Thursday, January 29, 2009

97. Black Bean Chili (p. 268)

We're still talking about things that I made to freeze and eat during those first sleep-deprived days ad new parents.

Shakespeare said that a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet (or something like that). That may be so, but I think that this recipe* would have tasted better if it had been called Black Bean Soup instead of Black Bean Chili. To me, the word "chili" calls to mind a thick, hearty and substantial stew. This recipe, while tasty, has a very thin, soup-like texture. As a result of it being called "chili," I was disappointed when it didn't live up to my image of what "chili" is supposed to be.

The first thing I did to make this recipe was to soak some dried black beans overnight (again, I get an A+ for planning ahead). Next, I toasted some cumin, paprika, cayenne and oregano in a skillet for a few minutes. I'm not sure whether this somewhat fussy step was worth the effort or not. Toasting spices gives them a more intense flavor, but because of the other strong flavors in the dish (like chipotles in adobo sauce), I couldn't really notice a difference. The Book calls for a dried pasilla chile to be ground and mixed in with the spices. I couldn't find a pasilla, so I left it out, and I think that it was just as well since, when Teena made this chili, she found almost too spicy to eat.

After dealing with the beans and spices, I cooked some onions and green peppers in oil and then I added some garlic, chopped chipotle peppers and the spice mixture. Next I added the beans and some water and simmered for an hour and a half. After all of this simmering, the beans were nice and tender, but I was really disappointed with the texture of the chili. For a minute, I thought about pureeing some of the chili in the blender to give it some body, but I didn't think that it was worth the extra dirty dishes. So, I mashed some of the beans with at potato masher. It helped thicken the chili a little but, bot not enough. The last thing I did was to add some chopped canned tomatoes.

I divided the chili into three freezer bags. When we were ready to eat it, I put one of the bags in a bowl in the microwave and zapped it for three minutes at a time until it was nice and hot. I served it with chopped cilantro, a dallop of sour cream and some tortilla chips. It was OK, but like I said, the texture was not what I'm looking for in a chili.

Date Cooked: December 28, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B-

*This recipe is not online.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

96. Baked Four-Cheese Farfalle (p. 224)

As I mentiond in my last post, I went on a cooking-and-freezing spree before my son was born so that we'd have plenty of food to eat during our first few weeks as new parents. I picked this recipe because it looked like a good candidate for freezing.

This rich, creamy cheesy casserole is all about the sauce. First I made a roux of butter and flour. Then I whisked in some whole milk and the juice from a can of tomatoes. I added the canned tomatoes (which I had finely chopped) and some salt and pepper, and whisked the sauce until it had thickened.

While the sauce was cooking, I cooked and drained some bow-tie pasta Then I mixed the pasta with the sauce, some grated mozzarella (that's one cheese), crumbled Gorgonzola (that's two cheeses), diced Fontina (that's three cheeses), and grated pecorino Romano (that's four ... four cheeses! Mwah-ha-ha-ha!). Finally, I added some choppd parsley.

The Book says to put the pasta mixture into a three- to four-quart gratin dish. I wanted to make at least two meals out of this, so I divided it into two eight-inch disposable foil baking dishes. I topped each with some more grated Romano before wrapping each dish tightly in heavy-duty foil and plastic wrap and putting them in the freezer.

A few days after we got home, I pulled one of the casseroles out of the frezer and put it into a 350-degree oven to cook. Even though I took it out of the freezer the morning that we were going to eat it, it was still pretty well frozen at dinner time. As a result, it took almost two hours to cook. For the next one, I'll take it out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator the night before.

This casserole was delicious. The sauce was rich and creamy and cheesy. The combintion of the four cheeses was excellent, and I could sense notes of each in every bite. The tang of the Gorgonzola and the salty bite of the Romano were nicely balanced by the mild creaminess of the mozzarella and Fontina. I always love baked pasta dishes because of the way the elements meld together and there's also that great crispy top!

The best part of this dish is that I still have another casserole in the freezer waiting to be enjoyed.

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

Friday, January 23, 2009

95. Minestrone (p. 106)

I knew that the first few weeks of parenthood would be hectic (even though I didn't realize just how hectic it would be). So, a few weeks ago, I went on a cooking and freezing spree so that we'd have plenty of food on hand and wouldn't have to worry about making dinner.

This recipe makes a delicious, hearty soup that's packed with all kinds of delicious things: beans, cabbage, kale, bacon, zucchini, carrots, celery and potatoes. More surprising than what's in this soup is what's not in this soup ... pasta. Every other minestrone I've ever had includes some kind of pasta. But, since minestrone is a classic Italian cucina povera dish with no set recipe, one can't say whether the omission of the pasta is "right" or "wrong." In this instance, because the soup was so hearty, and because of the inclusion of potatoes, I think that pasta would have been overkill in this recipe.

