Five Food Questions: Susan Orlean, The Veteran Author

Today marks the launch of  a new feature on The Best Food Blog Ever called Five Food Questions.  Short, sweet, and to the point, Five Food Questions is designed to provide insight into the culinary lifestyles of interesting and compelling people who may or may not be directly involved in the food world.  My inaugural interviewee is Susan Orlean, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of seven books, including The Orchid Thief.   Susan is presently working on a biography of Rin Tin Tin, to be published in 2011, which will place her eight published books ahead of me, by my count.

You’ve traveled extensively throughout the United States and across the world, both as part of your work and also for leisure. What are your favorite regional cuisines or specific foods?

I love Asian food — Thai and Vietnamese in particular. I think one of the highlights of my traveling life was eating pad thai from a street cart in Bangkok. It cost about ten cents and it was just about the best thing I’ve ever tasted. I’m a little awed by Asian food, which is another reason I love it. I respect good pasta and admire a great steak, but I know how to cook my own (not too bad) pasta and steak. Eating really good Thai or Vietnamese food is a wonderful, delicious mystery, since I don’t know the ingredients and wouldn’t know how to whip it up at home.

Who does the cooking in your household? How often do you eat at home?

I’m the cook. I couldn’t boil water until I was in my twenties, and then out of necessity, learned to cook. I even went to cooking school (Peter Kump, in New York) because I really, truly didn’t know how to cook. And I came out of it really loving to cook and surprised everyone by becoming a good cook (modesty aside). We eat at home now quite often – at least five nights a week. We live in the country and hopping out for a burger isn’t that easy, so the nights when we used to do that (when we lived in New York) are now nights when we dig around for something in the freezer. And we even bought a big extra freezer for that very reason.

As an author, how do meals fit into your writing schedule?

When I’m on a deadline, it’s hard. I gobble some breakfast, have whatever’s easy for lunch, and dinner becomes a challenge, since I sometimes forget to think about it until it’s nearly time to be eating. I was spoiled by being able to shop every day and last minute in New York, so I never developed good planning skills. We also entertain a lot, and I sometimes find myself on deadline but also figuring out what to cook for ten people. This is, to say the least, quite challenging.

If you could have any four people, from any point in history, over for dinner, who would they be?

I tried to answer this just off the top of my head, to see what names really floated up fast. William Faulkner (even though he was a drunk and probably wouldn’t be good dinner company). Mao. Darwin. And my dad, who passed away three years ago.

What’s your favorite guilty pleasure food?

I love bad pie. Cafeteria pie. Gummy, glutinous pie. Don’t tell anyone, please.

September 26, 2010   Comments

Making A Spectacle of Myself, Part Two

They say time flies when you’re having fun.  Guess what?  Time flies even faster when you’re trying to prep for a rapidly approaching cooking demo in front of an audience of 150 people.

I had reached the stage at the New York Botanical Garden with an hour and fifteen minutes before the start of my first demo at 1pm.  In order to pull off a successful show, I’d have to start the demonstration having already prepared batches of roasted garlic and caramelized onion, as well as a finished, or nearly finished, pan of caramelized onion bread pudding.  The roasted garlic component would require, at minimum, 45 minutes in the oven, while the onions would need a good 20 minutes on the stove.  The bread pudding needed to bake for 40 minutes, if not more.  With all of this in mind, the timing of the prep and assembly would be critical.

Here’s what I learned from doing this demo – the relative organization of the portion of the stage that is visible to the audience is not an indicator of what’s happening behind the scenes.  The New York Botanical Garden was nice enough to set up large fans to keep the air flowing under the tent, but every time I peeled a clove of garlic, the airflow would blow the loose skins up into the air like ticker tape.  I would take my knife, bash the clove, peel off the skin, and it would float onto the floor – but I was in too much of a hurry to stop.  Eventually, the carpeted floor behind the counter was filled with skins, swirling about as if I had stepped into a garlicky snowglobe.

