Dangerous Duck

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I’ve been doing this blog for almost five years–FIVE YEARS!–and in those five years I have never, not even once, made myself sick from something I cooked.

Until now.

Look at that lovely autumnal duck dish, above. It comes from a famous chef’s cookbook, but he’s not such a famous chef that I want to blame him publicly for the torturous night that followed this dinner. All I will say is that if you come across a recipe that tells you to cook duck pieces in a pot, finish cooking in the oven ’til brown, to remove the duck and add to the pan white wine and then lots of dried fruit–dried apricots, dried cranberries, dried currants, raisins–and Christmasy spices like nutmeg and Allspice along with orange juice and some stock which you cook and serve with the duck on a bed of wild rice in an explosion of bewitching colors and smells that’d make you kick the ripest summer tomato away for love of all things fall, don’t!

At least, that’s my perspective: I was the one who suffered. But Craig, who ate the exact same thing, did not get sick and he says it wasn’t the duck. He and I ate everything exactly the same that day–I made eggs and oatmeal for breakfast, though in mid-afternoon I stuck a spoon into a jar of homemade currant jam for a pick-me-up. Could the jam’ve been the culprit? I doubt it.

I also snacked on lots of the dried fruit before putting it in the pot; maybe the dried fruit did me in? Maybe the heat killed all their diseases and that’s why Craig didn’t get sick?

But now we both have nasty colds, so no matter what: this duck dish brings you bad luck. Plus, cooking the duck by itself in the oven for 40 minutes really dries it out; Craig could hardly cut through it and despite all the luscious colors and smells, I had to agree that the duck was a dud.

Don’t make it!

Plastic Pork Shoulder

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Dear Suzanne Goin,

I love you and your book Sunday Suppers at Lucques. It’s the book I go to when I want to dazzle, when I want to blow my guests out of the water. On Friday, my guest would be none other than Lauren, a great friend and former roommate who was there at the dawn of my website: she knew me when “uh oh” was a more common cooking exclamation than “a-ha.” This would be the first time I’d cook for her in three years, years in which my cooking has improved immeasurably. I wanted to knock her socks off and so I turned to your book.

The recipe I went for was the “Spiced Pork Stew with Polenta, Root Vegetables, and Gremolata.” I decided to nix the root vegetables and gremolata and focus on the pork: Lauren is a big fan of chili and I wanted this to be a kind-of highbrow chili experience. Well not highbrow, necessarily, just impressive. And I know it’s not really that chili-like, but slow-cooked pork shoulder with coriander seeds, cumin seeds and fennel seeds should please any chili-lover, shouldn’t it?

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Blueberry Disaster

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I fully support, endorse and celebrate the spirit with which Nancy Silverton wrote her newest book, A Twist of the Wrist. For a chef as particular as Silverton (and believe me, having made her sourdough bread from scratch, that woman loves detail) it’s refreshing to see her let down her hair, so to speak, with a book that grants the reader permission to skip the farmer’s market in lieu of canned, jarred and boxed foods. For any other chef, it’d be an act of heresy; for Nancy Silverton–of the La Brea Bakery & Pizzeria Mozza, both groundbreaking California institutions–it’s an act of humility. The book seems to say, “Look, home cook, I know you’re busy; so here’s a way to make delicious, restaurant-quality food at home for much less money in much less time.” What could be wrong with that?

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My Burnt Foot

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Picture it: my kitchen, last Thursday. I’m standing at the stove attempting to make Colman Andrews’ recipe for Rigatoni with Chickpeas and Anchovies from Nancy Silverton’s “A Twist of the Wrist” and I have a giant vat of water boiling for the pasta. The sauce is simple: you just take 12 anchovies, mash them up with salt, and then add one chopped up celery stalk and the liquid from a can of chickpeas. Only after opening the can and pouring the liquid in do I realize that somehow, quite strangely, I’d purchased kidney beans–even though I recall staring at a shelf of chickpeas at the store–and now the sauce is ruined.

Luckily, I have chickpeas in my cabinet (I’d forgotten I had them) and 12 more anchovies and another celery stalk so I start the process over from scratch. I mash the anchovies with salt, I add the celery and the chickpea liquid and then, when the water’s boiling, I add salt and half a box of rigatoni to the pot.

For the past 365 days, I’d been using Diana’s pot to make pasta. It’s the perfect size: big enough to let the pasta move around, small enough to maneuver easily. But when she moved out she took the pot with her. So all I have now is a small pot, too small for good pasta, and a giant stock pot. That’s what I’m using this night: the giant stock pot. It’s enormous, towering on the back of my stove, shaking with activity as the pasta cooks.

Here’s where I’m an idiot. Colman Andrews says to drain the pasta in the sink and to add the pasta back to the pot to toss with the anchovies, chickpea water, chickpeas, and Parmesan cheese. I like the idea of tossing all this around in the empty pot: the residual heat will cook everything a bit, bring it all together.

So I place a strainer in the sink and when the pasta’s done I lift my giant stock pot off the stove and move it to the sink. I tilt it away from me, so the boiling water tips out ino the sink, only the pot is so heavy that the motion causes me to lose my grip a bit and I proceed to pour scalding hot water–bubbling, bursting, brusing water–all over my foot.

