Poultry The Book

125. Chicken with Cornmeal Dumplings p.373

The recipe

I had The Book for a while before I started The Project, and this was one of the recipes I used regularly before The Book and I got serious. Making it again emphasized how much The Project has changed my cooking style. The biggest difference is that I actually read the recipe this time around, and it came out much better.

You start by breaking a chicken down into serving sized pieces, browning them, and then simmering them with white wine and shallots ’till the pieces are cooked through. Meanwhile you put together a dumpling dough with flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt, pepper, butter, chives, parsley, and buttermilk. The chicken is moved to the oven, and the juices left in the skillet are fortified with stock, cream, salt, and pepper. Once this gravy is simmering the dumplings are gently dropped in and allowed to cook for about 15 minutes, then it’s time to eat.

This time around the cooking went well, there wasn’t anything too tricky about it. In previous attempts I’ve managed to really mess things up. The biggest lesson I learned is that the cooking vessel the recipe calls for really is important. In the recipe all of this happens in a deep 12 inch heavy skillet, I don’t have one of those (but if Santa got my letter…), so I used to make it in a 5 quart pot. It seemed like a pretty decent substitution at the time, but I was wrong. Getting the dumplings right depends on the depth of liquid they’re simmered in, too deep and they disintegrate, or raft together into one super-dumpling. This time I used a 10 quart oval dutch oven, which has a similar surface area to a 12 inch skillet, and things worked out. The other lesson I’ve learned is the difference between a simmer and boil. Previously I had my gravy boiling away, and the bubbles tore my dumplings to shreds, a gentle simmer with just the occasional bubble reaching the surface is the way to go. I’m kind of amazed that I made this recipe about five times trying to get it right, and I didn’t pick up on what I was doing wrong.

My previous attempts also fell prey to my undiagnosed culinary dyslexia.I constantly mix up shallots and scallions, I have the hardest time keeping them straight. They’re very different, but it’s a coin toss as to which vegetable I’ll imaging when I hear one of those words. I’m embarrassed to say that I have the same problem with elevators and escalators, weird eh? Long simmered scallions turn kind of yellow and gross, I wouldn’t recommend the substitution. Some practice with The Book has made me sensitive to my neurological condition, so now I double check that my shopping list corresponds to the ingredient list.

My standards for what constitutes a successful recipe have also changed over the course of The Project. In the pre-Project days this came out reasonably well a couple of times, and I was quite impressed by it. I still love the dumplings, and I’d be happy to make them again and again, but the chicken is lacking, and the whole dish is bland. I’ve ranted about chicken skin and wet cooking methods several times, and it was just as unappealing here as in every other dish. The chicken is poached in white wine and shallots, which is fine, but the addition of another herb would be nice, maybe thyme, rosemary, or tarragon. The chicken gives up flavour and interest for the sake of the dumplings, and it’s almost a fair trade. The dumplings have an excellent texture and flavour, they pull in loads of chicken flavour, and have a wonderful buttermilk tang. They’re absolutely the highlight of the dish. I’d rather skip the whole chicken making part of this dish, and just make the dumplings in a stock based gravy. The chicken would be better served by being simply grilled, then served along with the dumplings. Doing something about the beige on beige colour pallet would be nice too.

Maybe I’m being a bit unfair. This dish is a Southern classic, but I have no clue what it’s supposed to taste like. I don’t have any reference point, so I’m probably trying to turn this dish into something it was never meant to be. Using a chicken like this allows a little bit of meat to be stretched into a hearty meal, so there are perfectly good reasons for recipes like this to have developed. And, Its blandly fatty simplicity is what comfort food is all about, but it’s not really my thing these days.

Pre-Project me liked this dish because the dumplings are awesome, but also because it’s essentially a one pot dish, it’s quite inexpensive, not too hard, and it makes good leftovers. Present day me doesn’t mind working a little harder, spending a little more, or using a few more dishes (much to my dining companion’s chagrin) for a better dish. I agree with my former self about the dumplings though.

Salads The Book

118. Frisée Salad with Lardons and Poached Eggs p.139

The recipe on Epicurious helpfully notes that frisée is curly French endive, The Book does not. I really don’t know much about salad greens and this one stumped me. I thought it was the curly lettuce I picked up, but I was wrong. My dining companion is a salad impresario, she has an eye for composition, and a knack for combining the elements, and pairing them with the perfect dressing. I usually stick to the lettuce or other greens with balsamic and olive oil formula. It’s not exciting, but it gets the job done.

