Thursday, April 28, 2011

Crispy Sweetbreads with Parsnip Potato Puree, Braised Endives, and Port Sauce (Page 462)

RECIPE #1260

  • Date: Saturday, February 19, 2011 -- 6pm
  • Location: East Lansing, MI
  • Kitchen: Our House
  • Fellow Chef: Mike
  • Dining Companions: Matty, Charles, Helen, Clara, Tim, and Mark
  • Recipe Rating: C


I remember one particular occasion as a kid when I was out for a fancy dinner with my parents. There was a whole menu full of words I didn't know and foods that didn't sound tasty to my young palate. One thing, however, did catch my eye: sweetbreads! I like breads. I like sweets. It sounded perfect! Luckily before I had a chance to order the sweetbreads my parents cautioned me against it. "It's not actually bread," they warned me. Indeed it is not. In the years immediately following that incident I remembered that sweetbreads were some sort of organ meat, but I didn't remember entirely accurately what they were. So for quite a while when I was a kid I thought sweetbreads were monkey brains. I was close... sort of. Sweetbreads are the thymus gland of calves. I still refer to them occasionally as brains. In fact I did so all throughout this dinner, mostly because it drove Mike crazy! He corrected me several times.

I put off making this dish for a long time because it sounded pretty disgusting. Mike requested a dinner with several disgusting dishes when he visited, though, so I figured it was time for the sweetbreads! This dish was labor-intensive. I soaked the sweetbreads in ice water for 8 hours. I then poached them very briefly. After they had been poached I cut away the membrane and connective tissue. This was not a glamorous job, or one that I would care to repeat. The sweetbreads would later look relatively appetizing, but they certainly did not at that stage. It's a shame I didn't take a picture. I weighted the sweetbreads and refrigerated them for another few hours. I then sliced the sweetbreads. While all that was going on, I made a puree of parsnips and potato using a potato ricer. I cooked endives in butter. When all the veggies were ready, I seasoned the sweetbreads and dredged them in flour. Mike and I fried them in clarified butter until they were golden. Mike then made a pan sauce with shallots, veal demi-glace, tawny port, and butter.

So how were the fried brains... err... thymus gland? Truth be told, in this three component dish, the sweetbreads were definitely the best part. They had a very mild flavor. If you take anything without an offensive flavor, bread it, and fry it in butter, it will taste pretty good. This was no exception. It was hard for me to shake the image of how gross the sweetbreads had looked earlier in their preparation, but the diners who had missed that stage found them to be not gross at all. The vegetables in this dish, however, were pretty disgusting. The Book said that the endives could be cooked up to a day ahead and reheated. I cooked mine just a bit ahead, but it was a bad idea. They took on a disturbing gray color, and were very wilty. Mike said they looked like something his cat threw up and it was hard to disagree with that. We all agreed that the dish would have been better without the endives at all. The parsnip puree was just OK. It tasted decent but the texture left something to be desired. I would have rather eaten my sweetbreads on a bed of tasty mashed potatoes. I certainly won't be making this dish again. That said, the preparation of the sweetbreads themselves was perfectly fine. It was the accompaniments that made this dish unappealing.

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This past Sunday was my 31st birthday. It was also Easter. And on Saturday night I was baptized at the Easter Vigil. To say that the weekend was memorable would be an enormous understatement. Emilee, Brian, and Sam flew all the way from California to be here for the festivities. Indeed, Em and Brian were my baptism sponsors. Poor Emilee flew in on a red eye, landing around 5am Saturday morning. She flew out on Sunday evening, just over 36 hours after arriving. I was honored that she made the trip despite her insane work schedule as a medical resident. I thought that Em, Brian, and Sam were going to be our only out-of-town visitors for the weekend, but my parents surprised me by flying in as well!

