Monday, December 31, 2007

Sage, Walnut and Dried Fig Stuffing

Sage, Walnut and Dried Fig Stuffing

There was a time, in the Dark and Tasteless Ages, when food blogs were nonexistent in my life, until a foodie friend enlightened me and pointed me down the "path." One of her favorites is 101 Cookbooks, and my first click there revealed a most interesting stuffing recipe. With Thanksgiving imminent, I planned to bring it to our annual Orphan's potluck, only to find that another genuine vegetarian was already bringing vegetarian stuffing. So this got filed away until the perfect opportunity: Christmas.

One thing I didn't read in the blog post was a comment about how most of the components can be prepped ahead of time, then all tossed together before baking. So it was after a big breakfast, gift-opening, a nap and much lollygagging on Christmas morning that I discovered how many aspects there were to this recipe. Fortunately, my most excellent sister-in-law served as sous-chef, though she did most of the work.

As every recipe must endure in my limited kitchen, we had numerous technical problems. The sugared walnuts were a lot of work and somehow didn't get crispy or sweet (next time, I'll just buy candied walnuts at Trader Joe's). I lost track of the cranberries and overcooked them. Chopping a cup of dried figs was a time-sink I just didn't need (see previous note about overcooking cranberries). My feeble oven was preoccupied with a turkey, so this had to get baked in an 8x8 glass dish in a toaster oven, and expanded until it hit the top! It was barely moist enough, though that could have been due to any number of previous technical issues.

Despite all these challenges, it was fabulous. Rich in flavor, and stunning in its variety of colors and shapes. The sweet infusion of the figs contrasted with the slightly-sour punch of the cranberries made each bite delightful and surprising. The rosemary bread my sister-in-law bought for the base was perfect. Next time, I'd use more sage, and not chop the figs so finely, since it was easy to lose my meticulously infinitesmal fig pieces. I'd also try the suggestion to use a slightly herb vegetable stock (from an herb boullion) for yet another herb layer.

My photo isn't nearly as pretty as the one on the blog site, but the stuffing really was. We (well, the Royal "we") also made some bagged Pepperidge Farm stuffing, since the sage stuffing contained a double-whammy no-no for my husband (cranberries! figs!). What a contrast. The bagged stuff literally paled next to it, and there was no comparison in flavor or good ol' homey feeling. Or in preparation work, ahem.

This is such a special holiday sort of recipe that it's hard to picture an occasion worthy enough before next Thanksgiving or Christmas. I think I'll just have to make it twice next year!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Breakfast Bread Pudding

Breakfast Bread Pudding

Once again, idle Food Network channel-surfing results in accidental inspiration. It's bound to happen if I come across a Barefoot Contessa episode.

This is a bread pudding that's a really classy twist on french toast, soaking brioche in a lot of eggs and cream -- can't go wrong with that! And, being an Ina Garten recipe, predictably it contains orange zest, a nice touch. I used a store-bought brioche loaf from Whole Foods, and with that it was easy to prepare and bake, and came out looking beautiful.

And it is so good! It's tasty and slightly different, with enough sweetness from the brioche that it doesn't need the "serving suggestion" maple syrup, ultimately resulting in less of a sugar fix than regular French Toast and syrup.

But I do have a fairly important criticism of the recipe: it takes a long time! First you have to soak the brioche in the batter for 15 minutes, then bake the whole thing for almost an hour. If the breakfast cook is up before the rest of the household, or "breakfast" is really a leisurely brunch, then it can work quite well. This preparation is too special to be gobbled down on a weekday before dashing off to work anyway.

Ina advises to put the raisins between two layers of brioche pieces so they won't burn in the oven.

Soaked and ready for the oven. The orange zest ends up on top, since it sinks to the bottom of the ultra-thin batter and pours out last.

My camera didn't get to the final product before the Christmas Day brunchers did!

This one has bubbled to the top of my special-day breakfast repertoire.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Cuban Beef Picadillo

Cuban Beef Picadillo

I cut this recipe out of the newspaper some years ago, long before my nouveau-foodie-ism. I'm really not sure why. I just noticed now that the recipe is actually reprinted from a Williams-Sonoma book -- that authenticates it.

I had to make a few changes though. The recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of chili powder, a strong flavor I'm not crazy about, so I cut it back to 1 tablespoon. I didn't have enough beef broth, so I filled the gap with vegetable broth. I left out the raisins, since any form of fruit, dried or otherwise, instantly nixes the already slim chance that my husband will like it.

I really, really liked this. It's easy to make, has no unusual ingredients, and has a Mediterraneany-spice aspect to it that I love. I think that's the allspice, my new favorite flavor. This, to me, finds that sweet spot between flavor and heat -- that is, really tasty without being spicy-hot.

But, my opinion matters for zip around here. My husband was "so-so" on it and left most of it on his plate. My older son wouldn't even try it, and my flexible younger son was persuaded only after I picked out all the red "potamos" and promised him chicken parmesan if he really tried it.

To me, this is the best ground beef gets, but I'll have to shelve this one until I find like-minded allspice enthusiasts.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Braised Leeks with Sel de Mer

Braised Leeks with Sel de Mer

I've always had a soft spot for leeks, I think because they remind me of my mother. For some reason, I associate leek soup and leeks in soup with her. I've never made anything with leeks though (Knorr soup mixes don't count).

So this ultra-simple recipe I caught on a Food network show, one I've only ever watched 10 minutes of, was just the ticket for this leek virgin. How can you ever go wrong drowning something in butter and wine?

There being so few ingredients, however, the quality of each one really matters. My leek-loving mother being French and all, I knew that Sel de Mer is a ritzy fancy way of saying "Sea Salt," which I have. I used an inexpensive Trader Joe's chardonnay for the wine, and ordinary butter.

And oh, the fragrant and enticing scents that circulated in my grungy kitchen when the leeks were cooking...!

But the leeks themselves turned out tough. I heeded the admonition to wash them very carefully, but I should have left out the tougher outer layers. The few inner pieces that were tender were exquisite, but the rest of it was stringy and hard to cut.

Before and after cooking.

Still, now that I know a little more about leeks, this one will definitely be added to my repertoire of fancy-sounding but easy vegetable dishes I'll make when Bonne Maman is visiting. I wonder how to say "leek" in French?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Spanish Chicken Cutlets

Spanish Chicken Cutlets

This recipe is one of the reasons I like Rachael Ray so much. I caught her making this some months ago, and was immediately piqued that something that looked so good appeared to be very simple, and all with ingredients I'd heard of and probably had.

I've never dared time-test Ms. Ray's 30-minute recipes, though she really does make them very convincingly in the 30 minutes alloted for her show. That includes pulling things out of the pantry, peeling and chopping, measuring everything (not like my nemesis Paula Deen whose ingredients are all pre-measured in handy little bowls). This recipe in particular involves the food processor, which inexplicably adds an instant 10 minutes to my time, but on the whole, 30-Minute Meals are uncomplicated.

