April 30, 2008

Cooking the Same Recipe Again and Again

As a relatively new cook, I don't have years of experience making the same recipe under my belt. And since I'm a recipe fiend, I tend to continuously seek new recipes or ideas for meals. As odd as it sounds, I haven't made the same recipe dozens of times. There are only a few recipes that I've made repeatedly.

And I've made a discovery. My skill at making those repeat recipes seems to dwindle the more I make them. Here's an outline of what I go through:
  1. First time with the recipe. I pay special attention to directions, ensuring I have each ingredient (or just about). It's tasty and worth the effort.
  2. I make it again. Pretty good.
  3. I make it again. Hmmm. Something isn't right. Potatoes too firm. Or the onions disintegrated.
  4. Eh. I'm not really sure what I saw about this recipe.
  5. What the heck? This is embarrassing!
Shouldn't I get better at making recipes the more I make them? Why do I get worse? And my biggest question--does anyone else have this problem?

Theories:
  1. Laziness. I think, "Hey. I did it before, and I can do it again. But this time with less effort/while watching Everybody Loves Raymond." Then I don't pay the attention that I should. Then onions overcook.
  2. Over-confidence. "I'm a pro. I've made this before. No biggie." Like when you get an A on a test so the next time you don't study as much and then you're staring at a C+.
  3. Cutting corners. "Well, I have 90% of the ingredients. It'll do."
I guess the moral of this story is that I need to focus. But then again, doesn't cooking require a bit of luck? The freshness of the basil, the humidity of your kitchen, the exactness of the measurements.... Moods change too. Maybe I overestimate a recipe and how good I thought it was. Then next time it can only be a disappointment.

I guess the thing with cooking is that it isn't an exact science. It won't always produce identical results. Well, this is a new challenge. How good can I get this recipe to be?

April 27, 2008

The Julie/Julia Project


Have you heard of this?

It was an ambitious project. Julie Powell, about to turn 30 and stuck in a job that was less than satisfying, decided to undertake cooking all the recipes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child (and Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck) in a year's time. That's right. 524 recipes. 365 days. She blogged about it the whole time.

I just finished the book, Julie & Julia, that tells the tale.

I can't help but think I wish I had thought of it first. I mean... the premise is fabulous. Trying to cook each recipe (the names of which I could pronounce one out of 19) in a 40-year-old cookbook. Who cooks every recipe in the whole cookbook besides... the authors?! Let alone in NYC in a small apartment. But to be sure, I could not have done what she did. I don't have the guts to try to cook some of those dishes.



I have a big curiosity in the cooking that took place 20... 30... 40 years ago. When people thought it was normal to spend a lot of time in the kitchen for a simple weeknight meal. When ingredients weren't available all year 'round. When some ingredients may not have been available at all. Or when ingredients were used that are obsolete today.

This book satisfied that curiosity. And it was a fun read. I could have done with a little less commentary on her friend's lives, but whatever. Who cares. I enjoyed reading about making (and eating!) aspic, the brains soaking in her bathtub and dealing with preparing lobster. I even enjoyed the not-so-wild lineup of recipes in the book.

Oh, and I kept a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking bedside as I read Julie & Julia. It was so fun to read the actual recipe and the Julie's commentary.

April 21, 2008

Birthday Feast

For my dad's birthday my mom pulled together a cooking event... members of the family each made a different dish at the same time (she had all the recipes and ingredients out for us). It was an AMAZING Thai food feast.

I recommend this birthday celebration. First you have fun preparing together, then you enjoy together.

April 15, 2008

Chicago Style Eatin'

Tonight I enjoyed yet another cooking class on Chicago-style cooking. We indulged in...
  • Chicago Italian Beef Sandwich with Hot Giardinieara
  • Chicago Style Hot Dogs
  • Chicago Style Deep Dish Sausage Pizza
I think I got more of a sense of what makes Chicago food taste like Chicago food. It seems to be the pickled flavor (giardiniera/relish) and unabashed seasoning (in the pizza sauce, on the hot dog, sandwich). It creates an experience more heavily skewed sour and salty. Not to mention tasty.

April 10, 2008

Truffles!

Tonight I was lucky enough to take a cooking class at Byerly's on truffles. And I'm not talking about the chocolate kind.

I had never tasted, smelled or held truffles before, which is why we (my fiance and I) took the class. We thought it be a great opportunity to try this mysterious "mushroom" at an affordable price (you get to watch three recipe demonstrations over the course of an hour... and--this is key--EAT!). These chefs were sooo talented and used all around quality ingredients.

It was such an awesome opportunity to try something new and extravagant at an affordable price (the class is only $10 a person. They had a representative from Urbani Truffles who told us all about truffles. Here are some fun facts I learned from them:
  • There are different kinds of black truffles, (but for my purposes I'm not going to differentiate them) but there are also white truffles, which are said to be more aromatic.
  • Black truffles are currently about $700 a pound. Yup, you heard me right.
  • White truffles are currently about $6,000-7,000 per pound. CRAZY!
  • It's not possible to cultivate it, which is one reason it is so expensive.
  • You find truffles using dogs to sniff them out, because truffles grow a few centimeters underground. Pigs have also been used, but with less success. Pigs were so smart that they would end up eating the truffle... they have good taste.
  • Harvesting happens at night because the people gathering the truffles don't want others to know where they're finding this precious produce! Plus dogs have fewer distractions at night.
  • In a night, they'll only discover about 3 to 5 ounces.
  • A more round, less nubbier truffle is considered more desirable because there is less waste when cutting it up and it's more attractive.
Well, they say you either love or hate the flavor of truffles. I know which side I fall on. Tonight I had one of the best meals of my life! The flavors were so incredible and yet indescribable.

