Tuesday, June 30, 2009

167. Old-Fashioned Potato Salad (p. 148)

My sister-in-law makes the best potato salad in the world. I'm serious. It's death-row-last-meal good. The potatoes are tender but not mushy. The vegetables (carrots, celery, green peppers, and onion) are crisp and sweet. The layer of sliced hard-boiled eggs on top is sunny and bright. And, most important, the mayonnaise ratio is exactly right. No family cookout is complete without her perfect potato salad.

I had great expectations for this recipe. Maybe I set my hopes too high, because it just didn't measure up to my sister-in-law's potato salad.

First, I peeled a couple of pounds of Yukon gold potatoes and cut them into one-inch pieces. I boiled them for a while until they were tender but not too soft. I'll admit that I cut a corner here. The Book says to cook the potatoes "in their jackets," and peel and cut them after they've cooled a bit. I usually try to follow The Book's instructions exactly, even if I think that they're fussy or a waste of time. But the day I made this recipe, I was a bit overwhelmed. I attempted to make six recipes from The Book for the same meal, and as lunchtime came and went with food still not on the table, I had to compromise. The Book says that its cooking method results in a better texture. But in my opinion, the texture of the potatoes was not the problem with this salad.

After the potatoes were cooked, I tossed them with some cider vinegar and salt. Next I added some chopped celery, white onion and a cup of mayonnaise. I topped it off with some sliced hard boiled eggs.

This potato salad could have been good. The potatoes, even though I didn't cook them the way The Book wanted me to, were good. The eggs gave it a nice richness. The celery gave it a nice crunch. The white onions (which are a lot milder than yellow or red onions) gave it a nice sweetness and bite. But, there was way too much mayonnaise in this salad. It was swimming in the stuff. The next time I make this salad, I'm going to use about half as much mayonnaise, and I'm going to add more vegetables, like carrots and green peppers.

Date Cooked: June 13, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B-

Monday, June 29, 2009

166. Foolproof Grilled Chicken (p. 363)

I have a little bit of a problem with The Book's use of "foolproof" in the titles of several of its recipes. It's the same problem that I have with the "... For Dummies" and "Idiot's Guide ..." Books. You see, by calling this recipe Foolproof Grilled Chicken, The Book is telling me, "this recipe is so easy, not even a fool like you could botch it." I don't appreciate being called names.

But, after tasting this chicken, I got over myself. It's good enough to endure a little bit of name-calling.

The key to this recipe is brining the chicken. I know, I know, brining sounds like a pain in the neck--and it is--but, in this case, it made some pretty darn good chicken. First, I boiled a whole lot of salt and some sugar in a large pot of water for fifteen minutes. Then I cooled it compltely. Maybe some food scientist (are you out there Harold McGee?) could explain why it was so important to boil salt and sugar for fifteen minutes only to cool it completely. I figured I'd just trust The Book on this one. I put six pounds of chicken parts (I cut up a whole chicken rather than buying pre-cut parts) into the brine, covered it, and put it into the refrigerator for six hours.

Remember how I was saying that brining is a pain in the neck? Yeah, well, The Book says that you can brine the chicken a day in advance, but you still have to remove the chicken from the brine after six hour. I suppose leaving the chicken to soak in a saltwater bath for longer than that would be a bad thing. Well, I finally got the chicken into the brine at 10 o'clock on a Friday night. So, all you need to do is count to six to realized that, when my wife got up at 4 o'clock on Saturday morning to feed Jack, I had to get up, too, to take the chicken out of the brine. The things I do for The Project!

The Book gives instructions for cooking the chicken on either a charcoal grill or a gas grill. I've been wanting a nice Weber charcoal grill for a while, but for the time being, I've been using a gas grill (also a Weber, and we're pretty happy with it). I cranked the heat up all the way to pre-heat the grill for about ten minutes. I seared the meat for a little while, and then turned the heat down just a bit to cook the rest of the way.

