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July, 2009:

Joie Warner’s No-Cook Pasta Sauces: Bliss in a Bowl

blue cheese and broccoli sauce

Pasta with blue cheese and broccoli sauce

The premise of Joie Warner’s No-Cook Pasta Sauces is that you can make a tasty pasta meal with minimal time and cooking; most of the recipes require you to chop together fresh ingredients in a pasta bowl or other broad serving dish while the water is boiling to cook the noodles.

I love this book, and I’ve been in the habit of thinking that I know it very well, but in fact I have about four go-to recipes that I can prepare from memory. No-Cook Pasta Sauces contains 75 recipes. I have, as the educational set might say, not been working to potential.

We had invited friends to dinner, one of whom is a vegetarian, so of the July collection this book seemed the most promising. Because the only thing that gets significant heat in this book is the pasta water, the ability to use meat is limited.

Blue cheese for pasta sauce

Some recipes do call for it in the form of rotisserie chicken, cured or pre-cooked sausage, or shrimp that can be tossed into the noodle pot during the last few minutes of cooking. But mostly we’re dealing with fresh raw foods here, which is ideal for a summer evening.

The recipe for broccoli and blue cheese sauce caught my eye because my initial reaction was to be intimidated: would it be too strong, too overwhelming?

Warming blue cheese mixture for pasta

I decided that it would be better to ask Marianne and Colleen if they liked blue cheese than to chicken out, and fortunately they are both big fans, so I set out to get the ingredients. Garlic, crushed red pepper, olive oil, butter, blue cheese (I chose a Danish blue, whose chief point of differentiation was that it cost less than $10 a pound), parmesan, and broccoli. Even if I had gone for one of the more pricey cheeses (did you know some of the artisan varieties can run $30+ a pound?) it would not have been a very expensive meal.

Preparation is easy. You crumble the blue cheese into a pasta bowl, mince the garlic, grate the parmesan, cut the butter into small chunks, and add the oil and red pepper, along with a couple of twists of freshly ground black pepper.

Melted mixture of blue cheese and butter (and more)

Set the bowl over the pot in which you are bringing the pasta water to boil; this will soften the cheese and butter so you can mix the sauce well. Or, if you are inattentive, will melt them entirely, which is OK too. When the water is boiling remove the bowl (if you haven’t already) and pour in the dry pasta, plus some salt if that’s how you like it; while it cooks, cut the broccoli into florets. When the pasta is about 2 minutes from being done, add the broccoli to the water so it can cook; then drain and add the pasta and broccoli to the sauce, and stir well to coat.

I served it with a sliced loaf of sourdough, plus butter and beer (not to be applied in exactly the same ways);

Broccoli florets

I brought out the parmesan hunk and the microplaner so we could add a little extra to our bowls. This dish was very well-received. And for good reason: It smelled and tasted fabulous. This is the kind of recipe I love for entertaining: It looks, as my husband puts it, gourmet-y, but it’s incredibly easy to make. We had the cold leftovers for dinner the next night,  along with leftover bread and some wine, and it was delicious that way as well.

The finished dish

Verdict: Success. I will definitely make this recipe again, and I will be sure to mine this book for more dishes to try. Promising candidates include cherry tomato sauce with mint, sesame sauce with roasted red peppers, lemon and mascarpone sauce, and asparagus with orange and basil sauce.

The Meatless Gourmet: Last party recipe

samosas, cucumber-tomato raita

PartyTable2The Meatless Gourmet is a collection of vegetarian recipes from different world cuisines. Mexico, Italy, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, and more are represented in appetizers, entrees, side dishes and beverages. I probably bought the book when it was new in 1995, because I know we’ve cooked from it for years.

For the party I decided to try the Indian section: samosas filled with a curried potato-and-pea mixture, and a cucumber-tomato raita. The recipes are clear and easy to follow. I made the samosa filling the day before the party. You start by cutting a potato into chunks and boiling it until it’s tender but not mushy; let it cool briefly and then remove the peel, and dice smaller. Dice some onion as well, and Samoas-TaterNOnionsautee it with some minced fresh ginger root and Indian spices: fennel, coriander, curry powder, cumin, turmeric and cayenne, plus salt and pepper. Add the potatoes and some fresh or frozen peas, and cook until the mixture is heated through and the peas are tender, about 15 minutes.

