Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Cream Cheese Coffee Cake

This week's cream cheese coffee cake created a huge mess of my kitchen and pushed the limits of my hand mixer skills, but that tasty swirl of lemon cream cheese floating in rich but airy coffee cake made it all worth it in the end.

I have been putting off making the cream cheese coffee cake for a couple of reasons. First, I am not a huge fan of coffee cake or other sweet bread intended to be eaten for breakfast. In part it is a health thing… not that I am opposed to tasty treats, but I’d rather blow any extra calories on red wine and fancy cheeses in the evening than on cake for breakfast. Second, since I have not invested in a stand mixer (still not convinced I need one), recipes like this are very burdensome. I use a hand mixer and it works fine, just takes a little longer and makes a bigger mess… especially when you have to add ingredients one. at. a. time. ugh.

I am still slightly intimidated by some baking recipes. Baking is the most scientific form of cooking. Ratios matter for more than just taste: they can make or break a baked good. This cream cheese filled coffee cake is a good example of that. In order to get the cream cheese to stay in the center of the cake (and not fall to the bottom), the baking soda and powder ratios are important. At some point I am going to figure out why that is. But not tonight.

Another challenge to successfully completing this recipe was that my almost 3 year old daughter wanted to help. This adds a layer of complexity because I have to plan ahead by measuring the ingredients but NOT adding them to the bowl! She gets to do that. She also loves tasting things. This is part of the fun and I’m not opposed to it but when I caught her “tasting” a quarter of a cup of the egg and sugar mixture I began to worry that the end result would be negatively impacted by such helpful efforts.

This made me think for a minute maybe I should have picked more toddler friendly recipes to make…. But no, I’m not going to do that. Partially because so many aspects of my life have had to become “toddler friendly” since I had my daughter I wanted to preserve at least one area that is just for me. Toddler-friendly recipes would defeat the purpose of this endeavor. Also, we try not to eat “toddler” food, but rather teach her to eat with us and eat “normal” food… eat what we are eating. Plus, she’s smart. Why should I dumb down cooking for her?

The cake turned out almost perfect. It looked amazing. It was ever so slightly overcooked. I tried to time giving my daughter a bath and putting her to bed while the cake baked, and it took a wee bit too long to get her settled in. Oh well… The cheese did not sink! When I cut the first slice, that perfectly swirled ribbon of cheese floated through the cake signaling success! It was also delicious. Somehow fresh lemon juice and zest makes rich cake taste light. My husband loved it too. He suggested making it mostly cheese with a swirl of cake next time. Not a bad idea. I might double the cream cheese next time.

I can’t believe it but I have only one more recipe from the January/February issue of Cook’s Illustrated to do! It’s the baked apple recipe. I bought the 7 granny smith apples at the Greenmarket today (along with an amazing apple cider donut) so I plan to finish this issue this weekend! Woo-hoo.

Take Away Lessons

  • You don’t have to stick to simple recipes to cook with a kid. More complex recipes can be more fun and teach important things like patience and listening. The kid might learn these things too.

  • Don’t be afraid of baking! Don’t let all that science talk intimidate you. The worst thing that can happen is that it will be terrible and you’ll have to throw it away but hey… you learn from your mistakes. And it’s more rewarding when it does turn out good eventually.

  • You can always add a little more cheese.

The way forward

  • Next time I’ll make this when I’m expecting company. I ended up eating way too much of it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Indoor Pulled Pork

My Valentine chose this recipe as his Valentine’s day dinner… too bad this time consuming and complicated recipe wasn’t ready until lunchtime on the 15th. According to him it was worth the wait: in fact he thinks I should make a batch every week.

I will never flinch at the cost of a pulled pork sandwich. Whatever they want, it is worth it. This recipe was the most work of any recipe I have done so far. First of all, finding a pork butt (which is actually a shoulder) is not as easy and you might think. Then the brining and the rubbing and the more rubbing then the wrapping and the covering and the cooking for 3 hours… then cook another hour and a half… this recipe was a major PITA.

That being said, the end result was amazing. Both delicious and copious, it was one of those things, and it has only happened to me a few times, that when you taste it you can’t believe you made something that tastes so damn good. Shockingly authentic, I would never have believed this pulled pork could have been made in a Manhattan apartment kitchen (and it did push the limits of my kitchen at moments during the preparation).

I paired this recipe with Cook’s creamy coleslaw recipe and it was a great compliment. Having grown up on KFC coleslaw I had to add a tablespoon of sugar to the mix to take the bite out.

Take away

  • Liquid smoke=liquid magic

  • Sweet and hot go together for perfection again this week. The barbeque sauce combines molasses and hot sauce to create a similar balance to the sugar and chili combination in the Thai Basil Chicken a couple of weeks ago. Yum.

  • Whole Foods came through for me this week with almost every ingredient (they were out of smoked paprika). I am in the love phase of the love-hate relationship I have with them. 

Monday, February 15, 2010

Best Beef Stew

Apologies to my loyal readers (all 3 of you) for the late arrival of this installment in my cooking blog. I prepared this recipe last weekend but had a crazy busy work week and never got around to writing about it. Finally, I found the time give this basic yet delicious recipe the analysis it deserves.