There's another thing, besides the brining, that makes this recipe different from other grilled chicken recipes. The Book says to coat the cooked chicken in a Asian-inspired vinaigrette made with cilantro, mint, garlic, red pepper flakes, lime juice and fish sauce. I didn't make the vinaigrette and I didn't coat the cooked chicken with it. To be honest, I just ran out of time and decided to skip it. There may be some sticklers out there who'll say that I don't get to check this recipe off the list because I didn't make the vinaigrette. Well, this is my Project, and I get to say what counts as a recipe. I got out of bed at 4 o'clock in the morning to take the chicken out of the brine, so gosh darn it, I'm counting this one. (But, grilled chicken coated with Asian vinaigrette sounds pretty good, and I'm sure that I'll come back to this recipe some summer day.)

The chicken was excellent. The brining really did make a difference and was worth the extra effort (although I could have timed it better.) The chicken was nice and crispy and grill-makred on the outside, and tender and flavorful on the inside. Even the wings, which are usually the last parts to go after every grabs the drumsticks and breasts, were really good. Since I had no vinaigrette, I served the grilled chicken with the Manchamantal Sauce I made to go with the pork kebabs. Like I said, the Manchamantal Sauce was like a tropical barbecue sauce, so it worked just as well with the chicken as it did with the pork.

Date Cooked: June 13, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

Saturday, June 27, 2009

165. Grilled Pork Kebabs with Manchamantel Sauce (p. 483)

Becky, my good friend from college, and her boyfriend, Brian, came over for lunch a couple of weekends ago to visit with my son, Jack. I haven't seen Becky in months, and I wanted to make something special for her and Brian. That, and I was really excited to have an opportunity to cook for meat-eaters. I've been wanting to make this recipe ever since Teena made it last month. It was not a disappointment.

This recipe was a fair amount of work spanning over two days because it required marinating the pork and making the sauce.

First, the marinade. I started by toasting some dried chilies in a cast iron skillet for about a minute. The Book calls for dried ancho chilies, but I used the dried red chilies that I had leftover from the Shrimp in Adobo Sauce I made a while ago. (That recipe called for anchos, too, but the dried red chilies worked out fine in that dish, so I figured they'd be OK in this dish, too.) It's really amazing how just a few seconds in a hot skillet makes the dry, brittle chilies plump and pliable. I slit the chilies up the middle, removed the seeds and ribs, and covered them in boiling water to soften them up some more. (I prepared enough of the dried chilies for the marinade and for the sauce, which also calls for them.)

I combined the chilies, which I had coarsely chopped, with some water, chopped onion, garlic, thyme, oregano, cumin, salt, crushed peppercorns, olive oil and lemon juice in the blender. I ran out of ground cumin when I made my Green Bean Salad with Pumpkin Seed Dressing, but I was relieved to find some whole cumin seeds kicking around in my spice rack. Since I needed to crush the peppercorns anyway, I pulled out my mortar and pestle and ground up the cumin seeds old-school. Pre-ground spices are a real convenience, but there's nothing like fresh-ground for intense flavor and aroma. I don't know that I'd do it all the time, but there really is a difference.

I poured the marinade in a zip top bag and added the pork kebabs. The Book calls for 2 1/4 pounds of pork tenderloin, cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes. After wandering around somewhat aimlessly in front of the pork case at McKinnon's butcher shop, I asked for some help. The butcher I talked with told me that I wanted to use thick-cut, boneless pork chops and cut them into pieces. Not sure if he sold me a bill of goods, but the pork chops worked out well, and I was satisfied. The Book says that the pork needs to marinate for at least six hours and up to 24. I put the pork in the marinade the day before and left it in the refrigerator overnight.

Next, I moved on to the manchamantal sauce. According to The Book, manchamantel is Spanish for "tablecloth stainer." With its deep rust color, I'm sure that the name is well deserved. We ate outside, however, and the tablecloths were safely tucked away in the linen closet.

The Book suggests making the sauce in advance because it takes a little bit of time. Considering that most of the recipes take me longer than the start-to-finish times listed in The Book, I wasn't going to ignore a suggestion like that, and I made it the night before. First, I cooked some garlic and chopped onion in oil until the onions were golden. I added some sugar and vinegar and cooked it a little while longer. Next I put the onion mixture into the blender with the rest of the chilies, some water, some chopped fresh pineapple (yeah, I cut up a whole fresh pineapple ... it's a little bit of work, but worth it), a banana, and some cinnamon, cloves and a bit more sugar. I blended it up until it was smooth (crossing my fingers the whole time in hopes that the noisy blender wouldn't wake my sleeping son). I put the sauce in the refrigerator.

