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Martha Stewart

Shelter from the storm

PlatedSupper

I felt like cooking tonight. I’ve felt like cooking more lately, but haven’t had a lot of time. Still on a heavy schedule of work and travel, with little energy or time left at the end of the day. It’s not smart, because I enjoy cooking and get frustrated and guilt-ridden when I don’t do it. I haven’t been completely idle, but didn’t feel like going to the trouble of photographing old standards and improvisations when I made time for them among the takeout. Tonight, though, I thought I should make time for a post as well as for a home-cooked dinner.

JustOutofOven

You may have heard that a major storm blew through the New York metropolitan area on Monday night. New Jersey took the brunt of former-hurricane Sandy, but New York suffered quite a hit as well. Here at our house, we were fine; we suffered no structural damage, never lost electricity or cable, and simply had to sit through a windy night at home. The next morning, while others not far away were sorting through burned remains of houses or walking scores of blocks to find a place with electricity to charge phones and check in with loved ones, I was logged on to work from my home office and Scott was walking through the neighborhood taking pictures of downed trees.

Collards

We were lucky, and we were a bit stunned. It felt a bit like we’d just had a major explosion blow past us — we were safe but we couldn’t shake the idea that more shrapnel was going to fly through, and we couldn’t stop looking at the footage of those who had suffered enormous losses. We were taking phone calls from a friend who lived just inside the Manhattan “dead zone” without power or heat, helpless to go fetch her because public transportation was suspended while the tunnels were pumped dry of the floodwater that had filled them. We were watching our East Coast friends update Facebook — “Still no electricity, going to stay with a friend in Brooklyn.” “Waited 2 hours in line for gas.” “Still no email at the office, call me at home.” — while at the same time our friends in other parts of the country posted updates on Halloween parties, going to see movies, the mundane things of life. It was surreal to try to keep on working at my normal job, from home — something I’ve done hundreds of times, only now I was doing it because I wasn’t willing to wait 2 hours for a bus into the city, not because I had a vet appointment at midday.

BrowningGarlic

A couple of nights this week we got takeout or went out to eat, partly to support the neighborhood economy, partly because by the time I was done with my work I was ravenous and too impatient to run out for groceries and then cook. But tonight I wanted to make something comforting, something that felt more like normal life. Today was the closest to normal that we’ve had all weel. My Manhattan friend got her electricity back last night (or this morning if you’re picky, 1 a.m.). Our subway line was back in service as if nothing had ever gone wrong. It seemed time to reclaim the normal and everyday. So I made macaroni and cheese and collard greens.

MacAndGooeyCheese

The mac and cheese is a Martha Stewart recipe I’ve made many times before (though I’m a little irritated at Martha’s company right now for sacking the Everyday Food crew, including a friend — but it’s still the best recipe I have). I didn’t have enough whole milk so thinned it out with water. Voila, skim milk, but I didn’t cook the white sauce quite as long as I should have to let it thicken, so the resulting baked dish was a bit liquidy but will set up more as it cools, and will reheat beautifully. And with plenty of cheese, it still tasted fantastic.

CookedCollards2

The collard greens are a simple braise, with garlic, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper, and were a nice complement to the rich and gooey mac and cheese.

PlatedSupper2

If you’d like to help out the Sandy recovery efforts, here are some links. There’s a lot that still needs to be done before residents of the area will be back to normal, especially those in the hard-hit areas of the Rockaways, Staten Island, Lower Manhattan, New Jersey and Long Island.

Big batch cooking: food for the freezer

penne and cheese; chicken green curry

ChardPenneCheese3

One of the difficulties with being a home cook is that it takes time, and on weeknights especially, time is at a premium. I often don’t get home until 7:30 or later; some nights the prospect of then chopping food, cooking and dishing up can be daunting enough to make me want to run out for empanadas instead. But that adds up. So when I had a few days off for the holidays, I decided to cook a few things to put in the freezer so Scott or I could reheat them for fairly quick dinners.