I have to admit I hadn’t really been looking forward to making the “Best Beef Stew” Recipe in this month’s Cooks Illustrated. It just didn’t seem all that exciting. The picture of a bowl of beef with some carrots, potatoes, and gravy just looked bland. I had good reason to feel this way. Many beef stews are bland with meat either too mushy or too chewy. Too be fair, my most recent experiences with beef stew had been canned Progresso, which while good for canned soup tend to only be eaten when they are the last thing in the cupboard. It is certainly not something I would order in a restaurant, unless it was the house specialty, but I probably wouldn’t be going to a restaurant where beef stew is their specialty either. By now I know enough to expect to be pleasantly surprised by these recipes where seemingly simple dish—things I would otherwise overlook if I wasn’t forcing myself to do all the recipes in this magazine—can often turn out to be quite impressive.

The surprise I expected came again this week. The Best Beef Stew recipe lives up to its name. This stew is the epitome of hearty. The beef was so… beefy. I made it on a cold day at the end of a cold week and it really just hit the spot. There is something very primal and basic yet decadent about beef stew. Eating it makes you feel like the wealthiest peasant in the kingdom.

This picture simply does not do it justice.

In true Cook’s style, the great taste of this stew is in large part due to science. This week I learned a lot about glutamate. It has given me a new appreciation for anchovies and tomato paste. Glutamate makes things like meat and fish taste better. It is the “g” in msg, but also occurs naturally in many things used to enhance flavor in cooking (and doesn’t have the negative side effects of chemically isolated glutamate like msg). It acts as a neurotransmitter and tells your brain something is savory. In Japan, it’s called “umami”. My appreciation for glutamate started unbeknownst to me last week when I used fish sauce in the Thai Chicken Basil. Fish sauce is basically anchovy juice which is basically glutamate and thus enhances any savory flavor. The beef stew recipe combines high glutamate ingredients tomato paste, anchovies, and salt pork to really enhance the flavor of this stew.

Take away

  • Glutamates enhance savory flavors. Get over your irrational dislike for anchovies: they can be an amazing flavor enhancer.

  • In Manhattan markets you can find the very basic or gourmet food quite easily; things that fall between the two are tougher to find. Salt pork is one of these items. (Because I have learned so much about pork since starting this cooking adventure I knew pancetta would be an OK substitute.)

  • Meat- don’t crowd it when you brown it.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Thai Style Chicken with Basil

This week I was reintroduced to Thai food with great results. I found a great Thai market with very helpful staff. I also reflected on some of the challenges and opportunities this adventure has presented.

One thing I love about this issue of CI is the diversity of the types of cuisines. This week my challenge is a Thai recipe for basil chicken. In an effort to get the most authentic ingredients possible, I researched and found a Thai grocery store in Chinatown (thanks for the reference, Cheryl). A great excuse to go down to Chinatown, I found the place with no problem. Bangkok Center Grocery is towards the southern end of Chinatown and off the beaten path on Mosco street. The guy behind the counter was great, while I was checking out he noticed what I had and asked if I was making Basil chicken (good guess) He started to give me instruction on how to make it while he bagged my groceries (his instructions were actually pretty close to the CI recipe).

This recipe was fun to make. I like working with new ingredients that I have never used before, ingredients about which I have no preconceive notions. I liked grounding the chicken in the food processor. I’ve never done this before and it was a neat, simple trick I’m sure I’ll use again (one advantage is that doesn’t matter if frozen meat has defrosted completely or not, it can be used right away). The best part of this recipe is the result. The combination of hot Thai chilies with a bit of sugar and sweet oyster sauce is wonderful. I thought it would be too spicy based on how my fingers burned after cutting the chilies but the sweetness balanced it out nicely. I hate to say this because I think it sounds pretentious but the flavor was… complex. I haven’t had Thai food in a long time and I forgot how much I like it and how wonderfully distinctive and just plain tasty it is. I was worried when I bought the big bottle of oyster sauce that it would just end up taking up room in my fridge and ultimately getting tossed after a few years, but now I’m confident I’ll use it.

Sometimes I wonder if I was going to specialize in one type of cuisine, Like Julia (and Julie) what it would be. It would have to be somewhat healthy and have a good amount of variety. After tonight’s success, Thai would definitely be on the list of potentials.

So far this cooking experiment has made me realize a few things. First, cooking well is not easy. After a couple of failed recipes (the German Chocolate Cake Frosting and the clumpy Cacio y Pepe sauce), my level of respect for really good cooks has increased significantly. In the past, I have generally chosen pretty easy recipes for myself. Cook’s Illustrated recipes are not the easiest. They tend to select recipes that pose some sort of challenge. They are not fool-proof by any means. Second, Manhattan is a great place to live for someone who likes to cook. Though in past weeks hunting down ingredients has been a bit of a challenge, I’m now pretty comfortable with the market options and other resources of which there are many. Chowhound’s Manhattan board has been a great resource, as have my friends and readers (thanks guys!). I’m lucky to have the food option I do here, and glad now to be taking advantage of it. 

