The Ins and Outs of Indoor Grilling (Featuring: Lamb Skewers with Apricots)

Chris Schlessinger and John Willoughby have a great book on grilling (surely one of the best) called “License to Grill.” (You can see it under my favorite cookbooks on the lower left hand of the site.) In the opening chapter, they write: “Grilling hasn’t changed all that much since the day some really smart cave-guy first introduced food to fire. All you really need is a fire, some food to cook, and something to lay the food on so it doesn’t fall into the flames.”

What, then, to make of the electric indoor grill? Certainly, this is one of the best:

IMG_1.JPG

It’s the DeLonghi Alfredo Healthy Grill and I bought it after Cook’s Illustrated named it number one (at least I seem to remember it did) in a long ago issue that’s archived somewhere in my brain. The surface is non-stick, it fits neatly in my lower cabinet, and to heat it up I simply have to plug it in. So what’s the problem?

The problem, I think, goes back to that opening quote. The essence of grilling, one might extrapolate, is food and fire. I had plenty of food to grill last night when I made dinner but, much like the marriage of Liza Minelli and David Geffen, there just wasn’t any fire. (Though there was, mysteriously, a male gogo dancer hiding in the bathroom.)

You may recall that the night I made bruscetta, I used the grill to the grill the bread. That worked really well because, well, it’s just bread and grilled bread tastes pretty good regardless of flame or electricity. But when it comes to meat, it makes all the difference in the world. And I learnt that lesson the hard way last night when I made lamb skewers with apricots.

So check out this recipe. It’s a perfect example of what makes this book great. It’s not like they just say, “Stick some lamb on skewers and grill it.” No, no, no. There’s a wily, mysterious and exotic dry rub and a bright, elusive, sweet and soury vinaigrette. Plus, there’s cous cous. Not your typical day at the grill.

Let’s start with the vinaigrette.

IMG_3.JPG

You just whisk this all together. Are you ready? 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon), 1 Tbs molasses, 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh mint, salt and freshly cracked back pepper to taste.

Easy, breezy, beautiful cover girl.

Now then, there’s the rub. Haha! That’s funny! I just wrote that out and…”there’s the rub”…ok, never mind…(cous cous doth make cowards of us all).

IMG_5.JPG

The rub is: 1 Tbs minced fresh chile pepper of your choice (I left this out), 2 Tbs minced ginger, 2 Tbs minced garlic, 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro (or substitute parsley), 2 Tbs cumin seeds, toasted if you want, or Tbs ground cumin, 1 tsp ground cardamom (optional), and 1 tsp ground cinnamon.

Got it?

That’s basically all the hard work. Now you just make your skewers. The recipe tells you to get 1 lb boneless lamb leg cut into 1/2-inch cubes. At Whole Foods, they gave me lamb loin and he cut them into what I think were 1-inch cubes. If I could go back in time, I’d have insisted on lamb leg and then, when I got home, I’d have cut them up smaller. But I’m not a smart man, Jenny.

As it was, though, it was pretty good. Look:

IMG_6.JPG

After coating that lamb with the dry rub, you skewer it with some garlic cloves and two apricots cut up 4 ways. Looks lovely, doesn’t it? Makes you want to start a big fire somewhere so you can cook this sucker up.

Well. No such luck. All I had was my electric indoor grill. Watch how it glows!

IMG_8.JPG

Actually, if you study that picture, you can kind of see what I’m talking about. You get the grill marks, yes, but there’s none of that beauteous, juicy-ish flame-enriched meatiness that comes across in Burger King commercials or episodes of the Sopranos involving sausage. Ok, I mean maybe 3% of that is owed to the fact this was a dry rub, but this lamb needed flames and all it got was cool blue waves of electricity.

In any case, at the end (and figuring out when it was over was tough. I used my insta-read thermometer to determine if it was above 140 and it seemed to be, but each piece was different. I cut into the pieces and they were pink but that’s what we wanted, I think. If for some reason a worm grows in my stomach, now we’ll know why) it looked like this:

IMG_10.JPG

The lamb, apricots and garlic from the skewers (OH! you’re supposed to blanch the garlic for 2 minutes in boiling water before you put them on the skewers. I didn’t do this and the garlic was hard and unpleasant. So you probably should do this) into a bowl and toss with the dressing. Then place on a bed of cous cous or rice or maybe even pita bread. I drizzled more dressing on and it was pretty tasty. But not fire-delicious tasty. Indoor grill tasty which is to say a little depressing.

And those are the ins and outs of indoor grilling.

Savor The Summer with these summery dishes except for the chicken one

Summer cooking can be lots of fun if you make good choices. I made a GREAT choice last night when I chose to make Watermelon Salad with Mint Leaves from Paula Deen’s show courtesy of the Food Network site. Ya know, I’m growing to love Paula Deen: she’s so warm and fun and even though sometimes her food looks gross to me, I’d rather spend a day with her than an hour with some of the other Food Network Stars (cough, rachel ray).

