Archive for cooking

The Downside of All Those Silicone Spatulas


There's a problem with these spatulas.

One of the things that I loved about reading Julia Child’s Memoir, “My Life In France” is her descriptions of her cookware. By her own admission, she was quite the kitchen gadget fiend, and outfitted her kitchen with professional equipment long before kitchenware companies marketed “professional” lines to home chefs. But what really struck me was how durable all her equipment was – her copper pots, giant stone mortar and pestle, and sturdy whisks were meant to last a lifetime.

By comparison, a lot of the stuff in my kitchen is plastic. Spatulas? Plastic. Cutting boards? Plastic. Plates? Plastic (well, melamine). For awhile I had plastic mixing bowls, although I upgraded to those nesting glass ones. Even my new food processor (which I love with the fire of a thousand suns) has a large plastic ring in the lid that allows it to latch closed.

And don’t get me wrong, I love me my silicone spatulas. But especially now that I don’t have a dishwasher, I’ve realized that there’s a big downside to plastic – it smells.

Like, it really smells.

Whenever I chop garlic on one of my plastic cutting boards, no matter how hard I scrub them, they always smell faintly of garlic. My silicone spatulas have a vaguely savory, garlicky smell, borne of stirring various tomato sauces and stir fries. My flat silicone spatula I use for flipping eggs smells . . . well, like eggs. And my Tupperware smells like soap – I’ve actually had to throw some of it away because it made my food taste soapy.

The smell thing is a huge problem for baking – like, if you’re chopping tomatoes on a garlicky cutting board, it’s not the end of the world – but if you’re chopping chocolate or strawberries it’s a big problem. Once I made a vanilla custard that had an “off” savory flavor – it took me awhile, but I realized the culprit was my spatula. Before rolling out pastry, I always sniff my cutting board to make sure that it doesn’t smell strange. And the one time I made a garlicky sauce in the food processor, I had to wash the lid a couple times in the hottest water I could before that plastic implement in the lid stopped smelling like garlic.

So far I’ve dealt with the plastic problem by trying to have separate plastic tools for my pastry and baking, but I always worry that something will leak through and I’ll end up with an off-tasting frosting. The food processor lid is especially worrisome, since I don’t really want to have to buy a separate lid just for processing savory stuff.

I know that plastics are the future and everything – but sometimes I wonder if they’re just creating a whole other set of problems to deal with. Especially for us bakers without dishwashers.

Does anyone else have this problem?


Comments (10)

Thanksgiving Crises Averted

Apple Pie 2

I'm really only good for pie questions. Although those of you with my cell phone number are welcome to call.

Good luck to all the cooks out there embarking on their Thanksgiving meal for the first time tomorrow. I have to say – I envy you a little. I’ve only cooked the meal once, and it took me about ten hours. But man, they were a great ten hours. Even though the timing is hard, nothing about the meal is technically difficult – besides having the turkey, a naturally dry meat, turn out juicy and flavorful (my bird was neither, by the way). And doing that much cooking, coordinating all the little elements – it was tremendous fun.

If you’re looking for a good dessert recipe from the ModernDomestic archives, here are my best bets:

If you’re looking for more hands-on help before and during the big day, then never fear- there’s help out there. Professional help. As I did last year, I’ve compiled a list of Thanksgiving hotlines to answer all your questions. For those of you who don’t have my direct line, that is (not that I’m much help in anything but the pie department. But I can try).

For all your general cooking questions:

  • The Splendid Table, Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s  wonderful NPR cooking show, will be having a two hour live call-in show starting at 11:00 am (eastern) on Thanksgiving day. Give Lynne a call at (800) 537-5252. You can also submit questions online at the show’s web site.

For turkey troubles

  • If you’re anti-Butterball, Reynolds has a Turkey Tips Hotline at 1-800-745-4000.
  • You can also call Purdue’s hotline with your turkey questions at 1-800-4PERDUE® (1-800-473-7383).
  • If your Turkey question is specific to brining, call the Spice Hunter hotline at 888-334-8977.

