Category Archives: Recipes

186 Cookbooks: Pretty enough to eat

I bought Wackycakes and Kookycookies by Gerhard Jenne for the picture on the cover as much as for any rational reason. But is it a cookbook, or an art book complicated by recipes? Time to see if anything in it is edible.

I needed a cookie recipe, and Wackycakes offers several – I went with “Two-tone Cookies” because I had the ingredients on hand. (They’re pretty basic – flour, sugar, butter, egg, plus vanilla for the white dough and cocoa for the chocolate dough.)

Jenne includes instructions for a variety of designs, but I settled for the Spirals. (The picture above, from the book, shows an assortment of his patterns.)

First, you mix up the two doughs and chill them thoroughly.

Next, put each lump of dough between two sheets of wax paper. Roll the dough into a sheet about an eighth of an inch thick (around 3 mm, if you speak metric), and as neatly rectangular as you can manage.

Stick the sheet of dough back in the refrigerator again and leave it to chill for at least an hour, until it’s nice and stiff.

Take the top piece of wax paper off each sheet of dough and put the two dough sheets together. Remove the wax paper from the top piece of dough. Now you find out how well you matched the two doughs while rolling them out. In this case, I rolled the chocolate much thinner than the vanilla. Bah. Anyway, trim the edges so you have a rectangular double sheet of dough.*

Carefully roll the two sheets into a log. They’re likely to try to break while you roll them. Patch and coax them together as needed. (You could also let the dough warm up a bit so it’s more flexible. The trouble is, when it’s warm it will want to stick to the wax paper. Pick your frustration.)

Annd – wrap the log in the remaining piece of wax paper and chill it some more! Then cut it into slices – about an eighth of an inch or a little thicker is good (3-4 mm) – and bake in a medium oven for about twelve minutes. Let the cookies sit for a minute or two before you try to take them off the pan.

Is it worth the bother? Well, you get lots of pretty, pleasant tasting rich (and fragile) cookies, kind of like shortbread. I won’t make them often, but the results are worth the trouble for special occasions. And I’ll try one of the cake recipes next, maybe for my birthday.

* And what about all those dough scraps? The easiest thing to do with them is jumble them together into another log and slice them up as marble cookies.

Tromping the oeil

(Yes, I know that title mixes up things – languages – that are normally different. Keep reading, and you’ll see why I think it fits this post.)

A couple of months ago, I came across an intriguing recipe for trompe l’oeil “grilled cheese sandwiches” – toasted pound cake sandwiched with orange icing – on ninevoltcandy’s blog, and I finally got around to trying it out yesterday. This is how dinner went:

Me, putting the plate of sandwiches on the table: I don’t know, I tried out a new recipe and I don’t think it worked. I guess you’ll have to eat grilled cheese for dinner.

Husband: Well, I like grilled cheese.

Son: Oh, okay.

Husband, wandering into the kitchen: What about the stuff in this pan on the stove? It looks pretty good.

Me: I’m just not sure it worked out.

Son, studying sandwiches: This bread looks really small. (Pause for thought) Is this pound cake? I think it’s dessert.

Me: That looks like dessert to you?

Husband: I think we should at least try the new recipe.

And both the new main dish – arroz con pollo from $35 a Week – and the dessert of “cheese sandwiches” were hits.

A few notes – first, the photo at the top isn’t really what we had yesterday; I forgot to take pictures then. But I had a little pound cake and icing left over, and used them up tonight in two last sandwiches.

Second, there’s the question of how to toast pound cake. Ninevoltcandy persuaded her toaster to handle it. I tried the toaster for one slice and wasn’t very pleased with the results, so I toasted the rest in the broiler:

Pound cake slices before broiling

After four minutes under the heat

Will I make it again? I’m not sure if I’ll serve it at home after this – the surprise is gone. (It did fool both Husband and Son for several minutes, they said later.) On the other hand, it does taste good, so maybe I will. But the next time I need something easy to take to a potluck or something of the sort, I know what it’s going to be!

186 Cookbooks: Strangely organized, but tasty

Not your standard “natural food” cookbook! I have a variety of other cookbooks focusing on “natural” food, and they’re typically vegetarian (though some have a few fish recipes). Shepherd’s cookbook contains vegetarian forms (see next paragraph) of most of the recipes, but also tells you how to cook chicken and beef and pork and lamb. But this is a very early example of the category, copyright 1975. Maybe people have become more restrictive over the years. This would fit with the fairly recent growth of vegan cookbooks – it seems as if some vegetarians have decided that milk products and eggs just aren’t pure enough, even if they used to eat them.

