Tuesday, August 25, 2009

187. Chilled Sour Cherry Soup (p. 821)

When I made the Sour Cherry Crostata for the Fourth of July, I felt bad that my wife couldn't eat it because of the flour and butter. I decided to make it up to her by making this recipe* for Chilled Sour Cherry Soup so that she could enjoy all of the great cherry flavor without any of that pesky dairy and gluten.

The whole idea of this dish is a bit strange. First, it's a cold soup, which some people find unusual. But even more unusual is that it's a sweet dessert soup. That's something you don't come across every day. But you know what? It was actually pretty good.

First, I brought some water, sugar, lemon zest and cinnamon to a boil, stirring it until the sugar dissolved. Next I added some frozen sour cherries and boiled the mixture for a few minutes more. Meanwhile, I whisked some cornstarch with some cold water. I stirred the cornstarch mixture into the cherry mixture and boiled it for a final few minutes. I took the soup off the heat and allowed it to cool to room temperature before putting it in the refrigerator to chill.

I served the cold soup in small bowls after dinner. The Book says to garnish the soup with a drizzle of sour cream mixed with heavy cream. I skipped this step because I was making this dessert dairy-free.

At first taste, I wasn't sure what to make of this soup. It tastes a lot like cherry pie filling, and that's kind of strange. It's a bit thinner than ordinary pie filling, and the lemon zest and cinnamon make it a bit zippier. As I ate it, though (and as I ate the leftovers the next couple of nights), the soup started to grow on me. I don't think that I'd ever crave this dish, but it was a nice change, and I'm glad I made it.

Date Cooked: July 11, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B

*This recipe isn't on epicurious.com.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

186. Grilled Summer Vegetables with Pesto (p. 591)

When you're on vacation at the beach, staying at a rental house with a deck and a grill, you just have to grill something, right? Of course you do!

Before we left, I flipped through The Book, picked out this recipe* and packed up all of the zucchini and squash leftover from the week's CSA box, and looked forward to an easy, tasty dinner.

Well, at least it was easy. Tasty, not so much. And it was probably the least attractive thing I've ever cooked. But, the dish's shortcomings were all my fault. I should have known better than to leave the veggies unattended on an unfamiliar grill. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

This is really a very straightforward and simple way to prepare grilled vegetables. First, I sliced each of the following in half lengthwise: an eggplant, a zuchini, a yellow squash, and for good measure, a cousa squash. I also cored and seeded a red bell pepper and cut it into quarters. I marinated all of these veggies in a simple marinade of garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, oregano, thyme and salt and pepper. Then I put the veggies on a pre-heated gas grill.

The Book says to cook the veggies for a total of 18 to 22 minutes, turning once during the cooking. So, I figured that I could leave them alone for a few minutes while I went back into the house. Big mistake. Apparently, even though I turned down the heat, the grill was still way too hot. By the time I came back, the veggies had a pretty good char on them. The poor red peppers were incinerated beyond recognition. I was able to salvage the situation somewhat by scraping off most of the burned parts, but the veggies were still overcooked.

I cut the eggplan, zuchinni and squash into pieces, and put them in a large bowl and tossed with some store-bought pesto. The Book suggests using homemade pesto, and refers to the recipe on page 889. I have made this pesto before, and it's far superior to store-bought pesto, but for the sake of simplicity and convenience while on vaction, I opted for store-bought.

I served the veggies with some grilled Italian chicken sausage and some potato wedges I cooked on the grill, with a little extra pesto on the side. It tasted fine, even though the veggies were too soft and a bit smoky from the overcooking. If my execution had been better, and if I had used some fresh-tasting homemade pesto, this dish would have been much better. I'm sure that I'll try this one, or some other variation of it again some day when I'm looking for something quick and easy to go with some grilled chicken or steak.

Well, my vacation is over, and it's back to reality. We had a great week of wonderful weather, and I was so glad to have the opportunity to make some great family memories of my son's first trip to the beach.

Date Cooked: August 20, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B-

*This recipe isn't on epicurious.com.

