Saturday, March 31, 2007

Garam Masala (Page 932)

  • Date: Monday, March 26, 2007 -- 7pm
  • Location: North Conway, NH
  • Kitchen: The Talbot House
  • Dining Companions: Vero, Big Mike, Vigleik, Andrew, Chris, Andre, Jnkf, Ricky, Matt, and 14 other mathematicians!
  • Recipe Rating: A-


This spice mixture was necessary for a lamb dish I made for Talbot this past week. It's always difficult to figure out how to grade recipes like this. The lamb was very tasty, which I suppose means that the spice mixture was tasty too... It was simple to throw together, and I got to use my new spice grinder, which was a plus. That's about all I can say...

Well after a fun, and exhausting week, Talbot is over and I am back in Boston. I had a really great time, although I wish the timing could have been different. It was hard for me to relax as much as I would have liked to, given my impending thesis defense...

My defense is Monday, at 4:30pm. Less than 48 hours from now. I have obviously known for a long time that there would come a day when I would defend my PhD thesis. But now that it is practically here, it feels very strange. At Talbot this past week, people kept saying to me, "Just relax, it's not such a big deal." I think they're wrong though. It is a big deal. At least, it's a big deal to me.

It's true that the defense itself doesn't matter so much, and the outcome is more or less predetermined. But it represents something that was a huge effort. That means something. I'm not nervous exactly, but I have trouble treating Monday as just any other day.

It is a big deal to me. Is that such a bad thing?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Vanilla Creme Anglaise (Page 876)

  • Date: Sunday, March 25, 2007 -- 8pm
  • Location: North Conway, NH
  • Kitchen: The Talbot House
  • Dining Companions: Vero, Mike, Chris, Andrew, Vigleik, Ricky, Matt, Andre, Big Mike, Jacob, Jnkf, and 15 other mathematicians
  • Recipe Rating: A-

I was shocked to discover that I hadn't yet made the creme anglaise from The Book. I love creme anglaise! This recipe was different than the one I usually use (whole eggs versus just egg yolks for instance), but it was still delicious. I had never made creme anglaise with a vanilla bean before rather than vanilla extract. The vanilla flavor was lovely -- very rich and authentic. Veronique commented that this sauce was "nothing special." True, it did taste more or less like every other decent creme anglaise recipe. But creme anglaise is delicious! I served this with molten chocolate cakes, and it complemented them nicely. Picture coming soon...

The Talbot workshop has officially begun! It's wonderful seeing everyone, which makes it challenging to force myself to work on my thesis and my defense during the few breaks in lectures!

I had my first culinary disaster of the week last night. I made bananas foster for dessert. It only has 6 ingredients. It's pretty much impossible to burn. Yet I ruined it! How? Well... I was making bananas foster for 25 in a huge hotel pan, and I lit it on fire (as you are supposed to) and I let the alcohol burn, and burn, and burn... But the pan was deep, so although I swirled it to try to burn the alcohol underneath, apparently I only burned from the top. I tasted it before I sent it out, but I tasted from the top. It was maybe a touch boozy, but otherwise fine.

Ten minutes later, after everyone was served, I took a bite of my own serving, which came from the very bottom of the pan. I couldn't eat it. There was so much rum and banana liqueur in there, untouched by the flame, that I felt drunk after two bites. Almost everyone else ate it though, and I felt hopelessly guilty for having gotten everyone drunk -- right before a talk no less. Whoops! I learned long ago to always taste everything before you serve it. This was a new lesson: stir before you taste.

Hopefully that will be the only major disaster of the week!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Hot Red Pepper Relish (Page 902)

  • Date: Sunday, March 18, 2007 -- 4pm
  • Location: Somerville, MA
  • Kitchen: Matty's Apartment
  • Dining Companion: Matty
  • Recipe Rating: B


I picked this recipe because it was quick and keeps for a long time. This relish is ok. I can imagine there are probably a lot of good foods to eat it with, but since I had none of them, I tried it on a tortilla chip, which I wouldn't recommend. I think it will make a good sandwich topping though... The flavor is a bit too dominated by the cider vinegar. The net result is extremely acidic and vinegary. The level of spice is good though, and the red bell peppers give it a nice sweetness. I am not overly excited about this one, but I am looking forward to trying it on a nice turkey sandwich!