The next day, I drained the pork and discarded the marinade. I threaded the pork kebabs on bamboo skewers, alternating with large pineapple chunks and wedges of red onion. I put the kebabs on the grill and cooked them until the pork was done.

This wasn't the quickest recipe, but it wasn't hard and it was pretty tasty. I think that I overcooked the pork just a bit ... it was a little tough. But, just the same, it was good. The grilled pineapple was excellent. The red onions, though, didn't cook as quickly as the pork and pineapple, so they were a little underdone. The machamantal sauce was great. I was a little apprehensive about combining chilies, onions, pineapple and banana, but it really works. The sauce was sweet and sour and a little spicy and smoky. The flavors all blended well, but I was still able to sense a hint here and there of the pineapple and banana flavor. It was like a tropical barbecue sauce. It was a perfect match for the pork, but it also worked well with the grilled chicken that I'll post about next.

Date Cooked: June 13, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

Thursday, June 25, 2009

164. Green Bean Salad with Pumpkin Seed Dressing (p. 143)

When my sister was little, she hated green beans. She'd do anything she could to avoid eating them. I don't know if she's changed her view on green beans now that she's an adult. If not, this recipe might just bring her around.

What makes this salad so special is the dressing. The Book calls it "Mexican Pesto." The key ingredient in the dressing is green pumpkin seeds. First, I toasted the seeds in a dry skillet for a few minutes. I set aside a handful of the seeds for a garnish, and whizzed up the rest with some extra-virgin olive oil, water, fresh lemon juice, garlic, ground cumin, and fresh cilantro. The result is a surprisingly smooth, creamy and delicious dressing.

Next, I cooked some fresh green beans in some salted, boiling water for a few minutes until just tender (don't let them get mushy!). The Book says to drain the beans and plunge them into ice water to stop the cooking. I drained them and ran them under cold water instead and I think that it worked just as well. I let the beans drain completely and I dabbed them with some paper towels to get rid of any extra moisture.

I tossed the beans with some of the dressing, spread them out in a dish, arranged some tomato wedges on top, and drizzled on the remaining dressing and sprinkled some chopped cilantro and the reserved pumpkin seeds on top.

I really liked this salad. First, it was a really attractive dish. The bright green and red colors are very appealing. Next, the flavor was excellent. The beans were crisp and fresh tasting. The dressing was creamy and delicious. The combination of the garlic, lemon and cumin is really nice, and the pumpkin seeds are a very mild component ... very similar to the pine nuts that, according to The Book, are an acceptable substitute.

Date Cooked: June 13, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

163. Lemon Pound Cake (p. 703)

According to Merriam-Webster Online, "nonstick" means:

1: allowing easy removal of cooked food particles (a nonstick coating in a frying pan) 2: having a nonstick surface (a nonstick frying pan).

My nonstick bundt pan, however, gives the word a whole new meaning. If you've been following The Project, you know that I've had trouble with my nonstick bundt pan before. This time was no different. But even so, this recipe* makes one fine cake.

Just about every recipe I've seen for pound cake is accompnied by a quaint story about how, back in the days of yore, pound cake was made with a pound of flour, a pound of butter, a pound of eggs and a pound of sugar. But, then the recipe will proceed to give you a list of ingredients that doesn't resemble the traditional recipe at all. What gives? Besides the fact that you're left with a four pound cake, it must be a pretty rotten cake if all of the modern recipe writers have seen fit to tweak it.

The Book is no different in this respect. Instead of a pound, a pound, a pound, a pound, this recipe calls for a couple of cups of cake flour and sugar, a half pound of butter, a half-dozen eggs. There's also a little bit of salt, baking powder and milk. And because this is a lemon pound cake, there's a healthy dose of lemon zest and juice.

The Book says to spoon the batter into a kugelhopf pan. Well, I don't have a kugelhopf pan. So, I used my nonstick bundt pan. They're both German. Close enough, right? Maybe, but my nonstick bundt pan is out to get me. I even treated it like a non-nonstick pan this time. I buttered and floured the pan before putting the batter in. It still stuck. Oh well. But once I put the glaze on, it wasn't as ugly. The glaze is really easy, it's just some confectioner's sugar and a little bit of lemon juice whisked together.

