"No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize." - Julia Child

Thursday, December 10, 2009

More best-of lists

I would talk about the Top Chef finale except that I only saw the last few minutes of judges' table last night and thus only know who won! I don't know anything about the challenge and I'd rather watch the whole episode before I talk about it. (Yes, I know I've been eagerly awaiting the finale for MONTHS, so it seems rather hypocritical of me to miss most of it, but I was at a friend's holiday party and Bravo will rerun the death out of this episode so I think I have a valid excuse. Also, I made my famous peanut butter molasses cookies for the party, scrumptious huzzahs!)

So instead of discussing it, I'll instead post yet another one of these year-end round-ups of food books. This link is actually a round-up of round-ups. A lot of people are making a big to-do about this Momofuku book, and one of the authors is actually going to be at the Harvard Bookstore tonight, so I'm wondering if I should go and see what all the fuss is about. We'll see how I feel tonight; right now I'm having some stomach issues (it's all rumbly and queasy) and am sipping peppermint tea hoping it will help me feel better. Of course, if I go, there will be some full reportage.

What are some of your favorite food books of the year? Even though I'm happily paired off, I adore Judith Jones's The Pleasures of Cooking for One, which I bought after seeing her and Lidia Bastianich speak together recently. It's a beautiful little book and I love the fact that it celebrates treating one's self to the fine pleasure of making a nice meal solo. Some of the recipes in the book seem like they'd yield leftovers or like they could be adapted for two, so I'm looking forward to trying some. It's full of helpful kitchen hints. The photography is lovely. And she's got great recipes like one that yields exactly 2 popovers. Until I get a better knack for baking, I can't figure out how to minimize recipes for a smaller yield, but I love that now I can make 2 popovers for me and Jeremy.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Top Chef season 6, episode 13

Alas! Girlfriend has gone home and the predictable sausage party triumverate has made it to the Top Chef finale.

I was sad to see Jennifer go, but I wasn't surprised, because I almost felt like from the start this has been a game of bide your time and watch Kevin and the Voltaggio brothers go to the finale. I think I was saddest because she really seemed like she had come back to do the finale feeling pumped up and refreshed, ready to bring her A game and ready to kick some boy butt. But alas. She just didn't bring it quite enough. It was a bummer that she wasn't able to grill her duck like she'd wanted to, but geez, isn't a confit good enough for you people? What can possibly be bad about cooking a duck (or any other bit of meat) in its own fat? (BACON.) And kudos to her for realizing that she had a problem with the grill and instead of letting everything go to hell she improvised with a second just as tasty solution.

But did anyone else have a moment of anxiety when they saw my pick for Top Chef, Kevin, get called out during judges' table for having tough brisket? And did anyone else chuckle to herself when she heard him call the brisket "toothsome" to cover up the fact that it wasn't as tender as he would have liked? I admire his balls, and I also admire the fact that he's willing to stand by his food, even if it isn't precisely perfect. I thought the stuff he made looked delicious anyway, despite my hatred of beets. For Kevin, I would give beets a second chance. And Bryan's goat cheese ravioli? WANT. Nom nom. Fig glazed ribs? I love figs! Yum. I just got some fig preserves, so maybe I'll jazz up something for dinner with some figgy goodness.

And check out that baby bump on Padma! Way to go, lady. She got knocked up by one of the producers, apparently. I'm not sure how I feel about her bangs though. 

We're almost at the end. And I have to admit that I'm somewhat grateful because I really feel like Bravo dragged this season on interminably. Here's hoping they don't pull some other nonsense, like splitting up the finale YET AGAIN over two more weeks, or something ridiculous. Though at this point I wouldn't put it past them.

Girlfriend, I salute you.

CHEFTESTANT FAIL #14! (But you're still a winner to me!)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

PW's Best Food Books of 2009

Probably everybody has Christmas on the brain now that Thanksgiving is over. I've just barely started thinking about Christmas shopping myself, but I do have a few foodie-related items on my wish list this year (among them a 5-quart oval Le Creuset, a Cuisinart food processor, a cookbook stand, and a few choice food books). And as someone who works in publishing, I can also say that it wouldn't be the end of the year without a seemingly endless array of "best of the year" book lists. They're infinite!

Here's a link to Publishers Weekly's selections of Best Food Books of 2009. One of my Christmas wishes, Ratio, is actually on there. Others I'm intrigued by are The New Portuguese Table (a shout-out to my neighbors on the Iberian peninsula!), and also Salt to Taste. I really like the idea of cookbooks that provide not just recipes, but also lessons that can become the basis for creating your own recipes. I like the idea of learning techniques and combinations and then using those as building blocks for one's own creativity. Don't get me wrong, I still love and adore using recipes and there is nothing like a beautiful cookbook of fail-proof recipes. But I am really getting into the DIY-recipe idea, so I think that Ratio and Salt to Taste would be valuable additions to any home library for someone who really wants to develop as a home cook.

