November – 2013 Cookbook Challenge
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Someone Else's Blocks

In October of 2013 a couple who are part of my beloved improv family welcomed a gorgeous baby girl into the world. In order to take some pressure off the new parents, a request was made on their behalf to have meals delivered to them for the first few weeks. My bestie brilliantly suggested that she and I team up and take them dinner, volunteering to make a hearty minestrone soup. In seeking inspiration for my portion of the meal, I turned to the inimitable Alfred Portale of New York’s famed Gotham Bar and Grill.

Someone Else's Copy of Simple Pleasures

I found the book “Alfred Portale Simple Pleasures” nearly a decade ago in one of those bargain bins near the entrance of a big box bookstore. It was one of the first cookbooks I ever bought myself, and it caught my eye because 1) The pictures were gorgeous; 2) The food was unlike anything I’d made at the time; 3) I’ll admit to thinking, “Ooo! Big time chef!”; and 4) I was broke, and it was in the right price range. Once I got it home, however, I found that I didn’t use it, as the dishes were far enough above what I felt was my skill level at the time that I was too intimidated to try my hand at any of them. (Considering his recipes are, as advertised, relatively simple, you get an idea of just how lowly I esteemed my cooking skills back then.) As would go on to become a bad habit, I read the book cover to cover as I would a novel, and then put it on the shelf, where it would go unused for years.

At the point at which I went in search of a recipe for my friends, I had only ever cooked out of Portale’s book once. I had made his Beet Salad with Orange, Feta, and Mint for an orange and purple-themed pot luck dinner a few years earlier, and then returned the book to its place on the shelf. Considering how long it had been a part of my collection, and how extremely little it had been used, I decided it was high time I gave it another spin. Partially as a counterbalance to the savory minestrone, and partly because it caught my eye, I decided this time to make Portale’s :

 Watermelon, Cherry Tomato, Red Onion and Cucumber Salad

Makes about 4 1/2 cups, enough to serve 4

3 cups diced watermelon, preferably seedless (1-inch dice; see Note)

 I shaved the watermelon with my chef’s knife, something I’d learned to do years previously with cantaloupe, and a task that I weirdly really enjoy doing. There’s just something so satisfying about the “shunk, shunk, shunk” of rind being sliced away, until all that is left is the juicy, meaty interior, ready and waiting to be neatly chopped into bite-sized cubes.

Shunk, shunk, shunk....

1 cup halved cherry tomatoes

I used grape tomatoes. Shhhhh....

 

 1/3 cup minced red onion

 

1 cup diced, peeled, seeded cucumber (small dice)

 

 

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Coarse salt

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Put the watermelon, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, lime juice and oil in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper and toss. Cover and chill in the Crefrigerator for at leat 1 hour. Taste, and adjust the seasoning if necessary, adding some more lime juice if its flavor doesn’t register. Serve well chilled.

Note: Seedless watermelon is produced from a hybrid seed developed in the 1950s. The benefits of seedless watermelon go beyond the convenienc; because the flesh around seeds tends to soften, seedless watermelon is firmer.

 Huh, I had no idea! This is a very cool little fact. Portale also includes other helpful information alongside his recipes, such as other dishes to pair them with (for this one he suggests his Spicy Grilled Skirt Steak), and ways in which you can transform this dish with the addition of a few other ingredients, depending on your own personal tastes. I love it when a recipe gives you more than just instructions for cooking the food!


Because I packed the salad up for transport, alas I have no pretty plated picture of it. In future I will have to remember to put something together for photographs! I did taste as I made the salad, though, and I thought the flavor was great. I’m a big fan of watermelon, so I love finding new uses for it, particularly ones I might never have considered. Pairing it with more traditionally savory ingredients, worked really well, drawing out the tomato’s inherent sweetness, and mellowing the sharpness of the onion. It certain broadened my melon horizons just a bit, and I would definitely make it again, for myself this time. Hey, any excuse to give one a shave!

 

October – 2013 Cookbook Challenge
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Julia Child

I confess I didn’t grow up watching Julia Child. I was certainly aware of her. How could anyone, particularly one with a foodie father, not be? Dad watched her program, and if memory serves, even claimed to have seen the infamous, albeit mythical, “chicken/turkey dropping incident” that has made its way into urban legend and secured a place on snopes.com. While other cooks talk fondly about how Child inspired them to venture into the kitchen or even to pursue a career in food, I had a different televised introduction to the culinary universe, watching chefs like Jeff Smith, Martin Yan, Graham Kerr, and Jacques Pépin. As a result, I sometimes feel like I missed out on a crucial bit of cooking heritage, like I’m the new kid at school who has to take special classes because her old school was behind in certain subjects.

Jacques Pépin

Pépin’s program, “Jacques Pépin’s Kitchen: Cooking with Claudine” was the first one I remember watching on my own as an adult. I was flipping through channels one sunny Saturday morning, looking for something to serve as background noise while I puttered around the apartment. Instead I became transfixed by a segment that featured Pépin demonstrating to his daughter how to cook a fish. Although I had never prepared fish before (heck, I was still nervous as all get out to work with chicken back then), by the time the episode was over, I was convinced that even I had the ability to produce perfect poisson. I made sure to catch the show every week after that, and have harbored a quiet fondness for him ever since.

Years later, while brushing up on my Julia Child trivia, I learned that Jacques Pépin had been a decades-long friend and frequent collaborator of hers, and my internal “new kid” felt a little less out of place. The book “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home”, which I happily discovered while once again browsing the cooking section of my local used book store (I LOVE my local used book store!), was one such collaboration. As with their television program of the same name, the two shared with their audience favorite tips and techniques for basic, time-honored dishes that every home cook should have in their recipe box.

