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Comprehensive Cookbooks

big, comprehensive cookbooks such as The Joy of Cooking or How to Cook Everything

Twofer: How to Cook Everything and The Chicken Parts Cookbook

rice with fresh herbs, How to Cook Everything
drumsticks gremolata, The Chicken Parts Cookbook

DinnerPlateStill careening around my life without managing to quite get back on track with the blog, I’m afraid. In theory the weekend would have been a fine time to get caught up, but on Friday night I was out, on Saturday I was out for most of the day and in no state to cook from scratch (not least because I had not bought groceries), and on Sunday we had pizza out for a low-key Valentine’s Day. I hadn’t been planning to cook last night because I thought Scott had an evening engagement, but he did not, so after some dithering we got sandwiches. This is how these things go.

DrumsticksToCookI hadn’t planned to cook tonight either, because I’m on call for work and can’t usually count on having time. But then, I also hadn’t planned to work from home; I’d brought home my laptop just in case the snow got heavy, but the weather seemed perfectly reasonable to me when I left for the train. Evidently the signaling system a few stops away disagreed, and after waiting on the platform and watching train after train go past too full to board, I thought, forget this, I’m going back inside. So at lunchtime I found myself with time to make a grocery run, and to make a quick riffle through a cookbook before it. I wanted something that would require me to turn on the oven, because it can get kind of chilly in here; also, I wanted something that would require minimal prep.

GremolataMixtureI noticed The Chicken Parts Cookbook on the shelf. I got this book years ago when we tried the protein diet, and although I cannot recommend the diet I can strongly recommend the cookbook. It’s organized by part, so that you can quickly find a recipe for what you have on hand (as the cover notes, “The best part of the chicken is the part that’s on sale”). Within those sections there are two kinds of recipes, Quick and Easy and a shorter list of Simply Sophisticated — which are a little more elaborate, but not much. An introductory section also helps you with conversions (e.g., if I planned to make a dish calling for breasts but the thighs were on sale, how do I adjust the cooking time?). I leafed through and found drumsticks gremolata, which could hardly be easier: oven-roast drumsticks, chop together garlic and parsley and lemon zest, put it on the nearly-done chicken, cook a bit longer. I figured I’d make that plus some Swiss chard that I already had on hand and needed to use, and that would be dinner.

GremolataOnDrumsticksWhen it actually came time to cook, though, I realized I was going to want a little something more, some kind of starchy accompaniment. Since we had plenty of rice, I thought I might be able to take care of another blog cookbook while I was thinking about it, so I interrupted my (minimal) prep to scan the shelves for something new to do with rice. This brought me to How to Cook Everything, of which I am a passionate fan. I adore the book and its clear, excellent recipes. I’m a regular reader of Mark Bittman’s blog on the New York Times site. I don’t cook from scratch as often as he does (despite possibly having a larger kitchen), but I endorse his philosophy of doing so as much as possible.

MeltingButterWhen I set up the blog, and in all the re-jiggerings of the schedule since, I firmly believed that I would use How to Cook Everything to experiment with something big and elaborate: a crown roast, or a cream soup, or an elegant dessert. But as I scanned the shelves this evening I realized that I have a lot of books that can help me make a crown roast but can’t give me the first idea what to do when I have a hankering for rice and no time for a second run to FoodTown. This book, however, has given me not just a recipe but a formula: Melt butter, sautee herbs, add rice grains and cook briefly, add water and bring to boil, cover and cook. Endless permutations possible, endless flavors to explore.

RiceButterHerbsMy prep was a bit disorganized since I had chosen the rice rather late. But it was not difficult: chop half a cup of fresh herbs for the rice (I mixed thyme, mint and parsley), chop a bit more parsley for the chicken, stem and chop the chard, mince two cloves of garlic separately, zest a lemon. I buttered a baking pan, seasoned the drumsticks and set them to bake, 20 minutes before turning and 20 minutes after; while they cooked (and once I had the other dishes under control) I mixed the parsley, lemon zest and garlic. When the timer went off I pulled the chicken out of the oven, topped it with the parsley mixture, and slid the pan back in to bake about 6 minutes longer. Voila.

RiceCooked2For the rice I melted butter, sauteed herbs and then grains of rice plus some salt and pepper, added water, brought the pan to a boil, covered it and let it cook for 15 minutes; at that point I turned off the heat but left the pan alone and untouched for another 10 minutes. Then I stirred in more of the herbs and fluffed up the rice a bit before serving. To make the chard I heated olive oil, sauteed some garlic and the chopped stems of the chard, then added the leaves and a bit of water, tossed them to coat them with the oil, covered the pan and lowered the heat, and let it steam roughly 10-12 minutes.