The whirlwind of activity on the stage soon attracted curious onlookers, who filed into the seating area to watch.  Some of them even started taking photos and video. The New York Botanical Garden had provided me with an assistant, which was a total blessing – he assumed the task of peeling the garlic cloves while I separated them.  By noon, I had unpeeled cloves of garlic roasting in the oven, and five cups of onions sauteing on the stove.  By 12:30, I had assembled the bread pudding and put it into the oven.  I was in as good a shape as I had ever hoped to be.

I had just enough time to run to the restroom, returning to the stage with only a minute to spare.  In just that brief period, the number of occupied seats had ballooned – it wasn’t a full house, but the open-air environment allowed for a far greater number of audience members than an indoor stage in a department store.  The emcee announced my name, the name of my site, and I started my presentation.

The next 45 minutes flew by, thankfully with minimal hiccups.  I was able to demonstrate the use of a mandoline to breeze through the slicing of an onion in ten seconds, showed the audience the sauteing of the onions, followed by a quick cut to the pot of caramelized onions that were ready for their close-up.  I showed how to dress unpeeled garlic cloves for roasting (salt, pepper, olive oil) and popped those into the oven, whereupon I magically removed the packet of roasted garlic that I had strategically started cooking at noon.  The same process produced the reveal for the caramelized onion bread pudding, a proud moment that saw me lift a casserole high into the air, with the requisite oohs and ahhs from the crowd.

What was most surprising, though, was the level of interest and enthusiasm during the Q&A session that followed.  People were genuinely intrigued by the recipes, the same recipes that I had become almost numb to during recipe testing and evaluation.  I asked if there were any questions, and hands shot into the air.  Many of the inquiries focused on substitutions – whether you could replace the dairy entirely with low-fat milk, or if you could use a different kind of cheese.

My favorite exchange occurred when an audience member asked whether she could substitute egg whites for the whole eggs.  I told her that, considering the recipe calls for six eggs for the entire pan of bread pudding, which was large enough to feed a crowd as a side dish, an individual serving would probably contain fewer than half of an egg’s worth of cholesterol.  As I watched her ponder the math of it all, I added that, if she’s worried about fat and cholesterol, she ought to have been much more concerned with the two cups of Gruyere that get melted on top of the bread pudding.  Laughter ensues, end scene.

Get the Roasted Garlic Soup recipe!

Get the Caramelized Onion Bread Pudding recipe!

September 16, 2010   Comments

Making A Spectacle of Myself, Part One

I wonder if anyone at the New York Botanical Garden could tell that I had never done a live cooking demo before?

The week leading up to the point where I would take the stage as part of the Edible Garden series went by like a blur – five days that were filled with a sense of excitement tinged with a moderate degree of anxiety.  Was I excited to have the opportunity to cook in front of a live audience?  Absolutely.  Did I have any notion of how one goes about preparing for a live demo?  Not really.  My greatest fear was that of the unknown – I had never been to the New York Botanical Garden before, had never seen the Kitchen Conservatory Stage, and could not, therefore, envision any of the setup in my head.

My wife encouraged me to practice, and I’m glad that she did.  I ran through the recipes at home, having selected a roasted garlic soup for one dish, and a caramelized onion bread pudding for the other.  Both were easy to prepare in a home kitchen, and readily lent themselves to being a showcase starter or accompaniment for a dinner party.  Each preparation contained steps that could be performed ahead of time, which was critical to a successful demo, and steps that could be shown to an audience to teach technique.  The only missing components were the words that were supposed to come out of my mouth while I was doing the cooking.  The cooking would be the easiest part.

I tried to do a dry run at home, recording myself with a camcorder.  It went fairly well, but  too much of it felt forced – I just can’t have a conversation with thin air, and the notion of practicing in front of friends and neighbors gave me more anxiety than the thought of doing it in front of strangers.  I came up with a basic outline of what I wanted to say, but I knew that at least half of my presentation was going to be extemporaneous.  Again, that darkness of the unknown reared its head, and I was stuck in limbo – both prepared and unprepared at the same time.

