Quick Bread Recipe

This very simple bread making approach was published in the New York Times in November 2007, and I began making it about a month later. It was an instant hit as judged by the responses of others. Of course I like it a lot too. Click here to get access the recipe details at the Times. Or it can be found in a book titled Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking. I've not yet obtained or read this book, but if this recipe is an indication, it won't be long before there are more bread recommendations coming from it.

This recipe results in a dense, yeasty loaf that can have a strong crust, or a bit less if you reduce overall cooking time. I have primarily portioned it into 3 loaves, but have made a few smaller loaves with equal success.

Why is this recipe so good?

  • Ease - after 5 minutes of preparation, there is only one additional step, which takes very little skill to master.
  • No kneading - which means not only less work, but no variability based on kneading time, technique, etc.
  • Taste, look and feel - as good as any of the highest quality artisan bread.
What you need:

  • Ingredients: Bread flour (highly recommended, though all-purpose will suffice), Kosher salt, yeast, warm water. Cornmeal for dusting.  
  • Equipment: a large bowl, a cutting board or pizza peel, a baking stone (a must) and a rimmed baking sheet / pan.
The approach:
  1. Mixing: combine 3 cups warm water, 1.5 tablespoons yeast and1.5 tablespoons salt to dissolve. Stir in 6.5 cups of flour.  use a soft spatula, and fold the wet and dry ingredients gently. The dough will be pretty loose and pretty wet.
  2. Rising: Set aside for 2 to 5 hours. Can be refrigerated overnight. If you leave uncovered overnight in a fridge, erratic crusty formations will harden on the top of the dough, which make a great "artisan" look and feel.  
  3. Pre-heat: Heat your oven at 450 degrees, with baking stone(s) placed on a middle rack, and a rimmed baking pan on oven floor or lowest rack.  Preheat for at least 45 minutes.
  4. Sprinkle a small handful of cornmeal over a baking peel or cutting board.   
  5. Forming: While oven is heating, using well-floured hands, pull dough away from the sides of the bowl, and turn upside down onto a marble/stone or well floured surface. Cut ough into thirds. Dust "wet" edges of dough with flour, turn upside down, and form a loaf shape, keeping the hardened crusty top in a prominent and attractive position. Repeat to form three loaves. Place loaves onto a making peel or cutting board. After setting the loaf down, twist it in a circular motion to ensure it doesn't stick.
  6. Let loaves rise an additional 20-40 minutes.
  7. Slide loaves onto stones in hot oven. Pour 1 cup of cool water into the sheet pan and quickly shut the oven door. Cook approximately 20 minutes, checking color to determine final cooking time.
Final comments: There are only two really tricky parts of this recipe. Forming the loaves is first, as the dough is pretty sticky and hard to work with. The process of sliding the dough into the oven takes a little finesse, also because of the stickiness of the dough. Be sure to use plenty of cornmeal and spin it a little on the peel. Notice the amount of cornmeal in the picture below. But just a little practice and it will pay off for you.

Weekday Menu - Awesome Pasta with Mushrooms, Peppers and Kale

I had made a few Mario Batali appetizers for Thanksgiving from his cookbook Molto Italiano. One was his topping for Crostini using sauteed kale and pancetta. I also had roasted some mushrooms, red peppers, shallots and garlic. These two dishes were left over, and I had a pasta in mind. So here's what happened:

- Marinated Eggplant Appetizer
- Cavatappi in Mushroom, Kale and Pepper Sauce

The eggplant came from the same cookbook, with the secret ingredients being mint and orange zest. These two cut through the traditional viniagrette flavors and introduced a brightness. The citrus alone would have been OK, but the pairing of both citrus and mint is what made it stand out. Reminder - do NOT overcooked eggplant when grilling, roasting or broiling. I didn't this time, and was glad for it.

On to the pasta. I started with some onion and garlic sauteed in oil. Added in the leftover mushrooms and peppers. Put about 1/2 a cup of heavy cream, which would sauce over a pound of pasta (17.5 oz package of high-end Rao's cavatappi). I might have added a little white wine before the cream.....but as it's a week later I forget.

Oh yeah, I had more pancetta on hand. I diced it and included it in the saute with the onion.

