Sunday, September 28, 2008

52. Macaroni and Cheese (p. 223)

Maybe you've noticed it too. Recently, I've seen more and more dishes on restaurant menus that could be described as "comfort-food-on- crack." For instance, not that long ago, my wife and I had lunch at Finale in Natick, Massachusetts (at the mall, no less). When I saw "Truffled Macaroni and Cheese" on the menu, I couldn't resist.

This recipe easily falls into the comfort-food-on-crack category. It elevates that stuff in the blue box to something nearly sublime, but it's not so fussy that it couldn't become a family favorite. The unusual elements of the recipe are the addition of Dijon mustard and red paper flakes, and the use of panko, rather than ho-hum breadcrumbs, for the topping. Of course, there's just something about that homemade cheese sauce that just can't be put in a box.

Date Cooked: September 13, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

Thursday, September 25, 2008

51. Roasted Butternut Squash and Spinach with Toasted Almond Dressing (p. 579)

Well, Fall is here, and for me, that means squash, pumpkins and apples, so expect to see a lot of them over the next few weeks.

The Downtown Manchester Farmer's Market will close soon, but not before the vendors have a chance to offer some great looking butternut squash. This one came from, of all places, Butternut Farm, in Milford, New Hampshire (the farm is named after the tree, though, and not the squash).

This recipe starts with roasting cubed butternut squash. While the squash is in the oven, it's time to make the dressing. Coarsely chopped almonds are cooked in oil over low heat for a while, presumably to toast the almonds and, at the same time, to infuse the oil with almond flavor. If that was the goal, I don't think it was fully achieved. It either needed more heat or more time. The almonds are strained out and reserved, and some lemon juice is whisked into the oil for the dressing. Finally, the squash, almonds and dressing are tossed with raw spinach.

I liked this dish a lot. The squash was excellent. The roasting brought out its caramely sweetness. The cool crispness of the spinach and the crunch of the almonds gave the dish textural interest. The dressing was pretty good, too.

When Teena made this dish, she wasn't a fan of the combination of the lukewarm squash and the raw spinach. This combo didn't bother me at all, but the next day, I had some leftovers and I threw the whole thing in the microwave, and I thought that it was much better hot with the spinach cooked.

Date Cooked: September 13, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

Friday, September 19, 2008

50. Zucchini "Carpaccio" (p. 591)

I never thought that I'd be able to get my wife to eat carpaccio, but I did it. Who cares if the main ingredient was zucchini instead of raw beef, I can still say that I served my "no-red-meat-thank-you-very-much" wife carpaccio, and she liked it.

With the end of summer quickly approaching, I wanted to take full advantage of the last few weeks of the Downtown Manchester Farmers Market, so I've been paying particular attention to The Book's "Vegetables" chapter. I decided that this recipe* would be an excellent use for the zucchini that is plentiful these days.

This recipe is a unique vegetarian take on the traditional dish of thinly-sliced raw beef, veal or tuna, which has been pounded flat and served with dressing and garnish as a fancy first course. According to Wikipedia, carpaccio has a storied past. Two restaurants, Harry's Bar in Venice, and Savini Restaurant in Milan, both claim to have invented the dish. Curiously, both restaurants' stories of the dish's creation are oddly similar, and involve a wealthy woman instructed by her doctor to eat only raw meat. (Why a doctor would do that is beyond me. Maybe she wasn't getting her recommended daily allowance of e. coli and salmonella?) Both stories also attribute the dish's name to the Italian Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio. In the Harry's Bar version of the story, the colors of the dish reminded the chef of Carpaccio's paintings. In the Savini story, the prim-and-proper patron found it unladylike to order "raw meat" in a fancy restaurant, and so a Carpaccio painting hanging near by inspired her to choose the artist's name as a "code word" for the dish.

The recipe calls for slicing zucchini into paper-thin slices on a mandoline. I used my as-seen-on-TV Super Slicer, with great success this time to get pretty thin slices. I arranged the slices in a pretty pattern on a serving plate and topped them with some fresh arugula. I drizzled on some extra virgin olive oil and white balsamic vinegar. Finally, I finished it off with some shaved Parmigiano Reggiano, pepper and fleur de sel.

This was a pretty good dish. It was very light ... but maybe too light. The Book says that the balsamic is optional. I think that it's essential, and in fact it could have used more. I really love arugula with it's peppery bite, and the zucchini was good too. You have to understand, that means a lot coming from me. As an ardent foodie, there aren't too many foods I don't like. Sea urchin roe is one, and raw zucchini is another. I love zucchini grilled, baked, sauteed, stir-fried, steamed, and tempura-style, but there's just something about the taste and texture of raw zucchini that I can't stand. That is, until now. This dish just may have turned the tide of my raw-zucchini aversion.

