Monday, October 27, 2008

If only there were a recipe in The Book for making more time

Life has gotten a bit hectic lately. After a bit of a slow period, things are heating up at work. And my house is in total disarray as my wife and I prepare for the arrival of our little Gourmet Baby in a couple of months.
The long and short of it is that I haven't been able to post in a while. But, just because I haven't had time to blog, that doesn't mean that I haven't been stealing time to cook. I have, and once I can come up for air, I'll go on a blogging marathon to work through the backlog of recipes that I've building up.
Stay tuned and thanks for stopping by.

Monday, October 20, 2008

60. Parsnip and Apple Puree (p. 554)

I wanted something a little different, a little more sophisticated (but still easy), to serve with my Roast Chicken, and this recipe* was just the thing I was looking for.

There's not much to it: all you need to do is cook peeled and chopped parsnips and Granny Smith apples along with some onions in simmering water until it's all soft and tender. Then whiz it all up in the food processor with a little bit of sour cream and finish up with salt and pepper. That's it.

The result looks an awful lot like mashed potatoes, but this dish isn't like any mashed potatoes you've ever had. The texture is smooth and creamy, thanks to the pureeing and the sour cream. The flavor is great, too. It's got the earthy starchiness of the parsnips balanced by the crisp sweetness of the apples. This was a great change of pace, and a really nice compliment (along with some simple steamed fresh green beans) to the Roast Chicken.

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

* This recipe is not online.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

59. Roast Chicken with Pan Gravy (p. 354)

Our friends Travis and Jodi came over for dinner a couple of weeks ago. They are newlyweds, and they were coming over to show us their wedding pictures and tell us all about their honeymoon adventures in Mexico. I knew that this occasion called for something special. I decided on this recipe* for a classic roasted chicken with a simple pan gravy.

I took The Book's advice and got an organic, free-range chicken from Whole Foods, rather than the oven-stuffer-roaster from the mega-mart that I'd usually get. I don't know if it was the the chicken's all-natural, happily free-ranging life, or if it was the cooking method, but this was a good roast chicken.

And easy too! I had to read and re-read the recipe a few times because I thought I was missing something. There's nothing in the recipe about trussing or tying or tucking or anything like that. Just rub the chicken all over, inside and out, with salt and pepper and plop it in a roasting pan. The Book says to put the bird on a rack, but I don't have one for my small roasting pan. But the lack of a rack didn't do any harm to the finished bird. Pour some melted butter over it and roast for a little over an hour until it reaches the appropriate internal temperature. The only other thing that you have to do is turn and baste the bird every 20 minutes or so.

Once the chicken is done, you move it to a platter to rest while you make the pan gravy. Start by putting the pan juices into a small saucepan. Then put the roasting pan on the stovetop and deglaze it with a little chicken stock and water. I love deglazing! It's really satisfying to work all of the little brown bits off of the bottom of the roasting pan, and it makes cleanup a lot easier in the end. The deglazing liquid is poured into the saucepan, brought to a boil and whisked together with some cornstarch (I needed to add more than The Book calls for to get it to thicken up at all). The gravy is finished off with a little bit of lemon juice, salt and pepper (in the flurry of pre-dinner activity, I missed this last step).

The result is a moist, delicious chicken with beautiful golden, crispy skin. Since the legs and wings weren't tied or tucked, I was afraid that they'd be dry and overcooked, but surprisingly, they weren't. The gravy, which was still thinner than I would have liked, was flavorful (although I agree with Teena that it was a bit salty.

The Book calls this "the most succulent and simplest roast chicken." While it is simple and succulent, I've got to admit that it's not the best roast chicken recipe I've made. That honor goes to Martha Stewart, for her "Potatoes that Taste Better than the Chicken" recipe. (Actually, the recipe is from Jean-Georges Vongerichten, but since he made it on Marth's show, she gets the credit for it.) What's so special about the Martha recipe is that the chicken cooks on top of the potatoes, and as the bird roasts, the potatoes soak up all of the pan juices. The result is a moist chicken with crispy skin, and potatoes that truly are better than the bird.

