Category Archives: 186 Recipe Experiment

186 cookbooks – really, I didn’t intend to do this!

But here I am, reviewing another of my trusty Bay Books cookbooks again, right after posting a review of The Complete Stir-Fry. This time, it’s The Complete Chicken. (Not that complete, technically. There are a few chicken liver dishes, but I don’t think there are any recipes for those unpleasant chewy internal odds and ends like gizzards. I told you these are good cookbooks.)

Now, yesterday’s “chicken with asparagus” post is really about a meal we had last week – I just didn’t get around to writing it up until yesterday. And later yesterday, I had to decide what we were going to have for dinner. I had two fixed points to work from – some thawed boneless chicken breast in the fridge, and an itch for cranberry pecan orange muffins. So however I cooked the chicken, it would have to taste good with the muffins.

That eliminated old standbys like chicken parmigiana or all the various kinds of chicken mole or African peanut chicken (aka groundnut chicken, from some sources; whatever you call it, it’s good, fast, easy…a classic). Well, this is why I have a collection of cookbooks – to figure out what to do when I’m out of ideas.

And plain broiled chicken breast is so drab. Maybe a marinade? Aha! The Complete Chicken had several interesting ideas on that subject, but I only had the ingredients for one of them – honey/soy/five-spice. It took maybe five minutes to mix up the marinade, five seconds to put the chicken in it, and then there was nothing more to do (well, I turned the chicken over once) until shortly before dinner. Fifteen minutes in the oven with the muffins, and done.

And boy, was it good. Sweet/salty/anisey/peppery…mmmmm.

Bay Books, I don’t know who comes up with your recipes, but you should give them a raise. The Complete Chicken has recipes for whole chickens and chicken breasts and chicken legs and chicken wings and ground chicken and precooked chicken to make roasts and pies and curries and stir-fries and sandwiches and casseroles and soups….if you can do it to a chicken, you’ll probably find a good recipe for it in this book.

186 cookbooks – Into new territory!

Everybody knows that “stir-fry” means “here’s some Chinese food”, right? And many of the recipes in The Complete Stir-fry Cookbook are Chinese. Or Japanese, or Southeast Asian of various cuisines. And they’re good – certainly the one I cooked this week, Chicken with Asparagus (and almonds, it turns out) came out well!

But turn the page and what do you find? Chicken with Tarragon, a yummy-sounding French style dish with fresh tarragon, cream, and lemon juice. Or there’s a recipe for fresh tuna with olives, tomatoes, garlic, green beans, and oregano.  Or you can try Greek-style Lamb with feta cheese and pine nuts.

I didn’t notice anything Mexican when I paged through the Stir-fry Cookbook just now, and the majority of the recipes are definitely Asian, but there’s a nice sampler of French- and Mediterranean-style dishes.

What’s going on here? Apparently the writer or publisher – there’s no author’s name, just “bay books” – realized that stir-fry isn’t a nationality, it’s a technique. It can be used for many different styles of food, and that’s what they did. (Okay, this one’s another ringer, of sorts. I’ve used it a number of times, though this particular recipe was new. I knew it was a keeper. Actually, I have several cookbooks from Bay Books, and all of them are generally reliable.)

And if you find a copy of this cookbook, try the chicken with asparagus!

186 cookbooks – Well, the cover’s pretty

Both front and back. But I should have read the endorsements on the back of the cover more skeptically. “The food on Yamuna’s table looks great!” says Deborah Madison. Yes, she goes on to rave about the flavors and creativity. But I really ought to remember that when people praise cookbooks for pretty food, they’re likely to belong to the we-eat-with-our-eyes (and gum up our eyelashes?) school; the folks who brought the world mock guacamole made from mashed peas. Hey, as long as it’s the same color, isn’t that good enough?

Not hardly. Pretty food is nice, but there are several things that matter more. Is it healthy? Can you prepare it and have time for the rest of your life? How much does it cost? And the question of all questions, how does it taste? (In this case, not very good.)