Once the cutlets are coated, the actual cooking is very easy and fast. On the TV show, she mentions that you can finish off the cooking in the oven, and I did that this time too.

I have made the accompanying olive rice, but the prevailing attitude in this household is is DON'T MESS WITH RICE MOM.

The first time I made these cutlets, it was a huge hit all around. This most recent round, my husband said he thought it was a little oily, and this was the time I finished the cooking in the oven. I'm not sure what to make of that. My sons loved it the first time, other times, they were so-so, but any number of things can distract little boys from food critiquing. The real score was that my almost-toothless 14-month-old couldn't get enough of cut-up slivers of it.

And I absolutely love this. The crunchy, nutty crust and the sherry-based sauce makes it downright luxurious. The effort involved in shopping and preparing this dish is miniscule compared to the payoff. Real bang for your buck. Rachael Ray, you can Yum-O and EVOO your way to my kitchen any time!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Lemony Snickets

Lemony Snickets (PDF)
Lemony Snickets (magazine link)

I didn't mean to do it. Honest. It's just so hectic leaving the pediatrician's office that sometimes I unwittingly walk out with one of their waiting-room magazines. Which is how I ended up with one December/January 2008 issue of Parenting.

Normally I have little use for these magazines, but often their food sections have creative and very useful ideas. This one had a simple recipe with a tempting photo for a lemon-ball sort of cookie, with an intriguing ingredient: ricotta cheese. I was hooked.

The recipe was easy to make, though it has a silly anomaly. The first step says to preheat the oven, but the third step says to chill the dough for an hour! I wish recipe-writers would get out of the habit of always calling for preheating first thing.

I actually had to chill the dough overnight, instead of an hour, and in retrospect, this caused some problems. The first balls I rolled were uneven and had lots of contours and even folds, but the second batch of balls I rolled had a much more even surface. The extra warmup time made the dough more compliant and easier to roll. The cookies that were smoother were a lot easier to spread glaze onto, also.

For glazing and sprinkling, I put the cookies on a wire cooling rack, and put the rack over a jelly-roll pan. This worked perfectly to let the excess glaze drip down without forming pools at the bottom of the cookies, and the pan handily caught all the extra sprinkles too.

As usual, I underestimated how fast the glaze hardens and waited too long to put sprinkles on some cookies.

As usual, I overestimated how fast the glaze hardens and was barely able to stack the cookies by the time it was time to take them to a party.

It probably would have been fun for the kids to put the sprinkles on, but too many sprinkle bottles have such big holes that sprinkles just pour out like water. I need bottle tops with a little more resistance, that have to be shaken, instead of held just so and skillfully tapped to eject a smattering of sprinkles. So I did the sprinkling. My son was easily consoled with a few preview cookies.

I love little twists on otherwise standard formulas. The ricotta cheese made for a chewy, not-quite-cakey texture, and the balls held their shape well. The glaze and the sprinkles made them attractive and festive. And there was no mistaking the lemon-ness about them, mmm!

And who can resist cookies with such a cute name? These will be a cookie-exchange staple.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Tangy Cherry Chicken with Couscous

Tangy Cherry Chicken with Couscous

It's time to go public with this: I love Rachael Ray. I know, it's very fashionable to dislike her (I think there's even a Web site about that), but Rachael Ray was a big part of the reason I started cooking. I caught her show 30-Minute Meals one day, and my whole impression of cooking shows was transformed. Her meals were accessible and down-to-earth -- even I can do this!

Since then, I've grown to like other shows too (Barefoot Contessa is my favorite), but none are as practical for my life as Rachael's 30-Minute Meals. So it was like coming home when I caught an episode in which she made chicken with a dried-cherry sauce. Mm-mm-mm.

Unfortunately, I was forced to leave out one key ingredient: dried cherries! I love dried fruit in recipes, but I'm the only one in this household who does. I also left out the celery, because I hate celery. And, I left out the red pepper flakes too, to avoid new holes in the ceiling when the hot stuff hits my over-sensitive tongue. I happened to have some fresh thyme, and can't understand what this wonderful fragrant herb has to do with the dried stuff. They're completely different.

Another modification I made was to use chopped red onion instead of white or yellow, having had such fabulous success with red onion in the Cuban Pork Chops with Mojo. Not to mention having the other half of the red onion looking for something to do.

The one complaint I'll make about Rachael Ray's recipes is that they're hard to read, and they mix more than one dish together. That's to streamline the process and keep the time down, but I need quick-reference recipes, since my reality is 30-Interruption Meals. Still, neither the chicken nor the couscous were hard to make, and both had enough nice little touches to make it a step above ordinary cooking. The fresh thyme on the chicken was fabulous. The allspice and cinnamon in the couscous was subtle but gave it that Mediterranean-y flavor that I love, and the chopped scallions unblanded the couscous just enough.

Pictured is an unauthorized step, in which I put the sauteed chicken back in the pan with the wine sauce.
I used my new Anolon 10" 3-quart saute pan, one of the few with insulated handles. I absolutely love this pan and can't understand how I ever lived without it.

With some steamed frozen haricots verts, this made for a wonderful well-balanced meal. I think the red onions taste better than white or yellow, and add such nice color.

My husband basically liked it, and my sons basically liked the chicken too (though not those icky onions because I hate onions even though I've never tried onions because they're icky). I loved the thyme, the wine sauce and especially the icky onions.

But next time, the dried cherries are in!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Cuban Pork Chops with Mojo

Cuban Pork Chops with Mojo

It's hard to be convincing that I don't like some Food Network shows when I keep using their recipes.

Usually I'm not a fan of Guy's Big Bite, but I was trapped on a treadmill last weekend and couldn't take any more politics on CNN, so Food Network it was. But it wasn't long before I was intrigued: Latin-style pork chops with ingredients I could pronounce. Then when he marinated the pork chops in orange juice, it was too much. I had to try it.

My life being what it is, I split the preparation across two days, so the chops hung out in the fridge for a day with the dry rub on them. From there, the cooking was easy. I'd never used a red onion in a regular saute preparation, and though it was strong on my eyes, it added a lot of color and was wonderfully sweet.

The result was intensely flavorful and complex, and I don't say that lightly, since I don't have a particularly developed palette. My husband was surprised that they weren't too spicy for me (pepper on salads is too much for me), but they weren't spicy per se, just very very flavorful. The dry rub could stand a little less garlic powder, but that's a nit.

My sons were predictably so-so on it, as they're not used to such zingy flavors. My husband liked them, though still fell short of a rave. I thought they were absolutely wonderful, and authentic...though like Guy, my visa for Havana hasn't come in either, so what do I know?

