Tuesday, March 31, 2009

129. Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies (p. 674)

A couple of weeks ago, I made some peanut butter cookies ... and I didn't like them very much. They were dry and hard. I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong with them. My best guess was they there was too much flour in the recipe. Well, if you just flip ahead a few pages in The Book, you'll find this recipe* for Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies. Time to test the theory. As you'll see, I was wrong. It wasn't the flour.

This recipe is very easy to make. Only four ingredients, and you've probably already got them in your kitchen: Peanut butter, sugar, an egg and some baking soda. Beat together the peanut butter and the sugar, and then beat in the egg and baking soda.

The Book says to roll level teaspoons of the dough into balls and put them onto a cookie sheet. This was a little difficult because the dough was pretty dry and crumbly. Then, I flattened the dough balls with a fork (making that distinctive peanut butter cookie cross-hatch pattern) and baked them for a little while.

How were they? They were better than the other peanunt butter cookies ... but not much better. They were dry and crumbly (just like the dough), but at least they weren't hard. They were crisp instead. What I'm looking for, though, is a moist and chewey peanut butter cookie. Is that too much to ask for?

Two very similar peanut butter cookie recipes in The Book, and both were disappointments.

Date Cooked: March 22, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: C+

* This recipe from epicurious is not the recipe from The Book. It's actually from Bon Appetit, but it's similar enough. The Book's recipe uses granulated sugar instead of brown, and it omits the chocolate chips and vanilla extract.

Monday, March 30, 2009

128. Crunchy Vegetable and Brown Rice Salad (p. 150)

I've never thought that there was anything strange about pasta salad. So why would I even think for a second that there's anything odd about rice salad. Rice salad? You've never heard of it either? Well, now that I've made this recipe, my eyes have been opened to a whole new world of salad possibilities.

The first thing I did to make this salad was to make the rice. The Book calls for short grain brown rice. I've never used this kind of rice before. These short, chubby grains of brown rice are about the size and shape of the Arborio rice that you'd use for risotto, but they're a lot less starchy. You cook it more like pasta than rice, boiling it in lots of salted water and draining it in a colander and rinsing it with cold water when it's done cooking.

While the rice was cooking, I chopped up some carrots, celery, and bell peppers into quarter-inch dice. This recipe is definitely good practice for your knife skills. The Book calls for red bell peppers, but I used red, yellow and orange to give the salad more color. I blanched these vegetables in boiling water for one minute, drained them in a colander and then plunged the colander into a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.

Next, I made the dressing. I whisked together some lemon juice, chicken broth, country-style whole grain mustard, olive oil, and some salt and pepper. I tossed the dressing with some baby arugula, the blanched vegetables, some chopped scallions, and the cool rice.

This salad was beautiful and delicious. It looked like a party on a plate ... like brightly colored confetti. The textures were excellent. The crunchy vegetables, crisp arugula and tender rice all combined together very well. The dressing was light, bright and uncomplicated. The Book says that this salad can be eaten as a main course. I served this salad with my Seared Salmon with Balsamic Glaze, and it was a nice match. I think that this salad would be a welcome addition to a summer picnic, too.

Date Cooked: March 21, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: B+

Saturday, March 28, 2009

127. Seared Salmon with Balsamic Glaze (p. 290)

I've mentioned before that I have a special challenged facing me as I work through The Project, and that's my wife's refusal to eat beef, pork or lamb (I'm pretty sure that she won't eat rabbit either, but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it, on page 408). Well, in recent weeks, The Project has become a bit more challenging. My three-month-old son has developed an allergy or intolerance to dairy, soy and/or wheat. And because my wife is nursing, if he can't eat it, she can't eat it. So, I've been scrutinizing the recipes in The Book to find meals that I can make that we both can eat. And one of the great things about The Book is that there are a surprising number of options that will work. The other good thing is that, this too, will pass, and my wife will be back on butter and flour in good time.

I picked this recipe because it fit within our dietary restrictions, and because it looked pretty easy. The recipe serves four, but because I feel funny about leftover fish (is that unreasonble?), I cut the recipe in half. First, I whisked together some balsamic vinegar (noting fancy, just the cheap supermarket stuff), water, lemon juice and brown sugar, and set it aside. Then I patted dry two salmon fillets (I used frozen wild Alaskan salmon from Whole Foods), and seared them in a pan with a little bit of oil, for a few minutes each side, skin side up first, and then skin side down. I put the salmon on two plates and then put the vinegar mixture in the pan for a few minutes until it had reduced. I spooned the glaze over the salmon, and we enjoyed it.

