"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".

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Flank Steak Pinwheels with Arugula Salad, and Melissa Spreads Some Happiness

Summer is here (kind of) and that means it's GRILLING WEATHER! Yes, I know you can grill year-round. Yes, I know that my dad especially grills year-round. But I! I like to be warm and carefree when I grill, and even though that sounds like I grill with hardly no clothes on, what it really means is that I wait until it's in the 70's!

Flank Steak Pinwheels with Arugula Salad is a fine, fine way to open the grilling season.

1) Flank steak is cheap! Yay!
2) The whole thing tastes great!

BUT--this recipe requires a little bit of finesse with a sharp knife so don't drink too much Memorial Day beer before you try this at your home. Unless you're better with a knife when you're drunk? Maybe you are, what do I know. Undoubtedly you THINK you are.

This recipe requires you to butterfly a flank steak, which is really just opening it up like a book (if you had to cut a book open with a knife to read it) except that it's not really like a book because flank steak is thinner and more like the September issue of Vogue. About that thick. Pretend you need to use your knife to get to the feature about pearls and fur.

Jimmy Choo, where are you?

Once you're opened it up, lay thinly sliced provolone and proscuitto on top. It's kind of like layering a lasagne, except you leave a little room at the edges.

Not my flank steak.

After you roll it up, you secure it with strings or toothpicks

Then cut it into rounds and throw it on the grill!

Not me. Also not flank steak.

This is the second grilled stuffed flank steak recipe the Gourmet team has presented--the other is in the yellow book. To tell you the truth, I liked the other one a little better--the spinach and carrots make for a prettier cross-cut, and the veggies round out the cheese-meat thing. Also, the recipe in the yellow book asks you to grill the stuffed flank steak BEFORE cutting it--and although it takes longer to cook, it's not quite as messy on the grill.

Still--this is a worthy way to cook an inexpensive cut of meat (check out Cook-Italian for an even better way, if you ask my husband.) And as with many recipes, this one should be considered a primer. Stuff it with whatever floats your boat!


Hey, Rob Vlack!

I want to say hi to my Salem readers, foremost among them Rob and Angie Vlack. Rob used to work with me at Eliza, and one day (for reasons I can't remember, probably because I was attempting to bribe the IT department) I made Inside-Out German Chocolate Cake.

Folks, this is a good cake. And it made a deep impression on Rob, who left Eliza shortly thereafter for reasons unrelated to cake.

So I wasn't entirely surprised, when he emailed me last month to say hi, to read that he wondered if I could make him an Inside-Out German Chocolate Cake sometime (anytime!) before September--he would come pick it up and he wanted to give it to his brother to celebrate his birthday, because his brother's a great guy and deserves a great cake.


SUPER NICE, and how could I say no to that?

Also, out of the whole entire universe, my largest readership is in Salem, MA! (Do you hear that, Mom (who lives in Gloucester?))

Yay Salem! In my totally biased opinion, you guys are the best!

And HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Rob Vlack's brother!! As Rob said, that cake is richer than Bill Gates, and I hope you loved it. Rock on!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Melissa Solves the Mystery and Gets Indexy

Setting the Stage

Readers, unless you've been living in a cave (without wireless) you know that obesity in America is on the rise. And if you've been paying attention even a little, you also know that obesity is connected with serious, complicated medical conditions-- like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

It's a problem, and it makes people bonkers. Health insurance companies are freaked out, diet books fly off the shelves, and pundits expound--but nobody seems to be able to solve this mystery.

Why? Why are Westerners fat and getting fatter?

More alarming--why, when our diet is introduced to other cultures, do they start exhibiting our diseases--like obesity, diabetes and cancer?

Is it chemicals? Fat? Corn syrup? White bread? Sugar? All of it all together, like....Twinkies? Is it a slothful lifestyle, too much screen time and not enough exercise?

Most desperate perhaps are the overweight and obese, who are flooded with conflicting information on an almost daily basis. Look at our very own food pyramid--at first ballasted with "healthy grains" like pasta, bread and cereal, and recently revised. Our own government can't quite get it straight, nobody can, and meanwhile different ingredients are demonized with clockwork regularity--butter or margarine? Sugar or high-fructose corn syrup? What can you abstain from that will give you the magic solution?

Setting the Scene

My own history with diets, dieting and dieters has been life-long. My mother has been deeply involved with food (partaking or abstaining) all my life. Various family members, close and far, have gained and lost weight (or sometimes just gained) and agonized over it. And once I hit my 4th decade of life it became a concern for me as well--my weight at the top of "healthy" began to creep undeniably into "overweight" territory. This, even though I am active and always have been--give me a class, activity, sport and I fall in love with it. My current and most passionate love: karate. Which is some serious calorie burn.

