"Perhaps the most impressive of all the cookbook blogs are the three devoted to the 2004 edition of Gourmet magazine's "The Gourmet Cookbook" -- all 5¼ pounds and 1,300-odd recipes of it. Befitting this culinary Everest, all three writers are overachievers in their professional lives."

--Lee Gomes, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2008
"I should have told you before how much I've been enjoying reading your thoughts. You seem like such a great cook."

--Ruth Reichl, Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet Magazine, June 8 2008, comment on "Chocolate Velvet Ice Cream".

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Continuing Education of Melissa in the Art of Bread Baking or Why It's Not a Good Idea to Put Bread Outside in a Nice Patch of Sunshine to Rise

Because, if you're making Portuguese Cornmeal Bread, little ants will come and steal the cornmeal on the side of the dish. And then when you take the dish inside and flick them off into the sink, they will splash about pitifully in the dish water until you wash them down the drain. And then there will be more of them on the counter where you threw down the dish cloth that was covering the bread and you'll have to throw them in the trash.

That's why.

I haven't seen any in the bread though. So far.

catching up! and Long Cooked Lamb Shoulder, Rib-eye Steak with Wild Mushrooms, Chocolate Macaroons and Rumaki

Isn't it crazy how dependent we've become on our computers? When they go AWOL it really does turn the world upside-down.

I don't think I can comment at length on the meals I've cooked in the last week--that would be a mighty long post! You will note that I've provided links for the recipes if you want to check them out. With the exception of the Skillet Cornbread, they were all really outstanding. I don't know what happened with the cornbread--I've made it before, but for some reason it kind of separated and I had an eggy bottom and a crusty dry top. Hmm.

If you're thinking that maybe this all seems a little more hearty than usual, you're right...I have been cooking especially for some visitors to Dr. and Mrs. S.--their eldest child K. and her husband L. It seems funny to refer to K. as a child since she's in her early 60's! K. and L. love hearty food--beef, duck, lamb, cheese, beer, chocolate, coffee...you get the idea. And L., one of my favorites of all the in-laws and out-laws, is probably the one and only true hedonist in the family. A cook and a hedonist--we were made for each other, culinarily speaking. When they visit, I cook with L. mostly in mind since he's such a fabulous audience.

Over the past few days, I have made: Long Cooked Lamb Shoulder, Rib-eye Steak with Wild Mushrooms, Chocolate Macaroons and Rumaki. (I am quite amazed to find only one of these recipes on Epicurious!) I think the recipe that was the biggest revelation to me was the Lamb Shoulder--I've never cooked lamb like that (which is to order a 6 pound cut of lamb shoulder from the butcher). If you like pot roast you will die for this dish--likewise if you are a "picker"--somebody who hovers over the Thanksgiving turkey trying to get away with stealing just a little bit of skin--you will be in heaven. Please note it involves two bottles of white wine (probably another reason why I liked it so much)--at work we often have half-consumed bottles of wine hanging around (can you imagine?) so it was nice to be able to use them up.

Second favorite, the Chocolate Macaroons. The reason for liking these is easy--the ganache filling! It's a sandwich cookie, which is a little time consuming, but oh so worth it.

The recipe I probably won't make again--the Rumaki. I just can't resolve myself to canned water chestnuts, not after eating fresh ones. They taste terrible in comparison!! I read somewhere that jicama comes closest to capturing the texture and flavor of fresh--I might possibly try this again with jicama, maybe.

Thanks for checking back in and being patient--I think we're back on track now.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

technical difficulties

Dear readers, please bear with me. Our computer has been badly behaved and we are only now getting ourselves sorted out. But since I have last posted, I have made:

Skillet Cornbread
Chocolate Espresso Pot de Creme
Duck and Wild Rice Salad
Parmesan Walnut Salad in Endive Leaves
Smoked Salmon Smorrebrod
Grilled Eggplant Sandwiches with Lemon Aioli, Feta and Mint
Baked Flounder Fillets in Lemon Soy Vinaigrette

Check this space soon--tomorrow even--for my thoughts on these recipes. Thanks for your patience!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Crisp Sauteed Cabbage with Caraway and Pignoli Cookies

I'm not going to spend too much time on the Sauteed Cabbage with Caraway except to say that it was very nice, just fine, a pleasant way to use up cabbage that's been kicking around in the fridge.