And did we enjoy it! The salmon was crispy and perfectly cooked. The glaze was light and intensely flavored. The lemon juice gave the dish a surprising brightness. Really very good. We liked it so much that I marched right back to Whole Foods to get more salmon and we had it for dinner the next night. The only drawback to this recipe is the smell. There's a bit of smoke when the fish is cooking, and the next day, there was a distinct odor lingering in the kitchen.

Date Cooked: March 21, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Very Easy
Rating: A-

Thursday, March 26, 2009

126. Congee (Chinese Chicken and Rice Porridge) (p. 122)

One of my favorite books of all time (and favorite movies, for that matter) is The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. The story follows Wang Lung on his journey from a modest country farmer to a wealthy aristocrat. Throughout the rises and falls of his fortunes, Wang Lung always remembers his connection to the land and the importance of his family.

According to The Book (the Gourmet Cookbook, not The Good Earth) Congee was often eaten morning, noon and night in Chinese peasant homes. So it's no surprise that this recipe made me think of The Good Earth, and Wang Lung's humble and constant companion, O-Lan. As I made this hearty, rustic dish, I could picture O-Lan patiently tending the fire under a large kettle of rice porridge, and then serving it to Wang Lung and his crusty old father.

They say that good things come to those who wait, and that you can't rush greatness. But when it's already 6:30 and you're looking at a recipe with a total cooking time of five and a half hours, you do the best you can. Did I cut a few corners? Did I cook the stock for two hours instead of three? Did I cook the rice for one hour instead of two? Would it have been better if I hadn't rushed it? Yes on all counts. But, you know what? It was pretty good anyway. I really liked it, and I'd make it again when I have the time to do it right. (And just when will that be? No, really ... when will that be?)

Other than time (that's time, not thyme), you really don't need much to make this recipe. Start by cutting a whole chicken into eight serving pieces, put it in a pot and bring it to a boil, skimming off the gunk that bubbles up at the surface. The Book doesn't say whether you're supposed to put the carcass (what was leftover after I cut the chicken into serving pieces) into the pot. I didn't, but I suppose I could have. Reduce to a simmer and add some Chinese rice wine, some thick slices of ginger and a few smashed scallions. After about 20 minutes of simmering, the breast meat is cooked through. The Book says to remove one of the breast halves from the pot and set it aside to cool. This will become the shredded chicken served on top of the finished porridge. If I had it to do again, I would have removed both breast halves. There simply wasn't enough meat in the finished dish. Then, leave the stock to simmer for about three hours (or just barely two hours, if you are in a rush like me).

Strain the stock and discard the solids. Add the rice, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about two hours (or just barely one hour, if you are in a rush like me). The Book says that the finished porridge should have the consistency of oatmeal. Mine was a little more watery than it was supposed to be, but it was late and I needed to get to bed. Anyway, I was making this a couple of days before we planned on eating it. I knew that the rice would continue to absorb the liquid as it sat in the refrigerator. So, by the time we re-heated it, the consistency was just about right.

To serve, I topped the porridge with the shredded chicken breast, some finely sliced scallions, finely chopped ginger and some salt and pepper. The flavor was good, if somewhat subtle (I'm sure that this had to do with the abbreviated cooking time). But, it had a nice fragrance and the ginger, chicken and scallion flavors came through. It also had a slight, but pleasant, sweetness. The texture was a little mooshy, but in a comforting, and not off-putting way. I thought that because of all of the rice and liquid, this would be a real "belly-bomb" of dish, but surprisingly the meal didn't have staying power, and I was looking for more to eat later (cookies and ice cream anyone?).

Date Cooked: March 15, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

125. Irish Soda Bread (p. 601)

I used to think that I liked Irish Soda Bread. Every St. Patrick's Day, I'd pick up a loaf from the grocery store bakery, all wrapped up in plastic covered in cute little shamrocks and sometimes even tied with a little green ribbon. I'd slice thick pieces and slather them with butter and chew ... and chew ... and chew. Sure, it could be a little gluey and dense and ever so slightly soggy. But, nonetheless, I'd eat it every year because it's just what you do on St. Patrick's Day. That's right, I used to think that I liked Irish Soda Bread. But now that I've made this recipe, I know that I love it.

