to your guests without telling them what it is, they'd never be able to guess. I didn't test this theory (My wife knew exactly what I was making, and nevertheless gamely gave it a try. Thanks, for being a good sport, Sweetie.) but I'm sure that it would work. The soup looks a lot like tomato bisque, and vaguely tastes like it, too. With the exception of the diced watermelon garnish, there's nothing fruity or sweet about this soup.

This recipe is not at all difficult, but it isn't quick either, and your blender gets quite a workout. First, you cut the flesh of a four-pound watermelon into chunks. Then you puree the chunks in the blender (reserving a cup of the flesh for the garnish) and strain the juice. The remaining ingredients (a pretty eclectic and unusual collection including whole almonds, white sandwich bread, garlic, ice cubes, and oil) are all blended with the juice to make the soup. There was way too much liquid for my blender to handle all at once, so I had to do this in batches.

The word to describe this soup is "interesting." (What a great word! Do I mean "interesting good" or "interesting bad"? The truth is that I'm not really sure, which means that this soup really and truly is "interesting.") With the exception of the garlic (more on that in a second), all of the flavors of the components of this soup disappear and meld into a completely new savory flavor that you can't quite place. There is no perceptible watermelon or almond flavor at all. The dominant flavor in this soup was garlic, which is unfortunate, but I find that's usually the case with recipes that call for raw garlic. Even when I use less garlic than called for (I used two cloves here rather than the three that The Book uses), the raw garlic simply overtakes a dish like a bully in a schoolyard. The texture of the soup is nice. It's thick and creamy (even though there's no cream). The ground almonds, however, make the soup, which is otherwise silky and smooth, a little bit grainy. The sweet and crisp diced watermelon garnish was a nice contrast in texture and flavor.

I think that this soup is meant to be eaten all at once. I had some leftover soup for lunch a couple of days later and the garlic flavor had intensified to the point of leaving a burning sensation on my tongue. (Don't get me wrong, I love garlic, but this was just too much). And even though I stirred it well before eating, the bread and almond particles had fallen irretrievably out of the suspension and there was an odd and unappetizing sludge at the bottom of the bowl.

I'm glad that I made this soup, and I enjoyed eating it, but I won't be making it again.

Date Cooked: July 20, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: C

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

26. Katharine Hepburn's Brownies (p. 688)

Legend has it that the infamous gossip columnist , Liz Smith, wrestled this brownie recipe from Katharine Hepburn, the irascible star of two of my favorite films, Desk Set and The African Queen. The Book's version of the recipe comes from food writer Laurie Colwin, who got it from a friend. Apparently, the brownies are a (formerly) secret Hepburn family recipe.

But, the recipe is not without controversy. Not long after Ms. Hepburn passed away in June 2003, a flurry of spirited letters to the editor about the recipe appeared in the pages of The New York Times.

The first was Heather Henderson's fond memories of Ms. Hepburn (who was a neighbor) giving her a stern lecture (over tea and brownies) about staying in school. Henderson included a version of this recipe in her letter. Frederick M. Winship wrote to the Times to protest Henderson's inclusion of cocoa(!) instead of chocolate in the recipe. He wrote that Ms. Hepburn "would never have substituted an ingredient as anemic as cocoa for real, unadulterated chocolate." Winship claimed that Ms. Hepburn gave the real recipe (which is identical to the one in The Book) to his wife when the two women acted together. Henderson defended herself with a response to Winship's letter. She claims that she and her father specifically discussed the cocoa/chocolate issue with Ms. Hepburn herself, and the actress agreed that it didn't make any difference. The key to the recipe, Henderson explains, is the small amount of flour, just a 1/4 cup, which produces the fudgy, chewy texture.

Well, whatever the actual source and formula of the recipe, it's beyond dispute that that the brownies are great. They couldn't be easier to make. You start by melting two ounces of unsweetened chocolate (or cocoa if you're in Henderson's camp) and a stick of butter together in a saucepan. Then you take it off the heat and beat in the sugar, eggs and vanilla. Stir in the flour. Finally fold in the chopped walnuts. (The Book says that they're optional, but brownies aren't brownies without nuts.) The best thing about this batter is that you can make it right in the pan. No mixing bowls to clean! Pour it all into a buttered, floured baking pan and cook until a toothpick comes out clean.