At the time I spotted this title, I’d somehow managed, in spite of all my kitchen shenanigans, to never have cooked a single recipe created by Julia Child. (Sacrilege, I know.) Knowing that no self-respecting cookbook challenge would be complete without a dish from the original Grande Dame of cooking, I eagerly snatched up the book and bundled off home with it. As for my choice of recipe, I wanted to do something simple and classic, something I’d never tried before. Plus I had a lot of potatoes.

Julia’s Pommes de Terre Dauphinoise

 Yield: A large casserole, serving 6 to 8

 

      • 1 tsp salt, plus more if needed
      • 1 tsp chopped garlic
      • 3 cups milk, or mixed milk and cream, plus more if needed
      • ½ tsp freshly ground white pepper, plus more if needed
      • 2 poounds boiling potatoes, peeled and covered in water
      • 1 to 2 Tbs butter for topping the potatoes (optional)

 Special equipment

 A food processor with a slicing disk (optional); an 8-to-10-cup flameproof gratin dish, lightly buttered; a cookie sheet

 I didn’t have a gratin dish, so I opted for a medium-sized cast iron skillet.

 Preheat the oven to 400º F. Slide the rack on the lower third level and set the cookie sheet on it to catch boil-overs.

 Sprinkle ½ teaspoon of salt on the chopped garlic and mash together with the blade of a knife, to make a purée.

Pour about half the milk (or milk-and-cream mixture) into the gratin dish and add the garlic purée and the rest of the salt and the pepper.

 

Cut the potatoes crosswise, by hand or in a food processor, into very thin slices (⅛ inch or less) – do not rinse them again.

 

Spread them evenly in the gratin dish…

 

 

…and pour in the remaining milk. The liquid should come right to the top layer of potatoes – ad more milk or cream if needed.

 

Place the dish on a burner, bring to a slow boil, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the liquid has thickened slightly. Scrape the bottom gently with a wooden spoon to prevent scorching.  Taste the liquid and adjust the seasoning.

 

 

Turn off the heat and dot the top of the gratin with a tablespoon or two of butter, if you wish. Place the dish in the oven, on top of the cookie sheet, and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the top is nicely browned, most of the liquid has been absorbed, and the potatoes are tender all the way through when pierced with a knife. If not served at once, keep warm in a turned-off oven or set over a pan of simmering water.

 For about twenty minutes before this was to come out of the oven, my apartment was filled with the most incredible smell of roasting garlic, potatoes, and even a slightly cheesy note as the top of the gratin caramelized. I pulled it at 45 minutes, although it was still a little loose, for fear the top would burn.

 

The potatoes were delicate and soft, though, and as it cooled it set up more. As you can see from the picture below, it seems to have come out alright. It was a little rich for my taste, but that just means that next time I should perhaps use more milk and less cream. I’m looking forward to making it again, perhaps even nailing it at some point, as it is such a classic French dish, and a lovely way to highlight the humble potato.

September – 2013 Cookbook Challenge
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Someone Else's Cookie (thank goodness!)

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of sweet baked goods, generally speaking. When I was a kid, I didn’t care a whole lot for cookies beyond your basic chocolate chip, and I disliked cake so much that I would eat the frosting and discard the rest. As I grew, so did my taste for pies and tarts and even the occasional perfectly moist slice of devils food, and yet I’ve never been the type to be plagued by thoughts of that half-eaten birthday cake hibernating in the office fridge. What’s more, unless I’m in the throes of an abnormal-for-me craving, I find it incredibly easy to say “no” to cookies of nearly every description, and if you need someone to guard that tray of brownies you were saving for the neighborhood bake sale, I’m your girl.

That being said, I love baking and nearly everything it represents: It’s warm and cozy, snuggly even. It evokes images of grandmothers in frilly aprons propping pies on windowsills to allow them cool.  At the same time baking is often an exact science, so it’s also refined, it’s sumptuous, it’s elegant. Baking is an accomplishment, and it is its own reward; an investment of time and diligence whose return is that one blissful moment of guilt-free indulgence when your work is through at last, and you can finally sample your creation. If all has gone well, and you’ve nailed it, you get that rush of supreme satisfaction that comes when you survey your handiwork and marvel to yourself, “I made this!”

If you’re like me, you follow all of the above with a little dance around the kitchen, and perhaps some exultant humming, but then, your craving satiated, the bakers high begins to mellow. The reality dawns on you that you still have tray after tray of pastry to get through. You only really wanted one cookie or one cupcake, but you’re left with dozens, and while you don’t want to waste them, you don’t want to eat them, either. But then who will? You don’t have family nearby, you’ve never taken the time to meet any of your neighbors, and because you live in Los Angeles, all of your friends are on diets and all of your coworkers are in the middle of a juice cleanse! What in the world were you thinking?!  =begins breathing into a paper bag=

Needless to say that when “Small Batch Baking” caught my eye as I browsed my local book store in the late 2000s, it revolutionized my pastry world.

Author Debby Maugans Nakos, in genius fashion, took beloved recipes that would normally feed a crowd, and reworked them so that they only make two-to-four portions. It’s brilliant! This book became an instant favorite of mine, and several of the recipes have become my go-tos over the years. I love that I don’t need to invent an occasion (“Look, Bob’s wearing that shirt we all think is hilarious!”) or latch onto obscure holidays (“Arbor Day brownies, anyone?”) to justify baking. Now, if I want chocolate cake at 10:00 on a Saturday night, I have only to spend a few minutes throwing ingredients together and into the oven, and then half an hour later, CAKE! I’ve invested very little time, used a minimum of ingredients, and don’t have mounds of extra desserts that I will never, ever get through.

When it came time to do my September cook, and I found myself left with a small portion of pineapple chunks leftover from making pizza, I knew I could turn to “Small Batch Baking” to help me use them up.

Pineapple Upside-down Cake

Makes 2 cakes; serves 2

Ingredients:

 

    • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
    • 1/3 cup canned pineapple tidbits in juice or syrup, well drained
    • 1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar
    • 3 tablespoons buttermilk

If you have trouble using buttermilk quickly enough to justify buying a full quart of it, I’m happy to report that it freezes beautifully. Pour it in ice cube trays, then transfer to a ziptop bag when hardened, so you’ll always have small portions of it available for when those late-night cravings hit.