OK - this is all sideways. Cream is not added yet. As the pasta finished, I introduced the kale, which had PLENTY of red pepper flakes to spice it up. Tossed in a handful of diced tomato, then quickly on to the small amount of cream.

Combined this with the pasta and added high quality parmesan.

Results? One of the best pastas I've ever made.

Why? While the kale and roasted mushrooms and peppers would have not been an enourmous investment of time at the front end of this recipe, it would have added considerably. In fact, since I did broil some eggplant, it wouldn't have been a big deal. But the flavors of each (the mushroom and kale dishes) were able to really combine in that they were made 2 days prior. Add the convenience factor and a small amount of cream and parmesan.....well, I won't get much of an argument, even from those that didn't get to enjoy this dish.

Thanksgiving Menu 2008 - updated

OK - it's excessive. It's somewhat traditional. This particular Thanksgiving preparation was the most enjoyable, stress free and timely one ever. Possible factors:

- I've made almost EVERY recipe at least once before
- The entire menu is REALLY close to last years menu
- We only had one guest - my father in law Pete
- Even the kids (and Pete) helped - including food preparation

Here's the menu:

  • Focaccia with Parmesan and fresh herbs, Mario Batali's Molto Italiano
  • Bacon and Roasted Corn Gougeres, Gourmet November 2007
  • Kids Veggie Tray
  • Four Crostinis - Mushroom and sage; leek and mint; Red pepper, onion and thyme; kale and pancetta (see next post for how the kale was re-used!!). Also from Mario Batali's Molto Italiano
  • Pumpkin Pie, Family recipe
  • Whiskey Apple Crumble Pie, New York Times 11/14/07
The Brussels Sprouts were one of the highlights, and we made them again at Christmas.

The turkey stock was made in advance, and is an important new step in Thanksgiving preparations. The idea is that a day or two before thanksgiving, you roast turkey wings and thighs and make a stock. From the roasted parts, and incredible stock is created, which can be used for gravy, stuffing and other dishes that require stock (like the scalloped root veggies above).

As with the advent of brining turkeys which took root in the 1990's, I think that the roasted turkey stock should become a standard step for any serious cook for a Thanksgiving meal.

Italian Night.....with Clams

Got side tracked with that last post about 60 Minute Gourmet. Where I initially wanted to head was this past Thursday's version of 60MG, which drew from recipes from Mario Batali. These recipes are all available on Epicurious,

Actually, that last recipe is not Batali, but comes from Gourmet, July 2003. In fact, it's the main disappointment on this menu, despite having 39 mostly rave reviews in Epicurious. Probably the reason for all that support is that it's a simplistic recipe. Red sauce with capers and wine, but it didn't even include base vegetables like onion. It was OK, and easy, but not really a good sauce to return to. Not bad if you're pressed for time.

The Clams were the winner here. Very nice recipe using fresh bread crumbs and fresh oregano. I pre-loosened the clam meat from the shell so the finished product slides right off the shell. Since Margie generally doesn't like clams and definetly doesn't like mussels, it was a nice turn to prepare this dish and find her enjoying it.

The portobello salad is fine. The viniagrette proportions are very good, and include a little touch of anchovy paste. No one wold ever know it's in there, and it adds a little depth and richness. I recommend anchovy paste in a tube - it can keep for several months in the fridge.

60 Minute Gourmet - Fond Memories

The reference to 60 Minute Gourmet last week brought back fond pre-marriage memories of the routine Margie and I had for Wendesday nights when we were dating. The 60MG column ran in the NYT on Wednesday. That night, I'd cook whatever was in the column, whether we thought it appealing or not. Margie would sit on my "folk music star" wooden stool at the doorway to my kitchen, which was too small for me to cook and her to sit at the same time. She would have a glass of wine, usually red and often Marietta Old Vine Red, and prop her feet against the door jamb. I cooked, she did most of the cleanup. It was a great night to look forward to, as it gave us a mid-week connection, despite the commute from Naperville to Oak Park.