What I really want to do is skip right to the Pignoli Cookies, which are SO GOOD that I think I need an intervention. They're made with almond paste and egg whites, which gives them a sweet, chewy texture at room temp, and when they're just out of the freezer (that's where I store all of these delicious cookies at work so I can keep many varieties on hand) they are delightfully crispy. My mouth is watering just writing about them, that's how pathetic I am. Thank god I don't have them at home.

Almond paste is a little esoteric--Crosby's in Manchester just happened to have it but I never have seen it at Shaw's. And note that almond paste is NOT marzipan--same idea but much less sugar. Also the recipe calls for optionally piping the cookies in little rounds, which I did but I think if you have a melon baller with a slider bar that would work just as well. I did read on the epicurious page somebody talking about shaping them with wet hands. The point is, they're sticky. I didn't use anywhere near the number of pine nuts they called for either which is good because those suckers cost money.

Enjoy these cookies. But don't blame me if you eat all 3 1/2 dozen yourself--I gave you fair warning.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Lemon Bar Recipe

What's different about this recipe from the many others floating around is that it has a little bit of heavy cream in the filling. How that makes it more lemony is beyond me.

Lemon Bars

For Crust:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
6 tbsp granulated sugar
3/8 tsp salt
9 tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

For Filling:
6 large eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 3-5 lemons)
1/4 tsp salt

confectioner's sugar for sprinkling

Make the crust: Put a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 350 F.

Pulse together flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor just until combined. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse, powdery meal. Press dough onto bottom of an ungreased 9 inch square baking pan. Bake until pale golden brown, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling: Whisk together eggs, granulated sugar, flour, heavy cream, zest, juice, and salt in a bowl until combined.

Bake the bars: When the crust is baked, rewhisk lemon mixture and pour onto hot crust. Bake until just set, about 30 minutes. Transfer pan to a rack to cool.

Refrigerate bars, covered, until cold, at least 4 hours. Before serving, cut into bars and sprinkle with a thick layer of confectioner's sugar.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Cucumber Tea Sandwiches, Chicken Salad Tea Sandwiches with Smoked Almonds, and Lemon Bars

Sounds like a tea party, doesn't it?

Mrs. S. hosted her book group yesterday morning, and this is what she wanted: cookies, snacks (that means nuts), tea sandwiches, tea, coffee and cold drinks. I of course got all excited about the tea sandwiches because the Gourmet Cookbook has three recipes for them, and I personally am not in the habit of making tea sandwiches at home.

By far and away, the star of the show was the Chicken Salad Tea Sandwiches with Smoked Almonds. This was gratifying because they were a pain to make--quite fiddly what with spreading the edges of the sandwich with mayo and dipping them in the minced nuts.

One woman tracked me down in the kitchen and said that eating that sandwich was like having a magical taste experience. Then Mrs. S's secretary/helper came into the kitchen and said they (17 female senior citizens) were swooning over them in the living room and wanted the recipe, which I photocopied and handed out after the group. Beverly Farms will be awash in chicken salad tea sandwiches!

Should you embark upon this magical taste experience yourself, here are a few changes I made to the recipe:

I made the chicken salad in the food processor by mincing the shallots first, then adding the minced tarragon and the chicken cut into chunks. Once it was processed fairly evenly I added the mayo, lemon juice and salt/pepper and processed til smooth. I also didn't cut the sandwiches into rounds--I just cut off the crusts and made them into triangles.

The Cucumber Tea Sandwiches were like any other cucumber tea sandwich I've ever had or made. Light, simple, not much to write home about except I liked the addition of lemon zest to the butter.

Now--the Lemon Bars. I must confess I have something of a fetish for lemon bars. I like them not only for their flavor but for the way they (if they're good) make me break out in a light sweat on my upper lip. Isn't that weird? I know.

So I have high standards for lemon bars, and as a result I am always crushed when I make a batch that doesn't "work" the way it's supposed to. And believe me, almost every lemon bar recipe out there claims that THIS recipe is the lemony-est.

This recipe is the lemony-est.

Epicurious doesn't list this version, so I'm going to have to type it in, but I can't do it now because I have to go pack for a trip to NY. I don't ordinarily type recipes in (see above for Cucumber Tea Sandwiches) but these lemon bars are SO GOOD that I want to share the love (and the sweat).

So stay tuned, Readers. I'll be back on Monday.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Grilled Lemon-Herb Poussins and Vodka-Spiked Cherry Tomatoes with Pepper Salt

What the heck, you may well be asking, are poussins?

