Category Archives: Strange meals

Halloween Hand of Horror

Well, you never know what’s going to happen when you click on Internet links. Again, today’s post isn’t what I had planned – I got waylaid by another irresistible oddity. Meatloaf, this time.

No, really. Strange meatloaf. Four years ago, Megan over at “not martha” came up with the ultimate Hallowe’en dinner, and I more-or-less copied her genius last night.

HalloweenHandOfHorrorYou start with your usual meatloaf mixture…probably non-carnivores could use their favorite veggieburger mix, though that seems kind of off – this dish is all about looking gruesome. Megan packed her meatloaf into a special mold, but I just shaped mine in the pan to look like a big clutching hand.

There are two details that really make this concoction work. First, the fingernails. I took half the outer layer of a large onion (well, really a quarter of the layer – I had used about half of the onion earlier for this’n’that). Cut the onion layer into five segments and trim them into fingernail-like chunks, then put them on the meatloaf. Don’t worry, they’ll stay put.

About halfway through the baking, I checked on the hand and realized that Megan was right – a catsup glaze really adds to the effect, so I spread some on. (She also topped her meatloaf with sliced cheese; I didn’t.)

HalloweenMeatloafOfHorrorCookedAnd here, in all its gory glory, is The Hand. Not something I’d make any other time of year, but last night it was a huge hit with my husband and son.


186 Cookbooks: Revisiting with second and third thoughts

Some months ago, I finally noticed that I have a lot of cookbooks. (I think – no, I know – the count is actually higher than 186 of them, but that was the first number I came up with, and “186” is funnier than “around 200”.) So I decided to weed them out by testing one recipe from each; if the recipe was a success, the cookbook stays, and if not it has to find a new home.

What it’s supposed to look like…

Well, this post is about a followup. A while ago I tried a cookie recipe from one of my stranger cookbooks, and decided it was a keeper after all. I also decided I wanted one of its cakes for my birthday. That was two weeks ago, and for a series of boring reasons I never did get around to having a birthday cake – so I inflicted it on my husband for his birthday, yesterday.

What a project. First I had to make three layers worth of chocolate sponge cake from scratch. I also had to make a syrup flavored with orange juice and whiskey (!), and a chocolate ganache (chocolate melted with cream). One of the three layers of cake gets cut into cubes and mixed with some of the syrup and ganache, and that mess gets patted into a mound on top of a second layer.

Well, that’s the easy part. Next you take the third, thinner layer and make a “smooth dome shape”. Or, of course, you make a lot of sponge cake shards. Then you add the rest of the syrup and ganache, and chill.

While the cake chills, you make the next key part: a chocolate marzipan layer, rolled thin between sheets of wax paper. That was surprisingly hard work as the disc of marzipan got bigger and thinner; I wound up having to put my full weight on my forearms on the rolling pin to get it to spread out as far as it did. (Probably this part would have been easier if the top of the counter wasn’t above my waist. Ah, leverage.)

Then you remove the wax paper and creatively mold the marzipan into a deeply wrinkled mountainous shape.

And you take the cake out of the refrigerator and discover it’s falling to pieces. I scraped some ganache out of the bottom of the pan and did my best to stick it back together, then flopped the marzipan over everything.

Speaking of pans, here’s one of the big flaws of this recipe. These are only about half the resulting dirty dishes, waiting patiently for attention.

And we’re ready for the finishing touch: sieve plain cocoa over the cake to give it a velvety texture.

By the time I finished, I was expecting the cake to be a disaster – I was almost hoping it would be, considering how much work it was. I was also having second thoughts about whether the cookbook was worth keeping.

Except that everyone agreed it was delicious. So I guess I’ll keep this cookbook after all. Next time, I think I’ll just use orange juice in the syrup – you couldn’t taste the whiskey anyway – and maybe some grated orange rind in the cake, and cube two-thirds of the cake to make a mound on the base layer (that top layer was more trouble than it was worth). But next time won’t be any time soon.

The Turduckening

So, several weeks ago my father-in-law phoned and said “Let’s have a turducken for Thanksgiving!” And he ordered one, had it delivered to our house, and for almost two weeks it sat patiently in our freezer, until I moved it to the fridge last Tuesday to start defrosting so we could eat it today. (We spend Thanksgiving Day – last Thursday, here in the U.S. – with my mother and have my father-in-law over for a second Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday.)

What is a turducken, you ask? Well, it’s a (deboned) chicken stuffed into a (deboned) duck stuffed into a (deboned) turkey. With odds and ends of stuffing stuffed into any available spaces.

It looks almost like a fresh turkey, a little squashed – much wider and flatter than normal. The one we had was about twelve inches (a bit over 30 cm) wide and nearly as long, but only about four and a half inches – roughly 11 cm – high. And it was sprinkled all over with something paprika-ish.

I don’t have a roaster that will hold something that size, so I bought the biggest disposable foil pan I could find. All the cooking instructions I could find said to give it six hours to roast and an hour to rest. Since we were going to have dinner at six this evening,  into the oven it went at 11 a.m.

By 2:20 in the afternoon, after almost three and a half hours of roasting, a meat thermometer said the temperature in the middle was 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius). Not enough – it’s supposed to reach at least 165 degrees (about 74 degrees Celsius).

And by five o’clock, it was all cooked.

Getting it out of the pan onto a platter took two people with four spatulas. (With no bones to help hold its shape, it was pretty floppy.)

But carving was ridiculously easy. Just move the wings (not boned) out of the way and slice it like a loaf of bread.