    • 1 tablespoon light rum
    • Yolk of 1 large egg
    • ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
    • ⅓ cup all-purpose flour
    • ⅓ cup granulated sugar
    • ⅛ teaspoon baking soda
    • ⅛ teaspoon salt
    • Vanilla ice cream, for serving (optional) (I opted not.)

   Pan required:

   1 jumbo muffin pan (¾-cup capacity) (I used some mini springform pans I have.)

   Directions:

    • 1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375º F.
    • 2. Place 1 ½ teaspoons of the butter in each of the 2 muffin cups  cake pans. Bake until the butter is bubbly and beginning to turn golden, 1 minute.
    • 3. Meanwhile, mix the pineapple with the brown sugar in a small bowl. Remove the muffin cake pans from the oven and spoon the pineapple mixture over the butter in the muffin cups pans, dividing it evenly between them. Set the muffin pans aside.
    • 4. Place the buttermilk, rum, egg yolk, and vanilla in a small bowl and whisk to mix.
    • 5. Sift the flour, granulated sugar, baking soda, and salt together into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and half of the buttermilk mixture. Beat with a hand-held electric mixer on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened.

Apparently I chose to do this step by hand. It’s been long enough since this bake that I have no idea why.

    • Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until the batter is lightened and has slightly increased in volume, 45 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Pour in the remaining buttermilk mixture and beat on medium speed until well blended, 20 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
    • 6. Spoon the batter  over the pineapple in the muffin cups pans, dividing it evenly between them, and then smooth the tops. Fill the empty muffin cups halfway with water to prevent them from scorching. Bake the cakes until a toothpick inserted in the center of one comes out clean, 20 to 24 minutes.
    • 7. Remove the ­muffin pans from the oven and place it them on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes. Carefully pour the water out of the muffin cups.
  •  Place a large plate over the muffin pans, and using potholders to hold the plate securely, invert the cakes onto the plate. Tranfer the cakes to serving plates. Serve the cakes warm, with vanilla ice cream if desired.

This is one of those rare times when I don’t have a picture of the finished dish. I’m embarrassed to say that they looked *awful* when I turned them out, and I couldn’t bear to document that. In hindsight, I wish I had anyhow, but it’s far too late now. Rest assured that what they lacked in looks they more than made up for in taste. The cakes were moist and fruity and tangy. One was exactly enough of a dessert fix to appease that very tiny sweet tooth of mine. I took the second one to work and ate it for breakfast the next day, which was perfect. It also made those juice cleansers juuuuuuust a little bit jealous of my indulgent, but not too indulgent meal.

 

August – 2013 Cookbook Challenge
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Image borrowed from huffingtonpost.com

In Atlanta for business in August of 2013, I attended an informal dinner party thrown by some friends. The house where it was held was unbelievable; a vast, yet homey, multilevel wooden mansion next to a creek, on the edge of a gorgeous wooded area.  The place, which we more or less had the run of, had at least three kitchens, and at one point in the evening, I happily found myself wandering through the largest of them, running my fingers along the marbled counter tops, coveting the richly contrasting dark and light wood cabinets and the shiny, state-of-the-art appliances. I must have spent half an hour alone examining the walk-in, high ceilinged closet where all the cookware was kept. Pots and pans of every size and description hung from the walls. Stacked on the me-high series of shelves were sheet trays, chafing dishes, colanders, Dutch ovens, pie tins, cake pans, dessert molds, and anything and everything I have ever put on my list of “Dream Kitchen Supplies”. In triplicate (or so it seemed, anyhow).

Opposite this closet of wonders, far on the other side of the immense kitchen, stood a tall, thin bookshelf, filled with recipe books. Browsing the titles, I was inspired to use one of them as my August entry in the Cookbook Challenge, and being that I was in the South, it seemed only appropriate that I should cook a dish that is about as Southern as they come. “True Grits: Tall Tales and Recipes from the New South”, perched on high shelf, caught my eye, so I climbed the provided step stool and snatched it. (It has since become one of my my life’s goals to own a bookshelf stuffed with cookbooks, so tall that it requires its own stool.)  Sadly, I didn’t have time to read any of the promised “Tall Tales,” as my ride picked that moment to announce our imminent departure, but I was able to select and snap pics of a recipe for grits, an ingredient that people either dig or despise, and which I’d long been curious to try.

Someone Else's Copy of True Grits

 Rosemary and Mushroom Grits

Published by the Junior League of Atlanta, Inc.

 I should quickly note that in the interest of conserving resources, I cut all of the amounts below in half.  

    •  Ingredients:
  •  
    • 3 ½ cups beef broth (I used Better than Bouillon)
    • ¾ cup grits
    • 1 clove of garlic, minced
    • ¾ cup grated Parmigiano-Regiano cheese
    • 2 ½ tablespoons butter or margarine
    • 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
    • 1 clove of garlic, minced
    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 1 sprig of rosemary, chopped
    • 2 cups fresh shiitake mushrooms (I couldn’t get shiitakes, so I used a dehydrated mushroom blend I had on hand)
    • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (No parsley. Honestly, I simply forgot to pick this up at the store. Derp!)
    • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  •   Bring the broth to a boil in a saucepan. Stir in the grits and 1 clove of garlic; reduce heat.

      • Cook, covered, for 20 minutes or until thickened, stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat. Stir in the cheese, butter and pepper.

      • Cook over low heat until the cheese and butter melt, stirring frequently.
      • Sauté 1 clove of garlic in the olive oil in a skillet until tender but not brown. Stir in the rosemary and mushrooms.

At this point in the process, it smelled amazing. I mean, how can you go wrong with beefy broth, mushrooms, garlic, and cheese?