They are, Readers, baby chickens weighing a mere 3/4 to 1 pound, falling into that elusive category of Ingredients that Exist Only In NYC (or perhaps on chicken farms).

Fortunately Cornish game hens make an able substitute.

The trickiest part of making Grilled Lemon Herb Poussins for me was the grilling part. As you may have surmised, I'm not fully comfortable (or capable) with grills yet. I'm still discovering that if you do something like put a platter of chicken thighs on the grill skin side down, when you come back out in 17 minutes they will be incinerated because the fat creates a mighty bonfire (a lesson I learned last summer while cooking dinner at work for many hungry people)

So I approached this grilling exercise with extreme caution. One thing I'm learning about gas grills is that they get hot. Really really hot. If you think you need to cook something at 700 degrees, just set it down after you've been preheating the grill on high.

Now this recipe says to cook the birds on "moderate heat", and I wouldn't consider 700 degrees moderate so I actually ended up turning the grill down to almost the lowest setting after preheating it. Once the temperature gauge started hovering around 400 I was happy.

And guess what? They came out great. Next time I would take them off the heat a little bit sooner (I don't subscribe to the USDA recommended temps for meat--it makes for woefully overcooked food). The skin was a lovely dark crispy brown (only incinerated here and there) and it got raves at the table.

I actually first heard about Vodka-Spiked Cherry Tomatoes from my hairdresser, who made them for a party. At the time I was baffled about how tomatoes with a peel could absorb a marinade, but he said that he made a little X in the bottom of each one. When I actually found the recipe in the book, I realized that the X was supposed to be your preparation for blanching and peeling the tomatoes.

Now this is a royal pain in the ass, especially if you are, as the recipe suggests, doing 3 pints of cherry tomatoes. Stephen's report as I recall it was that he marinated the tomatoes overnight, so perhaps that time period is enough to let the tomatoes get soaked with that little skin break--much easier than the blanching and peeling.

I only did a handful. The recipe errs on time spent blanching the tomatoes--three seconds isn't near enough time to loosen up that skin. Try 30.

The tomatoes themselves were pretty tasty--I let them soak for an hour and they had enough of a kick that I only sampled a few for fear of getting too much of a buzz-on during the dinner hour. Oddly, Dr. and Mrs. S didn't detect the vodka, even after I pointed it out, but that could be because I usually run on an empty stomach about that time and they had recently had tea (and many cookies).

I would try this recipe again the way Stephen made it, but I definitely would not go to the trouble of preparing it as written in the book.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Buttery Croissants

Do you want to know how much of a cooking geek I am? I was so excited when I put these croissants in the oven that my heart was pounding.

To tell you the truth, a croissant is a croissant. These Buttery Croissants taste pretty much like all the 1000 or so croissants I've had in my life--flaky, airy--perfect for a light sandwich or to go with butter and jam.

So the fun of these is the production and the bragging rights. Again, there's more rolling out and measuring, and--for geometry lovers--cutting into rectangles and triangles. Rolling up the croissants is good for exercising your capacity to compromise, since the dough is cut into triangles that have right angles (what are those called?) but you have to roll them up so that the point is in the middle. Yes, I did that 24 times and each one drove me a little crazy.

And here's something curious--some of the croissants rose higher than the others. I couldn't quite figure out what it was connected to--the tightness of the roll, whether the dough was chilled or warm when I rolled it...but I had pretty significant variation all on the same tray.

I had some trouble with the oven--mine (or mine at work I should say)is electric and you punch in the temp--it didn't seem to lower to 375 as the recipe required for the final 10 minutes of baking and my first tray was a little scorched on the bottom. I solved this by simply setting the lower oven to 375 and switching the final two trays from the top to the bottom oven, but not everybody has two ovens in their kitchen.

Another technical note--some of the little "points" uncurled themselves from under the croissants during the baking which allowed them to sort of flatten instead of rise up. Next time (if there ever is a next time) I think I would moisten that tip with water to better afix it to the underside.

What a baking adventure! I'm glad I did it. Anything involving yeast is very mysterious to me so any measure of success makes me want to paste a gold star to the middle of my forehead.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Chocolate Truffles and Croissant Dough

Among the very many ways one could spend Mother's Day, making Chocolate Truffles, taking a walk to the beach, and rolling out dough for croissants surely must be among the most pleasant. True, I was at work on a twelve hour shift, but that only points up what an awesome job I have.

