"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, July 30, 2008

Tartar Sauce

I've followed this recipe for Tartar Sauce at least five times, and it always irritates me so much that I just don't want to write about it.

Why? I hear you cry...What, Melissa, could be so irritating about tartar sauce?

Because there are five thousand ingredients in it, and the head notes are so chirpy, telling us that each little ingredient contributes its own important burst of flavor.

Also, because it calls for chervil. What is it about chervil? I know the Brits love it--it's in practically every recipe in my Victory Garden Cookbook, but it's just not an herb you find over here--not in the nurseries to plant, not in the supermarkets in the fresh herb section, and usually not even in the dried herb section.

But my number two cooking client wanted tartar sauce with her scallops, so after inventorying my fridge for the five thousand ingredients, off I went to the supermarket with list in hand.

So (tangential comment here) here's the tricky thing about a personal cheffing job. What ingredients do you charge your client for, and what ingredients do you pay for yourself? If Catharine only needs 1.5 tablespoons of sweet relish in her tartar sauce, do I have her pay for the whole bottle? The rest of it goes into my fridge, where it will never get used because I hate sweet relish, but maybe somebody else will eat it.

Ideally I'd be cooking in her home where all this stuff would go into HER fridge, but I'm not and it doesn't. What I end up doing is sort of splitting it--I have her pay for about half the ingredients (that are "pantry" ingredients) and I pay for the other half, and they stay with me. Obviously if she wants lamb chops, she foots that bill.

So I came home with capers. I came home with fresh dill. I came home with the damn chervil, dried in a bottle.

And you know what chervil smells like? Grass. I could have raked up some lawn clippings from next door and gotten the same effect--and for free instead of 4.99.

And then, D'oh!--the dill pickles I thought I had in the back of the fridge turned out to be hot cherry peppers. Well, that certainly won't do for a dinner party of senior citizens, so my tartar sauce lacked dill pickles--though it's still the closest I've come to having the complete roster of ingredients.

This recipe is not on epicurious, and the book is in my car (did I ever tell you I travel with it? Seriously, I do. I cart it around everywhere. And with the stickies in it, my friend Elizabeth says it looks like a big yellow Bible.) so I can't list the five thousand ingredients, but let me try from memory and I'll see how close I've come later.

dill pickles
sweet relish
chopped capers
fresh dill
dried tarragon
dried chervil
chopped yolk from hard boiled egg
lemon juice
chopped onion
dijon mustard

I feel like I've left a few things out, but you get the idea. That's at least five thousand, isn't it?

(EDIT: not only did I remember all the ingredients, I added one! Lemon juice is not in the recipe, but maybe it should be. I love lemon juice.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Grilled Octopus with Oregano, and Asian Cucumber Ribbon Salad

People, the tragedy of my life is that my camera battery died right as I was trying to take a photo of me holding Monsiuer l'Octopus, thawed, up over the sink. I had my arm stretched up as high as it could go, and the tips of the tentacles brushed the sink bottom.

I couldn't believe how loose and flexible it was! Actually, I couldn't believe how the texture of the octopus skin felt--slightly "grabby", as if it had tiny little Velcro hooks in the skin. I spent a lot of time touching it because I was trying to thaw it out quickly so I had it in a bowl of cool water in the sink. It was amazing to have it ever-so-gradually go from a volleyball-sized frozen lump to a lump with a few wispy tentacles, to a creature with eight sturdy, flexible limbs. Crazy.

I guess the trick with octopi is tenderizing them--otherwise they're not so yummy to eat. I have recently been informed that a modern technique for this is running them through your washing machine (without soap, of course), but the book has you parboil them for 20 minutes or so until tender, after you've marinated them for 24 hours.

I left this parboiling job to my friend Moira while I went to my karate class, and imagine my deep astonishment when I came home and found, not a four-foot long tentacled octopus, but this:

Serious shrinkage! I know that proteins shrink when they cook, but this just goes to show you how loosey-goosey living octopus proteins are, which explains how they can do things like escape through one inch holes.

The next step was to throw it on the grill, along with a nice selection of veggies from this week's organic produce box:

The book instructs you to grill it for about 10-12 minutes, then serve it with the reserved marinade, which is a very simple oil/vinegar/oregano combo.

The texture went from tender in some spots to kind of chewy in other spots, depending on the thickness of the meat. Moira, whose father was a doctor of many Sicilian and Azorean patients (who ate a lot of octopus), kept saying that it was just how it was supposed to be--she was my cheering squad as I did things like scrub the purple octopus skin off with a dish scrubber, which is the tool I switched to after trying to "rub it off" with my fingers as the recipe directs.