 Cook over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes or until brown, stirring frequently. Remove from heat. Stir in the parsley, salt and pepper. Let stand until cool.

      • Spoon ½ of the grits mixture into a large baking dish.
      • Spread with the mushroom mixture; top with the remaining grits mixture.

As you can see, because I cut the recipe in half, I didn’t have enough grits to fill the entire dish. Ah well.

The grits mixture was so thick, it was tough to spread, especially the last layer, on top of the mushrooms. It just kept pushing the mushrooms around. It’s possible I reduced it too much.

    • Chill, covered, for several hours to overnight. Cut into squares or desired shapes.
    • Variation: If you prefer to serve the grits squares hot, arrange on a baking sheet. Broil until light brown.

In spite of having chilled it for four hours, and given how thick the grits were, I had trouble cutting them into squares. :/

Full disclosure: For the first time since I began blogging about food, I prepared a dish that I actually *hated*. Just utterly loathed. It’s not easy for me to admit that, and for a while I struggled with what to write here. I didn’t set out to be a critic; I just wanted to take on a fun challenge, to give myself a theme, a framework within which to work, so that I could document my adventures along the way. As such, I try to skew my assessments in a positive direction, but I’m finding it difficult to do so here. Biting into the grits was like chomping on a coagulated hunk of rubbery, overpoweringly umami-fied, day-old mushroom gravy with sand in it. I couldn’t even bear to swallow it. =shudder=

That being said, “True Grits” won a couple of awards when it was published, and was nominated for others. What’s more, I was able to find this very recipe shared and recommended elsewhere on the Internet, so clearly it has an appeal. Perhaps this dish just really, really isn’t to my taste.  It’s also entirely possible that I made a mistake in the cooking of it. Perhaps my measurements were off when mixing the broth, causing the flavor to reach ridiculous depths. Perhaps shiitakes were vital, and my mushroom mixture brought all manner of wrong notes along with it. Or, as suggested earlier, I may well have cooked the grits down too far. Whatever the reason, though, I’m glad I didn’t make a full batch!

This story does have a happy ending. I was able to repurpose much of the dish so that it didn’t go to waste. I watered it down, added some white wine, strained out and binned the mushrooms (they really were overwhelming), and added some spices. I was left with a sort of strange, but infinitely more palatable, sauce, which I then used to top a bowl of macaroni. And you know what? I kind of liked the grits.

 

Curried Parsnip Soup by Sal Godfrey
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I love lists, always have. I don’t know why, but there is something about pulling together a bunch of straggling items and bringing order to chaos that I find amusing. When I was a child I made lists of anything that took my fancy, no matter how ridiculous. I once made note of all the words I could think of that ended in “-ly”, and another with words ending in “-tion”. For fun.

You can see why I prefer typing. My handwriting is abysmal!

It should come as no surprise, then, that I have a constantly evolving tally of things I want to try my hand at in the kitchen. Whether it’s an ingredient that I’ve never worked with before, a technique I’d like to learn, or a recipe that I botched once and hope one day to revisit, that list is a constant presence in my life. I call it my “Ingredients, Techniques, and Things I Want to Make/Work With and/or Learn More About In the Kitchen” list. It’s a working title.  On that roster, sandwiched between the raw shrimp and the croquembouche (Erg, maybe “sandwiched” was the wrong word), we have had “Parsnips”.

Somebody Else's Parsnips

I’d worked with Parsnips once before, when cooking my fantastic friend, Aarti’s, Parsnip Hummus, which was featured on her Food Network program, “Aarti Party”. Try it for yourself! That was years back, though, and I was eager to revisit the root veg. Enter my Twitter pal, Sal Godfrey.

Grab a copy of her book at Amazon!

Sal’s handy book shows people how they can make delicious food without paying an arm and a leg for supplies. Plus it’s chock full of helpful tips, such as how to make the most of your time and resources by planning ahead, how to devise weekly meals around a central component, and ways in which to use up leftover ingredients.

One thing I really appreciate about Sal’s recipes is that most of them feed just two people. As households are getting smaller and smaller, and the number of singles and two-person families is on the rise, cooking enough to feed an army just isn’t always as practical as it used to be. Even if you treat a conventional recipe like a batch cook (I’m a huge fan of batch cooks), it takes time to portion things out for freezing or canning or otherwise preserving. Some evenings when I get home from a long day at work, I’m not in the mood for a massive project; I just want to make enough food for dinner, and perhaps for leftovers the following night.

Funnily enough, the parsnip dish I decided to make from “Cheaper Than Chips”, Sal’s Curried Parsnip Soup was not one of those recipes for two. No matter, I simply cut it in half, which worked out quite nicely, although it still made enough to be eaten over several work lunches. (Recipe below is the full version.)

 Curried Parsnip Soup

 Ingredients

      • 4 large parsnips
      • 1 onion
      • 2 cloves of garlic
      • 1 tbsp curry powder (more if you’re a curry fiend)
      • 600ml chicken stock (or vegetable, if you want to make this vegetarian)
      • 2 big spoonfuls natural yoghurt
      • Salt & white pepper
      • Butter for frying
      • Bread & cheese, to serve

Makes 4 portions

 Directions

 First of all, dice the onion and chop the garlic finely. Get them both sizzling gently in a generous scoop of melted butter…,

I used this much.

 …and once the onion has turned golden, add the curry powder and stir through. The point of adding the curry powder before the liquid (which may seem counter-intuitive) is that it means all the lumps are broken up, which stops the soup being at all gritty with undissolved bits of curry powder.

 This is a great bit of advice, and I love the fact that Sal takes the time to give us the reasoning behind this step. Understanding why cooking works the way it does is vital to becoming truly proficient at it. In that vein, I’ll add that another advantage to using the curry at this point is that it has an opportunity to really bloom on the heat and to develop deeper flavors.

 Put the kettle on to boil to make the stock, and then peel and roughly chop your parsnips. Use one stock cube and the boiling water to make up the stock in a jug, then add it to the pan with the parsnips. Bring the liquid to a simmer and then cover and leave it for about twenty minutes.

