"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".

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Triple Chocolate Brownies and my lunch at Aquatini

Whoa, you may be saying. Triple Chocolate Brownies, Chocolate Tart--that's a lot of chocolate.

Well, you're right. This family loves chocolate. But I looked in the freezer a few days ago at my cookies stocks and realized that we had almost NO chocolate cookies. That just won't do, not with the family coming for the fourth.

One of my little tricks at work to use up leftover: ice cream sauce, candy, jam, etc is to fold whatever it is into brownie mix. (I haven't quite worked up the nerve to put in the gumdrops left over from the gingerbread house construction at Christmas...what do gumdrops do when baked?)

So the last time I made brownies, I added some quince paste that's been kicking around with assorted other chopped chocolates. And I tried to get it past E., who has a dislike for fruit/chocolate combos but loves brownies...but she's too discerning and picked up the quince.

When I went to make brownies again, I ALMOST threw in the hamanatashen filling I had leftover (that's prunes and walnuts), but took pity on poor E., because I like her, and instead made Triple Chocolate Brownies.

These are classic brownies, rich and chocolaty. I defy anybody to not like them.

Regular readers will recall my mentions of Yanks, and in particular the pastry chef there, Alec Maxon, from whom I learned a tremendous amount about pastry and cooking in general. We were good friends, and for somebody just starting in the cooking industry, I couldn't have found somebody with more insight, intelligence and humor to be a mentor. He has often crossed my mind, for one reason or another, since the...six years? Seven years? that we worked together.

You sort of keep track of people that you've worked with (sometimes by reading the police notes), and I knew that Alec had taken a job as head chef at a place in Newburyport. Last Friday, O'Malley and I went up there and had lunch, at Aquatini.

I told the waitress that "I was placing myself in the chef's capable hands" (make sure the chef has some talent if you're going to try this at your local bistro), and got a superb scallop dish. I'm going to tell you why this dish was so great, because all meals at a restaurant should be like this.

First of all, it wasn't too big. Three large scallops, accompanied by seafood risotto and tomato-braised green beans. I ate the whole thing--a perfect amount.

Second, it was cooked perfectly. This is often not the case with scallops, and ESPECIALLY with risotto. I'm actually afraid to order risotto in restaurants because I love it so much and am so crushingly disappointed when it comes out badly.

Third, the flavors were balanced. The risotto was creamy and rich, the tomato-braised green beans were acidic, and the scallops were neutral.

Fourth, it was beautiful. The risotto had a little basil oil around it (bright green), and the green beans were in a deep, rich, red tomato base. It popped on the plate.

That's why you should go eat at Aquatini. Go on Wednesday or Thursday night, or for lunch on Friday, or Sunday--they are quieter times, according to Alec. And say that Melissa sent you.

P.S. Alec, if you're reading this, I'm going to use the ramp butter on baked mussels this weekend.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Fried Oysters Remoulade

Every once in a while, you just have to go with the fried food, and screw the consequences.

Epicurious doesn't have this recipe, though they have one close to it. The difference is Jasper White came up with the one in the book--the definitive remoulade, he says, and it certainly is a good one. I departed from the recipe when it came to the oysters, because I didn't have Saltines to crush. I substituted Carr's rosemary crackers and threw in a few pretzel sticks.

They were great. Dr. and Mrs. S. loved them, Dr. S. I think more so since oysters are at the top of his favorite food list, and he loves fried food too, not that he often gets it. His comment? "These were WONDERFUL!"

So like I said...not every day, but once in a while won't kill you!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Chocolate Tart

The tricky ingredient in the Chocolate Tart is wheatmeal digestive biscuits.

What the heck are those, you might be thinking? So was I. Some British or Australian import found only in NYC? In the paragraph preceeding the recipe, it says that wheatmeal biscuits have just a touch of sweetness, which prevents the tart from being too overwhelmingly sweet, since the filling is basically ganache.

The lightbulb that went off in my head was that I've had crackers like that...Carr's makes them...they taste very good with Brie. So even if I couldn't find "wheatmeal digestive biscuits", maybe Carr's would be a good substitute. At work in the pantry we happened to have a box of Carr's mixed crackers, and on the cover picture I was surprised and pleased to see that they feature a cracker with the printed words "wheatmeal digestive". Now, why Gourmet couldn't just say go get a box of Carr's Crackers is beyond me.

Alas, I couldn't find the darn things once I knew where to look (without a major trip down the line). I did, however, find an acceptable substitute at the Fruitful Basket--Oaten Biscuits straight from the estate of hrh Prince Charles. (If you've never heard of Duchy Originals, take a look.)