Take away lessons

  • Sweet and hot are an excellent combination that balance each other well.

  • Forgot to defrost those chicken breasts for dinner? Cube and throw it in the food processor then stir fry.

  • Bangkok Center Grocery – all you need for any Thai dish, including instructions on how to make it from the cashier.

For further inquiry

  • Could Thai food become my specialty? Or am I just high from a resounding success? I’m going to have to try out some more Thai dishes to find out.   

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cacio y Pepe

A six ingredient entrée couldn’t be too difficult. Or could it? This week a “simple” entrée left me with time and energy to try a couple new side dishes.

The challenge this week was to prepare a basic pasta with cheese, cream and pepper sauce without letting the sauce clump. The way CI achieved a creamy texture was by mixing some of the water used to cook the pasta in with the finely grated cheese (starch in the water from the pasta helps keep it from clumping) and by using cream instead of butter.

I did not get the same result. My sauce clumped. I’m not sure why… it all happened so fast. Maybe I didn’t whisk enough? Not enough starch in the water left over from cooking the pasta? Maybe the cheese wasn’t grated finely enough? I can’t say for sure, but I am determined to try again. Despite the clumps it still tasted really good. That may have been because I can’t remember the last time I ate pasta with a cheese/cream sauce. I certainly haven’t made one and I would not have picked this recipe (if I wasn’t systematically going through all the recipes in the magazine). I generally don’t order anything with a cream sauce in restaurants because they tend to be to rich and, let’s face it, fattening. I forgot how good these basic ingredients are together regardless of texture. (And I ran 10 miles yesterday so I can eat whatever I want tonight)

The meal was saved by the perfectly cooked al dente pasta (I used DeCecco instead of my usual Barilla, based on CI’s taste test. Ronzoni was their first choice) and the two recommended side dishes; roasted broccoli and tri-colored salad with balsamic vinaigrette. For the broccoli you simply drizzle with olive oil, toss with salt, pepper, and a half teaspoon of sugar then bake on a preheated 500 cookie sheet for 10 minutes on the lowest rack position. The tiny bit of sugar made a big difference in the usually bitter taste of broccoli. It was perfectly roasted: not to soft and not too crunchy. The tricolored salad is a combination of arugula, endive and radicchio with a balsamic vinaigrette. This salad made me realize how much of a romaine rut I have been in lately. The tricolored salad is nice combination of bitter, sweet, and arugula (how do you describe arugula?).

The ingredients for this meal were pretty straight forward. The recipe specifically calls for aged imported Pecorino, but that is not hard to find. I found the recommended red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar for the vinaigrette at the Amish Market. Everything else I was able to order from, which is a good indication that they are readily available elsewhere since their selection is not great.

Take away lessons

  • In theory, adding water used to cook pasta to finely grated cheese to make sauce will make it creamier and prevent clumping due to the starch. In reality, it didn’t work that way for me; but I’m not giving up.

  • Add a pinch of sugar to broccoli (in addition to olive oil, salt a pepper) before roasting to make it a bit less bitter and gives it a nice color. Cutting the heads in quarters also maximizes the area of broccoli that comes into contact with the baking sheet.

For further investigation

  • If at first you don’t succeed try, try again. I am going to have to try this again and see if I can get it to not clump.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chicago Style Pizza and German Chocolate Cake

Last weekend I made two new recipes in one night and it proved to be too ambitious. As a result, the German Chocolate Cake frosting suffered from my lack of focus. I suffered my first injury which highlighted to me the importance of safety in the kitchen and in buying kitchen products. I also rediscovered Garden of Eden grocery store, which did not disappoint. Finally, and most importantly, the Chicago Style Pizza recipe turned out to be a winner and a great reward for my 9 mile run on Saturday.

I’m finding that each recipe has one problem ingredient. This is the ingredient that prevents people from making it, or leads to poor outcome in the substitution process. Upon first glance the Chicago style pizza recipe looked to have a cinchy list of ingredients. All of them seemed to be available through, which made me both happy and a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t have to go to Dean and Deluca this week. Upon closer investigation, I noted one important difference between the yeast in my online shopping cart is active dry yeast and the recipe calls for instant or rapid rise yeast. I googled it and discovered this interesting debate on, which references this article in Cook’s Illustrated. Essentially, they are not the same but with slight modifications they can substitute for each other in recipes. Cook’s test kitchen favors the flavor of instant yeast, so it looks like I get to go to Dean and Deluca after all. I absolutely do not trust the local Gristede’s to have fresh yeast. I was also please to find that the top two recommended brands of crushed tomatoes are available from freshdirect.


A few days later I found myself in Union Square with some time to kill. I decided to check out Garden of Eden and possibly pick up my few remaining items. When I TA’d cooking courses at the New School this is where they got their ingredients. The only other time I had been to this market was to pick up a missing ingredient before class. I still needed the instant yeast and I also decided to bake a cake for my mom’s birthday so I needed a few ingredients for that as well. I read CI’s product tests and decide to try and find the top rated chocolate and cocoa for the German Chocolate cake (I’ll have to tell you about our hot cocoa taste test next time).

