Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I am inordinately pleased with myself for trying this set of recipes, and even more pleased (one might say downright smug) that I pulled them off. Sure, fish sticks and oven fries seems like a safe bet—in fact, this readymade menu is basically designed for picky kids. But keep in mind that I didn’t grow up eating fish sticks or fish sandwiches; I hated fish as a child (I blame my few limited experiences with the dreaded orange roughy). The first time I ventured to even try fish and chips in a restaurant was less than 10 years ago, I’ve only been cooking fish at home for 5 years or so, and I’ve never cooked anything other than salmon. I don’t like coleslaw and tartar sauce makes me shudder (I prefer my fish with malt vinegar and lemon). So there were a lot of hurdles to overcome here. But when I saw the photo of this meal in the “Family Style” column in November’s Bon Appetit, it just looked so tasty and fun, and it was well-reviewed online, and A was encouraging, so after hemming and hawing about a million times, I went ahead with it. Even while I was cooking I wasn’t sure everything was going to work out, but then suddenly it did. Pretty brilliantly, if I do say so myself. And I do.

In short: The fish sticks are straight-up awesome. The breading is crispy and flavorful without being deep-fried, with a welcome bit of kick from the cayenne. But it wasn’t all about the breading—the halibut really shone through, and I loved the texture and non-fishy flavor. My only complaint was that it was hellishly expensive—“fresh” (meaning frozen and then thawed) wild Alaskan halibut was an astounding $24.99 per pound at the Whole Foods fish counter. Relieved that I’d decided to only make a half-recipe, I headed over to the freezer case and found a bag of frozen wild Alaskan halibut steaks at $13.99: still steep, but not quite as insane. When I got them home and thawed and cut into sticks, however, I realized I’d paid that price for just 12 ounces of halibut, meaning that (although it was still cheaper than the “fresh” stuff) there was just enough for two and a half fish sticks per person. We didn’t starve or anything—they were hefty sticks and there were plenty of oven fries on our plates—but once I tasted just how good the fish was, I was sad to have so little of it. My mission will now be to find a more affordable source of quality halibut so I don’t have to break the bank to make this meal again.

The fish recipe is the real gem here, but I highly recommend making the whole menu. The oven fries were unsurprisingly delicious—again, a healthier, non-fried take on the restaurant standard. And I may not like coleslaw, but this was its most tolerable incarnation. I don’t like mayo, and the dressing on this was a non-creamy vinegar-based one (no oil, either—again, a healthier update); I don’t like cabbage, and I found a coleslaw mix at Trader Joe’s that was predominately made up of shredded broccoli stems supplemented by smaller amounts of shredded carrot and shredded red cabbage (I used half the bag for my coleslaw and have been enjoying the rest sprinkled over my green salads). In my heart of hearts, I’d probably still have preferred a green salad for my vegetable, but I’d have the slaw again—it was important in terms of replicating the classic restaurant meal. And I even tried the tartar sauce and have to admit it wasn’t bad. The fish was so good it didn’t really need it, but A was a fan of it (as he is of all dips and sauces) and again, it was key for restaurant-style verisimilitude.

Best of all, even though I had to think carefully about the order of operations and dirtied a few too many bowls in the process, this seemingly complicated meal of four separate recipes came together in just a little over an hour, no longer than it usually takes me to make a weeknight dinner. We both really enjoyed it, it was refreshingly different from our usual fare, and it was even pretty healthy.

Oven fries:
1 pound large unpeeled Yukon Gold potatoes, each cut into 8 wedges
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon fleur de sel or coarse kosher salt

Quick tartar sauce:
½ cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons sweet pickle relish or finely chopped bread-and-butter pickles
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Five-minute slaw:
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
⅛ teaspoon celery seeds
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1 8-ounce package coleslaw mix

Pan-fried fish:
1 pound 1½-inch-thick halibut filets
¾ cup panko
1½ teaspoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 large egg whites
2 tablespoons dark ale
2 tablespoons olive oil
Lemon wedges for garnish

1. To make the oven fries, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Toss all the ingredients in a medium bowl to coat the potatoes well with olive oil and salt. Place the potatoes, points facing up, on a rimmed baking sheet and roast 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 400 degrees and continue to roast until potatoes are tender and golden, about 20–30 minutes longer.

2. While oven fries cook, make tartar sauce by mixing all ingredients in a small bowl. Cover and chill until ready to use.