They do make a superb crust to complement the chocolate (and of course it helps to have the best possible chocolate you can get your hands on--we're using 70% at work because of the healthful effects on the body). M. told me after lunch that the tart, with a strawberry sauce and handful of raspberries, was the best dessert she'd ever had.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Brioche Loaf

I know I promised to write the next day to tell you how the brioche turned out, and then I didn't...but I can tell you that it is a remarkably sturdy bread considering how tender it is--very serviceable. I used it all week for lunch.

I thought the dough looked like cake batter, and the finished result does look very cake-like--sort of pound-cake-ish. My one disappointment with it was that it didn't rise in the oven much at all--really just to the edge of the pan. I thought I might try another recipe a la Madeleine Kamman, but one of her recipes is a very laborious hand-mixing method, and the other one is for large-scale production. Still, with both of them she starts the oven off high and lowers it to 375 and I think I might try that. Sunday is often a bread-baking day for me so perhaps today is the day; I'll have to see what's going on at work.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Turkey Chipotle Chili and Brioche Dough

Turkey Chipotle Chili presented me with yet another opportunity to bemoan the lack of selection at the Shaw's on Eastern Ave. Why? Because I was looking for tomatillos of ANY sort--fresh, frozen, canned...I would have even settled for salsa with a tomatillo base. Yes senorita, we have no bananas, I mean tomatillos, today!

I swung around the corner to Stop and Shop to see if they might have them (after hedging my bets by buying a can of red diced toms)--S&S sometimes has things like fresh lemon grass. I don't quite understand why, since East Gloucester is probably the whitest neighborhood in Gloucester, but maybe it's to please experimental gourmands like me. Sure enough, they had a whole bin of fresh tomatillos, so home it was I went, never mind that two pounds cost me almost eight dollars! (I have to confess, sometimes I'm horrified by how much dinner ingredients cost, but I have a big old pair of blinders that I try to wear at all times.)

If you read the recipe on epicurious (which is of course the same one printed in the cookbook) you'll see that they describe this as a "green" chili--I'd say that's a bit of a stretch. It's more brown, unless you throw in that good handful of cilantro right at the VERY end. But boy is it tasty--lots of nice heat. We ate it with our friends Mark and Elizabeth at a Welcome Back from Vancouver dinner (with a nice British Columbian Merlot). Elizabeth likes to put avocado on top of chili, which I think is odd but brilliant since I love avocado.

You know, I've made Brioche Dough before, just once, maybe about 7-8 years ago. I don't remember it being like this, which is so wet it could be mistaken for cake batter. I followed the recipe carefully, so I know I wasn't misreading. Anyway, the recipe wants you to chill it overnight, and tomorrow I will bake it into a Brioche Loaf. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Shrimp Smorrebrod

When Dr. and Mrs. S. realized they had to leave pretty early in the evening to go to Dr. S.'s old school, where he was to receive a distinguished alumni award, they decided that instead of dinner they wanted to have "high tea".

I figured that was a great opportunity to explore some of the fancy sandwiches Gourmet has in the "Sandwiches and Pizza" section of the book, and settled on Shrimp Smorrebrod. Regular readers will remember the Salmon Smorrebrod from a while back--this is the same idea, and open faced cold sandwich on rye that starts with butter to protect the bread and builds up. This one has lettuce, avocado, red onion, and shrimp, and is topped with a lovely horseradish sour cream and sprinkled with capers.

They both loved it, especially Dr. S. who is extremely fond of things like avocados. Mrs. S. only ate a few bites though, saying that she was too fat in the stomach and hadn't exercised. This sort of thing makes me crazy, and also makes me realize you're never too old for vanity. I mean, she's 85, for heaven's sake--she should eat what she wants in my opinion. She did the same thing with the homemade applesauce--one bite and set it aside.

I'm not going to be cooking much for them this week--there are lots of festivities surrounding their 65th wedding anniversary!! But I'll surely be cooking SOMETHING, so check in soon.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Chicken Fricasse, and Melissa Gets Intellectual

Excuse me for just a minute while I go off-topic.

I think the Soprano's series finale last night was one of the most brilliant moments in tv's history.

Why? Television is by nature a passive activity. We are fed story lines, advertisements, laugh tracks. We talk about what we see, sure, and The Sopranos has got to be one of the most talked-about shows in decades. But still, in spite of all our different theories we all thought we would get spoon-fed David Chase's chosen ending.

Instead, at the last minute David Chase whisked that veil aside and implicated US in the ending. In those moments of blackness we realized that we had been regarding those strangers in the diner with suspicion bordering on paranoia--just as a mobster would do. David Chase has now placed the burden on us. What happened? We become co-creators, and if you want to witness the fury of unimaginative people, just do a blog search right now. This ending reminded me a little bit of the books my son read when he was younger, when you got to choose what happened, and the story proceeded from there.