On Saturday we enjoyed a nice spring Michigan day. We took Sam to the children's garden and butterfly house on campus, and had some ice cream at the Dairy Store. Emilee and Brian had never been to Michigan before and I was so happy to have them here. We grilled brats on Saturday evening and made a big batch of mashed potatoes. It was perfect. The baptism was Saturday night. The Easter Vigil service was beautiful. Most of the service is in the dark, with everyone holding candles. In the Episcopal church there are four services a year when baptisms are done. Several people advised me that the Easter Vigil is the most magical, and I am indeed glad I waited for Easter to be baptized. It was very special.

On Sunday we celebrated Easter and my birthday by throwing a party! We had a brunch with 20 people at our house. It was fun, and festive, and a little bit chaotic. I loved it! We had two Easter egg hunts: one for the kids, and one for the adults. Here's a cute picture of Sam in our backyard, not seeing the two Easter eggs right behind him in the bush!

We had a ton of food, including a few new things from The Book (a foie gras terrine, blinis with three kinds of caviar, and a garlic rosemary jam). Most of the food was not from new recipes in The Book though: braised lamb shanks, cornmeal waffles, warm lentil salad, fruit salad, green salad, parmesan walnut salad in endive leaves, grilled asparagus, spicy potatoes and cauliflower (made by Helen!), baked leeks with cheese (also made by Helen!) and some gorgeous baguettes made by Bob. There may have been more... I can't remember! It was a big spread. We managed to set up a long table seating 20 in our living room (Well, 19 really. We didn't give baby Olly her own seat!). It was crowded in exactly the way I like. For dessert we had birthday cake (my favorite: red velvet with white chocolate cream cheese buttercream). When I was a kid every Easter I would make a cake in the shape of a bunny rabbit. I decided to make my childhood bunny cake this year for my birthday! I made the cake and Emilee gave the bunny a face using jelly beans and licorice rope. Isn't it cute?


Here I am with my special gentleman, Emilee, and Sam, right before I blew out my candles:


And a few moments later:


I had such a fun time celebrating both Easter and my birthday. It was really special having Em and Brian there, and my parents, and new friends I have made since we moved to East Lansing. I think it was my best birthday ever! Plus, as a birthday present to me my special gentleman did all the cleaning after the party. There were a considerable number of dishes generated by cooking and serving a big meal to 20 people, and he did them all! Late in the evening, after all our guests had left, my special gentleman and I ate some party leftovers and went for a nice walk on a beautiful spring day. It was a perfect birthday!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Beef Tenderloin with Bordelaise Sauce (Page 417)

RECIPE #1259

  • Date: Saturday, February 19, 2011 -- 6pm
  • Location: East Lansing, MI
  • Kitchen: Our House
  • Fellow Chefs: Matty and Charles
  • Dining Companions: Mike, Tim, Mark, Helen, and Clara
  • Recipe Rating: B+

Beef tenderloin is the hunk of meat that filet mignon steaks are cut from. Basically, it is delicious. So I have been saving this recipe for a special occasion that merits extra deliciousness. Mike and Tim came to visit a couple months ago and that was just the occasion I needed. To make this I started by preparing the beef marrow bones. I soaked them in warm water for 10 minutes, them my special gentleman helped me push the marrow out of the bones. I cut the marrow into rounds, covered it with cold water, and refrigerated it for a day, changing the water several times. To make the sauce I boiled red wine with shallots, mushrooms, carrot, thyme, bay leaf, and black peppercorns. I added veal stock and boiled some more. I strained the sauce, then returned it to a boil and added arrowroot and Madeira. I seasoned it with salt and pepper. I browned the meat then roasted it to 120 degrees (letting it rest to 130). While the meat rested I poached the marrow in stock, water, and salt. Then I transferred the marrow to the sauce. Charles sliced the meat, and poured some sauce over it. We served it with more sauce on the side.