Any food-related books on your holiday wish lists? Alternately, what were the best food-related books you read this year?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Good gravy! Gravy!

Yesterday I hinted at the fact that I needed to share a major life revelation. Here I am, about to do, boldly going where few Cubans have ever gone before.

I have finally eaten gravy. For the first time in my life.

Yes, gentle reader, lift up thine jaw from where it's surely fallen to the floor in shock—I speak the truth! In my 29 years of life, I'd never ONCE tasted turkey gravy, or any traditional brown gravy made and beloved by so many on their turkey and mashed potatoes. Not once!

You must understand that this stems back to the days of my youth. When I was just a wee one, with my soft, impressionable mind still highly prone to serious molding and sculpting, my father took it upon himself to impress upon me many of the foods that are on his seemingly unending list of evil foods that no one in their right mind should ever, under any circumstances, consume. Foods that because he does not like, he thinks no one else should like either. This list includes: mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, and most other condiments, peanut butter, Cocoa Puffs cereal, all types of squash (my mother and I delight in hiding squash in things, making him eat them, asking if he liked it, and after he says yes, telling him that there was squash in what he just ate and liked—but he still goes on saying he hates squash), avocados, al dente pasta, any soft drink that isn't clear (he actually had me trained as a child to respond to his question, "What is Coca-Cola?" with an exuberant shout of, "Poison!"), any and all Mexican foods (including burritos, tacos, and tortillas), curry, stuffing, chewing gum, whipped cream, most kinds of frosting, and let's not forget, for the purpose of this blog entry—gravy.

I think it's the color and the consistency that my father's not happy with, or perhaps it's the fact that gravy (in the traditional American/Thanksgiving essence) is not part of the Spanish or Latino food pantheon, but my father passionately despises gravy and refuses to eat it. My mother also politely and less vocally turns up her nose at it, but she still turns it up. So while I had the good sense to ignore my father on most of his other warnings about the evils of the foods on his most-hated list (how could ANYONE hate whipped cream!), the gravy thing really stuck with me. I just never had an occasion to eat it growing up, so I never did.

But what about at Thanksgiving? you ask. Surely there was gravy for your turkey then! Ah, dear friends, we Cubans sassed up the turkey Latino style and instead dressed it with mójo (pronounced MOH-hoh), a Latino "gravy" made of hot oil, thin-sliced onions, garlic, and citrus juice. It's simple and delicious and is perfect with meat and potatoes—or in our case, lechón (roast pork) and yucca. Even when gravy was made available to the Gringo contingent of our family, there was also always mójo, so I never hesitated: I went with the sauce I knew.

For the last 4 years, I'd attended Thanksgiving dinner at Jeremy's parents' house. His mother is an excellent cook and makes a pretty traditional Thanksgiving dinner, including homemade gravy. My father had me thinking that this was made of no less than the tears of abandoned Asian infants thickened with essence of Adolf Hitler, so for the last 4 years, I absolutely would not eat gravy at the Trout family Thanksgiving dinner. I politely helped myself to everything else that was available, and when the pitcher of gravy came my way, I discreetly passed it along to the next person, dressing my turkey only with cranberry sauce or forkfuls of stuffing (one of the foods I was wise enough to ignore my father on, because it's scrumptious!). I just couldn't bring myself to ladle a spoonful of the thick brown stuff out on my plate.

But this year I had a serious pre-game pep talk with myself. All right, self, said I, this is it. You're 29 now, and you're into food more seriously now, and you're always trying new things, so how can you possibly hold your head high and call yourself a lover of food if you've never had the guts to try something as simple as gravy? For god's sake, it's just meat drippings mixed with roux! Get over yourself! Try it! How bad could it REALLY be?

I spent the pre-dinner hours helping in the kitchen and warily hovering near the gravy, checking it out. I watched Jeremy's mother concoct the gravy. I watched it turn brown. I watched it thicken. I even stirred it for a few brief minutes when she left the room to answer the phone. And when the time came and we sat down to dinner, I took the gravy pitcher with only the slightest tremble of unsteadiness in my hand and put one conservative spoonful into an indentation I'd specifically made for it on top of my mashed potatoes. I passed the pitcher. I took a deep breath, and then I took a forkful.

I didn't die! I didn't immediately grow horns and find myself indentured for all eternity to Satan! My insides didn't shrivel from this noxious substance! I ate the rest of the gravy-covered potatoes in relief.