These are the quintessential brownies. Nothing special or fancy, no gimmicks. Just pure, rich and fudgy flavor with the chewey texture and that papery-thin, crackled top that all great brownies have. I will never, ever make brownies from a box again!

Just like Katharine Hepburn herself, these brownies are a timeless classic.

Date Cooked: July 19, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A

Friday, July 18, 2008

25. Strawberry Cheesecake Ice Cream (p. 855)

Everyone loves ice cream. Everyone loves cheesecake. So you have to know that this recipe, which combines the two, is going to be a winner.

This was super easy to make. Blend together the strawberries, cream cheese, sugar, milk and lemon juice, and then stir in the cream. After it's good and chilled, the mixture goes into the ice cream maker. (Have I told you how much I love my ice cream maker?) That's all there is to it.

This is a great ice cream. It's rich and sweet, but not too sweet, with a good amount of strawberry flavor and a touch of tang from the cream cheese. It has the great texture of cheesecake, but it melts in your mouth like ice cream.

The only way this recipe could have been improved would be to find a way to incorporate the graham cracker crust.

Date Cooked: July 13, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A

Thursday, July 17, 2008

24. Oat Lace Cookies (p. 665)

Last weekend, I decided to treat myself to one of the items on my Kitchen Wishlist. (See the list on the left if you're looking for a gift for your favorite cook-through blogger. Hint, hint.) I am now the proud owner of a Silpat!

I decided to make these Oat Lace Cookies as my inaugural Silpat cooking experience. The Silpat worked exactly as I hoped and dreamed it would, and I'm looking forward to keeping it in regular rotation in the kitchen. The cookies on the other hand, were much less impressive.

The recipe is fairly easy. It's just a few ingredients (butter, sugar, toasted oats) stirred together on the stove. Then you put two-teaspoon mounds of the mixture on your Silpat and pop them in the oven for a little while. The batter melts, spreads and hardens into lacy, crisp and delicate cookies that, according to The Book, are special enough to serve to company.

Well, my first batch wasn't company-ready. I followed the directions about how much batter to use and how far apart to put the cookies, but they fused together into one giant cookie. The same thing happend to Teena when she made these, so I know it's not just me. As I took them off the cookie sheet, they broke up into a bunch of cookie-shards.

For the remaining batches, I made the batter mounds half the size (one teaspoon) and put them even farther apart. The results were better. At least the cookies didn't fuse together, but they still broke when I lifted them off the cookie sheet. This wasn't the fault of the Silpat. They didn't stick at all, they were just too fragile, and cracked as I tried to lift them. In the end, I only had three photo-worthy cookies out of an expected yield of eighteen.

After all of that, how do they taste? Just OK. Overall, the flavor was good: sweet and caramel-y, but I thought that they were way too buttery. Also, even though the oats were toasted, they had a kind of "raw" taste. Finally, these come across much more as a candy than a cookie in terms of texture and taste. Definitely not my favorite so far.

Date Cooked: July 13, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Pretty Easy
Rating: C

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

23. Foolproof Long-Grain Rice (p. 254)

Before I started The Project, I had a few doubts. Can I really do this? Am I up to the task? After all, I can't even cook rice! I'm not kidding. Rice and me have not been friends. Whenever I make it, I study the package directions and follow them carefully. But the result is always the same: Dissapointment. Overcooked, undercooked, soupy, and sometimes crunchy. Come on, this is a basic item! If I can't cook this, what makes me think that I can cook the gastronomic delicacies in The Book?

But when Lisa, one of the finalists on Top Chef, botched her rice (not once, but twice!), I was reassured. It's not just me! If the pros have a hard time with this, then I'm in good company.

So, when I saw this recipe in The Book for "Foolproof Long-Grain Rice," I perked up. Can it be true? Have the folks at Gourmet really discovered a foolproof way to cook rice? Well, they have, and the rice came out great.

The cooking method is not what you're used to doing if, like me, you follow the package directions. I kept reading and re-reading the recipe in disbelief as I went through the steps. Do they really want me to do it like that? First you bring the rice, water and salt (in very specific proportions) to a boil. Then, in a break with tradition, you continue to let it boil (uncovered! who ever heard of such a thing?) for a while. Then you reduce the heat and steam it for a time. Finally, you take it off the heat and let it rest, all the while letting it be as it does its thing. The result? Rice perfection. The grains were tender, fluffy and just a little bit sticky.

