"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".

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Gourmet Bloggers Meet in Three-Dimensional Space! And Have a Tapenade Smackdown!

You know, there are hobbyists and then, there are hobbyists. Most people who have a passion about something--knitting, cars, birdwatching, whatever--have a group out there somewhere of friends who are similarly obsessed.

But this Gourmet cook-through blog project is pretty darn specialized, folks. Four. There are four of us embarked upon this nutty voyage. And when there are only four you get excited about the chance to meet one of your fellow voyagers. Excited enough to drive an hour and a half, food processor tucked under your arm, to participate in a lunchtime this-is-my-hobby-and-here's-a-fellow-hobbyist presentation + Ultimate Tapenade Smackdown!

My new three-dimensional friend? Adam, from Gourmet, all the way!

Adam works in Manchester, NH--not far from his Massachusetts digs (so he goes against the rush hour traffic--such a smart fellow) and let me just pause right here to show you a picture (from 10 floors up) of Elm St., which is the main downtown street in Manchester.

Manchester is a happening little city! Restaurants thick on the ground--it kind of has a university town vibe. I definitely plan on visiting again to do some serious exploring. And writers, here's a little anecdote from which you can take heart--I went to stop at a Barnes & Noble on the way out of town and I couldn't find a parking space. Once I got inside, the place was packed--this was a Friday, mid-afternoon--and it's not because there was a Starbucks inside either. They were browsing the shelves. Maybe it's because everybody's unemployed, I don't know, but I was happy to see the action.

But getting back to our lunchtime adventure, check this out!

Adam put together a powerpoint presentation!

It was great--he defined "blogging", then "cook-through blogging"...talked about the first cookthrough blogger (of Julie/Julia fame) and also quite a bit about Carol of Alinea at Home fame, who is making things that I'm pretty sure I couldn't get my bookgroup to eat no matter how much they love me.

And then...the tapenade. Adam picked out two tapenade recipes because we were in a conference room (no stove, no nothing...except a few outlets) and with the food processors we could whiz those suckers up with little to no fuss.

Now, I say little or no fuss, but I must pause to mention my own personal smackdown with my food processor, which is to say I COULD NOT GET the lid off and spent at least a few minutes grunting (and cursing?) while I tried. The food processor won. Well, actually Adam won because HE got it off, while gracefully transitioning me from shooting dagger-like looks of hatred at my aging food processor to telling the amused (I hope) crowd what my favorite recipe so far is (Grapefruit and Coconut Angel Pie).

Here is a picture of the graceful Adam preparing the Tapenade:

This guy could be in a test kitchen show on tv. Seriously. Unflappable. By the way, the first recipe used black olives, which were whizzed up with garlic cloves, capers, and olive oil. Our observation about this one is that it seemed a little loose in the oil department--if you make this yourself add the oil slowly and stop when it looks right to you.

The second one, Green Olive and Almond Tapenade, was just as simple--green olives, parsley, toasted almonds, lemon juice, and olive oil.

Here's a picture of the two:

The assembled lunch-goers preferred the Green Olive and Almond Tapenade, but I have to say I was equally impressed with both. The capers add an interesting, earthy flavor to the black tapenade, and the almonds do the same for the green olive version. I'd make both again.

The other thing I'd do again? Cook with Adam! He's SO NICE, and he gave me a bottle of Madagascar Vanilla Extract for coming up, and when I asked him if he'd ever consider a career in cooking he mentioned the idea of a cookbook bookstore with a test kitchen in the back where you could hold cooking classes. Doesn't that seem like a brilliant idea? I think so too. I can't wait to meet his family and we'll do something fun like whip up some Gourmet baby food. :-)

(EDIT: stop the presses, there's ANOTHER Gourmet blogger--Annie Gustely of Bon Appetit to you too! Why is her blog named after Bon Appetit? Because she's decided to cook through BOTH cookbooks, to which all I can say is good luck, sistah--in three years I've only done 572 (Adam, I finally counted!) so you'll be cooking on your deathbed, most likely. But we'll be cheering you on. :-)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Udon Noodle Salad with Grilled Chicken and Asian Dressing & Lentils and Curried Rice with Friend Onions

These tough economic times have had me taking a closer look at what's hanging around in my pantry. I have the standard stuff--cornmeal, lentils, tuna fish--but I also have a preponderance of Japanese ingredients, thanks to a Yankee Swap present I received a few years back. Soba noodles, udon noodles, nori, bonito flakes, and a Japanese cookbook that I flip through from time to time.

A perfect opportunity to explore a cuisine that I enjoy eating but don't have that much experience cooking--and Gourmet helpfully provides a recipe that involves one of my pantry ingredients: Udon Noodle Salad with Grilled Chicken and Asian Dressing.