Despite it's cosmetic problems, this was a really good cake. It was dense and moist. Substantial and sweet with a real zing of lemon flavor. Paired with some sliced strawberries, this is a bright and sunny summer dessert.

Date Cooked: June 6, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

* This recipe isn't on epicurous.com.

Monday, June 22, 2009

162. Moroccan-Style Roast Cornish Hens with Vegetables (p. 392)

I don't know about you, but I usually associate Cornish hens with fussy, fancy, dainty dinners. Well, this Moroccan-inspired recipe ain't that. This is a bold, fragrant, hearty and flavorful meal that you'll love. I know that I did.

First, I made the marinade. I ground some caraway seeds in my electric spice grinder (The Book says you can crush them with a rolling pin or a heavy knife, too.) Then I mashed the caraway seeds into a paste with some minced garlic. I whisked the garlic-caraway paste together with some honey, lemon juice, olive oil, lots of paprika and even more cumin, some ginger, cinnamon, cayenne and black pepper.

I divided the marinade and tossed half of it with some zucchini, turnips, red pepper, butternut squash and onions, all cut up into chunks. I spread the veggies out into a roasting pan and set it aside for a while.

Then I rinsed and patted dry three 1 1/2 pound Cornish hens. (The Book calls for four hens to serve eight. I decided to make six servings for dinner two nights in a row and some leftovers for lunch.) Using some kitchen shears, and with much crunching of bones, I cut the backbones out of the hens and then cut the hens in half. After plunging live lobsters into boiling water, cutting small birds in half with scissors was nothing. (The Project is not for the faint of heart.) I coated the hen halves with the rest of the marinade and arranged them on top of the vegetables.

The Book says to cover the pan tightly with foil and roast for an hour. It was a really nice day out, so as soon as the birds went into the oven, my wife and I took my son out for a walk around the neighborhood. When we came back about a half hour later, I was pleased to see that the house hadn't burned down, but I was a little bit confused by the large can of tomatoes and the carton of chicken broth on the counter. Now, what did I buy those for? D'oh, I was supposed to stir them in with the vegetables before the hens went on top. So, the roasting pan came out of the oven, the hens went onto a baking sheet, and the tomatoes and broth were mixed into the vegetables. Better a half-hour late than never. Hens back into the roasting pan, roasting pan back in the oven. After an hour of covered roasting, I took the foil off and put the pan back into the oven for about another half hour.

This is a great dish. It looks great, it smells great and, even in spite of my mistake, it tastes amazing. First, the aroma. There is a lot of spice in this dish. The caraway, cumin, cinnamon and ginger fills the house with such a warm, inviting scent that you just know you're about to eat something delicious. And then there's the look of this dish. It's just gorgeous. The hens' skin is crispy and brown and the vegetables are a great blend of vibrant reds, oranges and greens. Finally, there's the taste. Amazing. The hens were moist and tasty, and the vegetables were tender and flavorful. The sauce could have been a bit thicker, but that was probably my fault because of the delayed addition of the tomatoes and broth.

The Book says to serve this over couscous. That would have been excellent, but rice (gluten free) worked just as well as "a vehicle for the flavorful broth." This would be a perfect dish for company. It'll make your guests rave, but it's pretty easy to make and most of the work can be done ahead of time. (The leftovers were tasty, too.) This is one of my favorites so far.

Date Cooked: June 6, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A

Friday, June 19, 2009

161. Yellow Split Pea Soup (p. 111)

When I sat down to Easter dinner a few months ago, I was more than a little distracted. Sure there was a lot of great food and lively conversation in the dining room. But, my mind was back in the kitchen, where a great big, meaty ham bone rested on a cutting board, just begging to be turned into pea soup. I knew that I'd have to arm-wrestle my sister-in-law over the ham bone. Somehow, I persuaded her to let me take it in exchange for some pea soup.

With the zip-locked ham bone in hand, I left my sister-in-law's house on Easter Sunday a happy man. I put the ham bone in the fridge, and made this recipe the following weekend. Now, even though it's been a couple of months since I made this soup, I'm just writing about it now because I hadn't actually eaten any of it until about a week ago.

First, I rinsed some yellow split peas. Next, I combined the rinsed peas, some water, chopped onion, and the ham bone in a big pot and brought it to a boil. I skimmed off the yucky stuff, and reduced the heat and simmered it for about an hour.