My only complaint is that the rice was a bit too salty. Next time I make this (and I will make this again, every time I serve rice) I'll reduce the salt by half and see what happens. Who knows, maybe that's the secret to the perfect cooking? We'll see.

Date Cooked: July 13, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A- (perfectly cooked, but too salty)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

22. Green Beans with Almonds (p. 522)

Most recipes for Green Beans Almondine call for slivered or sliced almonds. If you don't believe me, check out the four different versions of the dish at (Isn't the Internet great? There's a website out there about everything.) This recipe changes up the usual formula by using ground almonds.

The recipe is pretty simple. First, you grind skinned almonds in the food processor.

Let me just pause here for a moment to comment about the use of words like "skinned" and "shelled" in cookbooks. These two words cause me a great deal of stress when I come across them in a recipe, because they are their own antonyms. According to M-W Online, the verb "skin" and its inflected form "skinned" means both "to strip, scrape, or rub off an outer covering (as the skin of a rind)" and "to cover with or as if with skin." Likewise, the adjective "shelled" means both "having a shell" and "having the shell removed." Ugh! So, there I was in the nut aisle at Whole Foods on Sunday morning agonizing about whether The Book wanted me to get skinned almonds or skinned almonds. (Couldn't you just say "almonds without skins" or "almonds with skins"? Help me out folks.) In the end I just bought some skinned almonds.

See what I mean? You have no idea whether I chose with or without skin. I'm just saying. (I chose blanched whole almonds without skin.)

OK, now that my rant is over, back to the beans. You melt some butter in a skillet and saute some garlic for a little bit. Add the ground almonds to toast. Toss in the green beans (that you have trimmed and cooked for a short time in boiling water).

This recipe was just OK. The Book calls them "the best green beans we've ever had." I'm sorry, but I have to disagree. I thought that there was too much of the nut topping, and it didn't really coat the beans like The Book said it would. Most of it ended up at the bottom of the serving dish. The flavor was OK, but not very almond-y. Even after toasting, the blanched almonds still had that odd bland, waxy taste that blanched almonds have (like those weird candy-coated almonds that they used to give away as wedding favors). It did have a nice crunch, though. But, in the end, I would have preferred sliced or slivered almonds in this recipe. Actually, I really enjoy plain fresh green beans just steamed for a few minutes until they get bright green but are still very crisp. I guess I'm a green bean minimalist.

Date Cooked: July 13, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: C

Monday, July 14, 2008

21. Coquilles St. Jaques (p. 320)

In honor of Bastille Day, I decided to make a classic French dish. Coquilles St. Jaques (Scallops with Mushrooms in White Wine Sauce) is about as classically French as you can get.

This recipe is very fussy and time consuming. But, I wouldn't have it any other way. Sometimes you have to work hard for really great food, and this dish is worth all the effort. Even though the recipe is complicated, The Book's instructions are clear and easy to follow. I never ran into any trouble. This also wasn't a cheap dish. A pound of sea scallops costs a king's ransom at Whole Foods. And when you're making a dish like this, you can't skimp on quality, so when the recipe calls for Parmigiano-Reggiano, you've got to get the real stuff.

This dish is all about the sauce. It starts with simmering white wine, water, onion and a bay leaf. Then in with the scallops for just a few minutes (they cook pretty fast). As they cook, the scallops take on the flavor of the wine, and in exchange, they impart their uniquely sweet taste on the sauce. What a great trade. Out with the scallops, reduce the sauce, then strain out the onions and bay leaf, and set it aside. The mushrooms are sauteed in butter and set aside. And if it wasn't French enough yet, here's where it gets tres Francais. You make a roux of butter and flour (a first for me!) and then whisk in the reduced wine sauce. This then gets slowly whisked into a mixture of cream and egg yolk. The result is a rich, silky, creamy and fragrant sauce. The scallops and mushrooms are combined with the sauce, divided into scallop shells or ramekins (I used ramekins because I couldn't find any shells), topped with breadcrumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and broiled for a couple of minutes to make a nice crust.

Coquilles St. Jaques is traditionally served in scallop shells in honor of St. James, one of the Twelve Apostles, whose symbol is the scallop shell. According to legend, the apostle saved a knight covered in scallop shells. Pilgrims making their way to St. James's shrine at Santiago de Compostela in Spain carried scallop shells with them. Along the way, the pilgrims stopped at houses, churches and abbeys and asked for a donation of as much food as would fit in a shell. If they got a shell-full of Coquilles St. Jaques, they'd be happy and satisfied pilgrims. Chances are, however, that Medieval pilgrims would get a scoop of oats or barley.