The way the recipes are presented is unusual, and I think the easiest way to explain it is to give an example from the first chapter (Chinese cooking). First, we get a list of ingredients and cooking instructions for “Broccoli and Onions with Nuts”, a vegetarian dish. Next, “Broccoli and Onions with Bean Curd”; replace the nuts with bean curd. After that, on the next page, broccoli and onions with chicken, green beans and onions with bean curd, green beans and onions with nuts, green beans and onions with meat (pork or beef), and so on. The variations aren’t written out in full – you’re just told what to do with the new ingredient and otherwise told to follow the first recipe in the series.

But how does the food taste? So far, so good. I tried a shishkabob recipe that sounded as if it might be too simple to be interesting: Marinate meat in onion, parsley, olive oil, and lemon juice. Grill. Sprinkle with a little cumin. And it was delicious. (And tastier than the plain grilled meat would have been. Though I don’t think the cumin added much – I like cumin, but I’ll probably leave it out next time. It was the lemon juice, parsley, and onion that made the dish.)

There are a lot of recipes in Natural Food Feasts that I haven’t tried yet. And by today’s strenuous standards for authentic food, this book may be much too Westernized. But some days, cooking a meal that’s somewhat unusual but doesn’t require a two-week search for ingredients has a lot of charm. Another keeper.

186 cookbooks – 7 days of lentils

This time I didn’t follow my usual pattern with this project to weed out cookbooks – one cookbook, one recipe. Hey, it’s my project; I get to make up the rules as I go along.

There I was, looking through Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries, when I realized that he was offering 7 different recipes for red lentils, and they all sounded easy and appealing.

All right, I decided. I’ll try them all. I’ve been testing lentil recipes for lunch almost every day since Wednesday a week ago. (And in the process, I discovered a way to make the cooking even quicker and simpler, though Mr. Iyer probably wouldn’t approve. He tells you to cook the lentils – it only takes a little over 20 minutes – while you prepare the seasoning mixture, and then combine them at the last minute. But it’s awkward to cook just one serving of lentils at a time. What I wound up doing was cooking enough for several days, refrigerating what I didn’t need for the recipe I was trying out that day, and then adding a serving worth of lentils to the seasonings each day and reheating them.)

All the seasoning mixtures are different, but the procedure is basically the same – chop or puree various vegetables and fry them in a little oil, adding different spices as the vegetables cook. Finally, add the lentils, and sometimes lime juice and cilantro at the end. Once you’ve cooked any of these recipes, the process for all of them will be simple and familiar.

But were they worth eating? Yes, almost all of them (and many people might like the one I didn’t care for). I didn’t like the red lentils with mint; but then, I don’t like mint very much in general. The lentils with bell pepper and the lentils with caramelized onions were good – so was the version I made of the lentils with gongura leaves (I can’t get gongura leaves, never saw any, and never heard of them before, so I followed Iyer’s advice to substitute spinach and lime juice); maybe with the correct greens it would be even better.

Then there were the lentils with chilis – hot but very good – and the lentils with ginger and garlic…mmm. And best of all, the lentils with tomatoes, lime juice, and scallions. The only word for them is “delicious”.

For those who care, all the lentil recipes are vegetarian – if you leave the optional butter out of the lentils with chilis, they’re all vegan. (Many of the recipes in this cookbook do include meat.) They’re cheap, too. I started this recipe test before reading about the Food Stamp Challenge, but these dishes have been a big help in staying under the $5/day ceiling.

It was amazing how different the seven dishes taste. They even look different. Several call for a little tomato, which turns the lentils an attractive pinkish color. The lentils with, well, spinach leaves not gongura leaves were very green from the spinach. Others were mostly the light yellow color of the cooked lentils with specks of other colors from the seasonings. And each of the seven could be cooked in less than half an hour.

By the way, I think I’ll keep this cookbook.

186 cookbooks – Julia wins again (From Julia Child’s Kitchen)

Julia Child, the one and only. It’s true, she can get a little carried away. In her first cookbook (Mastering the Art of French Cooking vol. 1), she paints a vivid picture of serving a pot-au-feu to your next dinner party, describing how the host forks out a hunk of boiled beef, then a chunk of boiled pork, and “finally, to wild acclaim, he brings forth a chicken”!

Julia, Julia, Julia. Get a grip. I don’t care if it’s the best boiled chicken (And beef. And pork.) anybody in the room has ever tasted, it’s Still. Just. A. Boiled. Chicken. Maybe life in the late fifties really was that boring.