Meanwhile, I sauteed some more chopped onion and some chopped leek in some butter. I added these sauteed vegetables to the soup with some fresh chopped chives, some dried savory, and salt and pepper. After another hour of cooking, I removed the ham bone, picked off whatever meat hadn't fallen off and added it to the soup.

Once the soup cooled, I divided it into four large containers. I gave one to each of my two sisters-in-law, and I put the other two in the freezer. Other than a spoonful to taste, I didn't eat any of the soup until I pulled one of the containers out of the freezer for lunch last week.

This soup was excellent. Thick, hearty, silky, salty and meaty. I'm sure that I'm going to fight for the ham bone next Easter, too, so that I can make this soup again.

Date Cooked: April 19, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A

Thursday, June 18, 2009

160. Honeydew (and Canteloupe) in Rosemary Syrup (p. 806)

When I think about rosemary, I usually think of chicken. And Simon and Garfunkle. But mostly chicken. Before I made this recipe, I would never have thought of pairing melon with rosemary and peppercorns.

This is probably one of the simplest of The Book's fruit dessert recipes. First, I made the rosemary syrup. I mixed some white wine, water, sugar, orange zest, fresh rosemary leaves and black peppercorns in a small saucepan. I brought it to a boil and cooked it for a few minutes. I strained it into a bowl (discarding the solids) and put it in the refrigerator to chill.

Meanwhile, using a melon baller, I cut melon balls from a honeydew and a cantaloupe. It's hard to make perfect-looking melon balls without wasting a lot of melon. So, a lot of the melon balls were somewhat misshapen. Oh, well.

When the syrup was chilled, I stirred some freshly-squeezed orange juice into it and combined the syrup with the melon.

I served the melon balls in small bowls garnished with little sprigs of rosemary. This dessert was a real surprise. I didn't quite know what to expect from mixing sweet melon with seasonings usually associated with savory foods (rosemary and black pepper). The fragrance of the rosemary was wonderful. The flavor was subtle and pleasant. The hint of rosemary and the barely noticeable bite of pepper nicely highlighted the melon. The syrup was light and not too sweet.

A nice, simple dessert for a sophisticated but healthy meal.

Date Cooked: May 30, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

159. Grilled Lobster with Orange Chipotle Vinaigrette (p. 338)

I was flipping through the grocery store sale flyers a couple of weeks ago, when I saw that Market Basket was having a sale on lobstah! (I'm from Boston, in case you didn't know.)

I don't usually do my shopping at Market Basket, but I made an exception for cheap lobster. Whenever I go into Market Basket, I feel like I've entered a time warp. Sure, they sell Dora the Explorer Fruit Snax, and all of the other "current" food items, just like the Stop and Shop down the street. But, there's somthing different about Market Basket. Maybe it's because the bag boys still wear aprons over a white shirt and tie. Maybe it's because they still use sawdust to sop up spills on the floor. Maybe it's because their stores are still decked out in '60s decor. Or maybe it's just because it's where my mom did the grocery shopping when I was a kid. Anyway, bag in hand (with two 1 1/2 pound lobsters wriggling away inside), I stepped back into the twenty-first century to make to make this recipe.
I've eaten lobster hundreds of times. (I even ordered it in a restaurant when I was five years old!) But, I've never eaten it grilled, and I've never actually cooked it myself before. So, this was a new experience for me.

First, I par-cooked the lobsters. Now, I know that this is a touchy subject for some people. In fact, I recently read The Face on Your Plate, so I fully understand the need for the humane treatment of animals. But, I'm not ready to swear off meat, and I see little difference between quickly and efficiently dispatching a lobster in boiling water yourself and buying a steak made from a cow that met its maker at someone else's hands. So, I plunged the lobsters one at a time into the pot, and in a few minutes, they turned bright red. I only partially cooked them in the boiling water. They would finish on the grill.

Next, I made the Orange Chipotle Vinaigrette. I blended together some orange zest and juice, vinegar, chopped canned chipotle peppers in adobo, with some salt and sugar. With the motor running, I slowly poured some olive oil into the blender's top opening. Once it was nice and creamy and emulsified, I whisked in some chopped basil and divided the vinaigrette into two bowls (one for basting the lobster as it grilled, the other for drizzling on the final product).