Friday, August 21, 2009

185. Colombian Chicken, Corn and Potato Stew (Ajiaco) (p. 370)

I don't know what I was thinking when I decided to make this recipe on my Cape Cod vacation. Maybe it was the corn on the cob, or the avocado in the ingredient list that made me think this was a light, summery dish. Don't get me wrong, this stew is delicious. In fact, it's probably one of my favorite dishes in The Project so far. But this ain't beach food.

This is a hearty, filling stew of chicken, corn and potatoes, with a thick, rich gravy. The only way I can describe its flavor is "Thanksgiving in a Bowl." What I really liked about this recipe was that, with almost no effort (but a little bit of time - almost two hours start to finish), it turned some pretty modest ingredients - a sad-looking store-brand chicken, a few ears of corn, and a few potatoes - into a really satisfying meal.

First, I cut a whole chicken up into serving pieces and sprinkled them with salt and pepper. I browned the chicken pieces in some butter in the stew pot. I had to do it in a couple of batches so that it wouldn't crowd. For some reason, I brought my tall stock pot with me to the Cape. If I had brought my Dutch oven instead, I could have browned the chicken all at once. No problem, it just added about ten minutes to my cooking time. I transferred the chicken to a plate, and cooked some chopped white onion in the rendered chicken fat with some salt, pepper and a good amount of dried oregano. As the onion cooked, I grated some potatoes, and then added them to the pot along with the chicken, some store-bought chicken broth, and some water. I brought it to a simmer and then cooked it for a little less than a half hour. When the chicken was completely cooked, I removed it from the pot and set it aside to cool a little bit. Meanwhile, I added some Yukon Gold potatoes (that I had cubed and soaked in cold water) to the pot and cooked until they were almost tender. Then, I added three ears of corn that I had shucked and cut cross-wise into one-inch pieces, and cooked for a few minutes. Finally, I removed the skin and bones from the chicken, shredded the meat and added it to the pot.

The Book gives a list of accompaniments that can be served with this stew: cilantro, heavy cream, capers, and avocado. I'm sure that they'd all be good, but for ease of grocery shopping in a vacation rental, I chose to go with just the avocado.

As I said, I really liked this stew. Browning the chicken at the start gave the stew a nice rich "chicken-y" flavor. The oregano made the stew taste and smell wonderful. The real stroke of genius in this recipe is the addition of the grated potatoes which gave the gravy a nice thickness and body. My only complaint was the corn. It was really difficult to eat the corn pieces. First you need to fish them out of the gravy and then nibble the kernels off the too-small and too-hot pieces of corncob. I like my wife's suggestion for solving this problem: cut the kernels off the cob before cooking and add the kernels and the cobs to the pot. That way, you get the flavor from the cobs without having to deal with the difficulty of eating the corn in the finished stew. I'll try it this way the next time that I make this stew, and I will be making this stew again, often ... but when it's not so darned hot out.

Date Cooked: August 17, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

184. Risotto with Peas and Prosciutto (p. 255)

Maybe it's because she's had such a restrictive diet for the past seven months, or maybe it's because we're on vacation, and she's decided to let her hair down a bit, but, almost out of the blue, my wife - who hasn't eaten beef or pork in years - said to me, "You know, I think that I'd be willing to eat prosciutto."

Prosciutto? Really? Not a nice ribeye? Or bacon? But hey, I'm going to go with it because, after all, prosciutto is a gateway meat.

So, I went straight to The Book and picked this recipe for Risotto with Peas and Prosciutto.

Risotto is one of those dishes that has a reputation for being difficult or fussy. But it's really easy, and doesn't take a whole lot of time. All it takes is a little bit of attention and some stirring. But, it's actually kind of relaxing to spend about twenty minutes gently stirring Arborio rices and watching it get creamy and delicious-looking.

The preparation is very easy, too. First, I put some store-bought chicken broth in a pot and brought it to a simmer. I measured out a cup of frozen baby peas and set them aside to thaw. I chopped a small yellow onion. I cut up some sliced prosciutto and grated some Parmigiano-Reggiano and set them aside.