The rice was wonderful, buttery and rich but with a strong herb flavor. The chicken was delicious too, with the edge just taken off the garlic by cooking and the lemon taste permeating the meat. And the chard was awfully good, and virtuous to boot.

Verdict: Success. Both of these recipes go on the list. The rice should be especially fun when fresh herbs really start coming into the Greenmarket.

Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone: An Unusual Savory Stew

quinoa chowder with spinach, feta and scallions

ChowderBowlWithEggI had a big master plan for the year, and when I fell behind in the first six months I made a second master plan to get caught up. But in the past few weeks, for a variety of reasons I’d rather not get into right now, I got off schedule again. Over the weekend I found myself looking for a recipe I could make based on ingredients I had on hand. I poked through the pantry shelves CookedQuinoaand found the better part of a bag of quinoa, left over from the Three Bowl Cookbook, and thought that looked like a great possibility. Since quinoa is popular with vegetarians, I checked the indexes of the vegetarian cookbooks I haven’t used yet, and in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone I found a few offerings that were ReadyIngredientsnot basically just cucumber and tomato salads.

The chowder takes a little bit of prep time, but is fairly simple to actually cook. I started with my vegetable prep: slicing fresh spinach, dicing a clove of garlic and a jalapeno pepper, peeling and dicing a couple of red potatoes, slicing a bunch of scallions, and chopping some GarlicChilePotatoescilantro. I also prepared a hard-boiled egg, following instructions elsewhere in the book, and peeled and chopped it.

Then it was time to start the actual cooking. I rinsed some quinoa and brought it to a boil with two quarts of water, then covered it and let it simmer for 10 minutes, while I diced some feta. I then drained the quinoa but AddedWaterScallionssaved six cups of the cooking liquid (which was pretty much all the liquid that had not been absorbed into the grain).

In a large pot, I heated some olive oil and sauteed the garlic and jalapeno pepper, then added some salt and cumin and the potatoes and let that cook for a few minutes. Then I added the reserved quinoa water and half AddedQuinoaSpinach2the scallions, brought it back up to a boil and let it simmer until the potatoes were tender. The recipe said this should take about 15 minutes, but I checked the potatoes at that point and let them cook a few minutes longer. Then I added the spinach, the rest of the scallions, and the cooked quinoa, and let that cook together for about three minutes. I removed the pot from the heat FinishedChowder2and stirred in the feta and cilantro, then ladled up a bowlful and garnished my serving with some of the chopped egg.

The stew had a complex flavor, with the different elements — spinach, egg, quinoa, chile, feta — playing off one another. Each bite had a bit of fire, a rich undertone, a bitter edge, and a nutty substance. I’d never have put these ingredients together on my own, but the result was truly delicious.

Verdict: Success. This is a terrific winter dish. I think I may go for seconds.

Cooking Essentials: Beautifully Rendered Basics

Cajun-style chicken

ChickenPlated2Cooking Essentials is a beautifully designed book from a cookbook club I used to be in. It presents what it promises: fundamental techniques and principles of cooking.

I wanted something easy and undemanding. It’s been a long week, and my energy was low. So I opted for Cajun-style chicken, CajunSpiceMixturewhich is about as simple as you could hope for: Blend several spices with some olive oil, rub the resulting paste on boneless skinless chicken breasts, and pan-cook them until they’re blackened and delicious.

Scott mixed the spice coating while I got a panful of collard greens started. Once he’d rubbed the spices onto the chicken I CoatingWSpiceheated a pan, then started to cook. The recipe says to start the breasts on high heat and cook them for up to 3 minutes on one side, then turn them, lower the heat, and cook them on the second side for up to 6 more minutes or until they’re done. Which worked out just fine except for the “done” part; I ended up cooking them for about another ChickenInPan10 minutes in all, turning a few times, cutting into the center of the thickest breast at intervals until the last cut showed cooked meat in the middle rather than gleaming translucent pinkness. The exterior was certainly nicely blackened by the time we were done.

I served the chicken with some sauteed collard greens. It was ChickenDonedelicious: spicy without being overwhelming, and with a good texture despite cooking for longer than advertised. And it was so easy, we’re sure to try this again, or perhaps the variation suggested with fish.

Verdict: Success. This will go into our repertoire.

The Joy of Cooking (2006 ed.): A Classic, Revised

chicken breasts baked on a bed of mushrooms

DinnerPlate3The Joy of Cooking was the first cookbook I remember working with. My mother owned a copy that dated from the early 1960s, I think, and it was loaded with fascinating information. I still laugh at the thought of a recipe my sister and I came across at random, “buttered crumbs”; it was clearly an ingredient in greater dishes, but we loved the idea of pitching it as an entree. SlicingMushrooms“What’s for dinner tonight, honey?” “Buttered crumbs!” “Oh, boy, my favorite!”