Now, normally at work I don't whip up such luxurious items. This is a special situation because we have important guests coming this weekend to stay and I'm trying to impress them. Dr. S. is an important, even famous fellow, so is it the president? No. Is it the head of one of the many agencies he's been involved with? No.

It's his beloved granddaughter's new in-laws, who hail from Spain.

The Es live in Manhattan now, actually, and the only thing I know about their dietary habits is that they keep "forgetting" that their new daughter-in-law is a vegetarian when she comes over for dinner (so they are traditional carnivores) and that Mrs. E adores the chocolate from Maison du Chocolat.

Well, I just happen to have some Valrhona chocolate in the cupboard, some heavy cream in the fridge, and a recipe dictated by Robert Linx himself (founder of Maison du Chocolat) to the editors of Gourmet.

And you know what? I've never eaten fresh chocolate truffles before. I thought I had, but just having made them--it's a different experience.

This is what a fresh chocolate truffle feels like in the mouth: there's a very slight resistance to the teeth at first, which gives way to a creamy middle. Not like a cream chocolate, but just like the thinnest of thin shells. This is created by the smear of melted chocolate you rub around the chilled truffle to get the cocoa powder to adhere.

I'm not going to rhapsodize here about dark chocolate (though I could, easily) but I will tell you that once in your lifetime, if you are a fan of chocolate or know somebody who is--show them some love and order a box of chocolates from Maison du Chocolat. They are truly the most sensational chocolates I've ever had and this is from a who grew up eating Godivas in Belguim. They will blow your mind, and that's a promise.

I've never made croissants, but any recipe that involves a ruler and geometry appeals to me mightily.

Croissant dough is yet another recipe that takes a LONG time to make--there's a lot of chilling in between the folding and rolling, so you'd want to do it when you're hanging out in the house anyway doing something else. But it sure is fun to square it off into a rectangle and measure it exactly to 10 X 15 inches. I took Dr. S.'s 15 inch ruler from his office and he says he can't think of a better use for it.

I have one worry about this dough, and that's that it will chill longer than they advise (the recipe is from Nancy Silverton, founder of La Brea Bakery)--the recipe states that it may not rise sufficiently when baked if chilled longer than 18 hours. And aside from that I was a little worried that the dough would pop right out of the tight plastic wrapping I have it--it looked pretty taut when I left it last night.

Come back tomorrow and I'll tell you how it all turned out!

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting and Maple Squash Puree

We celebrated my sister's 40th birthday on Saturday, and she was given the choice of several types of menus. Her pick? Thanksgiving dinner. With a carrot cake for her birthday cake.

I was assigned the job of birthday cake (my pleasure) and given the extra duty of Squash. The cookbook of course has a recipe for Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting, and a nice squash recipe, Maple Squash Puree.

I love baking cakes. There's something so gratifying about seeing all those disparate parts come together in a stacked, frosted package. And oh my lord, the reaction I got at the table! You would think I had spanish fly tucked away in that cake somewhere.

For me it was a pretty standard carrot cake, much along the lines of my former favorite carrot cake that I baked from the Silver Palate Cookbook--crushed pineapple, coconut, raisins, walnuts and of course carrots.

My parent's neighbor, Mary, stated with delight that it was not your Standard Lesbian Carrot Cake.

"What does a Standard Lesbian Carrot Cake taste like?" I asked.
"Oh, it has lentils in it," she replied.

I think she's kidding, but she has more experience in that department than I ever will (with lesbians, not with lentils--or if the two go together than maybe she does).

The Maple Squash Puree was pretty easy and tasted great, and it will smell great for awhile in my car where it tipped over and spilled on the backseat floor mat.

Now comes the post-Thanksgiving diet and exercise regime. Thank goodness Christmas ISN'T just around the corner!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Basic Pizza Dough, or Why Ordering Pizza Is Sometimes Easier and Cheaper

It all started innocently enough. I said no to my son's request to get pizza for dinner. "We can make pizza," I said. And we could. We had yeast, flour, a pizza stone...all we needed was a little trip to the store to get some pizza sauce and pepperoni.

Easy, right?

It even started easy. The yeast was good. The dough was fine to work with (very loose, but that's ok). I dredged the two dough balls in flour and set them on their own dinner plates to rise. I went upstairs to work out while O'Malley taped himself playing Guitar Hero.