When it comes right down to it, I wasn't overly enamoured with the actual eating part of this experience. The marinade wasn't interesting enough to counterbalance the char-grilled chewiness of the octopus flesh.

But I'm not writing octopus off. There's another recipe for it--a Provençal treatment with tomatoes, olives and even some hot chilies--and I'm looking forward to trying it. Will I tenderize it by running it through my washing machine? Stay tuned and find out.


I made Asian Cucumber Ribbon Salad on the fly last night right before dinner at work. We had a pretty bowl of cucumbers from a neighbor, and this seemed like the perfect thing to do with them. It was to be my little dinner while I sat with Mrs. S. when she ate her more substantial one.

I say "it was to be" because I couldn't eat the darn stuff! Every time I put a bite in my mouth (twice) the vinegar went down the wrong pipe and I ended up coughing and struggling to draw a breath. I don't know what I was doing wrong--I certainly know how to eat and it's not like I was eating and trying to tell jokes at the same time--we were just watching the Lou Dobbs Report. Maybe it was Lou who was making me cough, I don't know.

Anyway, I'm thinking that perhaps this salad is best eaten in combination with other things that would soak up the vinegar in one's mouth--like maybe rice or bread. I'll probably try it again, just because it's high cucumber season, but jeez--keep a tall glass of water nearby me, ok?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Mussels Gratin

I would like you to take a moment to admire my photo. See how it isn't blurry? All hail Joe, who clued me into the macro button on my digital camera! Thanks again, Joe.

And now that we can get up close and personal with the food, you can take another moment with me to wonder why this dish is referred to as "gratin". According to Wikipedia,

Gratin adapted from French cuisine[1] is a type of casserole dish that is covered with BĂ©chamel sauce or Mornay sauce, topped with buttered breadcrumbs or grated cheese[2] and either baked or broiled,[3] then served in its baking dish with a golden crust.[4] Cooking au gratin is a technique rather than exclusively a preparation of potatoes (which is specifically a gratin dauphinois): anything that can be sliced thin, layered with a cream sauce and baked is material for a gratin: fennel, leeks, crabmeat, celeriac, aubergines.

And you can see from the photo that these mussels, tasty as they are with the tomatoes, basil, garlic and toastettes, are far from being bound together with a sauce of any kind. The half cups of creme fraiche and Parmesan cheese it calls for really get lost in the juice from the tomatoes--so they add a little flavor, but not much else.

I halved this recipe, and used cherry instead of plum tomatoes but other than that obeyed the letter of the law. It's a delicious, light summer meal, so if you're wondering how to cook those inscrutable netted bundles of shellfish in the corner of the fish case, give this one a try.


Folks, stay tuned for my next post--I'm grilling something tonight that is a first for me--octopus. I'm already filled with wonder.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Anise-Scented Fig and Date Swirls

These cookies were nothing but trouble, but oh, what a pay-off!

Delicious, beautiful cookies. Here, look at my pile.

Why were they trouble?

Well, it started with not being able to find the spice grinder so I could grind up the anise seed. I used a mortar and pestle, and made a little anise dust, but otherwise came to understand that those little suckers are tough and not easily ground.

I did, however, learn a Russian rhyme for finding lost things. I won't slaughter it with my poor phonetic spelling, but it basically translates to this:

Little devil, little devil,
if you're done playing
with my ____________
won't you please return it?

Supposedly your ____________will show up pretty quickly after that, and my grinder did make an appearance on the counter the next day--but I think that's only because Zoritsa combed the shelves and cupboards for it.

My next issue was with the date and fig filling, which is to be spread on the anise-scented cookie dough. The recipe says you can grind these (with a little water and sugar) either in the blender or the food processor. I chose the blender, but the dried fruit didn't really blend all that well--it wasn't breaking down, just sticking to the sides of the blender where it had gotten flung up.

This is where I made a serious mistake. Some people call it "user error", in this case it was user idiocy.

You know how they have those lids for a reason, right? Like to prevent things from flying out, but also to keep you from sticking things down near those blades that shouldn't be down there?

Now, being the resourceful gal that I am, don't think I didn't wonder if I couldn't just extract the wood from the contents of the blender and proceed from there. If I had been making, say, a raspberry coulis, I might have been able to swing that.

But as I mentioned before, my dried fruits were chunky, sticky, and the exact same color as the wood.

Into the trash it went.

I have to say I have a new respect for blender blades.

I tried again the next day with dates that were softer (medjool instead of "Dole"), and dried figs that had just been packaged at the local health food store. AND I used the food processor, which doesn't mess around in the pureeing department.