When I walked in the first thing I noticed, just past the shelves of organic fruits and vegetables, was a huge selection of dark chocolate bars.

The chocolate selection at Garden of Eden. This is just half: the other side of the display is all chocolate too.

I got the impression that whoever picks their chocolate selection had read the product review in CI, because they had in stock each of the top 5 recommended brands from the magazine (and then some). In fact they sell the top ranked chocolate, Callebaut, in bulk. (Unfortunately the recipe calls for 4 oz, and the standard size for most chocolate bars seems to be 3.5 oz and the smallest block of Callebaut is 1lb.) I was also happy to find one of the 3 recommended brands of Dutched cocoa (Droste), though not the top brand (Callebaut again). They also had the yeast I needed for the pizza.

A few other observations about Garden of Eden: The cheese selection and cured meat selections looked just great. Also, the bulk fresh pasta looked really good. They have a pretty good selection of prepared food as well. The prices are, well, normal Manhattan gourmet grocery store prices. I did notice a few days later that the $10/lb chocolate I bought at Garden of Eden was $6.99 at Amish Market on E. 45th.


I have to admit, Saturday night I was a bit anxious about the baking part. Baking is a bit more difficult than cooking per se. There is more science to it. More to potentially go wrong. Not to mention that fact that the recipe instructions call for the use of a stand mixer which I don’t have, and I don’t think I’ve ever made bread by hand. I used a bread machine for years but it finally died. I considered buying a mixer, but I just couldn’t justify the expense and the space it would take in my kitchen considering I have probably only once before in my life actually wished I had one. I decided I would do it by hand then wait and see how the cooking goes this year and I might buy myself a mixer as a reward at the end of it.

As it turns out, I like hand kneading bread. It’s kinda fun. There is also something very satisfying about wait for dough to rise, and very rewarding to seeing something I made double in size in 40 minutes (also confirmation I hadn’t done anything terribly wrong). This recipe was a bit time consuming with two long rising periods, I started the dough a total of 4 hours before we were actually eating.

The end result was pretty amazing. The crust was delicious, filling was a bit heavy on the cheese as far as pizza goes, but I like cheese. I used pre-grated cheese and I was so glad at that point not to be grating 4 cups of cheese, especially after cutting my finger grating and onion on the box grater for the sauce (after I laughed at the suggestion to wear a glove in this video… in the end I threw out my box grater and vowed to order CI’s top rated box grater for safety… the OXO brand). Of the three varieties (cheese, sausage and kalamata olive and arugula) the olive and arugula was everyone’s favorite.

Chicago Style Pizza. Yum. 

I don’t think I’ve ever actually had Chicago style pizza before. I’ve been to Chicago a few times, mostly for conferences, I’m sure I must have tried it then. Anyway I don’t have knowledge of what authentic Chicago pizza should be like, so I evaluated this pizza based on intrinsic attributes. I made a few mistakes. I forgot the basil and olive oil in the sauce, so I just put it on top. I might experiment with toppings next time.

The German Chocolate cake was another story. It was more complicated than I expected: the frosting is a bit more work than regular frosting. I heated the pan too early and some of the egg yoke cooked before it was mixed with the milk sufficiently. I also burnt some of the pecans while toasting them, and didn’t get all the burnt pieces out. The frosting was pretty much a disaster. Funny thing though, despite the burnt pecans and chunks of cooked egg yoke, the frosting actually tasted pretty good. You can’t really go wrong with all that sugar and butter (that being said, my 2 year old ate around the frosting for the first time in her life so it couldn’t have been that good) The cake itself was, I don’t want to brag, but it was perfect so that kind of made up for it.

 If you look closely you can see chunks of cooked egg yoke and burnt pecan in the frosting. 

Take away lessons

  • Not all yeast is the same. When you have a choice, choose instant or rapid rise. If the recipe calls for active dry, you can substitute ¾ the amount of instant yeast (see this video for details).
  • The Chowhound message board is a great source for cooking information.
  • A few burnt pecans can spoil the bunch.
  • Don’t try too many new complicated recipes at once. You are much more likely to mess one of them up. If you are going to try a new or complicated entrée recipe, stick to a simple dessert.
  • Buy a safe box grater!
  • If you've got something on your mind you want to stop thinking about for a while, cooking is a great distraction. 

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Red Beans and Rice: Not Just for Mardi Gras Anymore

Red beans and rice take some time to make but not a lot of work. It’s definitely one of my new favorite recipes. Next time I make it, you’re invited if you bring the beer.

I’m sure I’ve had Cajun style red beans and rice before, I just can’t remember when exactly. I’m sure at a couple of mardi gras parties along side the beignets and jambalaya over the years. I guess it has just never been that memorable a dish for me. Well, that has changed. This is a new favorite. My only regrets are that I didn’t have a house full of friends to share it with and beer to wash it down. Also beignets. I wish I had made beignets for dessert. I have a very vivid memory of making them with my friend Rachael years ago for a Mardi Gras potluck. Neither of us knew much about cooking, at it was the dish with the fewest ingredients so that’s what we made.