Yes, we were kind of weird as children.

But the Joy (as we called it) was a treasure trove, a reference. Any time we needed to know how to do something, we consulted the Joy. Roast a chicken? Slice a cut PanOShroomsof beef? Bake a cake? It was all in the Joy. My mother was a good cook, and like many good cooks she worked from innate skill rather than following recipes, but if she needed to know how to do something new she consulted the Joy, and if it wasn’t in the Joy it probably wasn’t meant to be tried.

Then I grew up and learned about PanOShroomsCloseupvegetarian cooking and ethnic foods and organics and whatnot, and found that the Joy was popularly seen as a throwback, a bastion of bad old midcentury American cookery. The recipes were unadventurous or constraining, the flavors limited. My foundational reference seemed less important, especially as I sought to learn more about vegetarian cooking, and as I ChickenToCookbought more cookbooks for my collection I didn’t try to get my own copy of the Joy (my mother’s remained safely at home, and I believe my sister still has it — stained and wrinkled pages and all). I did come across one volume of a two-volume paperback version, which I will be cooking from later in this project, but never found the second.

ChickenToCookCloseupAnd then a couple of years ago one of those cookbook clubs offered a revised and updated 75th anniversary version. New drawings, updated recipes, fewer potentially lethal techniques (or at least warnings about internal meat temperature and the use of raw eggs). So I got one, though I forget now whether I did so on purpose or if, on opening the accidentally purchased selection CookingThermometerof the month, my heart simply melted at the sight of a shiny new version of the old classic. The illustrations do seem a bit more modern, though the old ones were quite clear and easy to follow. The recipes still followed the format I remembered, tracing neatly through the steps and calling out each ingredient on a new line. I skimmed through the volume (no title CookedChickenInPan“buttered crumbs,” though its equivalent easy to find in a section on breading foods), tucked the iconic red ribbon between two pages at random, and set it on the shelf, where it sat until I started on the inventory for this project.

I wasn’t sure what to make from my new Joy. What would capture the classic feel and still be worth having for dinner? ChickenPlatterI settled on chicken breasts baked on a bed of mushrooms because that seemed to have a lot of the classic elements: roasting of poultry, a cream sauce, and a traditional-dinner feel.

The recipe offers options for the mushrooms. One can use large whole portobellos or shiitakes, or slice up smaller mushrooms to cover the bottom of a lightly oiled CookingCreamSaucebaking dish. I went with the smaller mushrooms as a more economical purchase, and sprinkled the slices with minced garlic (about a teaspoonful, or one modestly sized clove) and a bit of salt and pepper, then poured on about a cup of white wine. Atop this I placed some chicken breast halves, which I had seasoned with salt, pepper and some thyme. I brushed the DinnerPlate2chicken with olive oil and slid the pan into a preheated 400-degree oven. After about 25 minutes I turned the breasts skin-side down, basted them with pan juices, and let them bake until the internal temperature reached 165. (This business of using a thermometer is clearly part of the revision, not the classic approach.) This gave me a chance to use the new digital thermometer I bought with part of an Amazon gift card, and that kept me from overcooking the chicken; I would have left it in the oven for about five more minutes without the thermometer’s beep.

At this point I removed the chicken breasts to a platter, along with the mushrooms (spooned out with a slotted spoon). I poured the pan juices into a saucepan and skimmed off as much surface fat as I could, then put the liquid to boil and added some broth and some cream. I whisked them together and let it cook down and thicken a bit. After 10 minutes it was definitely thicker, but it could probably have gone five minutes more. Lacking patience, I drizzled some of the thick-enough-for-my-purposes sauce over the chicken breasts and mushrooms, added some steamed broccoli to the plates, and called it dinner.

And it was good. The chicken had a nice flavor, and the mushrooms were heavenly. I used a modest amount of sauce and it served as a good accent to the flavor without making the dish heavy. I think if I made this again, though, I’d keep the breasts skin-side-up the whole time to let them brown better, and would just baste the chicken a couple of times.

Verdict: Success. Yet another simple but elegant-seeming meal. And if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go heat up the leftovers.

The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Cookbook: Tasty Traditions

olive-filled rolls, brussels sprouts salad with roasted shallot vinaigrette, roasted turkey breast, turkey gravy, mashed potatoes with caramelized parsnips

DinnerAftermathIn retrospect it was probably not very smart to spend both Christmas Eve and Christmas laboring in the kitchen to create multi-dish meals. But the results were so good for both, I can’t really fault myself, and I did have two more weekend days to recover.