Worse yet, the recipe I tried from Yamuna’s Table didn’t even end up looking pretty. I tried the “Cheesy Corn-stuffed Crepes with Ancho Chili – Tomato Sauce”. I like Indian food (and Mexican food, a closer match for this dish), and the recipe is full of good stuff – corn, cilantro, cheese, potatoes, tomatoes, cumin, pumpkin seeds, lime. And yet it came out of the oven a flaking, disintegrating mess that tasted blandly awful.

Part of the problem was her restaurant-style presentation. Usually, when you roll crepes or tortillas around a filling and oven-bake them, it helps to top the dish with a sauce that prevents things from drying out. I suppose that would have been too ordinary. Anyhow, we’re told to “spray the crepes with oil and bake until the stuffing is heated through”, then plate them in a puddle of the tomato – ancho sauce. The texture was not pleasant.

And neither was the taste, and this is where I find this cookbook useless.  Vegetarian food is fine. Food that avoids other specific ingredients is fine – one of my friends is a very good cook who just can’t eat onions or garlic. But the more things you exclude from your diet, the more challenging it is to come up with dishes that are enjoyable, especially for people who don’t share your list of restrictions.

What I didn’t realize when I bought Yamuna’s Table is that it adheres to an unusually limited variation on vegetarianism. Milk, and some cheeses, seem to be acceptable; but no eggs. No onions. No garlic. There may be other excluded seasonings I didn’t notice. What’s left is a lot of dull-tasting, very complicated dishes.

Maybe I’ll offer this one to my friend with the onion allergy. It’s no use to me, no matter how decorative the cover is.

186 cookbooks: Recipe fail.

Hot pepper, scallions, and cilantro. Sounds tasty, doesn’t it? I thought so.

Boy, was I wrong.

But it sounded really good. So I chopped up half a Hungarian wax pepper and a couple of scallions and a handful of cilantro and cooked them with some chicken breast, then mixed in a bit of yogurt. And it looked reasonably attractive, too.

Then we sat down to eat it. It didn’t taste like chicken, or like yogurt, or like peppers, or scallions, or cilantro. It didn’t taste like a blend of some or all of those flavors. It tasted, in a vaguely unpleasant way, like nothing at all.

We wound up having salad and biscuits for dinner.

(That’s American baking powder biscuits, btw, not English sweet biscuits. At least they turned out well.)


186 Cookbooks – It’s no appetizer, but it’s good!

Another one of the books that I look at and ask myself “Why on earth did you buy that??” I’m not an appetizer-making person. I don’t remember when I last held the kind of party you’d serve lots of appetizers for. When I do need something of that sort, I make do with veggies and dip and chips and pretzels.

Well, it was on clearance. I guess I was in one of those periods when there wasn’t enough money to buy books at full price, but I needed to scrape together enough for the basic necessities of life (books), so I bought what nobody else wanted.

This time, it seems to have worked out.

Cilantro, shallots, tomatoes, lime, jalapeno, garlic. Yum.

Picking a recipe to test was a challenge – see above; I don’t make appetizers. Then I came across the Vietnamese Pork “Spaghetti Sauce” for Rice.

I really, really don’t see why this was considered an appetizer. It would be awkward to eat while standing around talking. It made enough for a main dish. It isn’t even deep-fried. On the other hand, that all makes it perfect, for me, as a test recipe .

And it’s a really really good meal. A bit high in sodium, even though I cut the quantity of fish sauce called for. But other than that, it’s fast, reasonably cheap, easy, and tasty. It even looks pretty. What more do you want?

186 cookbooks. That was AWFUL.

When I was first teaching myself to cook, I really didn’t know how to predict what a recipe might taste like. There were so many foods in the world I had never tried. And so, I would tackle almost any recipe, especially if the cookbook author went on and on about how delicious it was. Some of them turned out to be pretty good, too.

Some of them didn’t. The most infamous of the lot has left us with a household catch phrase for any food experiment that doesn’t turn out well: “It’s better than tripe.” (You’ve never eaten tripe? Imagine furry gristle. You don’t need to imagine the taste – there is none.)

