"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".

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Monkfish Medallions with Tomato Lemon Coulis

Monkfish. Poor man's lobster. That's how I see this fish described, over and over and over again. Did you know, way back when this country was colonized by the English, that lobster could be picked up off the beaches and were so plentiful that there was actually a LAW ON THE BOOKS stating that prisoners couldn't be fed lobster more than once a week? That's because it was considered trash food. Yep.

This monkfish actually cost about the same per pound as live lobster so don't go rushing out to the fish store thinking you're gonna get a bargain on this fish. Try skate or mussels if you want cheap seafood.

Another thing about monkfish--they is fugly.

Or maybe terrifying is a better word--I would not want to get my ankle bitten by one of these guys. Can't you just see the oceans of prehistoric earth populated with fish like this? Yipes!

Fortunately, cooking Monkfish Medallions with Tomato Lemon Coulis doesn't involve any contact with live monkfisk. Just a kind of odd looking fillet that had to be de-membraned:

I had never worked with monkfish and found this part to be kind of gyicky, which is a combination of gross and yicky.

But once you get that stuff off you cook it in butter, in a skillet, then set it aside while you make the coulis. Here's my mis en place:

The coulis is pretty simple--it's just sauteed garlic, tomato, lemon juice and thyme--cook it down a little bit in your fish-frying pan, and then spoon it over the monkfish.

Looks good, right?

Well, I'm sorry to say that the coulis was so acidic, what with the tomato and lemon juice, that to me it tasted kind of like...bile. I know, gyicky!

And I am a HUGE fan of citrus, in all its forms, but here it just didn't work.

So if you're going to try this at home, I'd say leave the lemon juice out of the coulis, and just do tomatoes, garlic and herbs. THAT would be some kick-ass dinner.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

This is Why Microwaves Fall in Love, or Melissa Tells a Story

Readers, I want to share something with you.

I'm in the process of making Sauternes-Soaked Cake with Candied Kumquats and Toasted Almonds for Easter, but this is not the first time I've used this recipe.

I mean, it's the first time I've BAKED, using this recipe, but Sauternes-Soaked Cake with Candied Kumquats and Toasted Almonds and I have a history together.

Allow me to explain.

I belong to an online writer's workshop called Zoetrope. Within this site are many smaller offices, where people gather for specific things. Could be poetry, screenwriting, horror, or even how to get an agent. Some of the offices I belong to focus on flash fiction, which is generally defined as fiction under 1000 words. And in one of these offices, the Flash Factory, the fellows who run the office host a weekly contest.

The winner from the week before thinks of a prompt, and a sets a word limit. Writers have five days to post a story, then a few days to read and review the stories others have posted. By noon Friday, you vote for what you think are the top three stories, and the moderator (lately the amazing Rich Osgood) tallies the votes and posts the winners. The author of the number one story picks the prompt for the next week, and round and round it goes.

The week that I joined the Factory, I won the weekly contest, so I got to pick the prompt for the next week.

And this was MY prompt: using at least ten words from this recipe, write a flash of 1000 words or less. And what followed was the recipe for Sauternes-Soaked Cake with Candied Kumquats and Toasted Almonds.

Now, if you look at a recipe and think about fiction you'll see that there are some pretty sexy words in there, if you've got a dirty mind. I was fully expecting my own flash to be borderline erotica.

What came out was entirely different.

I will tell you all about making and eating Sauternes-Soaked Cake with Candied Kumquats and Toasted Almonds very soon, but first I want to share the fiction this recipe inspired.

So without further ado, I give you

This Is Why Microwaves Fall in Love

The toaster and the blender are having a romance. Inter-appliance dating is strictly against Kitchen Policy, but there’s really nothing I can do after the lights go out except install security cameras, and more often than not they side with the lovers and delete the incriminating files.

It’s not that I mind the dating, don’t get me wrong. It’s when they break up that the problems start. The endless bickering over who was flirting with who. The toaster oven cheated on the standing mixer with the microwave because they have so much in common.

“She really gets me when I talk about convection!” he tried to explain, but the mixer just stood in the corner and cried. For days.

“Jeez,” said the blender, “would you relax? Whadja want with that square anyways?”

The toaster and the blender are in the lovey-dovey stage of their relationship.

“Hey,” I said, tugging on the toaster’s cord, “how ‘bout some service over here?” He had muscled the coffee grinder aside and was murmuring sweet nothings to the blender, who was looking particularly trim. She must be on a diet.

“English muffins again?” he asked me as I pushed the lever down. “With peanut butter? I thought you were trying to lose weight.”

“I’m carbo-loading,” I said.

“Shyeah, right,” said the can-opener, “peanut butter is protein.”

“Not if it has sugar in it,” said the food processor, “that makes it carbs.”

“It has both, you idiots,” said the refrigerator. That shut everybody up for a second. The refrigerator is the last word on nutritional matters.

“Well, so what are you carbo-loading for?” asked the toaster. “Running a marathon?” This brought titters of laughter from all corners of the kitchen.

“I don’t appreciate your tone,” I said, and popped the English muffin up before it was done.

“Well, you don’t have to be like that,” the toaster said, while I spread peanut butter—lightly—across the split halves.