From that point on, it was an easy operation--spread the filling, roll it up, refrigerate, cut, and bake. OK, if you're into instant gratification, this recipe might not be for you.

But they are gorgeous, once you finally get your hands on them.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Oatmeal Trail Mix Cookies and Semi-Ultimate Quiche

I only had one complaint about Oatmeal Trail Mix Cookies, and it didn't have anything to do with the cookies.

It had to do with the weather.

It has been so humid here that although these cookies were lovely, crisp and ever-so-slightly chewy when they came out of the oven, within twenty minutes they were soggy to the point of falling apart on their cookie racks.

This did not destroy their deliciousness--on the contrary, it made for a great excuse to eat more of them, since as everybody knows, portions of cookies have no caloric impact whatsoever.

Look, I'm getting artistic with my food photos! I stole this idea from Martha Stewart's cookie book. Amazing what you start paying attention to.


Why "Semi-Ultimate" Quiche, and not "Ultimate", as it's listed in the book? Because I neglected to buy the puff pastry the recipe asks for, and had to whip up my own crust from scratch. Hey, an all-butter crust is a pretty good substitute, I think, but I believe "ultimate" is probably called into use when something is not only delicious but user-friendly, and what could be more user-friendly than rolling out a piece of puff pastry to fit a pie plate?

When quiche is done right, it's like food from heaven. And by done right, I mean with cream, people. This recipe is not on Epicurious, but basically it goes like this: cut up and fry some bacon, and throw it in with six eggs and 2 cups creme fraiche. Sprinkle Gruyere on top (I used a blend of Exotic Cheese From the Fruitful Basket That Was Leftover In The Cheese Drawer).

And here's my technical cooking question of the day. We cook quiches for the same amount of time that we cook pies, right? So why do almost all quiche recipes ask you to blind-bake your crust before putting in the filling? I don't get it.

This recipe has a nice touch that prevents any kind of possible bottom-crust sogginess, which is that it has you put a baking sheet in the oven to preheat, and then you put your pie plate on top of that. I did not blind-bake, and my crust was done perfectly (with no burnt crusts from over-baking, thank you very much.)

This is not my quiche. I can't believe how tragic this feels to not be able to get my own photos up here, lousy as they are (soon to change! Thank you, Joe!) But it looks kind of like my semi-ultimate quiche except I didn't use a tart pan.

(edit: card reader fixed! Thanks Teena for the temporary use of your photo and stay tuned readers for better food photos soon...)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Travelogue: North Conway and The White Mountains

Sometimes it's good to get the hell out of Dallas.

Don and I took advantage of Parent's Night at O'Malley's camp to book a room in North Conway and plan a little two-day getaway for ourselves.

Much could be said about the two excellent restaurants we ate at--we had great sliders, brown ale, and sweet potato fries at the Yankee Smokehouse in Ossipee. Impressive management here--the place is spotless, the food is muscular, and the clientele will make sure you don't get mugged.

Horsefeathers, in North Conway, was likewise a welcome respite, with a fantastic open-faced reuben, and a brownie worth every cent of its $8.55 price tag.

But what I really want to talk about is our attempt on Mt. Kearsarge North.

Readers, I have a confession to make.

In my secret heart of hearts, I'm not a famous chef, I'm not a famous writer, I'm not even walking the red carpet to collect my Oscar.

I'm Euell Gibbons.

It started early in my life, when I read stories like "Witch of Blackbird Pond" and "My Side of the Mountain"--about characters who knew how to heal and even survive with herbs,roots,and food culled from the wild. Someday I'll tell you about how I made parsley tea for a horrified co-worker (to ease her menstrual cramps. She didn't drink it.)

I have always nurtured a fantasy that should worse come to worst, I'd be able to be a valuable community member because of my amazing capacity to harvest food from the wild. And to that end, I've always had a nagging feeling that I really needed to get my act together and figure out what was really edible out there.

Why do I digress?

Because when we ditched our attempt to reach the summit of Mt. Kearsarge, I consoled myself with my happiest find of the day:

Perfectly ripe lowbush blueberries. Tons of them. (well, not tons. A handful.)

I was so happy because we had been climbing for (literally) hours. Climbing and climbing, just like going up stairs, except the stairs were roots and rocks slick with brown moss and water from the previous nights thunderstorm. Questions that were running through my mind after 1.75 hours were:

Why (oh why), with a closet full of performance clothing, did I chose to wear a cotton t-shirt and denim shorts?

Why on earth did we think that one bottle of Poland Springs would be enough for both of us on a 6.2 mile hike?

So when a gaggle of college girls met us (going down) and told us that they had been coming down for half and hour, and that we were slightly more than half way to the summit (we later determined that we were pretty close (like half an hour) to the top)--these girls who eyed us dubiously as we were panting and dripping sweat--we took a time out and reviewed our options.