Anyway, this salad puts me in highly-effusive mode so if you don’t like it when I rhapsodize over something’s deliciousness, put your earplugs in. This salad is just the best summer salad I can imagine. For starters, buy a watermelon:

IMG_1.JPG

Actually, I bought a quarter of a watermelon because I was already carrying a lot (I bought a scale yesterday—yes, it’s come to the point where I must weigh myself and make sure I don’t get fatter: all this eating takes its toll!) but a quarter of a watermelon was plenty watermelon. The recipe is super easy. Ready? Cut up the watermelon into bite-size pieces. Cut up a vidalia onion into rings. (I cut those rings in half.) In a small bowl make the dressing: whisk 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, salt and pepper and slowly drizzle in 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Then add 2 Tbs of freshly chopped mint (and don’t skip this step, it’s the best part!) (Oh, and I thought Whole Foods was out of mint but they had it in with the regular vegetables, not with the herbs, so make sure to ask.) Now combine the melon, the onion and crumble some feta in (it totally works, that feta, don’t skip that step either.) Pour on the dressing (but not too much, just enough to coat everything, but taste as you go so you don’t overdo it.) And that’s it. Check it out!

IMG_2.JPG

On a scale from one to loving this dish, I give this an 11. I had a guest over and my guest agreed: “This is a 5-star watermelon salad,” said the guest. When the guest left, there was still leftover watermelon salad and I finished it ALL by myself. Let that speak for itself.

Now then there’s this Chicken & Rice dish from my new Southern Cooking cookbook which I bought after reading that article about Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis (I linked to it in the past but now I can’t find it.) The book is great and it’s filled with great pictures and stories and Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock are my new favorite chefly duo. You can buy the book here and earn me lots and lots of money:

(Actually, I’ve NEVER gotten any money from Amazon ever. Why is that? Maybe I gave them the wrong address?)

So anyway in the book is the chicken & rice dish that Scott’s grandmother used to make for him. I liked this dish a lot but I think it’s a winter dish (see post title) because it’s pretty rich and hardy. First you brown a whole cut up chicken in butter:

IMG_4.JPG

Then you add a carrot and an onion and close the lid. 20 minutes later there’s liquid, you add 5 cups of water and cover. Then you cook for like 35 minutes, lift the lid, remove the onion and the carrot and add the rice. Then it cooks yet again. What you end up with is this:

IMG_5.JPG

It’s a really nice dish and I’d love to eat this in a cold winter month. It reminded me of Chicken in the Pot, a Jewish variation my great-grandmother ordered once when she took me to dinner at Nester’s back in Florida. (By the way, doesn’t the chicken at the bottom of that look like the alien from Aliens lying on his back?) The best part is that the rice soaks up all the chicken fat and butter so it gets really rich and flavorful. Again, something you’d love come wintertime.

Because there was company, I also made biscuits using the recipe from the first time I made biscuits and told you about (click here) but unfortunately I didn’t have buttermilk. So I used the net and learned that you can add 1 Tbs of fresh lemon juice to 1 cup of regular milk to get the effect of buttermilk. This made my milk lumpy but I guess it did the trick because the biscuits came out ok:

IMG_6.JPG

They were really light, which is what you want, but the batter was wetter than I wanted. Next time I’ll do it right.

Now for the final summer dish (and maybe I mistitled this post: the only summer dishes are watermelon salad and this blueberry pudding cake from Gourmet magazine) blueberry pudding cake from Gourmet magazine. You probably saw it on the cover of last month’s issue. Here’s the recipe from Epicurious: click here. I’m not going to go into the specifics because you can read them in the recipe. Buy 2 cups of blueberries and put them in a pot:

IMG_7.JPG

Simmer in water, sugar and lemon juice for 3 minutes until it looks like this.

IMG_8.JPG

Then you make the easiest batter ever and pour it into a 9X9 baking dish. (I only had an 8X8 dish but don’t tell anyone.) You pour the berries on top and it looks like this:

IMG_9.JPG

“The berries will sink to the bottom,” says the recipe and that they did. Here it is after baking for 25 minutes at 375:

IMG_10.JPG

It makes the house smell all cakey and summery and happy. Then you cut yourself a big piece and you smile:

IMG_11.JPG

This is what summer’s all about. Take advantage before it’s over!

Lobsterdeath and Broken Bernaise (Foodie Rites of Passage)

Killing a lobster, as a concept, never much bothered me. Lisa, who you know and love, became a vegetarian at 13 because her parents took her to a Red Lobster and had her choose out a lobster from the tank and moments later it was steaming before her on a plate. She hasn’t eaten meat since.

Me, I watch lobsters die on TV–on cooking shows, usually, or “Lobster Six Feet Under”–and I have the same emotional response as I do when someone swats a fly or steps on a spider. It’s unfortunate, but it’s life. And as a concept, cooking a lobster appealed to me the same way that making my own bread appealed to me: it’s a foodie rite of passage. And on Saturday night I invited my carnivorous friend Diana over to join me as I became a man. “Umm,” she said nervously. “What do you mean by that?” “We’re making lobster,” I replied. “Oooh,” she said, “I’m in!”