Then, I melted some butter in a pan, and cooked the onions for a few minutes. I added the rice and cooked it with the butter and onions for a minute. Next, I added some white wine and simmered it until the wine was absorbed. Then, I started adding the hot chicken stock, about a half cup at at time, stirring until absorbed before adding some more. After about twenty minutes, I had used all of the stock, and the rice was al dente and nice and creamy. I stirred in the peas, cheese, a bit more butter and some salt and pepper.

The Book also calls for a 1/2 teaspoon of lemon zest and three tablespoons of chopped parsley. I forgot to pick these two items up at the grocery store. As I mentioned, I'm on vacation this week, and a little out of sorts. Lemons and parsley are the kinds of things that I always have in my kitchen, but of course, I'm not in my kitchen. I'm sure that the lemon and parsley would have given this risotto a nice bright clean note, but even without it, it was delicious. Rich and creamy, with the sweet, crisp peas, and the salty bite of the prosciutto. An excellent weeknight meal, vacation or not.

And now that we've breached the no-meat border, the possibilities are endless. I'm going to keep on working on her. Who knows, I might have her eating The Book's Beef Wellington before you know it.

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

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

183. Fruit Crumble (p. 815)

Greetings from Cape Cod! My wife, son and I are spending the week in Wellfleet on the Outer Cape. When most folks go on vacation, the last thing they want to do is cook. For me, though, I'm always so busy with work and life that I usually only get to cook on the weekends. So, I'm taking advantage of the relaxed pace to do a little mid-week cooking. D0n't worry, we're also making the most of the excellent seafood restaurants here in Wellfleet, too. The other night, I had some great Wellfleet oysters and just about the best fisherman's platter I've ever eaten.

We rented a house right near the center of town and just a short drive from about five different beaches. It wasn't until we got here that we learned that the house we're renting belongs to the captain of the HMS Rose, which played the role of the "HMS Surprise" in the Russell Crowe film, Master and Commander. I feel like I'm staying in a movie star's house! (That's The Rose in the background.)

But even if it is a celebrity's house, it still is someone else's house, which means I don't have my stove, my utensils and my appliances. I did bring a couple of essential pots, pans, bowls, spoons, etc., with me since I didn't know what I'd find waiting for me at the rental house. The good Captain's kitchen is pretty well stocked (he's even got these nifty bowls with little anchors on them, check it out in the photo above). After a little while, I managed to get my bearings. (Get it? That's a nautical joke.)

Before we left home, I picked a few easy but hearty recipes from The Book that I'd make during the week. I knew that we'd also want something sweet to eat, and I also knew that I had a ton of peaches left over from last week's CSA box. So, I picked this recipe for fruit crumble, and packed the peaches along for the trip. The Book says that you could make this with a single fruit, or with "a jumble of fresh, in-season fruits." I liked the sound of that, so I picked up some nectarines and a couple of different kinds of plums to go with the peaches.

By now, you're probably sick of hearing about my son's food sensitivities and my wife's dietary restrictions. Well, there's some good news on that front. It looks like dairy is back on the menu! My wife has been gradually re-introducing it without any ill-effects. That means that butter is A-OK. Gluten is still off-limits, so I tried to make this recipe gluten-free. It worked, more or less.

First, I mixed together some gluten-free baking mix (instead of all-purpose flour) with some sugar, sliced almonds and a little bit of salt. The Book says to pulse it in a food processor with a stick of butter until it clumps. I wasn't about to lug my giant food processor all the way to the Cape. The good Captain doesn't have a food processor, but he does have pastry cutter (go figure!) and so I was able to do it by hand. Once I had the topping made, I move on to the fruit.