It is the last few days before spring break, which have a unique feel to them. I have always loved the period leading up to a school vacation. Everyone is a little punchy, a little squirmy, and a little less inhibited than usual. It's nice to see that. People seem so happy. In elementary school we would always have half-days before break and those days were pretty much one long party! We would eat candy and watch movies. Why we went to school at all on those days was a mystery to me, but I loved it nonetheless. In these last few days before break I am trying to remain slightly more focused than that (I am eating candy, but not watching movies at the office!).

I actually keep forgetting that next week is break since I (along with many of my friends in the department) am going to the Talbot workshop next week. Talbot is many wonderful things, but restful isn't one of them -- I don't think it will feel too much like a spring vacation! Talbot ends next Saturday, and I defend my thesis that Monday, so I am trying to finish up a lot of things before I leave this weekend! Luckily there are almost six weeks between my defense and when a final draft of my thesis needs to be submitted!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sweet and Spicy Bacon (Page 656)

  • Date: Saturday, March 17, 2007 -- 11am
  • Location: Somerville, MA
  • Kitchen: Matty's Apartment
  • Fellow Chef: Matty
  • Recipe Rating: B


There was some leftover bacon in Matt's freezer, so I chose this recipe to use it up. This bacon was pretty tasty. The brown sugar complimented the bacon wonderfully. I wasn't as sold on the cayenne -- it contributed a nice spice, but there was a bit too much of it. I was hoping the sugar mixture would form a nice glaze on the bacon, but it didn't melt completely before the bacon started to burn. The winning aspect of this recipe was definitely baking the bacon on the broiler pan in the oven. The bacon came out fantastically crispy and I appreciated the fact that it was much less greasy that a more canonical bacon preparation. If I did it again, I would cut the cayenne in half and sprinkle the sugar mixture on the bacon about 10 minutes earlier in the baking time.

The days around and including the Talbot conference are always some of my favorites of the year. The trickle of good friends arriving in town has already started. Andre is here now, Chris is arriving on Thursday, and Mike and Vigleik will be here this weekend. I miss all those guys so much -- it will be great to be all together again! I think I am still adjusting to not having Mike and Vigleik around this year! The three of us haven't been in the same place at the same time since the summer.

Throughout my time at MIT, the topology group has been a really special collection of people. Talbot is a chance for us all to reunite -- the people currently in the group and all the great people who have graduated and moved on.

Plus, some of the guys are staying for my defense, which I am really excited about! Honestly, it's hard for me to imagine defending my thesis without Vigleik, or Mike, or Chris in the audience. They have been such a huge part of my graduate school experience. I am thrilled that they will be there to (hopefully!) celebrate with me.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Vanilla-Brown Sugar Syrup (Page 646)

  • Date: Saturday, March 17, 2007 -- 11am
  • Location: Somerville, MA
  • Kitchen: Matt's Apartment
  • Dining Companion: Matty
  • Recipe Rating: F


I picked this recipe to go with breakfast on Saturday because it was super-simple and Matt had all the ingredients in his pantry. This syrup was FOUL though. It still mystifies me how you can combine brown sugar, water, butter, lemon juice, and vanilla and end up with something so deeply, truly, terrible. I couldn't immediately identify the familiar flavor that this stuff had, but Matt hit it right on the head: Pepsi. It tasted like ultra-strong, slightly rotten Pepsi. I like Pepsi fine, but I don't particularly want to eat super-condensed Pepsi syrup. Matt posed the reasonable question: how did this recipe make it in to The Book? After tasting it I reread the recipe again to verify that I measured all the ingredients correctly, and followed every step. But basically the recipe was: combine some stuff, boil, add some more stuff. Which I did. So I can offer you no explanation. And although I usually try to make some suggested improvements, in this case my recommendation is simply: DON'T MAKE IT! Ick. Ick, Ick, Ick.