 I did things a bit differently here, as I’m not accustomed to working with bouillon cubes. So I simply omitted most of the above steps in favor of using canned vegetable broth. Also, I’m not quick enough with a knife to be able to chop all of that parsnip and get it in the pan before my onion/garlic/curry mixture started to burn, so I turned the stove off for a bit while I finished that task. In future, I would probably have all of that cutting done before starting to cook, if only to make things go more smoothly for myself.

When you’re ready, take the pan off the heat and purée the vegetables with a handheld immersion blender (see The Secret Ingredients).

 

Finally, add the natural yoghurt and stir through until it melts away.

 

You might want to add more water at this stage, if you want your soup a little thinner.  Season well with salt and white pepper, taste to make sure everything is scrumptious, then serve a big bowlful and scoff it with plenty of bread and cheese.

 Now, that last step gave me a little pause. On the surface, it seems a simple instruction, but when it came time to fulfill it, I realized I wasn’t entirely sure how. What kind of bread? What kind of cheese? Will any old cheese do? Are they to be served on the side? Floating in the soup? Separate? Together? I might naturally assume one ought to dunk the bread, but then what to do with the cheese? I put my thinking cap on. Sal, as you may have noticed from the alternate spellings of certain words, is English. In what format do the English most seem to love the classic bread/cheese combination? =snaps fingers= Cheesy toast!

I sawed off a slice of homemade French bread and grated equal parts sharp cheddar and mozzarella on top, then put it in the toaster oven until the sides and bottom of the bread were crisp and the top was a thick, tantalizing blanket of ooey gooiness.

Dipping this inspired concoction into the bright, velvety soup, I let it soak for a moment, and then took a tangy, stretchy bite. Salivary. Glands. On overload.  The soup, already a delicate marriage of savory and bright, took on greater depth with cheese as a foundation. Its fattiness tamed the carrot-like sharpness of the parsnip, while the ‘snip (with a little help from the yogurt) kept the rich soup-and-cheese combo from coming across as stodgy. The costar of the soup, the curry powder, with its sweet warmth, served as a lovely bridge connecting all the disparate flavors.

This dish is just about everything I want in a new recipe: it’s a departure from what I would normally make, employing some familiar ingredients, but also a few not-so-familiar, and tapping into flavor combinations I am not used to experiencing on a regular basis. Being still somewhat newish to parsnips, with their almost-but-not-quite-carrotty flavor, I honestly don’t know that I, personally, would crave this soup regularly (although reliving it through writing is making me rethink that stance). However, it sure did make a wonderful change from my norm, and made my kitchen smell absolutely gorgeous, to boot. What’s more, Sal’s conversational tone throughout made me feel as if she was looking over my shoulder, monitoring my progress, and offering pointers as I went along.

So for now, I think we can safely take “parsnips” off that list of things I want to work with, and add it to the one that tracks “Foods I Wish I Liked More And Maybe Would If I Gave Them a Better Chance.” In the meantime, Sal’s suggestion for using up leftovers urges her reader to employ some of the extra natural yogurt in Sal’s Chicken & Chickpea Curry. I may just have to add that to my list of “Friends’ Recipes I Need to Make and Then Blog About”.

 

July – 2013 Cookbook Challenge
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As I’ve written in the past, I didn’t get serious about Food until I was in my 30s, and when I did, I learned the way most home cooks do: in a higgledy piggledy fashion, bouncing from subject to subject as they caught my interest, studying some areas intensely and missing others entirely. This was true of not only ingredients and techniques, but also of the personalities that make up the vast, and vastly diverse, culinary landscape. There are so many wonderful chefs, cookbook authors, restaurateurs, food critics, farmers, vintners, butchers, bakers, charcuterie makers, and so on and so forth. Getting to know the names and the faces of the folks whose work has impacted the way in which we feed ourselves has, understandably, been yet another aspect of my ongoing education.

One hugely influential person I wish I’d learned about earlier in my culinary journey was Marion Cunningham.

Marion Cunningham

Sadly, I didn’t become aware of Cunningham until she passed away in 2012. Seeing the outpouring of love from the foodish types in my Twitter feed, I was embarrassed to admit I had no idea who she was, and immediately turned to Google to rectify that fact. Apart from seemingly being universally loved and respected within the community, Cunningham was a tireless champion of the home cook, and a deep believer in the importance of learning one’s way around the kitchen. She spent decades as a wife and mother before dipping a toe into the culinary world at the age of 50. Once she did, she wasted no time, assisting James Beard in his cooking classes, penning award-winning cookbooks, contributing pieces to numerous food magazines and newspapers, and even hosting her own television show on the Food Network.

Two of the books Cunningham wrote were new editions of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which were published in 1979 and 1990. That she should work on those particular tomes is especially fitting when you consider that back in the 1800s Fannie Farmer herself was also a late-blooming, pioneering culinary instructor best known for educating home cooks.

Fannie Farmer also taught members of the medical community about diet and nutrition and helped to standardize cooking measurements!

As you can imagine, the stories of both of these women resonate pretty strongly with me, so when I found one of Cunningham’s editions of Farmer’s cookbook on the shelf of a used book store, I was thrilled!

 

In addition to the requisite recipes, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook is chock full of helpful advice for both the budding and the seasoned cook, including information on cooking techniques, proper food storage methods, descriptions of and uses for pantry staples, drawings of common herbs, and so much more. It’s no wonder the book has been in print for more than a century!

Given that July tends to find my gardening partner and I awash with fresh produce, I’m always interested in new and interesting ways to use it, so this month I turned to Marion Cunningham and Fannie Farmer for help.