While I was in the shower my husband stuck his head in the door. Pizza, he asked? Didn't I remember what happened last time we tried to make pizza?

I did remember. My philosophy of not cleaning the oven because nobody ever looks at the inside of an oven finally caught up with us in the form of thick acrid smoke that billowed forth when preheating the oven to 550 degrees (which is what the book asks you to do--rather hot, it seems to me). We ended up grilling pizza that night.

It's ok, I said soothingly. I'll just scrape whatever-it-is off the bottom of the oven and we should be fine. So he went out for a run and I went downstairs to clean the oven as best I could and preheat it with the pizza stone. Then I went upstairs to lay down with a book--a little rest before cooking dinner.

That was the end of the easy part.

"Mom! Don!" my son screamed with evident alarm, eighteen minutes later. I leaped up and yelled, "What?" "Mom! Don!" he screamed again.

I ran down two flights of stairs to find O'Malley bracing himself on the kitchen floor, breathing in the only clear air in the room. Thick grey billows of acrid smoke issued forth from the oven. I looked at the smoke alarm--it would go off any second.

"Get up," I snapped. "The house is not on fire." I turned the oven off and opened the door. A huge cloud of black smoke belched out. I shut the door, and every smoke alarm in the house--all seven of them--went off in unison.

"Pick up that rug," I yelled over the alarm, and O'Malley and I flapped area rugs around and opened windows until the alarms went off.

O'Malley, excited now, thought we should put the cat in a cat carrier, turn the oven on as high as it could go, and leave the house while it incinerated three years worth of grease. I explained that the neighbors would surely be upset by listening to our smoke alarms sound for god knows how long.

No, I said. We'll grill the pizza instead.

This would have been an easy solution except that there was no gas in the tank.

Reader, if you're wondering why I didn't just pick up the phone and order pizza at this point, which was 7pm, it's because a) we generally eat late anyway and b) I have a stubborn streak. Or you could say I'm task-oriented, which sounds kinder.

So I got an empty tank--we had two!--and headed to the hardware store, which was closest. Closed. Across the town line to Foster's Grill Store, attached to a gas station. Closed, but the clerk said there was a store open across town by the movie theater. (very far away) Well, I thought, I'll try Stop n Shop, which had a tank exchange bin out front last summer, then I'll drive to the place across town, and if THAT'S closed I'll stop at La Rosa's and drink a big glass of red wine while I wait for them to make some pizzas for us.

Stop n Shop did not have the tank exchange bin, but the place across town was open, and I got a pep talk from a very cute young man on the price of gas and what a rip-off all those other places were (they only charged me $11, compared to $20 or even $22). I left there very perked up.

At home Don hooked up the tank and we turned it on. I had the brilliant idea of putting the pizza stone in the grill instead of grilling the pizza right on the rack, which is an operation fraught with peril. The grill gets easily as hot as they want you to preheat the oven, I reasoned, and with a pizza stone I can make two large pizzas instead of four small ones.

O'Malley made his dream pizza (lots of mozzarella and pepperoni) and I got it on the stone without too much trouble. I set the timer for 10 minutes, thinking to err on the cautious side, and started making ours (asparagus, feta and proscuitto). At nine minutes I asked Don to check the pizza and he came back with the pizza on a cutting board, looking distraught. "It's a little burnt," he said, lifting it up so I could see the bottom, which was as black as...well...as the inside of my oven. "I don't think the fire helped," he said. What fire, I asked? The fire in the grease trap. Oh.

We turned down the heat and flipped the stone over, which at this point was pretty sooty. The grease trap with its little pan of incinerated grease rested on the patio table, and I gamely slid our pizza onto the waiting stone. We hovered over it, anxiously checking the bottom ever minute or so. At one point we took it off, only to realize it was underdone. More grilling, more hovering, and finally, two minutes later, we had an edible pizza that was only slightly charred on the bottom.

I sliced the top off O'Malley's pizza, which meant that I got the top part of the crust and all of the goopy stuff in the middle. "Think of it as a cross between spaghetti and pizza," I said, as I handed him his plate.

We finally sat down to eat at shortly after 9pm, with O'Malley complaining bitterly and Don trying to discreetly scrape burnt patches off the bottom of his slice. I ate my two pieces(burned the roof of my mouth) and was suddenly consumed with weariness.

"This day has defeated me," I said to Don. "I'm going to bed."