Don't expect to see me eating sea urchin roe any time soon, though.

Date Cooked: September 13, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B

* The ingredients in the recipe are almost identical to the recipe in The Book, but the presentation is completely different.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

49. Crunchy Fried Green Tomatoes (p. 585)

When my sister-in-law gave us some green tomatoes from her garden, both my wife and I immediately had the same thought: Fried Green Tomoatoes. She, of course, had in mind a recipe like this one inspired by Fannie Flagg's book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and the movie that followed. I was, of course thinking of this recipe* from The Book.

The Whistle Stop recipe and the Gourmet recipe are similar in that both start out with sliced green tomoatoes. That's where the similarities end. The Whistle Stop tomatoes are coated in a thick milk, flour and cornmeal batter and are deep fried in two inches of hot oil. The Gourmet tomatoes, on the other hand, are lightly dredged in a mixture of flour, salt, sugar and cayenne pepper, then dipped in a mixture of egg and milk, and finally coated with a crust of crushed Corn Flakes before being pan fried in just the slightest amount of oil.

I was a little suspicuous of the Corn Flake step, since it gave the recipe the look and feel of the kind of recipe that you find on the side of a package of processed food or in the Sunday paper cupon circular. Don't get me wrong, sometimes these recipes can be great. For example, you can't do much better than the Toll House Cookie recipe on a package of Nestle chocolate chips, and I've been making the pie recipe on the canned pumpkin label for Thanksgiving ever year for as long as I can remeber. But, generally speaking, recipes printed on processed food packaging are usually not haute cuisine. Case in point: any recipe ever printed on a Cool Whip container. All I'm saying is that "corn flakes" is not an ingredient I expected to find in a Gourmet recipe.

That said, I thought that these fried green tomatoes were excellent. True to their name, these tomatoes were crunchy. And the healthy amount of cayenne mixed into the dredging flour gave them a nice bit of heat that I wasn't expecting. I was really impressed that the crust stayed on through cooking, despite the flipping, and the transferring from pan to tray to plate. They stayed wonderfully intact. I really liked the fact that they weren't drowned in a thick batter and deep fried beyond recognition. My wife, I think, was a little dissapointed, but only because she had it in her mind that I was making a more traditional battered version. The tomatoes themselves were cooked through, but still firm, and they had that nice sour tang that is unique to green tomatoes.

I was also pretty impressed that the leftovers reheated well in the microwave and still retained most of their crunch.

Date Cooked: September 1, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A

* As Teena noted, the recipe on uses more oil than the one in The Book. Also the tomato salsa accompaniment on the epicurious recipe is omitted from The Book. (A wise choice in my opinion. Tomatoes with a side of tomatoes?)

Monday, September 15, 2008

48. Ruth's Pancakes (p. 645)

To be honest, I was a little intimidated by this recipe.* After all, it comes from Ruth Reichl, the Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet, and my tour guide on this crazy quest of mine. What if I messed them up? Or worse, what if I didn't like them? How could I go on with The Project? How could I face Ms. Reichl if I ever get the chance to meet her? Well, thankfully, the crisis was averted. The pancakes came out great, and they were amazing.

In the interest of full disclosure, this recipe calls for a whole stick of butter (pause here while my wife winces), resulting in some very rich pancakes. But in the recipe's defense, The Book says that these pancakes are to be reserved for those times when "you need to pull out all the stops for an Extremely Special Breakfast." (The emphasis in this quote is The Book's, not mine. I'm not sure what an "Extremely Special Breakfast" is, but for me cooking breakfast for Ruth Reichl might be an example.)

One thing that was unexpected, and a little cool, about this recipe was that the greater-than-usual amount of baking powder called for (four teaspoons), caused the batter to start to rise while it was still in the mixing bowl, even before it got to the skillet. The result is a pancake that, while rich, was still light and airy.

I also appreciated The Book's suggestion of putting the pancakes into a 200-degree oven as they come off the skillet to keep them warm until they're all done and everyone's ready to eat. This is one of those brilliantly simple ideas that make you say, "Why didn't I think of that?" Now, my wife and I can both eat hot pancakes at the same time.

These pancakes were excellent. They were buttery (how could they not be!), crispy, fluffy, and they didn't need anything more than a little pure Vermont maple syrup to finish them off. Curiously, unlike other recipes in The Book, which say that the recipe "Serves 4 to 6," this recipe says that it "Makes about 8 pancakes." Could the reason for this be that if two people just happen to eat all eight pancakes between them (and I'm not saying that that's what my wife and I did), they won't feel like pigs for eating an entire recipe that "Serves 12"?