My photo above doesn't do this dish justice. I'm in a fight with my oven lately. It's taking too long to heat up, but once it gets going, there's no stopping it, so it sometimes gets too hot. As a result, the crust on my Coquilles got a little more browned than I wanted (OK, it burned a litte). The blackened top aside, this is probably the best thing I've made in The Project so far. The scallops were sweet and tender. The cheese and breadcrumb crust was crisp and delicious. And the sauce! The sauce was rich without being overbearing. It was velvety and smooth and the flavor was amazing. This was truly a special meal, worthy of a special occasion.

Happy Bastille Day!
Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité!

Date Cooked: July 13, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Pretty Hard
Rating: A

Friday, July 11, 2008

20. Blueberry and Nectarine Buckle (p. 816)

I like nectarines and peaches, really I do. It's just that they have to be perfectly ripe, or else I'm not interested. Not ripe enough, they're hard and mealy. Too ripe, they're smooshy and sickly sweet. But when they're just so - crisp, sweet and juicy, it's hard to find anything better. Now is the time of year when the stars align for perfect peaches and nectarines, so I was happy to find this recipe to give me a shot of nectarine nirvana.

The first step is to make the streusel topping. Incidentaly, according to The Book, it's the streusel that makes a buckle different from a slump, grunt or pandowdy. Apparently, the cake "buckles" under the weight of the streusel. Silly me, I thought it had something to do with having to loosen your belt after that irresistible second helping of this tasty treat. I guess it would be called an "unbuckle" in that case. Anyway, back to the streusel. It's cold butter, broken up into bits, a little flour, some sugar, and a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg. You knead it up with your fingers until its good and mixed. This step was pretty fun. The topping had the texture of wet sand, so I felt a little like a kid playing at the beach.

The cake batter is next, and it's pretty straightforward. I had the foresight to put the butter out to soften before I went out to mow the lawn. It was so hot out when I made this on Saturday, that by the time I came back in, the butter was so soft that creaming the butter and sugar was super-easy. After all of the wet and dry ingredients are combined, then the nectarines and a prodigious amount of blueberries get folded in. I had a bit of trouble cutting the nectarines. I expected to be able to cut them in half like an avocado (cut around the pit, twist, and voila, two halves). No such luck. I mangled them a bit, but the nectarine chunks that ended up in the cake tasted just as good as perfect wedges would have. Into a buttered baking dish (I used the wrapper from the softened butter to grease the pan), sprinkle on the streusel (see the "before" photo above), and then whack it into the oven.

This was kind of like a dessert version of the Blueberry Almond Coffee Cake I made a couple of weeks ago. It was sweet and buttery and bursting with sweet, jammy fruit. The streusel topping gave the cake a nice texture. The cinnamon and nutmeg made the kitchen smell great. The recipe doesn't say anything about inverting the cake to take it out of the baking dish, so I left it right where it was, considering what happened to the aforementioned coffee-quake, I mean coffee cake.

The Book says to serve it warm with whipped cream. Yes, please! We stashed the leftovers in the fridge and enjoyed it all week. Yesterday, my wife sent me an email at work to apologize for eating the last piece. I told her it was OK, since you can't give a cook a better compliment than to tell him that you just couldn't resist eating something he made.

Date Cooked: July 5, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A

Thursday, July 10, 2008

19. Mango-Spacho (p. 90)

With the nation still in the grip of tomato terror, I've been deprived of one of my favorite summertime meals: Gazpacho. So, I was thrilled to see this tomato-free version while flipping through The Book. We ate this on Sunday, and of course, as luck would have it, the news on Monday morning reported that two of the other ingredients in this dish have been added to the salmonella watchlist: chiles and cilantro. Oh well, we somehow managed to avoid any problems despite the high-risk ingredients.

The ingredient list is long (see the photo of my mise below), but the preparation is a snap. Just throw it all in a bowl and chill.

This recipe changes up your typical gazpacho by replacing the tomatoes and tomato juice with mango and mango nectar. The other usual ingredients are all there, like cucumber, scallions and garlic, along with a couple of nice additions like fresh corn and roasted red peppers. The Book calls for half of a jalepeno and half of a serrano. But, I used the one and only serrano that Stop and Shop had in the Charred Tomatillo Guacamole. The jalepeno gave just the right amount of heat on its own, though.