Paul flew in this weekend to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform Mahler's Third Symphony, so last night I took a break from my work and went to the concert with him. Aside from the music being quite good, it just felt great to be out. I put on a dress. We went to dinner. I felt like a real person again.

It was fleeting though. Today I am back in my pajamas, working. I am almost done though, and that feels really good. After my defense I will do plenty of editing and formatting I am sure, but the bulk of the work is very nearly done. Just a couple more days of writing...

One of my friends said to me this weekend: "Teena I think I am looking forward to you finishing your thesis even more than you are. You're not really very fun any more." It's hard to blame him for that comment, since really it's true! I promise to be fun again sometime in the very near future!!!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Moroccan Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Green Olives (Page 359)

  • Date: Friday, March 16, 2007 --7pm
  • Location: Somerville, MA
  • Kitchen: Matty's Apartment
  • Dining Companion: Matty
  • Recipe Rating: B



I picked this recipe for dinner last night because it was the first recipe I ran across where I already had all the ingredients. It was pretty good. Between the preserved lemons and the green olives, it definitely had a strong briny flavor. Usually I am not a huge fan of extreme brininess, but one of the things that I liked most about this dish was that its flavor was so strong that it really permeated the chicken. Often times chicken dishes like this just taste like chicken breasts with some stuff on top. In this case, the citrus and briny flavors distributed through the meat in a very nice way. I found the composition of the dish a bit odd. Even though I love onions, I didn't understand the overwhelming quantity of onions without any other vegetables. Matt's big complaint was that the flavor of the dish was very much dominated by the preserved lemons, which he doesn't like so much. I could see his point, although I like the lemons, and thought the citrus flavor was refreshing. Overall, this made a quick dinner which was more or less satisfying.

The Talbot workshop is coming up in a little over a week, and I have finally started thinking about the menu. Talbot is a math conference organized by 4 guys who were all graduate students at MIT together a few years ago. It's a week in New Hampshire, living in a big ski house with 25 or so other mathematicians, learning some topic together (which changes every year). A couple years ago, I seem to have volunteered to be in charge of dinners at Talbot. And so here I am, attempting to plan a menu. Cooking for 26 in a non-industrial kitchen is a bit of a challenge, so picking the right dishes is important. Some dishes that I love are just completely impractical because there isn't oven space or stovetop space to make them in that quantity.

It's tempting to do a lot of cooking from The Book during that week (especially the recipes that serve large numbers of people), but I try to keep the experimental food to a minimum. It's particularly sad to have made a dish that isn't so good when you quadrupled the recipe and have to serve it to 25 people! The real reason not to cook new recipes from The Book though is that it is much easier to make recipes you are familiar with when you are cooking in huge quantities!

To those of you who will be at Talbot: any requests?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Irish Soda Bread (Page 601)

  • Date: Friday, March 16, 2007 -- 7pm
  • Location: Somerville, MA
  • Kitchen: Matty's Apartment
  • Dining Companion: Matty
  • Recipe Rating: C+


I picked this bread because it was extremely quick, and I am all about the recipes with the 15 minute active times these days. Despite it's easy preparation, I wouldn't recommend this recipe. The primary problem was the texture -- the bread was extremely dense and came out very dry. Smothered in the compound butter from last night it was tasty, but eaten without butter, the dryness made it unappealing. Matt pointed out that the caraway flavor was a bit strong for him, and I agree that I would have preferred a milder flavor. Another issue was that the raisins near the surface all got extremely burnt long before the bread was done baking, and thus had to be picked off of the finished loaf. Overall this bread was fine, but nothing spectacular. I found myself eating it simply because it was the only starchy thing on the table, not because I actually wanted to eat it.

