Monday, July 28, 2008

Frothing: I never really liked these people that much anyway...

and now I really don't like them. The America's Test Kitchen/Cook's Illustrated/Cook's Country folks are getting a leetle too big for their britches, in my estimation. You can read the whole story here on Melissa's site.

The gist of the situation is that the PR rep for this group emailed a blogger who posted a version of a Cook's Kitchen potato salad she'd made. She changed several ingredients (four, actually) but credited Cook's Kitchen as the original source or inspiration. The PR woman (again, my opinion, although I am far from alone) was pretty snippy about the whole thing. We don't allow our recipes to be modified. They are tested up to a hundred times and they work. I read, "Your modifications to our recipes can't possibly improve them; they are the pinnacle of recipe perfection." Well, sorry, but they're not.

Melissa herself makes this point: they don't allow it. I would assert that once you publish a recipe, you're putting it out there for all to take a whack at. Granted, they can't republish your instructions word for word, but they sure can make your recipe and say, "Not bad, but you know, it needed more cumin. And maybe some ground coriander. And I bet if I added a little Old Bay seasoning it would make it interesting..." and they're off.

Recipes are a creative process. Part of the joy in food blogging is seeing what other people have done with a recipe. I myself had my eyes opened by food blogs in which people read magazines--magazines that I myself receive--and saw things I never saw in them. People taking what had been side dishes, or accompaniments, or even garnishes, and turning them into something amazing. And they credit those sources by saying "adapted from" or "based on the recipe in" and I myself see nothing wrong with this. Good lord, if it weren't for this kind of tinkering, we'd all still be cooking from Apicius or Escoffier. Or burning up slabs of dead buffalo in campfires.

Food is subjective. What tastes good to me may not taste good to you. The same goes for music, books, art, you name it. Melissa also publishes an excerpt from a Washington Post article from 2003 quoting Christopher Kimball (surely one of the ten silliest asses in America today, at least as he's characterized in this article) saying that changing one of their (ATC's that is) recipes is like saying you're going to play a Bach sonata but change the key. Surprise, Mr. Kimball, people do things like that all the time. Wander through a museum and watch a painter reproducing a great work on his or her own canvas. Read a book that's a pastiche of another work. Hell, watch The Lion King and ask yourself: who did it better? Shakespeare or Disney? You'll notice that The Lion King bears a striking resemblance to Hamlet (dead father, innocent son, evil uncle; they did miss out on the relationship between Hamlet's mother and his uncle--hey, this is a family movie, people).

And so, like so many other bloggers I say, back off, America's Test Kitchens. You didn't invent food. You didn't invent cooking. And in many cases, you didn't even take it to the heights of perfection that you so clearly think you did. I've made several recipes from your cookbook (the one that I own and now wish I could return; too late, I wrote in it a few years back...making notes on how to IMPROVE THE RECIPE, I might add!!) and then made other versions that I thought were better.

America's Test Kitchens is not God's gift to the culinary world. They need to stop acting as though they are.

And as my own small contribution to the nose-thumbing in the direction of ATC that's taking place all over the food blogging community, here's a link to my Chocolate Chip Scone recipe in which I reproduce the directions for the process word for word. If they demand that I do so, I will reword the instructions, but otherwise it stands as it is. Take that, ATC!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ARF/5-a-Day Round Up on Sweetnicks

The Modern Apron has the privilege of being part of the last ARF/5-a-Day Round Up that Sweeetnicks will be doing. Go over and say a fond farewell to a very noble effort--getting us all to eat more foods that are both yummy and good for us. Thanks for everything, Cate!

Phases: Roasted Fingerling and Tomato Salad with Green Beans and Arugula

It’s probably no secret by now that I have lots of kids. Lots of young kids. My oldest is five and starts Kindergarten in the Fall, the youngest is twenty months. In between we have a set of three year old twins. Thus it is that I spend most of my time unwrapping cheese sticks, making peanut butter sandwiches, and putting the valves back into sippy cups (the day my youngest gives up sippy cups we are going to have a huge bonfire and I’m going to throw every sippy cup in the house on it and dance a merry jig while they melt to a molten oozing charred oblivion; they’re a great invention, but for about four years now I’ve felt like I spend my days doing nothing but putting valves back into sippy cups).