First I sifted together my dry ingredients: flour, salt and baking soda (right, soda bread Adam says slapping his hand on his forehead). I mixed in a little bit of sugar and some healthy helpings of caraway seeds and golden raisins. Finally, I stirred in some buttermilk until the dough was evenly moistened, but still lumpy. (Can I just tell you again how happy I am that I found powdered buttermilk? No more trying to figure out what to do with the rest of a quart of buttermilk. I really think that it's changed my life.)

Then I turned the dough out onto a floured surface, kneaded it a bit and divided it into two halves. This was a little tricky because the dough was very, very sticky. But, I managed to shape the dough into two six inch rounds on a buttered, floured baking sheet. I cut an X into the top of each loaf and brushed them generously with melted butter.

I baked the bread until it had a nice, golden crust. To test for doneness, I took The Book's advice and picked up each loaf, tapped on the bottom, listening for a "hollow" sound. Just like a drum!

The Book says that the bread is best when allowed to sit for a few hours before slicing. Really? I think that it's just a test to see if you have enough will power to look at these golden, fragrant loaves and not tear into them right away. But, I behaved, and let them sit for three hours (but not a moment longer) before eating the first slice. Awesome! The crust was crisp and buttery. And inside, it was substantial without being heavy. The little bit of sugar gave it just a hint of sweetness, as did the golden raisins. The carway seeds lent the bread a nice anise flavor and some textural interest.

I sliced up one of the loaves and brought it to work with me. I left it in the kitchen next to the coffee machine, and it was gone in a matter of minutes. The other loaf was all mine. The Book gives all sorts of great ideas for different ways to enjoy this bread: with bacon and eggs; with smoked salmon. I'll have to make this bread again just to try them, because the loaf I had never made it past the butter dish. I devoured it all before I could think of creative things to do with it. But, it's got me thinking ... how would this be as the basis for a corned beef sandwich. I'm intrigued, but I'll have to think about it.

One thing's for sure, this will be one of the recipes that The Book will just automatically open itself to years from now after being made many, many St. Patrick's Days in a row.

Date Cooked: March 15, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A

Monday, March 23, 2009

124. Skillet Corn Bread (p. 600)

A while ago, I made a huge batch of Black Bean Chili. It was OK, but I really didn't like it. The thing is, I made so much of it, that I had bags and bags of it in the freezer, just waiting to be eaten. I figured that it needed "something," and I though that this recipe for corn bread would be the something to complement the chili and make it sing. Oh, well.

I really love corn bread. So, I had been looking forward to making this corn bread ever since I got The Book. As a matter of fact, this recipe is the reason I asked for cast iron pans for Christmas. Apparently, this corn bread has to be made in a cast iron skillet, since The Book says that a non-stick pan will produce "anemic-looking, soft corn bread." Ick!

First, I put my empty cast iron skillet in the oven to pre-heat. Meanwhile, I mixed together some stone-ground cornmeal, sugar, baking soda and salt. In another bowl, I whisked together some buttermilk and eggs. Then, I took the heated skillet out of the oven and put some softened butter in it. As I swirled it around, the butter sizzled and melted. I poured the melted butter into the egg and buttermilk mixture. Finally, I added the cornmeal mixture. Then I poured the batter into the hot skillet. The Book says to "scrape" the batter into the skillet. This seemed curious to me, since my batter was very liquidy, so there was no "scraping" at all. Did I do something wrong here? I put the skillet in the oven to bake for a while. It puffed up and browned very nicely, as you can see from the picture.

After I let the corn bread cool, I cut myself a nice slice and anxiously took a bite. How was it. Not that great, I'm sorry to say. First, it wasn't fully cooked in the middle. That may have been my fault because The Book says to use a nine-inch pan, and I used an eight-inch one, so my bread was thicker than what the recipe intended. But then there wast the flavor and texture. It was kind of oddly eggy and spongy. I though that it was strange that there was no flour at all in this recipe. Maybe this recipe is more "authentic," but every other recipe I've ever made for cornbread calls for at least a little flour. I also found the flavor to be a little bland. The recipe calls for only a half-teaspoon of salt. I think that it could have used more give the rest of the flavors more sparkle. The crust, however, was quite good. Buttery and crisp. I know that I'll make skillet cornbread againt, just not using this recipe.