Two kinds of tomatoes, Thai eggplants and...you guessed it...zucchini

The book has a lovely, simple Frittata recipe, which seemed perfect. It is:

 Frittata with Cheese and Vegetables

  •  Ingredients:
  •  3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 small onion, chopped

  • 6 eggs

  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

  • ¾ cup drained and diced cooked vegetables, a combination of 2 or more: zucchini, asparagus, spinach, green beans, eggplant, artichoke hearts, tomatoes

Like a dork, I failed to see that the ingredients specified cooked vegetables, and I used mine raw. They worked just fine, and added a lovely crunch to the finished dish.

½ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

      • ½ teaspoon thyme, crumbled
      • Salt to taste
      • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Directions:

Preheat the broiler. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet. Add the garlic and onion and cook until soft.

 

Remove the skillet from the heat. In a bowl, mix the eggs with the remaining ingredients.

 

Put the skillet back on very low heat. Pour in the egg mixture, stirring to incorporate the garlic and onions.

 

Cover and cook 2-3 minutes, until the edges shrink a little.

Sometimes you have to make do with the lids you've got

Slip under the broiler to brown lightly.

Mmmm...veggie goodness

And there  you have it, a cast iron pan full of egg-encased sunshine (and a little cheese).

If I have one criticism about this recipe it’s that I would have liked to have been given a hint about how long to leave it under the broiler so I didn’t have to keep opening the drawer and checking it. Otherwise, this was a lovely, simple recipe, fresh and satisfying, and a great way to use up random veg.

In an industry like showbiz, which prizes youthfulness, it can be a bit intimidating to switch gears, and career goals, in midstream. I’m thankful to have examples like those of Marion Cunningham and Fannie Farmer, who would never have made a “30 Under 30” list. They remind me that it’s okay to reinvent oneself whenever inspiration strikes, and that the important thing is to work hard and stick close to whatever it is that makes us excited to get out of bed in the morning.

 

June – 2013 Cookbook Challenge
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A few years back, I was browsing Facebook when I came across a post from a friend, Sarah, asking for folks to help crowdfund her friend’s cookbook. Curious, I checked it out. The only thing I remember of the Kickstarter campaign at this point was the author saying he’d always hoped to have his own cook book, and now he just needed help making that dream a reality. I’ve always been a big believer in the importance of following a dream. As a child of the 80s, I sat through a seemingly endless number of motivational assemblies wherein die-hard hippie folk band/yo-yo illusionists would sing Puff the Magic Dragon and remind us that we “can be whatever [we] want to be.” With all that tie-died positivity behind me, believing in following a dream is almost obligatory.

At the point at which I saw my friend’s friend’s (you with me?) Kickstarter campaign, that conviction had never been greater.  I had just battled through a gut churning period of self-examination, of reevaluating my own lifelong dream of being a working actor, a goal I had cherished since I was three years old. Now, at 30-something, with my heart no longer in it, I found myself asking, “What next?” If I wasn’t an actor, what was I? I had no idea. Fortunately, I had Food by my side to help blunt the edges of my existential quandary, and in time I came to realize that Food itself was what was next. Drawing on my entertainment background and my inherent swottiness, I forged a new cooking-centric dream and started chasing it hard, reveling in the fresh sense of purpose and vitality it gave me.

This was the head and heart space I was in when Sarah asked the Facebook collective to help her friend (and future boyfriend, it would turn out) to publish his cookbook. Something about it stirred a sense of camaraderie within me, and I was moved to assist. I donated enough to get a signed copy of that book because hello, new cookbook, and I’m so very glad I did. It turns out that the author was Chef Nathan Lyon of “A Lyon in the Kitchen” and several other cooking shows. His book , “Great Food Starts Fresh,” went on be included in The Washington Post’s “Top Cookbooks” list, and Nathan himself has since been nominated for an Emmy. If that’s not inspiration to continue following one’s dreams, I don’t know what is!

Visit www.chefnathanlyon.com to get your own copy!

When I decided to embark on this cookbook challenge of mine, I knew, of course, that I had to include Nathan’s book, and when I saw that said book contained a recipe calling for  zucchini, it felt like fate. I had helped to fund a tiny piece of his book, and now he would help me to use up an eentsy fraction of what has become the bane of this gardener’s green-thumbed existence.

Seriously, if zucchini were more structurally sound, I probably could have built a summer home out of my haul.

Well, maybe a dog house.

Nathan’s book is broken down into seasons, which is a huge help for those of us who are trying to eat local ingredients when they naturally occur, rather than supporting the shipment of hothouse veg from all over the globe. I say “trying”. I do far better than I used to, but I’m still working on changing my environmentally unfriendly ways.

The book even includes a fifth “season”, Chocolate! (I am SO going to have to try my hand at his pots de créme recipe one of these days. Yuh-um!)

For now, though, we cook from “Summer”, and Chef Lyon’s recipe for:

Summer Squash Salad with Lemon, Capers,
and Pecorino Romano Cheese

Yield: 6 servings

This is what I'm aiming for, folks, only less yellowy. Wish me luck!

Vinaigrette:
2  tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Monster lemon that came from the tree at work

Or did it come from the ground under said tree?

I don't think I've ever cut open a lemon that had started to sprout before! Cool! Also unusable...probably.

*ahem* I’ll just get a new lemon.

Ah, better. Also? New knife! Yay!

1 medium  shallot, peeled and finely diced (3 tablespoons)

3  tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Salad:
3  small zucchini (or one honking monster, seeded)

Zucchini: From the makers of Lincoln Logs

Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, not pre-grated, for serving
1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley

1. In a small container with a tight fitting lid, combine the vinaigrette ingredients, close the lid tightly, and shake well to combine. Or, whisk  to combine the ingredients in a small bowl.

2. Using a mandoline or your vegetable peeler, carefully slice the zucchini lengthwise into 1/16-ince thick slices lengthwise. The slices will resemble wide pasta noodles.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Place the zucchini in a medium bowl.

4. Whisk the olive oil into the shallot mixture and add the capers.

On a plate, loosely arrange some zucchinis slices into a small pile, then spoon some of the caper vinaigrette over the top.