Just as we followed a set routine for Wednesday nights, so there was a 60MG system. There were usually two recipes - an entree and a vegetable or rice/pasta dish. Almost all the ingredients were staples that a good cook should have on hand, including fresh staples - shallot, plum tomato, peppers, fresh herbs and so on. So all that one needed to shop for were the entree item and a few perishables - say beans, or fennel. The recipes rarely if ever required a true specialty ingredient, so shopping would be contained to a single grocery, no running all over for exotic stuff. The only problems encountered might be if a recipe called for a cut of meat or a type of fish, and that fish was not available. But often as not, he'd list several equivalent fishes to choose from. It was a very well tuned system, and I'm not sure that many people were aware of how well composed these recipes were on the point of shopping and use of staples.

So if any of this iterests you, here are links to the books created from the NYT columns. Cuisine Rapide is the best book of the bunch, but doesn't follow the format of the columns as orginally published. Also, the CR recipes are not particularly limited to "60 minutes" of prep time. other two books pretty much just publish the columns themselves, in book form. You'll find a few of the recipes a bit dated, and may want to cut back amounts of butter and cream, but for the most part these are classic dishes and are pretty timeless. And, best of all, they definetly meet the criteria for shopping and preparation I described above.

Verdure in Scapece - Marinated Vegetables

I ran across this in an advertisement in Gourmet magazine's May 2008 issue. The technique for sweating out the vegetables is ideal - low maintenance, high effectiveness. The very small quantity of vinegar added (in comparison to the quantity of vegetables) is the second key to this dish.

After making it a few times, I noticed that it's included in Mario Batali's cookbook
Molto Italiano. I share the concept of the recipe here as a convenience only, and encourage you to buy the book - just ordered my copy. If Mario has even just one additional technique as effective as this, the book will be a permanent addition and my admiration for him will climb greatly.

Mostly, though, I want to share the technique and proportions. I've followed this approach with other ingedients, quantities and even just for roasted eggplant.

  1. Sprinkle eggplant and zucchini slices with kosher or sea salt and arrange on a baking sheet. Cover with a second baking sheet and weigh it down with something heavy. Let sit for 2 hours.
  2. Grill or roast eggplant and zucchini after brushing with olive oil.
  3. Brush red and yellow peppers with oil and grill.
  4. Combine vinegar, garlic, olives, anchovies and fresh oregano. Our over other vegetables and let sit overnight.

Gumbo and African Wings for the Swim Team Board

The Minimalist, Proscuitto and Eggplant Wrapped Cod and Chorizo Rice

The Minimalist, Mark Bittman's weekly column in the New York Times, is a worthy source of good, straightforward recipes. His creations are perfect for new cooks or people in a rush.

In my opinion most all his recipes suffer the fate of nearly all "quick cooking" approaches - yes they are better than most people's scratch cooking. Sure they are fast to prepare. In Mark's case, they usually are takes on classic recipes. They're certainly far better than nearly all prepared foods. But they suffer in complexity and depth.

What on earth does that mean?

Great cooking is very often the results of two, three or four flavors or flavor transformations. This requires either multiple techniques or multiple ingredients, each of which contribute to the finished result - which - to use the age old phrase - results in a final dish that is greater than the sum of it's parts.

From the mid-1970's to the mid/late 1990's, Pierre Franey published a weekly column, also in the New York Times. It too addressed the needs of the busy weeknight cook. His creations shared in the The 60-Minute Gourmet met and exceeded all the criteria described above. Since all his dishes were essentially founded in classic French technique, he did no lose the multi-layer flavors, despite simplifiying most techniques.

Further, in his 60 minutes, he provided a two or three course menu, not simply one dish.

The biggest knock on his column/recipes is that one needed to be a fairly proficient cook to really be able to make them in an hour. But - like Rachel Ray (same criticism on 30 Minute Meals - you really need to know what you're doing to meet that time limit) - if you are competent, organized (full mise en place) and undistracted (are there three kids running underfoot?) - if all of these requirements are met - you can make a fabulous meal in right about that one hour window.

I think his book Cuisine Rapide is the best representation of his style. As compared to the original two volumes of collected recipes, these recipes are slightly more up to date. They still include a bit too much cream and butter for our current palate, but those quantities can be easily cut back and the recipes still work. I highly recommend grabbing a copy. Though out of print, it's easily obtained online, even new.

