-Pictured: Not macaroni and cheese.-
So this week has been kind of a string of failures in regards to The Cookbook. I feel like I’ve been falling down a flight of stairs, only they’re Escher’s stairs so I just keep tumbling down, up, and sideways and I’m not exactly sure when I’ll finally, bloodily land into a broken heap at the bottom. It’s just that every. Single. RECIPE has sort of collapsed in on itself or worse. No explosions as of yet (unless you count emotional ones), but I have no doubt that I and my 1973 gas range will sort that out before the month is out.
Allow me chronicle this with you.
Failure 1: Paneer Korma
Let me prep you first by saying this was part five (billion?) in a series of me trying to make an authentic Indian dish. I had been talking to friends Monica Bhide and Maneet, the woman who owns the Indian grocery store around the corner from my rental, and working through a number of dishes that could utilize homemade paneer into something with truly authentic Indian flavors.
Time after time the flavors seemed to be too weak or somewhat offputting. I would increase the amount of ginger, garlic, turmeric, everything. I would switch that out with this, then back again. After so many failures with vermicelli, curries, and stir-fries I moved on to kormas.
Of course, I have no experience cooking Indian food so all of this was very much off the hip. Yet, at the same time, I followed recipes to the T from people who knew what they were doing and everything kept going awry for me. I’m not sure what it was but the universe had decided that I was banned from cooking Indian-style cuisine.
The korma would be an exercise in simplicity. Tomatoes, a heavy hand of spices, and cream cooked down into a thick sauce before veggies and paneer were added. The whole of it then served over pasta. Now, when I say heavy hand of spice I mean three cloves of garlic, and knob of ginger the size of a witch’s knuckle, coriander, cayenne, cumin, garam masala, and enough turmeric to dye a quilt all went into this sauce. Still, there was barely any flavor. And what there was just didn’t have the richness and depth of the kormas you eat at a hole in the wall Indian restaurant.
Same old problem.
Paneer, of all cheeses, is truly kicking my ass. I’m thinking of simply sautéing it with some spinach, ginger, garlic, and chili flakes and tossing it over vermicelli. Essentially palak paneer with a little liquid added to make it saucier.
-Cause we always love things saucy.-
Failure 2: Cocoa Cardona with Chocolate Pasta, Strawberries, Balsamic Reduction, and Black Pepper
Once in a while you stumble into a Black Hole of Flavor. One of those dishes where a bunch of strong willed ingredients converge and completely cancel each other out somehow. It's much like when two opposing frequencies collide and thus cease to exist. Everything in a recipe gets sucked into some sort of negative zone where taste and flavor are null and void.
In this dish all the above went into it. Strawberries were sautéed and then sauced with a reduced balsamic. Tossed with chocolate pasta, cheese, and black pepper it should have been black and red fireworks bombarding the eater. Rather there was no spark, not even a fizzle. It tasted like cardboard and a disappointing sense of lack akin to expecting a letter to arrive in the post and finding the box empty.
We’ve tried it numerous times. I've come to the conclusion that this dish is simply a hollow vessel of the parts that made it. A puppet without strings to animate it.
Sad. So sad.
-Not like apples, which are never sad.-
Failure 3: Cocoa Cardona Chocolate Chili Sauce over Chocolate Pasta
This was one of those things that at the time seemed like a surefire thing, but in retrospect I see how it all suddenly collapsed in on itself.
I decided that I would try the chocolate pasta thing a different way, I would make a béchamel sauce flavored with chili peppers, garlic, and scallions and then add a tiny bit of cocoa powder – a mole-ish sort of béchamel, I thought so cleverly to myself. Then I decided to add far too much of the Cocoa Cardona.
Here’s the thing about this cheese. I love Cocoa Cardona. I think it’s a bright, smarmy, nicely salted cheese with a bitter rind that I can appreciate. It is a complex and thoughtful cheese on a cheese plate and should always be welcomed into your home.
However, it is not made for cooking. When cooked Cocoa Cardona kinda tastes like the stink you smell in a dark alley where you think some homeless guy probably finished off a bit of crystal meth earlier because that salty, wonky twang is in the air mixed with the aroma of body funk.
On first whiff I decided that more cocoa powder would fix that. Then I decided to add some red wine. Then a pinch of salt. Then, then, then… In the end it smelled exotic and lusty, like a rich, strange cross between hot chocolate and mole.