This recipe does take a while but most of the time is spent chopping vegetable and letting it cook. It’s not complicated or difficult but it is so, so flavorful and filling especially on a cold day. I probably should have saved this recipe to make on Mardi Gras, but my mildly compulsive tendency is to do the recipes in order. It is also traditionally eaten on Monday, using the ham left over from Sunday dinner. We will be eating the leftovers tomorrow and I’m betting it will taste even better.

I highly recommend this recipe as is, and with the tasso rather than bacon if you can find it. Call around. It’s worth it.

Take away

  • Turn on gas burners or light a candle while chopping onions to prevent eye irritation. Works like magic.

  • Freeze bacon (or tasso) for 15 minutes to make it easier to chop.

  • Always consider beverages and the social context. Some dishes are simply meant to be served to groups of friends with beer. This is one of them.

  • Northerners shouldn’t only eat Cajun food during Mardi Gras.

For further investigation

  • I think the tasso is an important ingredient but I noticed Emeril Lagasse’s version does not use tasso, nor does Paul Prudhomme’s. This makes me wonder if that is because it is just not commonly available or if there is another reason?

Red Beans and Rice Day 1

Saturday was another long run and prep day for the week’s recipe. Though I tried to plan ahead a little bit better this time, the hunt for the final ingredients proved to be a challenge that required me to broaden my knowledge of Manhattan markets, and visit 4 stores to cross the last item off my list.

In many ways yesterday was a redux of the previous Saturday with a few differences. Rather than being underdressed for my long run I was slightly overdressed (which is definitely preferable). The temperature was about the same, mid 20’s, but the snow flurries were replaced by the sun beating down on me brightly.

I did some preplanning to avoid the same ingredient fiasco that I had last week. I ordered most of the ingredients from, then I planned my run to end at Columbus circle where I could shop at the Whole Foods to get the last 2 items: small or Mexican red beans and tasso (cajun ham). I had a gorgeous run around the length of Central Park then found my way to Whole Foods in the basement of Time Warner center. First, no tasso and no idea where to find it. Second, a PATHETIC selection of dried beans. They literally had 4 varieties of dried beans! I must point out that they did have dried Cannellini beans (though 12 oz for $4 seems ridiculous) as well as canned.

I knew I could get tasso at Murray’s Real Salami in Grand Central Station Market. I had posted that I was looking for it on’s Manhattan board and several people replied. I knew I wouldn’t be able to find the beans there though, thus the preemptive trip to Whole Foods. So, over to Murray’s and wow – the market in Grand Central is really wonderful. Several vendors had pancetta (which is more readily available than I thought – you can even order it on, there is wonderful produce, meat, cheese, spices, baked goods and prepared foods. The best part is that it is within a 5 minute walk of my office so I can stop by on my lunch break.

It was a wonderful feeling to walk up to the counter at Murray’s see the gorgeous tasso.

There was no line. The guy that helped me was very nice and asked me what I was going to use the tasso for. I must admit it did make me feel like a bit of a foodie to be buying tasso at Murray’s and telling the guy it was for red beans and rice. The recipe says you can substitute bacon, so going out of one’s way to find tasso does begin to enter the realm of being a foodie – though I would not presume the title.

The beans were another story. None of the merchants in the GCS market had them, and neither did one of the standard manhattan grocery store chains—Morton Williams. As a last resort I stopped in the Gristede’s nearest my house and… bingo! Of course, the place I least suspected and the closest to home would have it!

Next time I’m going straight to Dean and Delucca in Soho for any specialty ingredients. More than one person has recommended it and it is on the closest subway line. In addition, I think I have only been there once and anyone learning to cook who lives near by should check it out.

The beans are now brined and it's time to start chopping. Results coming soon.

Take away

  • Sometimes what you’re searching for is right in front of you; don’t make things more complicated than they are.

  • Whole foods is over-rated and over-priced.

  • Wear layers. 25 degrees feels much warmer inland with the sun shining than it does along the river with snow flurries. 

For further investigation

  • Multiple recommendations have peaked my interest in Dean and Deluca’s. I must scope the place out this week. Could it possibly be the answer? One-stop shopping for my specialty ingredients without having to transfer or cross town?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A good use of some extra prosciutto

I was at the gym yesterday running on the treadmill listening to music and flipping through the channels on the TV. I paused briefly on the Food Network as Rachael Ray prepared some chicken breasts. It looked pretty boring at first (what could be more boring than a boneless, skinless chicken breast?) and I was about to flip, but then she pulled out the proscuitto. She wrapped boneless, skinless chicken breast drizzled in olive oil with a sage leaf and proscuitto. I quickly plugged my earphones in to hear her (sorry, but somewhat annoying) narration. Chicken breast, olive oil, sage leaf wrapped in prosciutto and bake it. Despite my general lack of interest in her cooking style, this inspired me to use the prosciutto on hand left over from the minestrone recipe (I bought it thinking I could substitute it for pancetta but ended up deciding to get the pancetta). I didn’t have sage, but I did have fresh basil also left over from the minestrone. I also sprinkled with a tiny bit of grated Parmigiano.