For the record, this is my lifelong food philosophy, up til now:

bread--good if multigrain
what about white bread?--bad
oh? what about artisan bread?--(sigh) delicious but in moderation
cheese/butter--ok in moderation
dairy--good if lowfat
nuts--good in moderation
candy--bad unless chocolate
chocolate--if dark, both delicious and healthy
coffee--good if black
beer--ok occasionally
wine--good in moderation
booze--good without caloric mixers
ok, straight booze--good in moderation
meat--good if lean
tofu etc--good though mysterious
grains--good but a pain in the ass
what about white rice?--bad
fast food--evil
really? All fast food?--ok maybe not pizza
desserts--not good but so delicious
salty snacks--ok if lowfat. Or, lower in fat. And in moderation.

So, that's it in a nutshell--how I've eaten for decades. I don't eat for emotional reasons, and if I'm hungry in the middle of the night, I drink water. Lots of it. How did I land in the food industry? Why keep a cook-through gourmet blog? Because I have a restless mind that loves adventure and loves to be delighted.

The Mystery

Because I have a restless mind, I'm constantly trying new food philosophies on for size, but in the dieting department I've tended to stick with Weight Watchers. It always made sense to me--a balanced diet in moderation. I like their online tracker, and their mysterious Points (now Points Plus) system.

But I'm impressionable, and something I read by Mark Bittman convinced me to try his system of "vegan until 6". It's pretty easy--veggies, fruits, nuts and grains until dinner time, when you eat what you want (for me usually protein, veggies and a cocktail or two).

This was a challenge! This was fun! Did you know that you can get vegan sushi? You can!

For five weeks my day typically went like this:

oatmeal with fruit or
cooked squash with a little honey

steamed veggies, alone or with brown rice or
salad with grains/beans or
miso soup

snacks, usually about 3 or 4 of the following during a workday. Less on weekends:
baked sweet potato
boca burger
multigrain thins with a little honey
dark chocolate
instant oatmeal
multigrain crackers
frozen fruit

lean protein
alcohol (2 drinks, no mixers)

That's it. Pretty healthy, right? No gigantic portions--I'm not a volume eater. I was tracking all this on the WW points tracker, and my life was pretty much the same--except due to a light travel schedule, more karate classes than usual--and that's three classes a week, 1.5 hours each. Yes, the occasional special food event--a family gathering or meetings with the various groups I belong to--but my life is remarkably consistent. For WW folks, I'll add that in no week did I ever "eat" all my points. Even if I ate the extra ones, I never got close to touching the ones that karate burned.

Readers, I gained weight. For me, a lot--so much that I was scared to step on the scale. But I was keeping track of my waist measurement and couldn't believe my eyes when 31.5 inches turned into 34.

Worse, I was growing out of my wardrobe. For me, this is bad news because I put a lot of thought into getting dressed in the morning.

This is me going to work on a normal work day.

To say I was upset is an understatement. I freaked out. I actually spent a day or two researching liposuction and that weird new treatment that "melts fat" by aiming heat lamps at you (don't waste your money... and bad news, lipo folks--that fat's coming back.) In addition to karate, I started getting up earlier and walking two miles. Every morning.

Then the penny dropped.

Enter Gary Taubes, and his 4/13/11 New York Times Magazine article, Is Sugar Toxic?

The Culprit

I urge you to read the Taubes article, then read it again. There's a lot of stuff in there and it takes a while to absorb it.

But here are the essentials.

Sugar = Liver Fat
Liver Fat = Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic Syndrome = Diabetes/Heart Disease/High Cholesterol/ Body Fat
Sugar = Insulin
Insulin = Food for Tumors

In other words, our sugar-heavy diet is not only making us fat, it's making us sick and then it's killing us. Thin, young people, you are not immune.

During the Korean War, pathologists doing autopsies on American soldiers killed in battle noticed that many had significant plaques in their arteries, even those who were still teenagers, while the Koreans killed in battle did not. The atherosclerotic plaques in the Americans were attributed to the fact that they ate high-fat diets and the Koreans ate low-fat. But the Americans were also eating high-sugar diets, while the Koreans, like the Japanese, were not.

It's also worth noting that carbs = sugar. And that's where I had my "aha!" moment. My vegan diet of five weeks had been carb heavy--brown rice, beans, multi-grain bread, "sweet" vegetables, fruit.