3. To make slaw, whisk first four ingredients in a large bowl, then add green onions. Add coleslaw mix and toss well.

4. To make fish, cut halibut into sticks and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. While oil is heating, combine panko, parsley, salt, lemon peel, and cayenne in a shallow bowl; in a separate shallow bowl, whisk egg whites and ale. When oil is hot, dip fish sticks in ale mixture, turn to coat, and shake off excess; then place fish in panko mixture and turn to coat all sides. Add fish sticks to skillet and cook about 2 minutes on each side, until all sides are golden and fish is opaque in center. Transfer fish to paper towels, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

Serves: 2
Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Leftover potential: I’d say low, because fried foods (even oven-fried and pan-fried ones) don’t reheat that well. I deliberately halved the recipes in order to have no leftovers. But Bon Appetit did have a pretty decent-sounding suggestion for making a fish sandwich out of the leftover fish sticks, tartar sauce, and slaw on hamburger buns, so give it a try if it floats your boat.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


I chose this highly-rated recipe from Epicurious as an appropriately noble use for my Rancho Gordo midnight black beans and my new Dutch oven. I wanted a recipe specifically designed for using dry beans, involving a long simmer with flavorful ingredients. This one struck the right balance between delicious (bacon! sour cream!) and wholesome (everything else—lots of veggies and no extra fat besides the bacon). Don’t be scared off by the long soaking and cooking times—you only have to pay undivided attention to this recipe for about 30 minutes. Sure, you won’t be whipping it up on a weeknight, but make it on the weekend and it will certainly feed you happily for the rest of the week. It fit perfectly into my Sunday schedule: I started soaking the beans right away when I got up in the morning, read the paper, went to a museum, came home and chopped the soup ingredients and got them cooking in the later afternoon, cleaned the apartment while they simmered cozily, and for once did not have to miss the beginning of the season premiere of 24 because I was hustling to get dinner on the table. The result of this day of cooking was a substantial, flavorful soup, slightly smoky from the bacon, with a delightful burst of contrasting freshness from the cilantro-lime sour cream.

I’ll admit I was prepared for this soup to rock my world and make me turn away from canned black beans once and for all, but those expectations might have been a bit high. It’s certainly worthwhile to cook with good-quality dried beans now and again (they’re more affordable and healthier, and the process is enjoyable), and if I get my hands on any more Rancho Gordo black beans, this is a treatment worthy of them. I thought this soup might blow my quickie canned-bean version right out of the water, but although the flavor was more complex and the texture was satisfyingly meatier, it wasn’t so dramatically different as to inspire me to toss away my old recipe. The moral: Both versions can coexist. Sometimes you want a quick weeknight meal with convenient ingredients, and sometimes you want a slow-cooked, old-world weekend meal. Besides, simmering something on the stovetop for hours is great on a cool winter day, but torturous on a hot one--and I live in Southern California, so canned beans will continue to have their place in my pantry. That said, I will certainly make this soup again. In the meantime, I still have leftovers to enjoy!

A few notes: I used nonfat plain yogurt instead of the sour cream, because I’m not much of a sour cream fan to begin with and knew I wouldn’t miss the extra calories. And yogurt is tasty! Instead of my usual Trader Joe’s French Village, I tried what seemed to be a new TJ’s offering, Organic European-Style Yogurt, which turned out to be a great choice for this recipe—it was smoother and creamier than ordinary yogurt but also much thinner, aptly like Mexican crema, with a nice tart flavor. I highly recommend it if you can find it. Also, the original recipe had you add the tomato and vinegar with the rest of the ingredients, but Rancho Gordo’s bean-cooking guidelines say that adding acids too early in the process can make the beans tough, so I added them about 30 minutes before the end of the cooking time and have changed the recipe below accordingly.

16 ounces (about 2½ cups) dried black beans
6 bacon slices, chopped
¾ cup finely chopped celery
¾ cup finely chopped onion
¾ cup finely chopped carrots
¾ cup finely chopped leeks
6 to 8 cups low-sodium chicken broth (preferably homemade)
1 cup (packed) chopped fresh cilantro, divided
⅓ cup (packed) chopped fresh Italian parsley
1½ tablespoons minced garlic
1 jalapeño pepper, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 large tomato, chopped
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
¾ cup sour cream or plain yogurt
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Place beans in a large bowl. Add enough water to cover by 3 inches and let stand about 6 hours or overnight. Drain well.

2. Cook bacon in a large, heavy pot over medium heat until brown but still soft, about 4 minutes. Add celery, onion, carrots, and leeks, and sauté until vegetables begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Add beans, chicken broth, ½ cup cilantro, parsley, garlic, jalapeño, cumin, and coriander. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer soup until beans are very tender, stirring occasionally, about 2 hours. When the beans are just starting to become tender (after about 1½ hours), add the tomato and vinegar.

3. Working in batches, transfer soup to a blender a process until a slightly chunky puree forms, then return soup to pot (better yet, use an immersion blender until the soup is about half-blended). Season to taste with salt and pepper.

4. Mix sour cream/yogurt, lemon juice, lime juice, and remaining ½ cup cilantro in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle soup into bowls and place a dollop of sour cream mixture atop soup (if you are making leftover portions, store the sour cream mixture in a separate bowl; do not add it until soup is reheated and ready to eat).