However, this is not a rant about the evils of sippy cups, but more a discussion of the challenges of cooking with so many children so young. It’s very hard to get a large block of uninterrupted time to do anything. I was eyeing a chocolate cream pie with caramel whipped cream last week, and after reading the recipe through about three times, I realized I was either stupid or crazy (possibly both, of course). Did I really think I was going to have time to make a boiled custard, to say nothing of a chocolate pate sucree? Madness.

So what I need are recipes that can be done in stages, in which the components can be prepped, then left to sit before anything is done with them. Or they can sit around for a little while after something is done with them, and they won’t deteriorate. I found just such a recipe this weekend, and it’s elegant and yummy too.

The June issue of Martha Stewart Living had an article on potato salads with oomph. These were more than just your basic potatoes + mayonnaise + aromatics. These were actual meals. I had noticed a bag of Russian banana fingerlings in my grocery store two weeks ago, and when this salad, which uses them, caught my eye, it seemed like fate. Fate brings me to a lot of recipes (such as this one, and this one). Usually they’ve been pretty good in the past, so I trust this Fate fellow these days.

I was not disappointed this time either. The potatoes and tomatoes are roasted with some olive oil, garlic and thyme, and then tossed with arugula and blanched green beans in a red wine-Dijon vinaigrette. I cut the potatoes and tossed them and the tomatoes with the garlic and olive oil puree, scattered them with thyme (I didn’t even have to pull it off the stem! Talk about easy!) and popped them in the oven. This is about the only piece of this recipe that really couldn’t be left to languish; once the potatoes are cut up, they need to head for the oven promptly lest they turn that sad grayish color that potatoes do turn. But since the prep for this step is mostly done with a sharp knife and the blender, it can be completed in the time it takes one three year old to eat a banana and a bowl of animal crackers.

Next I topped and tailed the green beans, which could sit out with no ill effects. I made the dressing. Again, a patient component that will wait until you’re ready. When the potatoes and tomatoes were done roasting, I pulled them out and let them cool their heels on the stove for a little while, during which time I read “Hungry Pig” and explained that, yes indeed, the sun was going down. I think I may have had a glass of wine in there too.

I blanched the green beans, shocked them, and let them drain while I rounded up the last kid from a water balloon fight and saw him headed for a bath. He was allowed to watch George of the Jungle and then off to bed.

Finally, dinner time! I tossed the arugula and green beans with the potatoes and tomatoes (and I confess, I used more like three to four cups of arugula for four people versus the two in the original recipe, and 6 ounces of green beans, rather than the 3 ounces called for), and served the dressing on the side.

I won’t lie and say we ate before 9 p.m. but I will say that this salad held up to a phased preparation incredibly well. Nothing suffered because of the wait, and it all came together into an elegant and delicious meal. I heated up some rosemary ciabatta to go with it, and it was an excellent dinner for a summer evening.

Roasted Fingerling and Tomato Salad with Green Beans and Arugula
from Martha Stewart Living, June 2008
serves 4-6

For the Salad
5 garlic cloves
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½ pounds Russian banana fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise
1 pint cherry tomatoes
4 stems fresh thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper
6 ounces green beans, trimmed
3-4 cups baby arugula

For the Dressing
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon minced fresh thyme
½ shallot, minced
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Make the salad: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Puree garlic and olive oil in a blender until smooth. Toss with potatoes, tomatoes, and thyme on a rimmed baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper. Bake until potatoes are golden and tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Let cool slightly. Or quite a bit.

Prepare an ice-water bath. Cook green beans in a large pot of boiling water until bright green and just tender. Transfer to ice-water bath. When cool, drain beans in a colander and let them sit as long as necessary. They won’t mind.

Make the dressing: Combine vinegar, mustard, thyme, and shallot in a small bowl. Add oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking until emulsified. Set aside until needed.

