Category Archives: recipe testing

Rum Running and a pie

You probably know rum running was about smuggling or transporting alcoholic beverages illegally. Being an upstanding citizen of the law, I can’t even imagine the stress that goes along with such illegal activity. But, maybe if you’re drunk enough on a lot of rum you don’t care.

I was approached by MS&L because Bonefish Grill started posting webisodes and just did one on rum running in the Florida Keys. Unfortunately, we don’t have any Bonefish Grills in California. There used to be one in Las Vegas, which seemed like a suitable not-really-close location, but they’ve closed that one. So, I didn’t see any big reason to promote it. But, they did provide some recipes for a Rum Runner drink and a Dark and Stormy. They sound pretty tasty (and boozy), but rum’s not really my booze of choice. Although, since the Dark and Stormy uses ginger beer (which I do love), maybe I’ll give it a shot! I also have a recipe for a rummy coconut pie, which I was going to test for you ahead of time but haven’t been able. So, I’m going to post it for you, then test it out, then tell you if it’s any good. Which sounds like a pretty lame way to do things, but that’s what you’re getting at the moment. Sorry.

Coconut Pie With Myers Rum Sauce
Serves 6-8

Ingredients
· 1 Cup Whole Milk
· 1 Cup Heavy Cream
· 1/2 Cup Sugar
· 1/2 Cup Flour
· 6 Eggs
· 1 TB Vanilla Extract
· 2 Cups Coconut, shredded

Preparation
Place milk, cream, sugar, flour, eggs and vanilla in a mixing bowl. Mix with a hand mixer for 2 minutes on medium speed.

Add coconut and mix together until completely incorporated.

Place in a greased pie pan.

Cook at 350° for 40-45 minutes.

Rum Sauce
Ingredients
· 1 Cup Brown Sugar (light or dark)
· 1 Cup Butter, unsalted
· 1 Cup Myers Dark Rum
Preparation
In small sauce pan, heat butter over medium heat until melted.

Add brown sugar and mix together until sugar dissolves.

Add rum and cook for 1 minute on medium heat.

Slice pie and serve with rum sauce, to your liking.

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The New Portuguese Table Dinner Party

I know, I know… I’ve been promising this write up for ages, but now it’s here! I’ve been trying to get it put together to help promote the Food 4 Kids program and fundraising event, especially since David Leite has sent a signed copy of his cookbook, The New Portuguese Table, as a raffle prize (either donate online or at the collection event Saturday, December 12, 2009 to be entered in the raffle). David’s website, Leite’s Culinaria, is proud of the fact that posted recipes get put through the steps by the extensive network of recipe testers. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t get posted. If a recipe is posted, but readers are finding it really doesn’t work, it gets re-tested and often pulled. So, it stands to reason that his cookbook would undergo the same rigorous procedure.

If there’s one mantra cooks follow (or should follow), it’s “Don’t attempt a recipe for the first time in front of company.” When you are making dinner (lunch, dessert, food gifts, etc) for people, even if those people are good friends, you want to present a dish you’re familiar with, so you’re not left with some weird thing in a dish that requires a) pizza delivery and b) delayed eating. Granted, I’ve fudged that rule a few times, but only on Cami – mainly because I know if something goes wrong I can just whip up something else for us to eat and we’ll be happy. And I always warn in advance, “This is a new recipe so it might turn out terrible”. Luckily, I think that may have happened once. Or twice.

But! The New Portuguese Table has been put through the ringer. The recipes that ended up in the book were tested, retested, tweaked, and tested some more. Plus, there are dishes in there that I never even had the chance to test (or some that I passed on, due to a fear of handling whole squid). So, I thought it would be fun (so daring!) to throw a dinner party using only new recipes from the cookbook. I was a little wary (old habits die hard, you know), but I shouldn’t have been. It all turned out perfectly. Here’s what the menu looked like:

· Green Olive Dip

· Goat Cheese, Walnut, and Honey Triangles

· White Gazpacho with Crab Salad

· Momma Leite’s Braised Beef in Garlic

· Spinach with Breadcrumbs

· Orange Olive Oil Cake

· The best chocolate chip cookies you’ll ever eat

Okay, small confessions: I had made the green olive dip and goat cheese triangles before. And the chocolate chip cookies aren’t in the cookbook, but they are David’s recipe and they’re so good I had to make them. The green olive dip is really delicious: vibrant, tangy, creamy, and spreadable, it makes a good dip or spread. And, we had a beer that pairs perfectly with goat cheese, which is why the goat cheese triangles made it in. But the main course was all new to me! Which is what matters, right? Because if it fell flat or took longer to cook, we’d be in trouble!