IMG_1.JPG

What you see above is the bag the fishmonger gave me at Whole Foods when I asked for two 1.25 lb lobsters. He used a rake like instrument to get them out of the tank (it took him a while) and placed them in that special lobster bag. When I got to the checkout, the woman behind the counter saw the bag and went: “Oooh, Lordy, this is my third lobster today.” She shook her head sadly. “Poor little guys,” she said, “There’s two in there?” She leaned forward. “It could be a mother and a daughter.”

I found this funny as did the other counter people. She lifted the pair of tongs I bought to lift the lobsters. “We know what this is for!” she said holding the tongs up in the air. “Poor guys.”

Thoroughly depressed (but not really), I carried my lobsters home and put the bag on the counter. I ran to my computer so I could research: “storing live lobsters.” Diana was coming over at 5 and it was 3. My research revealed that lobsters are best kept in open containers in the refrigerator. (Some sites advised putting a wet rag on them but I didn’t do this.)

So step one was getting the lobsters into an open container. Now this was the first moment where the concept of killing a lobster and the reality of killing a lobster butted heads. You know that famous scene in “Annie Hall” where lobsters are crawling around and Woody and Diane Keaton are having a riotous time? Well I simply had to get the lobster out of the bag and into a bowl. But opening that bag and looking down and seeing these spindly, hard-shelled antennaed creatures the last thing you want to do is reach in there and lift one. So I used tongs (rather clumsily) and got the first one into a bowl.

IMG_2.JPG

Ok, fair enough. The lobster wiggled a bit but didn’t fight too much. Could I put both in the same bowl? Interesting question. I lifted the other out of the bag using the same method and as I lowered it over the bowl it began snapping violently. I let go and its tail wrapped around the edge of the bowl as it thrusted its body up and down. I quickly grabbed another bowl and used the tongs to transfer it. And here are the two lobsters in the two bowls:

IMG_3.JPG

On the way to the fridge, Lolita came to investigate these strange new creatures in our home.

IMG_4.JPG

Clearly, she was not impressed. Into the fridge they went:

IMG_5.JPG

And there they waited until Diana’s arrival.

Once Diana arrived, we chose the two contraptions we’d need to execute our lobsters. Because neither my Le Creuset nor my regular old pot were big enough to hold two lobsters, we’d each be responsible for one pot and one lobster. I got the sucky pot and Diana got the Le Creuset. As you’ll see later, this proved to be quite significant.

IMG_6.JPG

Now the recipe I found was in the Gourmet cookbook. I chose this because on Julia Child’s lobster episode (on the 2nd disc of her DVD set) she says the simplest and best way to enjoy lobster is to boil it and serve it with butter. Of course, then, I turned to her “Mastering the Art” of French Cooking and was surprised to see that both those lobster recipes were elaborate and anything but simple. (For a hilarious account of cooking one of these recipes, check out Julie Powell’s write-up from her Julie/Julia days). Thus, I opened my Gourmet book and found a simple recipe for boiling lobster (you salt the water and cook a 1.25 lb lobster for exactly 6 minutes) along with a recipe for a tarragon vermouth sauce. (Here it is on Epicurious with only a 64% approval rating. I hadn’t seen this before we made it. Interesting that one of the comments says the cook time is way off! I wonder if we ate raw lobster?)

Now the sauce is called “Tarragon Vermouth Sauce” but it’s really a bernaise style sauce. Over a double boiler, you whisk vermouth, tarragon vinegar, and 3 egg yolks as you slowly stream in melted butter. Here I am whisking in attempt number one:

IMG_7.JPG

All was going well as the sauce heated up. Everything was emulsified and we took its temperature because the goal was 160. And then–boom! crash!–the sauce broke. This is what broken bernaise looks like:

IMG_8.JPG

It’s not a pretty picture. Basically, I think, the eggs get cooked because they overheat. So we failed in our first attempt.

Luckily, there was something else to occupy us: lobster.

At this point the water was boiling. Diana, always the intrepid one, decided to go first. Since she had the Le Creuset, lowering the lobster into it would be easy. You simply lift the lid and place the lobster in head first. (This is more humane because the lobster dies more quickly.)

IMG_9.JPG

In the lobster went without much fuss. Here’s Diana closing the lid:

IMG_10.JPG

All is well in lobsterland. Now, Mr. Gourmet, step up to the plate.

IMG_11.JPG

There I am standing bravely with my lobster. This would be easy, no problem. Just like Diana. I’d lift the lid of the pot and drop that lobster in.

And so I lifted the lid and began to lower the lobster in head first and SNAP…the tail starting snapping back and forth and the lobster fought for its life! In fact, as you can see here the lobster wrapped its tail around the side of the pot as he tried to claw his way out!

IMG_12.JPG

(My reaction, you might say from that picture, may be a tad bit wimpy.)

“What do I do what do I do!” I shrieked.

“Get him in!” Diana yelled back.