For a pie crisis

  • The Crisco Pie Hotline will answer your basic and advanced pie baking questions. Call them at -877-FOR PIE TIPS (1-877-367-7438). Granted, I hope they can answer questions about more than just shorting, since I dearly hope you’re using some butter in your pie crust (actually, I hope you’re using a ratio of six tbs butter and 2 tbs shortening to 1 cup of flour).

For general baking questions:

Cranberry queries:

  • Problems with the cranberry sauce? Ocean Spray can answer cranberry questions at 1-800-662-3263.

Good luck!

Comments (6)

Updated Tuna Noodle Casserole

Tuna Noodle Casserole

Tuna noodle casserole for the 21st century.

What would American cuisine would be like without processed foods? Would grilled cheese be so popular if it home cooks couldn’t use pre-cut slices of American cheese? Would we eat pudding if it hadn’t been for Jello? Would we be a country of mac and cheese eaters without Velveeta?

One thing I’m sure of – tuna noodle casserole would never have risen to such prominence in American food culture were it not for the Campbell’s soup company. The company heavily promoted casserole recipes using canned soups during the Great Depression as quick, filling and economical meals, including the now-famous tuna noodle casserole. I can see the appeal – mix together some canned cream of mushroom soup, cooked noodles and canned tuna, bake, and dinner is served.

That was not my experience with tuna noodle casserole, which is why I can’t imagine this dish ever becoming popular without processed foods to cut down on the prep time. After making the thing from scratch I can safely say – tuna noodle casserole is a pain. This has actually been my complaint about all of the casseroles I’ve made for this month’s project – without the processed foods, they are time-intensive little suckers.

Granted, this tuna noodle casserole could have been easier to make, but I wanted it to taste really good. This is the one casserole I made this month where I didn’t take health into account; instead, I invited some friends over to help me finish the thing off. In fact, some of of my friends now suspect I have a secret plan to fatten them up, but I swear it’s not true. I’m just tired of healthy casseroles.

I used a couple of recipes as a basis for this casserole but made alterations to suit my own tastes. This casserole was gussied up with sauteed garlic, onions, and mushrooms; a cheddar, Parmesan and white wine béchamel; fresh basil; and pesto and Asiago cheese bread crumbs.

I liked this combination of flavors so much that the tuna ended up being a distraction. I loved how the cheesy, wine-y béchamel enhanced the flavors of the sweet onions, pungent garlic, and earthy onions. I loved how the crisp, herbal flavor of the basil sang in the dish. I loved how the salty, savory, crunchy bread crumbs contrasted with the soft and cheesy noodles. But the tuna? Even with all these other ingredients, it just tasted fishy – and not in a good way.

If I were to make this again, I think I’d omit the tuna, and rename this as a cheese, onion, and mushroom casserole – I might even make it with macaroni and say that it’s a twist on your standard mac and cheese. But, like I said before, this recipe was a lot of work, so I’m not sure when that day will come. Between sautéing the vegetables, making the béchamel, boiling the noodles, coating the bread crumbs in butter, and baking the casserole, we’re looking at a four pan recipe – and that doesn’t even account for all the chopping and cheese grating that goes into this.

So that’s it. It’s the last day of September, and the end of the casserole project. Am I sad it’s over? A little. Really, these month-long projects mostly teach me that there’s so much I have yet to cook – I didn’t make moussaka, or lasagna, or a Gourmet version of green bean casserole. So much left to cook, so little time.

And speaking of time, maybe next month should be quick recipes – I certainly need a break after all these casseroles.

Tuna noodle casserole - 2

And yes, in case you're wondering, those are apple slices in the background leftover from my epic apple baking weekend.

Recipe: Cheesy Tuna Noodle Casserole With Mushrooms, Onions, and Wine

Comments (8)

Casserole Project, Take Three: Tex-Mex Casserole

Mexican Casserole - 1

A Tex-Mex casserole, topped with crispy tortillas.

Sometimes I’m mystified when I see techniques repeated in recipe after recipe that I know don’t work. Did I just not make this right, I wonder? Or did the recipe writers really not test this recipe?