First, I soaked some great northern beans overnight (after congratulating myself for planning ahead). The next day, I boiled the beans for a time and then let them stand while I made the rest of the soup. I peeled and diced some potatoes and put them in a bowl of cold water.

Then I pulled out my great big Dutch oven and put in some oil and chopped turkey bacon (The Book calls for pancetta, but my wife won't eat pork). Next, I added the vegetables in sequence based on how long they need to cook: onions, carrot, celery, garlic, potatoes, zucchini, green beans (I used frozen because I couldn't find fresh at my local mega-mart), cabbage, kale and drained, chopped tomatoes. All of this, along with some chicken stock (canned, sorry), simmered for about an hour.

Then, The Book says "Drain beans, reserving liquid," but I somehow missed the second part of this instruction, so all of that glorious, rich bean cooking liquid went right down the drain. Oooops! So I pureed half of the beans with a cup of plain water instead of cooking liquid. I added the puree, the rest of the beans, and a little more water to make up for the missing cooking liquid, and simmered it for another few minutes, and then it was done.

We ate some of the soup right away. I was planning on freezing all of it, but I just happened to finish cooking it right around dinner time, and it looked so good that we couldn't resist. I was delicious. Hearty, flavorful, packed with vegetables. This is an excellent, substantial main-course soup perfect for the winter when you want something to warm you from the inside.

I divided the leftovers into some freezer bags, and after we got home from the hospital, we enjoyed this soup as a quick and easy dinner. I just put the frozen soup in the microwave for three minute intervals, stirring in between, until it was done. When you're exerting so much effort keeping a newborn fed and happy, it's nice to be able to do the same for yourself without any effort at all.

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

Monday, January 19, 2009

94. Anzac Biscuits (p. 666)

A few weeks ago, when my wife was in the hospital with our new baby, I wanted to make something to bribe the nurses thank the nurses for all their hard work. I picked this recipe* because it looked good and pretty easy.

This recipe, like so many other traditional favorites, has a great story behind it. According to food lore, these biscuits (I refrain from calling them "cookies" for reasons that I will explain in a minute) are named for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), and were first made by Australian wives and mothers to send in care packages to their loved ones fighting overseas in World War I. The texture and ingredients in these biscuits are such that they could withstand the time and turbulence of overseas travel from Australia to the boys fighting at Gallipoli. This quality appealed to me since I wanted to make these treats a few days before we went to the hospital, and still have them be fresh. (Giving the nurses stale cookies, er biscuits, would have had the opposite of the intended effect.)

So, it is with some hesitation that I even use the name "Anzac Biscuits" in this post, since it appears that the Austrailian government is pretty protective of the Anzac name and frowns upon unauthorized use of the term. In 1994, recognizing that the name "Anzac Biscuit" has been in general use in Australia for many years, the government instituted a policy of approving most applications for the use of the term, so long as "the product generally conforms to the traditional recipe and shape, is not advertised in any way that would play on Australia's military heritage, and is not used in association with the word 'cookies,' with its non-Australian overtones." Chocolate-covered Anzac Biscuits, according to the Austrailian government's website, are apparently an abomination with "non-Austrailian overtones" and would not be approved, so don't even think about it.

To make these cookies, I combined some flour, rolled oats, sweetend flaked coconut and salt. Then I stirred together some baking soda and boiling water (watch it fizz!) and mixed that into some melted butter and Lyle's Golden Syrup. (No eggs ... they were scarce during WWI.) Then I combined the wet and dry ingredients. The Book says that the dough will be crumbly, and it is. I put packed tablespoons of the dough onto cookie sheets and baked until golden.

These biscuits are great! They are crisp without being hard. They are buttery and sweet with a nice salty note. The oats and coconut give them a great texture an substance. The nurses were thrilled when I brought these biscuits to the nurses' station on our second day at the hospital. My wife and son received excellent care, and were even discharged a day early. Did the cookies have anything to do with it? I'm sure they didn't hurt.

Date Cooked: December 27, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A

* The recipe in The Book is nothing at all like the one on Soybean margarine? Really? But The Book's recipe is very similar to this one from the Australian War Memorial website, and which supposedly comes from an ANZAC present at the Gallipoli landing.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

93. Parmesan Balsmic Vinaigrette (p. 172)

I wanted to make a dinner out of the Potato Latkes I made a few weeks ago. So, I threw together a salad and made this recipe* for dressing to go with it.

This is a great basic, go-to vinaigrette that I'm glad to have in my arsenal. It uses mostly pantry items and things that I usually have on hand anyway, so I can make it anytime I want a salad and don't have any dressing.