You have to remember that pot was hot and I had to somehow disengage the lobster from it, submerge it in the water and get the lid on all rather quickly. And I’m not sure how it happened but thankfully, it did.

IMG_13.JPG

Let my experience provide for you the following lesson: when making lobster, make sure you have a big pot. Or at least a wide one like Diana had. Those lobsters don’t like boiling water any more than you do.

Because the pot had a glass lid, I took this picture once the lobster was inside:

IMG_14.JPG

As you can see, as the lobster cooks the shell turns a bright red. Or maybe my lobster’s still enraged at the size of his pot?

Here’s Diana’s lobster after six minutes:

IMG_15.JPG

We took the lobsters out with tongs and drained them in the sink. Meanwhile, we attempted another bernaise. “This time we’ll get it right,” said Diana.

Well. It seemed like we were getting it right. We got much further the second time around. My strategy was to whisk the bowl over the boiler and then lift it off and put it back on, regulating the heat. After a few minutes of this I let Diana take over, and that’s when it broke. Do I blame Diana? Of course not. I upped the heat at the moment and I probably shouldn’t have. The reason I did was because the thermometer needed to read 160 and it was still down at like 140. Here’s Diana with broken bernaise #2:

IMG_16.JPG

Gross, yet again:

IMG_17.JPG

Somehow, though, breaking our sauce worked in our favor. Recalling Julia Child’s statement, boiled lobster is a simple pleasure and it’s best served with something simple: melted butter. So in preparation for our simple presentation, we sliced the lobster in half.

IMG_18.JPG

This was actually pretty easy. Knife cuts right through the shell. And here’s our finished presentation, complete with The Barefoot Contessa’s roasted potatoes (which are so easy to make and they had Diana raving):

IMG_19.JPG

Melted butter was definitely the way to go. The lobster meat was so sweet and succulent, you wouldn’t want to mask that with a heavy buttery yolky sauce. At least that’s what we told ourselves.

One of the lobsters, we think, was a female because the insides looked like this:

IMG_20.JPG

Is that roe? Or is that sewage? We worried for a moment but it tasted fine. We had a very democratic way of sharing these lobsters: we each had half of the other’s. It seemed only fair.

As for cracking the claws, I used a hammer. It caused quite a mess but the juicy lobstery meat was worth it:

IMG_21.JPG

In conclusion, I think that cooking a lobster is something you must do if (a) you care about food and (b) you’re a meat-eater. The reason for this is best articulated by Thomas Keller who tells the story, in the French Laundry Cookbook (and also Michael Ruhlman’s “The Soul of a Chef”) of killing rabbits at a Catskill restaurant in 1983.

“One day, I asked my rabbit purveyor to show me how to kill, skin, and eviscerate a rabbit. I had never done this, and I figured if I was going to cook rabbit, I should know it from its live state through the slaughtering, skinning, and butchering, and then the cooking. The guy showed up with twelve live rabbits. He hit one over the head with a club, knocked it out, slit its throat, pinned it to a board, skinned it–the whole bit. Then he left.

I don’t know what else I expected, but there I was out in the grass behind the restaurant, just me and eleven cute bunnies, all of which were on the menu that week and had to find their way into a braising pan. I clutched at the first rabbit. I had a hard time killing it. It screamed. Rabbits scream and this one screamed loudly. Then it broke its leg trying to get away. It was terrible.

The next ten rabbits didn’t scream and I was quick with the kill, but that first screaming rabbit not only gave me a lesson in butchering, it also taught me about waste. Because killing those rabbits had been such an awful experience, I would not squander them. I would use all my powers as a chef to ensure that thsoe rabbits were beautiful. It’s very easy to go to a grocery store and buy meat, then accidentally overcook it and throw it away. A cook sauteing a rabbit loin, working the line on a Saturday night, a million pans going, plates going out the door, who took that loin a little too far, doesn’t hestiate, just dumps it in the garbage and fires another. Would that cook, I wonder, have let his attention stray from that loin had he killed the rabbit himself? No. Should a cook squander anything, ever? It was a simple lesson.”

Sometimes A Great Notion, Sometimes Not: Boiled Asparagus with Anchovy Spread and Tomato Basil Bruscetta

I had a strange craving the other night, a craving based on a picture. The picture’s in my River Cafe cookbook and it’s a picture of boiled asparagus with anchovy spread and garnished with Parmesan shavings. It looked something like this:

IMG_1.JPG

That’s a picture of my version, a version I made based on the very simple instructions. In my mind this would taste delicious because anchovies are in Caesar salad and Caesar salad is delicious. The asparagus is boiled until its tender and then the spread is made by combining butter, anchovies (about 3 or 4), lemon juice and pepper. Here’s the ingredients pre-assemblage:

IMG_2.JPG

To some people that may look like the nastiest picture ever, to others it may look like a potentially sophisticated combination. I mashed it all up and tasted it. Do you know what it tasted like? Butter and anchovies with lemon and pepper. In other words: kind of gross. This did not taste like Caesar salad. This was not delicious.