It was very easy and pretty good. Her recipe is an adaptation of the classic Roman dish saltimbocca which is made with veal. It got me wondering if Cook’s Illustrated had ever done a similar recipe, and how they would do it differently. Turns out they did do a Chicken Saltimbocca recipe in March of 2008. Just comparing the recipes, my first reaction is that the Cook’s Illustrated version is clearly superior to Ms. Ray’s version. I know her point is kind of to do it quick and easy, but how much quicker is it, and is it worth the trade off in taste? The only way to find out is to do a comparison[1].

So, tonight I did the saltimbocca taste test. I had three testers: my mom, my husband Chris and myself. As far as preparation, the CI recipe was not particularly difficult or time consuming but the Ray version was notably simple. CI coats and pan fries the chicken, and then tops with a white wine and butter sauce. It sounds like more work tha  it is! Ray skips the coating and sauce, and simple combines the ingredients and bakes it.

Cook's Illustrated version on the left, Rachael Ray version on right.

As far as taste, my mother said she liked both very much and would eat either any time (not surprising if you’ve read earlier posts). She would not pick a favorite. Chris also liked both, but preferred the Ray version because the chicken sage and prosciutto flavors were more straight forward. I think in general he prefers food without coating or sauce because it is healthier (which Ray’s version definitely is). I could see his point, but I thought the CI version was much better in terms of taste. It definitely had a lot going on. Ray’s version most impressed me with the simplicity.

A good compromise, in terms of health and time, would be to skip the sauce but stick with the pan frying. I just think a skinless chicken breast is so much better with a little browning rather than simply baking. If I were having company or serving with pasta I might do the sauce, but for a regular weeknight it’s not really necessary for this already very flavorful combination.

I have to admit I was expecting to not like Ray’s version at all, particularly in comparison to the CI version. This is a good lesson in looking beyond preconceived notions and evaluating substance. I’m still not going to watch her show, but I might check out her take on some of the dishes I do from CI for comparison and time saving techniques.

Coming up next, Cajun red beans and rice! I’m looking forward to making this NOLA classic for a traditional Monday night dinner.

[1] It is somewhat of an unfair comparison. I think the difference between Ray/CI is epitomized in their divergent views on Olive Oil. While Ray is known for her (annoying, imo) catch phrase abbreviation of extra virgin olive oil “evoo”, She never really explains why she uses it in EVERYTHING and doesn’t use regular olive oil in cooking, as recommended in CI. It is especially annoying because she claims to be down to earth and simple, yet evoo is more expensive than regular olive oil. Why use the more expensive option when it is not even the better choice in many instances?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

I heart Dipalo's

Today I was inspired[1] to make the trip to Little Italy to find pancetta for the Minestrone recipe. I am so glad I did. I went to Dipalo’s on Grand street, well known as a family run Italian specialty food store that has been in the neighborhood since 1925. 

It was a stark contrast to my previous day’s shopping experience. I walked in expecting to wait a while, as is the reputation of the shop, but it wasn’t busy at all when I arrived. My number was called after less than 10 minutes. While I was being helped the store filled up and a few people greeted the guy helping me with enthusiasm “Louie’s here!” “Hey Louie, happy new year” etc. This guy is obviously very popular. I later found out he was one of the owners. I got my (beautiful) pancetta and ask what else he recommended. He offered me samples of aged Genoa salami and sopressa. Delicious – I was sold on both. I also bought some parmigiano after hearing the people next to me rave about it as they sampled it. Despite the store filling with customers, Louie didn’t try to rush me at all. I highly recommend this store. They also had cannellini beans but they were over priced ($5.99 for a lb?) and I didn’t want to wait another day to brine them. And there is a wine shop next door.

Once I had all the ingredients the recipe was a breeze. I did remember another reason why I don’t cook and that is because it usually means having to clean the kitchen first. Once I got the kitchen cleaned the preparations took about 45 minutes, and then the soup cooked for an hour. I think I could cut the prep time in half next time just by having done it once and if I reorganized my kitchen to make things more accessible.

The final verdict on this recipe is... DELICIOUS!! Well worth the effort to hunt down pancetta. The beans are creamy but not mushy and the veggies taste very fresh – which I think is due to good layering while cooking and preparing them separately from the beans to prevent overcooking. I would post a photo, but the photo simply does not do it justice!

Take away
  • Pancetta is similar to bacon, but it is not smoked. Prosciutto is similar to pancetta, but it has much less fat.
  • Proportions are important. I tend to throw everything in the pot when making soup rather than follow the quantities in the recipe. In general this is ok, but it can throw the flavor balance off if you don’t know what you are doing (which I don’t)
  • Manhattan has the best and the worst markets.
  • I need to reorganize my kitchen so that things are more accessible.
  • Getting started in cooking requires a front loaded investment in time. Patience now will pay off down the road.
  • A glass of valpolicella with sopressa and parmigiano is wonderful appetizer to snack on while preparing Minestrone soup.