In this salad slab bacon is cut into lardons, which are cooked up in a pan then put to the side. Shallots are then softened in the bacon drippings, and red wine vinegar is added to the pan (I’ll remember to use a splatter screen the next time I follow that step), this hot dressing is then poured over the frisée to slightly wilt it. The salad is then topped with the lardons and a poached egg.

The recipe must have an error in it because it never actually mentions that you’re supposed to top the final salad with lardons, but given that the lardons are in the title it would be pretty silly not to include them. Besides, lardons are one of the greatest culinary achievements of mankind. If I could only have one form of cured pork for the rest of my life, I’d choose bacon strips, but lardons are magnificent. They have the advantage of being French and fancy sounding, which makes it easier not to think about the cardiovascular consequences of eating them. The thicker cut also preserves their meaty porcine nature, which bacon can sometimes lose in favour of crispness.

I’ve been working on my egg poaching technique, and things are coming along to the point that I’m almost satisfied. I didn’t add enough water to the pan for these eggs, so they stayed yellow on top, but I find that kind of attractive. I’d love to be able to produce the perfectly spherical poached eggs you get in restaurants, but for now I’m happy with the fact that the whites set, the yolks run, and the come out of the pan in one piece.

This salad was exceedingly good. I broke my egg and let the yolk run all over the greens. where it combined with the already rich bacon dripping based dressing. This is the kind of decadence I can’t help but smile and make incoherent consonant sounds in response to. The vinegar and shallots were nice contrasting flavours. Eggs and bacon for breakfast have to to pair well with coffee and orange juice, so red wine vinegar doesn’t play a big role on brunch menus, but it worked quite well here.

My uninformed choice of salad greens took away from the recipe a bit. Actual frisée is much crunchier than the soft lettuce I chose. The hot dressing wilted my salad in a less than appealing way, but with a sturdier green it would have worked very nicely indeed. Frisée is also more bitter and flavourful than curly lettuce, and might have stood up to the robust dressing a bit better. Oh well, it was delicious. I’ll get it right next time.

Some of my favourite childhood memories are of my Mom coming home late, and deciding that we should have breakfast for dinner. She’d fry up some eggs and bacon and have three kids fed in under twenty minutes. It was always such a treat, and this recipe captured that special out-of-the-blue feeling.

Beef, Veal, Pork, and Lamb The Book

104. Beef Tenderloin with Cornichon Tarragon Sauce p.416

The recipe

Some good friends were coming to dinner, and I wanted to make something a bit special. When I’m looking for dishes suitable for an occasion, beef tenderloin is frequently at the top of that list. I had frozen part of the tenderloin I used for the Twenty-First-Century Beef Wellington so it was an easy choice to make. I decided to serve the roast tenderloin with three sauces, the cornichon tarragon sauce from this recipe, a Stilton sauce, and whipped horseradish cream. This sort of a menu seems much more appropriate to the fall weather I’m writing this in, than the summer weather I cooked it in. However, it was a pleasantly warm day, and I made one important change to the recipe. I grilled my tenderloin outside instead of sticking it in a 350 degree oven. The sauces were a bit rich for summer, but that just encouraged restraint.

The sauce is made by reducing white wine, shallots and tarragon, then adding cream, thinly sliced cornichons, and a mixture of mustard whipped with butter. This was a seriously powerful sauce. The mustard, tarragon, and shallot flavours were fairly strong on their own, but the cornichons were overpowering. I picked up good quality, imported sour gherkins from France. They were mouth puckeringly sour, without too much other flavour. They were nicely crunchy, but not really my favourite pickle style. The recipe calls for a lot of these little guys, and their concentrated vinegar permeated the whole sauce. My first impression of the sauce wasn’t great, just too sour, and overpowering the somewhat subtle flavours of the tenderloin. As I ate more it grew on me though. Once I stopped making a sourpuss face the underlying flavours came out, and they were good. The sauce also mellowed over the next day, and ended up being in a better balance.

I’m not sure if this is how the recipe was intended to turn out, or I just got a batch of very sour pickles. I think it’s possible I did everything right, because my dining companion preferred this sauce to the other two choices. She agreed that it was sour, but she enjoyed the interplay of the rich creaminess, with the clear vinegar cutting across it. I won’t rush to repeat this one, and if I did I’d try a different brand of pickle, or cut back on them. This sauce had to struggle to get over a bad first impression, but it did redeem itself after a few bites.