When all children are in bed, and you’ve had ten minutes to relax, toss potato mixture, beans and arugula with dressing (or you can do as I did and toss the vegetables together and serve the dressing on the side). Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately or at room temperature. If there’s going to be a gap of an hour or two between the preparation of all the components, and the actual serving, I recommend keeping everything separate and tossing it all at the last minute. Arugula gets so pathetic looking when it sits too long in dressing.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Relaxed: Best Buttermilk Pancakes

What says lazy and leisurely more than a stack of pancakes? Pancakes are Sunday morning food, vacation food. I remember going on vacations as a kid and eating at the hotel restaurant and ordering pancakes. I never got pancakes at home, so I took every opportunity to order them when I could. Even fast food pancakes are a food for a slow day. You can’t eat them in the car, so you have to have the time to go in and sit down. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t like pancakes in some form or other.

My kids are being indoctrinated into this mindset as well. On Sunday mornings they always beg Daddy to make pancakes. Usually by the time they’re made all the kids have had something else: a peanut butter sandwich, a bagel with cream cheese, a bowl of dry cereal (or possibly all three). But the sentiment is there.

Pancakes work for any season. True, in the hottest depths of summer, if you have no air conditioning (very common in the Pacific Northwest: we have only about two or three weeks of “air conditioner” weather per year; and I always say that you don’t need air conditioning often, but when you need it you need it) standing over a hot stove or griddle flipping pancakes may not be your favorite thing to do. But for the most part, pancakes aren’t season-specific as other things can be.

And pancakes are pretty hard to screw up. Short of not getting them to flip properly (a situation easily remedied if you make them a little smaller so the pancake turner fits under them easily), a good recipe will result in good pancakes. We’ve used several recipes over the years, all of them producing a pretty good product. In our young, carefree, childless days we ate a whole grain pancake recipe from Cooking Light. The scrap of paper lived on our fridge for years and was called into service every Sunday morning.

Then we moved, and the recipe got packed somehow, and we were thrown back to random other recipes from various sources. For awhile we used one from Marie Claire that used self-rising flour and few other ingredients, making it a great kid recipe. Then one morning I stumbled on a recipe that I think is the one I’ll be using from now on. I found it in The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: The Original Classics. I’m not sure what led me to this recipe, but I’m certainly glad to have found it.

It’s got enough interesting ingredients (eggs, buttermilk, melted butter, vanilla) for my kids who now want to feel like they’re doing more when they “help” us cook, and it makes a light spongy pancake that soaks up the maple syrup but doesn’t fall apart. This is key. So often there’s not enough body to a pancake for it to withstand being drowned in syrup. They just collapse in a heap of soggy mush, impossible to pierce with a fork. You end up kind of shoving it onto the fork with the remains of a half of a slice of bacon, and sticky crumbs dribble back though the tines to the plate. Most disheartening.

If you’re still searching for that perfect pancake recipe, you should try this one. You can make the batter as thin or as thick as you like by adding a little more buttermilk or flour, and using only ¼ cup of batter per pancake means that if you have a reasonable sized pancake turner, you can flip it easily, without that horrible smeary mess that sometimes happens when they’re too big. The vanilla isn’t in the original recipe, but I love the little whiff of flavor that vanilla gives to pancakes, so I add a little.

Best Buttermilk Pancakes
from The Martha Stewart Cookbook: The Original Classics
The recipe claims this makes nine 6-inch pancakes, but we’ve always gotten way more than that out of it; it alll depends on how big you make the pancakes.

2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups buttermilk
4 tablespoons butter, melted
Butter for pan or griddle (if desired)

Preheat an electric griddle to 375, or place a skillet over medium-high heat. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar in a medium bowl. Add the eggs, buttermilk, and melted butter, and whisk to combine. The batter should have small to medium lumps.

Preheat the oven to 175 degrees. Check the pan or griddle by flicking a few drops of water on it. They should bounce and spatter right away. Brush on ½ teaspoon of butter, if desired, and wipe off excess with a paper towel.

I use a ¼ cup measuring cup to scoop some batter into the pan. If you have room for multiple pancakes in your pan (I don’t) you can pour out pools about 2” apart. When pancakes have bubbles around the sides and in the middle, and are slightly dry around the edges, flip over (this will take about 2 and a half minutes). Cook until golden on the bottom, about another minute.