For further investigation
  • Why don’t my vegetables brown? Too much liquid? Wrong kind of pan? It is a mystery to me.
  • I need guidelines for organizing my kitchen. NOT putting commonly used tools in the cupboard behind my daughter’s kitchen helper -- that she stands on while I'm cooking preventing me from being able to access it-- is an obvious one, but I’m sure there are some good insights on this topic out there.

[1] A significant part of my inspiration was my husband’s offer to drive there while we were out this morning. His generosity in braving the Chinatown and Little Italy traffic, which is terrible, and waiting in the car while I shopped is much appreciated!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Minestrone Day 1

For some reason I thought it was going to be warmer today. I had in my head it was going to be in the mid 30’s as I prepared for my “long” run. I was wrong. After running 7miles in 25 degree (feels like 11) weather with snow flurries slightly underdressed, my ambition to go to the Green Market and Whole Foods lost out to my desire to get home fast and warm up. I ended up attempting to purchase ingredients at the closest grocery store to my house. All I really wanted to do was to get the cannellini beans so they could brine while I warmed up, then I could consider venturing out further for the other ingredients.

One problem with Manhattan is the lack of good grocery stores. The basic grocery stores tend to have terrible selection, poor quality produce and ridiculously high prices. This varies somewhat by neighborhood, unfortunately my neighborhood is not gifted with good grocery stores. I figured the ingredients for this recipe are basic enough that I should be able to get them close by. I was wrong! I went to 4 stores within a few blocks of my home and NONE of them had the first ingredient for this recipe, cannellini beans. I even tried the health food store which has a selection of over 25 types of dried beans (as shown in photo below) including 5 types of lentils. Running from store to store in the cold reminded me why I don’t bother making recipes.

Anyway, I ended up getting great northern beans instead, which I vaguely remembered reading somewhere are similar to cannellini. Fortunately it turns out I was right (Note to CI: it would have been nice for this article – which I love by the way – to be referenced in the recipe).

One substitution that I don’t think is going to work is substituting prosciutto for pancetta. My local market didn’t have pancetta, and though I was 3 blocks from an excellent meat market I was just too cold to make it. I researched online and found that the key difference between prosciutto and pancetta is the fat content, prosciutto being the leaner of the two. This will not do! Pork tastes good and pork fat, I believe, makes anything taste better. I could add another fat, like additional olive oil, but I think this is one ingredient I don’t want to skimp on. I will make the trip to the meat market[1] after I warm up and get some melon to eat with the prosciutto.

It is partially my fault for not being familiar with the markets in my area. Ever since my daughter was born I have purchased almost all my groceries on I haven’t taken the time to see what is out there. This is one area I should start working on right away: to learn about my local specialty shops and markets so that when I need something specific, I have an idea of where to go. If I am going to do this year long cooking project and do it well, I am going to have to devote some time to exploring the market options available to me. Cold and snow are no excuse for someone who lives a 25 minute bus ride from Manhattan’s Little Italy to consider substituting prosciutto for pancetta. I know some of the markets, Zabar’s Fairway, diPalo’s, Todaro, etc. I just need to recognize when they are worth the trip. The Upper West side is too far to go for a few ingredients. When I was taking cooking classes, they got a lot of their ingredients from Garden of Eden on E. 14th. Maybe it is time to reacquaint myself with that store. I’m sure they have pancetta. And if anyone has a great market to recommend, I’m open to suggestions.

While my great northern beans are brining I am off to warm up in a long, hot shower. My trip to Garden of Eden and Minestrone soup will have to wait until tomorrow.

[1] After reading a scathing review of the Gramercy Meat Market on Yelp, I think I’ll try a different store tomorrow.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Start

Over the last 10 years I have held two year long subscriptions to Cook’s Illustrated magazine and between subscriptions purchased several copies at the newsstand. I flipped through the pages, admiring the artwork and fantasizing about what I was going to make. I love the meticulous comparison process and the details provided regarding “failed” versions of the recipes. I love that there are no ads. I love the systematic review of various cooking tools and utensils. It is how I imagine I would do things if I were a real cook. It is my imagined cooking style. I’ve watched a few TV cooking shows and none of them appeal to my sensibilities quite like America’s Test Kitchen. It is where art meets science. The combination of intellectual understanding of cooking, of what works, what doesn’t and why, with the sensory and creative aspect satisfies my desires both to be creative, and my almost pathological desire to optimize.

That being said, it largely remains a fantasy to me. In all the issues I have purchased I have only made one recipe. It was for tuna salad and it was, I have to admit, terrible! Yet, like any good projection I was able to rationalize this failure and continue with the fantasy as I continued to enjoy the magazine without stepping foot in the kitchen. Actually making a recipe only ran the risk of bursting my bubble.