I started by mashing together some garlic and salt with the side of a heavy chef's knife. (I probably could have done this with my mortar and pestal, too.) Then I whisked together the garlic-salt paste with some balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, salt, pepper and a some minced fresh basil. Finally, I whisked in some olive oil in a slow stream until it was well blended.

I put the dressing on a salad of Romaine, grape tomatoes, cucumbers and some baked, breaded chicken. Yes, they are Short Cuts. Don't judge me. They're quick and they're good.

Date Cooked: December 20, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

* This recipe is not on

Friday, January 16, 2009

92. Spinach and Cheese Strata (655)

Every year, my father-in-law cooks a great big beef roast for Christmas dinner ... a Roast Beast, if you will. For my semi-veg wife, this always poses a bit of a problem, which we solve by bringing a vegetarian entree for the buffet table.

In the past, she's made a delicious strata from Cooking Light, and she was in the mood for it again. But since the dessert I chose to make for Christmas wasn't coming from The Book (more on that in a minute), I offered to make this recipe so that I wouldn't let a cooking opportunity pass without ticking a recipe off toward The Project.

Strata is essentially a savory bread pudding, and while it's usually served for brunch (it's in The Book's "Breakfast and Brunch" chapter), it can be substantial enough to be a main course in a vegeterian lunch or dinner. This recipe, in my opinion, is equally at home in either setting.

The recipe is pretty easy to make. It can (and, in fact, probably should) be made ahead of time. First, I cooked some chopped onions in some butter, salt, pepper and nutmeg until they were soft. Then I stirred in some chopped frozen spinach, which had been thawed and squeezed (sqouzen?) to get out the extra moisture. I set that aside for a moment while I spread a layer of bread cubes on a buttered baking dish. I topped the bread with a third of the spinach mixture and some grated Gruyère and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The Book says to "layer" the ingredients in the baking dish. (The name "strata" even suggests layers.) However, while I followed this instruction as best as I could, there were no clearly discernable "layers" in my strata. Instead, the ingredients were, what I would call, "evenly distributed." Then I whisked together some eggs (and by "some," I mean nine!), milk, salt, pepper and Dijon mustard. I poured this over the strata, wrapped it tightly with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator for a long winter's nap. On Christmas morning, I baked the strata, wrapped it up in foil and took it to my in-laws' for dinner.

This was a delicious dish. It was savory and flavorful. Spinach and nutmeg are best friends, and the Dijon mustard added some depth to the flavors. It was cheesy and buttery - rich without being overwhelming. Although intended as a vegetarian main course option, I enjoyed it as a side dish with the roast - it kind of reminded me of a Yorkshire Pudding, or at least served a similar purpose.

Now, I'll tell you about the other thing that I made for Christmas, but that I can't get any credit for toward The Project. As I was flipping through The Book looking for something to make for dessert for Christmas, this recipe for tiramisu caught my eye. I told my mother-in-law that I was making it, and she was thrilled (it's a favorite of hers), and I really began to get my heart set on having it for dessert. Well, as the week went on and I kept reading and re-reading the recipe, I became more and more concerned about the uncooked eggs in the recipe. With a pregnant wife, and several small children and some elderly people at Christmas dinner, even a small risk of salmonella poisoning was unacceptable. So, I had two options, either deep-six the tiramisu, or find some alternative to raw eggs. I opted to stay the course and find a work-around. Egg Beaters weren't an option because the recipe calls for both the egg whites and the yolks. For a minute, I was encouraged to read about pasteurized-in-the-shell eggs on the Internets. But after calling every grocery store I could think of and turning up empty, I learned that the distribution of these eggs is very limited due to poor sales. Then I looked into pasteurizing eggs at home. It looked promising, but in the end I chickened out (we're talking about my pregnant wife's health here), and I opted for this egg-free version of tiramisu from Cooking Light instead. It was good, but I'm sure The Book's version was better.

All of this got me to thinking, there are several recipes in The Book that call for raw or undercooked eggs. What's a home cook (who actually cares about the health and well-being of the people he's feeding) to do when faced with a recipe calling for uncooked eggs? I know that the risk of salmonella is low, but it's real enough to give me pause. What do you do? Please share your ideas and suggestions in the comments.

Date Cooked: December 24-25, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

Thursday, January 15, 2009

91. Cranberry Coffee Cake (p. 643)

This is the last of the posts about "things I cooked when my family came over for a holiday brunch."

This recipe* is a basic sweet, tender cake with a surprise inside. Rather than distributing whole cranberries throughout the batter as you might expect, this cake has two layers of sweetend chopped cranberries in between layers of cake batter.

First, I put some fresh cranberries and sugar in the food processor and whizzed it until the berries were very finely chopped (but not pureed). I put the berries in a sieve to drain while I made the cake batter. Then I spread about a third of the batter into a loaf pan, next I spread half of the cranberries on top of that, followed by another layer of batter, berries and more batter.