I feel bad that the past couple of posts have been negative. Don't think for a moment that I'm losing any of my affection for The Book. Far from it. In the nine months since I started The Project, I've eaten so many wonderful things, and I've learned so much and gained so much more confidence as a cook. But, with more than 1,300 recipes in The Book, they can't all be my favorites. Stay tuned for my next post, which is one of my favories so far.

Date Cooked: March 8, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: C+

Friday, March 20, 2009

123. Peanut Butter Cookies (p. 663)

I love peanut butter, and I love cookies. So, you'd think that I'd love this recipe. But, unfortunately, these cookies were a bit of a disappointment.

They look a lot like the cookie-jar classic that just about every home cook has made once before. But there's something a little off about this recipe. At first, I though that it was just me. After all, I did use "reduced fat" peanut butter instead of regular. So, I figured that was why they were so dry and hard. But then I read Teena's post about these cookies. She made these cookies "by The Book," and still found them "chalky, dry, and floury." (In fact, Teena made them twice and hated them both times.)

There's nothing unusual about the recipe. Start by beating together some softened butter, chunky peanut butter and brown sugar. Then beat in an egg, some flour, baking powder and salt. Maybe there's just too much flour in the recipe? One and three-quarter cups of flour to a half-cup of butter and one and one-half cups of peanut butter doesn't seem out of whack to me, but recipe ingredient ratios are still pretty much a mystery to me.

While I didn't love these cookies, I did eat them (but I wouldn't share them with my co-workers, lest they think that I'm a lousy cook). The flavor was fine. Nice and peanut-buttery, with that little bit of saltiness that all good cookies have. The texture was all wrong, though. I won't be making this one again.

This post does give me a chance to talk about my newest kitchen gadget. I think that I've mentioned before that I'm not a big fan of "gadgets." I have great respect for the tried-and-true kitchen "tools" that professional and home cooks have been using for years. The more uses a tool has the better. But every now and then, I come across something that, while a one- or two-trick pony, is so perfectly suited to the task, that it earns a place in my kitchen (and not just in the junk drawer). My cherry/olive pitter is one of these tools, and my new Push Button Cookie Dough Scoop is another. My mom gave me this little wonder when she visited us a few weeks ago. It's a lexan spoon with a round, one-tablespoon scoop that has a flexible silicone bottom. You scoop some cookie dough from your bowl, press on the silicone bottom and you've got batches and batches of perfectly uniform cookies, just like that. Pretty cool! Thanks, Mom!

Date Cooked: March 7, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: C

Thursday, March 19, 2009

122. Key Lime Pie (p. 766)

These days you can get just about any kind of produce at any time of year. There's no such thing as "strawberry season" or "peach season" any more. You can find these things in your local megamart just as easily in February as you could in August. But there are still a few things that really are "seasonal." One of those things is the key lime.

So when I happened to see key limes at the store a few weeks ago, I grabbed a few pounds and threw them in my shopping cart. I'd figure out what to do with them later. When I got home, I looked up "key lime" in The Book's index and I found this recipe for the classic Key Lime Pie, and I decided to make it because it looked easy, and it's always been a favorite of mine. (The other key lime recipe in The Book is for a Key Lime Cheesecake with Mango Ribbons. It looks delicious, but much more labor-intensive. I froze my leftover key lime juice, and I'll make the cheesecake just as soon as I get the chance.)

The first step in making this pie is to make the crust. It's just graham cracker crumbs, sugar and melted butter, stirred together, pressed into a buttered pie plate and baked for a little while. To make the crumbs, I took some graham crackers, put them in a large zip top bag and crushed them with a rolling pin. You could also do it in the food processor, but my way has no clean-up.

The filling is a can of sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks and a healthy amount of key lime juice. Just whisk it all together, bake for a while, and then chill for at least eight hours. The Book says that you can use bottled key lime juice, but I'm a purist ... I wouldn't have made this recipe unless I had real, fresh key limes. Juicing these limes is a bit of a project. They're tiny, so it takes a lot of them to get a little bit of juice. It took almost a whole pound of limes to get the six tablespoons of juice I needed for the pie. To finish off the pie, I whipped up some unsweetened heavy cream and spread it over the top of the pie.