While the grill preheated, I broke the claws and tails off the lobsters. Using kitchen shears, I cut the tails (still in their shells) in half lengthwise, and removed any nasty bits. First I put the claws on the grill, cooking them for a few minutes until liquid bubbled out of the ends. Meanwhile, I brushed some of the vinaigrette onto the tail meat and put the tails on the grill, shell side up. After a few minutes, I flipped them over, admired the nice grillmarks, and brushed some more vinaigrette onto the meat.

When the lobster was done, I served it with a green salad and more of the vinaigrette (to dress the meat and the salad). The lobster claws were awful! I don't know if it was the grilling, or if it was the lobsters themselves. The meat was dry, spongy, and pretty much inedible. The shells were incredibly hard, too, so I wonder if these were just tired lobsters who were due for a molting. The lobster tails, on the other hand, were excellent. The meat was tender, sweet and delicious. The grilling and the vinaigrette (with it's nice blend of the smoky heat of the chipotles, the citrus zing of the orange, and the slight licorice flavor of the basil) gave the lobster an excellent lift over the usual ... steamed with drawn butter.

The vinaigrette, however, was too heavy and overwhelming for the salad. (I can't blame this on Gourmet, since it was my idea to pair the lobster with a salad and to re-purpose the vinaigrette.)

The lobster tails were amazing, but that's really about all I liked about this dish. And even on sale, it was a lot of money to spend for a grilled lobster tail.

Date Cooked: May 30, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: B+

Monday, June 15, 2009

It's my blogaversary!

There are a lot of ways to measure a year. 12 months. 52 weeks. 365 days. About 8,700 hours. As for me, this past year was, among other things, 158 recipes.

A year ago, I set out to cook all 1,300-plus recipes in The Gourmet Cookbook. My wife thought I was crazy. I was optimistic, but unsure whether gourmetalltheway would end up as a one post wonder or one of the millions of orphaned blogs out there on the web (according to this New York Times story, approximately 95% of blogs haven't been updated in the past 120 days).

When I set out on this project, I had some expectations. I knew that I'd learn a lot about cooking, and that I'd eat a lot of good food. But, there were a lot of things that I didn't expect.

First was the food. Since I've determined to cook everything in The Book, I started out with some recipes that I would never have made otherwise. Strange sounding things like strawberry salsa, pickled carrot sticks, and watermelon rind chutney all turned out to be pretty good. Next was The Book's flexibility. When my son was born in December (the other, and by far most amazing, thing that happened to me over the past year), I thought that parenthood would mean the end of The Project. How would I ever have time to cook fancy food and help take care of a newborn? Well, The Book has so many great cook-ahead recipes that that I was able to spend a couple of hours in the kitchen on the weekend and we could eat like royalty all week (we still have some mushroom barley soup in the freezer). And then, when my son developed a food sensitivity that caused my wife (who is nursing) to swear off wheat, soy and dairy, I was again surprised by the number of recipes in The Book that work with my wife's dietary restrictions. But that biggest surprise of the project has been how it's helped me build and strengthen friendships. Through the project, I've become part of a community of food bloggers. I've met and befriended Melissa. And, my wife and I have gotten better about having friends and relatives over for dinner or a visit. Of course, having a new son to show off helps, too. But there's just something about sharing good food that brings people together.

At the rate that I'm going, about three recipes per week, it'll take me another eight years to finish The Project. And, you know what? That's OK. This Project is all about the journey. The destination is incidental.

Now, let's get cookin'.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

157. Basic Polenta (p. 264) and 158. Broiled Polenta with Tomato Sauce (p. 266)

According to The Book, Mediterranean cooking authority Paula Wolfert developed a "no stirring" method for making polenta. When I read this recipe* for basic polenta, with its instructions to stir the polenta for one minute every 10 minutes of the 45 minute cooking time, I assumed that The Book hadn't adopted Ms. Wolfert's method. But, considering that the traditional method would have you stir the polenta constantly for the entire cooking time, this method is, relatively speaking, "no stirring."

The polenta was really very easy to make. It just takes a bit of time. All I did was boil some water and salt and then whisked in some cornmeal. I reduced the heat, covered it and, as I said, stirred it for one minute every 10 minutes until it was very thick and creamy.

After I finished cooking the basic polenta, I moved on to this recipe for broiled polenta with tomato sauce.