I baked the cake for the full cooking time and tested it with a toothpick, which came out clean. I suppose that I should know better by now, but, I believed that it was fully cooked. I let it cool and sliced it. Darn! The middle layer of batter was totally uncooked. The same thing happened to Teena when she made this coffee cake. She suspected that the frozen cranberries she used gave off too much liquid, preventing the center from cooking. Well, I used fresh berries and got the same result. Maybe the cranberries make a heat-proof zone in the center of the cake. Kind of like a Bermuda Triangle of temperature?

Well, I served the coffee cake to my family anyway. They have to love me even if I serve them raw coffee cake, right? The cooked part was delicious: the cake was light and sweet and the cranberries were tart and bright. It was really pretty, too. The bright red stripes in the center of the cake and the covering of powdered sugar "snow" gave it a really nice holiday look.

Date Cooked: December 13, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: B-

* This recipe isn't on

Sunday, January 11, 2009

90. Homemade Sausage Patties (p. 492)

This recipe was yet another part of the holiday brunch buffet that I made for my family.

Years ago, my wife and I had a great brunch with some friends at The Blue Room in Cambridge. My favorite part of the whole meal were the savory grilled homemade sausage patties. Every now and then, I think about these sausage patties ... they were that good.

These sausage patties were almost as good as the ones at The Blue Room, and they're as easy to make as hamburgers.

First, I whizzed some almost-stale bread in the food processor to make some coarse bread crumbs. I mixed the crumbs with a little milk and let them stand while I browned some finely-chopped onions. Then I mixed the crumbs and onions with some ground pork, egg yolks and an array of spices including white pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cayenne, cloves, thyme and sage. I formed the mixture into little patties (about the size of White Castle burgers) and put them on a waxed paper-lined cookie sheet. I did all of this the night before the brunch, and I stashed them in the refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap.

About ten minutes before brunch, I heated a little oil on my skillet and I cooked the patties until they are nicely browned and cooked all the way through. How were they? Great. I could eat these for breakfast every day. They were crispy and delicious. The mix of spices gave them a wonderful flavor ... familiar and unique all at the same time. One of the best things about this recipe is that, even though it's very easy, you'll really impress your guests when you tell them that you're serving homemade sausage.

I'll make these again, but next time, I'll plan ahead and get better pork. The pre-packaged ground pork that I got at the supermarket was probably too lean, and while delicious, the patties were a bit drier than they should have been. Next time, I'll go to the butcher and get some custom-ground pork with a little more fat in it.

Date Cooked: December 13 & 14, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B+

Saturday, January 10, 2009

89. Tomato, Garlic, and Potato Frittata (p. 632)

I made this recipe for the holiday brunch I hosted for my family before Christmas. A frittata seemed like a good way to make eggs for a crowd, and this dish was savory and delicious.

First, I cooked some garlic in oil. The Book calls for four cloves, sliced, but since I was afraid that this could be a bit too garlicy for a group that included a child and a few older folks, I used two cloves, minced. Next, I cooked some diced, peeled potatoes with the garlic and oil until they got nicely browned. Then, I took the potatoes out of the pan, and added some grape tomatoes, cooking them just until the skins started to split. Back in with the potatoes and some salt and pepper. Then, I poured some beaten eggs over the vegetables. I let it cook for a while, covered for part of the time. Next, I put some grated parmesan on top and put it under the broiler to brown on top.

The finished frittata was very good. The potatoes gave it some nice texture, and the garlic and cooked tomatoes gave it a nice flavor. It was a big hit on the brunch buffet.

Date Cooked: December 14, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: B

Thursday, January 1, 2009

88. Vanilla-Brown Sugar Syrup (p. 646)

For almost as long as I can remember, "syrup" meant one thing ... Aunt Jemima. What can I say, it's good. But after listening to my wife tell me for the umpteenth time, "that's not real food," I switched to pure Vermont maple syrup. It's really all you need to make pancakes or French toast complete.

So, I'm sure you won't fault me when I say that the only reason I made this recipe* to go with my Baked French Toast was to check off another recipe toward The Project. But I'm glad I made it. It was easy and tasty. All I did was boil together some dark brown sugar, water and butter until it was thick and syrupy. At the very end, I added a bit of lemon juice and vanilla extract. The flavor of this syrup was good. Very sweet, with a subtle vanilla flavor (could have been stronger). The consistency was just right, too. I stirred the leftovers into plain oatmeal, and that was good, too.

Honestly, I don't think I'll make this again unless I'm having a pancake emergency (don't laugh, they happen) and don't have any Vermont maple syrup on hand.

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