What YOU think happened, what I think, ends up being a reflection of who each of us is and what we bring to the show. TV has NEVER been able to involve viewers like that. Now, you may have experienced this sort of thing before--but at a museum. Stand in front of any work of art and ask viewers what they think is going on. Abstract, representational, I will guarantee you that each museum-goer will give you a different story. The artist doesn't have anything to do with that. It's the viewer and the critic who find greater meaning by applying their own lives and experiences to the subject matter.

What do I think happened? Nothing. I think that Tony will eventually get fingered by the Feds on that gun charge. I think the build-up in the diner was a tease, meant to remind us that (as I said above) we have become as paranoid as "the family" about strangers and their intentions, reading dark motives into the simplest of activities, like a man going to the bathroom.

There are a lot of theories out there though (aside from the furious assertion that the whole scene was a cop-out and that a movie announcement will be forthcoming today)--the main one harkening back to a moment in the season premiere when Tony and Bobby were fishing on the lake, and Tony comments to Bobby that the end comes without you seeing it, that one day you're eating with your family and then it's just black. So there Tony is, eating with his family, and then it's just black.

I admit this theory has traction, and is more elegant than mine. But who would have killed him? Not the feds, nobody from Phil Leotardo's gang (they sold him out), and there's no evidence that anybody from Tony's crew likewise sold Tony out. All the possible suspects are dead or deranged. A few weeks ago I would have put money on Chrissy, but now he's dead and being adored by a cat. (Adrianna, reincarnated?) Last week I suspected Paulie, but he appears to be a loyal, if worriedly aging, part of the crew.

It has also occurred to me that perhaps Chase wanted to make the anti-Godfather finale. You remember that one, don't you? Everybody gets gunned down on the steps of the church? Here we have the other definitive Mob classic, and it doesn't end in violence (or maybe it does).

And yes, I too thought somehow our DVR bumped us off the program to record something else, or that the station had gone wonky, or that a satellite had fallen from the sky. Disaster, panic! And another tweak on the nose from David Chase.

Oh, the Chicken Fricasse. It was good, great actually. But who can think about food at a time like this?

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Baked Mussels with Parsley Garlic Butter

Well folks, if you're feeling poor and you don't want to bother with too much fuss at dinner, Baked Mussels with Parsley Garlic Butter is the meal for you.

One of the charming things about mussels is their low low price, even lower if you pick them yourselves off the rocks. And yes, all ye city dwellers, you CAN pick them off the rocks, cook them and eat them. They do not have to undergo special refrigeration, sterilization or transportation via 18-wheeler to be edible (as my husband once suspected when I was trying to get him to help me harvest dinner one afternoon at Small Point, Maine).

This dish is so easy (if you don't mind getting your food processor dirty)--all you do is dump the mussels in a baking pan first. Then put the butter, garlic, parley (you don't even have to worry about getting out all the big stems), and s&p in the processor and grind it til it's a lovely green. Put green butter on top of mussels, cover with foil, bake in 425 oven til open, and you've got yourself dinner. Make sure you have bread, for heaven's sake. And also make sure (which I didn't, much to my distress) that you have a pinot grigio or a sauvignon blanc--the dish cries out for it.

Bon appetit!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Panfried Pressed Poussins

Those of you in the cooking world may have come across the technique of flattening poultry to cook it. No, this does not involve running it over with your riding lawnmower, you cut out the backbone and then do some fancy poultry origami moves, tucking the legs and wings into special slits that you cut into the skin so it can be squashed flat and cooked.

I had read about this notion, but it was all academic to me until last night when I cooked Panfried Pressed Poussins.

Now you're talking to a girl here who has had to pound on lobsters with a hammer, so I was a little apprehensive about cutting out poultry backbones with kitchen shears. They did just fine, though--a few snips and that bird was ready for the origami treatment.

By the way, if you're scratching your head about "poussins", that is French for "small chickens that you can only buy in NYC".

The recipe has you panfry the poussin (game hen for me) in a skillet, with a weighted skillet on top. I was searching the pantry for the right combination of tomato cans and pickle jars to weigh it down when I realized I had half of a 5 lb. jar of honey. Perfect! (why, you may ask, does one buy a 5 lb. jar of honey? Well, why not.)

I must say, as a technique for cooking poultry this works extremely well--the idea is that you're flattening the meat into one compact plane so it cooks evenly. And it does. AND if you like the idea of eating something that looks like it's been run over by a steamroller in a Roadrunner cartoon, this is the recipe for you!

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Grapefruit and Coconut Angel Pie

I've been longing to make Grapefruit and Coconut Angel Pie ever since I first got the Gourmet Cookbook.