Case in point is the Mexican casserole recipe I used for this week’s installment of my monthly baking/cooking project. I was inspired to make a tex-mex style casserole because I had a bad experience making a tortilla pie early in the summer, and I wanted to see if I could correct my past mistakes.

The tortilla pie didn’t “work” because the filling never cooked through, even after baking the pie an extra 15 minutes. The recipe called for mixing a bunch of uncooked ingredients together for the filling – canned beans, corn, bell peppers, and onions – and then letting them cook in the oven. But, even after a diligent 25 minutes in the oven, the filling was still underdone – the corn was unpleasantly crispy, the onions tasted raw, and the beans were tough.

When I started doing some recipe research for this week’s casserole, I was surprised to see that many other casserole recipes used the same technique. The Parade recipe I ended up using also calls for mixing a bunch of uncooked ingredients together and letting them bake in the oven. It makes me wonder – is there something different about the canned beans I’m using? Did I not chop my onions finely enough? Or did the good folks at Parade not really test this recipe before printing it? I guess, we’ll never know – especially on that final count.

For my casserole, I made some changes, cutting back on the cheese (I do not need 12 ounces of cheese in my casserole, thank you very much) and sauteing the onion, bell pepper, and garlic before adding them to the filling. But I didn’t take it far enough. The beans really could have done with some simmering over the stove, rather than adding them straight from the can. In the finished casserole, they were firm – and not in a good way. The corn (I used defrosted frozen corn, rather than the canned corn the recipe calls for) also tasted underdone and unpleasantly crunchy.

There are very obvious changes I can make if I make this again – sauté the corn with the other vegetables, and cook the beans until tender over the stove before adding them to the casserole.

But I am loathe to offer these suggestions because, honestly, I just don’t know if this casserole is good enough to call for the extra hassle. Given that I had to roast and shred the chicken, sauté the vegetables, mix the filling in a bowl, coat the tortillas in olive oil in another bowl, and then put it all into a casserole dish, this casserole was already a big production. And the finished result was okay, flavor-wise, but I can’t shake the feeling that it tasted too much like one of Amy’s Organic Bean Bowls to be worth the extra effort.

Perhaps this is why the original recipe calls for 12 ounces of cheese.

Mexican Casserole - 2

So, honestly, those crispy tortillas were the best part of the dish.

Recipe: Tex-Mex Casserole

Comments (1)

Casserole Project, Take Two: Polenta Casserole With Spinach, Sausage, and Tomato Sauce (Dairy Free!)

Polenta casserole 1

This polenta "lasagna" is dairy free.

Polenta is a grain that has always eluded my grasp. There are so many things that can go wrong with polenta – it can be rubbery, it can be undercooked and sandy, it can be unpleasantly gelatinous – the list goes on and on. And yet using the stuff that comes in a roll just doesn’t seem like a solution. There is something deeply troubling about the fact that those little rolls of polenta can sit there, pre-cooked and entirely unrefrigerated in the supermarket aisles. Can you imagine buying rice that way? Or oatmeal? Or any other kind of grain? It’s just wrong.

So I decided to conquer this fear of polenta for part two of this month’s project – casseroles. I also wanted to make a dairy-free casserole for my friend Joanne who requested a dairy-free recipe because her daughter is having problems digesting dairy.

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of using polenta in place in lasagna noodles, for a twist on a classic lasagna. So I went with a polenta lasagna recipe, layering my polenta “noodles” with spinach and tomato sauce, and omitting the cheese one usually finds in a lasagna dish. To increase the flavor, I added sausage to the tomato sauce, giving the dish a savory heft.

Now, if you’re looking for a quick casserole recipe, I must warn you – this is a bit of an undertaking. The polenta takes a full 1/2 hour to cook – plus extra time to boil the water. I think the secret to cooing polenta, by the way, is to actually follow the directions on the package – I added the polenta very, very slowly to the boiling water – like, in a very small and steady stream. It took time, but it produced lump-free polenta – a feat I have never accomplished before.

Making the tomato sauce by hand, while worth it, ups the time quotient on the recipe, as does separately sauteing the spinach. It also takes time to let the polenta set into “layers” before it’s ready to be cut and placed in the casserole.