I tried to correct it a bit but it was what it was. I assembled it the way you see in the picture above and ate the asparagus which tasted fine and the anchovy butter gave it a very mild umph. Maybe my anchovies (which were oil packed) weren’t pungent enough? Maybe I needed salt-packed anchovies? I’m not sure. But I’m not sure I’ll ever find out because I’m not so eager to make this again.

And so sometimes a great notion–such as making anchovy butter–isn’t such a great notion at all. Other times, though, you have a great notion without realizing you’re having a great notion. I’m not sure what propelled me to buy tomatoes and garlic and basil and sourdough bread while shopping for the asparagus dish, but I did. I came home and used the Babbo cookbook to assemble a bruscetta topping.

Folks, I am frequently effusive here at the Amateur Gourmet. Some might say I gush too much (I’m seeing a doctor about that). And so you may want to take this with a grain of salt but this was dynamite delicious. And so simple! Check it:

IMG_3.JPG

That’s 5 plum tomatoes cut in half and cored and seeded (I used a soup spoon), cut into 1/4-inch cubes, and tossed with 3 cloves of chopped garlic (I like it garlicky), a bunch of basil leaves chiffonaded and then a splash of red wine vinegar, a heavier dose of olive oil (but not too much), salt and pepper. It’s that easy and it’ll knock your socks off. As my great-grandmother Helen would say: “It’s the cat’s pajamas and the snake’s hips.”

And as if that weren’t enough, though, I decided to have the hardcore bruscetta experience and I whipped out my portable electric grill.

“Yo Adam!” you say in my head. “I’ve been reading your site a long time! You have a portable electric grill?”

It’s true. A few years ago Cooks Illustrated (or was it Bon Apetit) reviewed a bunch of electric grills and voted this reasonably priced one the very best. I purchased it at Crate and Barrel and kept it on top of the fridge in Atlanta. Then one day I accidentally knocked it on the floor and the frame cracked but it still worked. I took it with me when I moved to New York and never took it out of its box. Until now!

Boy, is this a fun contraption. You just plug it in, it heats up (much like those George Foreman thingies only this is an open grill, not a press) and you’re ready to go. Here’s a slice of sourdough enjoying the grilling process:

IMG_4.JPG

It was great because the bread had those professional grill marks on it and it got all toasty and I barely had to do anything, except once or twice I pressed down.

The final assembly took very little effort. I took the bread off the grill, put it on a plate, drizzled some olive oil on it and then dressed with the tomatoes. Look mommy no hands!

IMG_5.JPG

Who’s your daddy? I am! And just to contextualize my effusiveness, I know I told you to make that cherry tomato sauce the other day but I think you should make this bruscetta even MORE than the tomato sauce because I liked it that much. You don’t need to do the whole grill thing, though it is a nice touch. Just chop those tomatoes and smack your lips. Unless you prefer anchovy butter in which case, you’re on your own!

(PS: I just had an idea for a bruscetta party! I can toast up lots of bread and make lots of toppings. Fun fun fun! I am a domestic goddess.)

Stella’s Southern Cooking Birthday Banquet

Stella is one of my favorite people I’ve met while at NYU. She’s a true Southerner–a Tennessee gal–and she literally moved to New York moments before school started. Despite her love for New York City living, it’s been a long while since she enjoyed a true-grit down home Southern meal. And so since yesterday was her birthday, a few days earlier we decided to throw Stella a Southern Cooking birthday bash.

When I say “we” I’m actually referring to Stella and I: Stella wanted to cook her favorite Southern treats for everyone. I was happy to oblige and to offer up my kitchen. So here’s Stella with some corn meal, ready to get started:

IMG_1.JPG

Here’s the remarkable thing about Stella’s cooking: she does it all from memory. No recipes for her, no sir!

This is the complete opposite of how I cook. With no real family food traditions, I’m creating my own with cookbooks. Stella is her own cookbook, and she began by steeping orange pekoe tea bags for sweet tea:

IMG_2.JPG

Notice how she tied those bags together? That’s true Southern sweet tea skill. I love sweet tea. Basically, Stella brought the water to a boil, added about a cup (I think) of sugar and then turned off the heat and let the bags steep. [She says real sweet tea would involve larger bags, but this worked fine.] Eventually we poured this into a pitcher, added cold water to taste and it was delicious.

Meanwhile, I got started on Stella’s birthday apple pie. This was my job and I found a recipe with a 100% approval rating on Epicuruious. This was the recipe, but I don’t recommend you use it. While Stella was happy with how it turned out, most people had pretty tepid reactions—including me. The filling was bland (which actually one commenter warned it would be on Epicurious, I should’ve paid attention) though the crust was pretty ok. Here’s the filling pre-baking:

IMG_3.JPG

It needed more sugar and more something, I’m not sure what. Here’s the pie pre-baking with Stella’s initials done by moi:

IMG_4.JPG

Now it should be stated here that Stella is a vegetarian. Her love for Southern cooking is focused purely on vegetables—and this was lucky for us because so many vegetables are in season right now. At Whole Foods, Stella masterfully plucked ingredients off the shelves. When it came to squash she was a bit nervous: “I’m not sure I remember how to cook this,” she said, “I’m scared I’m going to mess it up.”

