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Recipes of the Damned

cookbooks from the Recipes of the Damned portion of the collection

A Lion in the Kitchen, Meats Edition: Pork-A-Plenty

pork chop-noodle skillet

ChopPlated2A Lion in the Kitchen is a 1965 Lions club recipe compilation. I don’t know if there were other volumes, but this one focuses on meat, and boy, are there a lot of meat dishes included. Wild game, beef roasts, sandwiches, stews, grill preparations, and even a few silly recipes (such as “How to Cook a Husband”), all adding up to a lot of calories and cholesterol. “This is a man-sized PorkAPlenty3dish, the kind males go for,” say the notes to one recipe, one of the innumerable ground-meat casseroles included — though it could be said of nearly anything in the book.

The titles make for entertaining reading. Squirrel supreme, Hoosier beef casserole, tuna mound, green turtle steak saute, “my wife is visiting her mother PorkChopsInPancasserole.”¬† Goofy little cartoons dot the pages, and unappetizing black and white photos mark the chapter introductions. One of the best parts of this book is that a previous owner left little recipe clippings between many of the pages, and also wrote little comments. He or she seems to have been very interested in beef roasts and casseroles.

ChopsBrowningIt took me a while to settle on something to try. I didn’t want to make beef or chicken again, but I also didn’t want organ meats. Scott avoids shrimp to keep from exacerbating his gout. I didn’t want to make anything that called for canned soup or powdered soup mix, which constraint itself ruled out a pretty large proportion of the recipes. I also didn’t want to buy several pounds of roast, or Ingredients2try anything with unfindable or unexplained ingredients, such as “1 8-oz can of Arturo sauce.” But eventually I settled on a pork chop dish that featured Roquefort cheese in a cream sauce — not exactly lean, but at least straightforward to prepare.

I began by seasoning four pork chops with salt and pepper and browning them on both sides in AddedCreamNCheesesome canola oil, about 15 minutes per side; while they cooked, I chopped up collard greens and garlic for a side dish, started water boiling for noodles, and chopped up a wedge of Roquefort cheese. When the pork chops had browned well on both sides, I poured in a cup of heavy cream and added the cheese; I then covered the pan and let the cream and cheese cook with the CreamSauceCookingpork chops. In the meantime I cooked egg noodles and made the collard greens. The cheese and chops cooked together for about 15 minutes. I topped noodles with a pork chop and cheese sauce, with the collard greens on the side.

The pork chops tasted great. I thought they were just a slight bit overcooked; probably I should PigArthave cut a couple of minutes from each phase of cooking, since today’s pork cuts have less fat than those available in the 1960s. But they were tasty, and the sauce brought together the noodles and the pork very well.

Verdict: Success. I doubt I’ll be using this cookbook again very soon, but tonight’s dinner was great.

Best Recipes From the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Jars: If This Is “Best,” What Didn’t Make the Cut?

tangy chicken

ChickenPlated3It’s time for another Recipes of the Damned offering, this one a cookbook extolling the virtues of processed food. More specifically, this book is a compilation of recipes found on product labels. The premises of the book seem to be that a) People use a lot of processed foods, b) People who use a lot of processed foods actually read the recipes on the packages and want to make them AnAuspiciousStart3again but don’t think to write them down, and c) These recipes are actually worth cooking and eating.

Perhaps I am being too snarky. After all, my chocolate chip cookie recipe is memorized from the one printed on the chip bags. The companies do invest in product research and recipe development, and the results can’t all be bad. Heinz57InCupHowever, a perusal of Best Recipes From the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Jars suggests that a good 80 percent of them are dubious at best. This book is a horror show.¬† Hiram Walker’s Supreme Brandy Burgers. Hot Mexican Beef Salad, featuring Kraft Catalina Dressing. Innumerable gelatin salads and desserts. And the salty, cardboardy funk of powdered Heinz57PlusWateronion soup mix permeating everything.

It took some digging for me to find a recipe to try. I wanted a dish that would be quick enough to make on a weeknight. I wanted something we’d be willing to eat. And I wanted to be confident I could find the specific commercial products listed, without having to scramble because something is no BrowningChickenlonger made or is only marketed in certain regions. I finally settled on Tangy Chicken, about which the book is absolutely giddy: “The Heinz Company has been printing this extra-easy chicken recipe on their 57 Sauce bottles for years. It’s such a favorite customers probably wouldn’t let them take it off.”

They are right about it being BrowningChicken2extra-easy. The recipe calls for browning chicken pieces in butter, adding a mixture of half Heinz 57 and half water, covering the pan and simmering for 30 minutes, then removing the lid and cooking 10 minutes longer. At this point the chicken is removed and the excess fat skimmed from the sauce, and dinner is served.

Heinz 57 sauce is kind of scary ChickenWithSaucestuff. The second ingredient listed is high fructose corn syrup, and it includes both raisin concentrate and apple concentrate. (Aren’t raisins already kind of concentrated?) It’s basically ketchup with fruit and vinegar added. The tangy flavor is pleasing, but I couldn’t really shake the knowledge of the high fructose corn syrup.