Next time, La Rosa's.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Scallops Provencale and Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble

Scallops Provencale is, as the book says, a great weeknight supper because it's so easy. My only problem with the recipe was that my pan was so hot from cooking the scallops that it fried the garlic too quickly...and that garlic continued to cook with the tomatoes. Garlic that is over-fried turns bitter--there's a very fine line that takes a split second to cross. It was redeemed by the sweet juices from the scallops and the added salt, but when I make this again (and I will) I'll get the garlic out of the pan once it hits that perfect shade of gold and add it back in at the end.

Once a year, I just have to make something that involves strawberry and rhubarb together. Rhubarb is one of those rare items that DOESN'T show up in the markets year-round, so it must be celebrated! (Can you think of more? Fiddleheads is another...) If I can organize myself this year I'll chop and freeze some to extend the pleasure, because The Gourmet Cookbook offers quite a few recipes that feature rhubarb: Rhubarb Anise Upside-Down Cake; Rhubarb Charlotte; Roasted Rhubarb Tarts with Strawberry Sauce; Rhubarb Roulade; Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble; and Warm Tapioca Pudding with Rhubarb. Phew! Don't you wish you had a rhubarb patch out back now?

I picked the Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble, since strawberries were on sale. It's your standard crisp/crumble recipe, involving rolled oats, flour, butter and sugar--the only odd thing about the recipe is that it asks you to bake it in a 425 oven. For 40 to 50 minutes. When I took mine out at 40 minutes the top was a little scorched! So should you go with this recipe (and you'll have to own the book to do that since I can't find it on Epicurious) turn the oven down. To, say, 375. Bon appetit! (Hmm, now what should I do with the rest of that rhubarb?)

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Lobster Bisque, Minestrone, and Hearty Goulash Soup

I can hear you. You're thinking, "One bout of the stomach flu and she's lost her mind with soups."

Although my mental status could be questioned at any time, my activity with soups is because Dr. and Mrs. S. went to D.C. and I had some time to do some stocking up. The entire family comes to the house in July, and so I used this opportunity to get ready and get some stuff in the freezer.

The Minestrone was great. Unlike many insipid versions I've had in my life, this one did not contain pasta (hurray) and did contain both pancetta and kale, which add to the flavor and body in a wonderful way. The Hearty Goulash Soup was likewise very pleasant although I'm not used to the idea of a beef stew with potatoes, and there are a lot of them in this dish (four large russets to be exact)

But the Lobster Bisque. Gourmet and Ms. Reichl, I have a bone to pick with you.

First of all, I want to know whose brilliant idea it was to alter the perfectly good recipe you published the first time around. Readers, if you go to Epicurious using the above link you'll see that you are asked to boil a lobster, let it cool, and pick the meat--then use the shells with sauteed vegetables, brandy and tomato paste to make a lovely stock.

In the Gourmet Cookbook, somebody thought it would be a good idea to take that sauteed mixture and put it in the food processor. Yes, shells and all.

Readers, do you remember Spin Art?

This is what happens when you take the shells from a hard shell lobster and put it in a food processor with soft vegetables. The force of the shells tumbling around (and ultimately getting the blades stuck) ejects the now liquified vegetables up under the lid of the food processor and out into space in a centrifugal spiraling (and decorative) arc.

There is nothing that makes me crankier than cleaning up lobster-y vegetable puree from: the backsplash. The counters. The floor. The calendar. The cookbook. The cabinets. The salt/pepper/butter. The cups with the whisks/wooden spoons/ladles. The toaster oven. And the cookie jars. (and let's not forget: Me.)

Well but wait, I thought, in the middle of my dark thoughts...it's the shells from the claw that are causing the trouble. The much thinner tail shells should be fine (and they were).

So what did I do with the very end of the cooked vegetables and shells, some of which were claw shells? Yes, I did it again.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice and I am a f***ing idiot.

To add insult to injury, once I pressed what I could of this puree through a fine mesh sieve, I didn't like the flavor. It was too much, too intense. The bisque is supposed to be finished with lemon juice, cream and the diced lobster meat, but at that point I just had to put it all away and get down to the business of cleaning.

I did finish it the next day, and was feeling rather more kindly towards it. Cream and lemon juice help the flavor and the finished product is a very nice bisque. What is especially nice about this recipe is that it doesn't rely overly much on butter and cream to get the thickness, and perhaps that was the point of all that pureeing.

But would I make it again, as set forth in the cookbook? Hell no!!!!!!