Guy also made a delicious-looking sofrizo mashed potato dish to go with the Cuban pork chops, but I'd pushed my luck far enough for one night.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Chicken Marsala Florentine

Chicken Marsala Florentine

Some years back, my husband noted how infrequently one finds Chicken Marsala on an Italian restaurant's menu. He used this as a quick-sniff, something akin to his Moretti v. Peroni beer test (I forget which one is the mark of the better restaurant), to gauge the diversity of the menu, if not its quality. Then I came across an inexpensive bottle of Marsala wine (ohhh, so that's why it's called Chicken Marsala), it was enough to send me surfing for a recipe.

I came across one on while I was looking for pesto chicken recipes, and saved it. I love recipes with spinach, and this one even had sundried tomatoes -- bonus.

It did require a little shopping though. The recipe called for portobello mushrooms, which I got at Trader Joes, but in my usual Mom-ADHD-fog, I also got presliced Crimini mushrooms, forgetting ("get over here!") that ("stop that!") I ("NO RUNNING!") had ("put that back!") already ("leave her alone!") gotten ("if I have to tell you one more time!") the ("ok that's ENOUGH boys!") portobello ("you go tell that lady you're sorry!") mushrooms.

In the end, presliced was the tiebreaker, and crimini it was. No harm done. The sundried tomatoes also came from TJ's, in a bag (not the kind in oil). I love sundried tomatoes, so it's significant that I thought the recipe could have used fewer of them.

By all rights, this should go over noodles, but I cheated and finally got rid of a bag of bowties I'd stashed in a packrat moment. It worked fine, actually.

I thought this was very tasty and flavorful! The marsala wine and the sundried tomatoes make it sharp and strong, a nice contrast to otherwise bland chicken. The mushrooms were really good too. I'd be interested trying this again with another mushroom variety.

The picture looks awful, but really, this was very yummy. My husband even liked it. My boys...well, they liked the pasta, but preferred the chicken that I'd wisely cooked and set aside to be free of the grownup-tasting sauce. That's actually a huge benefit to this recipe -- you can serve kids and grownups something different simply by pulling some of it out before it's done.

This has earned itself a place in my Top Ten of main entree recipes for serving at home. Easy, fast, flexible, flavorful comfort food.

Now what am I going to do with two portobello mushrooms?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Snow Peas with Orange Liqueur

Snow Peas with Orange Liqueur

I've said before that I'm not a big fan of Paula Deen. But I caught a show in which she made a very tasty Steak Diane that I liked a lot. In the same show, Ms. Butter made a snow pea recipe that also looked interesting, and I'd filed it away for one of those occasions in which I had snow peas I wasn't sure what to do with. That occasion arrived when I bought a bag of fresh snow peas at Trader Joe's without a specific plan for them, a new no-no in my Recipe Directed Shopping Strategy.

Once I'd committed to making the snow peas, I realized I didn't have two essential ingredients: fresh mint and, of all things, orange liqueur. It's in the title of the recipe for Pete's sake, yet I managed to miss it. Fortunately my husband can stop by Safeway on his way home from work, though a bottle of Grand Marnier isn't usually on the emergency grocery list.

Paula calls for frozen snow peas, but I can't abide by them. The whole fun of snow peas is their crunchiness, and the defrosting takes the spunk right out of them.

The recipe calls for boiling the snow peas for a minute in sugared (? don't know why, but I did it) water, draining, then adding the other ingredients until they're all warm. The initial boiling worked great, much better than my usual saute preparation. The peas were bright and crisp and irresistable. The rest was easy to combine, though I wondered about a full quarter-cup of orange liqueur.


My husband immediately said, "That's too strong!" on his first bite -- but to my surprise, he meant the mint. What mint? The orange liqueur just about knocked me down, and in a good way. I loved it, simple but with a nice variety of flavors. The water chestnuts were a nice crunchy companion to the peas, as well as a perfect canvas on which to present the (~burble~) hefty punch of the liqueur.

I think the recipe could do well with half the mint, a little less butter (this is a Paula Deen recipe, after all) and probably a third of the liqueur, but what's the fun in that?

For the record, my kids got broccoli instead, as I'm not sure it'd even be legal to serve this to minors.

You want to get someone's attention with vegetables? This is the way!

!!! Addendum: I apparently didn't pay enough attention to the recipe, and missed one essential little digit: 3. As in, three 10-oz packages of peas, not one. No wonder I thought you could use one-third the liqueur! Note to self: read the darned recipe!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Pan Seared Red Snapper

Pan Seared Red Snapper

I bought some snapper today on impulse, thinking I could try a recipe I'd picked up at a supermarket some years ago. And I could have, if I stocked tomato juice in my pantry. Rats.

So, back to my new BFF, and I quickly came across a simple recipe described as "gourmet taste on a tight schedule." I'm all about that. Well, the tight schedule part, anyway.

It was easy and quick to prepare and cook, with all common on-hand ingredients and no surprises embedded in the instructions ("marinate overnight"....doh!).

Some reviewers said they cut back on the ginger and later thought they didn't need to. I didn't cut back on the ginger, and actually later thought I even should have grated some fresh ginger into the marinade.

Quick marinade.

Saute in nonstick pan. Forgot about the instructions to add the rest of the sauce. The second round (not all the fish fit in this pan) worked better since the pan was hotter.

I'm the world's worst food photographer, so this looks awful, but with asparagus and brown rice, it was a good combination.

The reviews? My husband thought it was "so-so." I thought it needed a little salt, and even sneaked a little on his plate after the fact (though he likes flavor he won't put salt on anything), but that didn't do it. My sons didn't complain and ate a fair amount, which is a rousing chorus of approval coming from 3- and 5-year-olds. I thought it was indeed very tasty, and that the marinade and method of cooking kept it nice and moist and avoided the rubbery texture I too often get with snapper. I'd make the pan hotter next time though.

Net result: a keeper, especially as a base method for future mods.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Parmesan Pine Nut Crackers

Parmesan Black Pepper Crackers

The keen observer will notice that the title of this post and the above-named recipe are not identical. There's a reason for that. I saw Ina Garten make Parmesan Black Pepper Crackers on an episode of Barefoot Contessa, and thought, now that's out of control. Baking your own crackers?!

Then I came across a similar recipe in a most wonderful book, Simple Soirees by Peggy Knickerbocker. I'd heard about this book via my favorite way of finding books, by hearing an in-depth interview with the author on an NPR show. I didn't mean to get my own copy, but it was an accidental extra after a shipping snafu forced me to find it in real life in time to give it as a gift to my foodie in-laws. And now, I see that I made a great choice, as it's a beautiful book filled with classy, and overall simple, recipes.