We had a Northern Bean and Truffle Soup to start, which had even, warm, smooth flavors. It had pancetta, escarole, white truffle oil and truffle shavings/julienne slices.

Then we had Sea Bass Poached in Truffle Broth which was perfectly prepared and delicious (this was also my first time with sea bass). The broth featured sage, fresh veggies and white truffle oil. Plus julienne cut truffles. I can't say enough about how good it was. The woody, earthy flavors of the truffles complemented the fish beautifully.

We finished with a rich, musky, earthy, flavorful Fettuccine with Porcini Mushrooms and Truffle Butter Sauce. This dish had a creamy flavor without any cream or milk in the recipe! The flavors melded perfectly. It was rich, and the truffle flavor shined.

I'm a changed woman.

It just goes to show, always try new and different foods. You never know what new favorite food you may discover. More truffles please! Well, I guess I have to wait for a special occasion. Really special at $700 a pound.

April 08, 2008

Spaghetti Squash

Tonight I tried making spaghetti squash for the first time. I'm riding the end of the winter squash season. I think.

Anyway, I cut it lengthwise and baked face down for about half an hour. I then turned it right side up and drizzled a little oil on them with some salt and pepper. I then cut a clove of garlic in half and dropped it in the squash and baked a bit longer. The garlic did permeate the squash somewhat, but I wish I would have added the garlic sooner.

After tonight's dinner I have about a boatload left over. Looks like I'll be getting plenty of potassium this week!

April 07, 2008

The Splendid Table

Last week I had the pleasure of going to a book launch event for Lynn Rossetto-Kasper's and Sally Swift's new book titled The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper. The Splendid Table is one of my favorite radio shows. Here's how they described the event:

"Kasper’s show will take you beyond the written page and kitchen, into the serendipitous tangle that is modern day eating. Today food embraces nearly every dimension of how we live. From fantasy to science, from sex to satire, from politics to art—this is the night it all comes together on stage."

Well I'd say all that was true. The show was a reflection on different shows of The Splendid Table over the years. They played a number of clips including interviews with Julia Child, Ann Bancroft (the explorer) and many other foodies. The authors of Roadfood, Jane and Michael Stern, were also there with sumptuous descriptions of hot dogs. Yeah--that's right--hot dogs.

If you're familiar with the great radio show that is The Splendid Table, then you'd remember the game Lynn plays each week called Stump the Cook, where a caller tells her about five ingredients she has in their kitchen. Lynn has to create a dish they'd actually eat! She gets salt, pepper and water as freebies, and she also can add three things that the person actually has on hand. A well known cooking personality, Christopher Kimball of America's Test Kitchen, is the judge.

So she took a random guest from the audience to play the game who just happened to be.... Al Franken! He listed off a few crazy items in his fridge and Lynn masterfully made sense of it.

It was a very enjoyable evening, and now I'm looking forward to making a recipe from my edition of How to Eat Supper (signed by the authors, thank you very much)!

April 02, 2008

A Different Kind of Cookie

This recipe is one of my favorites, and it's from American Wholefoods Cuisine by Nikki and David Goldbeck. I think of these cookies as "guilt free" because they're whole grain and don't have sugar (other than honey).

I'm not sure everyone will love this recipe. It has more of a grain flavor. If you love whole grain bread, nuts, dried fruits or quick breads like banana bread--give this a try. You get a flavorful cookie with a quick bread-like consistency. They're not your typical high-fat, high-sugar cookie; they're lovely in a different way.

It has some ingredients that you may not yet have in your pantry, but once you have them, it is easy to make this recipe in a flash.

APPLE ROCKS
1/4 c. butter
1/4 c. oil
1/2 c. honey
2 eggs
1 c. chopped dates
1 c. chopped, peeled apple
1/2 c. oats
1/2 c. chopped walnuts
1/4 c. wheat germ
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. salt
1 1/4 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 t. baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter, oil and honey. Beat in eggs. stir remaining ingredients into egg mixture, combining the flour and baking powder together before they're added. Mix batter until it is smooth and drop by teaspoons onto a greased baking sheet. Bake for 14 to 20 minutes until lightly browned. Slide spatula under cookies while still hot to loosen and, when firm, transfer to a rack to cool.

*I sprinkle some coarse sugar on top for a nice added crunch. I also add more cinnamon and walnuts because I love their flavor.

Makes 4 to 5 dozen cookies.

April 01, 2008

Beer Making! Batch #1

Have you ever made your own beer? As beer lovers, my fiance and I decided to give it a try! The advice of my father, a brewmaster in my world, came in very handy. He had all the right equipment to get us going. We decided on a Nut Brown Ale since it's a good beginner's beer. We were lucky enough to crack open our first bottle tonight--YUM!

Let me fill you in on the beer making experience. We started out with "the boil" where we boiled the water with the malt and grains (that were in a tea-bag-like thing). The hops went in for just 3 minutes at the end. Then we cooled this mixture, called the wort (pronounced "wert"). Once cooled, we added the yeast.

Then it fermented for 1 week.

Then we transfered it into ANOTHER carboy (the big, glass container) to ferment for another week. This is supposed to create a "cleaner" taste because you don't let the krausen, which is the foamy layer you see floating in the carboy, fall through the beer.

Then it fermented for 1 more week.

We bottled the beer in 22 oz bottles. We were supposed to wait 2 weeks before tasting it (checking for carbonation).

We waited 1 week and couldn't take it anymore...

WE SAMPLED!

It had a delicious, chocolatey flavor. The carbonation was light. We're going to wait another few days before opening bottle #2.

What should we name our brew? We're thinking Brown Bear: the get-out-of-winter-hibernation brew.

PICTURED: 1 / The carboy with krausen on top. 2 / All bottled up. 3 /A good pour.

xo,
Maggie

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