P.S. If you're going to masochistically try this for yourself at home, take my advice and leave the thick shells out of the processor, or even all of them. Also, hold onto the top.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Chicken and Rice Soup

When the stomach flu strikes, there's just one thing to do. Make Chicken and Rice Soup.

It couldn't be easier. Well, it could--if you were to buy boneless, skinless chicken meat and cook that instead of a whole chicken you wouldn't have to pick the cooked chicken after it cools. But there is some magical medicinal property to whole chicken when it's cooked, and I'm not making that up--some scientists did a study testing the effects of fresh vs. canned chicken soup on bacteria in petri dishes and found that fresh chicken soup had an inhibiting effect. Apparently the magic resides in that gelatinous stuff you find at the bottom of your roasting pan the next morning in the fridge, and I think that has something to do with the bones and cartilage.

A nice discovery moment cooking this soup: brown rice. Ordinarily I hate brown rice. It's too dense, and there's something about the mouth-feel when it's just steamed that makes me push it around the plate instead of eating it. But in soup that all works to its advantage--instead of turning to mush like white rice it explodes but hangs together so it's fluffy yet cohesive.

And I feel better now, too!

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Braided Challah

Ah ha, I thought yesterday. I have the perfect solution to being an impatient bread baker. Rapid rise yeast.

For those of you who don't know, if you're baking bread there are two kinds of yeast you can use, active dry or rapid rise. The latter is apparently a finely milled version of the former, or perhaps a genetically engineered strain of the former depending on where you do your reading. But the point is, it works rapidly.

So when I went to make challah and looked at the time estimation I figured rapid rise yeast would allow me to make it and bake it all in one work shift.

I was unprepared.

Rapid rise yeast creates dough that is like something out of a science fiction movie. It is hungry, it cannot be contained. It doesn't help that this particular recipe creates a dough that is very wet and loose (new for me) so the yeast doesn't have a lot of discipling gluten to keep it in line.

The first rising, which is supposed to take 2 hrs, took under one hour and if I didn't have the plastic wrap tightly on the bowl would have resulted in major overflow in the oven. The second rising took 20 minutes, and I was watching it closely. The recipe then asks you to knead in a little more flour and invert the bowl over it--I couldn't get it to stay under the bowl! I finally had to just press it down and cut little pieces off of it like the Blob.

I didn't have any idea how I was going to braid this unruly dough, but a generous dusting of flour allowed me to work with it. If you've never braided challah before, I'll put a nice little image in your mind, which you can thank my friend Martha for. In a short story she recently submitted to our writing group she likened braiding challah to handling the narrator's husband's flaccid you-know-what. Thank you Martha.

The two resulting loaves were sort of flat and flabby--not at all like the perky challah loaves I've seen at bake sales. They got bigger during their final rising, and bigger STILL during the bake. Usually my bread just sullenly hardens in the oven and refuses to rise any more. And if you're making analogies from the above paragraph, shame on you.

The resulting bread exceeded my expectations for texture and flavor. The crumb was light, airy and moist (and sweet), and it tore off in lovely swathes. In that regard I'd have to say it's the most successful bread I've made. And the whole reason I made the challah was so that it can eventually be transformed into French toast (there are many recipes in the book that call for challah) so I sliced it thick and put it in the freezer.

I did make one other substitution which probably affected the "discipline" of the bread--the recipe called for 7 1/4 cups of bread flour but I only had about 2--the rest was all-purpose. It would be interesting to try this again using active-dry instead of rapid rise yeast and bread flour instead of all-purpose and see what happens. But that's a lot of French toast!

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Creme Caramel

There is something so comforting, so soothing about creme caramel. It's as bland as vanilla ice cream (and in fact is made from a similar base), and the dark sugar syrup just carries you off into a space where you want to curl up with a blanket and suck your thumb. It's such a basic dish that's it hard not to want to fiddle around with it, to jazz it up.

Witness my search on Epicurious (new readers, please note that The Gourmet Cookbook and Epicurious.com were crafted by the same folks, though Epicurious has recipes from other sources as well). A search for simple creme caramel turns up...maple creme caramel. Lemon creme caramel. Mocha creme caramel. But no plain old creme caramel!