ChickenWithSauce2So, I browned the chicken pieces. I mixed Heinz 57 with water and added it to the pan, where it combined with the melted butter to coat and stew the chicken. I removed the lid to let the excess moisture cook away. I skimmed as much fat as I could from the sauce, then spooned some over the chicken. I served it with steamed broccoli and a warmed loaf of Italian bread.

ChickenCooked2The chicken tasted pretty good; the meat was tender, and the sauce was in fact tangy. But I suspected I could make an even better version from scratch pretty easily with tomato puree, honey or molasses, and cider vinegar, and no HFC. In fact, I decided the main thing I’d learned from this one was a basic cooking technique: brown the chicken (in half the fat next time, perhaps ChickenCooked3using part olive oil), add the sauce, cover, cook, uncover, cook some more. The possibilities are endless, and they don’t involve this cookbook.

Verdict: Good enough. I don’t expect to make this again, though I do have to decide what to do with the remaining half-bottle of Heinz 57.

So Quick With New Bisquick: Some Effort, Minimal Reward

hamburger pancake roll-ups

PancakesNKalePlatedIt’s time for another Recipes of the Damned treat! Well, “treat” may not be the correct word. So Quick With New Bisquick is a 1967 compendium of recipes using the boxed buttermilk baking mix. Offerings range from the obvious basics (pancakes, waffles, biscuits) to the predictable variations (coffee cakes, batters for deep-frying) to the distinctly unappetizing (short GratedCheddartuna pasties, hurry-up ham casserole).

I don’t really understand the appeal of the boxed baking mix. I sort of understand why people turn to cake mix; the balance of flour and leavening in cakes is a little tricky to achieve, and the mixes have been engineered to perform well within a broad range of preparation errors. But biscuits BrowningBeef2and even pancakes are far more forgiving of variation, and biscuits made with real buttermilk taste a lot better than those from a box. And saving time doesn’t really seem to be the issue; the bulk of your prep time for pancakes is spent cooking them on the griddle, not mixing them, and a boxed mix doesn’t change that.

I thought hamburger pancake BeefSourCreamMixtureroll-ups encapsulated a lot of what’s wrong with the recipes in this book. The casual supper consists of a ground beef and sour cream mixture, rolled inside pancakes; the rolls are then topped with shredded cheddar and baked. I thought this sounded truly perverse. I wasn’t perfectly accurate about that, but I wasn’t far off.

PancakeIngredsWhile Scott grated a cup of cheddar, I started to prepare the ground beef mixture, browning ground beef with a bit of minced onion (I was supposed to use dried onion flakes, but I didn’t have any, so I substituted an equivalent amount of minced fresh onion). When that was cooked through I poured off some of the rendered fat — not technically in the instructions, but PouringPancakeBatterthere was no way I was going to keep it all in the pan — and then mixed in a couple of tablespoons of Bisquick, one-third of a cup of ketchup, a tablespoon of mustard, half a teaspoon of salt, a generous grinding of black pepper (it was supposed to be 1/4 teaspoon but I couldn’t be bothered to measure), and a cup of sour cream. Scott stirred this as it simmered for about 7 PancakeInPan2minutes, while I worked on the kale and onions that were part of the accompanying dish (to be covered in a forthcoming post). Then we set it aside while I made the pancakes.

“Well, it doesn’t smell as good as it did before we added the sour cream,” I said, “but it doesn’t smell bad.”

PancakeWFilling“I have to agree,” said Scott.

The pancakes were simple but time-consuming: two cups of Bisquick, one egg, and one and two-thirds cups of milk. This is a slightly thinner mixture than you would usually use. I cooked them in a light smattering of canola oil, one at a time. Once I’d accumulated a few, Scott began to fill and roll them, placing a RolledPancakesInPancouple of tablespoons of the ground beef mixture in the center of each and then rolling it into a tube. Once all the pancakes were filled, rolled and arranged in a baking pan, he sprinkled the grated cheddar on top of them and put the pan into a 350-degree oven.

The filled pancakes didn’t taste all that bad, really. The pancakes PancakesPlusCheesewere satisfactory; I’ve recently made better pancakes from a mix (from Salish Lodge; Bisquick just can’t compete), but these were good enough. The beef filling wasn’t bad either, though it was awfully rich. The cheese went well with both of these elements. It was filling and fairly savory, but it wasn’t particularly exciting, and it seemed like minimal reward for the work that went into it. For the PancakesBaked2same amount of labor (with a bit more waiting time in the middle) you could roast a chicken; for less prep and work you could make hamburgers, or spaghetti and homemade meatballs.

Verdict: OK, but not worth the trouble. We’ll finish off the leftovers, but this will not be going into the repertoire.

The New Hostess of To-Day: In Which I Rediscover the Joy of Custard Sauce

apple snow, with boiled custard (soft)

CakePlusSauceThe New Hostess of To-Day dates from 1916, so it’s not quite as impenetrable as Miss Leslie‘s work but is still chock full of vague directives and alarming ingredients. Pigeon Galantine, for example, though I may just be biased by living in New York and therefore seeing any pigeon recipe as no different from one calling for rat. (Possibly you’d find more meat on a rat here.)

YolksNSugarLinda Hull Larned offers introductory chapters on various kinds of entertaining: the formal luncheon, the informal dinner, the informal dinner with but one both to cook and serve (ah, for the days when you could take servants for granted), the wedding breakfast, the card party and more. She has an extensive section on chafing-dish cookery, leading me to suspect she’d YolksNSugar2received several for her own wedding.