I don't think I've ever eaten udon noodles before--the notes describe them as soft and slightly chewy and that's about right--they are incredibly satisfying to eat. This recipe has you combine three things--the boiled, cooled noodles, marinated, grilled chicken breast, and a cilantro/parsley vinaigrette. It's actually pretty straightforward--the only issue I really had with it is that the recipe needs a little clarification.

For example, it has you combining stock, cilantro springs, parsley etc in a blender, to puree until smooth. This is what it looked like after pureeing:

which resembles something you might find in an unkempt aquarium. This is easy to fix--don't say "cilantro sprigs", say "chopped cilantro".

The other moment of hesitation for me was what to do with the vinaigrette (there was a lot of it). Are the noodles supposed to sit in the vinaigrette like soup? Or are they supposed to be just lightly coated and then drain the vinaigrette off? I ended up letting the leftovers hang out in the same bowl as the vinaigrette, which ended up being a mistake--the noodles break down and lose that lovely chewy consistency by the next day.

These small niggly things aside, I would make this dish again in a minute, especially for a fun summer dinner. The flavors are bright, and it's easy to put together.


Lentils were another thing I had floating around in my pantry, and it was pretty easy to find a recipe would put them to good use. Lentils and Curried Rice with Fried Onions is based on an Indian dish called khichri (explain the notes) and the fried onions are not what you're thinking of--no batter, just simple sliced onions fried in vegetable oil until they're brown and crispy.

This is another recipe that has you making components separately and combining them to delicious effect. The lentils are boiled and drained, the onions are fried and salted, and the rice is cooked with lots a curry powder and a little bit of cayenne.

The lentils and the rice are tossed together with some chopped parsley, and onions top off the show. I should say, the onions that didn't go into my mouth topped off the show--it is very hard to resist crispy salted things hanging about on the counter.

This makes a lot and we had great leftovers for days. It's worth noting that the onions don't retain their lovely crispy nature in the refrigerator but that's ok. If you're struggling with mid-winter food blahs this might be just the thing to spice up your dinner plate.


Gluten-Free recipe in this post: Lentils and Curried Rice with Fried Onions

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Melissa Feeds the World Part IV: Her Bookgroup & Exciting Cook-Through Blogger News!!

Exciting News first! Folks who follow the Gourmet cook-through blogs may have noticed that two of us live pretty close to each other here in Massachusetts: Adam from Gourmet All The Way is just down the road in Methuen.

Well, I recently received an email from Adam, inviting me to be his guest at a luncheon demonstration where he works as an attorney. Wait, a roomful of attorneys? Does this mean I could get sued if they don’t like the food? Ha ha, just kidding. Kind of.

We’ll talk about cook-through blogging, and whip up some tasty food that doesn’t require oodles of time and equipment (Adam has picked two tapenade recipes) but best of all we’ll get to meet each other in Three Dimensions. I had a blast meeting Teena from The Gourmet Project last summer, and I look forward to a good time here as well.

Watch this space for a full report!


On to my bookgroup, which if you’re a regular reader you know that means I’m talking about DESSERT.

For the past few months I’ve been trying out various puddings on my bookgroup, and January’s group was no exception. For the discussion of Suite Francaise, I chose Toasted Bread and Butter Pudding. Part of my reasoning is that I can’t get anybody else in my life to eat bread pudding, but the other part is that it calls for challah, which was connected to the subject matter of our book.

I also remembered that Adam had made this recipe, and liked how it got crispy on top but was pudding-y on the bottom.

Now, this recipe says that you can use challah or firm white sandwich bread. Challah is not typically found for sale around here except during Jewish holidays so the EASY thing for me to do would be to use white bread, but what would be the fun of that?

The Gourmet Cookbook actually has a great recipe for challah, and so I made challah. I love making challah. It’s so satisfying.

If you are on the fence about bread pudding because you don’t like the slimy texture, this might be the recipe for you to try. The egg mixture doesn’t fully engulf the bread, so part of it bakes on top, and it does get nice and crispy, as Adam noted.

But unfortunately I had to cover and transport the pudding, so the crispy bread on top got steamed…by the time we were ready to serve it I actually thought it was sort of rubbery and it seemed more like French toast than bread pudding.

But the caramel sauce saved the day! That’s the great thing about sauces—they hide a multitude of errors. And my book group is a loving and appreciative audience, and that’s why I keep making desserts for them.

This is not my pudding, but it's made from the same recipe...

For February’s group, I made Coffee Almond Ice Cream Cake with Dark Chocolate Sauce.