Last year when I found out my nephew was going to culinary school I got him a subscription to the magazine and added a subscription for myself, vowing to try at least one recipe per month. Now 12 months and 6 issues of the magazines have come and gone and guess how many recipes I have made? Yep, zero! I can’t help but feel like a little bit of a failure, and cringe when I see the unused issues sandwiched between the World Atlas and the Baby Book on my bookshelf.

I hereby resolved to prepare every recipe published in Cook’s Illustrated magazine in 2010.

Since there are only about 10-12 recipes per bi-monthly issue, this means about one recipe per week. It is not quite as crazy as Julie Powell’s endeavor where she prepared all of Julia Child’s recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year, and will be thus less likely to have the same negative impact on my relationships and job.

Also, I am worse than not a writer… I am an academic writer. Every ounce of creative writing I had in me (which was not much to start with) has been squelched out of me through several years of graduate school training and on the job report writing. This project is also an attempt to do something completely different.

Yes, the movie “Julie and Julia” did inspire me, and no doubt many other copycats. My lack of originality in pursuing this project doesn’t concern me one bit. My experience is not about being unique or creative, or about impressing anyone. It’s about me, attempting to a small degree, to live a fantasy.

I will document my experience here. There is no better place to start than the beginning… so the first recipe will be the first from the Jan/Feb issue – Minestrone soup. I love the acknowledgement that working with supermarket vegetables will be a challenge, and that homemade chicken stock is too much of a hassle. I plan to forage what I can at the Union Square Greenmarket tomorrow morning after my run (I am also training for the Big Sur Marathon on April 25th wish me luck!) then pick up what I can’t find there at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods.

Happy New Year!

I am not a cook.

I grew up eating very basic food. My mother for the most part made dishes with few ingredients and that she knew from memory. I rarely saw her work from a recipe. The dominate seasonings used were Lawry’s season salt and butter (I know… it’s not really a seasoning. That is the point.). A common meal growing up was consisted of simple (over) steamed broccoli with cheese sauce, main course of very rare pan fried steak with Lawry’s and rice-a-roni mix. I remember eating a lot of frozen dinners and boiled hot dogs. The only lettuce I knew was iceberg. Some of my favorite recipes growing up where spinach dip, green bean casserole and hash brown casserole. When I called home from college to get the recipes, I discovered these recipes all came from the back of packaging of the key ingredients.

Not to say I don’t appreciate the cooking my mom did for me. She worked full time and, as a single mom, understandable did not make fancy cooking a priority. I loved her cooking. It was comfort food. I was a vegetarian during my teen years and my mom mastered tofu lasagna and found “veggie dogs” for me (long before they were popular and readily available at any store). There was definitely love in her cooking.

I was always interested in the idea but not the reality of cooking. In High School during my vegetarian years I bought the Moosewood Cookbook but found the recipes and ingredients too complicated. The only recipe I remember completing was hummus. I looked at the ingredients and the artwork and thought about how nice it would be to make recipes but never, for reasons I am not fully sure of, made them. Well, I know why. Cooking is an investment in time and often money, especially for a single person. It just never beat out other priorities, or the path of least resistance which led past Taco Bell.

In graduate school a group of friends started a montly potluck. This gave me a motivation to cook. I always looked forward to selecting the recipe I would create, purchasing the ingredients, packaging the dish for transport, and then sharing it with friends. I started to develop a few specialties, including my signature black bean lasagna dish, and variations on the hummus recipe from the Moosewood cookbook. I learned to make sushi. I loved the ritual of going to the Japanese market and picking out the ingredients. It was so impressive to guests, which made it even more rewarding. This was 10 or more years ago, when Sushi was considered slightly more special than it is now.

After graduate school I moved to Manhattan. Working full time I had less time to cook. I would wander the aisles of the Green market on Saturdays, wondering what the ingredients could be used to make. Occasionally I would buy something unique with high aspirations to try a new recipe, but such ingredients either rotted in my refrigerator fully intact or, even worse, rotted after I spent considerable time attempting something that just wasn’t that good.

Shortly after moving to New York, I signed up to volunteer at a cooking school where I would help set up for evening and weekend class in exchange for the opportunity to participate in the class for free. I did this several times, including a shop and cook class where the instructor, a Chinese cookbook author, took us on a shopping tour of China town and then we prepared a meal using the ingredients we purchased. These courses gave me overviews of various cuisines and ingredients and many cooking basics. I learned more by helping set up for the class because I had individual time with the instructor and help pull the ingredients together.

I cancelled the last cooking class I was scheduled to volunteer for due to nausea when I was pregnant with my now-2-and-a-half-year-old daughter. I haven’t done much cooking since. A few notable recipes stand out over the last three years including a delicious chicken enchilada casserole, Greek stuffed chicken breasts, sesame seed encrusted tuna steaks, magnolia bakery cupcakes and a few perfect roasted and carved chickens. I have also master the fried egg due to my daughter’s preference for “egg toast” for breakfast which I am pretty sure she thinks is one word. Oh, and several types of pancakes from scratch.

I am not a cook by any measure. To this day I pull out Mark Bittman’s cookbook when I need to boil an egg. But, cooking is something I have always wanted to learn to do. This is my chance.