I assembled and baked the samosas the day of the party. The recipe calls for refrigerated biscuit dough. I had misgivings, but decided that I had enough to do without making my own biscuits. As it turns out, though, the time-consuming part of the process is the rolling and assembly; the time I saved by not mixing my own biscuits was spent in reading the ingredient labels at the supermarket to make sure the biscuit dough I chose did not include beef tallow. Because Samosas-Spicesthat would kind of defeat the purpose of a vegetarian recipe, and since there were actual vegetarians coming to the party I though it would be stupid to sabotage them in that way. If I make these again I’ll make biscuits from scratch.

But pressing forward with the pressure-packed dough: You roll out an individual biscuit and then cut it in half, top the lower end of each half with filling, and then close up the turnovers and bake them for about 8 minutes. The refrigerated dough may not have saved me any real time, but it tasted just fine in conjunction with the spicy potato and pea filling.

SamosasAssemblingThe raita is a sauce or dip that contrasts a cool, fresh flavor with the usual hot and spicy dishes that Indian food is known for. It was pretty easy to make: peel, seed and shred a cucumber, and combine it with plain nonfat yogurt, fresh mint, cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper, diced tomato and onion. I only tasted a little of it; I was looking forward to using the leftovers, but at the end of the night I stood in the over-warm room and looked at the mixture that had been sitting out for several hours and had visions of subsequent food poisoning. So down the drain it went, I’m sad to say. Maybe next time I’ll rest the bowl on a bed of ice.

SamosasToBakeVerdict: Success. The samosas and raita tasted good, and were easy to make. I’ll probably try them both again, with modifications to the samosas.SamosasBaked

McCall’s Cookie Collection: The next-to-last party book

crisscross peanut cookies

PBCookieDoughI knew that when it came to sweets, the Black and White Cupcakes would be the big hits of the party. Different, dramatic and delicious ‚Äî and did I mention they were chocolate? I am a rabid fan of chocolate. (I hesitate to use the term ‚Äúchocoholic‚Äù because there‚Äôs no alcohol in the stuff, and also I don‚Äôt have a problem and can quit any time I want.) I am such a rabid fan of chocolate, in fact, that I reflexively feel guilty when it comes to dessert. Any time I am planning dessert my immediate, powerful impulse is to choose something with chocolate. And then I have a momentary surge of doubt: Am I being too narrow when I choose chocolate? What about all those other delightful non-chocolate desserts, such as cr?®me brulee and blueberry pie and coffee ice cream? Am I missing something if I choose chocolate?

PBCookieDough2Most of the time I would say no, I’m not. (Though on mid-priced restaurant menus I am prone to choosing just about anything other than the inevitable Death by Chocolate Torte, especially if there’s a local or regional specialty to be had.) But I do try to be cognizant of the fact that not everyone is as wild about chocolate as I am, and to provide alternatives. In this case I didn’t want to do something very labor-intensive or fragile, nothing that would seem like it was competing with the cupcakes, so I opted for cookies.

I’ve had the McCall’s Cookie Collection book for decades — certainly since high school, possibly longer. I was the family’s designated cookie baker from about kindergarten, the year my mom PBCookiesRawdiscovered that I liked that particular task a lot more than she did, which also happened to be the year I discovered that people will ooh and aah over your cleverly decorated Christmas sugar cookies and then pass them over for the far tastier chocolate chip. Which is probably also a lesson for life: the pretty ones will get a lot of attention, but people quickly figure out who they need to rely on to get the job done right.

I have no idea where I got the book; a slim, battered paperback that might be better called a pamphlet than a cookbook, it looks like something that might have come free with a holiday bakeware purchase at a department store. There are a number of oddly lit photos of the finished cookies, all arrayed on trays or in large glass jars, PBCookiesplus some photos of a doll preparing and baking cookies. It must be a very large doll, because it appears to be in a full-scale kitchen, and in one of the shots there’s a real person in the background at the sink. All of which makes me wonder why they chose to use a doll instead of a person. Have some creepy with your Christmas cookies!