I guess one thing about being middle-aged is that you don't really need to prove things to yourself so much. Don and I easily agreed that it was a brutally humid day, the visibility sucked

and we wanted to have the strength to actually get back to the car without dying of dehydration. And at hand, while we were deciding to not cowboy our way up to the top, were the lovely blueberries--a consolation prize--for me, anyway.

And on the way down, I was ever so much more cheerful, even though it took a lifetime. So cheerful, that I noticed every single mushroom on the path, and also some promising looking fruit that I think comes from the shad tree:

It tasted like fruit leather.

At which point I said to Don, "I bet you'd like me to stop taking pictures of mushrooms, wouldn't you?"

Yes, he said, because it was starting to thunder and we seemed to be endlessly going down the mountain.

Were there ever two people more happy to see a car? No. Well, maybe--perhaps people who were crazy enough to try the same trip in the snow.

But I'd like to think that with a camp stove, if we had gotten stuck, I could have cooked us up some mean mushroom omelettes.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Broiled Eggplant with Cilantro Vinaigrette

You know, I've made this recipe twice in the past 48 hours, and it's only now, sitting down to write about it, that I realize I left out a major ingredient--both times.

That would be the cumin--my eyes just skimmed right over that. But both times I was rushing--the first was at work when I was hustling to get dinner on the table, the second was about an hour later when I was making the same vinaigrette for the eggplant my friend Moira had baked at home.

Well, if you too happen to leave out the cumin accidentally, don't despair. It's a lovely garlic-herb vinaigrette without it, and it goes great with the eggplant.

I will try this again (with the cumin) because eggplant is so beautiful and glossy right now. It's great to have another technique for this vegetable in the repertoire.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Oatmeal Coconut Raspberry Bars and Chocolate Anise Bark

Miranda and I keep our cookies in tupperware in one dedicated freezer, and we selectively trot them out for tea time. Freezing them means that we can have a good variety on hand without worrying about anything going stale.

But I kind of go through phases at work, when it comes to focusing my free-time baking energy. During the spring, I was all about bread. Mini English muffins, mini whole-grain bagels, challah, brioche, oat bran broom bread, onion rye--I was having a ball. But our cookie stockpile suffered as a result.

And with the family in house, the funeral, and both of our focuses elsewhere, we're down to the bare minimum with a few boxes of store-bought to bolster the inventory.

Time to get out the mixer!

Dr. S. was seriously anti-coconut, so I was never able to explore the many coconut recipes in my baking at work. But I'm making up for lost time, and here's another coconutty recipe: Oatmeal Coconut Raspberry Bars.

The head notes say these are very durable and so could easily be packed and shipped to your faraway loved ones (college students, one presumes) and I agree--the coconut is like a delicious weave that keeps the other components in place.

One thing I especially liked about this recipe is that half of the coconut is toasted, and I just love what that does to the flavor. Good stuff, people--give them a try.


I've had my eye on Chocolate Anise Bark ever since I got the book, and I'm kind of amazed that it's taken me this long to get to it.

My mom and grandma used to make a cousin of this every Christmas with the chocolate left over from Peanut Butter Bon-Bons--they would throw in chopped nuts and dried fruit, and put spoonfuls of it on wax paper to harden, and they'd become part of the Christmas cookie offerings.

This recipe kicks it up a notch with the addition of ground anise. The fruit-nut combo is a great one (cherries, apricots, cashews) but lends itself to substitutions (as in: whatever you have kicking around). In my opinion, you can't go wrong when you're pairing dried fruit and nuts with chocolate. They all match.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Pasta with Mussels and Chorizo and Fresh Banana Layer Cake

Sometimes at work I just get it wrong.

For example, yesterday I thought I'd make a pasta dish (to rectify my ignoring the Pasta section) partly because grandson G. loves pasta.

And on Sunday night, Don and I had the most amazing tapas at Zoe's--mussels with chorizo sausage. It was so incredibly good that I was overjoyed to find a similar recipe in the book, the bonus being that it involved pasta. A hearty dish, with great flavors--what could go wrong?

Please take note--it does not take an hour and fifteen minutes to make this recipe, because I did it in 30 minutes. I did have three burners going at once (pasta, mussels, and chorizo/shallots/garlic/wine). Please also note that the recipe on Epicurious has you steam and shuck the mussels, but the book would have you leave the mussels in the shell, which is traditional.

So what went wrong was this--turns out L. doesn't eat "filter feeders". And G. was a little skittish about the whole thing. And Mrs. S., unbelievably, had never seen or eaten mussels before. This amazes me, because the family is well familiar with oysters and clams, in many sorts of raw and cooked states.