As expected, this dish was very tasty. Indeed as we went around the room and graded the recipes after dinner, everyone gave this dish an A or A-. Mike joked that I would ignore them all and give it a lower grade, and I suppose I did. Don't get me wrong, it was good. The beef was nicely cooked, and it was a beautiful cut of meat. The sauce had a lovely flavor to it too. What really made this a B+ recipe rather than an A- recipe for me though was the consistency of the sauce. It was just too thin. I reduced it as instructed, and actually I even reduced longer because I was worried about the consistency. But still, the sauce was too thin. Almost anything you do with a beef tenderloin is going to taste delicious. Would I eat this dish again? Definitely. I would be happy to. Was it the best beef tenderloin recipe out there? No. With a better bordelaise this could have been fantastic though!

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Throughout the last year or so, people have been asking me what I am going to do once this project is over. For a while, whenever someone would ask me that, the first thing I would think was, "Celebrate!" As I was getting down to fewer and fewer recipes last year, keeping up my usual pace was exhausting. The recipes towards the end have been more time consuming with many hard-to-find ingredients and I began to feel like my life was dominated by the project. Plus, when we first moved here we didn't have anyone to share the project fun with. Not being able to eat big project dinners with friends took some of the joy out of it for me. Basically I felt ready to be done.

At some point in the fall I decided to relax my pace, and not attempt to finish the project in 2010. It was a fantastic decision, as it has let me enjoy making the dishes again. In the meantime we have made friends here in East Lansing who enjoy eating the crazy project food. (Well, I suppose I am not sure they always enjoy it, but they keep coming over!) The project has become fun again. And suddenly it makes me really sad to think about it being over. Although this post claims I have 34 recipes left, that number is really more like 27 (I am behind in my blogging!) and I am making another 2-3 this weekend so soon I will have fewer than 25 to go. It's hard for me to even believe that I started this thing with 1293 recipes to make, and now I am only 25 from the end.

So what will I do next? I don't know. A while back the publishers of The Book asked me if I would be interested in blogging about the second book they published: Gourmet Today. At the time, I thought, "No way!" The idea of taking on another long project seemed insane. They sent me a couple signed copies of the new book though. I flip through them often and think how fantastic it would be to be at the beginning of such a project again -- to have so many choices, to be able to construct entire meals, to not be done with the desserts... I still don't think I will do it, but it does sound appealing.

Slowing down the pace lately has been a nice transition to post-project life. I have been cooking my way through The Book for a long time now! I started this project before I even met my husband! I think it will be very weird for me when the project is done, and it becomes a thing-I-once-did rather than a thing-I-am-doing. So truth be told, I am dragging my heels a little bit. Could I cook faster than I have been these past few months? Sure. But I made a decision to savor these last few recipes -- to eat them with friends whenever possible and to celebrate the food and these last few months of the project. Plus, I no longer feel ready to be done.

This weekend I am making the Foie Gras Terrine, which is a recipe that I thought I might save for the very end. It is definitely a special occasion recipe. This weekend is going to be very special though: my baptism, Easter, and my birthday are all happening, and Emilee, Brian, and Sam are coming from California to be here. We are having a big Easter/birthday lunch at our house with braised lamb, and cornmeal waffles, and birthday cake in the shape of a bunny rabbit (and lots of other things...). So I am making the foie gras. Also the blini with three kinds of caviar.

Yes, the end of the project is near. And I am more than a little sad about that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Escargots a la Bourguignonne (Page 75)

RECIPE #1258

  • Date: Saturday, February 19, 2011 -- 6pm
  • Location: East Lansing, MI
  • Kitchen: Our House
  • Fellow Chef: Helen
  • Dining Companions: Charles, Clara, Matty, Mike, Tim, and Mark
  • Recipe Rating: B