So I was a little nervous as I flipped through the book looking for recipes, but I was determined not to set myself up for failure this time. Linda Hull Larned might not have had an electric mixer, but I do, and I was determined to use it if necessary. I was also determined to rule out any CookingCustardrecipes whose instructions truly mystified me. And as usual I opted against anything with scary or impossible-to-find ingredients, so it didn’t take me long to narrow my choices to a manageable number. The dessert chapter didn’t look too challenging, and soon I settled on a two-part dish: apple snow with custard sauce.

GratedAppleI spent a semester studying in London, and our host family often prepared desserts with custard sauce. Custard sauce on steamed pudding, custard sauce on fruit; hell, if they’d poured custard sauce on rusted nails I’d probably have lapped it up and asked for more. I knew that one could find mixes for the right version in shops that sell British foods, but it had not occurred to me to make it BeatenEggWhite2from scratch. I’d assumed it would be hard, and I was wrong.

I started by making the custard. I beat two egg yolks with 1/4 cup of sugar until the mixture was fluffy (and surprisingly light in color). I then scalded some milk, then added the egg yolk mixture and stirred the mixture while it cooked. Larned’s instructions say “Cook until spoon is coated,” and SnowMixturefor a while I was not sure just what that might mean, but as the sauce continued to cook and thicken, I could see the effect she meant: as I lifted the spoon from the pan, the custard clung to it, more and more thickly as I continued to cook. I kept cooking and stirring until the consistency seemed right, then added a teaspoon of butter, removed the pan from the heat, added a bit of CakeAndJam2vanilla, and was faced with the direction “Beat until cold.”

Now what kind of a cooking instruction is that? I considered two possibilities; if the idea was simply to incorporate cooler air into the mixture to chill it in a pre-refrigeration age, I could just put the sauce in the fridge to cool down. But if the stirring was necessary to maintain an CakeJamSnowemulsion — to keep the custard from separating — then I couldn’t skip that step. I decided to try stirring for a while and see how it went. It went slowly. I checked periodically, and while the custard wasn’t immediately separating if I stopped stirring, it was showing a certain paleness at the edges that prompted me to keep at it, but it was very slow to cool. After a while I got the bright idea to pour SnowOnCakeit into a cool bowl instead of the hot saucepan, and that helped considerably. By the time I quit and put it into the fridge it wasn’t exactly cold, but it was far cooler and not separating.

After that I made the apple snow. This was a fairly simple mixture: a grated Granny Smith apple — which I peeled, on the assumption that the “snow” was CakePlusSauce2not intended to have a green tinge — plus 3/4 cup of powdered sugar, a pinch of salt, and three egg whites beaten stiff. The recipe said to beat them together until fluffy, which threw me at first because adding the apple and sugar to the puffy egg whites deflated them quite a bit; however, I kept beating the mixture and it reached a point that I could consider fluffy, just not as fluffy as the egg whites alone.

The apple snow was to be served over sponge cake spread with a layer of jam, and topped with custard sauce. You probably know sponge cake as angel food cake; I used a store-bought cake because I didn’t want to go to the trouble of making my own, but I probably should have, as the cake was just OK. I opened up a jar of the peach jam I made last summer, which was rather better. I spread jam on cake and scooped on some of the apple snow, then poured on some custard. The combination was delicious: tart apple, light creamy foam, rich custard, fruity jam. It felt elegant and rich, belying how easy it was to make.

Verdict: Success. And I have lots of custard sauce left over. Now if I can just find some nails…

New Delineator Recipes: In Which I Mock the Mock Sausage

mock sausage

PlatedOnPasta2New Delineator Recipes is a slim volume published in 1930. I got it for the Recipes of the Damned; the volume is rife with under-seasoned recipes. I decided against a pot roast in which the only additional seasoning is the inherent flavor in the pork fat you use to brown the meat; I decided against the peanut-butter cutlets from the chapter of vegetarian dishes. (It’s sort of like French MashingBeanstoast only with a peanut butter mixture instead of an egg batter.)

But the vegetarian dishes intrigued me. We’re accustomed to seeing Boca Burgers and Gardenburgers in the freezers of even small grocery stores now, but it’s been within my adult life that vegetarian meat substitutes really made an incursion onto the market, spurred by the national StirringMixturespread of Gardenburgers from Portland, Oregon. (I remember the first year’s worth of Morningstar Farms offerings — frankly, inedible, but they quickly reworked their recipes and now produce some palatable products.) Would a 1930 recipe, I wonder, really be worth eating? Depression-era cookery would of course benefit from lower-cost substitutions for meat, but that ShapingLinksdidn’t necessarily mean they’d be any good.

New Delineator author Ann Batchelder seems to have studied at the Miss Leslie school of vague instruction. Mock sausage is based on cooked beans, which the recipe says to force through a strainer. I used canned Great Northern beans, and quickly found that pushing them through FryingLinksa strainer was not going to be easy. A fine sieve was too much for the beans, which didn’t get through at all; a fine-holed metal colander was a bit easier, but still promised to keep me working for half an hour or so. I decided to mash the beans with a potato masher, though in retrospect I should probably have pulsed them in the food processor. It also occurred to me later that the FryingLinks21930 definition of “cooked until tender” was probably a bit softer than the canned beans, and I might have had an easier time if I’d cooked the beans longer.