This week, Mark offered Proscuitto wrapped Halibut with Pesto. OK, not a bad dish for a quick effort on a Wednesday night. All I needed to do was to replenish my pine nut supply and find some fish. There were no high quality white fish available (Sea Bass, Halibut, etc) so I settled for cod. It would be a little tougher, but as long as cod is not overcooked it too can be almost buttery (and sublime).

But when I got home, quite late, I didn't really feel like going out in the dark to cut basil from the herb garden, and I knew that a simplistic pesto would just be, well, OK. I happened to scan my fridge and saw a jar of marinated eggplant, flavored with mint and capers, leftover from the last weekend's dinner. I knew I had my improved dish.

  • Prosciutto and Eggplant Wrapped Cod

  • Chorizo and Mushroom Rice

For the fish: Heat oven to 450. On top of the marcal paper used by the deli to separate the proscuitto slices (or waxed paper or saran wrap), lay down three proscuitto slices, overlapping them slightly. Place 3-5 eggplant slices in a line down the the center. Grate a good quality parmesan over the eggplant then center a fish filet across this base. Add a little salt and pepper, then wrap the proscuitto slices around the fish, using the paper to compress the bundle. Melt butter in a small skillet over moderately high heat. Saute for 1 minute, turn fish and turn off heat, while fish packets get 1 more minute in skillet. Place skilled in oven for 4-5 minutes, until fish is cooked through depending on thickness of fish.

For the rice: Saute about 3/4 pound of chorizo in a heavy pot. Remove chorizo and leave 1-2 T of drippings in pot. Saute onion and crimini mushrooms in the chorizo "oil". Add 2-3 T fresh oregano or 1T dry. Add S&P, rice (arborio or short grain is best) and chicken stock. Cover and cook for 17 minutes on lowest heat. Add cooking time if not all liquid has been adsorbed, but don't allow it to get dry. Add reserved chorizo.

Oh - the fish was pretty darn good - worth making again. And re-using that delicious eggplant was an approach worth repeating. The rice? It gets an official AWESOME rating.

Herbal Harvest

It never really is fall in Houston; it gets less hot, fog shows up more often and a couple trees change color and drop leaves. The less hot part is what we really savor around here after 4-6 months of blistering heat. One of the great side effects of our extreme weather is that we end up with pretty robust herbs. Our herb garden is active almost year round, filled with sage, oregano, chives, rosemary, thyme, basil, lavendar, parsely, mint, cilantro and bay. Maybe a couple more are out there I didn't remember.

With the weather breaking, we had this menu last night to celebrate my sister and niece visiting from Chicago.

Most of these recipes came from or were adapted from the July 2008 Gourmet magazine. However some recipes (sangria) do not appear to be online.


  • Goat cheese - simple, obvious, great proportions
  • Eggplant - use the Batali technique of salting then pressing the liquids out of the eggplant slices and it's a winner.
  • Cake was ultra simple and could be modified to many other effects. WAs pleased that I could add a dessert without having to invest any significant time.


  • None. But the chicken could have been more heavily herbed.

Pete's 80th Brithday - Shrimp and Chicken Gumbo

Shrimp and Crab Gumbo

Since this dish is being served to 50 peope with an average age above 70 years old, it needs to stay on the mild side. Also, for budget reasons, I've replaced my usual crabmeat with savory chicken thighs.

2 lbs shrimp, shells reserved
3 4 C water
10 black peppercorns
1 small onion, chopped
2 stalks celery
1 bay leaf

1 lb Andioulle sausage. sliced into coins
1.2 lb tasso or smoked ham,cut into small cubes
3 lbs chicken thighs
4 large cloves garlic,sliced
1 C onion, chopped
1 C green pepper, chopped
1 C celery, chopped
1 lb okra, trimmed and sliced
1 C crushed tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 T cayenne pepper
Worchestershire sauce
2 T cornstarch
Lemon slices

2 C rice, such as basmati, cooked

1. Shell shrimp, placing shells in a stock pot with water, approx 10 peppercorns, onion, celery and bayleaf. Add salt. Simmer 15-30 minutes. If reduced below 3.5 C, add more water. Reserve.
2. Brown sausage, creating crispy browned edges. If over browned slightly, this is good. Add ham and warm through, scraping brown bits from bottom of pan. Remove and set aside.
3. Brown chicken thighs until almost cooked through. When cool, chop into bit sized pieces or strips and set aside.
4. Saute onion, garlic, peppers and celery in olive oil, scraping bottom of pan, until wilted. Add okra and cook until it turns from pale to darker green, about 4 minutes.
5. Add tomatoses, bayleaf, reserved shrimp borth, cayenne and worchestershire to taste. Return meats to pan and bring to a boil.
6. Mix 2 T cornstarch and 1/4 C water. Add to pot.
7. Add shrimp and lemon slices and simmer until shrimp is cooked through.