Well, we had our first "snow emergency" of the winter today. Looking out the window, I'm not sure I would call this an "emergency," but there is snow on the ground and there are plows on the street. In fact, the plows are pretty much the only things on the street, so perhaps road conditions are worse than they look.

I spent the entire day working in bed. Strangely, sitting in bed is one of the most productive workspaces for me. I pretty rarely just lie down and go to sleep. I think I get easily distracted by things like being uncomfortable, or cold, or hungry, but when I am sitting in my pajamas, under a down comforter, with plenty of snacks on the side table, these things don't distract me. Normally I go to the office during the day anyway. Being at the office is generally more fun than being home alone all day. Plus, if I stay inside too long I start to go stir-crazy. With the nasty weather today though, I just didn't see the point in leaving home. The one down-side of my strategy is this: now that it's time to actually go to bed, I don't really feel like being in bed any more...

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Lemon Mustard Butter (Page 895)

  • Date: Thursday, March 15, 2007 -- 7pm
  • Location: Somerville, MA
  • Kitchen: Matt's Apartment
  • Dining Companion: Matty
  • Recipe Rating: B


This is another one that I picked solely because it took less than ten minutes to make. As compound butters go, it was pretty good. The recipe called for too much lemon juice though for the given quantity of butter, the effect of which was that much of the lemon juice dripped out when the butter log was formed. I served this with steak (as that was the only meat in the freezer), but Matt pointed out it would have been more appropriate just spread on some bread. The Book frequently suggests serving the compound butters on meat, which honestly I don't particularly understand. When you put compound butter on hot meat (as we did this evening) it just melts. So why not make a lovely butter sauce with mustard and lemon mixed in instead? It would be less fussy with the same net effect. Perhaps it's a stylistic thing, although I think sauce looks better too. Maybe certain ingredients would separate out too much from melted butter? I'm not sure. In any event, compound butter would definitely be superior to a sauce for, say, spreading on bread. But I'm not sure I would choose a compound butter to accompany my meat again. Lucky for me, I have another 4 compound butter recipes in The Book with which to test various accompaniments.

I have been, for the most part, avoiding the Sauces and Salsas section of The Book. I can't offer any satisfying explanation for this. I love sauces. I love salsas. There's just no glamor in it though. If you make a beautiful cake, or a hearty stew, or a fresh, delicious salad, it feels like an accomplishment. I have trouble getting excited about sauce though.

In culinary school we had to master the French mother sauces (bechamel, hollandaise, veloute, mayonaise, and espagnole). I'm not a huge fan of any of the above -- certainly they all have delicious derivative sauces, but by themselves they are just ok. The first four are easy to make and extremely quick. Espagnole though is an investment. It involves about an hour of constant stirring followed by another hour (or more) of reducing and skimming. I made this at school one very warm July afternoon. Six of us were practicing our espagnole that day, and it was hot. I carefully seasoned my sauce when it was complete, brought it to the chef for critique, and then went to throw it away. Probably now I would have saved it. I would have brought it home and enjoyed it. But back then, the mere idea of a sauce that was essentially ultra-reduced veal stock, did not appeal to me at all. It was the most condensed, intense meat flavor you can imagine. At the time I was barely eating meat at all, still recovering from my decade as a vegetarian. Fortunately, my friend Russ saved it from the trash. He took it home with him and fed it to his wife and kids that night with steaks.

There's no espagnole in The Book, but there are a lot of sauces to make. My plan is to do a lot of sauces in the next couple weeks... Eventually I need to tackle those 8 mayonaise recipes!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Maple Mustard Sauce (Page 894)

  • Date: Wednesday, March 14, 2007 -- 8pm
  • Location: Somerville, MA
  • Kitchen: My Apartment
  • Dining Companion: Matty
  • Recipe Rating: A-




Truth be told: I picked this recipe today because it had a start to finish time of 5 minutes! I don't have much time to cook these days (can you even count stirring together mustard and maple syrup as cooking?!?). This sauce was good though! The Book recommended serving it with baked ham, but I certainly wasn't baking any hams today, so I ate it with Chik Nuggets (yay for fake meat!), and it was delicious. For a 5 minute recipe, I would definitely reccomend it.