Date Cooked: October 4, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B+

*The recipe isn't online.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

58. Risotto with Porcini (p. 256)

As the weather starts to get cooler, I begin to crave comfort food. And one of my favorite comfort foods in risotto. Mushrooms, however, are not a favorite food of mine. So, it was with some hesitation that I made this recipe.* But with my first bite, all of that hesitation fell away, and I just might be a mushroom fan after all.

The recipe starts with soaking dried porcini mushrooms in warm chicken stock and water and a little bit of oil. Then, the mushrooms are drained, rinsed, chopped and set aside. Don't discard that soaking liquid! Strain it through a paper-towel-lined sieve and put it in a saucepan with more chicken stock and bring it to a simmer. This is the liquid that will be added, bit by bit, to the risotto as it cooks. (Note to self: You just used up the last of your frozen, homemade chicken stock. Time to make some more.)

Then, it's on to the rice. First, melt some butter in a pan (rather than the 4-quart saucepan suggested by The Book, I used my trusty 12-inch Calphalon non-stick "Everyday" pan) and soften some chopped onion. Then add the Arborio rice and cook for a few minutes. Then, start adding the cooking liquid, one-half-cup at a time, stirring constantly until the liquid is absorbed, before adding more liquid. After about 20 minutes, the rice is creamy and tender, but still a little bit firm. To finish off the dish, add some more butter, the chopped mushrooms, a good amount of grated Parmaigiano-Reggiano, and some salt and pepper.

What a great recipe! I really enjoyed this. The flavor is rich, earthy, and luxurious. This dish is as comforting to make as it is to eat. There's something calming about standing in front of a warm stove for a half-hour slowly stirring and methodically adding little bits of cooking liquid. I served this with some steamed broccoli rabbe, which was a nice pairing. I will definitely make this recipe again.

Date Cooked: September 28, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A

*The epicurious recipe I've linked to is not the same as the one in The Book, but they have a lot of similarities. The Book's recipe, which is not online, is simpler than the epicurous recipe, and does not call for soy sauce or wine.

Monday, October 13, 2008

57. Honey Cake (p. 705)

One of the things that I enjoy most about The Project is learning about the history and culture of the dishes I'm cooking. As the Jewish "Days of Awe" approached, I took a close look at the recipes listed under "Jewish dishes" in The Book's index for something to make in honor of Rosh Hashanah. I decided on this recipe for honey cake, which, with a little help from Wikipedia, I learned is traditionally served on the Jewish new year, to symbolize the hope for a "sweet" new year.

The cake is a dense, sweet cake, richly flavored with cinnamon, ginger, coffee and a little bit of burbon (Jack Daniel's, thank you very much). We liked this cake for dessert, but it was even better for breakfast, as suggested by The Book's blurb, toasted with a schmear.

Date Cooked: September 28, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B+

Friday, October 10, 2008

56. Creamless Creamy Squash Soup (p. 99)

Last spring, I was obsessed with Bravo's Top Chef. And my favorite contestant, the hat-wearing, foul-mouthed Spike Mendelsohn, had an obsession of his own ... butternut squash soup. (I'm not kidding, watch the video montage below. Spike said "butternut squash soup" at least a dozen times in a single episode.) Ever since then, I've been waiting for butternuts to come into season so that I could satisfy my craving for squash soup. Well, at long last, fall is here and beautiful butternut squash (squashes?) are plentiful at the farmer's market, and I didn't waste any time getting one.

Even though this recipe from The Book is a lot less complicated than Spike's recipe, it's anything but boring. For starters, the recipe's name, "Creamless Creamy Squash Soup," lets you know right away that the folks at Gourmet have something up their sleeves. The creaminess in this "creamless" soup comes from the addition of potatoes which are slow-cooked, and pureed with the squash to give the soup a silky, smooth texture without a drop of cream. Other tricks include the addition of red pepper flakes, which gives the soup an unexpected kick of spiciness, and the unusual garnish of crushed Italian amaretto cookies, which, along with the drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, gives this comfort-food soup an air of sophistication that would make it at home at a four-star restaurant.

