"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 26, 2011

The First Annual Parker River Foraged Foods Dinner, or Melissa Gets Wild

You have to feel sorry for my friends sometimes. Why? Because I impose my wacky ideas on them, as much as I try to restrain myself.

My friend Alec Maxon is a wonderful chef and resourceful to the max. He's good at cooking EVERYTHING. His specialty, though, is bringing local foods into the mix, and I don't mean he trots down the street to Tendercrop Farm to buy their chicken.

I mean he digs clams, forages mushrooms, gathers wild ramps...that kind of thing. So when he asked me last summer for help marketing himself, of course I had a brilliant idea, of course!


That should be his name, and he should have a website, and this should be his pitch: "When the end of the world comes (not IF but WHEN)--will you be able to feed yourself? Will you be able to feed your family?"

And then he would have private foraging and cooking lessons for people who have bug-out-bags and gold buried in their back yard.

Well, I thought it was a brilliant idea but it turns out that Alec actually doesn't think civilization as we know it is going to come to an end. Still, if it does he would be a superb guy to hang around and not just because he's converted his truck to run on fryalator oil.

What he really wanted help with was getting the word out that he caters small parties. You will want him for that purpose, I promise. He's in Newburyport (or Newbury?)--anyway, north of Rowley on the Parker River, and THAT, my friends, is where he held his First Annual Wild and Foraged Foods Dinner.

(But wait! before I launch into this fabulous meal, here is Alec's contact info. Email him at amaxon100@gmail.com! He will cook tasty food for you and your friends and deliver it right to your door!)

OK, onwards--here's the menu:

welcome friends for foraged and wild foods feasting


Elderberry kir royale

Oregon white truffle vodka martini

Iced oregon black truffle vodka


Razor clam ceviche

Oysters on the half shell with red grapefruit mignonette, breakfast sausage bites

Edemame and white mountain matsutake mushroom salad


oysters Rockafeller

Milkweed and chevre eggrolls

Venison stew

Wild mushroom soup

Hake chowder

Venison satay

giant bean and fish fillet cassoulet, rampy crumbs


Elderflower pot de crème, elderberry and strawberry

Brown butter and white truffle macaroons

Mmmm. Let us begin.

Here's the Parker River and the view from Alec's little house.

Alec takes his skiff from here to dig clams on the mudflats. With these:

First things first, people--how about a drink?

This white truffle infused vodka was an experiment for Alec--I thought it tasted pretty good when it was ice cold (sort of piney and woodsy) but as it got warmer, it was a little strong. I moved on to an Elderberry Kir Royale, made with homemade elderberry "cassis" syrup. Which was so good I had two. (Curious about Kir Royales? Look here.)

Here's a little party prep--Alec putting the Venison Stew into a pan for the steam table:

Alec's friend Duncan (also an amazing chef) preparing Razor Clam Ceviche:

Party time!

Venison Satay:

Not really satay, more like grilled shish-ke-babs but the venison was SO tender. A little sea salt sprinkled on top...mm.

Oysters on the half shell...there were some fried breakfast sausage bits that went with these. I never saw the mignonette but I was doing a lot of talking and could have missed it.

Milkweed and Chevre Egg Roll--these were yummy little fried packages...Alec said that he would make a tomato dipping sauce to go with these next time.

Hake chowder...

This dish wasn't on the menu but must be mentioned: a fois gras bread pudding with cherries. Good lord in heaven was this thing amazing. Duncan made it, and I don't think it falls into the foraged category unless he raises geese. But I don't think he does.

Edamame and Matsutake Mushroom Salad...

Brown Butter and White Truffle Macaroons...I missed these too!

Elderflower pot de creme, with elderberry syrup and strawberry syrup. These were quite incredible. You might see a theme that my favorites involve heavy cream, and I would like to blame that on my Aunt Lottie who gave me a bowl of Frosted Flakes with heavy cream instead of milk when I was a wee little tyke.