When Mike and Tim came to visit a couple months ago I put together a special menu for them. These snails were part of it. I started by making a compound butter with shallots, garlic, parsley, salt, pepper, and white wine. Helen sterilized the snail shells, then stuffed some of the butter mixture in each one. She put a snail in each shell, then topped them with the remaining butter. She stabilized the shells on a baking sheet by nestling them in kosher salt. Then we baked the snails until the butter sizzled, about 3 minutes. These snails were perfectly fine. The butter mixture was buttery, as it should have been. It had a nice garlic-shallot flavor to it, and the white wine was a good addition. No one had anything terribly negative to say about this dish, but no one was really raving about it either. Mark commented that he prefers his escargots piping hot, which these were not. That was mostly my fault -- the timing of the meal was a bit off so these sat for a couple minutes before we ate them. But even when they were straight out of the oven -- after only 3 minutes in the oven (as The Book indicates) -- they weren't terribly hot all the way through. They could have cooked longer. Mike complained a lot about how the snails came in a can, which I agree was a little creepy. But that's what the recipe called for! Other than that everyone seemed relatively neutral on this dish. Wasn't great. Wasn't terrible. I probably won't make it again.

The recipe is here.

Only 35 recipes left!

One of my students started crying today. This happens more often than you might think. Math is hard, and many students feel very frustrated by it. This particular student is in my 300-level math course. It's not an easy course. She already failed it once with a different instructor, and is concerned (with good reason) that she might fail it again this semester.

I have been teaching for a number of years now, so I am accustomed to teary-eyed students in my office. It is pretty rare that students start all out crying, and only once have I had a student start sobbing. (That was a unique situation. The student had cheated on a quiz and was so remorseful that she couldn't stop sobbing through the entire meeting. She was crying so hard she was gasping to catch her breath. It was a difficult meeting for the both of us.) I am no longer surprised by the teary eyes. This afternoon, though, my student started to cry in a more serious way. After class we were standing outside the building where the class is held. It was a beautiful afternoon. What started as a discussion about what she needed to do to pass the course devolved into her crying out of frustration and anger. We stood on the steps for 25 minutes: her crying, me trying to be sympathetic, constructive, and motivational all at the same time. The reality is, there are less than two and a half weeks left in the semester, and much of her grade has already been determined. She should have done many things differently from the start. Can she still pass? Definitely. Will it require some hard work? Yes. I tried to pass along what wisdom I could.

As I stood there, I thought back on my own life as a student. To my recollection, I cried in front of my professors twice: once in college, once in graduate school. They were very different situations than the one today. I certainly never cried about a grade. In college I cried out of frustration at the feeling that I was doing a bad job at something that mattered to me. In retrospect I wish I could take back that whole conversation. I shouldn't have cried, and to this day I feel embarrassed when I think about the possibility of running into that professor. In graduate school I cried, also out of frustration, about the stress of the job application process. It wasn't my thesis advisor that I cried in front of, but rather another professor who I was close to. I don't feel bad about it actually. Applying for jobs is incredibly stressful. If I had to do it again now I am sure I would cry again. The professor took it in stride, and it didn't affect our relationship at all. I got the feeling that I was not the first person to cry in his office from job application stress. He told me horror stories about his own experiences on the job market, and it was tremendously reassuring.

This afternoon, standing in the sunshine with my crying student, I understood how she felt. I never failed a class, but I could relate to her frustration. And I wanted to help her. The problem is, there aren't always easy solutions. Her situation is difficult in a lot of ways. I do hope she passes. And from her tears I could tell, she genuinely hopes for that too.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Rumaki (Page 53)