Repeat with remaining batter. Keep cooked pancakes on a heat-proof plate in the oven. Serve warm.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Modern Apron on Sweetnicks

The berried muffins from a couple of week ago are featured in the ARF/5-a-Day Roundup on Sweetnicks. Hop on over and check out the other great offerings--always something good there!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Foods I Hate

Tell me blue Go Gurt comes out of pajamas. And the answer to the obvious question is: I didn't give it to her. The little angel next to her gave it to her. Guess I can't fault him for sharing.

No more Go Gurt in my house, ever!

P.S. You'll notice it's Wednesday and I'm still alive. Guess the strawberry jam is OK to eat (well, that one jar, anyway).

Monday, July 07, 2008

Trepidation: Strawberry Jam

Approximately four thousand years ago, I bought a home canning kit. It consisted of a proper round rack for holding the jars in a large stock pot, a set of scientifically engineered tongs for raising and lowering the jars safely into (or out of) the boiling water, a little plastic wand with a magnet in the end of it, for grabbing the metal lids and rings out of the water when sterilizing them, and I forget what else (probably at least a thermometer). With the exception of the rack, they were all a cheerful shade of aqua blue plastic that made me think of the color of a swimming pool under the summer skies. All of these items sat in pristine condition in my various kitchens, totally unused because I have a terror of explosions, botulism, and other shadowy horrors that I’m convinced surround the canning process.

Time passed, and I read over and over that canning wasn’t scary. Really, it wasn’t. Fannie Farmer reassured me. Magazine articles did their best to convince me. Cookbooks whispered comforting words of encouragement. Finally, when the strawberries in my local grocery store were being delivered on a daily basis by farms less than two hours away, I decided I was a big ol’ wimp and better give it a try. I brought home two flats of strawberries, and dove head first into strawberry jam. I read two magazine articles, two cookbooks, and recipe pamphlet circa 1959 from a box of commercial pectin. It’s also worth noting that the strawberries I had were approximately a quadruple batch of jam. Never let it be said that I do things by halves, even on the first go ‘round.

I am not going to pretend that canning isn’t a colossal pain in the ass. It is. People who write the instructions for jam making toss off a breezy, “sterilize x number of jars, lids, and rings.” All very well, but unless you have a really big stock pot, all of those jars are not going to fit in the pot at one time, and you will have to do the sterilizing, dishing up, and processing in batches. Also, they casually mention that you must put the jars on a rack in the boiling water; they can’t just sit on the bottom of the pot. Since that perfect rack I bought with my canning kit so many thousands of years ago has long since disappeared, I don’t have a rack that fits in any of my pots. All my racks are oval or rectangular roasting racks, or rectangular or square cooling racks. Hm.

So I turned to my assortment of kitchen tools and found some egg rings that make a reasonable platform for the jars. You could also use cookie cutters of various shapes jigsawed together (secured with paper clips) to form a circle-like shape. Or use the rings that go on the jars.

I’ve also read that when jam is ready it looks like jam. It forms a mass and just looks, well, jammy. I have also read that strawberry jam thickens as it cools. I certainly hope so, I thought, because otherwise I have the largest batch of strawberry syrup in the history of the world. I’d better break out the ice cream maker, just in case.

And jam making is apparently not for the clumsy. Remove the full jars from the processing bath without tipping them, I was cautioned. Without tipping them? Pardon my French, but shit, I was lucky to get them out without dropping them. And I didn’t always manage that. I dropped four of them and they wound up on their heads in the boiling water.

The easy part is the jam itself, it would seem (assuming it gels). Hull the strawberries, toss them in a big pot with some sugar and lemon juice, mash with a potato masher, bring to 224 degrees on a candy thermometer (or, if you’re me, on a candle making thermometer; don’t ask) and hey, presto. Jam. Well, in theory.