So Mrs. S. picked at her food, G. removed almost all of his mussels and devoured the pasta, L. got some leftover pasta and put on a jarred pesto sauce she had picked up camping, and D. (youngest son of Dr. and Mrs. S.) consumed a mountain of mussels. Happily.

I ate it, and the combo was as good as it had been at the restaurant. (sigh) Well, today's another day.

I also made Fresh Banana Layer Cake yesterday, and since I gave it serious short shrift the last time I made it, merely listing it along with a lot of other recipes, I thought I'd throw in a picture and tell you that for a cake, this one is fast and easy. Just make sure your butter and cream cheese is super soft. And if you use Pam Baking Spray, you can cut out that whole butter-and-flour-the-pans bit.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Grilled Butterflied Leg of Lamb with Lemon, Herbs and Garlic; and Pickled Black Eyed Peas; and...Melissa Gets Organized!

We have sort of a small crowd at work--four instead of the usual one, but two of the four are: a tall hungry man, and a skinny hungry fifteen year old teenager. So really it's like cooking for six. Or eight.

Fortunately they are extremely amiable with no food persnicketyness, so it's kind of dealer's choice. I rummaged around in the freezer yesterday morning and came up with boneless leg of lamb, and I found a lot of dried beans in the cold room. I've been feeling sort of remiss that I've been totally ignoring the Grains and Beans section of the book and thought I'd try something from that section.

So I resolved to make Grilled Butterflied Leg of Lamb with Lemon, Herbs and Garlic and Pickled Black Eyed Peas since Kevin recently made it and thought highly of it.

Folks, that lamb recipe is a winner. Mine ended up a little bit charred on one side because I had a fire in the grease trap (grrr) but it was cooked perfectly thanks to my remote thermometer, and the garlic/herbs/lemon combo was spot on. It's a super easy summer dinner so give it a try.

I wasn't so crazy about the Pickled Black Eyed Peas, and I was disappointed about the whole thing. It just didn't taste very vinegary--there just seemed like there were too many beans in proportion to the rest of the ingredients. But I served it, and cleaned up, and went my merry way out to dinner with my husband, and when we were driving home, I realized the error I had made. Actually, I gasped in vexation, which made Don think he was about to hit something, which made him swerve the car to avoid the invisible threat. At least I know he has good reflexes. But next time I'll be quieter.

Anyway, this is what I did. When putting the beans in to soak, I looked at the remaining half bag, and thought, when the heck am I ever going to use these stupid beans? So I put the whole bag in, essentially doubling the recipe.

But by the time the beans had soaked and cooked, I had FORGOTTEN that I had doubled the recipe (at least on the bean end) and made it as written. Der.

So today I'll rectify the situation, and I'm sure I'll find it as delicious as Kevin thought it was.

ADDENDUM: Excuse me, I mean Teena (as Kevin points out)! By the way, I did fix it and it was much, much better.


Melissa Gets Organized!!!

I am so proud of myself--I finally figured out how to use the "Edit Posts" function in an efficient manner so I could change the labels on the posts (or even just add some in many cases) and to do it so that readers can look up recipes as they are categorized in chapters in The Gourmet Cookbook. This has been a headache for me for at least a year, because I changed my mind a dozen times about whether or how to do it. The last straw, though, was when I couldn't find my own post for 40 Naked Women Corn.

This will also allow me to answer people when they ask how many recipes I've made (284), and which chapters I cook out of most (vegetables, fish and shellfish, cakes, and cookies bars and confections) and least (basics, sauces and salsas, grains and beans).

My only issue is the stupid capitalization function, which let me capitalize some things but not others because of the fill-in feature. I'll do my OCD thing on that later.

So Georgia, you're off the hook!

ADDENDUM: Curious, I just went through some of these chapters to count up the recipes I've actually cooked, because some I've cooked but not written about. Readers, as diligent as I've been, I probably have only written about 2/3 to 1/2 of the recipes I've cooked. For example, I've cooked 50 of the vegetable recipes, and 45 of the Fish and Shellfish.

Shame on me! Guess I'll just have to cook them again. Now that's a fate I can live with.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Grapefruit Ambrosia

Grapefruit Ambrosia is meant to be a sophisticated spin on an old Southern classic.

But you know what, people? Campari (yech) just can't compare with the restorative yum factor of Cool Whip and mini-marshmallows.

THIS is what ambrosia is supposed to be:

I'm sorry. I can't help it. I grew up in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina. And actually, if you really want to get nit-picky about it, not only should ambrosia have Cool-Whip and mini-marshmallows, you should also mix pistachio pudding mix (dry) into the Cool-Whip.