We stayed in a hotel the evening before the demo, just to minimize the potential for traffic delays.  Having reviewed the route to the New York Botanical Garden, and in consideration of the ingredients and equipment that I had brought with me, I decided that it would be quicker and less unwieldy if we drove from the hotel to the site instead of taking the subway or a cab.  Since we were staying in Jersey City, it looked like a quick hop up Interstate 95, a crossing of the George Washington Bridge, a twist here, a turn there, and we’re at the Garden.

As it turns out, it really, really, really isn’t that simple.

Checking out of the hotel reasonably on schedule, we packed up the car and headed out with plenty of time before the first demo was to start at 1pm.  New Jersey Turnpike traffic was light on Saturday morning, and we were cruising along.  I had already expected to hit a slowdown on the George Washington Bridge, but how bad could it be at 10am on a Saturday?

Would you believe incredibly, stupendously, horrifically BAD?

Four lanes shrank to two lanes in concurrent merges on the left and right, cramming the scrum of hot metal together into a soup of exhaust and frustration, with mere inches separating bumpers.  We crawled through the tolls at a pace that was so slow, I could have paid the $6.00 in pennies, with change to spare.  Our Civic fought its way through the traffic, inching along the upper deck as the minutes ticked away.  Thankfully, our GPS instructed us to take the exit immediately following the bridge crossing…right into the heart of the Bronx.

As anyone with a GPS can attest, the device has no independent judgment of its own.  It operates purely on logic and algorithms and programming routines that dictate that the best route is always the shortest, even if it’s only shorter by an eighth or quarter of a mile.  So, instead of channeling us to the New York Botanical Garden via the Henry Hudson Parkway, a pretty drive accentuated by views of the river and trees and a speed limit of 50 MPH, the GPS took us through the Bronx, which features traffic lights every quarter mile, double-parked cars, jaywalking pedestrians, and trucks in assorted states of loading and unloading.  And time continued to drip away from us.

We finally arrived at the New York Botanical Garden shortly after 11am.  I rushed to the stage, carrying my canvas bag filled with garlic and onions that I had prepared previously, my Santoku knife, and my mandoline.  As we approached the stage, the magnitude of the afternoon’s events started to dawn on me as I saw, for the first time, row after row of empty chairs, arranged in front of an elevated stage.  There was no time to let it sink in – I had to start my prep work immediately if I was to be ready for a 1pm showtime.

After a few minutes, my nerves settled and my heart rate eased.  I familiarized myself with the location and operation of the stove, the oven, and the sink, and took inventory of the four large bags of ingredients provided to me by Whole Foods.  I checked my watch, took out a cutting board, removed my knife from its holder, and started cooking with an hour and fifteen minutes to prepare.

To Be Continued…

August 13, 2010   Comments

Taking This Show on The Road

Edible Garden

Honestly, I have no idea how this happened, and in many ways it still feels like an odd dream that I will wake up from at any given moment.  Until that time comes, I suppose I can reveal to you that, on July 31, I will be giving a cooking demonstration on stage at the New York Botanical Garden, as part of their Edible Garden exhibit that runs from now through October 17.

As the driving force behind The Best Food Blog Ever, I receive a lot of food-related emails throughout the week.  Many are from marketers and public relations folks, letting me know about the opening of a new restaurant or the availability of a new product that would be of interest to my readership.  So, when I received an email from the New York Botanical Garden telling me about their Edible Garden series, I initially thought it was just an announcement, and that I was one of hundreds of others on an email distribution list.  As I read through the rest of the email, though, which talked about how chefs like Rick Bayless and Mario Batali and Sara Moulton would be taking to the stage to give cooking demonstrations, I reached the final paragraph, which began with this sentence:

“We hope that you will be interested in doing a cooking demonstration this summer or fall.”

I admit, I had been skimming up to that point.  Reading that made me rewind to the beginning to review the entire message more carefully.  Martha Stewart.  Lidia Bastianich. Rick Bayless.  Dan Barber.  Mario Batali.  Me.  Something doesn’t quite fit here, and here’s a hint – it’s not Rick Bayless.  And yet, there is no mistake – the New York Botanical Garden is extending the invitations to a handful of food bloggers in this, the second year of the Edible Garden series, and I’m one of them.