The other listed ingredients are these (spelling original):

  • 2/3 cup bread-crums
  • 3 eggs
  • FryingLinks3

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon sage
  • salt and pepper

After the beans are strained, the recipe says, “Add remaining ingredients, shape into form of sausages, roll in crums, egg, and crums again.” Go back and read that again. We have a metaphysical issue here. One is PlatedOnPastasupposed to add the remaining ingredients, yet somehow magically know which ones to save out to coat the shaped links. I proceeded on the assumption that one was supposed to add everything and then use extra bread crumbs, but this turned out to be incorrect. The mixture was wet and sticky, and did not hang together. Possibly the idea was to mix the beans with the butter, sage, and salt and pepper, and the roll it in the eggs and crumbs. Possibly I should have mixed in two of the eggs and used the third for rolling. The privilege of a cookbook author is that if she has a specific result in mind, she can specify what should be done.

I mixed in some more bread crumbs until the mixture held together fairly well, then shaped six links (the number recommended in the recipe) and rolled them in some more crumbs. This also was a misjudgment, because the links were too large to turn in the pan without breaking. If I were to do this again (the odds are dwindling at this point), I would make more and smaller links, possibly about the size of a Brown ‘n Serve breakfast link, or I’d make meatballs. Still, I pushed onward, and browned the mock sausages in some oil. The cooked links had a good texture; it was impossible to move the long links around without breaking them, but the shorter segments held together well.

The recipe recommends serving them “with tomato sauce,” so I cooked rotini and some Newman’s Own sauce and topped them with pieces of the mock sausage. They tasted all right; in my exasperation with the texture I had forgotten to add salt and pepper and they needed it badly, and they would have benefited from more sage, but the basic flavor was agreeable.

Verdict: Passable. This wasn’t as disastrous as Miss Leslie’s jelly puffs, but I have better fake-burger and fake-sausage recipes on hand.

Special Diet Recipes: I Made Dessert With Baby Food

peach parfait

PeachParfaitBowl3Special Diet Recipes is a 1949 pamphlet of recipes that use baby food — perhaps a predictable approach for the Gerber Products Company. The recipes are recommended for various special diets. Peach parfait fits into a few regimens, including bland diet, soft diet, dental or mechanically soft diet, and liquid diet. So if I ever find myself needing to nurse someone through an antiquated EggWhitedisease I’ll have options for feeding them. (You laugh, but a friend did once get scarlet fever, and Scott suffers from gout. It could happen!)

I picked up this book for Recipes of the Damned because of the meat milk-shake (which is more or less what it sounds like: milk, Gerber’s strained meat, and refrigeration), but I’ve long had MakingSyrup2my doubts about all of the recipes. Baby food? Really? I mean, it’s not like it’s a booklet of recipes using dog food; theoretically baby food should be good stuff since you don’t want to feed crap to your baby. But it seems unpromising, and I’d probably never have used the booklet if it weren’t for this cookbook project.

EggWhiteCloseupAnd that would have been a shame, because I believe I have found a way to make homemade frozen desserts without buying an ice-cream maker. The recipe for peach parfait looks more difficult than it is. I started by making a sugar syrup, dissolving three tablespoons of sugar in a quarter-cup of water and heating it to the thread stage (230 degrees F for those of us who prefer using FoldingInEggWhitea thermometer to playing about with bowls of cold water). I then pulled the syrup pan off the heat, quickly beat an egg white to stiff peaks, and then continued to beat while drizzling in the syrup. Once it was fully blended, I covered the bowl with plastic and chilled it for about an hour.

When I decided the egg white-syrup mixture had chilled FoldingInPeachPureelong enough, I assembled everything and measured out a cup of heavy cream. I whipped the cream until it made sharp peaks, then folded in the egg white-syrup mixture, and then folded in a jar of Gerber’s strained peaches and a couple of drops of almond extract. I had misgivings when I poured the peach puree into the bowl, because it looked so unappetizing (and seriously, PeachParfaitthe baby food section at the grocery store was awfully monochromatic), but I forgot to taste the puree at that point to see what it was really like. It did smell peachy, though not as nice as actual fresh peaches.

I carefully turned the fluffy, creamy mixture into a plastic container and put it in the freezer. And this is the real magic of this PeachParfaitToFreezerecipe: You just have to freeze it, with no churning or turning. Several hours later when we were ready for dessert, the frozen mixture had a thick, creamy consistency.

And the real surprise was that it tasted good.

So I think I’m going to have to try this again, though not with baby PeachParfaitBowls2food. It seems like it should be simple enough to puree fresh peaches or other fruit, or to make a chocolate-and-nut mixture and fold it in. The flavor element is the last thing to be folded in, so as long as the proportion and consistency are right, I should be able to substitute my own ingredients.

Verdict: Success, and surprise. I’ll keep you posted on future experiments.