The result is an excellent, refreshing summer soup. Very delicious, and I liked it a lot. The texture has a nice contrast of the silky mango and the crisp cucumber and corn. The sweetness of the mango is balanced by the acid of the citrus juice and the bite of the jalepeno. This is a sweeter soup, but it's not too fruity or at all desserty. We made this as a light dinner, but I was a little dissapointed because it just wasn't quite substantial enough. It would have been great as a first course before grilled chicken or fish, but on its own, it left me a little unsatisfied. I should have known better, though, because as Kenny Bania said in the classic Seinfeld episode, "Soup's not a meal."

Finally, if I were to make this agian, I'd probably double the recipe. As I mentioned above, there's a long list of ingredients, and the recipe only calls for a little of everything (half of a jalepeno, less than half of a can of mango nectar, a small amount of roasted red peppers). If I'm going to go through the trouble of preparing all of these ingredients, I might as well make a big batch and have some leftovers to take for luch during the week.

Date Cooked: July 5, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

18. "La Brea Tar Pit" Chicken Wings (p. 55)

When I decided to do a cook-through project, I considered a few different books for the project. I chose The Gourmet Cookbook in part because there were already three other people working on The Project, and I could learn from their mistakes benefit from their accumulated wisdom. If I had only checked Kevin's blog before making these wings, I would have known what I was getting myself into and I could have planned ahead to deal with the temperature and cooking time (I know, cooking time again!) problems in this recipe. But instead, I winged it. Get it? Winged it? OK, you can stop groaning now.

The title of this recipe conjures visions of chicken wings smothered in a thick, sticky, rich sauce. That's exactly what these wings are. However, the name of the recipe is not a description of the wings, it's a warning about what your roasting pan will look like after you're done cooking. That's right, the burnt, crusty, inky surface of the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles (see photo at left) is an apt analogy for what you, and your scrubber sponge, will face when the wings come out of the oven (see photo below).

Now, don't get me wrong, these were the best chicken wings I've ever had, and I'm already thinking of making them again soon (knowing now what I wish I'd known then). The preparation is very easy. Heat up some soy sauce, sugar, red wine and a little ginger on the stovetop. Pour it over the wings and pop them in the oven. That's where it gets complicated. The Book says to cook the wings at 400 degrees for 45 minutes, turn them over and cook for another hour to hour and 10 minutes. That's a total of 115 minutes! Now, cooking times in wing recipes are all over the board. This recipe from Southern Living calls for a total of 30 minutes of cooking time. Alton Brown, who knows a thing or two about cooking times, cooks his wings for 40 minutes (he steams them for 10 minutes first). Martha Stewart's wings cook for 25 minutes (under a broiler). Emril's wings are cooked for 80 minutes. But, The Book's 115 minutes is by far the longest.

After the first 45 minutes, I turned the wings, set the timer for another 60 minutes and went upstairs to get ready for our family's Fourth of July cookout. After about ten minutes, the sauce turned pitch black and started to smoke. My wife was afraid that the house would burn down, or worse, that the wings would be ruined, so she took them out of the oven. And not a moment too soon! The sauce in the bottom of the pan was a burned, ashen mess, but the wings were perfectly cooked.

The next time I make these wings, I'll try the cooking instructions from the creator of the recipe, Metta Miller of Boston, as told in the comments on (hat tip to Kevin for pointing me to Metta's comments):

If you follow my original instructions (Gourmet altered the recipe) they will be delicious every time .... To the salt sensitive: Use low-sodium soy sauce. To those concerned about burnt pans/sauce: Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes; turn and check after another 30-45 minutes. I've been making these wings this way for years and haven't ended up with a single ruined pan — or a single complaint — yet. Good luck!
One last note. When I first looked at this recipe, four pounds of chicken wings and a yield of 48 pieces seemed like an awful lot of wings for a smallish family cookout. So, I made two pounds of wings. Big mistake. The wings were gobbled up in a couple of minutes, and everyone was left licking their fingers and asking for more. Next time, I'll make the full four pounds of this crowd-pleasing recipe.
Date Cooked: July 4, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium (due to scrubbing)
Rating: A (despite the recipe flaws)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

17. Charred Tomatillo Guacamole (p. 10)

Guacamole is one of my favorite things in the whole world. I could eat it every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. OK, maybe that's a bit of an overstatement, but you get the point: I like the stuff.