Saying yes to this wonderful opportunity has kicked off a series of weird-to-me-ness that won’t stop until it culminates in my cooking demonstration on July 31.  The New York Botanical Garden needed a headshot, which I had to scramble to produce, considering the only profile photos that I have here are blurry (and I am drunk in all of them).  They asked if I wanted to promote my book, which I would love to, but I don’t have one.  They even asked me if I needed a prep chef, which is so many kinds of awesome that it almost makes me want to make something uber-complicated just to have someone chop stuff for me.  I get to play on stage with a Viking range, Anolon pots and pans, and an entire pantry of ingredients provided by Whole Foods.  It’s like Top Chef, only I get more than five minutes to come up with what I’m making.

I’m beginning recipe testing this week, and the good news is that I only need to come up with two or three dishes that are appropriate for the stage and which will provide samples for the audience.  Soup is one of them, I know for sure.

For those of you who want to come out and meet up, my stage times are at 1pm and 3pm, and July 31 is a Saturday.

July 12, 2010   Comments

In Search of the Biggest Bellies

I have enjoyed a family connection to New England ever since my brother graduated college in the early eighties and moved to Massachusetts for his first real-world job, where he has remained ever since.  So, throughout the remainder of my teen years, through high school, college, and law school, and continuing today into my married life, I’ve been trekking up through the highways and country roads of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut to visit him for inexpensive vacations featuring good times, free lodging, and great local cuisine.  At first, I went alone.  Then, I went with my wife.  On this most recent excursion up north, I went with my wife and my daughter.  Life goes on.

On one of those early trips, probably fifteen years ago, if not more, we found ourselves at the Atlantic Seafood Company, a restaurant in downtown Boston.  I had ordered a basket of fried clams, having been raised on those frozen orange boxes of Howard Johnson clam strips, which, despite having the texture of rubber bands, were actually quite tasty to my inner-city palate.  When the order came, I was dismayed to find, nestled among the traditional strips of fried clam, bulbous bits that came across as foreign, alien, and decidedly un-clamstrip-like.  I eyed my meal with growing suspicion.

Sensing my hesitation, my brother explained that these were belly clams that were local to the area.  Having not even suspected that clams had bellies, the concept was intriguing.  I fished a particularly large specimen out of the basket and popped it into my mouth, and,in doing so, triggered the start of a lifelong quest for the perfect fried belly clam.

It was unlike any other fried clam that I had tasted before.  Instead of having an antagonistic chew, the meat was tender and delicate.  The belly itself gushed when I bit into it, releasing a wave of clam juice and brine that was more evocative of the sea than any fried clam that I’d ever had before.  Instead of a thick wall of breading, these clams were lightly floured and fried quickly to retain their lightness.  I was hooked from the first bite, but also destined to be disappointed for years to come.

Ever since that fateful night, I have purposefully sought out fried belly clams, reviewing menus in seafood establishments and interrogating servers as to exactly how much “belly” was on the clams.  In nearly every instance, my order should have been accompanied by the tuba-sound of disappointment, as I was presented with plate after plate of sturdy clam strips, accompanied here and there by “bellies” that more closely resembled bubble wrap that’s already been popped than what I had eaten in Boston.  Belly clams may be native to the region, but finding true examples of them was largely hit-or-miss.

On our recent trip, then, to see my brother in Massachusetts and to introduce the baby to more family in Maine, I had fried belly clams on the brain.  I had done some research, which led me to this wonderful New York Times article on the subject.  To my surprise and delight, punching in the address of the Clam Box in Ipswich revealed that it was only a mere 2 hours from my brother’s house, in the direction that we were already headed on our way to Maine.

It was on.

At noon, we packed up the car and headed northeast, bound for Portland.  I programmed the address for the Clam Box into our GPS, and by the time our breakfast began to wear off, we were leaving Interstate 95 and cruising through narrow coastal roads on the way to Ipswich, catching fleeting glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean between the houses as we sped along.  As the road curved ahead of us, I spied a small, single story building shaped like a massive takeout box – a takeout box full of clams, to be precise.