Cooking With Gourmet Grains: Easy Pudding

double chocolate pudding

PuddingBowlCooking With Gourmet Grains is a Recipes of the Damned book, sent to me by Sallyacious with sticky notes calling out some of the most egregious concoctions. The foremost of those is “wheat germ chicken with peaches,” which Sally tags “the reason I bought this book.” It’s basically oven-fried chicken and oven-fried peaches, breaded with wheat germ. The peaches are canned PuddingIngredientshalves, not fresh peaches, though I’m not sure that would help matters.

The book itself is a plastic coil-bound relic of the early 1970s, all brown illustrations on natural-tone paper and that dated typeface that I’m pretty sure was only really in use between about 1968 and 1979. I’d call it hippy-dippy but that would be DryMixtureunduly insulting to hippies. Its theme is the use of grains, and the category is quite broad, ranging from kasha and wheat germ to all-purpose flour; basically, if the Stone-Buhr company manufactures it, it counts.

I didn’t bother to try to search out Stone-Buhr brand grains, which I’m not sure are PuddingBattereasily available in this part of the country, and I didn’t feel compelled to make anything I found especially hippy-dippy. This left me with a lot of options, though since I knew I’d be working on a weeknight I ruled out yeast breads and breakfast foods. I also decided I should probably try something that wasn’t just a variation of something I’ve made before, BatterWSugarMixturewhich struck off a lot of the baked goods. Eventually I settled on double chocolate pudding, because it looked easy. Suspiciously easy, I thought. Surely this can’t work?

I started by mixing together some whole-wheat pastry flour, baking powder, sugar, cocoa and salt; in another bowl I combined melted butter, milk and vanilla, then PuddingPlusWatermixed the liquids into the dry ingredients. This resulted in a smooth and thick batter, which I spread in a baking dish. Then I mixed some cocoa and sugar (this second application of cocoa accounts for the “double” chocolate), which I spread evenly over the batter. Then I carefully poured some water over the whole thing, and put the now unlovely-looking mixture into the BakedPuddingoven for about 45 minutes. During the baking it puffed up and formed a crust with a moist interior. I let the pudding cool for a bit, then served it up; the warm concoction had a mixed consistency, dense cake-like structure with lots of soft gooey spots, which worked together nicely. It tasted rich and chocolatey. It would have been good with ice cream or whipped cream, but it was just fine on its own.

You may be saying that doesn’t sound like pudding. Certainly it’s not like stovetop puddings or Jell-O pudding, but it’s more like what one might call “a pudding,” a denser baked dessert. Whatever you call it, it’s tasty, and unbelievably easy.

Verdict: Success. Easy dessert, good flavor, no canned peaches.

Come & Eat! Or, Food Inc., the Home Game

Biscuit-Topped Fiesta Supper

The last two books from which I cooked for this blog offered the cook ways to sneak ingredients that are good for you into dishes that resemble comfort food or processed food. This booklet is the opposite: It gives you recipes that sneak mediocre processed foods into dishes that look like they might be good for you.

Come & Eat is a booklet that Pillsbury publishes for distribution in supermarkets, or at least used to, with the appearance of a food magazine or mini-cookbook with quick recipes for “busy families” (which is marketing-speak for moms). Though actually, it’s a multi-page advertisement for processed food products from Pillsbury. An ad that you pay for. Only a couple of dollars, but still.

I got this, what, nearly 10 years ago? Yet most of the products being touted are still familiar. Green Giant canned vegetables. Pillsbury refrigerated biscuits and rolls (the kind you pop out of a pressurized tube). Progresso soup. That sort of thing. The basic conceit is that you can use these processed foods to speed up your meal prep and make food that’s just as good as if you made it from scratch. This happens not to be true, but it’s an illusion that the big companies spend a lot of money to promote.

This kind of thing is a linchpin of the Recipes of the Damned. I have repeatedly railed about recipes that have you use tube biscuits instead of making your own (not difficult and immeasurably better), browning ground beef in salad dressing or using things like Velveeta. (Shudder.) But I have always assumed that the food would taste good — not great, but tasty in that comforting, guilty-pleasure sort of way.

The booklet I have was published for the 1999 holiday season, so since it’s September I decided to rule out the more obviously Christmas-themed cookies and snacks. Well, I was sorely tempted by the Red-Nosed Reindeer Cake. But I decided to pick something that would make for a quick weeknight supper, and settled on Biscuit-Topped Fiesta Supper because it called for the most brand-named ingredients.

The recipe itself is fairly easy. I browned ground beef (once again I used bison) and onions in a skillet, and drained off the excess fat; then I added bottled salsa, Green Giant Mexicorn (canned corn with peppers), tomato sauce, sugar, garlic powder, chili powder and pepper. Yes, I said sugar. I didn’t approve, but I had vowed to follow the recipe as closely as I could. I decided that substituting Tostitos brand salsa for Old El Paso was acceptable, as merely a lateral move; omitting the sugar on moral grounds, while rational and defensible, would not be in the spirit of the project.