I think that for a typical, no-frills Sunday-morning breakfast, I'll stick to my stand-by, Joy of Cooking pancake recipe. But the next time I have an "Extremely Special Breakfast," (stop by any time, Ms. Reichl, you're always welcome!), this will be the recipe I'll use.

Date Cooked: August 31, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B+

*This recipe isn't on

Saturday, September 13, 2008

47. Black-and-White Cookies (p. 666)

As any fan of Seinfeld will remember, this recipe plays a pivotal role in the classic episode, "The Dinner Party." While on an unsuccessful quest for a chocolate bobka to bring to a dinner party, Jerry spots a black-and-white cookie in the bakery's display case. He can't resist getting one and rhapsodizing on how the cookie is an allegory for racial harmony. "I love the black and white," he says, "Two races of flavor living side by side. It's a wonderful thing isn't it?" "Nothing mixes better than vanilla and chocolate," he goes on, "And yet somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie all our problems would be solved." But Jerry's idealism is dashed when the black and white halves of the cookie can't get along in his stomach, bringing an end to his fourteen-year vomit-free streak. But even if these cookies aren't the answer to society's problems, they are delicious.

The base of these tasty treats is a cake-y, tangy buttermilk cookie batter. I've already complained about how much I hate it when recipes call for a small amount of buttermilk. Well, I think that I've discovered the answer to my problem. While wandering up and down the baking needs aisle of my local mega mart, my eyes were drawn to the friendly smile of a mustachioed chef on a tub of powdered buttermilk. Powdered buttermilk?!? With a little bit of water, I can instantly have any amount of buttermilk called for by a recipe. No more wasted buttermilk for me! Once the cookies are baked and cooled, it's on to the best part: the icing.

The icing is simple and delicious. It's just confectioners' sugar, light corn syrup, vanilla extract, a little water, and the key ingredient, lemon juice. Divide the icing in half, and add some Dutch-process cocoa to one half, and leave the other half as is. (I'm still using my non-Dutch Hershey's cocoa. My local mega-mart only sells Hershey's and a store brand of unalkalized cocoa.) Start by frosting one half of each cookie with the white icing. Then frost the other half of the cookies with the chocolate. As the frosting dries, the black and white frosting kind of merge together at the margin making a perfectly smooth and shiny icing. These were some good-looking cookies, if I do say so myself.

Not only were these cookies good looking, they were tasty, too. The cookies have a nice cake-y texture and the buttermilk gives them a nice tang. The icing is sweet and cool, and the lemon juice gives them an unexpected brightness and zip. The only problem with the recipe is that it only makes eight cookies. They're big cookies, but all the same, once they were gone, I was already wanting more. So, if you're looking for a treat, this is a great one to try. And as Jerry Seinfeld said, "Look to the cookie, Elaine. Look to the cookie." Maybe we can learn something from these cookies, but at the very least, it's delicious to try.

Date Cooked: August 30-31, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

Friday, September 12, 2008

46. BL-Tomatoes (p. 26)

The concept for this recipe* is simple: BLTs without the bread. These tasty hors d'oeuvres are simply a hollowed-out cherry tomato stuffed with a mixture of shredded iceberg lettuce, crumbled bacon, mayonnaise and salt and pepper. The result is something that is fancy, yet familiar.

I could just tell from reading the recipe that these were going to be a hit at my family's Labor Day cookout, so I doubled the recipe so that we wouldn't run out. That was a good call, since they disappeared pretty qucikly.

I was lucky to find 24 large-ish, ripe cherry tomatoes at the local mega-mart (sometimes they surprise me with good produce). The first thing you do is to cut a very thin slice off the bottom of each tomato so that they won't roll around on the platter. Then you slice off the tops of the tomatoes and scoop out the centers with a melon baller. The one-inch diameter tomatoes called for by The Book is an absolute minimum, otherwise, scooping out the centers with a melon baller will be a frustrating, if not impossible task. But, don't go much bigger than one inch, since as Teena noted, these things should be single-bite-sized, or else you'll be wearing the "BL" filling.

The filling couldn't be easier. First, you crisp up some bacon (I used turkey bacon without any ill effects to the finished product) and crumble it. Then you finely shred some iceberg lettuce. Mix it all up with some mayonnaise, salt and pepper, and stuff the filling into the tomato shells. This last step proved to be a little time consuming, and I don't think that I'd try to make these for a great big party. Unless you had lots of help, stuffing a hundred of these babies would take all day, and I'm guessing that they need to be eaten pretty soon after being made, so making them in advance probably isn't an option. But for a small party, they're fun and delicious.