Not all of the recipes in the book are holiday cookies, but naturally quite a lot of them are. I’ve used this book a few times for my holiday baking, and I had to search for a while before finding a recipe I thought would be appropriate for summer. Peanut-butter cookies are a favorite of mine, so I settled on the recipe titled “Crisscross Peanut Cookies.” And it wasn’t until I was sliding the cooled cookies into zipper bags to hold until the next day that I had a sudden realization: Hadn’t I made these before? I might have. I’m not sure. I racked my brain but I could not be certain. PBCookies2So to err on the side of completeness, this book will have to go back into the 107 Cookbooks hopper; I’ll add it to the December cookie roundup, and will be sure to make something I know I’ve never made before, like Filbert-Chocolate Drops  or Walnut-Topped Cookies. (But not the sugar cookies; I’ve made them before and they’re boring.)

Verdict: Partial success. The cookies were delicious, but I didn’t ensure that I was using an untried recipe.

The Well-Read Cook’s Book: Still more party food

roasted potatoes with parsley pesto
Roasted red potatoes
The Well-Read Cook’s Book was a gift from my friend Sally a few years ago. I forget just when. I am fairly sure it came in a box with other gifts, and that remembering just when it arrived will not give me much idea of which birthday it was meant to honor; Sally and I have a habit of sending gifts at random to go with whatever the past range of missed birthdays, anniversaries and other major holidays may have been. One of the more recent gifts I sent had to cover at least 18 months of neglect.

I am pretty sure I was living in Lake Oswego when the book came. Definitely still in Oregon.

Anyway, The Well-Read Cook’s Book is hard to categorize. It’s a charmingly illustrated book, and in the preface author Jean Gilbert recounts her influences: childhood in Texas, the regional popularity of Mexican food, local specialties enjoyed in her global travels, and the sheer joy of eating and cooking. The book expresses joie de vivre. I had spent time admiring the recipes but just never got around to using it until now. I thought it would be great for a party.

PotatoesNPestoIn the preface Gilbert spends some time extolling the virtues of garlic, so it is fitting that I was drawn to the recipe for roasted potatoes with parsley pesto. I learned to make pesto a little over 10 years ago during the preparations for a friend’s wedding, and have always used fresh basil as the base, so I was curious to see how parsley would do instead. In fact, for a little while I was tempted to substitute basil for parsley, but I decided that would not be in keeping with the spirit of discovering the recipes as they are provided. And it’s a good thing, because the recipe calls for a full head of garlic, and I think the relative bitterness of the parsley is necessary to balance out its power.

Pesto is incredibly easy to make. You throw a bunch of parsley (minus the big stems) into a food processor with a head of garlic (cloves peeled), 1 cup of freshly grated parmesan, a couple of tablespoons of dried basil, half a cup of pine nuts, about half a teaspoon of salt, and a cup and a half of olive oil. At this point I think the guests would have been happy if I had just poured the mixture into a bowl and handed out spoons, but I kept to the instructions and tossed it with about two pounds of small roasted red potatoes. (Gilbert tells you to prepare the roasting pan with half a cup of olive oil, but that would have been too much; I tossed them with less than half that amount and they were still swimming in it, so use your judgment there.) This would be phenomenal if served while still a little warm; it was a huge hit at room temperature, and kept its flavor wonderfully for the few days thereafter that the leftovers lasted.

Verdict: Success. I will make the pesto again soon, this coming week in fact, to pair with pasta (it would also go nicely with chicken, now that I think about it). I may wait to try the potato version until there’s a fresh crop of red roasting potatoes in the Greenmarket, and I feel like turning on the oven again.

The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook: More party food

roasted eggplant spread, parmesan croutons
Roasted eggplant spread

It was probably not my smartest move to kick off the project by making nine recipes from five cookbooks in two days. But I was hosting a party and thought it would be good to try out a range of appetizers and nibbles, particularly since we don’t have enough room for a sit-down dinner for the number of people I invited.

I was looking for things I could cook ahead and serve without warming up, since our apartment gets RedPeppersvery warm in the summer and I didn’t want to add to it with a freshly heated oven. I had a feeling The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook would have good options; the Long Island shop closed before I moved to this part of the country but the book’s pictures suggest food you could bring home in cartons, turn into a pretty china dish, and offer to your weekend houseguests with wine and cheese. The eggplant spread looked like it would be as delicious at room temperature as it was when warm.

The recipe was very easy to prepare. You peel and dice an eggplant, dice red bell pepper and red onion, and mince some garlic. peeling eggplant to roastToss these with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast them at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes. When the chunks have cooled a bit, throw them into a food processor with a bit of tomato paste and pulse them until the consistency looks right: well blended but with some chunks.