So call this what you want--Grapefruit and Coconut Salad, perhaps. But it ain't ambrosia. Sorry.

P.S. People who still haven't made this yet. Do not buy a bottle of Campari. You will be so mad, because it's the most disgusting liquor on the planet. I happen to have it at work because somebody here actually likes it, but you should just go to a local bar and beg them to give you 2 tablespoons in a little ziplock bag. They'll probably feel sorry for you and not charge you anything.

P.P.S. Gourmet people--what's with the photo for this recipe on Epicurious? It has nothing to do with the actual recipe, though it might be a grapefruit, but it sort of looks grilled with a little toast thing next to it.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Dandelion Salad with Warm Pecan Vinaigrette

Yesterday was organic produce box day! It's very exciting to open--I never know what's going to be in it and have to resist the temptation to call Bobby to ask ahead of time so I can plan. I'm trying to cultivate mushin, and while someday it might hold me in good stead if I ever have to engage in mortal combat, for now it's allowing me to remain open and flexible to whatever comes my way in the vegetable department.

Hey, you have to start somewhere.

So this is what was in my box this week:

* dandelion greens
* garlic (I now have four heads of organic garlic)
* 3 plums
* baby brocolini
* delicata squash
* fennel
* lettuce
* triple creme cheese (yes!)

Kevin, Adam, Teena, I can see the little wheels turning in your brains, and maybe you're even flipping through your book right now.

And if you're like me, Dandelion Greens with Warm Pecan Vinaigrette is the immediate no-brainer.

First of all, dandelions are seasonal. Second, who wants to pick the darn things out of your lawn? (Well, probably your neighbors, but let's leave them out of the equation, shall we?) Third, it's one of those slightly exotic recipes that you just have to jump on immediately if you get the right opportunity--and here it was, handed to me in a sturdy produce box.

So here are my chopped dandelions:

And here they are after pouring the hot dressing on them. By the way, the dressing couldn't be easier. You'll note that the epicurious link asks for hazelnuts--either nut would be just fine.

Not very wilted. The recipe says that the hot dressing doesn't wilt them (just "tames" them), but when I tasted it, I thought they needed more wilting or taming--whatever. So I microwaved them for 30 seconds.

Here's the salad:

And while it was pretty good, I have to make a full disclosure and tell you (if I haven't already), that bitter greens are not my favorites. They scare me a little bit, actually. So I made it more friendly:

...by adding goat cheese. Hey, isn't it about time for goat cheese to make its retro comeback? Where are the goat cheese and sun-dried tomato pizzas of yesteryear?

And this I gladly ate for lunch. My husband LOVED it--he adores bitter greens and would eat them every day if I weren't so not in love with them.

Now--what am I going to do with all that garlic?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Pike Quenelles with White Wine-Mushroom Cream Sauce

Do you want to know what?

I am completely astonished that this recipe is not on Epicurious.

French technique, both the quenelles and the sauce. It seems the epitome of what Gourmet is all about (OK, used to be all about--not so French-centric anymore).

But the only thing a search for "quenelles" turns up is one lonely recipe for Scallop Quenelles with Gingered Tomato Sauce, reviewed by only three people (one of whom hated it).

So what that means (I think) is that this recipe never appeared in the magazine and when the editors put the book together it was either somebody's family favorite or came from some other source, though it's not attributed.

Anyway--people, quenelles are COOL. I first saw a chef making them when a guy came up from Maison Robert to try out for the head chef job at Yanks. You put something pasty in a soup spoon and use another spoon to make an egg shape.

My quenelles did not look as three-dimensional as that but I tried hard. I have to study his technique, maybe.

Now, it's time to backtrack a little bit and tell you that 1. I didn't use pike, I used haddock 2. I didn't read the directions carefully and poured the cream into the food processor with everything else (the idea is you're making kind of a fish mousse that you'll then gently poach) and so 3. I was totally worried that I had screwed it up and 4. then I was completely irritated because adding the cream meant I had that much more material to push through the sieve and I HATE pushing anything but soups through sieves because it takes TEN THOUSAND YEARS.

I was so worried and irritated that I only took one picture. Here are my quenelles gently poaching:

When I tasted my quenelles, I was a little underwhelmed, so that just added to my worry factor.

But then, the sauce. Mmmmmmmmmm.

Actually, I lied when I said the sauce uses French technique, because I'm pretty sure classic French chefs would frown on arrowroot as a thickener, which I've never used but is now my favorite because your sauce will never ever break. Why? Because it acts like cornstarch but doesn't have that weird cornstarch texture.