5. Lastly, using a vegetable peeler, top with some shavings of cheese and some of the parsley.

How'd I do?

The verdict? This was a lovely way to eliminate yet another of my zucchs. The salad is tangy and fresh, and very light, with the pecorino romano adding a welcome touch of warmth and body. While it would make a fantastic starter, as it is designated in the book, my friend and I ate it as a whole meal, and we were very happy.

I’ll definitely let you guys know when I dive into “Chocolate”!

 

Images from “Great Food Starts Fresh” are copyright Nathan Lyon ©2011 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

 


Chef Watson – Ground Beef Stroganoff
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Chef Watson – Ground Beef Stroganoff

  •  As you may recall, I have been part of a group of beta testers
  • noodling around with the IBM/Bon Appétit software collaboration,
  • Chef Watson. The following is another of the dishes
  •  I prepared using the good Chef’s experimental recipes.

Wanting inspiration beyond my usual go-tos, I turned to Chef Watson to help me make use of some leftover ground beef, Greek yogurt, and, of course, zucchini. (I will never be rid of zucchini; it is my lot. If it is possible to die from zucchini poisoning, I am convinced that is how I will go.) Plugging those items into the system and scanning the collection of dishes in Step 2, “What kind of dish would you like to make?”, what caught my eye was stroganoff. My mother used to make stroganoff quite a lot when I was a kid, so while I enjoyed it, it was something I had needed to take an extended break from for many years. Now, though, I was thwacked with a 2×4 of nostalgia, so I decided to give it a go.

For those who don’t know, stroganoff is a traditional Russian dish, made up of beef and sour cream on top of some type of noodle. A glance at Wikipedia tells us that it came to the United States by way of American servicemen stationed in China around the time of World War II. How it got to China, the article doesn’t say. Way to let me down, Wikipedia.

What Watson provided me with was an interesting mix of options, some recipes calling for things like beer, fish sauce, soy sauce, cinnamon, and ginger. Chef Watson is still a work in progress, so some of the combinations and proportion of ingredients sound fairly dubious, but some are intriguing, when filtered through the sieve of good cooking judgment, like those in the dish I ultimately chose. (Note, my tweaks are in orange.)

Chef Watson – Ground Beef Stroganoff

Chef Watson suggests . . .

Sheila modifies. . .

INGREDIENTS LIST

4 servings

Meat
5 oz 1lb ground beef

alcoholic beverage
434 fl oz Free pour ;) white wine

pasta
534 oz fettuccine 1 box of dittalini

vegetable
114  cup ¾ cup, chopped zucchini

oil/fat
414 oz olive oil (divided) winged it

herb
312 tbsp 1 tbsp thyme

stock/soup
12 cup beef stock

condiment
14 cup Worcestershire sauce

dairy
12 cup  1.5 cup sour cream
1 cup greek yogurt
½ cup whole milk

seasoning/spice
134 tbsp 1 tsp black pepper
134 tsp ½ tsp cayenne pepper

When it comes to Watson, more often than not it’s best to read the instructions, have a good giggle, and then chuck them out and do what you think is best with the ingredients. This is why the program calls them “Suggested Steps”. (Unfortunately, this does not make Watson overly noob-friendly, but that’s something the development team are working on correcting.) With this recipe, however, they were more or less workable. I skipped a few steps (hard to do a spice rub on ground beef), but more or less followed Watson’s directions.

SUGGESTED STEPS

1. Sprinkle pepper melange and salt over both sides of ground beef; press to adhere.
2. Heat 1/3 of the oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.
3. Add ground beef; cook to desired doneness.
4. Transfer beef to plate; tent with foil.
5. Add 1/3 of the oil and zucchini to same skillet; saute about 4 minutes.
6. Add broth and white wine; boil 2 minutes.
7. Add sour cream; boil.
8. Whisk in worcestershire sauce.
9. Meanwhile, cook fettuccine in pot of boiling salted water stirring occasionally.
10. Drain.
11. Return to pot; toss with thyme and 1/3 or the oil. This was my mistake. These instructions were so simple, I was almost completely off book at this point, so I just chucked all but the pasta together and cooked it that way.
12. Season with salt and pepper.
13. Divide among plates.
14. Slice ground beef; place atop fettuccine.
15. Spoon sauce over.

Guess what! This was a *great* dish. You’ll notice I made huge adjustments in the dairy department, ingredients-wise. That was done on the fly because the Worcestershire sauce made the whole thing so incredibly sharp and salty that it needed something to calm it down a bit. Once that was added, though, it was scrumptious; creamy and tangy with a lovely umami element I don’t associate with traditional stroganoff.

Fin

Yes, it *looks* terrible, but who needs to always have pretty food? This is a case of true beauty being on the inside, and I think I’ll be keeping this recipe in my back pocket for when I want a break from my regular dinner routine.

Hummus Recipe
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At the age of 20, I left home to move to the San Francisco Bay Area. I was still very religious in those days, having been raised in a strict Non-denominational “born again” household, and so I quickly set out to find a church I could call home. To my delight, I discovered a Messianic, or Christian Jewish, congregation that met in The City*. While that may sound like an unusual landing spot for a shiksa, I had grown up eating latkes and matza bread, celebrating Passover, and listening to “The Liberated Wailing Wall”, a musical group sprung from the ranks of Jews for Jesus, all thanks to my father’s enduring fascination with Judaism. (Dad even wrote and published his own Haggadah, or Passover Seder script.)

One of my favorite albums, at one point in my life.

The congregation, warm and welcoming, gathered on Shabbat, Friday night, in a small church building in the Richmond district. Coming, as I did, from a branch of the faith whose creeds were sometimes fluid and dependent on the whims of the current administration and their interpretation of scripture, I took comfort in the deep sense of tradition I found in my new spiritual abode. The idea that there was a certain, prescribed way of doing things, that they had been done the same way for thousands of years in many cases, offered a measure of stability I hadn’t known I was craving. I loved celebrating ancient holidays, with all of their ceremony, singing the Sh’ma during services and hearing the blessings, spoken in Hebrew, over the lighting of the candles and the wine and the challah.