But, while it was a lot of work, I was happy with this casserole. The polenta “noodles” soak up the tomato sauce without entirely losing their texture, and the polenta is a great foil to the bright, acidic tomatoes and bitter spinach. My only problem is that I think I over salted the tomato sauce, which is quite easy to do, but which made the dish a little salty for my taste. Yes, it would have been nice with cheese, but it’s a perfectly fine savory dish without it. I even added a crunchy bread crumb topping, which is the perfect way to finish the dish.

Polenta casserole 2

Leaving out the cheese makes the dish healthier too - if you care about such things.

Recipe: Polenta Casserole With Spinach, Sausage, and Tomato Sauce

Comments (3)

September Cooking Project, Take One – Mushroom, Brown Rice, And Ricotta Casserole

Brown Rice Casserole

It's not pretty, but it tasted good.

This week, it finally feels like fall. Kids are back in school, the highs are in the low 70s, and I can finally wear pants and not melt into a puddle. I can also turn on my oven for the first time in quite awhile without feeling like I’m going to burn my apartment to a crisp.

It’s a good time for this month’s cooking project – casseroles, which my friend Rebecca requested back in May. Casseroles are also a classic American comfort food and, given that we’re still in the midst of an economic crisis (or, even worse, a jobless recovery), I think that comfort food will still be very much in vogue this fall.

I was a little wary of this casserole project. Casseroles are tricky because if I make one, it has to be good enough to take for lunch for the rest of the week. And since I’ll be eating it every day, it can’t be the cheese and bacon-filled extravaganza that I’d usually make if I were making it for a dinner party. Just doing some preliminary research freaked me out, because all the recipes I found either called for using condensed soup or a heavy cream sauce to bind the rest of the ingredients together. My waistline (and tastebuds) did not approve.

I finally decided that if I expanded my search to savory pies I might find possible flavor combinations – and luckily I hit upon this recipe for mushroom and farro pie. I ditched the pie crust and used the filling as the basis for my casserole.

The recipe, which mixes mushrooms, scallions, garlic, farro with ricotta cheese as a binder, sounded promising. I switched out the farro, which I couldn’t find at the Giant, for brown rice, which was much more economical. I decided to up the health quotient of the casserole and added some cooked spinach, although the bitter flavor was distracting and ended up being a mistake. I also added some Pecorino Romano cheese to the ricotta, to punch up the flavor.

The final result was pretty good – not perfect, but a fine first attempt at a healthful casserole. The mushrooms, garlic, and scallions were a wonderful combination – and they married well with the earthy, chewy brown rice. As I mentioned above, the spinach was not a good idea, but the Pecorino cheese added a salty, savory note to the dish. And using ricotta cheese as a binder was perfect – it was creamy, without being too soupy and fat-laden.

Were I to make it again, I may add more onions or more Pecorino, since it lacked a little flavor. Chopped basil would be a nice addition, as would a spoonful or two of olive tapenade, mixed in with the ricotta. But even if it was an imperfect casserole, I’m still very happy this casserole is in my lunch today.

A fine start to this month’s cooking project.

Brown Rice Casserole 2

I think next time I should add a crispy topping as well . . .

Recipe: Mushroom, Brown Rice, and Ricotta Casserole

Comments (15)

Confused About Jam

Jam Making - Peach Jam

Jam. So mysterious.

I’m confused about jam.

I’m confused about how you cook it – if you’re supposed to let it come to a boil for a couple minutes, or if you’re supposed to cook it for longer.

I’m confused about how much the jam should jell before you let it cool.

I’m confused about whether or not it actually has to come to 220 degrees before it will jell.

I’m confused about the difference between freezer jam pectin and regular pectin.

Jam Making - Peach and Blackberry Jam

Jam. So curious.

I’m confused as to why I thought I could use freezer jam pectin for my cooked blackberry jam.

I’m confused about the sterilized jars – can you touch them with your bare hands after they’re sterilized, or if that will somehow make them un-sterile?

I’m confused about how boiling the jars creates a vacuum.