But even though you have to smile sometimes when she gets enthusiastic about one dish or another, her recipes are almost always reliable. Never mind reliable – they’re almost always really good. What’s more, she usually starts by teaching you a general-purpose cooking technique and then briefly listing six or eight or more variations on it. And that’s how I wound up serving chicken sauted in vinegar (sometimes known, oddly, as hell fire chicken, even though it’s not all that spicy).

Actually, the first step felt more like Southern fried chicken than anything French to me – she tells you to dip the pieces of chicken in milk before flouring and browning them. No matter where the technique comes from, it turned out very well, and I’ll use it again. If you wanted to, you could just stop there and serve “crisp brown chicken”, and it would be a nice meal.

I wanted to push the cookbook a little farther, though. So I added some thyme – Julia suggests various herbs, but thyme was what I had on hand – and a bit of chopped onion and let it all cook, covered, in the chicken juices. Toward the end, I splashed in a little wine vinegar and let that cook down.

Personally, I thought it would have been better without the vinegar, but my husband and son loved it. So – another point for Julia Child. Never mind poor Marie Antoinette, never mind nationality: Julia for Queen of France!

186 cookbooks – burgers gone wild

Well, I admit it. I kind of bought this cookbook on impulse. But look at those exotic versions of plain old hamburgers on the cover. (That’s a salmon burger, a pesto beef burger, and a mustard seed chicken burger, left to right.) Wouldn’t you at least pick it up and look inside? And if you went that far, you’d see more and more and more versions of how to cook patties of ground (well, usually ground) meat (well, mostly meat – or poultry – or fish…only four vegetarian burgers and three desserts). With various interesting garnishes and side dishes, and all of it gorgeously photographed.

Was it worthwhile, though? Yes.

I tried the recipe for buffalo burgers yesterday. Chopped red onion and fresh thyme, cooked with a bit of red wine, mixed into the meat. Some gruyere on top.

The recipe called for a couple of optional garnishes, but I’m out of apples*, and April tomatoes aren’t worth the wear and tear on the knife from slicing them. So we just had salad to provide veggies.

*(Yes. Apples. The book suggested thinly sliced lightly grilled apples, to go under the meat. Maybe another time.)

Oh, they were good. I’m not sure how much of the flavor came from the thyme-wine-onion mixture, or whether bison / buffalo (same animal, two names) is just that much more tasty than beef. Probably some of both. Anyway, the burgers were delicious, and only slightly more work than the plain old throw-a-lump-of-ground-beef-on-the-grill kind. I’ll use this cookbook again.

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 – 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.)


Blueberry popovers???

Blueberry popovers, fresh out of the oven

A week ago, Foodimentary startled me by announcing that it was National Blueberry Popover Day.

Not so much because it seemed like a strange sort of holiday – when it comes to days devoted to food, things get much weirder than that. But I had never heard of putting anything in popovers except, once in a while, grated cheese. After all, the whole point of a popover is that it’s the food equivalent of a balloon. You don’t want to fool around with ingredients that will pop the bubble or weight down that steam-fueled inflation.

Of course, I had to make some.

Milk and eggs and whisk; flour; blueberries

I Googled around a bit and found several sites offering recipes that were closer to Yorkshire pudding with blueberries, and generally with other additions like cinnamon sugar. (Then again, the main difference between popovers and Yorkshire pudding is what kind of pan you bake them in.) At last I decided to go with the simplest possible interpretation.

Basic Popovers:

1 c. milk
2 eggs
large pinch of salt

Mix these thoroughly with a whisk.

1 c. flour

Add the flour a little at a time, whisking it into the liquid.

(For Blueberry Popovers, you’ll also need about a quarter cup of blueberries)

Ladle the (very runny) batter into buttered muffin pans. Bake at 450 degrees F – in a hot oven, in other words – for 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to 350 (medium oven) and bake another 20 minutes. Do not open the oven until they’re done, or they may collapse.

Ready to bake

To turn this recipe into blueberry popovers, I left out the salt and added a tablespoon of sugar. (I won’t use sugar again.) Then, after ladling the batter into the pans, I put four frozen blueberries – it’s only March; the Jersey blueberries won’t be ripe for at least four months – into each popover.

Popover. Mostly air.

Popover. Mostly air.

And they were pretty darn good. The biggest problem was that they were too dark, flirting with being burnt. I think that might have been because of the sugar. It didn’t seem to have much effect on the flavor, so next time I’ll leave it out.

Leftovers. Still good for breakfast.

And yes, there will be a next time.

Although I’m wondering how it would work if I used pureed blueberries…the popovers would probably turn out purple, but what’s wrong with that? A little shock with dinner never hurt anyone.