Anyway, I let that simmer for a bit for the liquid to cook off, and in the meantime I preheated the oven and prepared the biscuit topping: I popped open a tube of Hungry Jack biscuits and sliced each of the 10 in half crosswise. And let me tell you, that’s not easy. Oh, it can be done, provided you have a serrated knife, and the ability to let go of the idea that biscuits ought to be round. I also blended together some cornmeal, garlic powder and paprika, and melted some margarine. When enough liquid had cooked out of the meat mixture, I arranged the biscuits in a ring around the edge of the pan, overlapping slightly, then brushed them with the margarine and sprinkled on the cornmeal mixture, then topped the meat mixture in the center with shredded cheddar. I slid the skillet into the oven and let it bake for about 20 minutes. I’ll say this for casseroles: They give you time to clean up in the kitchen. Of course, so do lots of baked and roasted items that don’t call for refrigerator biscuits, but I don’t mean to be spiteful.

When I pulled the skillet out of the oven, the biscuits had puffed up and browned, and the cheese had melted over the meat mixture. It smelled very…processed. I dished up some meat and biscuits for each of us. The meat casserole was OK; the salsa and tomato sauce gave it a bit of a tang, but there wasn’t enough spice to give it a really distinctive flavor, and the sugar underscored the generic taste. The biscuits were OK; the cornmeal mixture gave them a better flavor than they would have had otherwise, but the texture was kind of spongy. (Admittedly, I had just made homemade biscuits on Sunday morning, and the tube kind should never be trotted out within a week of eating those; it just isn’t fair. They can’t compete.)

“This is a lot like Hamburger Helper,” my husband said. He didn’t mean it as a compliment. He wasn’t trying to be mean, either; we both felt that the dish wasn’t exactly bad, it just wasn’t actually good.

Verdict: Not worth the effort. If I were to try to make an improved version of this I would do several things. I’d add more vegetables, for one thing: actual diced peppers, maybe diced zucchini or yellow squash, plus minced garlic instead of garlic powder. I’d bump up the spices. I’d use a homemade salsa and more of it, and replace the 8-ounce can of tomato sauce with a tablespoon of tomato paste to give a rich underlying flavor without overwhelming the other flavors. I’d use homemade biscuits, or perhaps polenta rounds.

Or I’d just make tacos.

Deceptively Delicious: More Fun With Fooling the Kids

burgers, macaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookies

My apologies for the long hiatus. I’m not even sure I can fully account for all my time, but it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve been able to cook for the project and post about it. But on Sunday night I got back into the swing of things with the second fool-your-kids-into-eating-vegetables book, Deceptively Delicious. To make an effective comparison with The Sneaky Chef, I made the same dishes: macaroni and cheese, burgers, and chocolate chip cookies.

Jessica Seinfeld’s basic philosophy isn’t all that different from that of Missy Chase Lapine. Nutrition is really important, kids will resist what they don’t understand, being “deceptive” will enable you to ensure they’re getting good food while you establish a more peaceful atmosphere at the dinner table, blah blah blah. (I suppose to be a Seinfeld purist I should say “yada, yada, yada,” but I’m not; I was so over the show like five years before it ended.) But the specific approaches are a bit different; where Lapine has you prepare an array of specific blended purees and mixes, Seinfeld simply recommends you puree particular vegetables ahead of time. The final recipes are not identical, though of course many of the same kid-friendly dishes are offered. Where Lapine’s book has supporting quotes from a cook and nutritionist, Seinfeld’s is peppered with suggestions from other parents and cute sayings from her husband and kids. I’m still confident that the publisher didn’t plagiarize from Lapine, but simply turned down a relative nobody in favor of a celebrity mom. Which doesn’t mean Seinfeld’s recipes are better, just that she’s an easier sell to a celebrity-hungry public.

I started by making the chocolate chip cookies. Seinfeld’s call for regular flour, oats, salt and soda on the dry side, and trans-fat-free margarine, brown sugar, egg whites, vanilla, chocolate chips and chickpeas. Whole, cooked chickpeas — rinsed and drained if from a can — that are added to the wet ingredients together with the chocolate chips. I double-checked the recipe to see if they were supposed to be mashed first, but no; Seinfeld specifically mentions that if your mixer bowl is broad enough you may get flying chickpeas, which the kids will find hilarious. I didn’t have flying chickpeas, but for quite a while I also didn’t have chickpeas that were in any way blending into the dough. The photo didn’t show obvious signs of chickpeas in the finished cookies. Puzzled, I turned up the mixer, and now I was able to break them down sufficiently. There were still some obvious chickpeas and chunks of chickpeas to be seen, but they were mostly assimilated. The dough was wetter than regular chocolate chip cookie dough, and it baked up into a nice, puffy cookie; credit the egg whites for that. I tasted one of the warm cookies and found an unmistakable chunk of chickpea, but it went well with the cookie as a whole, which was quite tasty. I think these cookies were just as good as Lapine’s, but not necessarily any better. And I’d probably give the chickpeas a few whacks with a potato masher before adding them if I made these again.

I turned next to the macaroni and cheese. This recipe was a lot more complicated and time-consuming than Lapine’s. I started by halving and roasting a butternut squash, which I pureed. Theoretically I could have done this part ahead. While the squash roasted I did the rest of my prep: grating cheddar and measuring cream cheese for the mac and cheese, and chopping mushrooms, grating zucchini and grinding bread crumbs for the burgers. (The bread crumbs could have been prepared ahead too.) When I had things ready, I boiled and drained some macaroni. This is a stovetop mac and cheese: I made a sort of roux with olive oil and flour in a saucepan, then added some seasoning and milk. When that had begun to thicken a bit I added the squash, cream cheese and cheddar, and whisked them until they had melted into a smooth, thick sauce. Thicker than the usual mac and cheese sauce, in fact; a little thicker than I prefer. But it blended well enough with the macaroni. It didn’t taste as cheesy as Lapine’s recipe, though I might have mismeasured the cheddar; one could certainly adjust the sauce ingredients to taste pretty easily. Overall I thought it was a lot more work for not quite as flavorful a dish.