For Christmas I decided to cook from The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Cookbook. SpongeI’ve used this book before, though not for much: a guide to making pot pie, possibly a coffee cake. A number of the desserts repeat recipes in other MSL cookbooks, though since they’re good recipes it’s probably better to have several copies than to be without them. I had never made a Christmas dinner from it, despite the obvious possibilities. So I went SpongeAt24Hrsthrough it, selected some recipes, double-checked oven temperatures and timing, and replaced some recipes with others that would make for a smoother cooking day. I made a cooking plan. I looked at our side table, laden with little bags of cookies and candy, and decided not to make a separate dessert. I invited a friend to join us for the big day.

DoughToRiseThe first thing I started working on was the olive-filled rolls, specifically the sponge for the bread. I mixed a fairly small amount of yeast with warm water and let it sit about 10 minutes, until it bubbled a bit; then I added more water plus some oil and flour and mixed it all together with the dough-hook attachments for my hand mixer, transferred the mixture to an oiled bowl, BrusselsSproutsLeavescovered it with plastic wrap, and let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours. The mixture was thick but soft when I put on the plastic wrap; it expanded during the incubation period, though it never overflowed the bowl as I feared it might. When I removed the plastic wrap the next morning it was a thick and springy mass. The recipe directed me to add half a cup of sponge “pulled into small ParsnipStripspieces” to the olive roll mixture, but I would have had to lay the individual pieces out separately on the counter to keep them from melding back together at once. The half-cup mass blended easily enough into a mixture of water, a bit more yeast, olive oil, flour and salt, and the dough hooks on the mixture did a quick and efficient job of transforming the ingredients into a unified and PeelingPotatoesspringy ball of dough. I had never used the hooks for bread before; I prefer to knead by hand. But at this point I knew I would need the 20 minutes or so that using the mixer would buy me. I did spend about five minutes doing a final hand-knead, then put the dough into an oiled bowl and let it rise for two and a half hours. I put the remaining sponge into the fridge; I should really freeze some of it. RoastedShallotsIt will be handy for making more bread (I think if I follow one more of the recipes calling for sponge that Martha includes, I’ll figure out what I need to know to improvise afterward).

While the dough rose I began my vegetable prep. On paper this did not look considerable, as I had only four vegetables to prep: potatoes for boiling and mashing, PotatoSlicesshallots for roasting, parsnips for roasting, and brussels sprouts. Unfortunately, the brussels sprout salad recipe requires you to separate the sprouts into individual leaves, which sounds reasonable enough until you actually start to do it. Brussels sprouts are really miniature cabbages, and those tiny little leaves take a bit of gentle persuasion to separate. I soon CaramelizedParsnips2developed a system: cut off the stem end and pull away the loosest leaves, cut off a bit more of the stem end, continue until the little core of sprout remaining was no bigger around than my little finger, leave it at that. This was tedious work, but it made for a pretty salad, and it made the peeling and slicing of potatoes seem like a snap in comparison.

ShallotDressingOnce the leaves are separated, the salad is simple: blanch the leaves in boiling salted water 1-2 minutes, then plunge them into an ice bath to stop the cooking and fix the bright color, then drain. This part moves fast, so I couldn’t really get any good pictures of it. For the dressing, I roasted the shallots whole, then peeled them and put them into a food processor with some BlanchedSproutsbalsamic vinegar and pulsed to chop them. I transferred this mixture to a bowl and whisked in some olive oil, then dressed the sprout leaves with the vinaigrette when it was time to serve dinner.

Mashed potatoes are as straightforward as you might expect: peel and slice potatoes, boil them until tender, then mash them together with milk, butter, MashedPotatoesand sour cream. The clever part is to then serve them with caramelized parsnips: parsnip sticks that have been roasted with olive oil, sugars, garlic powder, salt and pepper. The flavors go wonderfully together. The other clever part is to use the dough hook attachments to mash the potatoes, which quickly blend and mash them without overbeating or making them OliveRollsComponentsgluey or tough. Who knew?

Roasted turkey breast was pretty simple too: brush a turkey breast with olive oil and season with salt and pepper, roast it until done. I had to let the turkey breast finish early so I could raise the oven temperature to bake the rolls; when they came out, I put the turkey back in to make sure it was warm, but while it was FillingRollresting I poured the pan drippings into a saucepan to make gravy. I had never really made pan gravy before. The recipes I’ve seen always tell you to put the roasting pan on the stovetop, and I’ve never had a roasting pan that was suitable for putting on a burner. But during the roll-baking hiatus it occurred to me that since the turkey was fully cooked I could PanOfRolls2put it on the platter while I poured off the pan juices, and that it was certainly worth a try. And gravy turns out to be simple. Heat the pan juices in a skillet or saucepan; stir in some flour to make a roux (one could use cornstarch or arrowroot too), then add water or broth gradually while continuing to whisk, until the gravy reaches the desired consistency.