This was designed as a sit-down dinner. We had appetizers ready to go when people arrived, but I had timed the beef so that it should be ready by the time we were finishing the soup. And it was.  So, here’s what we enjoyed at our Pre-Holiday Dinner, compliments of The New Portuguese Cookbook.

green olive dip... and other nibbles

The green olive dip is in the bowl towards the middle.  The rest of the nibbles were pretty much leftover things I had in the fridge.  In the front, I put out a platter of crackers and Manchego cheese (it’s what I had) and the rest of the green olives from the dip recipe.  I had also sliced a baguette, drizzled them with olive oil, and toasted them so people could spread the olive dip on them.  I had leftover crab from the gazpacho recipe, so I turned it into a crab salad that we ate for lunch.  What’s in the bowl is what was leftover from that.  In the back is a plate of more crackers and some goat cheese I had rolled in sweet paprika.  Not too shabby, huh?  For the green olive dip, I used Spanish olives from the bulk olive bar at Whole Foods.  The base of the dip is a milk “mayonnaise” (also in the cookbook) – instead of using egg yolks, you use milk and then emulsify oil into that.  The green olives add a salty tang and there’s a hint of garlic in there, too.  I love it and happily ate leftovers on everything for a couple of days after the party.

goat cheese "triangles"

Yes, you’ll notice those are rectangles.  That is completely due to my inability to cut straight lines, which left me with uneven squares.  Uneven squares don’t make good triangles, but they make decent rectangles.  These are filled with a mixture of goat cheese, walnuts, rosemary, and thyme, then brushed with an egg wash, baked, and drizzled with honey and sea salt.  You get crispy soft pastry, a creamy filling with a crunch (from the walnuts) and this salty sweetness on the outside.  I could eat a dozen of these, easily.

not a recipe

When we were in New York, we went to Newark, NJ to stroll through the Portuguese neighborhood.  When we stopped for lunch, we saw a table with a flaming sausage!  Since we had brought back some good linguica, we thought it fitting to see if we could set fire to a sausage without causing too much damage to the house.  I would recommend testing your liquors first to see what lights easily.  We ended up using some of Travis’ Scotch.  We also didn’t have the traditional vessel, so we used one of my stainless steel pans.  As you can see, it’s very visually appealing, and you end up with a crispy sausage that is slightly sweet from the burned off alcohol.

crab salad, pre-soup

gazpacho!

gazpacho!

I had never made a gazpacho before.  I think I was under the impression that I didn’t like cold, savory soups (cold, fruit soups are a different story).  I was also skeptical that all the bread and almonds would result in a soup that wasn’t grainy or clumpy.  And, yes, I realize this may be better suited for a summer meal rather than fall, but it was one of the few soups recipes that allowed us to plate the dish with the crab salad in, and then pour the liquid soup on top of it.  See, when we were in New York, treating ourselves to fancy-schmancy meals, we kept getting impressed by these soups that arrived with tasty morsels on the bottom and a silky liquid that surrounded them.  We wanted to do it at home, and this ended up being our choice.  The crab salad works well here, melding into the soup to give the dish a little more substance.  The gazpacho itself is light and not grainy at all.  Definitely make sure you add enough salt to bring out all the subtle flavors.  We ended up with no leftovers on this course, but I wish we had.

braised beef and chourico

spinach and "breadcrumbs"

The braised beef was delicious.  Meltingly tender and flavored from braising in wine, garlic, and alongside chourico.  By this time, we were all getting so full, but everyone agreed it was so good.  I would have eaten the leftovers for lunch, but Travis beat me to it.  You may notice the breadcrumbs on my spinach are a bit large and perfectly cubed.  I didn’t have time to make the cornbread in the cookbook (it’s like a yeasted bread made with cornmeal), but I did have cornbread stuffing mix and I think it worked in a pinch.  It gave a little crunch to the spinach and there wasn’t much left by the time dinner was done.

this only gets better with age

warm cookies...mmm...