I don’t know why I’m intimidated by this chapter--Frozen Desserts and Sweet Sauces. Maybe part of it is because I still don’t have an ice cream maker that is easy to use. Or maybe it’s because many, if not most of these recipes are incredibly complex—requiring multiple components and a lot of time. You think I’m kidding? Check out Watermelon Sorbet with Chocolate Seeds—a trompe l’oeil that has you filling a frozen watermelon shell with watermelon sorbet and chocolate “seeds”. It uses the phrase “working quickly” at least twice, which makes me nervous just reading it.

But I was determined to try something other than pudding this month, and so I browsed around here trying to find something that would feed a lot of people (three new members—yay!) and wouldn’t take three days to make.

Enter Coffee Almond Ice Cream Cake, which very nicely calls for store-bought coffee ice cream. All you have to do, really, is layer it in a springform pan.

I expanded the recipe by half to fit a larger springform—a 10 inch, and then I got busy.

First a layer of chocolate cookie crumbs mixed with melted butter, which you freeze for a while, then the softened coffee ice cream.

Then you spread whipped heavy cream that’s been folded with crushed almond cookies, and sprinkle the whole thing with toasted almonds.

Done. Well, you have to freeze it for four hours, but then you’re done.

And—another recipe that calls for sauce!! This one called for Dark Chocolate Sauce, and mmmmmmmm, can there possibly be anything better? No, I don’t think so.

I would like to personally recognize Don Rittenburg, who artfully sauced these as they were going out of the kitchen. It was important to him to get it right, and he did.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Melissa Feeds the World Part III: Her Elders

Well technically, almost everybody I've mentioned here recently is older than I am, because I'm celebrating my fifth annual 39th birthday soon and my peers are just getting older and older while I remain as fresh as a daisy.

No, you don't buy that? Damn.

OK, well here when I say my elders I'm thinking specifically of the two lovely ladies I cook for in my two lovely jobs, plus one slightly younger than them but still far older than me gentleman who has sadly since passed away from cancer.

And the reason I'm putting them together in one post is because older people sometimes have special eating needs that can make cooking for them challenging.

Need #1: soft food

One of my lovely ladies--let's call her Mrs. H.--is keen on veggies but they have to be soft. One of her favorite cooking tricks for green beans and broccoli (and asparagus and brussel sprouts) is to have me boil them in water with 1 tsp of baking soda for two minutes, then boiling salted water for 6-8 minutes. They keep their bright green color yet are amazingly soft (and salty). Sort of (well exactly) like...canned beans!

So in expanding on this base of just-like-canned veggies, I turned to The Gourmet Cookbook to see what they could offer us, and came up with Maple Squash Puree, and Asparagus with Tarragon Sherry Vinaigrette, along with a few others that I've already talked about here.

(Let me just digress here to say that I really appreciate the veggie section of this cookbook. SO MANY people see vegetables as an afterthought, something to make that dinner plate look healthy, and don't know how to honor them in all their earth-bound glory. This chapter is eye-opening, even for somebody who was a vegetarian for 12 years. Will I ever find purslane, though? Stay tuned.)

Maple Squash Puree is easy-peasy. Boil squash, and puree with butter and maple syrup. That's it. What's not to like?

Asparagus with Tarragon Sherry Vinaigrette is slightly more complicated because it involves shocking the asparagus, which does not mean exposing their virgin ears to Christian Bale's rant on YouTube, it means stopping the cooking by plunging them into a bowl of ice water.

(Oh, I caught your attention with Christian Bale, but you don't want to listen to three minutes and fifty-two seconds of swearing? Try the dance mix instead.)

But getting back to asparagus--this gets topped with a simple shallot/mustard/tarragon vinaigrette, which I make even simpler by putting everything in a glass measuring cup and blending with a hand mixer. Fast and easier on those forearm muscles.

Mrs. H. LOVES this, hot or cold. The picture below shows some grated egg on top, which I don't bother with. What's the deal with cold asparagus and hard-boiled egg? Thanks to Romulo Yanes for making such a pretty photo:

Need #2: fat-free food

If you've ever cooked for or worked with older folks (or maybe you are one) you'll know that sometimes the world revolves around the digestive tract. OK, not sometimes. It just does. Medications don't help--some of them make you constipated, some of them give you the trots--it's a tricky balancing act that seems to need adjusting constantly.

So at one of my lovely jobs, we are often asked to make food that is intended to have a certain, shall we say, digestive effect. We never know exactly what it is--more roughage or less, dairy ok or not, bring on the butter or strictly fat-free.

Fat-free dinners that are also interesting pose a particular challenge, and it's one that I solved on one occasion with Fish en Papillote with Tomatoes and Olives.

Food in packets isn't a new concept--I seem to recall there was a little flurry of popularity with this technique in the eighties, and I'm sure it has a long pedigree with other things besides parchment paper.