This pie was excellent. It was fresh, sweet and nicely tart. The cream topping was just the right thing. The crust was crisp and buttery. And it was a good thing that it was so delicious, because I ate the whole thing by myself ... over the course of a week, but just the same, I suppose that's a lot of pie for one person to eat. It's one of the hazards of cooking on impulse. I made this pie because I happened to find an unusual ingredient at the store, but I didn't have any guests coming over for dinner, and I didn't have any place to bring my pie, so I ate it all myself.

Date Cooked: March 1, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

121. Artichokes with Garlic Pimento Vinaigrette (p. 519)

A little while ago, when I blogged about Asparagus with Tarragon Sherry Vinaigrette I said that it was exactly the kind of dish that I'd make if I ever had a fancy dinner party where one would serve a "first course." This recipe* is another contender. Just like the asparagus dish, this artichoke dish is elegant, delicious and can be made in advance.

As elegant as this dish looks on the plate, there's no way to look sophisticated and highfalutin while you're eating it, and when you're done, your plate looks like you've just finished ripping an armadillo apart. But, every now and then it's great to have a little fun with your food and not take yourself so seriously. Come to think of it, a lot of "fancy" foods are pretty messy to eat and require a little bit of disassembly: lobster, oysters, escargots, what else?

To make this dish, I cut the stem and top half-inch off the artichoke. I clipped the pointy tips off the outer leaves with some kitchen shears. I scooped out the choke with a spoon, and rubbed lemon juice on all of the cut edges. Then I boiled the artichokes in some salted water for a little while. When they were done, I transferred them to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Finally, I drained them upside-down on a baking sheet lined with a clean kitchen towel.

While the artichokes drained, I made the vinaigrette. First, with the side of a heavy chef's knife, I mashed some garlic and Kosher salt together into a paste. I whisked this together with some white wine vinegar, olive oil, chopped bottled pimentos and chopped parsley.

To serve, I put an artichoke on a plate and drizzled the vinaigrette over and around the artichoke. That's it. And the taste? I really like artichokes ... always have. They have a very unique flavor that I really can't describe. Kind of lemony, kind of sweet, and maybe a little peppery. The vinaigrette was perfectly suited to this dish. It was substantial, and that pimento gave it a nice sweet flavor. This somewhat heavy vinaigrette wouldn't work on a light salad, but it could also be used on green beans or raw spinach.

The Book intends for this recipe to be made using those big, giant globe artichokes, one per person. I used baby artichokes to make this recipe, and we ate them two at a time. They worked out just fine, but if I had it to do over again, I'd use the big ones. The babies don't have the big nasty choke and the prickly points that the big ones do, but there isn't as much meat on the leaves, and the tiny baby artichoke hearts left me wanting more.

Date Cooked: March 1. 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

*The recipe on epicurious.com has the cook, and not the diner, do all of the heavy lifting in terms of disassembling the artichoke.

Monday, March 16, 2009

120. Lentils and Curried Rice with Fried Onions (p. 277)

These days, I'm still trolling through The Book looking for dishes that I can cook on the weekend that my wife and I can eat for dinner throughout the week. (With a ten-week old baby, we still haven't found the time get back into the routine of weeknight cooking.)

The Book's headnotes for this recipe* includes a little Bible story. Apparently, in the Old Testament, Esau gave up his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of lentil soup. This dish was good, and all, but I don't think that I'd give up an inheritance for it ... that is, if I had a rich uncle, which I don't think that I do. While the lentil may have strong Hebrew roots, this particular dish is based on an Indian classic called khichri.

First, I sliced up a pound of onions really thin. That's a lot of onions, a lot of slicing, and yes, a lot of tears. I used to think that they were kind of silly, but less than half-way through my slicing, I really wished I had a pair of these onion goggles. The sliced onions went into a cast-iron pan with about two cups of hot oil. I fried the onions in two batches. The first was a little overdone; the second a little underdone. I tossed them all together, seasoned them with some salt and pepper, and believe it or not, the result was fine. They were crispy, and had a niced caramelized flavor. I set them aside until the rest of the dish was finished.