RollsToBake2Ah, the rolls. These were probably the most complicated recipe of the day. Once the dough had risen I divided it into 18 more-or-less equal pieces. I used my fingers to press and stretch each piece into about a rectangle about 4 by 5 inches, and spooned on a bit of olive paste (made by combining kalamata olives, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and garlic in the food processor). I BakedRollsrolled up each piece so the olive paste was sealed inside; I think the filling was supposed to spiral with the dough like a cinnamon roll, but most of them weren’t large enough for the spiral effect to be really evident. I laid the rolls together in loaf pans, nine to a pan, and let them rise once more. When it was time to preheat the oven I put an empty metal baking pan on the bottom TurkeyPlattershelf, and when I put the rolls in I poured water into the pan so it would create steam in the oven. This gave the rolls a¬† nice crusty exterior. When they were done baking, I pulled the pans from the oven, turned the segmented loaves out onto a cooling rack, and let them rest while I reheated and sliced the turkey breast and got everything else ready.

BreadPotatoesGravyThis was a lovely holiday meal. The turkey was juicy and delicious; the salad was tangy; the potatoes were rich and luxurious; and the rolls. The rolls! They were wonderful, the rich olive mixture playing off the tender bread. Even the gravy was a nice complement to both the meat and the potatoes. Our friend brought more sweets, and we had a nicely indulgent Christmas dinner.

PotPiesPlatedOh, and I used the leftovers too: On Sunday I made pie crust (also from this cookbook, as it happens), sauteed onions with celery, carrots, mushrooms and potatoes, added chunked-up turkey breast, and made a bit more gravy; I assembled all these into mini pot pies shaped in muffin pans. They turned out well, and I managed to get all but two of the little pies out of the pan without breaking them.

Verdict: Success. I’m going to have to make the rolls again, and soon. In the future I might just quarter and blanch the brussels sprouts, though it wouldn’t be as picturesque.

I’m Just Here for the Food: Meatloaf, Again?


PlatedMealI’m Just Here for the Food Version 2.0 is Alton Brown’s compendium of cooking techniques with recipes included as illustration and demonstration. The recipe for meatloaf is in a chapter on roasting, not a collection of main dishes or meat dishes or dinners; other chapters treat grilling, frying, braising, sauces, and microwaving, among others. His purpose is not just to show you BreadCubeshow to make particular dishes, but to teach you the principles, the science of cooking.

I like Alton Brown. I’m a big fan of “Good Eats,” and I really like his enthusiastic, detail-geekery approach to cooking and cooking instruction. But I hadn’t used this book before, except to double-check a few process questions (and I don’t remember DicingOnionseither the questions or the answers).

I decided to make meatloaf because I thought it would offer an interesting comparison between Alton Brown and Martha Stewart’s styles of cooking, and they do take different approaches. Where Martha has you blend three different meats, Alton directs you to use just beef IngredientsUnmixedchuck — and, preferably, to select a chuck roast and ask the butcher to grind it for you. (Which I did, at Whole Foods, and they were very nice about it.) Martha’s recipe includes carrot and celery among the add-ins; Alton’s does not. Martha directs you to process the bread and the vegetables to crumbs, making for a very fine distribution through the loaf; Alton has you mince the onions MeatMixedand bread into fine dice, so that they are slightly more noticeable within the mixture.

The biggest difference, though, is that Martha has you bake the loaf exposed, atop a rack, so that the fat renders out as it cooks and the glazed surfaces brown. Alton’s recipe in I’m Just Here for the Food has you bake it in the pan, then pour off the rendered fat RawLoafInPanafter the loaf has rested. This surprised me. I distinctly remembered a “Good Eats” episode in which the loaf is exposed for baking and glazed, very similar to Martha’s, and I was a bit taken aback to see the in-pan version in the cookbook. But I followed it, because part of the point of this whole project is to see what happens when I follow the instructions and don’t try to PouringOffFatsecond-guess or improve on everything.

The preparation process for Alton’s meatloaf is pretty similar to that for Martha’s. I used my hands to blend the meat with the ingredients — in this case beaten eggs, diced onion, minced garlic, bread crumbs, ketchup, paprika, red wine vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper and parsley — LoafUnpannedand then shape it into the loaf, but in a pan rather than on a rack. I baked it for an hour and 15 minutes, then let it rest for 15 minutes. At this point I poured off the fat and liquid that had rendered out; that took up more than half of a 16-ounce can. Then I turned out the loaf, which, predictably, was not browned. I PlatedSideViewcut a few slices for serving; they were soft and prone to falling apart.