I’m confused about the boiling water – can you sterilize the canning jars in the same boiling water as you use to seal the jars, or do you need a fresh pot?

I’m confused about when the tops of the jars should pop.

I’m confused as to why this entire process had to take five hours for each batch.

I’m confused about why it took me two weeks before I finally cleaned all the sticky jam byproduct off my stove.

I’m confused about why my peach ginger jam doesn’t taste gingery enough.

The only thing I am sure about is that the jam tastes delicious. It tastes like real fruit.

Jam Making - Jam and Toast

Jam. So delicious.

But, given my confusion, I’m leaving you in better hands than my own:

For all things canning and jam-related:

To learn about canning, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
For an honest blueberry jam recipe, see The Arugula Files
For a freezer jam recipe, see The Bitten Word
For a delicious-looking stone fruit and ginger jam recipe, see The Kitchn.
For a blackberry bay-leaf jam recipe, see Martha Stewart.

Comments (9)

Julia and Julia – Exciting? Or Annoying?


Meryl Street as Julia Child in "Julie and Julia." I think Julia Child deserves her own movie, thank you very much.

I’ve been watching the previews for Julia and Julia, the new Nora Ephron movie, with mixed emotions. I thrill every time I watch Meryl Streep declare “I’m Julia Child” in that famous, high, lilting voice. But I find myself getting annoyed when I watch Amy Adams ask “Do You Think I”m Lost? Is this lost?” And, I care . . . why?

My ambivalence towards the film stems from the book it’s based on, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, Julia Powell’s memoir about the year she spent her way cooking through every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blogging about it at the Julie/Julia project. I didn’t actually read Powell’s blog because I was living in a dorm room when she wrote it and, given that I did all of my cooking in a microwave or toaster oven, the last thing I wanted to read was a blog that taunted me with all the things I couldn’t cook.

My sister was a big fan of the Julia Project and lent me her copy of Julie and Julia a couple of years ago. And, honestly, I hated it. Now, no offense to Julie Powell – I just read some of her blog and she’s a freaking fantastic, funny writer. But I was frustrated that the memoir focused so much on her personal life and not on the food. I didn’t want to hear about her boring administrative job, or the various romantic lives of her single friends (especially not that) – I wanted to read about Mastering the Art of French Cooking, damn it! The book was way too much memoir, and not nearly enough food – a decision that probably lay with an editor and/or marketing department.

So when I heard that Sony Pictures was making a movie of Julie and Julia, I was . . . unenthusiastic, to say the least. But my interest was piqued when I found out that the movie actually drew from two memoirs – Powell’s book and Julia Child’s My Life in France, which covers Child’s culinary awakening and her time at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.

Still, how exactly is this movie supposed to work? It’s not that one couldn’t make a good story arc for Julie Powell and Julia Child – but merging the two story lines seems so unnecessarily difficult and clunky.  Julia Child became a legendary cookbook author who changed the way Americans cooked at home. Julie Powell wrote a book. Julia Child underwent an extensive culinary education before writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julie Powell did what bloggers do, myself included – write about cooking from an amateur’s perspective. The only way I can see these story lines converging is with a whole lot of cheesiness.

Ariel Levy’s profile of Nora Ephron in The New Yorker, which discusses the movie at length, cemented my skepticism. While Levy doesn’t exactly review the film, she does say that Julia Child’s story is so fascinating and Meryl Streep gives such an excellent performance as Julia Child, that the Julie Powell sections pale in comparison.

The really annoying thing about Julie and Julia is that Julia Child needs a movie. Her story is a compelling classic – Julia Child moves to Paris with her husband, enrolls in a cooking school at the age of 36, falls in love with cooking, and writes a book that changes the face of American food culture. Just thinking about it gives me chills. And that story deserves its own movie – but I don’t think it will ever get made.

But maybe I’m just over-thinking this movie. Did others like Julia and Julia? Do you think Julia Child deserves her own film? Anyone else wondering how this movie will “work?” Are you afraid that it will become another You’ve Got Mail, with some quiches and souffles thrown in? Does anyone else find this New York Times profile about the movie’s food stylist an annoying piece of fluff journalism that epitomizes the decline of the American news media? Dish in the comments.