Lately, I have withdrawn from pretty much everything in my life except my thesis! Oy. So if you have called me and I didn't answer your call, please don't take it personally! The only person whose calls I have been answering consistently are my mother's, and that's because my grandmother had a stroke two days ago, and my mom is keeping me updated...

I am slowly compiling a mental list of all the things I want to do once my thesis is done and my defense is over! Lots and lots of cooking is right at the top of the list. And apartment hunting, enjoying the weather, returning a bunch of phone calls, getting a pedicure, spice shopping, working out, etc... In the meantime, it's work, work, work!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Pumpkin Cheesecake with Bourbon-Sour Cream Topping (Page 754)

  • Date: Friday, March 9, 2007 -- 10pm
  • Location: Cambridge, MA
  • Kitchen: Matty's Apartment
  • Dining Companions: Alex, Gunther, Matty, Clotilde, Russ, and a bunch of other partygoers...
  • Recipe Rating: B+

Alex successfully defended his PhD on Friday, and I made this cheesecake to bring to the celebration Friday night! It was pretty good. The pumpkin filling had a nice flavor too it, but Gunther pointed out that maybe it was a touch too heavy. The crust was a little moist for me. I always enjoy a cheesecake with a crumb crust that has a little crunch to it, and this one did not. The most disappointing thing was that although I added the optional bourbon (of course!) to both the filling and the topping, the bourbon flavor did not come through at all. Even knowing it was there, I couldn't taste it. Overall though, the cheesecake was a hit. It had a lovely smooth texture and the combination of flavors from the crust, filling, and, topping worked very well.

So for all of you out there who thought I was crazy to embark on this project: either I'm not crazy, or I'm not the only one. There is at least one other person out there doing the same thing! You can check out his blog here.

Looking at his blog, I realized that I like the bigger picture better. Hence I am experimenting with super-sized pictures for a while. let me know what you think!

The thing that surprises me most is not that someone else had this same idea, but rather how much he and I seem to agree on our recipe assessments. I have made almost every recipe that he has blogged about so far, and it's shocking how he and I for the most part liked and disliked the same dishes. We even made very similar comments on some of them. I would have guessed that a lot would depend on personal preference, or specific execution of the dish, but apparently not as much as I thought!

In any event, I think it will be fun to follow along with his project. I am interested to see if he will agree that the Chickpea, Lentil, and Rice Soup deserved to be put down the garbage disposal, and the Red Wine Risotto was completely divine!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Pickled Carrot Sticks (Page 909)

  • Date: Wednesday, March 7, 2007 -- 7pm
  • Location: Somerville, MA
  • Kitchen: My Apartment
  • Dining Companion: Matty
  • Recipe Rating: B

I made these pickled carrot sticks about a month ago because the section of preserved things in The Book is always one that I am behind on. I was a little scared to try them so I didn't get around to it until this week (luckily pickled things last a long time!). Full disclosure: I am not a fan of most things pickled. I will eat pickled things for sure, but I usually won't pick the pickled option when I have a choice. So was I enthusiastic about these carrots? Not so much. But that's mainly personal preference. They did have a lovely (and pungent!) dill flavor, and the carrots retained a pleasant crunch. Eaten alone they were a bit strong for me, but I chopped them up and added them to tuna salad, and they gave it a wonderful tang and crunch. Matt (who is less averse to pickled things) thought they were pretty tasty.

First off, a shout-out to Alex, who successfully defended his dissertation on Friday! Congratulations!

It's starting to feel like spring. Essentially all I am doing these days is working, and staring longingly out the window at the sunshine. I took a few hours yesterday afternoon to spend time with Chris before he flew back to California. We had planned to sit in a coffeeshop, but instead we wandered through Cambridge and Somerville, sipping hot drinks and enjoying the beautiful weather. It was completely perfect. We ended up at a toy store somehow, playing musical instruments built for 4 year-olds and making fun of completely terrible math educational tools.