Date Cooked: August 31, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

*The recipe is not available on-line

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I'm back ... and on a 'roll

I've just come back from a week-long vacation in sunny Los Angeles, which explains my recent absence from the blogosphere. But just because I wasn't cooking, doesn't mean that I didn't eat well.

My culinary adventures in La-La Land included an excellent seafood arrabiatta at Mirabelle in West Hollywood, tasty tuna tartare at Taste on Melrose, pretty amazing pizza at Mario Batali's Pizzeria Mozza, and something called "Geisha Lips" at Geisha House on Hollywood Boulevard. But it wasn't all fancy food all the time. I also enjoyed LA's finest in fast food, too. If you have the chance, you've gotta try PinkBerry, which is the best frozen yogurt on the planet, and Beard Papa's cream puffs could easily become habit-forming. Last but not least, I wasn't leaving California without having a Double-Double at In-N-Out Burger. Seriously, they're worth the trip.

Now that I'm back to reality on the East Coast, I'll be back to blogging tomorrow with a small stockpile of recipes I cooked before I left. Stay tuned.

And finally, I'm happy to report that while I was away, gourmetalltheway was added to The Foodie Blogroll. Check out the nifty widget in the sidebar on the left.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

45. Swiss Chard and Chickpeas (p. 542)

A small constellation of stars all aligned to get me to make this recipe.* First, I just finished reading In Defense of Food (listening to an audiobook in my car counts as "reading," doesn't it?). Second, Melissa made this dish last week. And third, we didn't have plans for dinner on Friday night. How does that all combine to equal Swiss Chard and Chickleas? Well, I'll tell you.

In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan sets out his simple philosophy of eating: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." This credo really struck a chord with me. My wife and I have always ascribed to the first part of the rule, "eat food," which sounds pretty obvious until you stop and think about it. Most of the things that Americans put in their bodies is not food, but rather, over-processed food-like substances. The Gourmet Cookbook is all about eating food. With a few exceptions (e.g., the Kellog's Corn Flake crust on the Crunchy Fried Green Tomatoes I made this weekend - check back soon for the post), The Book uses fresh, basic ingredients combined to make real food ... really good food, that is. The rest of Pollan's edict, "not too much, mostly plants" is a bit harder to live by, for me at least. Portion control is always a challenge, especially when The Book is involved. Overeating is a hazard of The Project. And while my wife is an avowed "flexitarian" - eating only plants, dairy and eggs, with the occasional bit of fish or poultry thrown in for good measure - I am a flexitarian by default only, since I rarely cook red meat for myself, but I almost always get it when we go out. So, I'm looking for creative and delicious ways to incorporate the "mostly plants" part of Pollan's rule into my own eating life.

That's where the other two stars in the constellation come in. As I was driving home from work on Friday, I called my wife from the car, and we had our usual Friday-night conversation. "What should we have for dinner?" "I don't know, what do you want?" We go round and round for a while until we finally land on pizza or Chinese take-out from one of the places at the end of our street. Our regular Friday-night meal may be a great many things, but it's proably not food, or at least, not the kind of food we should be eating. But, this Friday, my wife changed it up a bit and said, "I want to have something healthy," which is usually code for frozen Veggie Burgers. (I'd have to take a closer look at the list of ingredients on the box, but I suspect that even though they're "good for you," Veggie Burgers might not be food).

And then it hit me. Melissa raved about this recipe, writing that it was easy, tasty, and substantial enough for a meal. Problem solved! I had my wife find the recipe in The Book and read the ingredients to me over the phone as I took a detour to the grocery story. (I haven't yet taken to keeping The Book in my car like other Gourmet cook-through-ers. Not that there's anything wrong with that, since I'm sure that eventually I'll start doing the same.)

I brought the ingredients home and got to work. And dinner was on the table in about thirty minutes (take that Rachel Ray!). This dish is great! The sliced onions were tender and sweet (I used a medium Vidalia instead of the two small regular onions called for by The Book). The single clove of sliced garlic was just enough to give flavor without overpowering. The diced tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil melted into a subtle sauce. The chickpeas were soft and stacrchy, almost like little gnocchi. But the real star of the dish was the Swiss chard. This green is substantial without being chewy; flavorful without being bitter.

We enjoyed this dish with some nice crusty bread, and we ate the whole potful. So much for the "not too much" part of Pollan's rule. But, hey, two out of three ain't bad.

Date Cooked: August 29, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A

* The recipe is almost the same as the one in The Book.