So much food! And I didn't even get a chance to try some of it--missed the razor clams, oysters rockafeller and the cassoulet.

The company was likewise splendid and I heard as much Spanish and Italian as I did English. Restaurant owners, former restuarant owners, gourmet food purveyors, writers, people who are or have been in the food biz--friends, foodies all.

Already I'm thinking about what I could contribute to the next one--we live right by a field filled with "onion grass" that would make great compound butter. And of course we're right next to Dogtown, which is famous for its blueberries. And if I could just catch these squirrels that are in my bird feeders all the time they'd make a FINE stew because those little bastards are FAT.

Thanks for inviting me, Alec! As for the rest of you, email this man and improve your life!
P.S. Survivalists, you too--just don't call him Apocalypse Alec.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Oatmeal Wheat Bread from Gourmet Today

Got an overcast, late winter Sunday? Gray snow humped up on the curbs, ice patches everywhere underfoot? Sound like a perfect day for the comforting task of baking bread.

Oatmeal Wheat Bread was the recipe I selected from Gourmet Today, in large part because I had all the ingredients right in the kitchen (well, mostly--but more on that soon).

The recipe asks you to soak rolled oats in heated whole milk (I used vanilla soy milk), and once that was underway I fished three packs of dry active yeast out of the freezer (fyi I've almost never had bad yeast if I keep it in the freezer, even if it's way past the date). I put that in a mason jar with warm water and a little honey and shook it like the devil, which I find is an excellent way to wake a yeast starter up and get it going. While that was sitting I melted butter in the microwave and let it cool.

Once everything was cool enough to not kill the yeast (killing with heat is possible to do because I've done it), I combined the yeast starter, oat/milk mix and melted butter with more honey. Although the recipe calls for mild honey I used madly perfumed lavender honey (thanks, Tom and Alli!) with no discernable perfumey effect.

All this goes together in a mixer (well, KitchenAide) with a paddle attachment, with a combo of WW flour, white flour and salt. The recipe doesn't mention a mixer--it's a by-hand recipe, but I've been using a dough hook to make bread for years and find that breads made that way are moister (because you're not constantly folding in more flour to keep the dough from sticking).

Once the dough started to come together I switched from paddle attachment to the dough hook, then I set the timer for 10 mins and let it do its thing. It's kind of amazing to see the change in the dough--you can see when it's ready because it becomes smooth and satiny, and stops sticking to the side of the bowl--just sort of wraps around the dough hook instead.

Then, it's just the standard bowl-rise followed by a loaf-pan rise. This recipe makes two loaves.

This bread is lovely! Soft, moist, slightly sweet and slightly chewy. Makes great toast and is perfect for sandwiches.

I used a lot of tips and tricks from (hard-earned) bread-making experience, and I'm going to share them with you here:

1. Start your yeast the way I described above, by putting it in a mason jar with warm water and a little sugar or honey. Shake until the yeast is dissolved. This is the best way to start yeast I've ever found and if you don't know if the yeast is good this will tell you quickly. If you don't have a jar full of bubbles in 5-10 minutes, it's no good.

2. Forget all that baloney about how kneading bread is good for your anger issues. You'll almost invariably add too much flour because you don't want the dough to stick to your hands (which will make it too dry and dense). Use a dough hook and follow the measurements in the recipe.

3. If you don't have a KitchenAide (I'm sorry), lightly oil your hands to knead the dough--that will keep it from sticking as well.

4. Let the dough rest in between these stages, as much as your impatient self can stand. It helps the gluten to relax and fulfill its destiny.

5. If you're in a cold climate during the cold time of the year, pre-warm your rising bowl and later your loaf pans by filling them up with hot water before your dough goes in (obviously you dump the water and dry them before putting the dough in.) This will give your dough an encouraging environment.