Pulling into the sunbaked, gravel-covered parking lot, I trotted to the main entrance to find a short line of customers waiting to get inside.  The queue was not unlike the scene at Pat’s Steaks in Philadelphia, and it moved just as quickly and efficiently.  While we were standing in line, I craned my neck to review the menu, which was posted above the order windows, and which only yielded more questions than answers – what, for example, was the difference between a “plate”, a “mini-meal”, and a “box”? Chatting with the woman behind me, who happened to be a 29-year veteran devotee of the Clam Box, I determined that the difference lay in the number of sides.

We soon reached the window and placed our orders.  On a small whiteboard that was posted next to the main menu, a thick blue marker had been used to post the note “BIG BELLIES ON REQUEST”.   I asked the woman for the mini-meal of big belly clams, and my wife ordered a plate of native clams.  We shuffled into the dark, nautically-themed dining room and waited for our number to be called on the PA system.  The kitchen is fast, no doubt because they only serve a few items, all fried.

When our order was ready, my wife returned from the pickup window with a plastic tray that overflowed with huge plates of fried seafood.  As it turns out, ordering “big belly clams” by name actually did make a difference, as the clams in my order were a bit larger, belly-wise, than those that occupied my wife’s plate.  There was little distinction, though, to the taste – both the native clams and the belly clams featured a bright flavor that would be a revelation to anyone who’s ever been limited to frozen fried seafood.  These clams were the absolute ideal representation of what a proper fried belly clam should be – plump, light, full of clammy flavor, accompanied by a nice dish of cole slaw, with fries and onion rings on the side.  A paper cup of tartar sauce, spiked with fragments of sharp pickle, paired perfectly with every bite.

Traditions are good things, and perhaps there is nothing better than realizing that you have taken your first step in creating a new one.  This was a meal that was definitely worth repeating, and will undoubtedly become a regular occurrence on our subsequent trips to New England.  Our stop at the Clam Box served to bring me back to one of my fondest memories of the past, while making me yearn for that day in the future where I get to introduce my daughter to the taste of a real fried clam.

June 14, 2010   Comments

Help Me Win The FoodSpring Food Blogging Contest!

It’s funny to think that I’ve been writing The Best Food Blog Ever for over two years and I’ve never actually talked about my most exciting food experience.

Well, that changes today.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited by to compete in a contest describing my most exciting food experience, and it’s currently live and ongoing, with voting lasting until Sunday, June 6th.  I’m competing against seven other stellar food bloggers, and as a result I need your help to win all of the food blogging marbles.

The experience that I chose to represent The Best Food Blog Ever is one that I’ve never alluded to on this site, primarily because it happened years before I even started writing about food.  The setting was the Isle of Capri, a sun-kissed dot of land in the Mediterranean Sea, off of the coast of Naples.  The meal that I speak of happened almost fourteen years ago, but I can still taste every nuance of the dishes and smell the breeze coming off of the ocean as if it were yesterday.

Click here to jump to the contest entries, and thanks for your vote.

May 30, 2010   Comments

What Thomas Keller Taught Me

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home.  I settled onto the couch and strategically balanced the oversized, very heavy book on my lap.  By the time I had finished flipping through its pages, not only were my thighs numb, I already had accumulated about a half dozen recipes that I wanted to try.  Did I expect anything less?  Probably not.

How is this any different, you may ask, than any other new cookbook acquisition?  Consider this – while other cookbooks may give me collections of recipes that I’d like to try, thumbing through Ad Hoc at Home has managed to actually change the way that I think about cooking.  If you’ve ever seen the dozens of cookbooks that occupy their own Billy bookcase (and half of a second one) in our library, you would know that this is no small feat.  I’ve gone from collecting recipes to collecting techniques, and Ad Hoc at Home is a treasure trove.

One of the first recipes that I tried out of Ad Hoc at Home was actually listed as an ingredient for another dish that I wanted to make.  The soffritto, which is one of the components of a roasted pepper recipe, calls for only three primary ingredients – spanish onions, plum tomatoes, and olive oil – plus one minced clove of garlic at the end.  Easy enough, right?  And yet, the actual recipe itself, when done in accordance with Keller’s instructions, takes five hours from start to completion.