As I did last week, I served the meatloaf with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes and Brussels sprouts. The meatloaf was good: flavorful and rich, but not greasy. I missed the browned, glazed edge a bit. The onions were fairly noticeable, but were well-cooked enough for my taste; in the recipe notes Alton says he likes to sweat the onions before mixing them in, and I think I’d do that if I make this again, just to make them a little softer and less of a contrast with the texture of the meat. But I’m not going to be in any hurry to make more meatloaf; it’s still not my comfort food, not something that I’d go out of my way for.

Verdict: Success. Flavorful, hearty, and very easy to make, if a bit messy to clean up after.

The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: Now We’re Talking

chicken stuffed with savory duxelles

After a trauma like Tuesday’s biscuit fiesta nonsense, it’s important to get back in the kitchen right away and make something really worth making. Hence tonight’s dinner, chicken stuffed with savory duxelles, from The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: The Original Classics. This is more like it.

Let me say again: I love Martha Stewart. I admire her. I’m not in the same league as she is and probably never will be, but as a cook she exemplifies a lot of what I really value in cooking. Fresh, high-quality ingredients, the best techniques, and an unwillingness to settle for anything but the right outcome. Oh, sure, there are lots of fussy recipes in her book, but there are also lots of these simple, delicious dishes.

Despite the French in the title, chicken stuffed with savory duxelles is pretty straightforward. Because the filling is put together quickly, I did all my chopping first: finely chopped parsley, minced garlic and shallot, finely chopped mushrooms. I heated some olive oil in a pan and sauteed the garlic and shallot for about a minute (until they became fragrant), then added the mushrooms and let them cook for a few minutes until they started to release their juices. At this point I sprinkled on a bit of salt and pepper and added a bit of white wine, then let it cook until the liquid was evaporated. Total cooking time: about 15 minutes, most of it hands-off.

While the mushrooms were cooking, I preheated the oven and rubbed a bit of olive oil on a baking sheet, then laid out two chicken breast halves and loosened the skin. When the mushroom mixture was cooked I stirred in some minced parsley, then stuffed the mixture under the skin of the chicken breasts, using toothpicks to secure the skin so that it covered the breast and the filling as fully as possible (rather than sliding off). I added some halved Brussels sprouts to the baking sheet, drizzled some olive oil over the whole thing, and put it in the oven. It baked for 35 minutes, during which time I cleaned up the kitchen and poured myself a glass of wine.

When the kitchen timer went off I pulled the baking sheet from the oven. Beautiful: browned, roasted sprouts, crispy chicken skin, and moist and flavorful chicken. I wish I could convey the smell over the Web. I pulled out the toothpicks, slid chicken and Brussels sprouts onto plates, and dinner was served.

Verdict: Success. I will make this again. This is what cooking should be: Simple, elegant and delicious.

Miss Leslie’s Secrets: My First Real Failure

sunderlands or jelly puffs

I first learned of Miss Eliza Leslie when I was in graduate school, doing some research on American 19th century etiquette guides. Miss Leslie had written a popular one, full of advice on matters such as dining at table, writing letters, paying visits, and navigating crowded sidewalks. In one section about proper behavior at a party, Miss Leslie went on at great length about the fact that if you are meeting a cookbook author, you should refrain from saying things like “I tried that recipe and it did not work” unless you really did follow the instructions scrupulously. When I read this, I laughed, but after a morning spent wrestling with a Miss Leslie cookbook I am beginning to understand why she found herself in these conversations.

This is the moment you’ve all been waiting for, isn’t it? My first major failure. I searched through Miss Leslie’s Secrets, a facsimile reprint of the 1854 New Receipts for Cooking by Miss Leslie, trying to find something I would be able to make in a 2009 kitchen, and I failed.

To be sure, Miss Leslie didn’t give me a lot to work with. Many of the recipes proved unsuitable because I was unable or unwilling to find the right ingredients; I was stopped cold by lines such as “Having roasted some reed-birds, larks, plovers or any other small birds, such as are usually eaten…” and “Have ready an ounce of the best Russia isinglass boiled to a thick jelly in half a pint of water.” (I will not relate the instructions for killing a turtle.) I had also decided I needed to make food, not home cleaning supplies or physick, so I could not avail myself of offerings such as “cure for prickly heat” (bathing with wheat bran), red lip salve (involving suet, lard and alkanet), or gum-arabic paste.

Techniques were another challenge. I knew that if I baked, determining oven temperature would be tricky since Miss Leslie is rather vague on this head; I knew that vegetables were an unlikely choice because of my principled refusal to boil the life out of them. I knew that measurements would vary among weights, size estimates (“take of the prepared rice a portion about the size of an egg”) and odd volumes (“a wine-glass of strong, fresh yeast”). I knew that all these things might work against me, and yet I pressed on.