It’s been a long time since I actually had to walk outside and toss something out into the grass because it was so foul. One taste and all you could do was grimace for the next twenty minutes and rue what sort of angry God and dark alchemy brought something like this into the world. For you Buffy fans out there this was the Angelus of sauces. Evil. The aroma was intoxicating, but it was a trap. A vile culinary succubus that upon your tongue robbed you of joy and stole the light out of your world.
I was afraid that had it gone down the drain the taste might morph into the smell and I did not want that ever.
Cocoa Cardona, you are the sturm und drang of my life right now.
-But at least I got to use the phrase "strum und drang" and that always makes me happy, ironically.-
Failure 4: Sun Dried Tomato Pesto Mac and Cheese
Bone dry. I actually had a coughing fit eating this. Part of it was a lack of liquid and another was trying out some store bought breadcrumbs. I’m not sure why they call this chalk in the tubes breadcrumbs. This is more of a fine powder so intensely ground that it has a texture of smooth imperial silk made from bread. Eating a mouthful of the stuff and accidentally inhaling it down your windpipe as you open your craw guarantees a terrible spat of hoarse coughing. Follow it up with dry pasta and well, it’s a rather raucous and undignified show.
This one is an easy fix. I’ll add a bit more milk next time and that should solve the problem lickitysplit.
All and all, this is going to take some time. It's all the more how I can appreciate fellow bloggers' cookbooks and how many tears they cried and hairs they pulled putting everything together into a cohesive whole.
Most recently, I've become completely enamored with Béatrice Peltre's (aka: Bea) new cookbook, La Tartine Gourmande: Recipes for an Inspired Life.
-It's true. You can judge a book by its cover.-
Based off of her wickedly popular blog, Bea's cookbook is an extension of herself and a window into her personal life and the relationships and experiences that have shaped it. She shares intimate moments abroad with her husband and snippets of meals shared with memorable friends and neighbors. Not only do we see the joy these people share together over dishes of dressed carrot salads or chocolate almond cakes, but we gain insight into how food is meant to string together people in a grand tapestry of tastes and connections.
Each recipe is well thought out, carefully constructed, and as I can see from cooking in it, thoroughly tested. Not a single recipe will fail you. Crème anglaise was spot on and silky as a custard sauce should be, and eggplants stuffed with white sweet potato looks forward to stunning your guests.
Yet, while the recipes are kaleidoscopic in color and approach the most indelible impression is the one the book and Bea herself leave upon you after reading.
As I see it the best cookbooks evolve you and make an impression on your cooking style. This last day, after reading another chapter of her book, I found myself rather famished. I rustled through the kitchen for what was available and wondered, "What would Bea do?" I believe she would roast the asparagus I had in a bit of avocado oil and fresh tarragon; serve it over some warmed ricotta; and finish it off with cracked pepper, olive oil, and the zest and juice of a Meyer lemon.
This is not a recipe from the book, but simply what I threw together when her air and voice were still with me. Simple, flavorful food that was stunning to look at and endearing to eat. I also found myself whipping out the colorful tablecloths that I so wish I used more often and the special plates for fun because why not take a few minutes for that extra step on a Tuesday night?
Beatrice has my respect for this book (though she had it long before it was published, too).
-She has even more of it for these gorgeous apples.-
Her hard work was just what I needed to escape my own hard work. A dish that was light, different, easy, and - literally - overflowing with flavor. Baked Pink Lady apples filled with almonds and cranberries make for a wonderful escape from pasta, let me tell you. I took some liberties with the recipe replacing cider with pomegranate juice as it was what I had on hand and added a bit of ginger and butter since I simply adore them both with a good apple. I like to think Bea would agree.
These apples weren't simply good. They were enriching. Apple with the power to revive spirits while the bodies sigh in delight. Good food is ethereal and Bea has mastered the art.
I encourage you to go out and pick up a copy of this book immediately. I, personally, am not the type to own thousands of cookbooks. In fact, I only have about 30 or so, and all of them are ones I use and reference often so I never recommend a book unless it's one I assure you will change your outlook on food and genially influence your cooking style for the better.
This is one of those books.
No recipe today! Apologies, but if you want it (and you do) I encourage you to head over to Amazon and purchase a copy. No author wants every recipe of their book plastered over the Internet and I encourage you to support this amazing work.