So I made the Simple Soirees version of the cracker, with a few changes as per Ina Garten's recipe. In deference to the copyright issue, I'll describe the differences between the recipes. They're much the same, though Ina's recipe uses roughly half the ingredients, adds chopped thyme and, of course, black pepper. Peggy's recipe adds a dash of cayenne pepper, which I couldn't taste at all. The biggest difference is that Peggy's recipe calls for a lot more parmesan cheese, plus the nice decorative touch of the pine nut in the middle.

Ina also calls for a lower baking temperature and more baking time; whereas Peggy's called for higher and less (Ina: 350 for 20 minutes; Peggy: 400 for 8 minutes, with a note to watch for burning).

I mostly followed Peggy's recipe and baking instructions, though added Ina's chopped thyme. The logs I rolled out were too small in diameter, so I ended up with lots of small crackers, but this had a good side-effect. I had to bake them in 4 batches, and so got to experiment with oven position and different baking sheets. The crackers that got baked when the oven was hotter, and lower in the oven, got crispier and I think were better.

I brought them as an appetizer to the potluck Thanksgiving we attended, where they were overshadowed by lots of other appetizers, and they weren't popular. I insisted my husband try one, after persuading him that they weren't cookies, but he thought they tasted too strong. My sons were disappointed that anything cut from a log weren't cookies.

All was not lost however: they were a resounding success with my 13-month-old. She's the most free of influence from expectations ("it's a cookie, blah!" "it's not a cookie, blah!") in the family, and as 13-month-olds are notoriously difficult to feed, I'd say this ends up being a win. But the real test would be on my foodie in-laws.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Spicy Beef Curry Stew

Spicy Beef Curry Stew

Beef stew. Nice concept. Especially since stew meat is pretty inexpensive compared to most other beef.

Hoping to make something in the slow cooker that was flavorful, I searched for "beef curry" on and came across this altogether reasonable-looking recipe. Curry, fresh ginger -- now we're talking. (I glazed over the jalapeno, I can't imagine even touching one.)

So I prepared the stew at night, tossing in some cut-up red potatoes, and started the slow cooker on Low the next morning. The house smelled great when I got home from work.

But that was the best it ever did. My sons tried it only under duress, meaning, I won't make them anything else to eat unless they really try something. And they did try, and they really didn't like it. I'm not surprised; so far they've never liked anything with curry. But I have to keep trying.

My husband, who stiffens visibly at the mention of any traditional American beef stew ( a holdover from his Midwestern upbringing), made an effort, but it was still too Dinty-Moore-ish (my term) for him. The sauce did have that distinct "beef stew"ness to it, despite the very present ginger and curry. Maybe it's the beef broth, I don't know. In any case, he ended up supplementing his dinner with an old bachelor standby: Ramen and Tyson chicken. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree: my older son earned himself some TJ's chicken nuggets as an alternative.

Too bad, it's a nice idea, and easy to make. But I need a new angle on "beef stew" if it's ever going to fly around here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Steak Diane

Steak Diane

I have a high tolerance for kitsch. Goofy, silly TV -- a guilty pleasure. Especially on Food Network, which is perfect for the quick hits of entertainment that is all I can fit into my life. But even I can't take much of Paula Deen. The over-the-top syrupy, exaggerated accent; silly childish way she almost flirts with her sons, the contrived laugh and dull comments.

So it's quite surprising that I'd have caught a few minutes of Paula Deen making a steak recipe that I thought looked simple and appealing enough to try. Apparently "Steak Diane" is a well-known method that she simplified and adapted, and it's perfect for her since it involves a load of butter.

She calls for "beef tenderloin," which I asked for at Whole Foods, and was horrified to find that it cost $24.99 a pound! Not for my hapless experiments, thank you! I made do with a much more reasonably priced Angus Beef Tenderloin Filet at Trader Joes, for $10.99 a pound.

The recipe is very simple and doesn't call for any weird ingredients or steps or anything. That's my kind of recipe. It was quick and easy to prepare and cook, and the result looked great. Nice. Is it too much to ask that it taste good too?

I was stunned with result. YUM!!! The mushroom sauce is absolutely fabulous, flavorful from the worcestershire sauce, but not overwhelmed by it. I used flat-leafed Italian parsley (that's just what I had) and I thought it added tremendously to the appearance of the sauce. The meat itself....cooked in a butter bath, you pretty much can't go wrong with that, at least until it hits your arteries.

I served it with haricots verts and a potato medley (both TJ's freezer items). My husband liked it enough to eat more than half of what I served him, and my pickier son had all his steak (neither kid would have anything to do with the mushroom sauce). Still, in my house, that makes for a smash hit.

Maybe I just need to set up my TV's closed-captioning so that I can stand to watch -- without listening to -- Paula Deen again, because this has skyrocketed to my new favorite steak recipe. Maybe those deep-fried butter-laden Southerners know something about food after all!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lemon and Cumin Cookies

Lemon and Cumin Cookies

Many, many moons ago, I cut out this recipe from a newspaper and stashed it in a heap of other clippings, doomed to be forever lost in one of those "someday" organization projects that never happen. But somehow it extricated itself just in time for a cookie exchange party. I wanted an unusual recipe, and this definitely cut the mustard. Er, well, not mustard, but the odd spice it uses isn't far off.

I had some technical difficulties though. The recipe calls for the dough to be rolled into a cylinder, frozen, then cut into slices. Being an amateur at sliced cookie recipes, I have yet to find a way to prevent a flat spot at the bottom of the roll, making for elliptical-shaped cookies. I need to invent a gadget for that.

And try as I might, I can't make the rolls cylindrical, there's always tapering at the ends. I doubt there is a gadget for that.

Then being frozen, the dough too easily flaked off as I was cutting it. I needed a much sharper knife than I used at first. Finally, the gadget.

Mechanical issues aside, overall this was an easy and fun recipe, and made for a light cookie, if bland in appearance. But how would you know that since I failed to photograph the result before I gave them all away?

[Envision lightly-colored elliptical-shaped fairly flat cookies here]

And flavor? Tons. The plain appearance doesn't prepare you for the powerful and unexpected cumin, which doesn't mask, and indeed enhances, the lemon. Every lemon cookie recipe I've made has barely a hint of lemon, but this just about stands up and whacks you upside the head. They certainly make for an interesting and unusual -- and very grown-up -- combination.

(Indeed, I never thought I'd see the day when my almost-4-year-old son would reject any cookie. This kid crunches raw cauliflower for a snack, and devours baked dill tilapia. Kids don't get much more flexible than this one, and he didn't like it. Score!)

This is one for a special occasion. What occasion exactly, I can't say yet.