I sat at the dinette and pretended to read the paper in miffed silence.

“Oh, c’mon,” said the blender, “he was just kiddin’.”

I folded the paper, got up, and put my plate in the sink.

“It just so happens,” I said, “that I have a date.”

“A date?”

“She hasn’t had a—“

“Do you remember—“

“Will you bring him—“

“Is he good with—“

“Can he cook?” the stove and the mixer asked at same time.

“Jinx!” the mixer said. “Owe me a Coke!”

“Finally!” said the coffee maker, “all these short pots of coffee, day after day. I’ve been dying to have somebody fill my pot.”

The other appliances dissolved with laughter.

“He’ll put a bun in her—“

“He’ll butter her pan and—“

“He’ll beat her cream—“

“He’ll peel off her rind—“

“Is that all you guys ever think about?” I asked. “As a matter of fact, we’re going hiking.”

“And then,” I added, “we’re going out to eat.”

There was complete silence while I rinsed my coffee cup and put it into the dish rack.

“Where are you going?” the refrigerator finally asked.

“Olive Garden,” I said.

“I hear they have ten Viking ranges!”

“So what?” said the stove. “Stupid Vikings.”

“Espresso machines!”

“Bread-warming drawers!”

“A credit-card machine,” purred the telephone.

“Why cantcha eat here?” asked the blender. “I could mix you up one-a them pina coladas!”

“And I can play Grand Funk Railroad!” yelled the stereo from the other room.

“What, to go with their frozen dinners?” asked the microwave.

“Good point.”

“That’s true, it’s—“

“She wouldn’t want—“

I went upstairs to put on my hiking shorts and got my sports watch out of the top drawer.

“Have fun,” said the vibrator, “I’ll be here to pick up the pieces.”

“Why do you always have to be such a pessimist?” I asked, and slammed the drawer shut.

I got home later that night.

“How’d it go?” the stove asked.

“He wasn’t my type,” I said, “too machismo.”

“Told ya,” murmured the blender.

“Pay up—“

“She never—“

“But,” I interrupted, “I have a surprise. I won something in their charity raffle.” I pulled a slender box out of a fancy embossed bag. “It’s a milk frother. For cappuccino.” I plugged it in by the sink, next to the coffee maker.

“ ‘aloo!” she said, in a silky accent. The appliances whispered approvingly amongst themselves, except for the blender.

“Hey baby, what’s your voltage?” I heard the toaster say, and I climbed the stairs to bed.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Catfish Fillets with Tahini Sauce

Readers, I have to make a confession to you, which is that I've had a jar of tahini sitting in my pantry for, oh, probably about three years. Unopened.

You know, one of those nut butters (ok, technically tahini is from sesame seeds but I'm trying to make a point here) with about half an inch of oil sitting on the top? That you have to stir? And you know you'll get oil down the side of the jar and on your fingers and probably also on the knife that you're stirring with and also the counter?

Oh, and have I ever mentioned my odd fetish about not getting my fingers icky? Or greasy? I am the queen of gloves. I didn't used to be like this--in fact I used to delight in digging my hands into whatever it was to mix it up--green salad, chicken salad, the makings for pie crust.

But about three or four years ago, having grease (or anything) between my fingers just suddenly seemed extremely gross and...well, icky. Enter gloves. I should buy stock in Care One.

So the reason I'm sharing all of this information with you is to make the point that I KNEW stirring the tahini was going to be messy, and that one small single issue was enough to keep me from ever opening and using that tahini.

BUT. I was down at Connelly's Seafood and they were selling ocean catfish, which made me think of this recipe, which made me think that I should just get over myself and open the damn tahini jar.

Was it messy? Eeeek! Yes, but not as bad as it could have been, because after a few passes with my steak knife (for some reason a serrated knife works pretty well penetrating the density of nut butters) I chunked out enough to make 1/2 cup and dumped it in the Magic Bullet along with the other sauce ingredients--water, lemon juice, garlic, cumin, salt and pepper.

Oh Magic Bullet, how I love thee.

We were bequeathed one from an elderly neighbor, and after my initial suspicion of anything sold via infomercial I have fallen in love with this little gadget. In fact I need to add it to my sidebar of kitchen items I can't do without.

Anyway, the Magic Bullet took care of the tahini chunks in no time flat, and soon enough I had a smooth, lemony, cuminy sauce with the distinctive flavor of sesame seeds and IT'S TOTALLY AWESOME!!

Forget the freaking catfish--this sauce would be good on anything except, you know, dessert. Although, hmmm. No, just kidding.

The fish was normal fish, except there was this odd direction to sear the fish on one side, then turn it over and sprinkle crushed coriander seed AROUND it...then take the fish out of the skillet, wipe the pan and do your next batch.

I was deeply puzzled by this direction, because the coriander never actually gets on this fish--is the idea that the coriander aroma is ever so gently scenting the fish? The last batch, you're supposed to take the fish out, then instead of wiping out the pan, you spoon the coriander and oil out and over the fillets.

So here's my best guess--this is an example of multi-tasking. Somebody thought that crushed coriander sauteed in oil would be good over the fish so why not use the oil that the fish is frying in? Only one pan to clean! Yippee!