I wanted to offer something interesting for dipping into the spread, and thought the parmesan croutons would fit the bill. Since they’re not cubes but individual slices of baguette, I took to calling them toasts instead of croutons, not that it really matters. Preparing these was easy too: slice a baguette diagonally into inch-thick slices, brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper, top with freshly grated parmesan, and toast in a 400-degree oven for about 15 minutes. EggplantMixtureI think next time I make them I’ll slice the bread a bit thinner, which will mean a shorter cooking time; an inch-thick slice of bread is a bit hefty to bite into even if you haven’t dipped it into eggplant spread or hummus.

Both the eggplant spread and the toasts tasted great. The guests polished off about half the eggplant spread during the evening. More of the toast was left; people were pairing the dips with plain untoasted baguette and veggies as well. I wasn’t terribly surprised that the spread went over well; I’ve cooked from this book before and enjoyed everything I’ve tried. Ina Garten’s recipes focus on fresh, high-quality ingredients, with just enough preparation to build flavor and texture without overcomplicating matters.EggplantMixtRoasted

Verdict: Success. Both recipes were easy and delicious.I may hold off on making them again until the fall, though, since I try to avoid using the oven during the hottest months. But I will make them again, and want to try other unfamiliar recipes from the book as well.ParmesanToasts

Hello, Cupcake! The birthday party

chocolate cupcakes, cream cheese frosting, chocolate frosting, Black and White Party
Now that's a stylish spread
Since I was starting the 107 Cookbooks project close to my birthday, I kicked it off with my most recent acquisition, Hello, Cupcake! I found the softcover baking guide in the discount section at Barnes & Noble, and could not resist. It’s full of clever cupcake decorating ideas: cupcakes made to look like TV dinners and popcorn kernels, cupcakes assembled to depict an alligator, cupcakes colored to represent billiard balls. I chose a relatively simple project, the Black and White Party: chocolate cupcakes in white wrappers, coated with a base layer of either white frosting (I chose cream cheese) or chocolate frosting tinted black with food coloring, and embellished away.MeltingChocolate

There’s a cake decorating supply store three blocks from my apartment, where I found a lot of the things I needed. White wrappers, a smaller frosting spatula suited to cupcakes, black and white sanding sugars, black food coloring, cans of black and white decorating frosting. I needed more, though, and after racking my brain I remembered that Dylan’s Candy Bar on Third Avenue at 60th offers a broad selection of single colors of candy. There I found black and white M&Ms, black and white candy-coated sunflower seeds, and black licorice in thin ropes.

I felt that to really do the project right I had to use the cookbook’s recipes for cupcakes and frosting rather than making my usual versions (it offers a wide variety, including both mix and scratch preparations for the cake; of course I chose scratch).Cocoa and flour for batter I had some trepidation about the cake; I’m a huge fan of the devil’s food cake recipe in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, and I just didn’t think another recipe could measure up. But I was pleasantly surprised: Hello, Cupcake’s recipe is a little easier to prepare, and by using both melted unsweetened chocolate and cocoa powder it provides a satisfying depth of chocolate flavor. The baked cake was tender and delicious. I still love Bittman’s recipe, but for cupcakes I will definitely consider adding this one to my rotation, and may try their other cake recipes as well.

I was less satisfied with the consistency of the frostings. But this is probably not the fault of the frostings themselves; it was a warm day and I’d already heated up the kitchen quite a bit with the other food prep, so by the time I’d made both frostings and had them ready to use the butter in them was far too soft and melty. You should have smelled it--mmm.I had to add quite a few drops of food coloring to the chocolate frosting to get it really black, and I felt that affected the consistency as well. They both tasted terrific, though, and all the guests were very impressed by the visual effect, so I was probably just being overparticular. I’ll have to try them again when the weather is more temperate before I make a final assessment.

I had one of my friends come over before the other guests so we could decorate the cupcakes. We both had a blast; it was really fun to play with the contrasts. Cupcakes fresh from the ovenThe canned decorating frostings were too soft—I should probably have put them in the fridge for most of the day, but I just didn’t consider that they would get warm along with the entire rest of the apartment.