Next, I cooked the lentils by putting them in cold water, bringing them to a boil and then simmering for a little while. Then I drained and rinsed them, and set them aside.

Then I toasted some dry rice in a little oil with some curry power and cayenne pepper. Once it was nice and fragrant, I added some water, brought it to a boil and cooked it until the rice was done.

To finish the dish, I fluffed the cooked rice and stirred in the lentils and plenty of chopped parsley. I topped it off with some of the fried onions and some leftover cooked chicken. (The Book says that this dish is good with lamb, too.)

This was a pretty good dish. The curry flavor was excellent, and the rice and lentils were perfectly cooked. The fried onions were a very nice touch. But this was the first time I've ever deep fried anything, and I've got one question that I haven't been able to find an answer to. What do I do with the used cooking oil? I strained it and put it in a container in my refirgerator. It seems like an awful lot of oil to just pour down the drain (will it clog the pipes?), but I don't know if I can re-use it either. If you've got any insights, put 'em in the comments.

Date Cooked: March 1, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: B

*This recipe is not on epicurious.com.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

118. Tapenade (p. 890) & 119. Green Olive and Almond Tapenade (p. 891)

I really enjoyed making these two recipes. They are delicious and easy to make. But what really made them special was that I made them with my new friend, Melissa.

As I wrote about a few days ago, Melissa was my guest at a lunch presentation about cook-through blogs for my co-workers. It was great to meet Melissa and especially fun to cook with her.

I picked these two recipes for the lunch presentation because they are both quick and require no cooking, just a whiz in the food processor.

The first recipe* was for a pretty traditional black olive tapenade. It only has four ingredients: Klamata olives, garlic, capers and olive oil. The second recipe, which The Book says was a reader recipe from the magazine, changes up the traditional tapenade recipe by substituting green olives for the black ones and adding parsley, lemon juice and almonds. Almonds? Yes, this is yet another recipe in The Book with almonds. What's the deal with all of the almonds? Don't get me wrong, the almonds work in this recipe, it's just that I'm surprised to see all of the unexpected places that almonds keep popping up in The Book.

Because I was doing a cooking demonstration (releasing my inner Julia Child), I got all of my ingredients measured and packed up the night before. The first thing I did was to pit the olives. I started by using my cherry/olive pitter, but after a while, I switched to using the side of a heavy chef's knife. Just smoosh the olive and pick out the pit. Couldn't be easier. I peeled the garlic cloves and measured the capers, parsley, almonds and lemon juice. I packed everything up in individual containers and I was ready to roll.

The preparation for both of these tapenades is the same. Throw all of the ingredients in the food processor and whiz it to a paste. Then add olive oil with the motor running until the consistency is just right. Or at least that's what I'll do the next time I make this. We made the black olive tapenade first, and I just dumped all of the olive oil in at once. The result was the it was too liquidy. Melissa was smarter than me, and added the oil to the green olive tapenade gradually, and the consistency was just right.

Both of these tapenades were very good. Salty and tangy with a nice velvety texture. Both were rich and flavorful. We served the tapenades on crackers and they were a nice canape, but either of these would go well with some grilled chicken or fish. One of my co-workers suggsted tossing a little of the tapenade with some pasta. Sounds good to me.

Date Cooked: February 27, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Very easy
Rating: A-

*The recipe for the traditional tapenade is not on epicurious.com.

117. Tarragon-Shallot Egg Salad Sandwiches (p. 185)

I had a bunch of fresh tarragon leftover from the Asparagus with Tarragon Sherry Vinaigrette that I made a little while back. It's become my mission to waste as little food as possible these days (times are tough, and anyway, wasting food is so ... well, wasteful). So I looked through The Book to find other dishes that used tarragon, and I came across this recipe for egg salad sandwiches.

I've always loved egg salad. I know a lot of people get turned off by the smell of hard-boiled eggs or the texture of egg salad. But for me, I really like it's rich creaminess. This recipe takes the run-of-the-mill chopped-eggs-and-mayo salad to the next level with the addition of some finely chopped shallot and tarragon and a shot of red wine vinegar. The Book says to add the tarragon "to taste." Well, I love tarragon, so I used a liberal handful of the stuff. The flavor was great. The shallots gave the salad a little bit of texture and just the right amount of mellow "oniony-ness." The vinegar lightenend it up and gave it a little bit of a zip that mayo alone can't provide. The Book calls for topping the sandwich off with fresh tender pea shoots, but seriously, folks, where am I going to get fresh pea shoots in February? Thankfully, The Book says that shredded lettuce is an acceptable alternative.