I cut the peaches, plums and nectarines into wedges and piled them into a buttered glass pie plate. No need to peel them or anything like that. I crumbled the topping over the fruit and baked it for about a half hour. It turned out pretty good. The fruit was, for the most part, tender, sweet and jammy. I think that one or two of the plums were a little under-ripe, and a few of the slices had a little bitter taste. The topping was sweet and buttery, crisp and crunchy, but it didn't brown totally evenly, and it didn't hold together all that well. I knew that the gluten-free baking mix and all-purpose flour weren't a one-to-one substitution, but I was taking a chance. But heck, with a great big scoop of Brigham's vanilla ice cream on top, just about anything is delicious.

Well, I gotta go ... my son wants to go back to the beach!

Date Cooked: August 16, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B+

Sunday, August 9, 2009

182. Sole Meunière (p. 284)

Could a single meal have changed the entire course of America's culinary history? If any meal can be said to have been so momentous, surely it would have to be the meal that Paul and Julia Child shared at a small restaurant in Rouen upon their arrival in France on November 3, 1948. It was during that meal that Julia's lifelong passion for French cooking--the passion that she shared with generations of chefs and home cooks through her books and television shows--was born. And the dish that sparked the fire that's been burning brightly in kitchens everywhere for the past sixty years? This recipe* for Sole Meunière, which Julia called "an opening up of the soul and spirit for me."

Since that meal was where it all began for Julia, it is fitting that the new film, Julie & Julia starts there, too, with a wide-eyed Julia breathlessly exclaiming "Butter!" as the opening credits roll. The movie opened this weekend, and I didn't waste a minute in getting to see it. More about the movie in a moment, but first, let's keep talking about food. I thought that it was only fitting to mark the occasion of the movie opening by eating, what else? Sole Meunière. According to The Book (the Gourmet Cookbook, that is, and not MtAoFC), meunière means "miller's wife," and refers to anything dusted in flour. And that's exactly what this dish is: a fillet of sole, dusted in flour, sauteed in butter and parsley, and topped with a butter and lemon juice sauce.

The first step in making Sole Meunière is obtaining the said sole. Without a doubt, the sole that Julia ate at Rouen in 1948 was a Dover sole. Unfortunately, Dover sole is a European fish that is hard to find in the United States. And while The Book says that it's worth seeking out the real McCoy for this recipe, it also says that gray sole or lemon sole are acceptable alternatives. I was able to find some gray sole at Hometown Seafoods in Andover, and that was good enough for me. The Book calls for two six ounce fillets for two people. The fillets at Hometown were much smaller, and so I got four fillets totaling twelve ounces.

The rest of the recipe couldn't be easier. I patted the fillets dry and dredged them in some flour. Then I heated three tablespoons of butter on medium-high heat until it started to brown. Next, I added some chopped parsley and shook the pan for just a few seconds to distribute the sizzling parsley throughout the golden butter. I added the sole, and lowered the heat slightly, I cooked it for just a couple of minutes on each side, turning it very carefully with two spatulas (it's very delicate). When the fish was golden-colored and slightly crisped at the edges, I transferred it to a plate. Finally, I added some more butter, lemon juice and salt to the pan and cooked it for just a few seconds before pouring it over the sole.

So, how was it? It was really, really good. The fish was light and flaky, with just a bit of crispiness. The sauce was buttery without being heavy. Browning the butter gives it a sweet and nutty flavor, while the touch of lemon brightens the sauce and cuts the richness of the butter. There's nothing "extra" or fancy in this dish. Just a couple of simple ingredients combined so perfectly together to make a truly sublime, yet uncomplicated dish. In MtAoFC, Julia refers to Potage Parmentier (Leek and Potato Soup) as "simplicity itself." Sole Meunière could be described in the same way, and it's no surprise that this dish was an eye-opening experience for Julia.