My sock soaks up with the heat and I don’t even yell out. I do a sharp intake of breath and put the pot on the floor as I pull off my sock. Then I hop around and yelp: “Ow! Ow! Ow!”

I go to the couch and stare at my foot and there’s not much to see. But it burns like Anne Coulter’s vision for my life after death; and a few days later it looks like this. [WARNING: Do NOT show this picture to small children, bunnies, kittens, or anything else sweet and innocent and in danger of corruption–it will destroy their faith in humanity.] I am proud to say: this is my worst kitchen injury. Isn’t it cool?

But you must be wondering: how was the pasta? Was it worth it? Well this is what it looked like in the pot when I was ready to mix it all together, like Colman suggested:

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And here’s the finished bowl, garnished with celery leaves:

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What did I think? Was it worth all the stress? Do I need a podiatrist and/or a pedicurist? The answer: it was ok. I didn’t love it, but granted this pasta would have to be pretty fantastic to overcome the emotional strife it caused me. I liked the loud presence of the anchovies, but I longed for the garlic that would’ve made this “dressing” more Caesar-like. If I did it again, I’d have mashed up garlic with anchovies at the beginning.

But chances are, I won’t be doing this again: I’m suffering from Post Traumatic Pasta Disorder. Maybe, after years of therapy, I’ll be ready to make pasta again. If you see me cooking in rubber boots from now on, though, you’ll understand why.

The Day My Pound Cake Threw Up

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“Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” I thought, “if instead of making a complicated fancy-schmancy-my-name-is-Nancy dessert I made something really simple like a pound cake? And used really good butter? And fresh farmer’s market eggs? And served it with raspberries and whipped cream? And used Martha Stewart’s recipe?”

That was the plan. I bought Plugra style butter which looked impressive and European. I got those farmer’s market eggs. And I whipped everything up in a jiffy: it’s normally a pound of butter, a pound of sugar and a pound of flour (that’s how pound cake got its name) but this one had better proportions. It looked promising. Into the oven it went and I sat there patiently watching the minutes tick by, filing my nails, dreaming of a better life, when the 50 minutes were up and it was time to insert the tester. I used a dry spaghetti strand as I normally do. It came out clean. (Was that my mistake? Diana said I should’ve used something with more surface area.) On a cooling rack it sat in the pan for 10 minutes. And then it was time to turn it out and that’s when disaster struck…

My pound cake threw up. You can see it in the picture: as I flipped it over, the top cracked open and hot batter oozed out. I felt the way a new parent might feel when the doctor says, “Don’t touch the baby’s head, it’s soft” and you do anyway. Ha. Ok, that was a bad example. But look how beautiful that cake looks on the outside and how sad it is that it decided to not be cooked on the inside. Diana tried to comfort me by saying that it was like a molten chocolate cake except without the chocolate. “Mmmm,” she said, dipping a pieced of cooked cake into the uncooked batter and eating. “I actually like it.”

Ignoring Diana’s good cheer, I cut the ends off and tried to assemble a semi-decent looking dessert:

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And, surprisingly, it worked. I guess that only proves the adage: when life throws you a vomiting pound cake, cut the ends off, and top it with whipped cream and raspberries. Truer words have never been spoken.

A Fishy Feast

Alex and Raife are friends from college who came to stay with me last week. On the phone, the day before they came, Alex said, “Adam, my sister Lizzie wants to know if she gives you $10, will you cook us dinner?”

“No $10 necessary,” I said. “I was going to cook for you anyway!”

Here’s Alex, Raife, Lizzie and Diana gathered around the table consuming the meal I made the night they arrived:

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It took me a long time to come up with what I’d cook and, unfortunately, I’m not sure it was a smashing success. The theme of the night was: fish stew.

I’d never made a fish stew. Alex eats fish and chicken but no pork or meat and so my options were limited. For a long time I’ve wanted to make a fish soup kind of dish. Not a bouillabaisse, necessarily; just something with lots of fish–shrimp, mussels, etc. I opened my River Cafe Cookbook by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers and there it was: the simplest fish soup recipe I’ve ever seen. Too simple, actually. But you’ll see in a moment.

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The Super Bowl Dinner of DEATH

People sometimes say to me: “Adam, you’ve been the Amateur Gourmet for three years. Are you always going to be an amateur?” As I consider the question I think of all my kitchen triumphs–my braised lamb shanks, my perfect roast chicken, my Amanda Hesser almond cake. I could very well answer, “No! One day I will graduate to something more than amateur, I’ll be the Perfectly Adequate Gourmet and change my website name and web address and my promotional t-shirt design.” Yet, every now and then something happens that knocks me off my pedestal, back to my humble place in the Amateur Pen. That’s precisely what happened on Super Bowl Sunday when I made this for dinner:

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It’s a perfectly reasonable Super Bowl dinner. Some might even call it inspired. Sausages and onion rings: man food to eat while watching a PBS documentary about the history of the Broadway musical. The sausages were D’Artagnan wild boar sausages (available at Key Foods) and the onion rings were from an Epicurious recipe (you can read it here). The Dinner of Death began with the onion rings when I made the mistake that almost all cooks warn you not to make when frying in your kitchen… perhaps the most dangerous mistake I’ve ever made…

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