While I put that together I was also assembling the burgers. I used bison again, and blended it with chopped mushrooms, bread crumbs, grated zucchini, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, and seasonings. I cooked the patties on one side on the stovetop, in a cast-iron skillet, then turned them and slid the skillet into the oven to finish them. I’m not sure why one couldn’t finish them on the stovetop, but they turned out just fine: moist and flavorful. The mushrooms were certainly less visible in the uncooked patties than the spinach-and-blueberry mixture had been.

Once again, Scott knew that there was something “deceptive” in the dishes, but not what it was. He didn’t think the macaroni and cheese was as good as Lapine’s, but he thought it was all right, and he couldn’t figure out what the vegetable component was. He thought Seinfeld’s burgers were just as good as Lapine’s if not better, though when I explained that the main vegetable ingredient was mushrooms he was surprised. “Why not just saute mushrooms and serve them on top? That would taste better,” he said. Maybe not if you were an ornery seven-year-old, I suggested. Finally he tried the cookies, and since he didn’t happen to choose one with an un-broken-down chickpea evident he was hard pressed to guess what the mystery ingredient was. He did like the texture and the rich chocolate flavor from the chips, which accentuated the sweet and puffy cookie.

Verdict: Success. The dishes were all good, though the mac and cheese was more work than I found reasonable. I still don’t buy into the idea of sneaking vegetables into kids’ food, but I think I’d make the burgers and the cookies again. Maybe not right away; I’m a little burgered-out at the moment.

The Sneaky Chef: You’ll Never Guess What’s Inside

purple puree; white puree; white bean puree; flour blend; masterful mac ‘n’ cheese; bonus burgers; unbelievable chocolate chip cookies

I originally bought The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals to do a Recipes of the Damned post about it. I first heard about the book last year when its author, Missy Chase Lapine, alleged that Jessica Seinfeld’s similar book Deceptively Delicious was a rip-off of hers. At the time I was mildly interested in the question of whether Seinfeld’s publishers, who had previously rejected Lapine’s manuscript, had really borrowed any of her ideas or if they had just preferred Seinfeld because she happens to be married to Jerry Seinfeld and is thus a celebrity draw. I was more concerned about the idea that there were two books out urging parents to lie to their children about their food — more precisely, to sneak healthy ingredients like spinach and wheat germ and cauliflower into food without kids noticing.

I’m a firm believer that picky eaters are made, not born, and that it’s part of a child’s development to be exposed to new foods and to learn about different tastes. I think it’s important for people to knowingly discover whether they actually like foods; after all, we all have genuine likes and dislikes, and it’s part of growing up to learn what those are. And I have serious issues with the idea of deceiving kids; I think that kind of thing can backfire and erode kids’ trust in parents, which could be particularly troublesome when it’s time to teach them about things like the evils of drugs.

So there I was on my high horse, with both Sneaky Chef and Deceptively Delicious in hand, and somehow I never found time to write about them. Then I formulated this project and put both books into September’s schedule to coincide with the back-to-school focus on kids. And so I tried some of the recipes in Lapine’s book and…

… I liked them. A lot.

It should be clear that Lapine is not oblivious to my worries about all the possible downsides of deceiving your kids in this way. She spends a good chunk of time explaining the concept and the reasons behind it, and acknowledges that “sneaking” is not a permanent solution, but a way to buy some peace and some time in which to more calmly continue to educate kids about good choices — especially very young children who don’t respond to logical persuasion. “Isn’t it part of our job as parents to train our kids to know a good diet from a bad diet? The answer is yes, but we can’t do it in a war zone,” she argues. The book got its origins in nightly mealtime battles with her own children who, in perfect consistency with known patterns of growth and development, were resistant to new foods, suspicious of certain tastes and textures, and determined to use their ability to say “no” as their one way to assert control in a world that really didn’t give them any other power over their lives. Lapine argues that sneaking in vegetables enables kids to enjoy food and get good nutrition without making every bite a battle, while you continue to teach them about balanced diets and to introduce new foods regularly.

I still have misgivings, but I’m not a parent. And every time I think of a fresh argument against concealment, I think of my childhood, when my sister — a picky eater if ever there was one — rebelled and rebelled against foods she didn’t like, making for ongoing conflict at home. I don’t know if sneaking in food this way would have made much of a difference to her health or her dietary interests; as far as I know, she’s still fairly picky. But it wasn’t fun to endure the arguing, and maybe that could have been different.

At any rate, I set aside my questions about the ethics of “sneaking” as I got started on this cooking project. I wasn’t cooking for kids, and didn’t have to worry about the right or wrong of fooling them. My questions were these: Can you tell there’s something hidden in the recipes Lapine presents? If so, can you tell what it is? And most important, how does the food taste? My husband offered himself up as an experimental subject; he would know that there was something hidden in the food (it just wasn’t practical to keep him from knowing what nights I would be doing the concealment books), but he wouldn’t know what, or whether it was in all dishes in the meal. So he would serve as the suspicious diner, which I thought was a pretty good gauge of whether the recipes succeed at sneaking in the vegetables.