The idea is you put the fish in the middle of parchment paper and pile on the goodies--in this case sliced tomatoes, olives, orange zest and fresh herbs--wrap them up and bake for ten minutes or so in a hot oven (500). This isn't a picture of my fish but it will give you the idea:

Other cook-through bloggers might be saying, hey, what about the butter? Well, it's true there's some butter in this recipe but I just left it out. That's what's nice about this particular recipe--you don't need it.

It's a great way to cook fish--I should remember it more often. If you're on a diet (or trying to recover from, ummm, digestive troubles), check it out.

Need #3: something soothing for the chemo patient

Well, this is a hard one to write about, because this particular person meant a lot to me and others who work at the craft of writing. Forgive me for erring on the side of discretion--I won't mention his name, but please know that it was an honor to give something back, if only briefly.

And let's have a little discussion about cancer, and chemo--something I'm learning more and more about from the cooking end of things. Chemo makes you hate food. It makes all food taste like sh*t, and you throw up, and lose a lot of weight. So oddly, one of the things that cancer patients need is MORE flavor (you would think spices would be upsetting) but in super small quantities. And it needs to be caloric.

Bringing my guaranteed weight-gaining High Calorie, High Nutrient Shake was easy, and helped with a weight gain of eight pounds--yay!

But what else? What flavor was he craving?

Lemon, he said. He loved lemon sorbet, but it wasn't that caloric.

Mister, I can make ANYTHING high calorie, and off I went to do my research.

I looked over the recipe for Lemon Parfait in The Gourmet Cookbook. Where lemon sorbet has just sugar, this puppy has both eggs AND heavy cream. Bingo.

Kevin, thanks for letting me steal your photo. I'm bad today.

He loved it, but even the best food can't stop death when it's marching in your direction.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Melissa Feeds the World , Continuing with Her Writing Group

There are two reasons I love my writing group:

1. They are great writers and readers.

2. They enthusiastically eat whatever I put in front of them.

I LOVE people like that. Give me an appreciative and adventuresome audience any day. (Oh, picky eaters don't be sad. I love you too. You know who you are.)

So when it was my turn to host I thought a nice thing to make for our wintry lunchtime meeting would be Yellow Split Pea Soup, and being the organized lass I am, I even made it the day before so I could share it with my son and husband.

What's not to love about split pea soup? The folks on Epicurious sure do--this recipe is rated by 30 people with a 4 out of 4 fork rating...all would make it again. And I will too--it's seriously yummy and I made it even more so by putting in all three of the ham hocks that were in my styrofoam meat tray from Stop n Shop instead of only one.

Now, I just know my writing group gals are reading this, and scratching their heads and saying I KNOW we didn't eat split pea soup, yellow or otherwise. What gives?

What gives is that while I was heating it up for dinner, with Don and O'Malley, I left the burner on, and scorched the bottom (this is the problem with thick, puree-type soups) and what I could rescue was not enough to feed my lovely guests.

Plan B!!

I was determined to have soup. And I didn't have loads of time, considering I had to shop and produce said soup between dropping my son off at school and welcoming my group at 11:30.

Chicken Soup with Almond Matzo Balls seemed to be easy enough, and pretty fun since a) I've never had matzo ball soup and b) one of our group is a gal from Vermont who converted when she married a Jew from Long Island.

The basic idea here is to spice up what seems to be a bland product with coarsely chopped almonds, fresh dill, and cinnamon. Sounds weird, but they taste great, and Martha was so impressed that she took some home in a baggie to give to her Dan. She was sure they wouldn't fly with his mother, but maybe at home, during Passover?

I streamlined the recipe slightly by cooking the matzo balls in the chicken stock instead of cooking them in water and then putting them in the stock. I don't think I screwed anything up by doing that, and it made a lot more sense to me.

Try it. You will like it too.

And since I had had such a success with the chicory salad from the dinner party with my parents, I thought I'd go wild and try another salad recipe, and one that I've had my eye on since the beginning: Bibb Lettuce with Butter Dressing.

All you have to do is wave the word "butter" around in front of me to get my attention. I love that stuff, though it seems like a counter-intuitive choice for salad dressing. The trick here is to have your lettuce at room temp--anything cooler will make the butter clump up unpleasantly.

But there was no clumping in this household. The way you make this is wonderfully simple--melt butter and add one halved clove of garlic...saute until both garlic and butter are golden brown. Add a little lemon juice and some salt, pour it over the lettuce, and toss to coat.

Easy, and delightful. Hooray for butter! I didn't take a picture of the salad, but here's a picture of a 800 lb. butter sculpture for you to enjoy.

Butter. Is there anything it can't do?