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September, 2009:

Sun-Dried Tomatoes: Rich and Delicious

seared sirloin srips with dried tomatoes and mushrooms

Sun-Dried Tomatoes is a cute little cookbook that we received for our wedding in 1995, which makes it a candidate for the longest-unused cookbook of the collection. I think sun-dried tomatoes were trendier back then, but trend or no trend, they are a delight. Drying captures the intensity of the tomato, and dried tomatoes help infuse a richness into any dish. Recipes range from the tomatoes themselves to dips, salads, entrees and breads that incorporate them.

The book offers recommendations for drying your own, but since I have no garden or dehydrator, and am not eager to prop the door to a gas oven, I opted instead to buy sun-dried tomatoes. You can get them dry-packed or packed in oil; both have their virtues. I like to keep a supply of the dry-packed ones around because they last for eons so you can improvise at will.

For the project I decided to prepare an entree so the tomatoes could be a major focus of the meal; that seemed most appropriate to the spirit of a thematic cookbook. I chose seared sirloin strips with dried tomatoes and mushrooms, because the dish sounded both easy and tasty. I chose well.

I started by chopping up about a dozen dry-packed tomatoes and rehydrating them in half a cup of boiling water. While they soaked up the liquid, I sliced some onion, minced some tarragon, and quartered some mushrooms. (The recipe actually called for whole button mushrooms, but I couldn’t find those anywhere, so decided that quartering would get the basic white mushrooms closer to the appropriate size.) Then I sliced some thin strips of sirloin roast, and it was time to cook. I started by searing the sirloin strips on both sides, then set them aside and sauteed the mushrooms in some melted butter. Those went aside with the seared beef, and I added some more butter to the pan and sauteed the onions. When they were soft and translucent, I added the tomatoes (along with their soaking liquid) and the tarragon, then added the mushrooms and beef to the pan and let it all cook together for a few minutes. I served the mixture over orzo, with some spinach on the side.

Verdict: Success. The final dish was tasty. The tomatoes and onion were a rich foundation for the beef and mushrooms. The effort was minimal — it would have been even less if I’d found whole button mushrooms — yet the dish had a gourmet feel to it. I will be making this again.

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.

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.