If the flavor of the syrupy starter is any indication, this is truly in the realm of the Best Jam Ever. Many years ago (and probably the event that propelled me into the Home Canning Kit Ownership age) I had some raspberry jam that a friend’s mother made from raspberries picked in their back field. It was incredible. It was bright and clear and true. You often read those words in descriptions of homemade jam, but there’s a reason. Homemade jam does taste more than store bought. It’s more immediate, more real. I can’t really describe it without sounding clich├ęd and verging on corny (and using an annoyingly excessive number of italicized words), but you really can’t fathom it until you have it (whether it’s yours or someone else’s).

But I’m actually writing this as the process moves along (four batches of jar sterilizing, plus processing, has taken the better part of three hours), and I have to say, I’m a little worried. Even the stuff in the pot isn’t thickening up, and it’s pretty close to cool. I may be left with 16 jars of strawberry syrup, a sticky stock pot, and a kitchen floor right out of a Smucker’s factory.

[14 hours later]

Well, some of it still looks a bit thin, and some of it looks fine. It’s not as thick as commercial jam, but I was warned that unless I used commercial pectin it wasn’t going to be that thick. As for how it tastes, I was right about it being amazingly good. As to whether or not I’m going to contract botulism and keel over, well, I can’t say for 24 to 36 hours, as I understand that’s the incubation period for botulism once ingested (don’t ask why I know this). So I have a ton of strawberry jam that I’m a little leery of eating. I’d call this experiment a success, although I won’t be able to declare it a complete success until I find out if I live to Wednesday. However, I didn’t blow anything up, or set my kitchen on fire during the canning process, so that’s on the plus side of the ledger.

Strawberry Jam
makes about 3 pints of slightly scary (to me) jam
adapted from a whole bunch of sources

6 cups hulled strawberries
3 -4 cups sugar (depending on sweetness of berries)
1 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice (again, depends on how sweet the berries are)

Combine sugar, berries, and lemon juice in a pot over medium-high heat. Crush berries with a fork or potato masher. Cook, stirring almost constantly, until sugar dissolves and strawberries liquefy somewhat.

Turn heat to low and cook 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the fruit has broken down and the mixture is thick. Test for gelling by putting a small spoonful of jam on a plate that has been in the freezer for a few minutes. Place plate in the refrigerator for two minutes. Check the jam; if it’s gelled, you can proceed to the canning. If not, cook for a few more minutes and test again.

Wash and sterilize canning jars (see, there I go, tossing that one off; you can use really big ones, or smaller ones, it’s up to you). Ladle jam into jars, screw lids onto jars, and place in a boiling water bath for 10-15 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

Jam keeps for up to a year.

N.B. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was forced to leave the strawberries and sugar on a low simmer for three and a half hours, plus the “regular” recommended cooking time. My stove is gas and has a “simmer” setting that keeps whatever it is just barely, well, simmering, for as long as you leave it. Did this have any effect on my jam? I can't say.

UPDATE: I stand corrected on botulism in strawberry jam. Botulism is possible in low-acid foods--carrots, green beans--that are home canned. But higher acid foods like strawberries or tomatoes wouldn't be suceptible. In retrospect, I recall having read this some years ago, but in my gripping fear, I forgot it. Phew, that's a relief!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Replay: Savory Bread Pudding

I posted about savory bread pudding here, and last night I had a stale loaf of bread that needed using, so I thought I would share what I did with it, since I'm not doing steady blogging here this week.

I chopped up an onion and satueed it with almost a pound of sliced mushrooms. I stirred the onion mixture into the torn bread, added the milk and eggs, and baked. Just before it was done, I pulled it out and scattered about 6 ounces of chopped blue cheese over the top, returned it to the oven and let the cheese melt. The result was outstanding. I have no picture of it, I'm sorry to say, but it was a yummy variation on a theme.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Short Break

Hi there--I'm in need of a short break. I have my kids (all four of them!) home with me for the next week or so, and it's hard enough to even cook, much less actually photograph and post with little kids around. Thus, a break.

I promise to come back the week of the 14th with a real winner--maybe even multiple winners. If I tried posting prior to that, what you'd get is pictures of chicken nuggets and frozen taquitos.

Happy cooking, and stop back in the week of the 14th!