 

 

After services each week, there was a period of fellowship where we would mingle, spend time chatting, and nosh on food furnished by various members of the congregation.  Here, as well as  at dinners I was graciously invited to, I was introduced to a whole new world of food, including the above-mentioned challah, matzo ball soup, rugelach, knishes, gefilte fish, Manischewitz wine (snobs may balk, but I still think the blackberry is a real treat!),  and of course hummus.

 

 

Now, I had to have eaten hummus before then. After all, Falafel’s Drive-In in San Jose has been a family favorite since before I could walk, and they do a lovely hummus, as I would later discover. The odds that this was my first experience with the stuff are not good.  Still, for whatever reason, and not to disparage anyone else’s flavors, the first time I remember eating it, the first time it made an impression on me, was during one of those after-service fellowship sessions. I was so impressed with the beige concoction that I tracked down the woman who’d brought it, praising her handiwork up one side and down the other, and begging to know how it was made. She seemed almost incredulous, as if it was ludicrous that I should find her humble bean dip so moving.  Still, she complied, nonchalantly rattling off a list of ingredients: garbanzo beans, tahini, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice. She gave no proportions, just components; nonetheless, I felt confident I could replicate it.

So, what...? Half a jar sound about right?

This all took place in the days before online recipes were as plentiful as they are today, and I wasn’t terribly kitchen savvy back then, but that didn’t stop me. I hunted down garbanzo beans and tahini, and one sunny Saturday afternoon threw them in a blender and waited for the magic to happen. Some friends came to visit, and I proudly offered them a taste. The first brave soul to dive in gasped almost immediately and, fighting watery eyes, exclaimed, “WOAH, there is a LOT of garlic in there!” Needless to say, I ended up throwing that batch out, and the next and the next….  No matter how I adjusted what I was doing, I just couldn’t get that pesky garlic right. It was meant to be used raw, but that gave it such a bite that even one lonely clove would overpower the other flavors.

I gave up for a while after that, not attempting the dish again for many years. When I did, it was as a more seasoned cook, and while I came closer, even using powdered garlic instead of raw, I just couldn’t get it right. Then one day, on a whim, it occurred to me to try roasting the garlic instead. Bingo! It took an entire head of garlic, but roasting it brought all of those deep, sweet notes to the party, allowing it to pull together with the creamy bitterness of the tahini, the nuttiness of the garbanzo beans, and the tart tang of the lemon juice, instead of fighting them, to create one cohesive, crave-worthy dish. Hooray!

 

 

Recently, a friend who is on a hummus kick asked if I’d share my recipe with her because she was tired of spending money buying the stuff. I caught myself starting to shoot off a list of ingredients, as the woman at the Messianic congregation had done all those years ago. Then I remembered that it had taken me about 15 years and a lot of binned ingredients to get it to taste the way it ought. Surely I didn’t wish a similar fate on my friend! So I made a couple batches of dip, measuring and writing down proportions as I went. Out of curiosity, I looked up some recipes online, and mine is extremely similar to several of them.  So basically, I reinvented the wheel, but I’m kind of proud of having done so. Rather than follow someone else’s map, I stumbled and bumbled my way there, wandering my own personal culinary desert, if you will, and ended up with a more intimate understanding of hummus and its ingredients than I might have otherwise.

*Locals refer to San Francisco as “The City” or “SF”. Daring to call it “Frisco” or “San Fran” might get you jumped.

Sheila’s 15-Year Hummus (Hee hee!)

Ingredients:

2 (15-ounce) cans of garbanzo beans
Cook’s note: If working with dried beans, you’ll want 2 ¾ cups soaked beans.
1 whole head garlic, roasted
1 cup retained garbanzo bean juice or water
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup tahini
Juice of one medium lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
2 teaspoons salt

Instructions:

Open cans and drain juice into a measuring cup.  Retain one cup of juice (if there’s not enough to make one cup, water can be added).  Discard any extra juice.

In a blender, combine garbanzo beans, garlic, olive oil, tahini, salt and lemon juice.

Blend until smooth

Eat!  :D

 

Roasted Garlic How-to
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I adore garlic.  I depend on it.  It’s one of the basic building blocks of many of my dishes.  Heck, I’ve even been to the Gilroy Garlic Festival a time or two in my day.  I will confess, though, that I’m not the biggest fan of eating it raw.  Uncooked it’s so biting and assertive that it overpowers all of the other flavors in whatever I’m making and kills my pallet.  I mean, if that’s what you’re going for, then great.  It’s not for me.

That’s why roasting is so brilliant.  Not only does it tame garlic’s bite, but it mellows it out, makes it more laid back and chill, and gives it a warm toastiness.  Roasted garlic is perfect for adding to an otherwise “no cook” recipe or even spreading on warm, crusty bread. And you know, it couldn’t be easier to make.

 Ingredients:

1 whole head of garlic
2 tablespoons of olive oil

 Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Remove most (but not all) of the paper from the garlic.

Cut the top off to expose most of the individual cloves.  Carefully working around the sides, cut the tops of any cloves that were too short to be cut in the last step.

Place in a small baking pan, cut side up.  If the head doesn’t want to stand upright, crumple up some aluminum foil and place it under one side to even it out.

Drizzle one tablespoon of olive oil on top, so that it seeps in between the cloves.  Give it a moment and then drizzle the second tablespoon the same way.

Cover with foil…

…and bake for 50 – 60 minutes or until cloves are brownish and squishy.  Allow to cool before handling.

To remove the roasted cloves, hold the entire head in one hand and use a butter knife to slip between the paper and scoop the pulp from its husk.  Warning: this will get messy, so have paper towels, warm water, and soap handy!