Serves: 8
Time: About 8½ hours, but only about 30 minutes of that is active cooking
Leftover potential: High (all soups improve with age), but remember not to add the sour cream until ready to eat.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


I made this before Christmas but didn't have time to post it, what with all the frantic baking. From Cook's Country via RecipeZaar via Ezra Pound Cake, it's a great treatment for boneless, skinless chicken breasts, which are not one of my favorite foods but still seem to find their way into my kitchen on a regular basis due to their sheer usefulness. This recipe uses the big, bold flavors of bacon, rosemary, lemon, and red pepper flakes to combat the dryness and blandness of the chicken, transforming it into an exciting, sophisticated, yet still super-easy weeknight meal. If you're anything like me, you won't be able to restrain yourself from licking the sauce right off the plate afterwards.

My only complaint was with the 1 and 7/8 teaspoons of red pepper flakes called for by the RecipeZaar version of the recipe. While I totally wouldn't put it past the America's Test Kitchen people to require such a randomly precise measurement, that's a lot of red pepper flakes--even my red-pepper-flakiest recipe, Spicy Roast Chicken and Tomatoes, tops out at 1 teaspoon. We (especially A) are spice fans, and lord knows you'll have to pry my red pepper flakes from my cold dead hands, but we agreed that even the 1 1/2 teaspoons I cautiously used seemed way too overpowering for this recipe. Later I did a more thorough Google search and found that (although the official Cook's Country version isn't available for free) several other online versions of this recipe called for just 1/8 teaspoon of red pepper flakes, suggesting that's the correct original measurement. Nice typo, RecipeZaar poster! And nice detective work, me! That's a biiiiiig difference in measurement. But 1/8 teaspoon is way too wussy, so I'm going to go ahead and recommend that you use 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes.

4–5 slices bacon, chopped
¼ cup all-purpose flour
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons lemon juice

1. Fry bacon in a large skillet over medium-high heat until crisp, about 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer bacon to a plate lined with paper towels. Spoon off all but 2 tablespoons bacon fat.

2. Place flour in a shallow dish. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper, dredge in flour, and shake to remove excess. Add butter to reserved bacon fat in skillet and heat over high heat, swirling to melt butter. When foam subsides, reduce heat to medium-high and cook chicken until browned on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer chicken to a plate (leaving fat in skillet) and cover loosely with foil.

3. Reduce heat to medium and add garlic, rosemary, and red pepper flakes. Cook until garlic is browned and crisp, about 2 minutes. Add broth and lemon juice, scraping up browned bits from bottom of skillet with a wooden spoon, and simmer until slightly thickened, about 4 minutes.

4. Return chicken and bacon to pan and simmer, turning chicken once or twice, until sauce is thick and glossy and chicken is cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes.

Serves: 4
Time: 30 minutes
Leftover potential: Medium. I can take or leave leftover chicken, but I have to admit that Ezra Pound Cake's recipe for turning these into sandwiches sounds pretty freakin' amazing.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Happy belated new year! After three weeks of feverish baking and canning before Christmas, two weeks in Minnesota being blissfully fed by others, and then two weeks of slow readjustment to everyday life, I’m finally back in the kitchen and back to the blog, and it seems a big fat update is in order.

Sharing recipes for the holiday treats I made seems to detract from their mystique, particularly when I’m giving them as gifts, so you probably won't be seeing separate entries on them anytime soon, but here’s a rundown.