From a process perspective, nothing could be simpler than this soffritto.  Just chop the onions, toss them into a pan with a generous amount of olive oil, then simmer away for 2 1/2 hours.  At that point, create a tomato pulp by stroking the cut plum tomatoes against a grater, add that to the onions, and simmer for another 2 1/2 hours.  One pressed clove of garlic finishes the dish.

You would think that such a simple recipe would yield standard results – a sweet caramelized onion flavor, some acidity from the tomatoes, but nothing fantastic, right?  This is where the magic of Keller’s technique shines – the resulting soffritto has such a depth of flavor, it’s tempting to just break out a spoon and eat it straight from the pot, thereby nullifying five hours worth of toil for five minutes of pleasure.  The overall experience is a subtle shift in perception, a quiet realization that, if treated with enough care and attention, even the humblest of ingredients can surprise you.  I used the soffritto in the roasted peppers, then gradually depleted the rest of the batch by stirring it into scrambled eggs and folding a spoon of it into a batch of home fries.

My one admission is this – I didn’t carry the recipe through to its full five hour preparation time.  It’s not that I didn’t want to, it’s that I was forced to end it early after realizing that the soffritto was browning way too quickly.  My burners were not designed to sustain such a low simmer as what Keller’s recipe demands, and I was forced to take the soffritto off of the heat to save it from turning into a charred mess.  So, as soon as I get my hands on a flame tamer, I’m going to tackle this recipe again, and do it right the next time.  As good as the soffritto was after three hours, I can only begin to imagine how it will taste after five.

And one day, I may just find myself in Yountville, sitting down to taste the original.

May 12, 2010   Comments

The First Fire in Early Spring

There’s something magical about lighting a chimney full of charcoal for the first time in the spring, where the dusk temperatures still dive down low enough to warrant standing closer to the grill to warm up.  After a winter that saw the accumulation of over 40 inches of snow over the span of four days, the onset of afternoons filled with bright sunlight and daylight that lingers ever longer into the dinner hour brings a sense of hope and renewal.

Grilling is almost a natural reaction to those times when I don’t feel like cooking.  When the kitchen is clean, and I don’t want to disturb its serenity by breaking out all manner of pots, pans, and plates, I grill.  Likewise, when the kitchen is dirty or cluttered – again, with those pots, pans, and plates that were all called into the service of some multifaceted meal, I grill.  For me, grilling distills cooking down to its primal elements – meat and fire.  Really, what else do you need?

On the occasion of discovering perhaps the most perfect butcher shop in all of Chester County, we came home that day with a perfect Delmonico steak – well marbled throughout with streaks of fat.  The shop in question, Country Butcher in Kennett Square, sells USDA Prime cuts that are locally sourced and grass-fed, along with a good selection of cheeses, oils, and other food items.  Out of respect for this grand specimen of beef, I treated it simply – a little bit of olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt and ground pepper, and a rubdown with a cut garlic clove.  Having never tried a steak from Country Butcher, I avoided masking the true flavor of the beef with overly aggressive sauces and seasonings.

Having had grass-fed beef in restaurants, I was already familiar with how outstanding a good steak can become if treated well.  But I had always attributed a greater portion of the responsibility to the chef than to the farmer that raised the cow and the butcher that sourced it and sold it to the restaurant.  As it turns out, the steak was one of the best home-prepared dinners that we’ve ever had.  I can’t take any credit for it – all I did was throw it onto the grill, stand there for five minutes, and flip it onto the other side.  More tender than any other home-cooked Delmonico, with an unexpected depth of flavor, it rivaled the quality of some of the top-dollar, triple-digit dinners that we’ve had in downtown Philadelphia.  It was that good.

April 22, 2010   Comments

In Which I Revel in My Breville

Everyone has probably owned a toaster oven at one time or another.  It’s one of those things that you pick up – along with sheets, laundry baskets, and a mini-fridge – when you’re about to embark on your freshman year of college.  It’s cheap, it gets the job done and it very quickly becomes an indispensable part of your student budget dorm meal prep routine.  In fact, many of us remain allied with our toaster ovens long after graduation, first jobs, and first marriages have come to pass.