RECIPE #1257

  • Date: Saturday, February 19, 2011 -- 6pm
  • Location: East Lansing, MI
  • Kitchen: Our House
  • Dining Companions: Matty, Mike, Tim, Helen, Charles, Clara, and Mark
  • Recipe Rating: C+
Mike and Tim came to Michigan back in February for a visit, and Mike requested a dinner from The Book full of dishes likely to be gross. This one seemed sure to be foul so I added it to the menu. I started by cutting some chicken livers into pieces. I added the liver pieces and some halved water chestnuts to a mixture of soy sauce, ginger, brown sugar, and curry powder. I marinated the livers for an hour. I removed the water chestnuts and liver pieces from the marinade, and wrapped them together in small pieces of bacon. I used toothpicks which had been soaked in water to secure the little bacon wrapped packages. I broiled the rumaki until the bacon was crisp and the livers were cooked but still slightly pink. I thought this dish left a lot to be desired. I am not a huge liver fan, so that was part of my objection to the dish. But even setting that bias aside as best I could, I found this dish to be odd -- and not in a good way. It had both flavor and textural issues. The water chestnuts seemed out of place, and most of us agreed that the dish would have been better without them. The marinade left the liver and water chestnuts with a canned curry powder taste that I didn't appreciate. And when the liver was cooked properly, the bacon wasn't yet cooked as much as I would have wanted. I didn't care for this dish at all. However, several of my dining companions defended the dish. No one was willing to say it was fantastic, but several people found it enjoyable enough. The one thing we did agree on though was that in the wrap-something-tasty-in-bacon genre of food, this is not the best recipe out there.

The recipe is here.

Only 36 recipes left!

Almost four years ago I was talking to a friend and he was asking me about my job. At the time I was a post-doc. One of the first things he asked was, "So, is it a five-days-a-week kind of job?" I was surprised by the question, so much so that I remember it still. I answered honestly, "Well, no."

It is very rare that I only work on five days of the week. During a semester when I am teaching, it never happens. That said, on the weekends I do try to take it easy. My usual policy is that on Saturdays I only do work that I want to do. If a particular task sounds unappealing (grading comes to mind) I don't force myself to do it on Saturday. Indeed I often take most of the day off to do something fun, and squeeze in a few hours of enjoyable work when I feel like it. On Sundays after church I try to get ready for the week ahead, which often involves lecture writing, grading, etc... in addition to research-related work. Sundays don't have the same leisurely feel as Saturdays, but I still work from home and enjoy the company of my special gentleman and my kitties. So while my weekends aren't exactly work-free, they are still relaxing and rejuvenating.

When I don't have them, I miss them. Weekend conferences are a common thing in math, and the last few weeks, said conferences have robbed me of my precious weekends. This past weekend, our university was hosting a graduate student conference in my field. Two hundred graduate students from around the world descended on East Lansing for a two-day extravaganza. The conference was organized by graduate students, for graduate students, so I had no organizing responsibilities. I did however have a speaking responsibility. The conference mostly consisted of talks by graduate students, but they also had three senior faculty speakers and four junior faculty speakers from around the country. My special gentleman and I were both asked to give young faculty talks, not about our own research results, but rather about open problems in our respective fields. The point was to be inspirational! So on Saturday afternoon, when normally I would be sipping hot cocoa on the couch, I was attempting to inspire a big room full of graduate students. My special gentleman and I also did some entertaining of people in town for the event so it was a busy weekend.

The weekend before that, my special gentleman was speaking at a conference somewhere in Illinois. He had been in Canada for another conference, and flew straight from one conference to the next. I drove down to Illinois to pick him up, and went to the conference with him. The conference wasn't in my field so I did get some work done while I was there, but it wasn't a relaxing weekend at home.

The weekend before that I co-organized a special session of a conference in Iowa City. It was really fun! One benefit of organizing is that you get to pick the speakers -- so not only were the talks super-interesting to me, but I enjoy all the people who were there! The conference went smoothly, but I arrived home late that Sunday night, exhausted.

The weekend before that my special gentleman and I were driving back from our Spring Break "vacation" to the East Coast, where we both spoke at MIT and he also spoke at Princeton. The weekend before that we were headed to MIT for our talks.

It feels like a long time since I have had a real weekend. I really enjoy conferences, and I have heard some great talks and seen a lot of good friends over the last few weeks. But I am tired. Luckily, I will be home for the next FOUR weekends! I don't have to give any weekend talks. I am not going anywhere. It will be awesome! Five weekends from now I have to give another Saturday talk, and for the following five weekends after that I will be traveling. But right now I am not thinking about any of that. I am only thinking about my upcoming weekends at home and how lovely it will be! Maybe I will even have some time to do some cooking...