The Recovery

I tried the South Beach Diet once for a few weeks (in a moment of post-holiday desperation) and had great results with it--4.5 lbs lost in one week, 7 lbs in two. That was Phase One of the diet, which is zero carbs--no sweet veggies, no beans, no fruits, no booze and certainly no grain products. Lean meats, low fat dairy. This diet has you eventually re-introduce wine, fruits, multigrain carbs and the forbidden veggies--the idea is to keep it low fat and to break you of a carb-heavy habit.

I've also watched the waistlines of others (all men) expand and contract according to how many carbs they were eating. My darling husband, Don (who is emotionally attached to all kinds of carbs) exercises more than I do--he takes a 1.5 hour Bikram yoga class (that's hot yoga) at least four times a week. Low carbs? Slender. High carbs? Love handles. And he can go from one to the other--and back--in two weeks or less. My brother-in-law and my friend Pat have both lost significant amounts of weight on low-carb diets.

I did a little more exploring and found Gary Taubes' blog. It's more personal and his most recent post featured his blood work lab results (a challenge from Dr. Oz). His blood work is a doctor's dream--pretty near perfect, and this from a guy who subsists mainly on meat, cheese, nuts and eggs. The comments from his readers are perhaps predictable but illuminating.

The sum total of this is I've changed my eating philosophy--completely. This is what I eat now:

Low-fat dairy
All veggies except winter squashes, sweet/white potatoes, corn, peas, carrots
Low-carb protein drinks
dark chocolate
For alcohol: dry vermouth (8 carbs/oz) or wine

above-mentioned veggies
fruit (except tomatoes)
gluten products
products/recipes with added sugar (except for dark chocolate)

I've been eating like this for 4 weeks, and please note I've been eating the same amount of food (still tracking on WW--still not eating those activity points).

I can't tell you how many pounds I've lost because I never stepped on the scale at my peak. But when I measured my waist this morning it was 30.5 inches.

That's right, in four weeks I took 3.5 inches off my waistline. I didn't change how much I was eating calorically, I changed what I was eating.

Here's a typical food day:

2 eggs on top of
3 strips center cut bacon on top of
big pile of fresh arugula
2 cups black coffee

steamed sliced zucchini (from freezer aisle) with
leftover sliced lamb
nuts pack from Trader Joes
1/2 cup part-skim ricotta
square of dark chocolate
low sodium V-8
mini light babybel cheese
dill pickle
black coffee until noon. Herbal tea after.

roasted chicken
steamed broccoli with lemon mayo
celery sticks
sliced cukes
2 drinks--dry vermouth or wine

Am I a rigorous Nazi about this? Nope. I've made gluten-free fruit-based desserts for my meditation group, and I had a beer last week (it gave me a stomach ache.) I've eaten a few veggie mixes that have carrots in them. And some of the nut packs Don brings back from Trader Joe's have dried cranberries in them. And yes, I'm well aware that dark chocolate has sugar in it.

But my angle is to make carbs and sugar the exception to the rule. Now that I understand what's going on inside...and with such a dramatic example of what amping up carbs can do to my own body...I'm calling this mystery solved.

Your mileage may vary. But I dare you--I double dog dare you--to try this way of eating for a few weeks or a month and see where it gets you. Read the Taubes article. Post your results here.


In the spirit of eating well while eating well, I've gone back and indexed these posts to include labels you might be looking for when you're thinking about your diet. I'm about halfway through and expect to fully index within a week or so. Still to come--in my posts where I combine a lot of recipes, I'll add a note at the bottom indicating which recipes go with which labels.

New labels:


That last one might give you pause. Paleolithic is a recently popular eating trend, and it is what it sounds like--eating the way our cave-dwelling ancestors most likely did, to the end of avoiding our modern-day ailments. That means, basically, meats, fish and veggies. Very little fruit, no sugar, no dairy, nothing fermented. Certainly no processed foods, and nothing that requires grains. And believe it or not, some recipes here qualify, or at least the way I understand it (if cavemen could use spices.) I know some karate folks who eat this way and hey, even karate folks throw fancy dinner parties every once in a while (I know I do.)

EDIT 5/25/11: I've removed some incorrect stats (like WW points) about dry vermouth that appeared in the original post. Dry vermouth is slightly higher in alcohol than white wine and has a similar points count.