If you’ve moved on from your toaster oven to bigger and better things in the intervening years since your college days, you may be surprised to know that, much like Cylons, they have evolved.

For the past three months, I’ve been using a review sample of the new Smart Oven that was graciously provided to me by Breville.  To even compare the Smart Oven to a toaster oven immediately does it a disservice – even though the Smart Oven shares elements that are common to your old standby, such as heating elements and an adjustable rack, the similarities end there.

Featuring 1800 watts of cooking power, the Smart Oven comes equipped with a simple interface that offers three primary dials and a single on/off button.  A turn of the function knob brings the LCD display to life, backlit in a brilliant blue that makes for easier reading of your available options.  Just scroll through the available modes – Roast, Bake, Broil, and Toast, among them – then set the desired temperature on the second dial and the timer with the third.  Pressing the on/off button starts the cooking process.  I appreciated the ring of red light that outlines the button when the unit is in operation – providing me with the assurance that the Smart Oven is on, even if I’m standing  across the room.  Nothing throws your meal pacing off more than when you forget to, you know, turn ovens on and such.

By default, the Breville Smart Oven prepares your food using convection heating, which can be toggled on and off using a small button.  When it’s on, air is circulated around your food by a small fan, providing more even heating and reducing cooking times considerably.  If anything, experimenting with different cooking times is the one learning curve that one would face with the Smart Oven.  Preparing some frozen items, for example, according to the directions on the box may sometimes result in overcooking.

Since bringing the box in from my doorstep, I’ve spent weeks throwing everything that I could think of into the Smart Oven, and have been very impressed with the results.  Bone-in chicken breasts roasted to perfection in about a half hour.  One of my favorite sides, roasted brussels sprouts, cooked in half the time of the original recipe, with the added benefit of freeing up our oven for the preparation of the main course.  The ‘Reheat’ function works extraordinarily well for leftovers, and I never had to worry about overcooking since the Smart Oven shuts off when the timer runs out.  Of particular convenience is the ‘Warm’ function, which maintains a consistent minimum temperature of 160 degrees (or whatever temperature you wish) – this feature is very useful for parents of infants, where eating dinner in shifts is common.

From an economic perspective, I always felt a little wasteful whenever I would heat my large gas oven just to warm dinner rolls, and with the Breville Smart Oven, I no longer have to.  It’s the perfect size for small-batch cookery, such as the aforementioned rolls, a few cookies, or scones for breakfast.  Since it’s considerably smaller than a standard kitchen oven, it heats to temperature much more quickly, ultimately using less power but still delivering fantastic results.

March 18, 2010   Comments

Valentine’s Day, Party of Three

This year was our first Valentine’s Day as parents which, contrary to what most would believe, was actually quite liberating.  Instead of trying to nail down reservations for dinner at one of the few establishments that don’t mandate the selection of a “Valentine’s Day Menu”, we had made absolutely no plans up until Friday night, two days before the actual day.  I knew that we were going to stay home and that I was going to cook a nice meal – I just hadn’t really given thought to what I was going to make.  For inspiration, I had to reach back into my memory, and ended up completing a circle that had started quite a long time ago.

Almost sixteen years ago, I took my wife (who, at that moment, went by the title of ‘long distance girlfriend’) to New York City for the first time.  I remember that it was still cold, so it may have been this time of year, and it may, in fact, have been a Valentine’s Day trip.

Wanting very badly to make a good impression, I sought out a place for dinner that was, by reputation, romantic, and after some degree of research, decided on One If By Land, Two If By Sea in Greenwich Village.  After breezing right past it, we fumbled around looking for the door, until finally the piano player motioned at us through the bay window and pointed at the entrance.