I haven't been outside yet this morning, but I am watching the people on the street walk by without mittens, or hats! I am eager to get out there...

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Ham and Black-Eyed Pea Soup with Collard Greens (Page 111)

  • Date: Monday, March 5, 2007 -- 7pm
  • Location: Somerville, MA
  • Kitchen: My Apartment
  • Dining Companion: Matty
  • Recipe Rating: C-

I made this soup on Thursday night because it looked simple, and I was trying to get back in to the swing of my project again after a long hiatus. It smelled so terrible though that I was tempted to just trash it. I took a single bite, decided I didn't want to eat it, and put it in the freezer. Matt came back from Banff on Sunday, and I passed it off to him, on the general principle that he will eat anything. Much to my surprise, he actually liked it! My comments first: this soup was bland, unappetizing in appearance, with tough meat and a watery, bodiless broth. Matt's comments: this soup was flavorful, appetizing, and delicious. Apparently there is no accounting for taste.

I am officially caught up on my blogging. Well, ok, that's not exactly true. I have some pickled carrots rotting in my fridge which I am scared to try, and hence haven't blogged about them yet. One of these days... Being caught up on my blogging puts me in the difficult position where I can't blog unless I cook something, and I don't really have time to cook much. I am going to have a lot of catching up to do once I defend and submit my thesis.

I had a rare day today where I stayed at home all day. I left the apartment only once, to walk to the mailbox down the street. At 4pm I started to feel a little guilty about the fact that I was still in my pajamas, so I changed out of them, only to put them back on at 10pm. The reason behind my ultra-indulgent behavior: I did something really horrible to my neck and back. I have no idea what I did, and I never have back or neck problems (well, only once, briefly, at Talbot last year...). But apparently I did something bad, and now it is incredibly painful to walk, or sit, or stand, or lay down... So I drugged myself up and worked from home today. My plan is to miraculously feel better tomorrow. If that fails, I may employ my back-up plan and see a medical professional.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Mushroom Barley Soup (Page 113)

  • Date: Monday, February 19, 2007 -- 8pm
  • Location: Somerville, MA
  • Kitchen: Matty's Apartment
  • Dining Companion: Matty
  • Recipe Rating: A-
I picked this recipe to make a couple weekends ago because it sounded like the sort of thing that would freeze well and make good lunches for a while. Truth be told, I don't usually like mushroom soup too much. This recipe was really good though! Matt pointed out that it was food that you could feel good about eating -- very hearty and healthy. My usual complaint about mushroom soup is that it often tastes like dirt. This soup had a bit of that mushroom dirt flavor, but the sherry and the nuttiness of the barley offset it nicely. For a soup without meat, it also had an unusually good depth of flavor. Overall, it was a strong recipe that I would recommend.

Shocking moment of the day:

The scene: Walgreens. 9am this morning. I purchase various items (candy, shampoo, face wash, etc...). I pay for my items. I request cash back. The guy behind the counter (old, and clearly a little bit crotchedy) says to me as he hands me my $60: "You know, it's a good thing the men keep depositing money, because their women keep withdrawing it."

Huh.

I could have told him it was my money. I could have pointed out that I have never been in a relationship where a man gave me money. I could have gotten angry. Or offended. Or upset about the sad state that his comment reflects.

Instead I laughed at him. (Honestly, how could you not laugh at that?) Sexism isn't funny -- I understand that it is a serious issue. And when people are overtly sexist to me, I feel strangely obligated to be offended. But the truth is, I just find it funny.

My favorite such moment ever: At the first math conference I went to without anyone I knew (Algebraic K-theory 2004) a professor (or post-doc?) I had never met before asked me where I study. I said "At MIT." His response: "Are you sure?"

Admit it. It's funny.