After ruling out meat-pies, puddings and blancmange, I settled on “sunderlands, or jelly puffs.” The recipe looked simple: a pint of milk, half a pound of butter, half a pound of flour, and eight eggs. I halved the recipe, having only two mouths to feed rather than a houseful of children and servants, and even so it looked feasible. Until, that is, I attempted to follow Miss Leslie’s first set of instructions:

Cut up the butter in the milk, and if in cold weather, set it in a warm place, on the stove, or on the hearth near the fire, till the butter is quite soft; but do not allow it to melt or oil; it must be merely warmed so as to soften. Then take it off, and with a knife stir the butter well through the milk till thoroughly mixed.

Is this something you have ever tried to do? Let me tell you now, it’s not easy. Even when warmed, soft butter does not want to blend evenly with liquid milk. Soft butter wants to lump back together in a soft buttery mass. I don’t know if the butter would have blended in more readily if the milk had not been homogenized, but it sure didn’t want to blend here. Mixing with a knife in a cutting motion (trying to break up the butter) got me nowhere; trying to use a spoon was no help. Finally I tried to beat with the knife as if it were a beater blade, and this seemed at least to distribute little bits of butter more evenly through the milk. I would not call this thoroughly mixed, but at least we were somewhat advanced from the stage of large isolated lumps of butter in broad expanses of milk by the time my arm felt like it was going to fall off from all the beating.

Then there was the flour. I don’t have a kitchen scale and so had to estimate using our regular scale (step on with the bowl of flour, step on without it, calculate the difference, add or remove flour as appropriate). I probably didn’t have enough flour. Certainly the batter was thin, but I wasn’t sure if that was because of the flour or because of the failure of the butter to mix well with the milk. Miss Leslie doesn’t mention what the batter should look like.

The eggs were relatively easy: beat “with a whisk until they are very thick and light.” It’s possible I could have beaten the eggs longer — did I mention my arm was tired? — but I did get them thick and light. At this point I was to add the flour alternately with the eggs to the milk and butter mixture, then “stir the whole very hard” and put it into buttered muffin tins. OK, Miss Leslie said buttered tea-cups, but I have muffin tins and I know they’re oven-safe.

I was not too sanguine about the mixture, but put it in the oven. Miss Leslie instructs you to bake the puffs in a “brisk oven,” which I decided was probably somewhere around 375 degrees. “Bake them twenty minutes or more, till they are well browned, and puffed up very light,” she says. I began to recover some of my optimism as they baked; when I turned on the oven light about eight minutes along the batter was definitely rising, and by twelve minutes they were really puffing up. I might have puffs after all, I thought. And I did — until I took the puffs from the oven and they fell flat before I could even set the pans down.

Miss Leslie instructs you to cut a slit in the side of the hot puff and fill it with jelly, but there was no longer any space to fill. So I dabbed peach jam on the tops of the no-longer-puffs instead, then sprinkled them with powdered sugar as instructed. I served them freshly made, though Miss Leslie recommends they be eaten cold. “If properly made they will be found delicious,” she concludes. ([Expletive deleted] you too, Miss Leslie!) I can tell you that although not properly made they still tasted all right — rather eggy, but not bad, and well matched with jam and the sugar.

I think it’s possible that if I had added more flour I would have gotten a more robust puff that would not have fallen. I think it highly probable that if I had used an electric mixer I would have gotten well-mixed milk and butter. (Imagine if Miss Leslie had had a KitchenAid! There would have been no stopping her.) I am highly unlikely to try these again, but if I did want to give this another shot I’d get a scale so I could be more confident of the right amount of flour; I’d use a mixer to cream the butter and then gradually add the milk while beating so that it would be slowly worked in; and I’d dig through some of my other comprehensive cookbooks to see if I should change the temperature up or down from 375.

Verdict: Failure. It had to happen some time, I suppose. My husband just walked past and saw me at work. “Miss Leslie Regrets,” he said. “That’s what you’re having right now.” Too true.

Martha Stewart’s Cooking School: Overcoming My Fear of Frying

fried chicken

Martha Stewart’s Cooking School is one of my big, thick comprehensives. It’s organized by kind of food and technique; for example, the chapter on stocks and soups is divided into types such as white stock, brown stock, dashi and consomme; the chapter on meat, fish and poultry treats roasting, grilling, braising, steaming, and frying rather than being organized into beef, chicken, and fish. Detailed steps and the kind of stunning photographs for which Martha Stewart is known make it easy to see what to do at every stage of the process.