When we got back, she sliced the squash, coated the slices in cornmeal and added it to a large pan with a bit of oil and onions:

IMG_5.JPG

“I don’t want it to turn mushy,” she said and began stirring. Over time, she stirred and stirred and the squash seemed like it was getting mushy.

“Maybe the heat should’ve been higher? Maybe I added too much?”

Stella stirred and stirred.

IMG_6.JPG

After a long while, she decided that the squash was a failure, scooped it into a cake pan and hid it in the microwave. We were so busy cooking other things, I had no time to offer my opinion on the matter.

Meanwhile, Stella began making fried cornbread. She mixed the batter by instinct and added it to a hot skillet with a bit of oil:

IMG_7.JPG

The finished product was quite tasty and looked a little like pancakes:

IMG_8.JPG

As Stella began boiling corn and making biscuits, I had our guests snap asparagus while I took the pie out of the oven: (ok, I snapped this picture before that):

IMG_9.JPG

Having our guests snap asparagus was a fun interactive part of the evening. Unless you asked the guests who said: “We’re not the hired help!”

Here’s the pie out of the oven:

IMG_10.JPG

I was a bit proud–this was my first apple pie!–and I toured it around the room in oven mitts to an uninterested crowd. I rested it on a cooling rack and stared at it like a character out of Tom Sawyer. “Awww, can’t I have just one slice ma?”

Ma–or Stella–ignored me and finished her biscuit batter which she also made from memory. That I found most impressive. Here she is transfering biscuits to a cooling rack: (Incidentally, she used shortening which makes the biscuits flakier):

IMG_11.JPG

Soon our guests were hungry–and with the asparagus roasting in the oven (this was my other contribution since there wasn’t any place left to boil it)–we began setting out the other food. Let’s see what we have here:

IMG_12.JPG

Potatoes, corn, pie, biscuits, wine, beer, lemonade. What you DON’T see is the squash. Stella took it out of the microwave and set it on the table and said, “Ok, I don’t think this tastes good but you guys can have some anyway if you want.”

Well we did and you know what? It was the best thing on the table! We all loved it. It was sweet and squashy and even Stella gave it another chance and decided she liked it too. (Later, after speaking to her family, she told me you’re supposed to cook it a really long time on low heat. Either way, I think it tasted great.)

The pie, though, I mean look it wasn’t awful:

IMG_20.JPG

Plus there was ice cream. Most people thought it was fine it just didn’t dazzle. But Stella liked it and it was Stella’s birthday. I made an eclectic country mix to play on iTunes while we ate. Stella requested I put on some pop music but I persisted. I’d like to conclude with some lyrics from Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” which if you haven’t heard, you must.

“’cause I’m a redneck woman

I ain’t no high class broad

I’m just a product of my raising

I say, ‘hey ya’ll’ and ‘yee-haw’

And I keep my Christmas lights on

On my front porch all year long

And I know all the words to every Charlie Daniels song

So here’s to all my sisters out there keeping it country

Let me get a big ‘hell yeah’ from the redneck girls like me, hell yeah”

“We don’t say ‘yee-haw,'” argued Stella. I suppose she’d know. She perked up though when Dolly Pardon’s “9 to 5” came on. Who doesn’t love that song?

Happy Birthday, Stella! Thanks for keeping it country, sister! Yee-haw!

Don’t Be A Nut, Meg, Make Nutmeg Chicken!

I dedicate this post to Meg of Megnut.com because (a) hers was one of the first blogs I ever read, (b) she’s totally a cook, and (c) it really fits with our theme: invert the meg and the nut add a chicken and you’ve got nutmeg chicken.

The source for this recipe is the inviting and very very shiny Italian Easy from the River Cafe which I’ll link to now with a self-serving Amazon link:

This book stares at me from my coffee table time and time again and beckons, with a plaintive English accent: “Cook from me, chap? Won’t you?”

The nutmeg chicken or “chicken with nutmeg” is just the sort of recipe I can wrap a Sunday evening around. The prep time is minimal, the cook time is pleasantly long and there’s wine involved that I can drink during that pleasantly long cook time. The results are interesting and quirky, so I will give you the recipe.

Here are the ingredients:

4 lb organic chicken

1 lemon

1/2 whole nutmeg

4 prosciutto slices (I thought these might be expensive, but four slices from Whole Foods cost $2.)

1/2 cup white wine

Ex.v. olive oil

Here’s the wine I used. It cost $6 and I bought while talking on my cell phone so I didn’t pay much attention to what I was buying. Even if I had paid attention, I’d have no idea what I was doing. I know nothing about wine—the little I do know comes from “Sideways” and I remember that he likes Pinot, so here’s a Pinot.