Serve over rice with chopped scallions. Crusty, toasted bread is also a good accompaniament.

Another Tuna and Pasta Dinner

Well, Tuna was on sale this week, and Nora likes it alot, so I went back to an old favorite from Cuisine Rapide, and then did a variation also from CR for some vegetable and shrimp pasta.

  • Grilled Tuna with Garlic, Lemon and Thyme, Cuisine Rapide
  • Buccatini with Shrimp and Vegetables
  • Marinated Grilled Vegetables - Mario Batali advertisement in May 2008 Gourmet
The pasta was nearly a one-pot dish, with Green Beans, Broccoli and this shrimp added in at the end. The sauce was derived from the somewhat dated, but awfully delicious, Cuisine Rapide cream sauce. From a base of sauteed garlic in oil, add finely cubed tomatos and cook them down, add herbs and cream. Using 2/3 C of cream in 1 pound of pasta does not make a rich, gooey cream sauce, so a) it's not that unhealthy and b) imagine whats going into the cream sauces in your favorite restaurant.

The Tuna is a solid standby dish. Marinate the tuna in olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, garlic and thyme sprigs. Grill with as much thyme and garlic still adhered to the steaks.

More on those marinated vegetables sometime soon. They're to die for, but require a bit of an explanation. The first of which this is the ONLY recipe from an advertisement that I've ever made.

Sweet Shrimp - Endorsed by Kids

OK - this might end on shaky ground for some, but the following recipe is almost surefire for kids. Most of them love shrimp, love a little sweetness, and this immensely simple recipe is sure to please the whole family - and add a littel sophistication to a kid friendly dish.

1 lb peeled shrimp - any size
1 T butter
1 T olive oil
2 T good quality sherry or amontillado

1. Toss shrimp with salt and pepper.
2. Heat butter and oil over medium high heat and add shrimp.
3. Saute 1-3 minutes per side, depending on size of shrimp.
4. Lower heat slightly and add sherry. Cook just long enough to reduce sherry and allow it to combine with oils, shaking pan.

Server over pasta, rice or plain.

Alright - there's alcohol, and we're serving it to kids. If you were to argue that NO alochol burns off, and NONE remains in the pan, and ALL of it is in the kids serving, then do the math. If a kid eats 1/4 # of shrimp, they'll get one and a half teaspoons of sherry. Let's now consider how much wine the average 12 year old in France drinks per week. I'm not too concerned about this topic anymore.

Just A Menu - with Crab Pasta

Note to self: even if there's not time to write details and recipe critique, at least get the darn menu into a post. After all, the purpose of this blog is first and foremost as a recipe index.

Saturday October 11 - VERY quick dinner

Cukes - OK? Yeah OK. Nothing special. From the Southern cooking issue

Tuna - still a favorite.

Crab pasta - from the cooking school issue, which has some GREAT recipes. This one is not great, just good, but in a white-trash, simplistic kind of way. No depth of flavors, just a squirt of hot sauce so only one type of heat. Crab+Pasta+butter = always enjoyable. Short on herbs and the lemon didn't contribute enough character. Still - simplistic and tasty. But you're better off spending your $24 on crab legs in a better recipe.

Coaches Fiesta

While Ms. Finn and the kids were still in Chicago last weekend, I needed to host a party for the Waves Swim Team coaches and some of the board members. The coaches are high school kids (well, graduating seniors) and two young adults. So I was thinking of just ordering a few pizzas and calling it a party. But of course there needed to be a few appetizers, and then one thing lead to another and before you knew it I planned to make an entire Rick Bayless menu from his current TV show.