GratedCheeses3

I started by making mac and cheese — more accurately, penne and cheese, since you can use pretty much any tubular pasta for good results. The recipe I use comes from Martha Stewart’s Comfort Food, and it certainly is that. It’s not as simple as mixing powder from a box, but it’s so much better than the packaged stuff that it’s worth the effort. Anyway, it’s not that hard, though maybe I just have enough practice to have gotten good at it.

SaltNutmegPepperCayenne

I cooked a pound of dry pasta until it was not quite done — the noodles cook a bit more in the sauce while baking. I divided the cooked pasta into a few foil containers that I could put directly into the freezer later. While the pasta cooked, I grated cheese: about 4 1/2 cups of cheddar and 1 1/4 cups of Parmesan (Martha’s recipe calls for Gruyere or Romano but Parmesan works as well). I also measured out 2 teaspoons of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne, then grated what looked like 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper and 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg.

PenneNCheeseToBake2

I heated 5 1/2 cups of milk until it was not quite bubbling. In a large pan I melted 6 tablespoons of butter, then added half a cup of flour and whisked it together for 1 minute to form a roux. I poured in the warm milk and whisked and cooked the mixture until it was bubbling and had thickened a fair bit, then removed the pan from the heat and added the spices and most of the two cheeses, whisking until the cheese was melted and the mixture smooth. I poured it into the pans with the pasta and sprinkled the remaining cheese on top, and put them into a 375-degree oven for half an hour.

PenneNCheese

You’re supposed to let the cooked pasta cool 5 minutes before serving. I let ours cool a bit longer, because once I’d gotten the pasta into the oven I started working on the chicken green curry and it took more time than I’d intended. I chopped up chicken breast, onions, zucchini, red potatoes and mushrooms; I lightly cooked the chicken pieces in some olive oil, then added the onions and mushrooms. Then I added a can of light coconut milk and stirred in a couple of tablespoons of green curry paste (from a jar, not my own, though that will be on my list to do). You’re also supposed to add some fish sauce, but I didn’t have any and couldn’t find any at my regular supermarket, so I improvised a substitution: soy sauce plus a little Worcestershire sauce and some salt. Not perfect, but close enough for my purposes. I added the rest of the vegetables and another can of coconut milk, though in hindsight I think I should have stuck with one can and just added a small amount of broth or water. The final curry was good but more liquidy than I intended. I brought the mixture to a simmer and let it cook for about half an hour.

AddingCurryPasteToPan

We had one of the containers of penne and cheese for dinner, with some braised red chard. I froze the rest of the food when it was cool: six meals into the freezer. Not too bad for one long evening’s work.

CurryReadyToFreeze

Holiday baking and catching up

BagsOfCookies

I’m not one of those people who goes bonkers for Christmas; I don’t string the entire apartment with lights or wear comical red-and-green sweaters or collect creche figures. We’ve put up a tree exactly once in our marriage, the one year we were in an apartment that was large enough to accommodate it (and we were as surprised as anyone that the cats didn’t knock it over; we were quite proud of them). But I do enjoy a lot of the more social, friendly aspects of the season, and my own little annual tradition is my cookie baking extravaganza.

PecanCookiesToBake

Yes, the thing I like best about the holidays involves cooking. Don’t act so surprised.

Brittles2

For the past several years I’ve been shipping cookies to distant co-workers. I have a lot of the key details figured out now. The optimal plan is to bake on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and get my boxes into the mail on Monday; I had to juggle my plans a bit this year and ended up baking on Tuesday and Wednesday, then getting the boxes into the mail Wednesday afternoon. It turns out that if you can get the Priority Mail boxes dispatched by the Wednesday after Thanksgiving you can still hit the two-day delivery target. (Possibly you can on Thursday and Friday as well but they’ll spend the weekend sitting somewhere in transit.) I’ve found in the past that the two-day promise becomes very elastic the further you get into December. One year I sent cookies that took a good 10 days to arrive; I started getting emails raving about the goodies, and was about to hit send on a message saying “took them long enough” before it occurred to me that the recipients didn’t want to know that. So I just said thank you, and then shut up.