IMG_2.JPG

Any wine enthusiasts out there want to berate me and get me started on a path towards wine appreciation? I like the stuff! I drank 3 glasses of it tonight… may account for my drunken prose!

Now then, the recipe. Easy easy.

Heat the oven to 375 F.

Wipe the chicken clean and trim off all excess fat. Cut the lemon in half. Grate the nutmeg.

Rub the chicken all over with the lemon, squeezing the juice into the skin. Season the skin and inside the cavity with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Tuck the proscuitto slices into the cavity.

Put the chicken in a roasting pan, breast-side down, and drizzle with olive oil.

IMG_3.JPG

Roast for 1 1/2 hours, basting from time to time. Add the wine after 30 minutes. Turn the bird breast-side up for the last 20 minutes. Serve with the juice from the pan.

Here’s my finished bird:

IMG_4.JPG

A few reactions:

(1) The flesh is unbelievably tender. It may have to do with the use of lemon and wine, I’m not sure…I’m not Alton Brown…but this was one of the moistest chickens I’ve ever made;

(2) The skin, unfortunately, didn’t get crispy the way I like. Usually I roast the chicken on a rack but this recipe didn’t call for a rack. I feel like keeping it on the bottom of the pan with all that liquid is bound to uncrisp the skin, perhaps that’s the price you pay for tender meat;

(3) The sauce is delicious and I learnt this too late. I forgot to take her advice and serve with the juices from the pan: those juices are the best part! So I poured them into a tupperware and saved them for tomorrow’s leftover chicken. They smack of lemon, wine, chicken bits and nutmeg. Yum!

All in all, this isn’t my favorite roast chicken: that title still belongs to The Barefoot Contessa’s but this is a great alternative if you’re bored of garlic, lemon and thyme. I recommend it with a salad. And wine—leftover wine that you don’t use. You only use half a cup, so that’s plenty. Bottoms up!

Flex Those Curried Mussels

I made “Curried Mussels” last night from the Jean-Georges Cookbook. Co-cookbook author, Mark Bittman, raves about this recipe in the recipe’s preface and since mussels are so cheap–($3 for TWO POUNDS)–and since I had all the other ingredients (sour cream, white wine, curry powder, lemon) this was a no-brainer. Here are the mussels in a bowl after washing them:

IMG_1.JPG

I feel that this step–the washing and the sorting–was the most important step in yielding a successful result and the one I did the worst job at. Here’s what I know from just my general knowledge: if a mussel is open when you take it out of the bag, try to close it. If it doesn’t close it’s dead and you should throw it out. Mussels should be closed when you start. The large bulk of my mussels were closed, so that’s okay.

The recipe instructions say “wash and debeard the mussels.” I scrubbed the mussels with a bristly sponge and then felt around for the beard. Some of the mussels had a beard, others didn’t. Those that did, I yanked the beard out and threw it away. That’s how I prepared my mussels…

After that, I prepared my mise en place: the chopped shallot, butter, the white wine, curry powder, lemon and sour cream:

IMG_2.JPG

I put my Le Crueset on the stove and added the butter to the bottom, turned up the heat and waited for the butter to melt. When it melted I added the shallots and after cooking them for a few minutes, I added the mussels and the wine. Then I covered and shook and let it steam, as per the instructions, for 10 minutes (“or until the mussels open.”) Unfortunately, with the lid on, it was difficult to determine when the mussels had opened. I felt like I cooked them a little too long, when I finally took the lid off:

IMG_3.JPG

I removed the mussels and then prepared the sauce. This is the most successful part of the recipe. You strain the mussel liquid into a bowl, wipe out your pot, then re-add the liquid and bring it to a boil. You add the sour cream, the curry, and the lemon and stir for a few minutes. Here’s that sauce:

IMG_4.JPG

I had halved the recipe (the recipe calls for 4 lbs of mussels, and I made 2 lbs because I was cooking for just me) but I sure wish there had been more sauce. It was the best part.

I took Jean-George’s and Mark Bittman’s suggestion to serve with sticky rice. I bought sushi rice and cooked it according to the sushi rice instructions. (Next time I’ll try Jean’s recipe for cooking the rice in a banana leaf and then stirring in coconut milk!)

Here’s my finished mussel dish:

IMG_5.JPG

The best part? The sauce and the rice.

The worst part? The mussels!

Some of the mussels were fine–nothing weird about them. But then others had the worst thing ever–the thing I hate MOST about eating bivalves: little grains of sand. If there is one sensation that sends shivers down my spine more than any other it’s that feeling you get when you bite down on sand in your food. It’s awful…

Now sometimes there was sand and other times there were little pieces of broken shell. A few times the mussels themselves were green and mealy and completely disgusting. For the large part I had no idea what I was eating when I was eating a mussel, and I found myself dissecting each mussel with my fingers like a 3rd grade biology student.