I'm really glad that I made this recipe since it's been so long since I've had an egg salad sandwich that I'd forgotten how much I like them. I don't know if I'd make this exact recipe again (I don't know if it's worth shelling out four bucks to buy a bundle of fresh tarragon just to make a sandwich for a weekday lunch) but I'll certainly make something similar again soon.

Date Cooked: February 22, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B+

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

116. Old-Fashioned Gingerbread (p. 703)

When I think of gingerbread, I usually think about little houses and the little men who live in them. This recipe ain't that kind of gingerbread. It's so much better. The cookies and houses are usually dry and flavorless. They're really all about the frosting and gumdrop buttons. This cake is moist, spicy and delicious.

This is a pretty easy recipe that you could throw together in a few minutes before you cook dinner, and you could have a fresh, tasty dessert ready to enjoy in no time. You probably already have everything you need in your cupboards and fridge right now. Go check, I'll wait.

Ok, now that you're back, all you need to do is sift together the dry ingredients. Then in a separate bowl, beat together some butter and brown sugar. Add some eggs and molasses, and then the dry ingredients, bit by bit, and finally some hot water. Pour the batter into a pan and bake. Really, could it be any easier?

This is a perfect casual dessert. It's best served warm out of the oven (a little sweetened whipped cream doesn't hurt) It's great with a cup of coffee the next day at about 10 o'clock in the morning (a little something that I refer to as "second breakfast").

As I said, this cake is moist and delicious. And spicy ... the hefty doses of ginger, cinnamon and cloves give this cake a nice punch, and the molasses give it a nice rich, smoky flavor. It's a classic that I'll make again and again.

Date Cooked: February 21, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Pretty easy
Rating: A

Monday, March 9, 2009

115. Roasted French Fries (p. 568)

I made this recipe to go along with the Chicken Club Sandwiches I made a few weeks back.

I was skeptical about these fries, just like I was skeptical about the Baked Potato Chips. But just like with the chips, The Book proved me wrong: You can get great taste and crispiness from your oven. It's not exactly the same as a fry-o-later, but it's pretty darn close.

Not only were these fries good, they were easy to make, too. The Book calls for russett potatoes, but I was in the mood for antioxidants (or something like that), so I opted to use sweet potatoes. They came out great, but I will try this recipe again with "regular" potatoes, too. I sliced the potatoes and then cut them into sticks. I tossed them with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and then I roasted them in a very hot oven for a little while, turning them once.

The taste? Great! Pretty crispy on the outside (some of the larger ones were a little bit wiggly, but I think that had to do with the fact that they were sweet potatoes) and nice and soft on the inside.

Date Cooked: February 21, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

Sunday, March 8, 2009

114. Chicken Club Sandwiches (p. 188)

Our friends, Travis and Jodi, came over for lunch one Saturday a few weeks ago to visit our new son, Jack. Here's a picture of them with the little guy. Check out the cool hat that Jodi knit (knitted?) for Jack!

I decided to make this recipe* for a nice, light lunch. Because it came from The Book, I knew it would be good, but I still had some reservations. The club sandwich is a ubiquitous presence on just about every restaurant lunch menu. I've had a lot of really bad ones over the years, and so I wondered how The Book was going to improve upon it. Well, for starters, as The Book's notes point out, most of the club sandwiches you've eaten are slapped together with elements (toast, turkey, bacon) that were prepared hours in advance. Here, everything is made fresh, and then there's the "Gourmet touch" that elevates this pedestrian sandwich to something just a little bit special.

The first thing that I did was to poach the chicken breasts. This is an excellent, easy preparation for poached chicken breasts that isn't just limited to this sandwich. I'll use this method whenever I want some cold cooked chicken for salads, sandwiches, or anything else that I would have bought ShortCuts for in the past. (Fresh, homemade food: 1. Processed food: 0.) I put the chicken breasts in a skillet and just covered them with water. I brought the water to a simmer and simmered it for a few minutes, turning the chicken over once. Then, I took it off the heat, covered it and let it stand in the hot water for a little while longer. The result? Tender, moist and fully-cooked(!) chicken.