BagsOfCaramelCorn2

But anyway, the week after Thanksgiving, things are in motion. I take that week as vacation every year, so it’s a fine time to spend the better part of a day in the kitchen. This year was my first baking marathon while still recovering from plantar fasciitis, of which I can say: ouch. Maybe a few other words. I won’t repeat them here. It turns out that standing all day is not optimal for the still-sore plantar fascia. So if you’re my podiatrist and you’re reading this — well, you already know I’m not very good at taking care of my feet, so you won’t be surprised.

GatheringIngredients

This is the kind of project for which a little planning goes a long way. When I was in junior high and we took home ec, we had to write cooking plans, which seemed laughable when we were doing single-dish projects through which we were already being coached. A friend and I lampooned the cooking plan concept for after-school snacking. “3:31: Open the freezer door. 3:32 — no, better make that 3:31:30 — remove ice cream carton and put on counter. Wait, did we say when to get out bowls? Oh, god, this is going to be a DISASTER.” But it turns out that when you’re trying to do, say, five cookies, two nut brittles and caramel corn, a cooking plan helps you save a lot of time and difficulty. If you’re smart, by the second or third year you’re making sure that you mix your doughs that need to chill the night before, and you plan to bake the cookies in ascending order of baking temperature, and you think about how much parchment you need before you go to the store.

CranberryPecanChocCookieDough

I have several favorite recipes, but I wanted to try a new one this year for the sake of the blog. I picked one from the Martha Stewart Cookies special magazine, a cherry and chocolate chunk cookie with toffee pieces that sounded yummy. Of course that meant that I couldn’t find toffee pieces at the store, and dried cherries cost the earth, and I thought, the hell with this. I already have pecans and dried cranberries, I’ll do my own chunk cookie. So I mixed up the regular base dough that I use for chocolate chip cookies and stirred in dried cranberries, pecans, and chocolate chunks. And they were good. Fragile, but good.

ChocolateCookiesBeforeAndAfter

The same Martha Stewart magazine is the source of two of my other favorites, Grammy’s Chocolate Cookies and Cranberry-Oatmeal Cookies. They’re molded in much the same way — you shape them into balls — and they bake at the same temperature. They’re very easy and they taste great.

CaramelCornBaked

That magazine is also where I get the caramel corn. No major spillage of caramel this year, and only one small caramel burn on my hand! A success!

SugarCookiesBaked2

I ran out of time this year, and so I decided to throw the undecorated sugar cookies into the freezer instead of delaying the mail shipments while I frosted and sugared. I’ll decorate those later this week and perhaps make another batch of cookies or a pan of brownies, and bring them into my own office.

BagsOfBrittle5

It’s actually a lot of fun to turn out large quantities of goodies like this, assembly-line style, lining up the unbaked nuggets of dough, lifting the cooling cookies onto the second rack, stuffing the baggies. And it’s a blessing to have people to mail them to; we’d be eating cookies until Fourth of July if we didn’t get them out of the house.

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.

Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies: The Great Caramel Spill of 2009

golden popcorn squares

CaramelPopcornBarsThe really crazy part of this isn’t that I tried out a caramel sauce recipe that nearly led to disaster. The really crazy part is that I almost made fortune cookies in addition to the other holiday sweets.

PopcornMartha Stewart Holiday Cookies is another of those special-issue magazines, this one from 2001 (several years before we lived above Zupan’s). I’ve used it before; I’m quite fond of the oatmeal cookies with dried cranberries, and there’s a chocolate cookie that I make every year (I did this year too, but didn’t take pictures since it’s not new for the blog). Most of these recipes are charming and truly special, and this appealed to me because I don’t want to do PopcornNPeanutsanything dull or unoriginal when it comes to my holiday baking.

So I gave very serious thought to making fortune cookies, for which Martha provides a recipe. I’ve made fortune cookies before, nearly 20 years ago now; the tricky part is folding them quickly before they harden. But when I was doing my last planning for the baking marathon I calculated CookingSyrupforCaramelhow long it would take to make them, and realized that I would have to devote 2 hours just to the fortune cookies; they go slowly because you can only bake two at a time to ensure you have time to fold them.