Mom's Zucchini Bread

Mom's Zucchini Bread

A regrettable name for an overall pretty good recipe. Zucchini bread is a lot harder to make moist than pumpkin bread, and while they share the same basic recipes, zucchini bread doesn't have pumpkin bread's "can't-go-wrong" basic characteristic. So I'm on a mission to find moist, chewy, no-milk-needed zucchini bread.

Overall this was pretty good. I liked that it called for a full 3 tsp of cinnamon and 3 tsp of vanilla. No sense scrimping on those!

I followed the recipe verbatim, forgetting that I'd planned to apply some reviewer's comments, like adding nutmeg and substituting in some brown sugar. I actually thought it was a little too sweet, or maybe had just a little bit too much of that white-sugar "bite," and that was with skimping on the sugar. Not enough, apparently. My mother routinely uses 1/3 the sugar a recipe calls for, but I'm not ready to go that far, since it can affect the texture too.

It made a lot, so I cut it into bite-sized pieces and left it out at work. It was gone within a few hours, but then, office scavengers aren't famous for having high standards.

In the absence of a superior mixture, I nominate Mom's Zucchini Bread as my favorite zucchini bread recipe. I sure wish I knew who Mom is though.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Shells with Crispy Pancetta and Spinach

Shells with Crispy Pancetta and Spinach

I caught the lovely Giada making this recipe on her show Everyday Italian. It's becoming one of my favorite cooking shows, since she does a lot of wonderful Italian cooking that's not pasta. This one, however, is. And I had an overbought 15-oz container of ricotta cheese looking for something to do.

Conveniently, Trader Joe's carries pre-cubed pancetta, though I didn't buy enough. Inconveniently, Trader Joe's doesn't carry grated asagio cheese, so I made do with TJ's Quattro Fromaggio, a mixture of parmesan, asagio, fontina, and provolone cheese.

The ricotta and spinach filling is flavored with nutmeg. Having little regard for exact spice measurements, my 1/4 teaspoon spilleth over, and I didn't think much of it. After all, I do that all the time when baking. But this isn't baking. POW! That packed a punch! The back of my throat is still buzzing. I have a new respect for nutmeg now.

I made the shells and filling, stuffed the shells, put them in a baking dish, and refrigerated them a few days ago. Then today, I made the cheese sauce and baked the whole dish. This worked well, especially for we newly anointed "working moms" who are relentless drilled to "plan ahead" "make a menu" "cook everything on the weekend." For the .01% of those moms who can actually do that, this dish works pretty well.

I forgot to take a photo until I'd already served some.

The tally? I believe it was well-received all around, though grating parmesan cheese with a hand-held grater over any food greatly increases its value to little kids. My sons claimed to like it, though they didn't eat much (though that could be because I was forced to leave them alone during dinner, and crawling under the table and clinking silverware and shouting at the top of their lungs and breaking every rule is far more compelling than Mom's good cooking). The real test came from my husband: he liked it!

Hopefully no one will notice that I used the same filling for a lasagna they're going to get later this week.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Pear Dutch Pancake

Pear Dutch Pancake

This recipe came with our weekly box of fruit from Frog Hollow Farm some weeks back. I highly prize my lazy side as one of my best virtues, so anything that says "pancake" and doesn't involve "flipping" is fine by me.

I've made this once before, and found it too gooey and sweet with 1/3 cup of honey called for in the recipe. This time, I dabbled just a little honey in, and not only did it stick to the pan a lot less, it was easier to eat -- and better, I think.

Cinnamon, on the other hand....I must have pretty weak spices, because recipes often call for a quantity I find negligible. A quarter-teaspoon of cinnamon? In a breakfast dish? With pears? That'd disappear in a mis-aimed sneeze! So I dumped in a few heaps of cinnamon, and it still wasn't too much.

First, saute the pears. These Bosc pears were very firm, so I sauted them for about 5 minutes.

Then pour the batter over the pears and stick the pan in the oven for 20 minutes, and sure enough it comes out puffy and very yummy-looking.

With the dearth of honey, there was glucotic (is that a word?) room for a sprinkling of confectioner's sugar on top. Which also looks nice.

Reviews from the fruit-consumers in the house (which does not include my husband) were good all around, though my 13-month-old used her pieces to investigate the pancake's suitability for projectiles.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Spicy Beer Marinade

Spicy Beer Marinade

I got this recipe from a rack of nice convenient recipe cards at an upscale supermarket. What the hey!

It was a perfect excuse to try out my third grill pan. This time, I went the inexpensive plain-and-simple no-frills generic cast iron Target route. Perfect grounds for experimentation.

First, the marinade. It calls for hot sauce, which I don't have and don't even know what it tastes like, or want to know. On a whim, I substituted ginger paste instead. I'm not sure that mattered, as the soy sauce became the dominant flavor.

Since my husband is something of a beer aficionado, we have plenty of beer around, but I had to be careful not to use something special. A lone Sierra Nevada Brown Ale was sacrificed, and he wasn't around to protest.

My ability to judge beef quality is unfortunately limited to price differentiation. For this, my steaks were "USDA Prime" sirloin, $10.99/lb at PW. They marinated a good long time and got lots of flavor, but were hard to chew. $10.99/lb is a good price point at TJs, but it seems I need to up the ante at other stores.

I didn't intend to marinate the steaks for over a day, but Life happened, so Plans didn't. It was a good lesson in how flavor can completely infuse itself into a steak. I forgot to set aside some of it for basting, but I don't think it needed it.

So I tested my new grill pan on the steaks, zucchini and eggplant. Once again, I was reminded of a few things about indoor grilling that apply no matter what the pan.

One: it splatters!

Two: it smokes!

Three: it sticks!

Splattering...I'll keep a splatter guard handy next time. 8 years of using my miserable island-mounted Modern Maid cooktop, I've never used its exhaust fan. Until now. I learned something about downdraft-type exhaust fans: they pull the flame toward them. My next kitchen will have a genuine range hood, with a quiet remote motor.

Sticking....Man O Man was this hard to clean! With a real grill, stuff drips down onto the coals and burns up there. With a grill pan, it pools in the bottom of the pan and then cooks on solid. No amount of soaking or scrubbing or prying or heating and doing it all over again did the trick. I had to put the grill pan away with stuff still very stuck to it, though I took a friend's advice and dried it thoroughly, then rubbed it with vegetable oil.

As I mentioned, the steaks came out very tasty because of the marinade, but tough because of the meat I used. I wonder if a different preparation would have overcome that?

The vegetables, I really like grilling vegetables, it's fast and tasty, doesn't splatter, smoke or stick, and the cleanup is a snap.

Despite the beer, my husband wasn't crazy about the marinade. (Kids had too hard a time chewing it to offer useful opinions, but they usually like steak.) Next time, I'll try the hot sauce.