ICYMI: Butternut Squash Soup

Date Cooked: September 21, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

55. Tomato Tatins (p. 66)

According to The Book, this recipe* is a savory take on the classic upside-down apple pie known as Tarte Tatin. Legend has it that the dessert, also known as tarte renversee, was invented in the 1850s at l'Hotel Tatin. Apparently, in a moment of harried distraction, Caroline Tatin, who ran the hotel with her sister Stephanie, absent-mindedly tossed a bunch of carmelized apple slices into a pie dish without first rolling out a pie crust. Not wanting to start over, Caroline just put a crust over the top of the dish and baked it anyway. When it was done, she flipped the whole thing over onto a serving dish, served it to her eager and appreciative patrons, and the rest is culinary history ... more or less. In reality, French farmwives had been making tarte renversee long before Caroline was born, and some suggest that Caroline never even set foot in the kitchen at l'Hotel. But, hey, everyone loves a good story, right?

Just about the only thing that this Tatin has in common with its namesake is the upside-down presentation. The "crusts" on these individual tarts are rounds of country-style white bread that have been cut out with a cookie cutter, brushed with oil, toasted in the oven, and then rubbed with a clove of garlic. The "filling" is slices of ripe red tomatos that have been lightly salted and roasted to soften them and bring out their natural sweetness.

The tatins are assembled by placing a tomato slice in each of four ramekins, topping it with a dallop of pesto, and repeating until all of the tomato slices are gone. Each tatin is topped with a toast round, and they are put in the oven for a short time to heat through and to let the flavors combine. Once they are done, they get the Tatin treatment by being flipped over onto a serving plate.

I really liked this dish, and I'd make it again as a first course for a dinner party when I want to impress my friends. This is one of those recipes that's really pretty easy, but it gives you a lot of bang for the buck with a stunning, restaurant-quality presentation, and a really nice flavor. The tomatoes, which were ripe and in season from the farmer's market, were delicious, and the pesto was a really nice flavor accompaniment. The golden toasted crust gave textural interest and structure to the dish. Overall, I'd say this one is a winner.

Date Cooked: September 21, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A

* The recipe on calls for red and yellow tomatoes. The Book's recipe doesn't specify colors. If I had thought of it, I would have used some colorful heirloom tomatoes in this dish. It would have made it just that much more impressive.

Monday, October 6, 2008

54. Pesto (p. 889)

I made this recipe to use in the Tomato Tatins that I'll write about in my next post. I was surprised that The Book specifically calls for "store-bought basil pesto" rather than homemade in the Tatin recipe. I suppose that it's just The Book's concession to convenience, but, since I'm always looking for ways to tick off just one more recipe for The Project, I decided to make my own pesto.

But now that I've made this pesto, I'm really confused about why The Book specifies store-bought for the Tatins. Homemade pesto is super-easy to make, and in terms of taste, quality and appearance, the store-bought stuff doesn't hold a candle.

This pesto is very easy to make, and The Book's estimate of 15 minutes start-to-finish time is just about right. All you do is whiz together garlic, pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano, salt, pepper, basil leaves and olive oil. That's all. The result is a vibrantly green, silky, and flavorful pesto. The stuff you buy at the store is usually army-green, flatly flavored, and pasty. By making it yourself, you can be sure that you're using the freshest basil and pine nuts, and the best Parmaigiano and olive oil. It costs a bit more to buy all of the raw ingredients than it does to buy a tub of the mass-produced kind, but that's probably an indication that the commercial pesto makers aren't using the freshest and highest-quality ingredients. The Tatin recipe only called for a small amount of the pesto, so I was able to freeze the rest to use another time.

On another note ... One of my goals for The Project is to become a better cook. Now, by that I don't mean getting better at following instructions in cookbooks. That's part of it. I mean, it's a great thing to be able to recreate an amazing dish that someone's taken the time to write out a recipe for. But, by cooking more and more recipies from The Book, I hope that I can gain the confidence and knowledge to modify recipies or to cook good meals out of the random collection of ingredients I happen to have on hand.

