……and enjoy! This month, instead of focusing on a specific title, we all participated in a “cooking challenge.” The idea was to make something you’d never tried before, either because it was too time-consuming, too intimidating, or too unfamiliar. Everyone seemed to enjoy their adventures in the kitchen and it was fun to hear about so many different experiences.
We discovered as we talked that one obstacle to trying certain challenges is the amount of time involved. Several members had to set aside almost a full day to complete their chosen recipe! One member made fish stock from Paul Prudhommes’s Fork in the Road, a book that focuses on healthier versions of many classic New Orleans dishes. The stock took 4-5 hours to make, but was “rich and delicious.” And while it’s true that making stock isn’t all hands-on, you do have to be in the house to periodically check on it.
One person did have a great tip for making stock, though– use a pasta pot with a colander insert. When your stock is done, simply lift out the insert and all the bones and veggies will come out with it. Easier than lifting a heavy stockpot and pouring the boiling liquid through a strainer. Genius!!
Another all-day affair was a classic pot roast from an America’s Test Kitchen recipe. You had to take the meat out of the fridge an hour before beginning; actual cooking time was 3-4 hours; then you needed a bit more time to make a sauce for the meat. Again, much of this time is hands-off– and the results were excellent. In a nod to the wordiness of ATK recipes, someone joked that it probably took 5 hours just to read the recipe!
Continuing the simmering theme, one person made osso buco, a dish she’d been wanting to try for some time but hadn’t because…..it’s very time-consuming! She used a recipe from the Boston Globe that calls for veal shanks, a pricey ingredient that can be difficult to find. Meat Again in Billerica has them, and according to Wegman’s website, this is an item they carry as well. There was a happy ending after the hours of braising; the osso buco was a big hit with everyone in the family, even “Mr. Fussy”!
One member decided to try the roast chicken from Julia Child’s classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The recipe requires focused attention on the task at hand, because you must baste the chicken every 5 minutes. This is not an exaggeration! But the chicken was “shockingly good.” To go with it she made Julia’s suggestion: ratatouille, which also had a very involved preparation; but it was “the best I’ve ever tasted!” So, a lot of effort but a rewarding result, which seems to be a theme here. If you want to see Julia make that roast chicken herself, watch this fun video!Also in the “high effort” category, I decided to try making tortellini. This is something my grandmother made, completely by hand, on a regular basis while I was growing up. While making the filling and the dough were fairly simple (and I had machines to help me!), rolling the dough and filling and shaping the tortellini took several hours. But practice makes perfect, and I got better as I went along.
The best part– when we ate them I was instantly transported (in Proustian fashion) back to my childhood– so I knew it was the “right” recipe. My recipe was from a Saveur article by Biba Caggiano, a well-known northern Italian chef with several cookbooks (available through the MVLC catalog ). I always respected my nonna, but now I really respect her. She churned out hundreds of these yummies so efficiently, it never occurred to me how much work went into them.
Looking at the notes from our meeting, I realized that three people made pancake-related items, from three different cultures. One person tried making crepes for the first time, and was pleasantly surprised how simple they were, and how delicious when filled. This French classic is infinitely adapatable, and unfilled crepes can be frozen for quick future meals. And you don’t need a fancy crepe pan; a plain old nonstick skillet worked great!
Another member tried making scallion pancakes and had the opposite experience: they were more difficult and took longer to make than she’d expected. It was hard to get the dough to come together; overall it took her 2 1/2 hours to make 8 pancakes! They were tasty, though, and made a nice lunch. Finally, one person tried making whole-wheat pancakes from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe. She was pleasantly surprised to find that they were delicious, and didn’t taste like “cardboard”, or have the consistency of hockey pucks. They were so good, she said you could eat them plain. Sounds like a keeper!
One participant decided to try a recipe that used a homemade salad dressing in two ways in the same dish. You make a honey salad dressing and use part of it as a marinade for chicken. The rest is used for dressing a salad made with the cooked chicken. This recipe is from the show Sarah Moulton’s Weeknight Meals: http://saramoulton.com/2015/01/salad-dressing-chicken. Not too time consuming, and a creative use of ingredients. Another member tried risotto, which has a reputation of being difficult and tedious. It turned out to be neither, but it is one of those dishes that requires your undivided attention with frequent stirring. This recipe was made with chicken stock, wine, and Parmesan cheese. Extra-starchy Arborio rice is necessary for this traditional dish, and though it’s certainly available, not everyone carries it. The risotto was creamy and flavorful, a good pick for wintertime cooking.
One member’s challenge was to find a vegetable recipe that her husband would like; and the answer turned out to be (unsurprisingly)– bacon! She found a recipe for roasted green beans with pancetta that was absolutely delicious. Others commented that the same strategy (pork fat + oven roasting) works well with Brussels sprouts and asparagus. Heck, it probably works for almost anything!
On the baking side of things, one person decided to try making bread, which ordinarily she would avoid. She tried a no-knead peasant-style loaf that rose and was baked in a Pyrex casserole. The bread was “good” and had a nice chewy texture. She also tried a similar recipe that featured an extended refrigerator rise. That method seemed to produce a better crust. As with many other things we tried this month, the timing had to be taken into account; you had to plan for when the rise would be complete, though the cold rise in the fridge gave you more leeway. It’s so much easier now to find high-quality bread that unless you are a devoted baker, you probably won’t need or want to make bread on a regular basis. Though it’s nice to know you could!
Another member made gougeres from a Jacques Pepin recipe. These savory, cheesy puffs are great as appetizers or with soup. They look a lot more difficult to make than they really are, which always makes for a successful project! Now she is looking forward to trying some recipes from his most recent cookbook.
Thanks to everyone who stepped up to the plate (!) this month! Undoubtedly there will be more cooking challenges in the future.
Our next meeting on Friday, March 25 will feature two titles with a pasta theme: Everyday Pasta by Giada DeLaurentiis, and/or Pasta Modern by Francine Segan. Copies are available at the main desk.