String beans with shallots

String Beans with Shallots

As recipes go, this one is hardly a groundbreaker, but I saw Ina make it on Barefoot Contessa this week, and it involved two techniques I've seen several times now and was curious about.

One is using olive oil and butter for saute-ing. I forget exactly why, but it's something about olive oil for the high temperature, and butter for the flavor.

Two is blanching the vegetables. Tivo-deprived, my faulty memory vaguely filed away something Ina said about blanching would start to cook the beans and would bring out the color. (My son got a big kick out of filling a bowl with ice though!) The written recipe goes on to say that when you add the blanched beans to the sauteed shallots, just heat the beans. I think that's so they stay crisp, as I discovered with my slightly-soggy rendition.

I used fresh grean beans, not the haricots verts called for in the recipe. Ironically, we have a lot of haricots verts around here, frozen from TJs, and they're wonderful. Too wonderful. My family resoundly voted for the usual plain preparation of steaming frozen haricots verts (a staple in my emergency-dinner repertoire), over my blanching and sauteeing in olive oil and butter with shallots fresh green beans.

(As an aside, I do all my saute-ing in nonstick pans. All the cooking show chefs use stainless steel. Is this because there's a significant difference in the type of pan used for saute-ing? Or because they have sous-chef flunkies who do the cleanup for them? I am convinced on stainless steel for sauces, as Alton Brown said in his surprisingly informative show, despite the ultra-goofy format, "don't even think about using nonstick for a sauce!" Of course, I have yet to attempt a sauce. De-glazing, to me, is licking the sugar coating off a Krispy Kreme.)

I liked this, but I'll save it for next time we have critical mass of grownups.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pear Clafouti

Pear Clafouti

I saw Ina Garten make this on The Barefoot Contessa a few weeks ago, and had to try it, mostly because of its ultra-cool name. Clafouti! How fun is that? It looked easy, and I'm always on the lookout for non-pie fruit recipes.

It was easy to make, though I had to use a hand mixer since I don't have one of those big electric mixers. Ina cut larger slices of pears, and I took the advice of some of the commenters on the Web site, and cut thinner slices of pear. They stuck together and didn't allow the custard filling to get inbetween them, but that turned out not to be a problem.

Ina used a round dish and arranged the pear slices in a star shape, and then cut nice neat wedge-shaped pieces with a strip of pear in the middle of each wedge, but mine didn't work out quite so nicely. I don't have a round dish, so used an oval dish and a much more random arrangement of pear. Next time, I'll use a square dish, since it'd be easier to pull out rectangular-shaped pieces intact.

Some of the other reviewers complained that their pears didn't cook well, but my experience with steaming pears says that that depends greatly on the ripeness you start with. Mine were ripe enough to be hard to peel, but they cooked up beautifully.

I have no experience baking custards. This one came out runny at first, so I baked it another 15 minutes or so. In retrospect, I should have let it cool to room temperature and given the custard more time to set. Then again, it might still have been runny.

And who can wait for room temp? This was delicious, light and creamy and wonderful. I didn't bother with the confectioner's sugar or creme fraiche topping, I'll save that for when uber-decadence is called for. As it is, this one is a real treat, a wonderful classy grownup dessert, with a really funky name.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Herb Crusted Pork Tenderloin

Herb Crusted Pork Tenderloin and Shalloty Green Beans
(scroll to the end of that link for the recipe.)

I snagged this one from The Kitchen Illiterate. The description "pretty darn simple" was just too good to pass up.

And indeed, it was easy. Except for the fact that I don't know what marjoram is, and would have to make a special trip to find it. So to stay true to "herb-crusted", I tossed in some dried oregano, having some vague memory that I'd heard the word marjoram in the context of oregano once.

I'm not sure it made much difference; the overwhelming majority of flavor comes from the bread crumbs. That's not a bad thing exactly, but supposed you wanted to actually taste the herbs? I keep seeing Japanese panko bread crumbs come up in recipes or on cooking shows, and they're supposed to be lighter.

I loved the green beans though. I've made lemon and garlic green beans before, but the shallots were much better and cooked up nice and sweet. I took the author's advice and made the green beans in the same pan as I'd browned the pork, and that worked great. However, I did have a timing issue, as it took about 45 minutes to cook the tenderloin through, and the green beans were ready long before then.

The score: 3 out of 4. Literally. Both my sons finished all of their pork and green beans. Now there's an accomplishment! I even got a much-coveted "This is really good, Mom!" And, I liked both, though I'm not picky. My husband....not so much. He's always the weak link. I didn't take any chances with the youngest member of the family, who happily gobbled up a hefty portion of leftover Trader Joe's rice pilaf mix, with cauliflower chopped in.

I'm going to be making this again, for certain. Especially when the baby is past the "I refuse to try this JUST BECAUSE I CAN" phase, there will be one more mouth to outvote Dad.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Pumpkin Bread Redux

Pumpkin Zucchini Bread

Why, after all that pumpkin bread I made last week, would I make yet more?!

Because, dear reader, I had an open can of pumpkin, and I can't bring myself to throw away any pureed pumpkin. Not until it's been stored for weeks in the fridge and has started to grow things. Then I can throw it away.

The big conundrum of pumpkin-bread-baking is that recipes typically call for 1 cup, but pumpkin cans never come in convenient cup increments, resulting in weird amounts of leftover pumpkin. But thanks to my experimenting with half-recipes, I had just the right amount, roughly, for another batch.

I'd found this recipe for Pumpkin Zucchini Bread in an earlier search for moist zucchini bread recipes, and it was time to try it.

This one was pretty easy to make, and turned out absolutely yummy. Not ultra-fine, somewhat dense and heavy, the sort that would support gobs of raisins and nuts. I'm not really sure what the zucchini added; moisture perhaps, but this was already pretty moist.

I made some changes though. I put in less sugar than called for, and used some brown sugar instead of only white sugar. It just seems criminal not to have brown sugar's molasses in anything pumpkin.

And, I was back to my old ways of dumping in spices with blithe disregard for measurements. I've yet to hit the limit of nutmeg or cloves, always called for in teeny 1/4 teaspoon increments. (As an aside, I'm grateful to cloves for curing my son of sneaking in a taste of unmixed batter. Whoo-wee is that harsh!)

Mm-mm. Never fails at a potluck.

Now, can I find a zucchini bread recipe that's anywhere near as moist as a pumpkin bread? (And is it even worth trying?)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Pumpkin Bread-Off

Pumpkin Spice Bread (USA Today Magazine, Sunday Oct. 14, 2007)
Pumpkin Bread (C&H Brown Sugar recipe)

The dinner we hosted this week was a perfect excuse to make one of my all-time favorite baked good: pumpkin bread. Fortuitously, a recipe for Pumpkin Spice Bread appeared in the otherwise crummy USA Today Sunday magazine, and that inspired me to make three recipes and foist them upon our hapless friends.