I made this as another contribution to my family's Fourth of July cookout (see the earlier post for Creamy Slaw, and stay tuned for a post on "La Brea Tar Pit" Chicken Wings), and it was a big hit.

This is a basic guacamole recipe with a twist: the addition of roasted tomatillos.

This recipe gave me a chance to play a favorite game: Stump the Cashier. Here's how it works: look around in the produce department for something a little unusual, take it to the check-out, and wait for the fun to begin. As the cashier rings up your order, you'll hear that familiar beep, beep, beep as she scans the items at lighting speed. And then, all of a sudden, it comes to a screeching halt. The cashier's face gets all squinched up, she lifts the produce bag, usually holding it at a distance as if it smells bad, and then she says, in a half-curious, half-accusatory tone, "What's this?" Tomatillos are usually a guaranteed winner in Stump the Cashier. Other good ones are parsnips, turnips, and just about any fresh herbs. Some things that look a lot like other common items aren't quite as good for the game, such as shallots. These usually get rung up as onions without a bat of an eye.

This recipe also gave me an opportunity to use my brand new mortar and pestle, which was an anniversary present from my wife (thanks, Sweetie!). While the tomatillos were under the broiler, I mashed up the onion, chile, and cilantro, salt and pepper. Once the tomatillos were good and charred, I threw them in the mix. Finally, I put it all in a bowl, added the avocados and mashed it all up with a potato masher. If you make this in advance, like I did, be sure to cover the guacamole with plastic wrap pressed right against the surface of the guacamole, otherwise it'll discolor.

This was an excellent recipe. The guacamole has the creamy texture that we all love plus the pleasant and unexpected fire-roasted flavor and slight tang from the tomatillos.

The recipe calls for three to four serrano chiles. These little suckers rate about 10,000 to 23,000 on the Scoville Scale, which means that they're pretty darn hot! Now, The Book suggests removing the seeds from some or all of the chiles to make a milder guacamole, but even without the seeds, there's still a lot of heat in them there peppers. So, my wife and I had a debate about how many serranos I should include, but in the end, Stop and Shop made the decision for me. There was only one, single, lonely serrano in the whole store. The result was that the guacamole was pretty mild, but by no means wimpy.

My only complaint with the recipe was that it was too salty. The recipe calls for a whole teaspoon of salt, which was too much. If I make this again, and I probably will, I'll start with a half teaspoon, and then add more to taste as needed.

Date Cooked: July 4, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

Monday, July 7, 2008

16. Creamy Slaw (p. 140)

My family decided to have an old-fashioned backyard cookout for the Fourth of July: hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. And nothing goes better with hot dogs and hamburgers than a great coleslaw.

This recipe is the classic backyard cookout coleslaw. When you think of coleslaw, this is what you think about. Cookbooks and food magazines today are always trying to get us to try "a new twist" on classic dishes or to give us "something a little different." Sometimes, you just want the real thing, and that's what you get with this coleslaw.

The Book calls this recipe "straightforward," and that's exactly what it is. It's nice and easy to make, especially when you do all of the prep work in the food processor like I did. I whizzed the onion and green pepper to get them finely chopped, then I slapped on the shredding attachment for the carrot, and then the slicer attachment for the cabbage. The dressing came together easily too: it's just mayo, sour cream, and a little vinegar, salt and pepper. That's it. At first I was a little concerned that there wasn't going to be enough dressing, but as I tossed the slaw, it all got a nice even coating. Also, I made this slaw the day before the cookout, and as it rested overnight, some of the liquid was drawn out of the vegetables, making even more dressing.

Date Cooked: July 3, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A

15. Pickled Carrot Sticks (p. 909)

I have a theory that just about anything will taste better if pickled or deep fried. This recipe is further proof that I'm right.

This recipe is nice and easy. Just peel, cut and blanch the carrots. Then simmer the simple pickle brine and pour it over the carrots. That's it.

These really had the flavor of good homemade pickles. Nice and crisp with a healthy dose of garlic and dill, plus that vinegary punch.

I took a handful of these with me every day last week to go with my sandwich. It was a nice change from my usual ho-hum plain carrot sticks. The Book also suggests adding these pickled carrots to a Thanksgiving relish tray. Sounds good to me.