Almost done… we’re at dessert!  The nice things about both these desserts is that you have to make them in advance.  The Orange Olive Oil cake needs to be baked at least a day before you plan to serve it.  Trust me… you may think you want a warm, fresh-out-of-the-oven cake, but you don’t.  You want a room-temperature cake that has had at least a day to let the olive oil and orange flavors meld, soften, and seep into the moist cake.  It stays moist (probably due to the amounts of olive oil) and it just keeps getting better.  We kept slicing pieces off the cake for days until we finally sent it into work.  The cookies have made their rounds on the Internet and people keep posting about their famous/popular/best cookies, but these are my favorite.  You make the dough up to 3 days in advance and then bake them up into huge cookies.  The long rest lets the sugars and moisture meld into the flour (or something like that – go read about it) and because of the size, you get a cookie that is crispy on the outside, chewy in the middle layer, and then soft in the dead center.  Plus, there are these layers of chocolate interspersed into the cookie.  It’s heaven and definitely calls for a glass of cold milk.  Sometimes I freeze hunks of dough so I can bake up a couple of cookies on a whim.  They’re still good (as no warm cookie could be bad) but they aren’t as good as the ones made from “fresh” cookie dough.

So… I managed to convince myself that all the recipes in the cookbook work, which is comforting since, as I mentioned, there are quite a few that I haven’t tried yet.  Now I can just pick one at random and know it’ll end up tasty.

Testers’ Weekend in NY

We have returned to San Diego safe and sound, if not a few pounds heavier. Both T and I have been avoiding our bathroom scale; we figure we know it’s not going to be good news (who goes on vacation and loses weight?) so we’re giving ourselves a little equalization period. We must have eaten well if T claimed rights to the elliptical machine the first night being home. I’m usually the one who’s conscious of what’s gone in my mouth and how much jumping around I’ve done lately.

New York is a big city. We did manage to orient ourselves rather quickly and learned the Metro system pretty effectively. I don’t think I got yelled at once for being too slow or turning in the wrong direction. Once, we even tried to give directions to some other lost soul before she started asking questions that went beyond our limited Metro knowledge. We did the touristy things like the Statue of Liberty (tickets to the crown are sold out through the end of this year!), Ellis Island, Wall Street, the Empire State Building, Times Square, Central Park, and Rockefeller Center, mostly in two days. We walked up Broadway, past all the theaters and Radio City Music Hall, but we didn’t take in a show this time. We also didn’t visit any museums – just not enough time. Plus, I feel like we’ve seen plenty of museums, art, and dioramas of dinosaurs and saber tooth tigers.

Our main reason for the trip (well, my main reason; T kind of came along for the ride) was to meet the other recipe testers from The New Portuguese Table and to finally meet David Leite himself. He may not have his own tv show (yet) but the anticipation of meeting him in person made me giddy and excited. Being involved as a recipe tester for Leite’s Culinaria and then later on his book is like leaving a back door into the food world unlocked. It’s not quite a foot in the door, holding it open for me to cross through; it’s more like knowing that the possibility of access through that door is there and if I decide I want to cross that threshold, then at least I know where to start.

Meeting David and talking to him is like meeting my favorite foodie celebrity. Except it’s better because I’ve e-mailed with him, talked on the phone with him, and he shipped me salt cod when I couldn’t find it anywhere in San Diego. So, seeing him in person is like turning it all into reality. And, it’s just really cool. He is friendly and funny and warm and I was sad when we had to leave everyone to go back home. Meeting the other recipe testers (as well as Linda Avery and Donna Desfor, who are in charge of the general website testers and with whom I’ve traded many e-mails) was also like a dream come true. I don’t consider myself a food snob or really even a chowhound, but sitting down to gorgeous meals with these people and discussing dishes, preparation, chefs, restaurants, and comfort food was a true joy. It’s like spending time with people who understand you, if that makes sense. Eating a beet meringue topped with crème fraiche and caviar, having it all melt away in your mouth, and knowing that everyone else at the table is feeling the exact same awe and delight is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I loved it. I loved every moment of it.

It’s also extremely motivating to be around people who have been able to incorporate their love of food into their lives. The people I met teach pastry and cooking classes, are published food writers, and develop their own recipes. I spend 40 hours a week as a civil engineer and then try to find time to assemble a dish in my spare time. Sometimes I write things down, sometimes I’ll even make a dish a second time, but it’s rare. After this weekend, though, I’m determined to start a file of recipes of my own. A signature dish; something I’ve made from scratch that is reproducible.

I took quite a few pictures of the meals we ate this weekend (it seemed appropriate) and I’ll post them later – Momofuko Ssam, Aldea, Mesa Grill, and Eleven Madison Park. But, before I got to all of that, I just wanted to tell David thank you. Thank you for starting Leite’s Culinaria so I could sign up for something I just thought would fill some spare time. Thank you for sharing the opportunity to help test your recipes for the book. Thank you for opening my eyes to a culinary world I wasn’t even aware of. And thank you for organizing our Testers’ Weekend in New York. It was one of the best trips I’ve been on and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Honey Cookie recipe

My mom sent me the Honey Cookie recipe (for the cookies that last practically forever) so if anyone wants to try them, I’d love to know how they turn out for you and if you like them. I feel like I should tell you that they’re pretty sweet cookies. I can usually only eat one at a time and I think they’d be good with hot tea or coffee rather than a cold glass of milk. I’ve also never made them, so I don’t know how labor intensive they are, but since I get them glazed and individually separated with pieces of wax paper they appear pretty complicated to me.