The setting, an 18th century carriage house, was warm and inviting, with darkly wooded dining rooms lit by the soft glow of vintage chandeliers.  It was the perfect date restaurant, made even more so by the fact that we were seated at a table that overlooked the garden outside, coated white by a layer of freshly fallen snow.  We both ordered the Beef Wellington, a decadent concoction of medium-rare filet mignon, foie gras, and mushrooms, served wrapped in a golden puff pastry crust.  At that time, One If By Land had been known as one of the few dining establishments that served Wellington as an individually wrapped serving of filet.  The meal was excellent from beginning to end, with course after course of outstanding food, attentive service, and all of the pomp and circumstance of an evening that was slightly out of a college student’s budget range.  But it was worth every cent.

At some point after that experience, after we had gotten married, I had tried my hand at making my own Beef Wellington.  The fact that I don’t really remember how it turned out, though, means that it must not have been very well executed.  But, years later, having accrued a bit more kitchen wisdom and experience, I decided, quite on a whim, that I’d try revisiting the recipe, this time as a Valentine’s Day dinner at home.

A classic dilemma facing every cook who attempts a Beef Wellington is timing.  The pastry crust must be baked to a perfect crispy brown, yet the beef must not be allowed to cook much further than medium-rare.  If I remember correctly, this was my downfall on my first attempt – while the pastry had turned out perfectly, cutting into the serving yielded gray, overcooked filet.

To prepare, I reviewed quite a few recipes for Beef Wellington.  Some of them only required you to pan-sear the filet mignon, to develop a crust on all sides, before wrapping it in pastry and popping it into the oven.  Others, though, had you precooking the filet mignon to very nearly serving temperature, so that you would end up wrapping a near-presentation worthy log of beef in pastry, with only the required amount of time in the oven to ensure that the pastry was fully baked.  I ended up taking methods and ingredients from one recipe and melding them with techniques from another.  For the preparation of the beef, I decided to go with the latter method, and roasted the tied bundle until an internal probe thermometer had registered the meat as rare, around 125 degrees, then cooled it down to room temperature with a quick stint out on the deck, covered by foil.  This is the only legitimate use for a deck in winter – as a large walk-out cooler.

Having no foie gras on hand, I instead crafted a mushroom duxelle, which was as simple as spinning some mushrooms, shallots, and thyme in a food processor, then sauteing the mixture in olive oil until most of the moisture has cooked out of it.  It takes about ten minutes, after which you set the duxelle mixture into a fine sieve to allow even more liquid to escape, and to let it cool to room temperature.

Using store-bought puff pastry, I laid a frozen sheet on a plastic mat that we use for rolling and measuring pie dough and waited for it to thaw.  Once I could easily unfold it without risk of breaking it, I rolled it to about half of its original thickness.  Assembly was fun – wielding a rubber spatula, I smeared a small bed of duxelle onto the pastry, arranged the filet mignon on top, topped it with Dijon mustard and more duxelle, then carefully enclosed the puff pastry around it, sealing the seams with beaten egg.  Carefully sliding the probe thermometer into the center of the Wellington, I popped it into the oven, set my timer, and waited.

Since I had already precooked the beef, there was no guesswork involved as to when the Wellington was ready.  I only had to wait until the internal temperature of the meat had risen to my desired measure of doneness, about 130 degrees or so for medium-rare, and by that time the crust had puffed and turned golden brown.  Still, even with all of these safeguards, I was nervous slicing into the finished product.

I took my sharpest blade and held the golden package with one hand as I took one sure swipe down the center of the Wellington.  Seeing the rosy red interior of the beef, I knew that I had found my new Beef Wellington recipe.  I sliced the Wellington into thick slices, about an inch, letting them fall forward onto a spatula like a Stonehenge of culinary goodness.  A quick pan sauce of capers, cream, mustard, and brandy was just enough to send the dish into overdrive.

So that night, with the baby napping on the couch beside us and with a bottle of red wine to celebrate the occasion, my wife and I celebrated our first Valentine’s Day as a threesome.  And you know what?  I think I enjoyed it even more than an evening in New York City.

(Note: I need time to write up this recipe, since it’s a hybrid of a bunch of different sources, but as soon as I do, I will update this post.  Promise.)

March 4, 2010   Comments