Date Cooked: June 29, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy

Thursday, July 3, 2008

14. Asian Cucumber Ribbon Salad (p. 142)

The idea of this salad is long, lightly-dressed strands of paper-thin juicy cucumber slices. Sounds great, and it might have worked out better if I had a proper mandoline.

Instead, I have the "As Seen on TV" Super Slicer that my mother-in-law bought in a moment of infomercial - watching weakness.

The Super Slicer is actually a surprisingly useful gadget. I used it to slice potatoes for the Gratin Dauphinois in MtAoFC with great success. But, despite the claims of the infomercial hosts, "paper-thin" slices is something that the Super Slicer just doesn't do.

As a result, my cucumber slices were more like 1/4 inch than the 1/8 inch called for in The Book, they were much more rigid than the effect I think I was aiming for. So, I sliced them lengthwise and made something more properly referred to a cucumber "noodles" than "ribbons."

This recipe is the epitome of "cool as a cucumber." It's as light and refreshing as can be. The half-teaspoon of sesame oil in the dressing is just the right amount to give the salad a nice toastyness and silky feel without having a too intense sesame flavor. I'll make this recipe again once I get the right equipment, but I think that I'll skip the unnecessarily fussy step of heating the vinegar and sugar.

One last note, The Book says not to let the dressed salad sit for more than 20 minutes or else it will get soggy. However, we had some salad leftover, and we put it in the fridge. I ate it as a snack a couple days later, and it was still crisp and delicious.

Date Cooked: June 29, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

If only I had $4.3 million to spare

Julia Child's former home at 103 Irving Street in Cambridge is on the market. According to the exclusive listing with Premier Properties of Boston, this historic home on Cambridge's famed "Professor's Row," has 6,000 square feet of living space luxuriously appointed with a marble entryway and hardwood floors throughout.
Of course, the kitchen where Julia Child cooked and filmed her television shows was removed years ago and put on display at the Smithsonian. But, the "oversized Italian kitchen" that took its place is nothing to sneeze at, with custom cabinetry, marble countertops and top-of-the-line appliances (Kuppersbusch Okotherm oven, Miele cooktop and dishwasher, Sub-Zero regrigerator/freezer). And while Julia's kitchen is gone, the Childs' temperature controlled wine storage room remains.
The asking price? A mere $4,350,000.
A small price to pay for a culinary dream house.

13. Pad Thai (p. 245)

This recipe sent me on my first, but I'm sure not my last, Project Field Trip. My local Stop and Shop didn't have two of the key ingredients: tamarind and baked tofu. (Boo, Stop and Shop.) So, it was off to the chichi Whole Foods in the chichi town across the river. They had the baked tofu (sort of, but more on that later), but not the tamarind. Whole Foods does get points, however, for having employees who actually know what tamarind is (I didn't even bother asking at S&S), and they promised that they could get me some in a couple of days. But, like Veruka Salt, I wanted it now! So, it was off to the local Indo-Pak grocery.

Not only did they have tamarind, but they had three kinds of tamarind: Indian, Thai and concentrate. I opted for the Thai variety (seemed like the right choice since I was making Pad Thai, after all). Now, I've never used tamarind before, and I wasn't even sure exactly what it was. According to Wikipedia, tamarind gets its name from Arab traders who called it tamar hindi, or Indian date. The pulp of the legume-like fruit of the tamarind tree is a common seasoning in Asian and Latin American foods. The Thai variety I bought comes in a pliable 10 ounce block of the dried pulp. It kind of looks like a brick of mashed dried dates, and it has the same stickiness. Following The Book's instructions, I broke off a two-tablespoon-sized chunk, soaked it in boiling water and strained it. That was the base of the sauce. Tamarind has a sweet and tart flavor that is a key element in Pad Thai. The Wikipedia article notes that many recipes try to fake the flavor with lime juice and/or white vinegar. But, as The Book says, "there are no American shortcuts here."

I will admit, however, that I did use one tiny shortcut. I used frozen shrimp instead of fresh, which is probably no big deal, but the editors of Gourmet would no doubt frown on the fact that they were still frozen when I put them in the wok. They did give off a bit more liquid than I expected as they cooked, and it probably slowed down the cooking a little, but I don't think that it affected the final product at all.