Aunty Ce’s Honey Cookies

1 c. honey
3/4 c. dark brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 TB lemon juice
1 tsp. grated lemon peel
2-1/3 c. flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. each allspice, ground cloves & nutmeg
1/2 tsp. each salt and baking soda
Glaze: 1 c. powdered sugar and 5 TB water

1. Heat honey in small pan over medium high heat just until it begins to bubble. Remove from heat and cool slightly.

2. Stir in sugar, egg, lemon juice and peel until blended. Set aside to cool to lukewarm.
3. Add honey mixture to dry ingredients. Cover & refrigerate overnight.
4. Work with 1/4 of the dough at a time. Keep remaining dough covered & chilled. On heavily-floured board, roll out dough with floured rolling pin to 3/8″ thickness. Cut dough into 2-1/2″ rounds and place on lightly greased parchment paper.
5. Bake at 375 degrees for 12-15 min. or till golden brown.
6. Remove and immediately spread glaze over top. When dried, glaze bottom.
7. Place cut pieces of waxed paper over top and bottom of each cookie.

The New Portuguese Table

I would be completely remiss if I didn’t tell you about The New Portuguese Table.  David Leite runs Leite’s Culinaria, a comprehensive website full of recipes, many of which can be viewed as excerpts to some of the most touted cookbooks.  Not only does his site offer up these recipes, but each recipe posted is well-tested, ensuring that the recipe works as written and that everyone will be able to turn out a delicious final product.  Trust me on this, as I’ve been one of their (many, many) recipe testers for over 4 years.  I only know it’s been this long because when T and I first started dating, he found one of my reviews when he Googled me.

A quick look through my files shows that David started testing recipes for his cookbook well over 2 years ago.  I was honored (and thrilled) when he asked if I would be interested in being a tester for the book.  How often does that chance come along?

Dozens and dozens (and dozens) of recipes filtered through my kitchen, most of them sampled by T, sometimes presented to friends.  Some of them worked the first time, others got their tweaks and final touches before they were deemed finished.  We took pictures of our dishes to show each other, but none of them come close to the beauty of the cookbook photographer.  Those photos would make me drool even if I didn’t already know how delicious the food was.

David was gracious enough to let us pass on dishes that made us squirm – I still don’t think I can handle raw squid – and often asked for suggestions if we felt something just wasn’t right.

Now, all the hard work has paid off into a beautiful cookbook full of stories and wonderful food.  I’ve paged through it and it’s like a trip down memory lane for me.  If Portuguese cooking has at all intrigued you (the only way I can describe it is like Spanish cooking, with a twist), David’s book will step you through it. 

Do not fear the salt cod – it is far less scary once you soak it and incorporate it into a dish.  Then it becomes tasty!

Thank you, David, for letting me be a part of your journey.  It’s been a delicious path and I look forward to many return visits.

p.s. – if you read through his Acknowledgements page, you’ll find my name there.  It’s a bit exciting (for me, at least!)

Chicken Milanese

Yes, it’s another tested recipe from the world of LC. Two in a row! We go through a lot of recipes every month. They don’t always make the cut, so if it’s on the site you can trust that it’s tasty and you won’t run into problems if you follow the directions. We aren’t allowed to make any changes to a recipe while testing it, even if it means going against our better judgement. How else can we ensure each step is correct unless we do exactly as told? Once we’ve gone through one round of testing, though, we can tweak it and comment on how we think we could make the recipe easier or more flavorful or just different. If we find that cooking times are way off or some part of the instructions just doesn’t work, that recipe just may not get posted to begin with. We’ve also had a hand in retesting posted recipes if they get complaints. So, if you’ve tried a recipe you’ve found on Leite’s Culinaria and you’re pretty sure the problem didn’t lie with you, send someone a note. On the flip side, if you made something delicious, it’s nice to hear some praise, too!

The Chicken Milanesecomes from the same Ron Finamore book Tasty: Get Good Food on the Table Every Day. The fact that I highly enjoyed two recipes from this book and have no inclination to tweak them probably means I should buy it. As with the Tomato Pie recipe, you can also have this recipe as a .pdf.