Thanks to Polls Boutique, Fitness Guru Sam and Beaumont Holidays for image grabs.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Pho (Vietnamese-Style Beef Noodle Soup)

I've only had pho in a restaurant once, but it was a memorable experience. Our party was seated at a table that had a hole in the middle--a hole, it turns out, that was for a basin of hot, rich, beefy broth. We were given platters of soup ingredients--fragrant mint, cilantro and basil, thinly sliced raw beef, piles of bean sprouts and other veggies, wedges of lime. The mission? Construct your own pho by cooking (or not cooking) veggies and meat to your satisfaction, and creating your very own individualized soup.

That was at a Vietnamese restaurant perched on the edge of Boston's Chinatown in 1998 , and I've been longing for those particular flavors ever since.

Why then, why did it take me so long to turn my attention to Pho?

Readers, this recipe isn't online but because it's so delicious and so easy I'm going to replicate it here. Don't be intimidated by the long-ish list of ingredients--the pay-off is worth it!

6 oz rice stick noodles (vermicelli, I used some other rice noodle thing I had kicking around)
1/4 lb snow peas, cut diagonally into 1/4-inch wide strips
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup sliced shallots (three large)
3 (1/8 inch thick) slices fresh ginger, smashed
1 teaspoon minced Serrano chili (including seeds, I used a jalapeno)
3 1/2 cups beef stock or store-bought broth
1 3/4 cups water
1/2 lb thinly sliced rare roast beef, torn into pieces
6 oz fresh bean sprouts (mung) rinsed
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh basil
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh mint
3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
lime wedges

Cook noodles in boiling water for 4 minutes--add snow peas and cook for 1 minute longer. Drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking, and drain again. Divide noodles/snowpeas into 4 large soup bowls.

Dry noodle pan, add oil and turn on moderate heat. Add shallots, ginger and chile, and cook (stirring) until shallots are brown (7-8 mins.) Add stock and water, bring to a simmer and simmer for 10 mins.

Meanwhile, divide beef, sprouts and herbs among soup bowls.

Remove ginger from broth and stir in fish sauce, lime juice and salt to taste. Ladle broth into bowls and serve immediately with lime wedges.

This recipe is killer, and it would be a perfect week to make it, what with the INCESSANT RAIN. Of course it's the fresh herbs that make it so intoxicating--if you're one of those folks who can't stand fresh herbs, what's wrong with you? Go eat a Lean Cuisine, I guess.

What makes this a quick/easy version of pho is that you're using store-bought broth instead of slaving over your own (real beef broth ain't that quick/easy), and rare deli roast beef instead of carpaccio, which is thinly sliced raw beef. The Gourmet staff amp up the broth by simmering it with goodies--ginger, shallots and chile.

And--with summer (kind of) here, or at least spring, fresh herbs should be cheap and in abundance. We do container gardening on our deck and I'll confess I went a little bananas at the plant nursery on Mother's Day and got 4 kinds of mint, among other things. 4 kinds of mint! I bet you didn't know 4 kinds of mint existed--they do and more. Chocolate, orange, spearmint and what they were labeling Mojito Mint. Yeah baby! Watch this space for mojitos and more.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ambrosia from Gourmet Today

Mention Ambrosia to anybody from Down South and you'll conjure up images of a sweet treat--a Cool-Whip based dessert that has some fruit and coconut thrown in. Oranges (canned mandarin orange slices), pineapple (canned, crushed), cherries (maraschino)--oh, and mini marshmallows are all necessary ingredients. And coconut. Here are some pics from an image search for Ambrosia Salad:

My mom's spin on this regional fave was to add pistashio pudding powder to the Cool-Whip. You get what I'm talking about, right? Buy a box of Jell-O pistashio-flavored pudding, and instead of making pudding with it, just mix the powder into the Cool-Whip.

As kids, we adored this dessert. And the irony that it's called Ambrosia Salad will not be lost on anybody who has visited the South or the Heartland. My friend Elizabeth likes to tell the story about one of her first visits to her husband's Pennsylvania kin--at a mid-day outdoor picnic she was asked to go inside and get the salad. She wandered around the kitchen, mystefied by the lack of anything involving lettuce...turns out she was supposed to fetch something like this:

Gourmet Today has updated Ambrosia by stripping it down to the flavor essentials of citrus and coconut. On the face of it this looks easy, except it involves a real coconut--not a bag of the shredded, sweetened stuff.

Coconuts are not always around in the markets here, but I had recently seen coconuts in a display case when I was lunching at Rawbert's Organic Garden Cafe and figured I could buy one there. These coconuts are prepped by (I guess) somebody hacking away the outer green shell but leaving some of the husk that protects the brown shell and good stuff inside. This somebody with a machete also cuts a star pattern in the top which helps you get inside. I'm speculating, but it helped me.