So I turned instead to golden popcorn squares. Every other cookie in the magazine has a big glorious display photograph. CookingSyrup2Golden popcorn squares appear in a photo that’s really featuring creative ways to pack and wrap the cookies, and I had to dig to find it; the squares are a pretty small part of the scene. I think there’s a reason for this. They’re not an elegantly pretty cookie. They are a somewhat rustic bar. And, oh, they are messy.

Golden popcorn squares have CaramelSaucethree basic ingredients: popcorn, peanuts and caramel sauce. Popcorn was easy: I used our stovetop popper and some Greenmarket popcorn kernels and canola oil, and in short order had exactly 12 cups of beautiful, white, fluffy kernels — and no unpopped kernels. I thought this was auspicious, which just goes to show you that I am not always in tune with my intuition. I added some peanuts, and I took a few moments to prepare the baking pan: oil the pan, line it with parchment, oil the parchment. Then I turned my attention to the caramel sauce, for which Martha provides the recipe.

CaramelCornI wasn’t intimidated at the prospect of making caramel sauce on the stovetop. I’ve made peanut brittle before, so heating sugar syrup is nothing new to me. And I was careful to use a good, heavy saucepan, a nice Calphalon one I received for Christmas a few years ago. The recipe specifies that the saucepan should be at least 3 inches deep, and this one was 4 inches. What I failed to take into account was that I was making one and a half recipes’ worth. So I blithely moved ahead. I combined sugar, PanToBakecream of tartar, salt and water in the pan and cooked it until it reached 300 degrees. This is kind of fun to watch: When it reaches 212 the water boils out vigorously, and it looks like it’s going to bubble out of control but it doesn’t. When the mixture reached 300, I attempted to follow the direction to pour heavy cream slowly down the side of the saucepan. I believe the object of doing it this way is to quickly warm up the cream before it reaches the syrup. Unfortunately, my pan was small enough that I had very little side of pan exposed above the top of the sugar mixture, and could not help but pour some of the still-cool cream directly into the sauce, which caused it to bubble over dramatically.

CleanedStovetopThe first rule in any cooking mishap is not to panic. The second is to remove a boiling-over mixture from the hot burner, which I did immediately, though it was a little tough because the sticky mixture really wanted to adhere the pan to the stovetop. I went ahead and finished incorporating the cream into the sauce, then mixed it with the popcorn and peanuts and PanBakedNTurnedpressed the mixture tightly into the baking pan. With bars safely in the oven, I turned my attention to the stovetop. As you can see, I took a couple of pictures of mess mode, but of course I couldn’t capture the most alarming points of the boiling-over because I needed to focus on dealing with the crisis itself. And I am inordinately proud of the fact that it did not occur to me until hours later to summon my husband out to the kitchen to document the disaster for me. This tells me I haven’t entirely taken leave of my senses. (You cannot blame me for wanting assurance sometimes.)

PanBakedNTurned2Caramel sauce is a sticky substance, and burned caramel sauce really wants to adhere to the stovetop. Fortunately, the thing that makes it so sticky is also the key to its cleanup: The stuff is mostly sugar, and sugar dissolves in hot water. I did a bit of damage to a kitchen sponge, but with some concerted effort I was able to wipe away the stuck-on goo in pretty short order, and I had managed to clear away nearly all traces before the popcorn mixture was ready to come out of the oven. What really saved me was the new flat stovetop; it would have been a lot harder to safely get the caramel out of the pipes and crevice of a gas stove burner.

SlabToCutWe weren’t done with the recipe yet, though. Martha directs you to prepare two pans, but I only have one of that size. Her instructions call for letting the baked bars cool for 5 minutes, then inverting the mixture into the second prepared pan and letting that cool entirely. Perhaps, I thought, I could turn the bars onto a cookie sheet. So I tried it, and CuttingSlabthe caramel quickly began to dribble down and the popcorn slab to sag and spread. It would seem the point of the second pan is to get the baked mixture into cooler surroundings as quickly as possible to allow it to set up. So I hustled to wash, re-oil and re-parchment the pan, then invert the now shaggy-looking mixture back into it. The whole thing was somewhat lopsided and irregular, but I left it to cool overnight anyway.