Now, the movie. It was everyting I hoped it would be. Meryl Streep is amazing. She's not so much "playing" Julia Child as she is channeling her. My money is on her for a Best Actress Oscar. But, with all of the fawning over Meryl and Julia, I think that the critics have been unfair to Julie Powell. As a cook-through blogger, I'm biased, but I can't help but feel the need to come to Julie's defense when the New York Times places all of the blame for the movie's few shortcomings squarely on Julie's shoulders. The Times calls Julie's book "rambling," and says that "the deck is stacked against" Amy Adams, who plays Julie because of "the discrepancy between Ms. Powell’s achievement and Ms. Child’s." Ouch! Even Judith Jones (Julia's editor, who stood Julie up on a dinner invitation during the Julie/Julia Project, by the way) is talking smack about Julie. Judith told Publisher's Weekly that Julia didn't want to "endorse" Julie's project because she thought it was a "stunt" undertaken by someone who wasn't a "serious cook." Courage, Julie! There are an enlightened few of us who understand what it was that you were trying to accomplish, and we appreciate your efforts. Don't listen to the haters.

One last point about the movie. At it's core, its a love story. There's the love affair we all have with food, of course. But, this movie is really about two couples who love, support, and understand one another. Without Paul Child and Eric Powell, there wouldn't be a Julia Child or a Julie Powell. This film was a wonderful reminder to me of just how lucky I am to have found someone who is, as Paul said of Julia, "the butter to my bread and the breath to my life."

Date Cooked: August 8, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

*This recipe isn't on epicurious.com, and, strangely enough, it's not in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, either. Curious that Julia didn't include the dish that started it all in her classic book. Julia's recipe for Sole Meunière, does appear, however, in Julia's Kitchen Wisdom, and was recently reprinted in The Chicago Tribune.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

181. Scallops Provencale (p. 319)

There are meals that rock your world, like Julia Child's first taste of Sole Meuniere. There are meals that are just absolutely awful. And then there are meals that, while not life-changing, are exactly what you wanted at that particular moment in time. This recipe was one of those meals.

I was looking for something for something fresh, satisfying and quick. This dish fit the bill perfectly.

First, I seared some sea scallops in a little olive oil, and transferred them to a platter and kept them warm in a 200-degree oven. Next I sauteed some thinly sliced garlic just until it started to turn golden. Then I added some diced, seeded tomatoes, and fresh thyme. I cooked it for just a few minutes and added some salt and pepper. I spooned the sauce over the scallops and sprinkled a liberal amount of chopped fresh basil on top.

It really was that easy. The Book says that this recipe has a start-to-finish time of 30 minutes, but I think that it took half that in reality.

As I said, this was a simple dish that isn't going to change your life, but it made my night just the same. The scallops were excellent. Sweet and tender with some nice caramelization from the searing. The sauce was fresh and bright. There's no reason not to try this recipe ... like tonight.

Date Cooked: July 11, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

180. Sauteed Purslane with Garlic and Balsamic Vinegar (p. 573)

A few weeks ago, I had a UVO in my CSA (an unidentified vegetable object in my community supported agriculture share). Thick reddish stalks with chubby dark green leaves and tiny little buds. It almost looked like seaweed. Was it a mistake? Did some wayward farm kudzu find its way into my CSA box?

Well, after a little bit of good guessing and some internet research, I positively identified the green as purslane, a leafy green common in European, Asian and Mexican cooking. I also learned that purslane is known by another name, portulaca, and is considered by many to be an invasive weed. And then it hit me. When we moved into our house almost ten years ago, these little weeds were running rampant among the shrubs. After about two or three years of dogged weeding, I finally eradicated the portulacas. And now, a big bunch of purslane/portulaca was staring up at me from my CSA box. I'm supposed to eat this stuff?

Always up for something new, I went to The Book's index, and, sure enough there is a single, solitary recipe* for purslane. The recipe is very simple, and has only four ingredients: olive oil, garlic, purslane, and balsamic vinegar (take that, Michelle!). All you do is heat the oil, sautee the garlic, and then add the purslane, and cook if for just a few minutes, turning it with tongs until just wilted. Add the vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste, and that's it.

This was just OK. I liked the texture. Purslane is a pretty sturdy green. The stalks are crisp, and the leaves are plump and tender. The flavor was not my favorite, though. Purslane is a little on the bitter/astringent side, and I think that the balsamic vinegar enhanced the bitterness and gave the dish a pickled vibe. It wasn't awful, but not great, either.