Pasta, Noodles, and Dumplings The Book

102. Spaghetti with Handfuls of Herbs p.204

I couldn’t find a recipe for this online, but this is more a concept than a specific set of instructions anyway. The idea is to toss spaghetti with extra virgin olive oil, butter, minced shallots, and any and all herbs growing in the garden. The pasta is then sprinkled with bread crumbs which you’ve toasted in olive oil. The heat of the pasta releases the flavours of the herbs, without wilting them too much, and the uncooked shallots are warmed but retain their sharpness.

There are no specific instructions for which herbs to use, or in what proportions. It’s totally dependent on what you have on hand. I had a grand old time out on the balcony with a pair of scissors. I ended up with basil, thyme, rosemary, oregano, parsley, chives, sage, lavender, and lemon balm. Those last two were unexpected flavours, but they absolutely made the dish for me. I got really lucky and randomly combined my herbs into a near perfect flavour medley. I couldn’t repeat the process, I just snipped a bit of this and a bit of that, and I ended up with a completely delicious and intensely fragrant plate of pasta. My dining companion thought it was good, but not transcendent, but for me it was exactly the right dish at exactly the right time. It was perfectly suited to a warm night out on the balcony.

The bread crumb topping adds a textural counterpoint to the pasta, but not one I thought was really necessary. The Book says that the bread crumbs don’t weigh the dish down the way cheese would, but I just found them oily. Admittedly my bread crumbs weren’t coarse, and they might have worked better if they’d been more like tiny croûtons. Mine were more of a sandy coating on my pasta. It didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the dish, but I think they ruined it for my dining companion.

You may also notice that I didn’t use spaghetti in this spaghetti dish. I can’t bring myself to care about the different shapes of pasta, and I resent having to remember all of their names. They’re all exactly the same, shells, spirals, round strands, flat strands, big tubes, and small tubes all interchangeable in my mind. Sure, some shapes hold on to some sauces better, and finding things hidden in little shells can be cute. But, the idea that we all need to keep fifteen different shapes of pasta on hand to do justice to the traditions of some particular Italian hamlet is just annoying. They all taste exactly the same, and I’m going to use them as such. The only downside is that the different shapes really do differ in surface area. The amount of sauce needed to coat is proportional to area, which has little to do with mass or volume, so it does take some guesswork to avoid over or under saucing.

The concept of this dish is great, it’s simple and summery. It uses herbs at their peak, and allows for creativity around a central theme. It also has the advantage of not heating the kitchen up too too much. I was thrilled with the flavours at work in my version, and I can only hope you get as lucky as I did if you try this for yourself.

Breakfast and Brunch The Book

92. Baked Eggs and Mushrooms in Ham Cups p.634

The recipe

The eggs are really pretty, taste great, and come in manageable individual sized portions. It’s not really practical to do fried eggs for a crowd, you end up spending all your time at the stove, and the toast gets cold. The solution is often scrambled, or poached eggs. Scrambled are nice, but a bit boring, and I really like having a yolk to dip into. Poached are great, and as my poaching skills improve I appreciate it more and more. I’m always worried about getting the eggs out of the pan, nicely drained, and onto the plate without breaking at least one of them though.

This type of dish is a nice option for a big brunch. Slices of ham are fitted into muffin cups, and filled with a mixture of sautéed mushrooms and shallots, fresh tarragon, and crème fraîche. Each cup is topped with an egg, and then popped in the oven at 400 degrees until the whites are set. They’re excellent little self-contained dishes that are easy to serve, and most of the work can be done ahead. They’re easy to make, the presentation is impressive, and quite charming.

I was a big fan of the flavours at work here. The ham crisped up and showed off its bacony side, which paired well with the classic mushroom tarragon combination. The crème fraîche added a bit of richness and luxury, and the egg was a none to subtle reminder that this was a breakfast dish.

Despite my enthusiasm, the recipe had some technical problems. When buying the ham for this recipe it’s important to get slices without any holes, otherwise the filling will leak out. I decided that thicker slices should stay together better, but I failed to consider that they’re less malleable. I had trouble getting them into the egg cups, and ended up cracking some of them. In the end, a lot of the filling did run out of them. This isn’t really the recipe’s fault, after all it did warn me. But your ham should be neither too thick nor too thin, and the more uniform it is the better.

The real problem with the recipe came in the baking of the eggs. I put them in the oven for the recommended 15 minutes, but the whites weren’t even close to being set. It took an extra 10 minutes for them to set up. Unfortunately the yolks were fully set by that point, which was a real letdown. It’s possible that the broiler element came on at some point during the eggs’ cooking and applied too much direct heat from the top. Since you don’t really care if the eggs steam a bit, you could probably cover the muffin tin in the oven.