The Book says that if you can't find plain baked tofu (I couldn't), you can use the flavored kind if you rinse and pat it dry. So, as I alluded to above, Whole Foods didn't have plain baked tofu, but they did have a plethora of flavored varieties. I chose Thai Sesame Peanut flavor since it seemed to be the mildest of all the choices, and even if I couldn't rinse off all of the flavor, it would at least compliment the Pad Thai flavors. It wasn't an issue, though, because the goopy peanut sesame sauce rinsed off nicely, and I don't think that its flavor carried over to the dish. If you've never had baked tofu, it has an odd firm yet spongy texture, and it has a squeaky feel when you bite it.

As I studied this recipe before I got started, I realized that a lot needed to happen in a short amount of time. (Cook this for 1 minute, add that and cook for 2-3 minutes, toss in these and cook for another 2 minutes, etc.) So, the majority of my prep time was spent getting my mise ready. As an aside, The Book claims that the "Active Time" for this recipe is 1 1/2 hours. It took me closer to two hours for this one, but I'm not complaining. The Book suggests making the noodles in advance and putting them in a bowl covered tightly with plastic wrap and keeping them at room temperature until they're needed. I did this (and I also added a ladle full of the cooking liquid to the bowl), and it worked like a charm. I'll try this trick in the future with other Asian noodle dishes, since coordinating noodle-cooking time with the rest of the recipe is usually a challenge.

Once I was ready to get cooking, it was over in a flash. I was glad that I took the extra time to get all of the ingredients ready and lined up in little bowls on the counter.

The finished dish was excellent. I've had a few other Pad Thai recipes at home, mostly from Cooking Light, and while good, none of these recipes resembled the Pad Thai you get in restaurants. (One of the recipes even had tomato paste(!) in it.) This Pad Thai came very close to the real thing. My wife thought that it had too much heat (the recipe calls for 1 1/2 teaspoons of red pepper flakes), but I thought that it was just right.

I'll definitely make this again, especially if I can't find anything else to do with the huge block of tamarind that's now sitting in my cupboard.

Date Cooked: June 29, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Pretty Hard
Rating: A

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

12. Lemon Buttermilk Sherbet (p. 860)

Have you ever noticed that most recipes that use buttermilk only call for a little bit of it (half-cup here, two-thirds of a cup there)? Yet, I've never seen buttermilk sold in anything smaller than a quart size. Now, I'm not about to follow Harry Truman's lead (legend has it that instead of staying up to watch the returns on election night in 1948, Truman had a ham sandwich and a glass of buttermilk and went to bed early), so I usually end up throwing away all of the leftover buttermilk. (But first, the carton often gets pushed to the back of the refrigerator where it's forgotten for a few weeks until it starts breathing and knocking on the refrigerator door to be let out, and then it gets thrown out.) But in these days of rising food costs (I wouldn't be surprised if M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf becomes a bestseller again) waste not, want not is the motto.

A few days ago, my wife made a couscous dish from Cooking Light that called for a small amount of buttermilk. I resolved not to throw away the remaining buttermilk, and I went straight to The Book's index to find recipes using buttermilk. I came across this great sherbet.

This recipe couldn't be easier. It's just buttermilk (a nice two-cup portion ... only about a quarter-cup left in my carton, dare me to drink it?), corn syrup, lemon zest and juice, and sugar. Mix it all up, chill for a while, and then put it in an ice cream maker. Let me just say that I'm getting reacquainted with my Cuisinart ice cream maker after the machine's long sabbatical in our attic. A few weeks ago, I made the Watermelon Sorbet from Alice Waters's The Art of Simple Food. It was great, and the ice cream maker is a breeze to use. I don't know why this poor appliance was banished to the attic (like the crazy wife in Jane Eyre), while my never-used bread maker and cappuccino machine manged to keep prime real estate on my kitchen baker's rack. Well, the situation has been remedied. The bread maker has been retired to the attic, and the cappuccino maker was sold at our recent yard sale.

This sherbet was excellent. Tart and refreshing. The lemon juice, zest and buttermilk give it a tang and zing that is sure to make you pucker. My wife thought that it was too much, though. It had a nice creaminess without being too rich. The only problem that I had with the recipe was that as the sherbet mixture churned in the ice cream maker, some of the zest got caught on the machine's mixing arm resulting in some pretty large clumps of zest throughout the sherbet ... an unpleasant surprise if you get a spoonful of that!

I enjoyed this sherbet with some of the leftover Brown Sugar-Ginger Crisps that I had stashed in the freezer. Delicious! I think that lemon and ginger are best friends.

Date Cooked: June 28, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A