CuttingSlab2The next day, I turned the now-set bars out of the pan onto a cutting board and hewed it into squares. I expected that part to be more difficult, but my knife is a pretty good one, and it didn’t take me long to make passable bars. They looked great, though the longer they sat at room temperature the more they wanted to adhere to one another. By the time I was ready to bag up treats I’d given up on the concept of “bars,” and of “pretty,” and decided to see it as bags of caramel corn.

CaramelPopcornBars2And it was delicious. Is delicious; I’m nibbling on some right now. (Carefully, so as not to get my keyboard sticky.) I may have to get a second baking pan and a larger Calphalon saucepan, sharpen my knife, and try it again next year.

Verdict: Close enough. I made caramel corn and got the stovetop clean again. That’s good enough for me.

Martha Stewart Favorite Comfort Food: Loafing Around

All-American meat loaf

PlatedLoafFavorite Comfort Food promises a broad range of comfort food, and it delivers. Macaroni and cheese, apple pie, French toast, corn chowder, matzo ball soup, tuna melt, pierogies, chocolate chip cookies… The list goes on. All recipes are laid out with classic Martha Stewart detail and perfection.

I was not a big fan of meat loaf CrustlessBreadgrowing up, so this isn’t actually one of my comfort foods. My mom was a great cook, but her meat loaf didn’t do it for me. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it was the texture or the flavor; I don’t know if my tastes had not yet matured or if her recipe just wasn’t that great. So I haven’t made meat loaf before now, but every so often my husband has wished for it a bit. And when I CarrotRoundswas going through the books for November’s list I saw that both Martha Stewart and Alton Brown had meat loaf recipes. I thought, this is a classic. Two of my favorite cooks, with recipes that are sure to be the best possible; I’ll make both and we’ll see which I like better — if indeed I like either at all.

So I started with Martha’s. No OnionChunkspackets of soup mix here! I started by cutting the crusts off three slices of white bread and whirling them into crumbs in the food processor. I emptied the crumbs into a mixing bowl, and returned to the food processor with some chunks of onion, carrot, celery, garlic and parsley, which I minced and added to the bowl as well. I then mixed in some ketchup, dry mustard, CrumbsNVegschopped fresh rosemary, beaten egg, salt, pepper and Tabasco, plus three kinds of meat: equal parts ground beef, ground pork and ground lamb. (The last was actually supposed to be ground veal, but I think I made a Freudian slip at the meat counter at Whole Foods when I asked for lamb instead; I have serious qualms about veal, though kind of doubt that lamb is much better.) I MeatsToMixmixed this all together with my hands, then shaped it into a loaf on top of a piece of parchment that I’d laid on a metal rack. This is one of the first improvements Martha offers over conventional meat loaf: The meat is exposed to the air of the oven, not encased in a loaf pan, which ensures both that the surfaces brown better and that excess fat renders out more effectively.

HandMixingI then sliced some red onions into rings and browned them in some olive oil. I slipped up here, too: I was supposed to add some water to the pan to more effectively soften the onion rings. Oops. They were caramelized but not limp. In the meantime, I mixed up a glaze of ketchup, dry mustard and brown sugar, which I spread on the loaf. I then spread the onions on top and put it into a RedOnionsBrowned400-degree oven. After about half an hour I sprinkled on some more rosemary leaves, and after about 55 minutes of baking time I brought it out of the oven to rest before slicing.

Martha recommends serving the meat loaf with mashed potatoes and spinach, but I was getting everything started rather later than I had meant to and didn’t GlazeOnLoaffeel like going to the labor of mashing potatoes, so I cut up some Yukon Golds and some Brussels sprouts and roasted them instead. They went quite nicely with the meat loaf.

And how was the meat loaf itself? Am I a new convert? I am. It was tasty, juicy, and nicely textured. No toughness, either within the loaf or at the glazed edges. It was CookedLoafmoist without being greasy. And the flavor was rich and lively; the Tabasco gave it a kick, and the rosemary accentuated the savory flavors of the meat.