Corn and chopped green pepper, onion, and red pepper

Tonight I tried the recipe for “Confetti Corn Pudding” from Corn Cookery by Sheila Buff. It was better than tripe. Not much better, though.

It started out looking very pretty, before I cooked it.

Egg, light cream, flour, two kinds of pepper

You cook the onion and peppers in a little butter till they’re soft, then add the corn, cream, and pepper. All of that gets simmered until the liquid reduces (boils away) a bit. Then you let it cool off while you mix the egg and flour; stir that into everything else, and bake it for half an hour in a buttered pan.

Well, that’s the theory. It took it forty minutes to set completely, and it didn’t look very appetizing when it finally solidified.

Confetti Corn Pudding. Shudder.

Unfortunately, it looked better than it tasted. It always startles me when I come across one of those concoctions that use several pleasant-tasting ingredients, and turn out to taste like nothing at all. (Well, I could taste, or maybe feel, the black pepper. That was about it.) Never again.

Cookbooks marked down from $13.95 to $2.98 were probably marked down for a good reason. Steer clear of them.

186 cookbooks, and nearly all of them are good

It’s rare for a cookbook to bring me to tears. Tonight, one did.

I decided to try Lamb Do Piaza from “One-Dish Meals of Asia” by Jennifer Brennan. Brennan explains helpfully that “do piaza” translates to English as “two onions”, or perhaps “twice as much onions” (as meat).

In any case, onions are one of the major ingredients. You need to cut some thin slices to fry until they’re nice and brown for a garnish at the end; but mostly you need to chop, and chop, and chop. And yes, you will cry about it. The onion fumes will get you.

Starting to brown the onion slices

Once you get done chopping, though, it’s surprisingly simple. Cook the chopped onions for a while until they’re thoroughly soft – I kept them on low heat with a lid on the pan, and they still nearly scorched. (But almost-and-not-quite scorched is tasty.) Then brown the meat, cook a couple of cloves of garlic and a few peppercorns and whole cloves* briefly, add a little salt and water, and let it stew for most of an hour. Check from time to time and add more water; it will try to burn.

* (Use whole spices here – they keep their flavor during the long, slow cooking in a way that ground pepper and cloves can’t.)

Yogurt, browned onions, tomatoes

When the meat’s tender, add a little tomato sauce and cook another fifteen minutes or so. Then garnish it with some yogurt – I used whole milk Greek yogurt – and the browned onion rings (remember them? You made them back at the beginning of this recipe) and some chopped raw tomato. (I used grape tomatoes. It is February, after all, and they come closer to tasting really tomatoey than anything else I can get right now.)

The garnishes make for an unusually pretty stew, and they also lift the taste from Pretty Good Ordinary Stew to Delicious!! Meal. So I wound up with tears of pleasure, mixed with tears of frustration.

Because I don’t think I can get rid of this cookbook either. And I’m not sure if that’s really great or maddening.

186 cookbooks – Frijoles borrachos, and more

Rick Bayless’ Mexican Kitchen. Mmmm. All right, I’ll admit it. I have no intention of getting rid of this one, even though the excuse for this cooking marathon is that I need to sort out the cookbooks I don’t want to keep. The only excuse for trying a recipe from Mexican Kitchen is that I’m a completeness geek, and self-indulgent too. So be it.

Anyhow, I’ve been curious about frijoles borrachos – drunken beans. Which, it turns out, are almost exactly the same as frijoles charros – cowboy beans. You just add a slug of tequila to get those cowboys drunk, and we really couldn’t taste the tequila among all the other flavors anyway.

The covered pot contains freshly cooked pintos.

But the other flavors – oh my. Beans have a deserved reputation for being stodgy, not that there’s anything wrong with that in moderation, in the background. Beans with some onion and chopped peppers and bacon and cilantro are ready to party.

And since there’s no point in being just a little Mexican, I included a chile-glazed pork tenderloin, kind of inspired by some of Bayless’ ideas but, really, not up to his authenticity standard. It’s good, though.