Verdict: Success. Good flavor, good consistency of cake, good appearance; the decorations were fun and impressed the hell out of the party guests. The recipes were clear and easy to follow. I will definitely use this cookbook again.Decorations included M&Ms, candy-coated sunflower seeds, licorice, frosting, and sanding sugar

Announcing the 107 Cookbooks Project

Books are a weakness of mine. I’m a book learner by nature; if asked to master a new topic I make a beeline for print rather than looking for classes, lectures, podcasts or demos. And in few subjects is this more evident than with cookbooks. I seek them, I love them, and I hoard them.

In a moment of weakness some years back I joined a membership cookbook club; you know the type, offering a monthly selection that automatically ships out unless you tell them not to send it. Every so often I forget to send in my refusal, and a handsome, hefty, beautifully photographed cookbook shows up at my doorstep, and I somehow don’t get around to returning it. That mac and cheese recipe looked good; and haven’t I been wanting to try a different coffee cake? So onto the shelf it goes.

Or I‚Äôll be in a bookstore, because if there is a bookstore nearby I will be in it, and a new offering will catch my eye. Maybe it‚Äôs a book I‚Äôve seen mentioned online, or a cook I admire. Maybe it offers a cuisine I‚Äôve been meaning to try. Maybe it‚Äôs a reprint of a historical volume in which the author, a bestseller in her time and known only to scholars now, instructs readers to mix in a lump of butter the size of a duck‚Äôs egg or to judge the oven temperature by holding her fist in the hot space and counting; if she reaches five just before she has to snatch her hand out again, the oven is ready. Or maybe the book is simply absurd, requiring the user to mix Cheez-Its into a souffl?© or pour a fruit sauce over Twinkies, and I eagerly seize it as source material for Recipes of the Damned. All the better if it‚Äôs on sale.

One day recently I was wedging another of these ill-thought-out acquisitions into the bookcase and wondered, how many cookbooks do I have, and how many have I not yet cooked from? The answers were downright embarrassing. The cookbook tally reached 107; and believe it or not, I actually have even more recipe collections and sources, but not everything reached the minimum threshold I set for calling something a cookbook as opposed to a flyer, and I didn’t count the numerous standard-run back issues of cooking magazines. More surprising was the use tally: Of the serious cookbooks on hand (totaling 71), I had never used 31, and I had my doubts about another 7. And I had certainly never cooked from the additional 36 cookbooks I’d picked up for the Recipes of the Damned. Of the collection of volumes overloading the tall dining room bookcase, I had used fewer than one-third.

That’s going to change. The 107 Cookbooks project is a year-long challenge. By the end of June 2010, I will have cooked at least one recipe from each of the books in my collection. Including the Recipes of the Damned books. (To be fair, a lot of those are perfectly reasonable books that just happen to have one or two objectionable recipes. But there is Jell-O in my future, and I quiver in fear.)

I’ve set up a schedule for the year, to ensure that I keep up a manageable pace and that I don’t get stuck cooking Christmas dishes in May, and will be posting updates as I work my way through. A typical month will see me trying nine new recipes.

The Rules
I’ve established a few rules for the project.

1. A cookbook is defined as a stand-alone book containing at least 10 recipes, published in multiple copies, and intended primarily as a cookbook or set of cooking instructions. By this definition:
o    The hand-written notebook that our dear friends assembled for us back in 1993 is not a cookbook. (But it is a treasure.)
o    The single-page pamphlet with 8 recipes involving Kraft cheese spreads is not a cookbook.
o    The several three-ring binders filled with recipes I’ve clipped from various magazines and newspapers, or printed from the Web, are not cookbooks.
o    The foodie’s memoir that happens to include some recipes he or she tried along the way is not a cookbook.
I had to draw the line somewhere.

2. I have to cook at least one recipe from each cookbook in the course of the project. I am allowed to cook more than one from the same book (for some in which recipes are presented in menus, such as Three Bowl Cookbook, I kind of have to). However, cooking more than one recipe from a single cookbook, or cooking a project recipe again at a later date, will not change the fact that I still have to cook from all the other books in the collection. In other words, 107 is the bare minimum.

3. Each recipe that I cook for the project must be something I have not cooked before. This means that if I turn to Joie Warner’s No-Cook Pasta Sauces and make Black Bean, Tomato and Feta Sauce, which I have made so often I don’t even consult the book any more, this does not count toward the project.

4. I must try my best to follow the recipe as sincerely and faithfully as possible, with the full intention of eating and enjoying the results. This is going to be difficult with books such as The Twinkies Cookbook and The Joys of Jell-O, but if nothing else it will be a learning experience.