Why? It's so weird! A meringue shell with a grapefruit/cream cheese/whipped cream filling--who ever heard of such a thing?

Unfortunately I have some serious coconut haters, both at work and in my book group--the two major venues I have for producing desserts. So when Eve, who hates both grapefruit AND coconut, announced that she wouldn't be coming to book group last night because she had hospice training, I grabbed my opportunity.

This is an absolutely delightful dessert. The counterplay of the grapefruit with the sweetness of the coconut meringue is the kind of thing that sends you back for seconds...and thirds...and leaves you wondering when you could have an excuse to make it again.

The technique is a little involved--your beaters get a workout what with the egg whites for the meringue, the cream cheese filling twice(which also has to be cooled in an ice bath twice--the second time while you're beating it, which is not so easy when you have a stand mixer), and the heavy cream to fold into the filling. Although I love my stand mixer to pieces I have to confess a handheld electric mixer would have served me better here.

The final person who will get to enjoy this dessert is Mrs. S. Before I left last night I told them what I was making for the book group...her eyes lit up and she said, "Yum!" Dr. S. grumbled, "It would be yummy without the coconut."

Maybe, if he's lucky, Mrs. S. will give him a taste of the filling.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Peanut Butter Cookies

I have to make a confession. I'm not a huge fan of peanut butter cookies.

Which is odd, because I adore peanut butter. I could eat a pb&j for lunch every day of my life and die happy. Pb and apples, pb and celery, pb on toast, with or without jam, nutella, bananas, bacon. I've even eaten a Bob Burger in Michigan that consisted of: hamburger, egg, peanut butter, mayo, lettuce, tomato, bacon. It was delicious. And anybody who knows my family even remotely knows about our love affair with Peanut Butter Bon Bons at Christmas time.

So what is it about peanut butter cookies?

I think it's the flour, to tell you the truth, and the extra sugar. There is ONE recipe I like, which is so simple I can tell you here: 1 c. pb, 1 c. sugar, 1 egg, 1 tsp. baking soda. That's it. And yes, it really does make a cookie.

So with this recipe, I kind of made a little pre-emptive strike towards palatability by adding a cup of bittersweet chocolate chips.

Now, I love pb and dark chocolate so much that I did a fair amount of nibbling of cookie dough while I rolled and pressed these cookies onto the baking sheets.

I've never swallowed lead sinkers, but that's what it sure felt like.

I was so heavy and uncomfortable in the stomach that I didn't even want to try a baked cookie, and I came home from work with half of my lunch still intact. I think the cookies were good, because E., Dr. and Mrs. S.'s granddaughter, came into the kitchen when she heard the timer so she could bring some warm cookies out into the sun room where they were having tea. She said they were great, and she's a trustworthy source since she's an extremely finicky eater.

I don't know what to tell you about these cookies. If you like pb cookies, go for it. If you're on the fence about them but have to bake them for some reason, try my variation above (which is also printed in the cookbook, I was delighted to see). But whatever you do, DON'T EAT THE DOUGH!

Monday, June 4, 2007

Foolproof Grilled Chicken and Melissa Gets a Tiny Little Bit Smarter

No, it doesn't have anything to do with ants.

I'm slightly obsessed with this bread-rising issue. This bread I'm baking tastes great, but it's rather flat, sort of small. I know that somehow, bakeries get their bread bigger. Gourmet doesn't offer any guidance on this issue, so it was time to get out the big guns--Madeline Kamen's The Making of a Cook.

Now, here is everything a foodie-techie could ever want to know about baking bread (and why didn't I look here when I was making the marmelade?) I learn that: I'm overproofing my bread on that last rise in the pan, which means I let it rise too long (in hopes of getting it bigger); and that my bread doesn't get a chance to experience "ovenspring". Isn't that a great word? The reason WHY is because the surface of the bread dries out in the oven and can't expand like it wants to. Commercial bakeries inject steam at regular intervals to help ovenspring.

Home bakers must make do with a spray bottle of fresh water. The trick is to fling open the oven at three minute intervals, spray the bread madly, and shut the door again. Now, you don't use the straight shooter setting (you're not trying to kill it) you use the gentle mist setting.

Anyway, my rye bread yesterday was definitely bigger and more expansive. I should be photo-documenting this.

The Foolproof Grilled Chicken was actually Foolproof Roasted Chicken because Tropical Storm Barry rained on our parade. The flavors on this one will make you hum--fish sauce, cilantro and mint, and plenty of the last two. You have to be somewhat organized to make this as directed since it involves brining the chicken for six hours. But the minor effort gets major payback in happy eaters--I got huge compliments on it. My only personal gripe is that the skin stays a little soggy (that didn't stop me from eating it though)--a run under the broiler can fix that. This recipe is a keeper and I'll be making it again.