Verdict: Success. So next weekend we’ll see how Alton Brown measures up.

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.

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.

Desserts, Martha Stewart: Simple but Elegant

summer fruit tart

Let me make this clear. I love Martha Stewart. I’ve loved her for years, even before the insider trading scandal and her prison term; I love her now that she’s softened her edges a bit as a result of her time in prison. I understand why people make fun of her. The magazine spreads are sometimes too perfect or elegant, and there are things like Christmas decorations that have you hot-gluing grapes to Styrofoam forms, or articles about hardwood floor care that include lines like “Once a week I get out the electric floor buffer.” (Only once a week, you say? Well, some of us have standards.) But a lot — a lot — of what she offers is simple, practical and good, even for a credit-challenged slacker like me who tries not to iron more than twice a year.

This dessert cookbook is a case in point. Some of the desserts are a bit work-intensive or elaborate. Miniature meringue puffs each topped with a single cherry, tiramisu wedding cake, berry gelatin sandwiched between meringue disks; all are beautiful but a challenge to my attention span. But the majority of the recipes are simple in their elegance. Uncomplicated layer cakes, chocolate-macadamia tart, a simple combination of pears and pecorino cheese. The central tenet of the book is that if you work with good ingredients, you need only do so much to create a stunning and delicious dessert.

I had originally wanted to make the black-and-white peanut bar, which is a simple layering of chocolate and vanilla ice creams with sugar wafer cookies, topped with semisweet chocolate and peanuts—a kind of fancy variation on the Nutty Buddy ice cream cone. But I had limited time to canvass grocery stores and I couldn’t find the sugar wafer cookies, so rather than try to substitute I opted to prepare a different recipe, the summer fruit tart. This turned out to be a great choice; the fruit was a better complement to the pasta with blue cheese and broccoli than the chocolate and nut mixture would have been, and the summer timing meant the peaches and berries I found were top quality.

The tart is fairly simple. You make a pastry dough of flour, salt, sugar and butter; because you do not over-process the mixture the butter is in fairly large chunks. You pat the somewhat unruly dough into a disk and chill it for at least an hour (or overnight, in my case). When you’re ready to bake, slice up some peaches and add a quart or two of blueberries, tossing them with some sugar and flour. Take the chilled dough and roll it out to be about 4 inches larger than the intended size of the tart; lay the crust in your pan, top it with the fruit mixture, and fold the edges in toward the center so you have a mostly open tart with about a three-inch pastry border. Brush the dough with milk and sprinkle with sugar, and bake at 375 for 30-40 minutes.

I admit I was kind of worried as I prepared the dough. The recipe says “dough will be full of butter chunks,” and it was, but I wasn’t sure if I had struck the right balance between blending in the butter just a little more and overworking the dough to make it tough. Then I rolled it out, and found myself a bit constrained by the size of my counter; when I got the crust to the appropriate size, it still seemed awfully thick. I was beginning to think I needed a bigger pan. Even with the edges folded in to the appropriate extent, the tart mostly filled a cookie sheet. The recipe calls for a very generous amount of fruit. And not long after I put the tart in the oven,  I spotted a bit of smoke: Some of that excess butter had dripped onto the oven floor, so I had to hastily wipe it away so that I could bake rather than smoke the pastry. I was afraid that I would continue to get drips and burning, but apparently only one edge of crust had strayed beyond the bounds of the cookie sheet, and the rest of the baking time was uneventful.

So when the timer went off I nervously opened the oven door, and found that my tart was now beautiful. I wasn’t the only one to think so, either.  The thick crust turned out to be perfect for the heavy load of fruit and the baking time. I had managed to mix it right—the pastry was flaky and delicious, not tough, and the butteriness was just right. I served the tart with butter pecan ice cream, sending us all into a major food coma.

Verdict: Success. The actual prep time was minimal and the result was spectacularly delicious. I might try to prepare it in my cast-iron skillet next time; the high sides should prevent butter from dripping and burning.