Comments (6)

Cold Dinners, Take Three: Vietnamese Fresh Rolls

Fresh rolls

Sigh. At least they look pretty.

I love fresh rolls. Whenever I go to an Asian restaurant I eagerly scan the menu and order them as often as possible. And, after a suggestion from Elpis and Justice, they seemed like a natural project for July’s cooking project (recipes that won’t heat up your kitchen).

At least, it seemed like a perfect fit before I actually ate them.

Whenever I’ve had fresh rolls before, I’ve enjoyed the synergy between the crisp greens, soft noodles, sweet shrimp, and savory dipping sauce. And the recipe I ended up choosing seemed to promise the same culinary experience –  vegetables, rice noodles, and shrimp wrapped up in soft rice paper wrapper. I altered the recipe slightly – using pre-cooked shrimp and soaking the noodles in hot water I heated up in the microwave, to make the recipe truly no-cook.

But there was something horribly off about these spring rolls. Some of this was my fault – I used too much cilantro, which I always end up doing because I can only buy cilantro in huge bunches that I always feel pressured to use up before it goes bad. Consequently, the spring rolls were heavy on the cilantro and had a soapy, unpleasant flavor.

But the other problem, which was entirely out my control, was the rice paper wrappers. The wrappers had a strange, chemical flavor and acrid smell that was incredibly off-putting. I don’t know if there was something wrong with the wrappers, or if there’s something horribly wrong with DC’s tap water – or a combination of the two. But whatever it was, I ended up throwing most of the fresh rolls away.

So it’s strike two for no-cook meals. July can’t end soon enough.

Given my issues with these spring rolls, I’m not even going to try to put together a recipe for you. But if you would like to try where I have failed, you can find the recipe I used here. Epicurious also has a recipe for mango shrimp summer rolls that looks worth trying. If you dare.

Comments (7)

A Dirty Vegetable Secret

Beets 2

Beets - the newest addition to my dinner table.

I did not grow up in a beet household. Beets did not make an appearance at the table – along with lima beans, acorn squash, and other foods that my parents were forced to eat as children. My mother, who was the resident beet hater, even made a valiant attempt to like them again when beets started showing up on the appetizer lists of all our favorite local restaurants. But she remains a solid beet hater – even of the local, organic, family-farmed variety.

So the following statement will probably be the cause of some family controversy, but I actually really like beets. I’ve been buying golden beets at the Mount Pleasant farmer’s market lately and they’re the perfect way to dress up an otherwise boring dinner of fried eggs.

I’ve been roasting them, topping them with a little vinegar, salt, pepper, and goat cheese, and serving them with the sauteed beet greens. The greens are a little acidic, but they mellow out with the addition of garlic and a sprinkling of goat cheese. I know that Mark Bittman thinks the combination of beets and goat cheese is overdone, but to the beet novice like me, it’s a revelation. The creamy and tart cheese against the sweet, earthy beets is a perfect combination.

Sorry Mom. But I think beets have found a new convert.

Beets 1

Beets - lovely to eat, lovely to look at. Another reason to love them.

Roasted Beets With Sauteed Beet Greens
Adapted From Martha Stewart
Makes two (largish) servings

One bunch beets (approximately 4-5 beets)
Olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
1/4 oz goat cheese (approximately)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the stems from the beets and set aside. Wash beets, wrap in foil, place on a baking sheet, and roast 35-45 minutes, until easily pierced with a fork.

Meanwhile, wash, drain, and roughly chop the beet greens. Heat olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté 1-2 minutes. Add beet greens and sauté until wilted, 2 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a serving platter before topping with goat cheese.

When beets are done, remove from oven and let cool until able to handle. Remove the skins by holding beets in a clean paper towel and gently rubbing off the skins. Slice into 1/4 thick slices, place on a serving tray, and lightly sprinkle with vineger, salt, and pepper. Top slices with the remaining goat cheese, and serve.

Comments (4)

Older Posts »