Well, I've taken a small step in that direction. I had to go into work for a few hours yesterday afternoon. When I got back, my wife and I had to run an errand, and by the time we were done, it was past dinnertime and we had nothing planned. "What are we going to do about dinner?" "I don't know." Just as I was about to pull into the BK drive-thru for some flame-broiled shame with bacon and cheese, my wife said, "We've got a ton of stuff at home, I'm sure we can throw something together." And so, that's just what I did. And while I don't think that "Pasta with Stewed Tomatoes, Broccoli Rabbe and Romano Cheese" is going to make it into the next edition of The Book (although I'm happy to share the recipe, just let me know if you're interested, Ms. Reichl), it was pretty darn good - better than a drive-thru hamburger, that's for sure. I was really happy that I was able to make a tasty, wholesome meal in short order, with ingredients that I had on hand, and without a recipe. I just may be becoming a cook after all.

Date Cooked: September 21, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A

Thursday, October 2, 2008

53. Apple Rasin Cake (p. 704)

I made this recipe a couple of weeks ago on the first weekend of fall. I wanted to make something that would officially kick off the autumn season, and this cake seemed like just the thing.

At it's core, this is a simple spice cake with a hefty dose of apples and rasins folded into the batter. Actually, since the cake is cooked in a Bundt pan, it doesn't have a core at all, but you know what I meant.

To get the full "fall in New England" effect, I used Cortland apples grown in my own town at the 130-year-old Mann Orchards. The Book calls for "3 Cortland or Empire apples, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice." At first, this doesn't seem like too difficult a request, but about halfway into the second apple, my hand started cramping up, and I just couldn't handle the dicing anymore. So, recipe instructions notwithstanding, my cake contained "1 1/2 Cortland apples cut into 1/4-inch dice" and "1 1/2 Cortland apples coarsely chopped." I know, I know, I'd be kicked out of Le Cordon Bleu or the CIA for corner cutting like that, but, as you'll see in a moment, the lack of uniformity in apple pieces was the least of this cake's problems.

The Book says to butter and flour a 12-cup Bundt pan, knocking out excess flour. Because I have a non-stick Bundt pan, I blithely ignored this instruction, saying to myself that it only applied to those suckers who don't have a non-stick pan. I guess I'm the sucker after all. As the cake cooked, it filled the whole house with its intoxicating apple-cinnamon-nutmeg aroma (maybe the tablespoon of dark rum in the batter also had something to do with the intoxicating quality of the aroma?). Once the cake had cooked for the prescribed time, I took it out of the oven an put it on a rack to cool in the pan for a while.

When it came time to turn the cake out of the pan, things went south pretty quickly. I ran a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake, but when I flipped it over, nothing happend. I tapped the bottom of the pan gently. Still nothing. I tapped a little less gently. Nothing still. So, with some foreboding, I began to shake the pan somewhat vigorously until the bottom half of the cake plopped onto the cooling rack while the top half remained firmly in place in the pan. This whole experience was reminiscent of the unfortunate Blueberry Almond Coffee Cake incident. Thankfully, I wasn't making this for guests, so it didn't matter that it wasn't pretty. And even though it wasn't going to win any beauty contests, it sure was good.

We really liked the flavor and texture of this cake, and we loved having it on hand for snacking througout the week. The blurb in The Book says that it's great to pack in lunchboxes. Hear, hear! I'll probably make it again, but when I do, I'll add some chopped walnuts to the batter because, while apples and raisins are a great duo, walnuts really are the third musketeer in this scenario, aren't they? Also, the blurb on epicurious notes that the recipe comes from Richardson’s Canal House Inn in Pittsford, New York, where it is served with caramel sauce. The Book doesn't mention the caramel sauce, however, and it wasn't until I was eating the cake that it sruck me that caramel would have been a natural and welcome accompaniment.

Date Cooked: September 20, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-