The darker chunks of meat are duck, I believe, and the yellowish part is cornbread stuffing. We never did figure out where the chicken was. That’s all right – it was so much meat the four of us only managed to eat about a quarter of it. But it was pretty tasty, and after all leftovers are part of Thanksgiving dinner.

So our turducken was a success. I don’t think I would want to have one again, though, unless we could find a lot more guests to invite to help eat it.

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!

Things that make me angry

(Note – to read the label information on the photos below, click on the pictures – you will be shown a larger, readable version.)

Some of the stuff that we habitually eat can easily be classed as “not real food”. Is it highly processed? Does it contain a lot of assorted emulsifiers and preservatives and flavorings and….. Yeah. That kind of stuff. Not food, though not exactly poisonous. But there are different levels –

There I was, innocently shopping for groceries. Now, my husband likes sliced American processed cheese on hamburgers – the standard cheeseburger. And we were nearly out of the stuff.

And then I saw this, in the dairy case, between the sliced American cheese (cheese product, cheese food, and so on) and the regular cheddar. If you were tired or distracted or in a hurry, you could easily grab it assuming it was cheese, or near-cheese.

Let’s look at the nutritional labels:

American processed cheese

“Sandwich slices” (By the way – where did I get these pictures? I was irritated enough to buy a package, one time, to scan the labels to use in this post.)

Notice particularly the protein and calcium values. (Again, click on the pictures to see them in big-enough-to-read size.) Oh, the calcium values. Would you want to feed this to your children assuming it was more or less equivalent to milk? Didn’t think so.

So what the heck is it? Basically, water-and-oil jello, with some cornstarch and potato starch for extra thickening. Remember, the ingredients are listed in order from largest to smallest quantity. It claims to contain “milk”, but the only milk derivative I see in the list of ingredients is “whey”. And what’s whey, anyway? It seems that it’s a by-product of making cheese – a watery liquid that’s drained away while the milk is solidified into cheese.

Clever marketing. Take the leftovers from cheesemaking, add some even cheaper ingredients to thicken the mess until it looks sort of cheese like, put a vague label on it – and then sell it among real or realish cheeses.

True, if you pause to look the label over carefully, you won’t be fooled. So I guess this is legal. It still doesn’t seem very honest.

And that makes me angry.

186 Cookbooks – No. Just no.

Still Life with Menu by Mollie Katzen

A keeper? OH no.

Another book that sounds really good…until you try to cook from it. Still Life with Menu is a vegetarian cookbook with, well, menus – instead of the usual cookbook structure of recipes organized by type or by main ingredient, this is the kind of book that gives you lots and lots of menus, with the recipes for each meal grouped together. It’s a wonderfully convenient type of organization if you want to make that whole meal just as the author planned it; not so much if you’re curious about what you could do with some particular ingredient, or you’re trying to decide what to make for dessert.

Yes, but no matter how a cookbook is organized, the first question is always “Would you want to eat this food?” I decided to try the Banana Cheese Empanadas (Latin American turnovers), because at a quick glance the recipe sounded easy, appealing and unusual.

Well. It was unusual. I’m not sure it was ever tested, though.

The first problem crops up when you start to make the dough for the turnovers – it’s just flour and water (well, a bit of salt). And not enough water. Moistening all the flour was impossible. Bad start. (I checked a couple of Mexican cookbooks, and found that their empanada recipes called for pastry; flour and water, yes, but also some fat. Maybe Katzen was following the low-fat-no-matter-what approach; but, as you’ll see when we get to the cooking instructions, probably not.

Then I really read the instructions for preparing the filling. You’re given detailed instructions on exactly how to cut a banana into 8 pieces – cut it crosswise, cut it lengthwise, got to get this right. And then the recipe tells you to “cut a 1/8 inch piece of the banana into several small strips”. (1/8 inch is about 3 mm.)

That’s just silly. I assumed that what Katzen really meant was “cut 1/8 of the banana into small strips”, and did that. (Well, actually, I used a quarter of a “nino” banana for each empanada, since I was only making half the recipe.)

You’re given two choices for cooking the empanadas – bake or fry. If you’re going to bake them, you’re supposed to use a couple of tablespoons of butter to grease the pan and to brush the tops of the turnovers; that’s a lot of butter, really, which would have been better used mixed into the dough. Oh well. By this time, I was annoyed enough to stick to exactly what the directions said.

So I daubed two of the empanadas with butter and baked them for the specified 15 minutes. Meanwhile, I melted a little more butter and fried the other two.

Frying worked better than baking, though the fried empanadas (above) were much too greasy for my taste. Also, since you’re shallow-frying them, you have to stand them on edge in the pan to get the sides of the turnovers cooked.

The baked ones (right) were hard on the outside but barely browned, and the dough was so gluey I didn’t want to eat it. The fried ones were less inedible; at least they were cooked through. Unfortunately, the filling wasn’t very good; some bites tasted of just melted cheese, which was okay but it’s less work to make a toasted cheese sandwich; some tasted vaguely of cooked banana; some tasted of nothing.

I had intended to try Katzen’s spinach souffle too. After the empanada disaster, though, I re-read the souffle recipe, paying more attention to the fact that her approach to souffles relies on putting cottage cheese and buttermilk through a food processor. That’s not the usual method for souffles, but I would have given her souffle technique a chance if the empanadas had been good. At this point, I think I’ll skip it. Especially since I seem to have tried one of her salad dressings a while ago – I didn’t leave any notes on what went wrong there, just a scribbled “no”.

I guess I should be thrilled to announce that I can get another book off the shelves.

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: 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?