6. I don't know about you, but my oven runs a little hot. If yours does too, undershoot either the temp or the timer. In the past I've used a digital remote thermometer to let me know EXACTLY when the bread is done (180-190 for soft breads, 200-210 for crusty breads) but this time I didn't--just relied on my sense of smell and that hollow sound you get when you rap on the bottom of the loaf.

7. Oh, and don't freak out if you don't have exactly the right ingredients. Bread is nothing if not amenable to experimentation.

As for this lingering, snowy, icy winter--keep your chin up! 24 days until spring!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Creamy Tofu Salad Sandwiches from Gourmet Today

This may sound kind of odd, but even though I was a vegetarian for twelve years, I still have a mental block when it comes to tofu.

There's just something about how stark it looks, sitting in its little cold water bath. Unapologetically white, cold and watery--sort of the food version of a flourescent light. If tofu were lighting, it's wouldn't make you look good--it would be the kind of lighting where you look at yourself in the mirror and think you should put on sunscreen, go to bed earlier and get a botox injection or three.

Anyway, you can see how I might look at this recipe: Creamy Tofu Salad--and think YEAH RIGHT.

But, you know, that's my instinct talking. Fortunately, my mindchatter is very persuasive (at least to me in my own brain), and when I got to thinking about how egg whites are actually similarly tasteless and sort of rubbery and that really this was all a vehicle for mayonnaise, salt and pepper--well, I decided to give it a shot.

Hey, guess what. This tastes just like egg salad. The tumeric and dry mustard trick the eyes (the same way egg yolks do, I guess), and really it's a mayo, salt/pepper and celery experience. The only thing I would change about this recipe next time is to use a fine-mesh sieve to really let the water fully drain.

My vegetarian friends might already be hip to this switcheroo--but if you're looking for a vegan alternative for lunch, this is worth a try.

(photo by the talented Romulo Yanes, snagged from Epicurious)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Catfish with Green Olives from Gourmet Today

Does your enthusiasm ever wax and wane for the things you love? Mine does--although I can be the most ardent of lovers, sometimes I just get over-saturated and need a break.

So it has been with cooking--I've apparently taken a little mental holiday where I've relinquished cooking control and responsibility to my ever-patient and charming (and handsome) husband who has seen to it that we've been well-fed.

You know how I know this spark has been rekindled? I opened Gourmet Today to a random page--and the recipe was something crazy, like Butter-Toasted Oatmeal with Brown Sugar Glaze (I made that up--blogging in a faraway and cozy upstairs bedroom). And what I felt was a combo of mmm, that sounds good/that's weird and interesting/I'm going to make that. Its not a mind thing, it's a heart/stomach thing.

So aside from cooking ambition, what has been my most recent practical cooking need? Fast, weeknight foods, and that's where Gourmet Today comes in. 30 minutes to make? Yeah, baby.

Don brought home some catfish from H-Mart (along with a lot of unmarked pastries that have no calorie count so they must have no calories, right? Right?) and Catfish with Green Olives presented itself as the obvious dinner choice.

This is a one-pan dish, and I altered it to suit my needs (as you should with quick, weeknight meals). The recipe asks you to heat oil in a pan, lay the catfish in skinned-side down, and top with your mix of chopped green olives, lemon zest and chopped parsley. Lay a round of buttered parchment paper on top to keep the moisture in while it cooks for about 8 mins.

I heated up a little chicken broth instead, and although I had olives and parsley, no lemon--so I sprinked the fish with rice vinegar instead. I skipped the buttered paper and just covered the skillet with a lid--it's the same idea.

The bonus of using broth instead of oil was that after I took the fish out and covered it, I revived leftover rice on one side of the pan and wilted some broccoli slaw on the other. Voila--quick dinner for three.

Catfish can be hard to find in New England, but if you are near an Asian market of any sort you may have better luck there. And if you live in the area but haven't been to H-Mart in Burlington yet--check it out. It's a wonder.

(photo above by Romulo Yanes, snagged from Epicurious)