The next week, I got another bunch of purslane in my CSA box. This time, I decided to make this recipe from the August 2008 issue of Gourmet for Purslane and Parsley Salad. I liked it a lot better. The purslane had a much fresher taste and crunchier texture as an uncooked salad green. It reminded me of watercress (which I love). I also never think of using fresh herbs as more than a garnish. Here, the parsley gets equal billing with the purslane. And it's great. Fresh, hearty and grassy tasting. The tomatoes (I used little grape tomatoes) were sweet and delicious, and the dressing (just a little olive oil, lemon juice and chopped shallot) was simple and light.
Date Cooked: July 11, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: (Sauteed Purslane) B- (Purslane Salad) A-

*This recipe isn't on epicurious, but there are a handful of purslane recipes there, including the recipe for the Pursland and Parsley Salad.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Who said there's no such thing as a "free" lunch?

As I've mentioned a few times before, my seven-month-old son, Jack, has a sensitivity to wheat, soy and dairy. It's likely that he'll grow out of it, and we're hopeful that he will. But, in the meantime, Jack's sensitivities mean that my wife, who is nursing, has a very limited diet. No wheat, soy and dairy for Jack means no bagels, tofu or ice cream for my wife. But, as anyone with food allergies is well aware, it's not that easy. Today's grocery stores are minefields of hidden allergens. Once you start reading labels, you'll be amazed at how many soy-, wheat-, and dairy-based ingredients are present in even minimally processed foods.

But, it's not hopeless. I don't even think I knew what Celiac Disease was a few months ago, now, it seems like gluten-free is everywhere. Every week, my local mega-mart adds new gluten-free, soy-free and dairy-free items to its shelves. Now, there's gluten-free rice flour bread, corn-based pizza crusts, rice pasta, coconut milk yogurt, and even gluten-free donuts! Elizabeth Hasselbeck, from Survivor (and some little show that my wife and mother-in-law are always kibitzing about ... I think it's called "The View" or something like that), has come out with a new book billed as a "Gluten-Free Survival Guide."

I've also learned that food allergies and sensitivities don't mean that you need to say goodbye to good food, you just need to be a little more resourceful. As I've mentioned, my wife and son's food limitations haven't prevented me from continuing to work on The Project. There are tons of recipes in The Book that are wheat-, soy- and dairy-free. Even Carol, from Alinea at Home, is a newly-diagnosed Celiac Disease sufferer. But, she's still cooking through Grant Achatz's amazing cookbook with a few slight modifications. Even restaurants aren't off limits. There's a local pizzeria that makes gluten free pizza. And my wife and I had a great anniversary dinner at Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The chef, Ming Tsai, whose son has serious food allergies, is passionate about the issue, and the staff at the restaurant went out of their way to make my wife a delicious and special dinner that accommodated all of her dietary needs.

Well, it was my wife's birthday on Wednesday, and I wanted to make her a cake. With all of the butter and flour, all of birthday cake recipes in The Book were out. But, I knew that a gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free cake had to be possible. I'd heard great things about a gluten-free bakery in Manhattan called Babycakes. I tried to borrow their cookbook from my local library, but there's a waiting list (a testament to the prevalence of gluten-free diets). Next, I turned to Google for help, and I landed at the website for Living Without magazine and their excellent recipe section.

I decided to make their Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Egg-Free Vanilla Cake with Gluten-Free Lemon Filling, and Gluten-Free "Buttercream" Frosting. The differences between these recipes and a "regular" cake is that they call for gluten-free baking mix instead of wheat flour, palm or coconut oil shortening instead of regular vegetable shortening, margerine instead of butter, and some xantham gum and extra baking powder to make up for the lack of leavening. The preparation time and difficulty was the same as just about any other cake I've made, and the taste was really amazing. My wife really enjoyed her birthday cake, and I was glad to be able to make her something special.

This has been a real learning experience for me. So, while it may be true that there's no such thing as a free lunch, with a little bit of tenacity, there just might be a gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free lunch.