I ate them all, discarding the shells, and I paused wondering if I was going to be sick. I didn’t feel sick: I just figured that I had most likely ingested something poisonous since I hadn’t cleaned my mussels well. But I am proud to report that I have survived these past 24 hours…I am perfectly healthy… though as I type this I as;oeu eoasaeshoeasyh ;aesohyaheay

Today is the 2nd Day of the Rest of My Life: Exercise and Swordfish

Blogging about what you eat and having a doting mother who reads everything you blog about what you eat is a dangerous combination. Lately, mom’s been on my case.

“I can’t believe some of the stuff you’re eating!” she said to me this weekend. “Chocolate chip muffins in the middle of the night! And those cupcakes! All that butter! It’s not even that you’ll get fat, it’s your arteries. It’s so not healthy. Even Oprah tells you not to eat at night!”

This health intervention in combination with the vast amount of food we consumed this weekend (scroll down to see the carnage) plus the fact that spring’s approaching which means SPEEDO TIME, I decided yesterday to turn over a new leaf. Here is what my new leaf entails:

* Exercise!

* Better eating habits!

Specifically, I’m going to return to my Body for Life routine. Two summers ago, Ricky turned me on to Body for Life. The concept is 12 weeks to Ultimate Fitness. You exercise 6 times a week (alternating cardio and muscle training) and eat 6 small meals a day. Well I never did the 6 small meals a day thing, but I did do the 6 days a week of exercise. I actually enjoyed it because at most each session is 45 minutes and doing it every day helps you build it into your lifestyle easier than twice a week where it’s easier to skip.

So yesterday I did 30 minutes on the eliptical and burnt 330 calories! (Is that a lot? I have no idea.) And today I worked my upper body while listening to The Clash’s “London Calling” on my iPod. (Yesterday it was The Scissor Sisters–which is awesome to work out to.) (What’s your favorite workout music?) While at my parents hotel, I weighed myself and I weighed 160. I just went to an “ideal weight calculator” online and apparently for someone of my height (5’7) I should weigh 148. So I have to lose 12 pounds!

Now, for anyone who has been reading this site, I don’t think it’ll be hard to point out what habits have to change. No more burnt butter cupcakes at 2 in the morning! No more endless feasting when my parents come to town! I’m not going to change my diet to the point of being unhappy or hating food. (Oh, and Body For Life gives you Sundays off, so I can eat whatever I want!) I’m just going to be smarter about how I eat. Which is where Kathleen comes in.

Meet Kathleen and her book, “Cooking Thin”:

[If you follow that link and buy it I make mucho dinero! But I’m not urging you to buy it, I’m just saying that if you are going to buy it anyway do it through that link.]

I bought this book for my mom after watching her show on the Food Network. Even though she betrays a Rachel Ray like cheesiness, I liked her message and her method. She basically tries to maximize FLAVOR and visceral enjoyment out of food while still keeping it healthy.

Naturally, my mom never lifted the book–she doesn’t cook. So when I was home most recently, I swiped it off her night stand and took it home. Tonight I cooked from it. I made swordfish and the recipe was simple and everything came out dynamite.

First you need swordfish:

IMG_1.JPG

Kathleen says to buy 1 lb but I think that’s if you’re feeding more than yourself. I bought 1/2 lb which was plenty.

She says it should be 3/8ths of an inch thick (what kind of measurement is that!) and as you can see from the photo above, this is way thicker than that. So I butterflied it–yielding two pieces that were about 1/2 an inch thick. Make sure to sharpen your knife first.

Now then: the flavorings. It’s really simple but it comes out delicious. Sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper. (Make sure to get enough on there, it makes a difference.) Then grate a lemon and sprinkle the lemon zest over both sides of the fish. Take a quarter a cup of flat-leaf parsley and press that into the fish too. It should look something like this:

IMG_3.JPG

Here’s where I overdid it a bit. She says 2 tsps of olive oil in a skillet. I did a little more than that and it was TOTALLY not necessary. (It’s just that the 2 tsps wasn’t covering the bottom.) You heat the olive oil on medium high heat until it’s hot but not smoking. Then add the fish. Cook for 2 minutes on each side and you’re done! It turns a beautiful golden color. (I should tell you here that cooking this fish set off my smoke detector, terrified Lolita, and forced me to leap into the air to hit some kind of button to turn the screeching noise off. We were all ok, though.)

Here’s the end result. I served it with Amanda Hesser’s Arborio Rice salad (Recipe Here):

IMG_8.JPG

I know it looks oily in this picture, but I wanted to show you how beautifully golden it got and how crisp the edges are. It had amazing flavor—the salt, pepper, lemon zest and parsley really worked their magic. And it tasted so buttery: and there was no butter! I can’t believe that THIS is dietetic.

I also set out to make pumpkin cranberry bread tonight. (That’s in Kathleen’s book too.) I purchased the cranberries, the dried cranberries, flour, etc. I preheated the oven. I prepared the pan. I sifted the flour. Then I realized: no pumpkin. Brings to mind the great proverb: “It is difficult for one to make pumpkin cranberry bread without the pumpkin.”

Let’s hear it for the newer, hotter me! Will I stick with it? Stay tuned…