So the sauce is mmmmmmm because it has wine, shallots, cream, mushrooms, and a little Cognac. It's supposed to have fish stock too, but mine had chicken stock.

This was the last dinner before K. and L. left Sea Meadow and I wanted to make something kind of fancy for them, since they are an appreciative audience. K. was thrilled and impressed that I had made quenelles, and they all loved the dish.

I can't help it, I get off on external validation. Who doesn't?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ropa Vieja and Melissa Gets Nostalgic

Readers, when Georgia was baking last Sunday, she asked me a question I get from time to time, which is: "Were your parents good cooks?"

I have always answered that question very specifically: my dad is experimental and makes great pan sauces; my mom relies on old standbys that she loves (Brunch Casserole, Seven Layer Salad, Hong Kong Ribs).

But finally I realized that what she was really asking was more of a "nature or nuture" question. What and who were my influences? Did I learn at somebody's knee? And at this I burst out laughing, and told her how terrible of a cook I used to be.

How terrible?

This terrible.

When I was a senior in high school, I dated a basketball player, and I thought it would be fun and a girl-friendly thing to do to cook him his favorite meal, which happened to be steak slathered in a concoction called Ah-So Sauce.

So I went to the store and got this stuff, came home, put a frying pan on the stove, opened the freezer and pulled out a steak.

I slathered it with Ah-So Sauce, and put it in the pan, where it refused to cook, just sort of eventually made a saucy puddle, and turned a little grey on the bottom. At which point, utterly discouraged, we abandoned the cooking project (with Drew saying, "I think my mom thaws out the steak first.") and went on to some other teenaged activity--probably driving around looking for something to eat, preferably accompanied by free and illegally procured alcohol.

My point is this: if I can go from attempting to pan-fry rock-hard frozen steak to tutoring somebody on the finer points of making pastry cream, so can you.

All I have going for me is burning desire, the ability to read, and the capacity to learn from my mistakes. Someday I'll tell you about the time I caught the bottom of my oven on fire. That was exciting.


Ropa Vieja is a Cuban dish that is so-called because it resembles shredded rags in the pot.

This isn't a typical meal that I would make at Sea Meadow (I tend to shy away from peppers and onions for digestive reasons) but since the family was still in the house I wanted a big, one pot meal and this was what I picked. I also had been spending a fortune on groceries, and using a cheap cut of meat (flank steak) was appealing to me.

I was a little worried about the tenderness factor (flank steak isn't really known for that) but you do braise it for almost two hours, and then shred it.

Do you know how long it takes to shred 3 pounds of flank steak? Seemed like eons. I had a mountain.

I loved the way it looked--very colorful.

And when I tasted it the next day I loved the flavor--the cumin rounds it out nicely. Actually, I ate it ice cold out of the fridge, since we've been having hot, sticky weather lately.

I'd recommend it to anybody looking for an inexpensive family meal. You don't even have to use the colored peppers, but hey, maybe you've got some in your garden by now and won't have to shell out $3.99/lb. for them.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Georgia Bakes a Cake, or, Melissa Gets Clever, Part II

Friends, I would like to introduce you to Georgia, grand-daughter-in-law of Dr. and Mrs. S. She and her husband Robby are academics, they live on the West Coast, and they are foodies.

Georgia has been an avid reader of Cooking Gourmet, and you have probably seen her comments here and there (which is why I'm using her full name, not her initial). So we were thrilled to be in the same three-dimensional space this past week, and since I've been doing baking projects with her sister-in-law, I suggested that Georgia and I might have a baking day too.

She was excited, and on Sunday we commenced to making Coconut Cake with Raspberry Coulis.

For a cake baking activity, I'd say that this recipe is pretty advanced. It involves folding egg whites, making pastry cream, and cutting a one layer cake into three layers. All of these things have the potential to turn out badly, so while I let Georgia--a relatively inexperienced baker--take the reins, I was (very) close by to supervise.

One thing she was sad about was that the recipe calls for the pastry cream to cool for three hours--her husband and in-laws were coming for tea and she had hoped to serve her creation. We decided it would have to be a dessert cake but that she would come in the morning to get some for the family.

We hit our first bump in the road with the heavy cream. Georgia had set the Kitchen Aid to whip it, but soon said with dismay--"Oh no, my peaks have deflated!"

Sure enough, she had created butter.

But thanks to a well-stocked fridge, we had more cream to work with. Yay!

I don't feel comfortable making pastry cream without a thermometer, so I had Georgia deviate from the instructions (bring pastry cream to a boil?) and stir with a wooden spoon until it reached 170. I showed her how to strain it, too, since sometimes you have lumps, or maybe you want to get out that vanilla bean pod.