While the chicken was doing its thing, I cooked some bacon until it was nice and crispy. Then I made the spread, which is what really makes this sandwich sing. It's pretty simple: just regular mayonnaise whisked together with some sour cream, parsley, lemon juice and zest, and some salt and pepper. The lemon juice and sour cream jump start the mayonnaise and give it a real zing.

Finally, I was ready to assemble the sandwiches. I started by spreading the mayo on slices of toasted white sandwich bread. Then I layered on some Boston lettuce, tomato slices, bacon, and avacado slices. Another slice of toast and some more mayo and some of the poached chicken (which I had sliced diagonally). I topped the whole thing of with a final slice of toast spread with a bit more mayo.

I sliced the sandwiches in half diagonally. If I had been smart enough to remember to buy some of those fancy frilly toothpicks, I could have cut the sandwiches into the traditional quarters. But, this is one big sandwich, and without the picks, there was no way quarters would have stayed together.

This was a delicious sandwich. The avacado and the great mayo spread really made all the difference. It wasn't hard to do, but it was more work than you'd want to go through for a quick lunch. But if you're looking for somthing more than "just a sandwich," give this a try.

Date Cooked: February 21, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

*This recipe is not on epicurious.com.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

113. Asparagus with Tarragon Sherry Vinaigrette (p. 520)

I've never had the kind of fancy dinner party where the host serves a "first course." But I will, and when I do, I'm going to serve this recipe, or something like it.

This dish is elegant, delicious, and best of all, it's pretty easy to make and can be done ahead of time. Basically, it's poached asparagus, served cold with a light vinaigrette and garnished with some grated hard-boiled egg.

The notes in The Book say that recipes like this were a mainstay on the menus of the grand hotels in a bygone era. A dish like this would have been called by the poetic name "Asparagus Mimosa" because the fluffy grated hard-boil eggs resemble mimosa blossoms.

Like I said, the preparation couldn't be easier, and so the taste return on the minimal time investment is pretty good. All you do is poach the asparagus for a few minutes in some boiling water and then plunge it into some icy water to stop the cooking. I cooked mine for just a minute longer than I should have, so even though it was a bit softer than I wanted it, it was still vibrantly green and flavorful.

While the asparagus cooled, I whisked together the vinaigrette of minced shallots, olive oil, sherry vinegar and a healthy helping of chopped fresh tarragon. I tossed the asparagus with a little bit of the dressing just to coat it, and then I served it by putting some of the asparagus on a plate, drizzling on a bit more of the dressing and topping it off with some grated hard-boiled egg. (I used The Book's fool-proof method for hard boiling an egg to produce a perfetly-set egg with a vibrantly yellow yolk and not a trace of green. Check it out.)

This was a really delicious dish. The interplay of the crunchy asparagus (I imagined what the asparagus would have tasted like if I hadn't overcooked it) with the fluffy cloud of grated egg was nice. The flavor of the vinaigrette was excellent, and could easily be put to use in a variety of other chicken or egg dishes. Tarragon (also called "dragon herb," who knew?) is one of the most singular and nearly indescribable flavors. It's also one of my favorites.

Believe it or not, this dish even stood up reasonably well to a few days of refrigeration (each of the elements stored in its own container).

Date Cooked: February 15, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

Sunday, March 1, 2009

112. Raspberry Sauce (p. 876)

This could be one of the easiest recipes in The Book. All you do is blend together some raspberries, sugar and lemon juice until it's a smooth puree. Strain it through a fine mesh sieve, and discard the solids. That's it.

The main recipe calls for frozen raspberries in syrup, but the Cook's Notes say that you can use fresh, you just need to add a bit more sugar. I found some great-looking fresh raspberries at the store, so I chose to make it that way.

This was a delicious sauce. It was sweet and tart and very fresh-tasting. And versatile, too. I made it to go with the Chocolate Souffle that I made for Valentine's Day. Then I also served it with the Key Lime Pie that I'll blog about soon. It was the perfect compliment for both. Tomorrow morning, I'm even going to try it on oatmeal. I'll let you know how that tastes.

Date Cooked: February 14, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Very Easy
Rating: B