Lapine’s method has two basic parts. The first part is to prepare your “sneaky” ingredients ahead of time. She offers recipes for specific purees and blends, which you then add to the regular recipes when you’re preparing a meal. This method has two advantages: It lets you organize your work so that actual mealtime prep is quick and easy, and it lets you do the vegetable prep well away from the time you’re cooking for the kids, minimizing the chance they’ll come into the kitchen and say “Do I smell broccoli? I HATE broccoli!”

So once I’d decided which dishes to make and done the necessary shopping, my first step was to make purees. I started with “white puree,” a blend of steamed cauliflower and raw zucchini, with a little bit of lemon juice and enough water to make for a smooth mixture. I steamed the cauliflower until it was tender, pulsed peeled zucchini in a food processor with the lemon juice, added the cauliflower and processed in bursts until it was smooth. Into the fridge with it.

Next up was “purple puree,” a blend of cooked spinach and blueberries, also with a bit of lemon juice. I think the purpose of the blueberries in this is to help offset the distinctive taste of spinach, though blueberries are nutritious foods in their own right (but ones that kids are more likely to approve of). I may have made this one a bit too liquidy, but it blended well after a few bouts of pulsing. Into the fridge with this as well.

The easiest puree was white bean puree, which is pretty much what it sounds like: drain and rinse a can of white beans (Great Northern, in this case) and process them into a smooth paste, adding a bit of water as necessary for texture.

I had decided to make a somewhat indulgent meal of macaroni and cheese plus burgers, with chocolate chip cookies for dessert. I made the cookies first. I started with a flour blend; Lapine offers this as one of the sneaky recipes, equal parts white flour and whole wheat flour and wheat germ, but I just blended enough for this recipe. I also used the food processor to grind some rolled oats and almonds, which I added to the flour along with some baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl I creamed a stick of butter with some white and brown sugar — a good deal less than one would use in a conventional recipe — and then blended in an egg, some white bean puree and a generous helping of vanilla extract. The butter mixture whipped up nicely, and mixed smoothly with the flour as well. I stirred in chocolate chips and some walnut bits, and dropped the cookies onto baking sheets. They don’t look like my usual chocolate chip cookies, but you wouldn’t guess they contained beans from looking at them. I ate one while it was still warm from the oven and found it really good. The almonds and vanilla help intensify the flavor.

On to the macaroni and cheese. This one was very easy: I boiled macaroni until it was a bit underdone and drained it. In the meantime I grated cheddar cheese (I was supposed to use reduced-fat cheese but I don’t think my neighborhood market even stocks any, though I simply forgot to look), and mixed some skim milk with some of the white puree and a bit of salt. I put half the macaroni in the baking pan, topped it with half the cheese, then added the rest of the macaroni; I poured the milk mixture over the whole thing, then added the remaining cheese and put it in the oven. This is somewhat easier than my favorite Martha Stewart mac and cheese recipe, which has you make a traditional bechamel sauce and stir in the cheese before pouring it over the noodles; it’s also lower in fat (no butter), and would be even lower if I had used the right cheese.

Now it was time to prepare the burgers. When I make hamburgers I don’t usually stretch the meat, so this was already a departure for me, but it’s pretty common for home cooks to mix in bread crumbs and an egg. What’s less usual is to add purple puree. It blended in well, but you could definitely see the spinach flecks in the uncooked meat blend. I used ground bison for this, which is already pretty lean, and the resulting burgers were very moist — they were almost wet to handle uncooked, and they released a lot of moisture in the pan. This meant they were very juicy to eat, and that’s good. The spinach flecks were harder to detect in the cooked patties; adding some cheese enhanced the concealment.

So now came the test: Would Scott be able to figure out what was in the food? He guessed that the mac and cheese might have cauliflower based on the texture he saw while scooping some up, but admitted that if I had said “no, that’s a cheese mixture” he would have believed me. He couldn’t taste the cauliflower, and he was astonished when I told him about the zucchini as well. We both really liked the taste of the macaroni and cheese.

The burgers also had him fooled. He could tell there was a bread-crumb-and-egg enhancement, which was different from my usual practice but well in line with the meals of his childhood. He didn’t taste the spinach, and didn’t believe me at first when I told him about the blueberries. The burgers were juicy and delicious, and the add-ins meant I got more patties out of the pound of meat.

Finally, the cookies. He could tell there was something different about them, that they were a little grainier than usual; the whole-wheat flour and wheat germ accounted for that. He was really surprised when I told him about the white bean puree.

Verdict: Success. The recipes went three for three on both good taste and effective concealment of the nutritious ingredients. I’m still unsure about being sneaky with kids, but I think these recipes would be great choices for anyone looking to lose weight; you could improve your favorite comfort foods and thus minimize the deprivation that inevitably leads to a desperate binge. I’ll certainly make the mac and cheese again (not right away — we have quite a bit left over). And I’ll have to see what else I can make with the purees I have left.