Once I drained the water (and drank it--yummy!) I was at a loss as to how to best open this thing--the recipe has you bake the coconut and then crack it with a hammer, but they were talking about the brown coconut you'd buy in a market. I had a slightly different and better protected beast on my hands.

Finally I just went with the hammer approach and used the claw end to pry my way in.

I'm not sure if you can tell from the pic, but this coconut was soft and pliable--totally different from any coconut product I'd ever seen. It reminded me of a floppy latex mold. The recipe asks you to shred the coconut but that would be impossible unless I put some effort into dehydrating it first. I decided to julienne it as thinly as I could.

The rest is easy, a little sugar and some cream sherry (because everything is better with booze.) I made this dessert for my meditation group--we have a lunchtime potluck afterwards and one of the members is gluten-sensitive. It could have been the post-meditation high, but I thought it was delicious.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Mojo Sauce

If you've never heard of mojo sauce, we're in the same boat. And although readers of a certain era will never be able to make or even read about this sauce without a certain Doors song refraining in their minds, it has nothing to do with L.A. women, at least not in the way you're thinking of.

In fact, mojo sauce hails from points south (Canary Islands, Cuba, Puerto Rico) and at base is olive oil, garlic and citrus juice. According to Wikipedia, the most popular use of mojo sauce seems to be pepping up cooked potatoes and other tubers though it appears to be making inroads in BBQ land.

Grilled pork tenderloin is not a tuber, but why not throw these two together--a nice lean grilled meat and some peppy sauce. Sounds like a good idea, right?

I guess the answer is, it depends. Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Mojo Sauce is quick, yes--easy to prepare, yes. Also extremely garlicky, because the body of this sauce is essentially garlic (4 cloves garlic, a little oregano, orange juice and olive oil)

And for me this might not normally be a problem except I was traveling the next day to a day-long karate workshop--and transporting my sensei and two other karate students.

That's right. Sweat, close quarters and guests in an unfamiliar place. Add garlic and you've got fun.

I scraped most of the garlic off my pork--which leads me to my one critique of the recipe. The sauce would have been better pureed in a microblender--chunky bits of raw garlic (no matter how well smooshed) are unpalatable, at least to me. An image search of mojo sauce shows a smooth puree, so I'm not the first one to come up with this idea.

However--had it been a puree, I wouldn't have been able to negotiate around it. So there's that.

The workshop was anything but a social disaster (you'll be happy to hear), and if the car ride was unpleasant my karateka comrades were too polite to mention it.

But when I got home? My husband said, "Wow, you smell like you've been working out!"

Yup, something like that!

P.S. Observant readers will wonder why the mojo sauce in the picture is reddish--the oranges I had in the house were blood oranges, which have beautiful, ruby-colored juice.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Scallops with Mushrooms and Sherry from Gourmet Today

My husband and I hosted my parents for Easter dinner and we had Scallops with Mushrooms and Sherry (along with some of the other foods you've been reading about here lately.) Scallops certainly aren't a traditional Easter offering, but we're not really a traditional kind of family. Don't believe me? My father, who served as an officer in the US Army for 21 years, used to play the guitar and sing The Draft Dodger Rag at every extended family gathering.

This is a pretty easy recipe that falls into the sear protein/make pan sauce/finish protein category, and the only hurdle really is having all your ingredients at hand so you can make the pan sauce quickly. Sometimes this can be challenging if you're hosting a dinner party--I don't know about you, but I find it difficult to cook and talk (and drink) at the same time. In spite of my friend Moira's dedicated belief that I should be the next Food Network superstar, I'm pretty sure I would be terrible at cooking while on camera. Although in Julia Child's case, her blunders made for great TV so what do I know?

Anyway, don't look for me on TV anytime soon--and check out this recipe for a quick-yet-fancy dinner.

Roasted Asparagus with Shallots and Sesame Seeds

It's spring! That means it really truly is asparagus season, which is flooding the markets from points south. And while it's not popping out of the ground quite yet here in New England, there's no reason you shouldn't start enjoying the bounty now.

Roasted Asparagus with Shallots and Sesame Seeds is one of three asparagus recipes in Vegetable chapter of The Gourmet Cookbook (the yellow one), and it's a perfectly respectable way to prepare this vegetable. If you understand all the words in the recipe title, you've got the gist--asparagus is roasted in the oven and tossed with its friends minced shallots and (lightly toasted) sesame seeds. A little more roasting, a little squeeze of lemon juice and you've got yourself a side dish.

Happy Spring!