The standards:
  • My mother’s spritz recipe—absolutely the best I’ve ever tasted, puts all others to shame—using the cookie press handed down to me from A’s mom
  • Chocolate peanut-butter balls on pretzels—my personal favorite of all the treats I made
  • Carole Walter’s coconut-apricot cookies—simply awesome, and my favorite of the non-chocolate treats
  • Apple butter—the only canning I did this year; I nearly forgot how fun it is!
The experiments:
  • Rosemary roasted cashews—Wanting something more savory to give to the non-sweet-toothed among us, I originally intended to make a ton of different spiced nuts, but ran out of time and settled on just this recipe. It was so easy and delicious that I ended up cranking out four batches and will definitely make them again next Christmas. Or, you know, next week.
  • Peppermint bark—I pretty much just made this to go into cookies (see below), but was impressed by how pretty, tasty, and crazy easy it was. Sadly, there was no peppermint extract at the store and I had to go with just regular mint extract instead, which gave the bark a slight wintergreen-gum flavor that kept it from being perfect. I’ll make it again next year with the right flavoring, maybe kicking it up a notch by using dark chocolate as well as white.
  • Peppermint bark chocolate cookies—such a great concept, but so-so execution. I’m obsessed with Trader Joe’s Peppermint Jo-Jos and wanted to capture that classic chocolate-peppermint combo in a homemade treat, so I was happy to find this recipe. The result was tasty enough to try again, but not the ideal cookie of my dreams; I’d like a darker chocolate cookie with a moister texture (though that might have been my fault; I overbaked them) and more peppermint-bark pieces. I’m wondering if it would be possible to just add peppermint-bark pieces to Carole Walter’s delicious chocolate sugar snaps.
  • Cream cheese sugar cookies—I love a good frosted sugar cookie, and when I tasted some at an office cookie exchange last Christmas I immediately snagged the recipe, but I shouldn’t have chosen to make them as a gift, considering it was my first time baking cutout cookies. A and I had a lot of fun making and decorating them together, but they ended up looking as though they were created by demented four-year-olds instead of college-educated thirtysomethings. The cookies seemed thinner and crisper than I remembered, and the icing recipe I selected was an epic fail, turning out so runny that it was really more of a glaze. The homely cookies still tasted delicious (I’ve been working my way though the leftovers in my freezer with increasing enjoyment), but the process was too frustrating and the cookies not interesting or attractive enough to become regular members of my Christmas-cookie rotation.
OK, enough about giving. Let’s talk about all the awesome food-related gifts I received! Thanks to my parents, I now finally have a good, heavy, tight-lidded, oven-safe Lodge Dutch oven, a cast-iron behemoth covered in adorable red enamel, and it cooks like a dream. I plan to spend the rest of the winter making soups, stews, braises, and no-knead bread to my heart’s content. In particular, I will be using it to cook beans, because thanks to my parents and A’s mom, I received a stash of nine pounds of delicious heirloom varieties from foodie fave Rancho Gordo! As a recent convert to bean-eating and a relative newbie to using dry beans, I’m taking things slow, but I’ve already been pleased with the results of using yellow eye beans for my fave stovetop baked bean recipe, and on Sunday I tried a great new black bean soup recipe (recipe to come) using the midnight black beans. Next I’m thinking maybe refried Vaquero beans, and eventually we’ll get brave and tackle the Christmas limas. It’s fun to be able to experiment with new ingredients, but the main point is that these are some of the best beans I’ve ever had—you really can taste the difference, and I’m already plotting my next Rancho Gordo order. (To A’s slight dismay, I think; he’s been gamely trying the new beans and claiming to enjoy them so far, but secretly he’s still a beanphobe.) Other great gifts included a little digital kitchen scale (sooooo handy), a pizza cutter that doesn't make my hand feel like it's falling off, reusable produce bags to use instead of plastic at the farmers’ market, another year of Cooking Light, a supply of Tea Source tea, fleur de sal, and Wisconsin honey with the comb still in it.

On to the year-in-review stuff: Last year I chose five best recipes, but this year I’ve made so much good food that I need to expand the list to ten. But I’ve created two separate categories of five each, so technically it’s not cheating!

Bookcook’s Five Best Recipes of 2008: New Standbys (these are the ones I’ve come to rely on and have already made over and over again, occasionally on a near-weekly basis…I’m looking at you, frittata)
  1. Asian Dumpling Soup
  2. Roasted Root Vegetables With Sausage
  3. Monster Cookies
  4. Zucchini-Potato Frittata
  5. Stovetop Baked Beans
Bookcook’s Five Best Recipes of 2008: OMG I Made That! (these are the revelations, the showstoppers, the ones that’ll make you feel like a DIY diva or domestic goddess, but the dirty little secret is that they’re all simple and easy enough for everyday cooking)
  1. TIE: Creamy Lemon Chicken and Roast Chicken With Pears, Shallots, and Leeks
  2. Pan-Fried Lemon-Ricotta Gnocchi
  3. DIY Taco Seasoning
  4. Ranch Dressing
  5. Dill Pickles
Can you believe there's not even a pizza recipe on either list? And I love pizza! That's how good these best recipes are. You really should try at least one of them immediately.

Last year, I listed my favorite food books, but I must have burned out on food reading because this year, none spring to mind. Last year, I also listed a bunch of resolutions, but most of them are still ongoing, so I don’t really feel the need to make more (a few I did actually cross off my list: acquire Dutch oven and kitchen scale, make gnocchi and pickles). In 2009 I’d definitely like to rejoin the CSA (P, the friend I split produce haul with before, got too busy with grad-school classes to cook regularly, but she’s recently expressed an interest in getting back into it) and finish adding photos to all the recipes on this site (except the sad, rejected ones in the Not Favorites category). I do have a huge wishlist of recipes to make and cooking experiments I’d like to try, including homemade yogurt, mayonnaise, ricotta, dumplings, tortillas, pita bread, and popsicles. And I won’t say that a pasta maker or ice-cream maker wouldn’t be nice. But mostly I’m happy with the way things are going here, so I’m just going to keep on keepin’ on. I hope you’ll keep on joining me...and I hope you're hungry!