The three contenders:

A: The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking, Pumpkin Bread (p. 774). (Never sure where to draw the line at copyright violation, but I'm pretty sure scanning the recipe straight out of the book counts.)

B: Pumpkin Spice Bread, from USA Today Sunday magazine, Oct. 14 2007.

C: Pumpkin Bread, from the back of a bag of C&H brown sugar, a potluck-standby I've used for years.

I made a half-portion of each recipe, and used the same can of pureed pumpkin and spices for all three. I stayed absolutely true to each recipe, rather than my usual random tossing in extra pumpkin pie spice, testing the limits of nutmeg, or letting my son shake in cinnamon with abandon. All three went into the same-sized mini-loaf pans (marked with a Sharpie on aluminum foil) and were baked at the same time. So, for the most part, variables were controlled.

(A, B and C are left to right in the photos.)

It was immediately apparent that not all pumpkin bread is created equal! Recipe A used butter instead of oil, white sugar instead of brown, and made for the lightest batter, and the only one that held its shape. Recipe B called for cooking the pumpkin slightly, accounting for its darker color, and the batter was liquidy enough to pour. Recipe C is the easiest: just throw everything in a bowl and mix it, but the batter was the heaviest.

The baked loaves were different too. Recipe B needed a little extra baking time, but I think I put a little more batter in that pan anyway. Recipe A seemed the driest to cut, but that's relative; they were all moist. Recipe B had the most even texture to it, and Recipe C was the chunkiest, if that's a term to describe cake texture.

So I cut them into columns of easy-to-grab pieces, labelled them with A B and C placecards, and set up a sign encouraging people to taste-test and write comments.

And the winner was? By a narrow margin, Recipe A.

The A stack was the first to go, though the numerous trips my sons made with plates loaded down with pumpkin bread could have had something to do with that. Comments indicated that Recipe B had the best pumpkin flavor, C was the driest, and A was the sweetest, but also the best-liked. Things people said directly indicated A as a favorite too, though even a foodie-baking-expert friend (who wouldn't dream of using canned pumpkin and grows her own instead) said she couldn't tell that one had butter in it. One interesting comment said "B has a rich pumpkin flavor like in India."

Ironically, I'm the worst pumpkin bread judge, because I absolutely love pumpkin bread and would just as soon choose between my three children than have to pick a favorite pumpkin bread. For the future, I'll choose a recipe based on the situation: how much time do I have (Recipe C), who is my audience (Recipe B for grownups), do I feel like cleaning beaters (Recipe A).

Until then, I'll begin a delicious quest for Recipes D, E, and F.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Return of the Grill Pan


I've used my Calphalon cast-iron enameled panini grill pan only three times, only with a rubber spatula, and only cleaned it with scrubbie-things that are intended for nonstick surfaces. Which this one isn't exactly; it's some sort of baked-on enamel over cast iron. Not teflon, but not straight cast iron either.

But whatever the coating is developed a chip right atop one of the ridges. Then I noticed a little red flake in the pan also. After some visual scouring, I found that the red flake belonged to the edge of the pan, where the colored part meets the inside of the pan.


So I took it back to Bed Bath and Beyond, where the customer service lady agreed it was damaged and kindly told me to go get another one, honey. But I didn't want another one, they apparently aren't made very well. Receiptless, I got a store credit.

O, Le Creuset, forgive me for straying from thy faith. I beseech thee, take me back!

Tiramisu Layer Cake

Tiramisu Layer Cake

One of my greatest regrets in life is marrying a man who doesn't share my vice for baked goods. Fortunately, most things Italian pass muster with him. With a group dinner and his birthday coming up in the same week, it was a perfect opportunity to attempt making a tiramisu cake.

So I found a recipe on for a "simple" tiramisu layer cake, and decided to surprise him with it.

I had a lot of fun with this, though I encountered numerous technical difficulties.

To start, since this cake was a surprise, I had to make it in stages and store the components. This may be why the mascarpone-cheese filling was so liquidy that I pretty much had to pour it over the cake and use a toothpick to keep the layers from sliding off each other. The filling wasn't that liquidy until I'd followed the step to fold in some of the whipped-cream frosting. I'd skip that step next time.

Making chocolate curls was quite the challenge. I had to experiment with several different kinds of chocolate, finding that white chocolate worked the best. Fortunately, I have a friend who's starting a cake-decorating business, and she pointed me to this video: How to make chocolate curls. (My sons made sure the outtakes didn't go to waste.)

My cake-making friend also said that white cake is among the hardest to make well from scratch, so I went with Duncan Hines. I also followed advice in's "comments" section to freeze the cake to make it easier to spear it (and to hide it from my husband), as well as to double the amount of coffee and Kahlua pretty much everywhere it was called for, and to make two coffee-flavored cake layers instead of one.

I also doubled the amount of the mascarpone cheese filling, based on more "comments" advice. That turned out not to be necessary, but also, depending on your source for mascarpone cheese, that could get expensive! Two 8-oz containers from Whole Foods can run you over $12. However, one 8-oz container from Trader Joes for under $3 is a far more economical way to go.

The result was something of a mess until I sprinkled the cocoa on, unifying and transforming its appearance, capped it with a random assortment of can't-go-wrong chocolate curls. The filling spilling out over the edges made something of a base around which to sprinkle some of the chocolate-curl outtakes. Suddenly the cake looked much much yummier!

The coffee-and-white layers looked nice on the inside, too.

I doubt this would get past a tiramisu purist, but anything with that much whipped cream, mascarpone cheese and Kahlua can't be all bad. My husband even ate a piece!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Plum Cake

Cinnamon-Sugar Plum Cake

A friend and I split a subscription to Frog Hollow Farm, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, from which we get a box of ultra-fresh fruit every week, and an insert describing the fruit and its history and origin, often with recipes. This recipe for Cinnamon-Sugar Plum Cake was in one of the inserts that comes with the fruit every week.

Oh my goodness, is this a good recipe.

The first time I made it, I set the plum slices into the batter vertically, peel side up, then discovered to my delight that the batter bakes up, around and over the plum pieces. The second time, I set the plum slices down on their sides horizontally, like you would with a pie. It was still tasty, but it didn't leave as much space around the plum slices for the batter to magically surround them as it bakes.

The only hard part is getting it off the bottom of the springform pan. I run a knife under it, but since my springform pan bottom has texture to it, the cake doesn't slide off easily.

Before baking, without the cinnamon sugar, just to show the plum pieces. Pretty, but don't put too much effort into a perfect pattern, because it won't be visible anyway.

(Later addendum: this turned out to be not nearly enough plums. My first stumbling efforts weren't as pretty, but had more plums crammed in, and made for a much better and ... well, plummier cake. Use more plums!)