I am wary of fried foods. I know Alton Brown has shown that, when done correctly, fried foods only absorb a tiny tiny amount of oil, but it still doesn’t seem healthy. But, I am a good tester and I soldiered on for the good of the group. I also find it easy to rationalize questionable decisions if someone somewhere may benefit, even a little.

This is an awesome dish. Not only do you get a crunchy, tasty, moist chicken but you also get a perfectly paired salad with dressing – all on the same page! Plus, it is quick to put together which means you can make this on a weekday, even after coming home from work when perhaps ordering Thai food sounds like a good idea. You should have all these ingredients already in your kitchen (except for Pecorino cheese, which is not essential to this dish – just add more salt). I do admit that frozen chicken does not taste as good as fresh chicken, but I’m willing to overlook that minor detail in favor of the convenience of having chicken without an addtional trip to the grocery store. Plus, once you fry these suckers up, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference anyway.

Bread crumbs are good for breading, but panko is even better. You get a lighter texture that is more flaky-crispy rather than crunchy-crispy. Panko is getting popular and I’ve seen it right next to bread crumbs in the grocery store. Do not buy that kind of panko. It is way too expensive! First, check to see if there is an Asian foods aisle. Is there panko there? Is it cheaper? If so, buy that. If not, let’s hope you have an Asian grocery store somewhere. The most popular chain is 99 Ranch. You will find bags and bags of panko, under all sorts of different brands, looking totally identical – all for about $2. Much better.

You all know to use the wet hand-dry hand method when breading meats, right? You use one hand to touch the chicken breast and the wet stuff (eggs) and the other hand to touch the dry stuff (flour, panko). This doesn’t keep you from making a total mess, but it does help keep your hand from getting all globby with egg and flour.

The salad dressing method described in this recipe – tossing with oil and then tossing with vinegar – works so well that it is now my default way to dress lettuce. I don’t even make a vinaigrette anymore.

I have now given you two wonderful recipes that will make your tummy happy for two reasons: it is good food and you don’t have to wait hours before eating.

Tomato Pie

I’m a huge fan of tomato soup. Not the condensed kind in a can (it tastes too Spaghetti-O-ish) and not a heavy bisque with tons of cream. Just a simple tomato soup with hearty curshed tomatoes, fresh basil, and maybe some milk to smooth out the flavors. My mom gave me a great recipe that is just as easy as making condensed soup but tastes three hundred times better.

When we were given the opportunity to test this Tomato Pie recipe from Ron Finamore’s Tasty: Get Great Food on the Table Every Day, I thought it sounded like the best part of all worlds. Tomatoes, basil, cheese, and a buttery crust. Yum.

When we test recipes, we are typically trying to make sure that 1) the recipe works as written, 2) the recipe isn’t extremely complex to follow in a normal kitchen, and 3) the recipe produces something yummy to eat (isn’t that the point of cooking?) that is also visually appealing. No one wants to eat a blob of ugly food. Unless you like eating at Hometown Buffet, ha ha!

You’ll actually see my notes at the bottom of the recipe page, which also include my grumbles. Most recipes on Leite’s Culinaria are also available as a formatted and easy-to-print .pdf, so I do recommend you do so with this Tomato Pie and then stick it with your other recipe pages. This is also my way of saying I’m not going to re-type the ingredients and instructions here.

Peeling and de-seeding the tomatoes is a royal pain, but it makes for a better product, so either take the time to do it or don’t complain to me if you’re unhappy with your pie. It was the middle of summer when I did the testing, so I absolutely had to both refrigerate the dough and work fast when rolling it out. Don’t be scared of the mayo – it melts into the cheese and tomatoes and you won’t even know it’s there. You will know, however, if you opt to leave it out.

Based on our testing comments (and notes that got posted), you can expect your crust to get soaked by the tomato juices. On one hand, you can omit the bottom crust and just bake a top crust, but then you miss out on crusty goodness. I don’t mind the soggy crust (I prefer to think of it as a moistened bread layer) because it’s not soggy with water, it’s full of tomato flavor. Obviously, using the best fresh tomatoes will give you a tastier pie, but because it’s being baked and smothered with cheese and basil, you could get away with winter supermarket tomatoes. Just try and get vine-ripened or Romas and not the huge pink mealy ones.

Served hot with a light salad, it is perfect in the summer. Served with green beans and maybe sweet potatoes, it is comforting in the fall when you can still remember the delightful summer. It reheats beautifully the next day but is equally tasty at room temperature and maybe even snuck directly from the fridge. It is just good.