I’m not sure where I went wrong with the eggs, Teena at the other gourmet project made these recently. She didn’t seem to like them nearly as much as I did, but the eggs in her photo look like they have set whites and runny yolks. I may have messed up somewhere along the line.

These eggs looked and tasted great, and were really easy to make. Mine didn’t work out as well as they could have, but they were still delicious. Tarragon is a prominent flavour here, and not one you often find in breakfast dishes. For me that was a welcome surprise, I’m always happy to eat more tarragon. It doesn’t really jump to mind when you think of flavours to pair with coffee and orange juice though. I think these eggs work best as part of a less breakfasty brunch. I served them with baguette and a green salad, which worked really well. I’m excited to try these again, if I can find a way to maintain my ham’s structural containment and sort the eggs out, I think this dish could be a real winner.

The Book Vegetables

55. Riesling Braised Sauerkraut and Apples p.575

The Recipe

This is kind of a funny recipe. It takes the “and the kitchen sink” approach toward sauerkraut. This version starts with packaged sauerkraut, then braises is with two kinds of apples, onions, shallots, slab bacon, Riesling, chicken stock, thyme, juniper berries, and a bay leaf. It was already getting a bit busy flavour-wise at this point, but we’re not done. Once the braise is finished the sauerkraut is tossed with two cups of heavy cream, and some apple schnapps. Thankfully the cream and schnapps were optional, and I opted for only the schnapps. I get the impression that the people at The Book looked up every traditional sauerkraut ingredients from every culture that makes it, and tossed them all into one recipe.

The main problem with the dish was the word sauerkraut. If it had been called stewed cabbage with apples, bacon, and cream it would have been fine. But sauerkraut should as a minimum be sour. In this version the sauerkraut is soaked and drained twice to get rid of a lot of the salt, but also a lot of the flavour. All of the braising ingredients are there to mellow the harsh bite of the sauerkraut, but at least the stuff I bought was pretty smooth after the rinsing. All the sweet ingredients just overwhelmed the remaining flavour of the sauerkraut. There were also far too many flavours competing here, some of the comments on the epicurious version of the recipe suggest that adding the cream would have tied it together, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

This recipe simultaneously had too many ingredients, and not enough. The flavours were a jumble, but it was drastically in need of some more acid to cut all the sweetness. On a positive note the thyme, juniper, bay leaf combination worked very well, and bacon makes everything taste good.

I guess the recipe was fine, and if I’d had some more potent sauerkraut as a starting ingredient maybe all the sweet additions would have been a nice compliment. As it was the dish was going in too many directions at once, and tried to do too much. All of the additions ended up taking away from what makes sauerkraut good in the first place.

Poultry The Book

52. Corriander and Mustard Seed Chicken p.367

the recipe

I made this dish for friends in Brooklyn. I chose it because it looked simple, and didn’t seem to call for any hard to find ingredients, so I was fairly confident I could make it in an unfamiliar kitchen. Unfortunately I struck out looking for whole mustard and coriander seeds at the mega mart. I’m sure I was within a six block radius of some really great food shops, but I had no clue where they were. If I’d thought ahead I would have picked things up at Zabar’s that morning, but I didn’t so I had to make do with powdered mustard, and ground coriander. That meant that amounts I used were guesswork, and the texture of the sauce was quite different from the intended result. Powdered mustard can’t hold a candle to the flavour of whole mustard seed either.

In this dish the chicken legs are browned, and the sauce / poaching liquid of shallots, wine, water, and the seeds is built in the pan. The chicken is added back in and cooked through, then apple jelly and fresh cilantro are whisked into the sauce. The jelly did a good job of balancing the bitter / sour flavours of the mustard and coriander, but the sauce could have been thickened or reduced before serving.

My main issue with the recipe was the chicken skin. The legs are well browned and the skin contributes flavour, but then they’re poached and the lovely crispy skin gets water logged and washed out. I didn’t find the skin very appealing in the final dish, and I think if I were to make it again I’d remove the skin before browning. If the final texture of the skin is unappetizing, and all it’s doing is adding fat to the dish, why not remove it?

Overall, it was simple to prepare, and relied on easy to find ingredients and pantry staples (despite my particular issues). The flavours in the sauce worked really well together, and they penetrated the chicken during the poaching. Using skinless legs, and thickening the sauce would have made a world of difference. Using whole seeds instead of ground would have been even better. In the end it was good but not spectacular, some of that was my fault, and some of it was The Book’s.