Sprinkle cinnamon sugar on top.

The final result. Not very tall, and with a slightly coarse texture, but very flavorful with a perfect balance of cake and fruit.

A grownup cake, and a staple for entertaining. And so, so good.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Ah, autumn. I love autumn flavors: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, especially with pumpkin and apple.

And now, persimmons are back in the stores. I've actually never tried the better-known Hachiya persimmons, but I love the Fuyu variety. I've always peeled them, but apparently the peel is as edible as that of an apple. Inside, it's firm and crisp, and looks like it's flecked with cinnamon. I find the flavor very mild -- too mild for a persimmons pie I made once.
Half of this one made it into a Sunday morning fruit bowl and henceforth consumed by children (mistaken for mango, helped along by a tiny little harmless mommy-lie-of-omission); the other half didn't even make it past the cutting board before it got happily munched away.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Trader Joe's Salads

Most are $3.99, a few are more. There are Mexican ones, Asian ones, and green-y type ones, like one of my favorites with pomegranate seeds, feta cheese, red peppers and almonds over greens.
I have half of some or other Trader Joe's salad just about every day. Perfect excuse to visit TJs 2 times a week. As if I needed one.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Slow-cooked chicken

I can't find it now on, but I stumbled across a little video of:

Baked Slow Cooker Chicken

that inspired me to try it. It's really not much of a recipe, more like a method. But I had a whole chicken in the freezer, and a neglected slow cooker on a shelf. It was time the two shall meet.

(Of course, I defrosted the chicken first. Why freeze it to begin with? It's an Aaron's Best whole chicken from Trader Joe's. They're wonderful and tender, but go bad very quickly in the fridge. I've had to throw two away. So unless it's going straight from my grocery bag to the dinner table, it's a trip to freezerville first.)

The result? I loved how absolutely tender and moist the chicken came out. I didn't have to cut it at fact, as I pulled it out of the slow-cooker, dangling precariously between two large spoons, it slipped and fell onto the cutting board I was aiming for, splatting into a convenient heap of chicken parts. That's the easiest chicken-carving I've ever done!

However, as compared to stuffing, seasoning, and roasting it at 450, much was lost. There was no tasty crispy skin, and no stuffing, though I could have made that separately. Slow-cooking was more convenient in every way: less cleanup, less tending, less preparation, less cutting (splat!). But roasting made for a tastier chicken, fewer leftovers and higher ratings from the family.

I'm not done with this yet though. Slow Cooker Honey Garlic Chicken, anyone?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Steak and Zucchini

Score one for me. The grill pan and I made peace tonight, with the help of some steak and zucchini.

Introducing new things around here, even new preparations of old standbys like steak, is tricky. So the rest of the family got their steak salted, peppered, rosemaried, and broiled, as per usual. Mine broke new ground on the grill pan.

And you know, I came out the winner on this one. It was a lot easier keep close track of how quickly it was cooking, and I think it was different cooking one side and then the other, rather than being in an overall ultra-hot oven as with broiling. It was just shade rarer in the middle, perhaps because of less carry-over cooking?

Then the vegetable. Kids got the broccoli standby (and let me acknowledge my gratitude that I can consider broccoli a staple), grownups got salted and grilled zucchini. Welcome to my new favorite way to prepare zucchini. I think I turned off to zucchini for a while after a steaming phase. But grilled, there's nothing mushy about it; indeed it's got a nice crisp aspect to it.

I still have to scrub the darned thing though.

I'll have to try Georgette's Greek Zucchini next time. And according to that recipe, zucchini is a low-carb vegetable. Good news for diabetics and dietetics alike!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Grilled Cantaloupe

Grilled Cantaloupe

It looked like a great idea when Rory Schepisi did it on "The Next Food Network Star." She got her recipe landed on the cover of Bon Appetit magazine (Rory's Ribs with Grilled Corn, Cantaloupe, and Fresh Herb Salad), and it launched her into the finals of the competition. I love cooked fruit, and there I was, with a new grill pan.

So I scored myself a cantaloupe, and the experiment was on.

I web-surfed and found two other grilled cantaloupe recipes, consolidated them into one recipe file (Grilled Cantaloupe), and tested all 3. I omitted the cayenne pepper in Rory's, though. I have no business getting near cayenne anything.

The first problem was flipping the skewered chunks. Cantaloupe is slippery and fragile, so it just spins around on the skewer when you try to turn it.

Rory's half-inch slices worked better, and looked great with the grill marks.

But cooked, I thought the cantaloupe took on an almost sweet-potato-like flavor. And despite the different preparations (honey-butter, honey-balsamic, plain), I couldn't taste the difference at all. Just more sweet potato. And once again, it made a huge sticky crusty mess in the grill pan that took over a day of soaking, scrubbing, soaking and more scrubbing to clean the pan.

I'm sure grilled cantaloupe could work, with the right melon texture and ripeness, grill heat, and chef. But for now, I'm shelving this idea.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Mix Contradiction

At Sur La Table last week, they had samples of a Barefoot Contessa brand chocolate frosting mix, with Ina Garten's pretty face featured prominently on the display.

But Ina would never use a mix!

(My son made sure to prominently feature the sample frosting on his pretty face, unconcerned by the enigma.)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Grill Pan

I went to Bed Bath and Beyond today to exchange
one of these: Le Creuset 9 1/2" Skinny Square Grill

for one of these: Le Creuset 10 1/4" Square Grill

...and ended up with one of these: Calphalon Cast Iron Enameled 11" Panini Grill

The skinny square grill seemed perfect, easy to store. But its handles are too small and put your fingers too close to the flame. Back it went in favor of one with a nice big honkin' handle you can wrap your fingers around.

BB&B didn't have the Le Creuset 10-1/4" square grill, but they did have the panini grill with the heavy lid (I guess to squish sandwiches?). I didn't realize until I was at the checkout that it was the Calphalon brand, not the Le Creuset (what will my mother say!). That explained the price difference.

(The Le Creuset skinny square grill pan's instructions seemed to be a cut-and-paste from other Le Creuset products though, which I think is a little inexcusable given their reputation. The instructions said to use the product only on low and medium heat, and not to put it in the oven above 350. I can see that for a French Oven with a plastic lid knob, but a grill? The whole point is high heat. The Calphalon instructions said oven-safe up to 500 degrees.)

I initiated my new grill pan on something I've never found a great way to cook: turkey burgers. And, they didn't disappoint: another huge crusty, caked-on mess, made somewhat worse by sticking to the pan, and tearing apart when I tried to flip them. I guess I'll be non-stick-pan-frying those turkey burgers again, but I did like using the heavy lid to compact them.

I have a lot to learn about pan-grilling, but I can't wait to try sea scallops. At least, it looked easy on a cooking show...!