The best thing about this dessert is that the serving of it is a snap, especially if you make it in individual ramekins. You just loosen it and flip it over into a dish and you've got an elegant little dessert that you didn't have to cut or scoop or even heat up. And don't fret (as I did the first time I made these) about the carmelized sugar that will remain in the bottom of the dish--it's not supposed to come out, and it's done its job by liquifying just enough where the creme meets the caramel to give you that nice sauce. And yes, it will come out in the dishwasher.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Claritha's Fried Chicken and Collard Greens with Red Onions and Bacon

Do you want to know how much I love my book group? So much that I took the day off from work to make them fried chicken and collard greens while we were discussing Toni Morrison's book Beloved.

Why, you may be asking yourself, does one need to take the day off to make fried chicken? All I can say to that is: Ha--you've obviously never made fried chicken before.

The estimated time for Claritha's Fried Chicken is 10 1/2 hours, and that's just about right. True, the first 7 hours or so don't require your constant attention. But the cooking of fried chicken always takes much longer than you think, and for me I knew it would be extra laborious because I doubled the recipe. If you are organizationally challenged you will want to take the chicken out of the fridge two hours earlier than you think you need to. I live and die by the clock when I'm cooking and I pulled my last batch out of the grease 30 seconds before I dashed out the door.

But oh lord is this chicken worth it. Wow, is it good! If you're not going to Epicurious to check out the link I'll tell you that you coat the chicken in kosher salt and let it sit for an hour, then rinse it well and put it in a bowl full of buttermilk and sliced onions. That's your marinade. Your flour coating is seasoned generously with cayenne, black pepper and salt (note: the recipe on Epicurious doesn't mention salt in the coating, but in the book it calls for 1 1/2 tsp.)

The other thing that makes it divine is frying it with two parts crisco and 1 part unsalted butter. Luscious.

I have a gripe with the cooking directions, which ask you to turn the heat to low once you put in the chicken, cover the skillet, and cook for 10 minutes--then flip, cover and cook for another ten. Maybe Claritha didn't have a properly fitting lid, but mine is air tight and I ended up with soggy blond chicken my first few batches. I finally decided to turn up the heat a little bit and use a spatter guard instead of a lid and that worked just fine although I had to re-fry those first 6-8 pieces.

The collard greens, I was thinking, are a simple matter, and around 5:30 (I had to leave at 6:40) I glanced at the recipe for timing purposes. Two hours!!!!! Time to re-think the recipe.

In truth, you can make this dish in 35 minutes if you don't HAVE to have collard greens that are one step away from mush. I condensed this recipe by throwing in the onions and bacon together, and keeping them in the pot when I threw in the collards. I didn't use quite as much chicken stock, and I didn't use the brown sugar because I used maple flavored bacon (please note--I do not approve of flavored bacons but this was in the freezer--Don bought it for a brunch we put on). And the collard greens were fine, yummy in fact.

Book groupies, I don't make food like this for just anybody. I hope you appreciate how special you are!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Seared Sea Bass with Fresh Herbs and Lemon, Rosemary Focaccia

Dr. and Mrs. S. love three kinds of fish--swordfish, sole, and salmon. Little do they know that with my "cookbook project", more exciting fish experiences are coming their way! They had never had sea bass, but after last night I think I have to expand the "favorites" list. Sea Bass with Fresh Herbs and Lemon is very easy, if you don't mind chopping a lot of fresh herbs. And you do need fresh herbs, dried don't quite compare. Dr. S. was couldn't stop talking about how much he liked this dish, and I got to explain a little bit about sea bass and how it's made its way to our nation's tables through a clever name change (being originally called Patagonian Toothfish). There is some controversy about sea bass, so if you are an ecologically/politically sensitive diner, check it out.

The first time I ever tasted rosemary focaccia was when Gregg and I lived in Southwest Harbor, Maine more than ten years ago. Sawyer's Market sold it, and we just fell in love. We ate sheets of it. Something about the coarse sea salt, the olive oil and the rosemary...even the fact that the rosemary wasn't chopped somehow lent to its charm. One of the major disappointments of my early home cooking experiences was trying to reproduce that focaccia and failing. The recipe was too dense and coarse, not at all right!

This recipe for Rosemary Focaccia gets it right. Have you ever been in a position where you just couldn't stop putting something in your mouth because it tasted so good? And this recipe calls also for finely chopped rosemary, which is an improvement since whole rosemary needles tend to do unpleasant things in one's mouth.

And I've discovered one of my failings as a bread maker. Impatience. I tend to want to move the operation along before the risings have fully manifested. Even three minutes can make a difference! Yoda be with me....