You just need some garlic, brown sugar, tomato sauce, ground ancho and chipotle – you see what I mean about being non-authentic. (My fallback authenticity excuse, when pushed, is to insist that whatever I cooked is Authentically Pennsylvania Dutch. After all, that’s what I am; so anything I cook has to be authentic, right? Right?)

So, not totally Mexican. Faster and simpler, though. Cook a chopped garlic clove, 2 teaspoons of ancho and a quarter teaspoon of chipotle in a little oil for a few seconds. (If you like hot hot hot food, use more chipotle and less ancho.) Add two tablespoons of sugar and cook till the sugar is melting. Now stand back – melted sugar is HOT and may spatter – and add about two tablespoons of tomato sauce, to make sure the mixture is loose enough to apply to the roast. Let it cool just a bit (see above; melted sugar is really hot), then daub it over the pork tenderloin and roast for about an hour at 375 Fahrenheit. (A medium hot oven, for you Celsius-minded people. Too cool for bread, a little hot for cake.)

And this is what we had for Sunday dinner.


186 cookbooks; Ladies and gentlemen, we have a loser



This is an old one. (Published in 1966.) Probably it had a dust jacket once, but if so it’s long gone. So –




Here’s the cover page too.



So far, all the recipes I’ve tried have been hits.

This is not helpful. The goal here is to identify cookbooks that I might as well get rid of. So I’m thrilled to announce that the latest experiment – “smoored pullets” – was really, really bad.

It’s not that the recipe was hard. It’s just a variation on basic ol’ fried chicken. For Smoored Pullets, you flour and brown the chicken, salt and pepper it, add a little water or broth, cover, and let it cook until done. Then you mix some sour cream into the pan juices, and sprinkle with parsley. What could go wrong?

Once in a while, you stumble across a combination of ingredients where each individual component has a distinct, pleasing taste – but together they taste like nothing in particular.  This was one of those times. We ate until the first edge of hunger was gone, then finished up the vegetables, and threw out most of the chicken. It was that bad.

Now, slathering the chicken with salt might have made the meal taste better, but for health reasons, I’m not going to do that. And it’s very possible that chickens and sour cream from Scotland – now, or Once Upon A Time – were / are much more flavorful than what I can get.

Doesn’t matter. I won’t ever make this dish again, and the rest of the book doesn’t seem to have anything very exciting to offer. Next!

186 cookbooks – Chicken with fennel

That’s right. This time I’m going medieval on dinner.

And you know what that means, don’t you? Huge slabs of roast boar or whatever. Diners gnawing on bones, letting the grease run down to their elbows, then tossing the remains on the floor for the dogs. And apparently a horse in the dining room.

Well. Not exactly. Not all the time. After all, even six or seven hundred years ago the rich wanted to impress everyone with how sophisticated they were, and the middle class was busy either imitating the rich or showing each other how frugal they could be, and nobody else had the time to write down recipes for us.

And just like the cover says, this is French food and Italian food; even without tomatoes and potatoes, meals for serious foodies. Which recipe did I choose?

Fennel (left), parsley (right), almonds

Chicken with fennel – not fennel seeds, though that would probably be pretty good too, especially with tomatoes and a little garlic….never mind. Maybe I’ll try to invent that one for Saturday. But back to cookbook testing. Anyhow, medieval chicken with fennel calls for fennel leaves, parsley, and almonds. (Another time, I would leave out the parsley and use twice as much fennel.) In the middle ages, I suppose they mortared and pestled the seasonings together. I used a food processor, thank you.

So, you brown the chicken, add a little salt and a little water, cover, and let it cook mostly in its own juices for half an hour or so – I used chicken thighs because they have more flavor than breasts. When the chicken is done, stir the fennel etc. puree into the broth, plus about half a teaspoon of a mixture of pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. And this is what it looks like:

Pretty, isn’t it? And tasty. I suppose they would have eaten it with bread in the middle ages; I served it over rice.

A definite keeper.