Later, on the ride home, I confessed to Jeremy that during dinner I'd eaten my first serving of gravy ever.

"What did you think?" he asked.

"It tasted like turkey juice," I said. "Thickened turkey juice. It's not bad. It just tastes like turkey. But I think I prefer mójo." Here Jeremy made an appreciative noise, as he is a fan of my mother's cooking, including her mójo. (In fact, he's such a fan that every year he films her on his cell phone video camera making the mójo, which actually is quite a sight to see. Maybe we'll post the video on here this year.)

So there you have it: a Cubanita had her first gravy at the tender young age of 29. The spell is broken. The gravy was eaten. And I am still alive, and better for it, I think.

Checking out my edible adversary

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

San Gibbin: Overeating with a purpose

Ah, Thanksgiving. (Or, as we Latinos call it, San Gibbin.) I was in such a food coma, both from the big day and from enormous meals in subsequent days (including INDIAN BUFFET), that I lost my internets faculties. But now I've re-emerged into the world of getting back to business and staring at a screen all day, so I'm here to recap the goodness and share a recipe for the side dish that is becoming my claim to fame at the Trout family Thanksgiving dinner. I also have to share an exciting personal revelation, but that deserves its own post.

Thanksgiving dinner was fantastic. Jeremy's mom is an amazing cook. In addition to the typical spread, this year we had the usual escarole soup for starters (it's literally just escarole and broth, and it's delicious) along with marinated mushrooms, olives, and these little onions soaked in balsamic vinegar (DELICIOUS OMG). Jeremy's mom also made a tasty fig sauce, almost like a marmalade, to go with the turkey that was awesome. Need that recipe! The salad was oranges, red onions, and black olives with olive oil, which was simple and refreshing and which I'm going to steal for Christmas this year. She also put some leftover stuffing into muffin tins and baked it to make STUFFIN' MUFFINS! I love the idea. We also had wine, belatedly celebrated our joint birthday with pumpkin spice cake from the Amish market, and talked about Trotsky. Pretty typical Trout family Thanksgiving.

For the second year in a row, I made acorn squash filled with chorizo stuffing. I got this recipe from a Latina magazine and it's great! It's not as hard as the recipe might make it seem--just takes a few steps. But the good part is that while the rice cooks and the squash roast, you can prepare everything else and then be ready to go when the squash and rice are ready. There are only 4 of us at Jeremy's Thanksgiving dinner, so I halved the recipe. The trick to splitting an acorn squash is to use a large, very sharp knife and work very slowly, cutting carefully around the squash. Having your mother in the kitchen nervously supervising is optional.

* 2 cups wild rice
* 4 1/2 cups chicken broth
* 1/4 tsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
* 4 small acorn squash
* Olive oil (for sauteeing onions and brushing the squash)
* 1 large onion, diced
* 12 oz Spanish chorizo, chopped (you can also use sweet or mild Italian sausage, the kind that doesn't have a casing)
* 2 tsp dried sage
* 1/4 cup chopped parsley
* 3/4 cup chopped dried cranberries
* 1/4 cup maple syrup

Preheat oven to 375. Rinse rice. In medium saucepan, bring rice, broth, and 1/4 tsp salt to a boil. Cover and simmer until rice is tender, with some grains split open, about 45 to 60 minutes. (I used the Archer Farms from Target wild rice and it was done in 45 minutes, but check the directions on your container for specifics!) Transfer rice to a large bowl.

Cut off squash ends if necessary to stand them upright, cut them in half lengthwise, and seed. (Use an ice cream scoop to easily remove the seeds and stringy pulp. I love the multi-functionality of ice cream scoops and think no kitchen should be without one, but I digress.) Line a baking sheet with foil. Brush the outsides and insides of each squash with oil and place cut side down on baking sheet. Bake until tender, 35 to 45 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 325.

In saute pan, heat oil over medium heat. Cook onion until soft. Add chorizo and sage and cook about 5 minutes. Add to bowl with rice.

Scoop out squash so edges are 1/4 inch thick and add pulp to bowl. Stir in parsley and cranberries and add salt to taste. Mound stuffing into squash halves and drizzle with maple syrup. Put them into a foil-lined baking dish. Bake until heated through, about 25 minutes. Makes 8 servings.

Apparently, Jeremy's father specially requested that my leftover stuffing be served as part of their day-after-Thanksgiving leftovers dinner, and I felt so loved. Hurrah! Do share your traditional and not-so-traditional meal ideas!

Here is a (slightly dark) picture of my stuffed acorn squash. Noms!