With over 250 recipes to choose from, why did I pick fried chicken? Because it scared me. I don’t fry much. It’s not that I’m concerned about eating fried food (although I probably should be); it’s the mess. Spattering oil, cleaning up the pan, cleaning up the stove. I’m also a little bit afraid of burning and smoke, so I thought that Martha Stewart’s instructions might be the ones to use to make sure I’d accounted for everything and prevented any problems.

You could start with a pre-cut-up chicken, but I chose to follow Stewart’s instructions to cut up a whole chicken, including cutting the breast piece into two for more even cooking. I’m not very good at cutting up a chicken, though I’m getting better with practice. It helps to flex the bird at the joints so you can get a clearer idea of where the sockets are and cut more easily between the bones; that makes for neater pieces. I did fairly well with this one, though when I cut the breast pieces in two I did a messier job with one; instead of a neat sort of triangular piece, I had a kind of raggedy piece. It definitely helps to have a good sharp chef’s knife, which is very good for cutting through the breastbone and any other tougher areas. You want to end up with 10 pieces: two each of wing, thigh, drumstick, upper breast half and lower breast half. The back will be left over; I froze it for making stock later this year.

The chicken pieces are marinated in the fridge for at least three hours in buttermilk seasoned with mustard powder, Old Bay seasoning, cayenne, salt and pepper; I let mine marinate overnight. About an hour before it’s time to start frying, you take the chicken out of the fridge and lay the pieces on a rack over a baking sheet; this allows the chicken to come closer to room temperature, the excess marinade to drip off, and the remaining marinade to get a bit tacky so it will hold the coating better.

While the chicken rests, you whisk together some flour, yellow cornmeal, cayenne, salt and pepper. Stewart’s instructions recommend starting with only half the dredging mixture; I mixed the full amount but put only half into a shallow bowl for dredging, and held the rest aside in case I needed more. That half turned out to be plenty to coat the chicken, so I was able to save the remainder for another use knowing it hadn’t been in contact with raw chicken.

I used my cast-iron skillet; you have to get the oil very hot, about 375 degrees, so I wouldn’t have wanted to use a cheap or flimsy pan. I poured in only about half an inch — after all, you’re not immersing the full piece of chicken but cooking each side and turning partway through. While the oil heated, I dredged the chicken. Then, borrowing a technique from an episode of “Good Eats,” I used one set of tongs to handle the not-yet-cooked pieces and to turn them partway through, and another set of tongs to remove the finished pieces from the pan, to avoid any risk of contamination. (I won’t go into my rant about why it’s insane that food industry practices are such that individual consumers are now instructed to handle raw meat as if it’s radioactive waste.)

This recipe calls for heating the oil to 375 and cooking the pieces for 5 minutes per side. I thought that sounded awfully fast, but clearly it was ample time. The recipe also says to put as many pieces into the skillet as will fit without touching; I didn’t think I could fit in all 10 pieces without crowding, so I chose to do five pieces at a time, one of each variety, so that both batches would be the same. With a slightly larger skillet or a slightly smaller bird I might have been able to do it in one batch.

As soon as I started to add chicken to the oil, the moisture caused bubbling and a bit of spattering. You have to be very careful at this stage; you don’t want to drop chicken pieces into the oil, and you want to make sure there isn’t any extraneous moisture on the chicken or your tongs that could pop and spray hot oil at you. That would be bad. I got a little bit spattered when I added the first batch of chicken pieces — nothing serious, and a quick rinse under cold water put me right. The recipe also says to cover the pan to prevent spattering and ensure even heating, but I didn’t have a lid that was large enough, or a splatter guard. A splatter guard might have made the after-dinner stovetop cleaning a bit easier, but I think a lid would have trapped steam as well as oil, which I don’t think could be good.

So the cooking itself is very simple: add pieces skin side down, cook for five minutes, turn, cook another five minutes, then remove to a rack to drain off excess oil. Stewart suggests holding cooked pieces in the oven if you’re doing more than one batch, but I didn’t bother. For one thing, fried chicken is good at any temperature; for another, it was hot enough in my kitchen without turning on the oven as well; and for yet another, I didn’t think the first batch would cool enough in 10 minutes to make a real difference.

Verdict: Success. The chicken was delicious, with moist, juicy meat and a crispy, satisfying crust. Of course, the whole process was rather messy, and I had a fair bit of oil to dispose of when it had cooled down. (I don’t plan to fry again soon, so thought that if I filtered and saved the oil for re-use it would be very likely to go bad before I could use it.) I think it might make sense to do this for a large gathering, or at least it would be for someone whose friends aren’t mostly vegetarians. But I’m pretty unlikely to try it again before the weather cools down.