And when the recipe got translated, the person writing the recipe obeyed the letter of the recipe and not the spirit (so to speak) and so we're directed to sprinkle coriander around each batch and then throw it away until the last batch gets cooked.

My advice--save all your crushed coriander for the last batch.

This is a very tasty, quick dinner (especially if you've already made the tahini sauce, because you'll probably have leftovers) and also yes I know ocean cat is not the same fish as catfish but the catfish we get up here from the south tastes terrible for some reason.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Italian Chicken Soup with Egg Strands and Parmesan

I must confess I had high hopes embarking upon this soup recipe, and here's why:

When I was head chef at As You Like It, I made Stracciatella (that's Italian Chicken Soup with Egg Strands and Parmesan) one fine day, using a recipe from Joy of Cooking. Now, don't get huffy--this was years ago and before our beloved Gourmet Cookbook was in print.

We used to have a regular customer, an artist from Rocky Neck. He was clearly a man who enjoyed his food, and he especially loved my soups, and he just FLIPPED over this one. Said it was just like when he was a kid--the "rags" of egg especially. It's not that hard to make, but you don't really see it around that much on menus.

This recipe, which is not online, is one of the super fast ones--you whisk together eggs, grated parm, parsley and scallion, bring your stock to a boil, then add eggs in a stream, whisking constantly.

If you look closely at the photo above, you'll see that the eggs were hardly "strands". Little tiny egg curds were more like it.

I think the error lies in the direction to "whisk constantly". If the eggs were stirred gently with a spoon in a clockwise motion while you were pouring them in, you'd get some cohesiveness instead of that scrambled eggs effect.

It wasn't bad. But with a soup this simple, texture and flavor become all-important, and the texture of the cooked eggs was (I thought) unappealing. Unfortunately I made this at work--no chance for a re-do--it had to go out for a small luncheon, and it did.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Celery Root Bisque

I used to know a woman who said that she ate plenty from the four food groups--salt, fat, alcohol and chocolate.

She would have loved Celery Root Bisque.

Why? Because in spite of its bland-sounding name, this soup is a celebration of duck confit--not just the meat, but the cracklings. If you don't know what cracklings are, it's this--duck skin peeled off and sliced, then rendered in a pan over low heat until golden, crispy brown. Drain grease off on paper towels, and salt to your little heart's content. People who talk about heaven on earth surely must be including duck cracklings in their equation.

I made Celery Root Bisque for the below-mentioned (Profiteroles! Hot Fudge Sauce!) birthday luncheon, and it was a smash hit. It's actually a perfect make-ahead soup--the bisque itself is nothing more than celery root, celery and shallots sauteed in butter, then simmered in water until tender. Puree, puree, puree, add lemon juice, salt and pepper, and you've got your bisque.

The duck confit can be shredded ahead of time, and likewise the cracklings, if you can keep yourself from eating them. All that's required is a gentle rewarming with the confit, and a sprinkling of cracklings on top.

You know, I'm looking at this recipe and seeing that it also calls for an optional garnish of (unsweetened) whipped cream. I must have been so overcome by the duck that I completely ignored that suggestion, but thinking about it I'm not sure what it would add. Hmm.

Oh, and save your pennies if you want to make this soup. My one and only source for duck confit (The Fruitful Basket) sells those babies for $11/leg.

In the flavor department, here's why this recipe is a home run. You've got a smooth, lemony-neutral soup base, with slightly ropey, chewy, meaty duck leg, with crispy, greasy, salty cracklings on top. You can't go wrong.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Mocha Fudge Sauce

Lest you think I'm rolling around in a heaven of ice cream, sauces and luscious desserts (I try to limit that to once a month) let me assure you that my string of dessert posts are more to do with my new organizational technique, and less to do with order of manufacture.

In other words, with 10-15 recipes waiting to be written about, how does one choose the order? Most memorable? Chronological? I finally decided to just pick a point and make my way to the back of the book, after which I would start at the beginning again.

And so here is the last waiting recipe in the "Frozen Desserts and Sweet Sauces" chapter, Mocha Fudge Sauce.

I was so keen on that Hot Fudge Sauce from the last post that I could hardly wait to make this sauce. And I LOVE mocha--in fact, I used to make my first husband crazy when we would go out to eat breakfast with my mocha phase (this was before the proliferation of Starbucks and its ilk)--I would very carefully tell the waitress that I wanted hot chocolate, but made with coffee, not water, and could they add a little milk? Ha! Yes, I'm one of those customers, or at least I used to be. Poor waitresses.

But I'm sorry to say I wasn't crazy about this sauce, and it's only because it just can't measure up to Hot Fudge Sauce. I actually made it because I was trying to get O'Malley to eat the vanilla ice cream languishing in the freezer, but he found the sauce to be too bitter for his taste.

This could also possibly be because I used

instead of

Possibly. I'm willing to try it again, because it IS chocolate after all, and it's more to my taste than, say, Strawberry Sauce, which is the recipe right next door and who knows when I'll make that. Although it is coming up on strawberry season...and I do have my bookgroup coming up...