First I divided the polenta in two. I stirred some grated fontina cheese into half of it (the other half was for my wife, who can't eat dairy for the time being). I put the polenta into two small rectangle plastic containers that I had brushed with some olive oil, and put it in the refrigerator to set. The Book says to use a bowl, but it seemed to me that the finished dish would work out better with rectangle slices than with dome-shaped wedges.

Next I made the sauce. First, I heated some olive oil and cooked come chopped onions and garlic. Then I added some canned Muir Glen organic whole tomatoes and cooked it until it they had broken down into a thick sauce.

By then, the polenta had set. I turned it out of the containers, and cut it into 3/4 inch slices. I put the polenta under the broiler and waited for it to get golden around the edges. I waited, and waited, and waited. The Book says that it should take about three minutes per side. But after more than ten minutes, it still hadn't browned. I don't know that the problem was, but it was late, I was hungry, and I couldn't wait any more, so I took the polenta out of the oven. Before I made this, I thought about grilling the polenta instead of broiling it. I wish I had.

Even though the polenta wasn't crispy, this was still a tasty simple supper. We ate it with some spicy Italian turkey sausage. The polenta was tender and flavorful. The fontina gave it a nice creamines and saltiness without being "cheesy." And even though my wife's polenta had no cheese at all, she still liked it very much. The sauce was pure and simple. If I were to make this in late summer, I'd use fresh local tomatoes for the sauce, but canned were good.

Date Cooked: May 25, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

*The recipe for basic polenta is not on epicurious.com. The recipe for the broiled polenta with tomato sauce includes its own recipe for basic polenta, but it's not the same as the one in The Book, and it does call for constant stirring.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

156. Rhubarb Roulade (p. 720)

I was a little nervous about making this recipe. I've never made a jelly roll before, and I was sure that it was going to be a disaster. But just look at that picture! I don't mean to brag, but I think it came out pretty darn good.

The other thing that surprised me about this recipe (the first thing being that I could actually pull it off) was that I learned that the thing that I've been calling a cookie sheet all these years is actually a jelly roll pan. Who knew?

The Book says to make the cake first and to make the filling while the cake cooks. But, because I was so nervous about the cake, I decided to make the filling first and get that out of the way.

Rhubarb is in season now, so I knew I'd be able to find some. I looked first at my usual source for local produce, but they had just run out of rhubarb. The mega-mart had it, though. The filling is very simple. It's just some finely chopped rhubarb and sugar cooked down into a sweet/tart puree. Once that was ready, I put it in the refrigerator to cool while I made the cake.

First, I prepared the pan but buttering it, lining it with wax paper, and buttering it again and dusting it with flour. Next I beat together some egg yolks, sugar and vanilla. I cleaned the beaters and beat some egg whites and sugar until they held stiff peaks (or at least a close approximation of stiff peaks). Then in alternating batches, I folded some flour and the egg whites into the yolk mixture until it was all incorporated.

I spread the batter out onto the jelly roll pan. At first it didn't look like it was going to be enough batter to cover the pan, but with a little bit of patience and some gentle spreading with a rubber spatula, it worked out. I cooked the cake until it was "pale and dry to the touch."

Now the scary part. I took the cake out of the oven, covered with a kitchen towel (to keep in some of the humidity?) and let it cool for just a few minutes on a rack. Next I spread the filling on the cake (I took the towel off first ... duh). Then, very carefully, and with my wife's assistance, I began rolling the cake. As I rolled, I peeled the wax paper off the bottom of the cake and used it to help me roll the cake as tightly as I could without breaking it. I gently lifted the rolled cake off the pan an put it on a platter and let it cool completely.

The Book says that you can make the filling a day ahead of time. I actually made the whole cake a day ahead of time. I wrapped it in plastic wrap and kept it in the fridge over night, sprinkled it with confectioner's sugar just before serving, and it was great.

This was a delicious cake. Perfect for a spring or summer meal. The cake is light, tender and airy (and relatively low-fat! no butter). But the filling is the real star of this cake. It's bright and sweet with that distinctive rhubarb puckery-ness. And the color! A really nice cake, and not that scary after all.