Georgia mixed in the coconut, covered it with wax paper, and we let it sit out to cool to room temp before putting it in the fridge.

That's when I had my brainstorm.

If the whole thing hinged on the pastry cream being cool and set, why not just cool it down quickly? Like spread it out on a big metal pan and put it in the fridge?

I'm so smart.

Now we knew we could get it together for tea, so I asked Georgia if she wanted to try cutting the cake layers. I told her the various ways it could be done, but she declined this piece of the excitement. So I cut the cake while she made the raspberry coulis. Curiously, the cake was tunneled. Experienced bakers, you know that this means the batter has been over-mixed, but this recipe calls for a base of flour, sugar, egg and oil (and salt and bp) and egg whites are folded in. The egg whites are fine and tight, so perhaps it was in the folding, or perhaps it's just the nature of the recipe since Georgia didn't spend an excessive amount of time on that part.

One thing Georgia does love is spreading. She could spread for days. Here she is spreading the custard.

I had to remind her we were watching the clock.

And I got her to pick up the cake layers too, once I assured her they wouldn't break or crack--the texture is very much like angel food cake. See how flexible it is?

Non-butterized whipped cream on the top and sides, some coconut to gild the lily, and we were ready for tea! It was very exciting.

Want a slice?

It was a pleasure to have Georgia in the kitchen, and we're already making plans for next time--which might be Christmas, but may hopefully be sooner.

We could make Roasted Apple Strudels...

or Chocolate Orange Dobestorte...

or Brandied Sour Cherry and Pear Tartlets...


Friday, July 4, 2008


Happy Independence Day!

The history behind the 4th seems much more real to me after watching HBO's "John Adams" series. If somehow you've missed this wonderful show, get thee to a Blockbuster and rent it already.

Like most of you, my meal choices for yesterday and today have revolved around: what is festive and seasonal, and what can feed a larger group of people who are standing around a grill drinking beer.

But unlike 99.9% of you, I've also had to keep in mind how to use up the produce from these wonderful organic boxes I've been getting from the Fruitful Basket.

This is why I was sitting in front of Stop n Shop in my car yesterday with the book on my lap, flipping to corn recipes, tomato recipes, salad recipes, beef recipes. Would I reprise 40 Naked Women Corn? I only had 4 ears of corn. Should I do something with those organic cherries? (I decided to hoard them instead)

I finally settled on Tabbouleh (which would use up the organic tomatoes and cukes, and the bumper crop of parsley on our deck), and to revisit Matambre (to use up last week's Swiss chard and carrots) and Tomatoes, Corn, and Jack Cheese (which I remember so clearly I can feel it in my mouth).

My first disappointment with Tabbouleh was finding the damn fine bulgur. Usually there's a little exotic grains and flours section where stuff like this can be located, but all I could come up with was a pre-mixed box of tabbouleh. I bought it, thinking that I could throw away the spice pack, but was dismayed to see that there was no spice pack, it was pre-mixed:

Oh well. Onward.

The second thing I was fussed about is that my tomatoes were not perfectly ripe. Although I must say it made it easier to cut them into perfect 1/4" cubes!

Assembled, it looked like your standard homemade tabbouleh (but with much less bulgur than you generally see. That's the authentic way to make it--it's supposed to highlight the parsley, not the bulgur.)

A quick stop at my friend Ruth's for mint harvest (another tabbouleh ingredient Stop n Shop didn't have) and it was on to my parents house for a bbq.

This is where the tabbouleh experience deviated a little bit from the Gourmet experience.

This was my situation: I usually go to karate on Thursday nights at 7:30. Now, on any other week I might have blown off class for a family holiday party, BUT...the dojo is closing for 1 1/2 weeks for summer vacation. Last night was my last night to get a class in before the break.

I was really torn, but thought I'd eat a light meal and skip over for the class, then skip back and watch the fireworks over Gloucester Harbor. No drinking.

It took about one second for somebody to talk me into a drink (I chose beer, thinking, "carbo-loading!"), and my sister hurried dinner along (steak tips, corn, potatoes) so I could have a bite to eat.

But as we got distracted with my mom's new hospital bed and her pills and curtains for privacy, the moment came when I had to forage for myself (in order to not go to karate with just a beer in my stomach).

I dished up the tabbouleh, of course. And then I looked around for something more substantial to go with it. Something with carbs. No dinner food was out, but there was a big basket of chips. So I invented the world's most awesome combination of food flavors for hungry karate students drinking beer: tabbouleh +


So good I had a second little plate. And then I had the

to go to karate and

Happy 4th, everyone!