Date Cooked: May 23, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

Thursday, June 4, 2009

155. Spicy Lemon-Marinated Shrimp (p. 45)

How is The Book like Pvt. Benjamin Buford "Bubba" Blue? Well, as Bubba explained to Forrest Gump in one of the most memorable movie scenes ever, "shrimp is the fruit of the sea." And both Bubba and The Book know that shrimp can be prepared in innumerable delicious ways:
You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey's uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There's pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That- that's about it.
But, wait, there's more ... so far in The Project, I've made Cilantro Lime Shrimp, Shrimp in Adobo Sauce, Pad Thai, and now this recipe* for Spicy Lemon-Marindted Shrimp. And that's just the beginning. According to The Book's index, I've got twenty-five more shrimp recipes to make.

The Book says that this recipe is a new take on the classic Southern pickled shrimp. I've never had pickled shrimp, so this was new to me. But this spicy, tangy, briny preparation might just be one of my favorite ways of eating shrimp.

First, I took all of the zest off of a large lemon with a vegetable peeler. Then I squeezed the juice from the lemon and put it in a bowl with the zest. Next, I ground some coriander seeds in a spice grinder and added them to the bowl. I whisked it all up with some white wine vinegar, olive oil, water, sugar, and a whole lot of salt. Finally, I added some pepper flakes. The Book calls for Aleppo chili flakes, but says that "plain old red pepper flakes" are fine, too, so that's what I used.

Next, I added some pickling spices and a whole lot more salt to a pot of boiling water, and boiled some shelled, deveined shrimp for about 90 seconds until they were cooked through. (By the way, thanks for the advice on deveining. I bought "deveined" shrimp from the grocery store, but this time, I didn't remove the vein along the inner curve of the shrimp. I didn't notice any difference in the flavor, and it was a lot less work.) I drained the shrimp and let them cool a little bit.

Then, I put the shrimp in a zip-top bag with the marinade and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight (The Book says to marinate for at least eight hours and up to three days.) I drained the shrimp, put them on a platter and served them as a appetizer at my family's Memorial Day cookout. These shrimp were very tasty. Salty, but tasty. The flavors of the lemon and all of the pickling spices combined in zesty, sweet and sour, puckery deliciousness. I really enjoyed this one.

Date Cooked: May 23, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A

* The recipe on epicurous.com feeds fify and calls for ten pounds(!) of shrimp. Unless you're a caterer, go with the recipe in The Book.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

154. Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti (p. 685)

Before I made this recipe* from Italian baking authority Carol Field, I didn't know that the word biscotti was descriptive of the cooking method for these popular Italian cookies.

You see, biscotti comes from the Latin word biscoctum, meaning "twice-baked," and wouldn't you know, that's just how these cookies are made. For the first bake, the cookie dough is formed into a log and baked. For the second bake, the log is sliced into pieces and baked again until crisp and browned.

I started by soaking some dried cranberries in some boiling water to soften them a bit. Meanwhile, I buttered and floured a large baking sheet. To make the dough, I whisked some flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Then I beat in some eggs and vanila extract. Finally, I mixed in the cranberries and some shelled pistachios. I missed the part of the recipe that said to pat the cranberries dry after draining them. They were still pretty wet when I added them to the dough. It gave the dough an odd, wet, sticky texture. I was worried that I had ruined it, but it all worked out OK in the end. The Book says to turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead. But because of the dough's stickiness (and my impatience) I just kneaded it right in the bowl.

I divided the dough in half and formed it into two logs. I brushed the logs and baked them until golden. I let them cool a bit and, with a serrated knife, cut the loaves into half-inch slices. I arranged the slices on a baking sheet and put them back in the oven for the second bake.

These biscotti were very good. Just the thing to go with an afternoon cup of coffee. The dominant flavor was the vanilla, which really came through. I would have liked even more cranberries and pistachios to make them even more flavorful. The texture was nice, but I agree with Teena that the second baking could have been longer, since these biscotti were not as crunchy as others I've had. All in all, these were delicious and easy to make. I would definitely make these again.

The Book says that the biscotti keep in an airtight container at room temparature for up to a week. According to Wikipedia, Pliny the Elder said that biscotti would last for centuries. I think that the reality is somewhere in between. I took a few of these biscotti with me to work every day for almost two weeks, and the last one was just as tasty as the first.

Date Cooked: May 17, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

*This recipe is not on epicurous.com.