About Rick Bayless. Rick is one of the foremost authorities on Mexican cooking. He opened his Frontera Grill in the mid 80’s in Chicago, and my friends and I were among the first customers. Shortly thereafter he opened Topolobampo – the first “fine dining” Mexican restaurant in Chicago. Both are still around today.

But Rick Bayless has become an industry. Unlike other chefs who open outputs in food meccas and the latest hotspots (read Vegas), he seems to be focused on outreach, with a possible lean toward empire building. He’s authored a half dozen cookbooks (his Authentic Mexican is considered a modern classic, side by side with Diana Kennedy’s Mexican cookbooks); he’s a staple on public television cooking shows and his name is on a line of respectable nationally distributed products.

Despite my knowledge of him, I’ve never been a big fan, with no reasonable explanation. I’ve never bought his books, watched his shows or cooked his recipes. Until now.

The hook was that his “party fare” dishes were quick to put together. For the most part they were, but don’t forget I’m a very experienced and efficient cook, and they still took me a lot longer than what’s implied on screen. Why? The age old cooking show problem: prep time. Though he shows some chopping and sautéing, there’s no retreiving, package removal, cleaning or skinning involved. Pots and pans are pre-staged. On TV, plating simply requires that one reach for the perfect bowl, which has been placed within arm’s reach.

One further delay is that I needed dinner, not just appetizers. And while the multiple small taco menu seemed OK, I felt we needed more substance. So I added a flank steak, chicken thighs and tenders as soft taco ingredients, using a recipe from The New Basics, one of my old favorite cookbooks. Those recipes are back from when fajitas were considered a new trendy dish. Wow.

Randomly, I happened to pick up the current Cooks Illustrated and saw Spicy Pickled Onions for steak tacos. Perfect. So that was also added to the menu.

In all, prep and cooking time ran about 2 hours; grilling was completed after guests arrived and some of us migrated back to the patio.

Here’s the menu and links to the Bayless recipes:


  • People liked the pumpkin seed guac more than the mango. Very surprising. I liked them both. The pumpkin seeds I got were small, roasted ones, which were ground to a paste (with a dash of oil). I’ve become addicted to the leftover seeds.
  • People loved the nuts. But I’d make a half recipe at most, and found them a little troublesome to get to the exact right crispness, especially on day two+.
  • Queso was solid. Don’t add too much dark beer, and keep it warm (fondue / sterno) or it will separate later, even in a ceramic pot.
  • Escabeche – probably my favorite. Perfect for a simple appetizer or light meal. GREAT recipe.
  • Pickled onions – also a very, very nice recipe. Use rice wine vinegar instead of red for more delicate flavor and you’ll bring out a better pinkness in the red onion slices.
  • The marinades for the chicken and steak differed quite a bit. Both were good, could have been interchanged with each other. Very simple. Don’t forget about them, even if not using for tacos / fajitas.

Spicy Pickled Cucumbers

2 English cucumbers (seedless), peeled to leave 1/2 skin, 1/2 peel lengthwise
1 1/2 T Kosher salt
1/2 C rice wine vinegar
2 T brown sugar
1/2 t dried roasted chinese red peppers; or hot red pepper flakes

1. Slice cucumbers into 1/8" rounds on a mandoline. Optionally, halve the cucumber lengthwise before slicing to result in half moon shaped slices.
2. Put slices in colander and sprinkle evenly with salt. Allow to drain for 1 hour.
3. Meanwhile, bring vinegar and sugar to gentle boil until sugar dissolves. Cool.
4. Gently rinse salt from cucumbers and combine with vinegar mixture. Add hot pepper flakes to taste.
5. Vegetables keep for several days refrigerated.

Also works well with with carrots cut into any shape and is particularly good with raw zucchini. If using Zucchini or Carrots there is no need to salt and drain them.

4th of July Menu

Note: you may need a subscription to access the NYT link above.

We're heading into the holiday weekend, have invited a family over, but could end up on our own. Since it's the week before our big summer vacation, I'm resorting to tried and true recipes. The only new attempt will be the S'Mores Cheesecake. If the recipe didn't call for fresh berries I would have passed it by. But since it does, I paused and will give it a try. Since my kids (and Ms. Finn) are such giant s'mores fans, I know they'll like it. The recipe is available at epicurious.com, and 100% of the reviewers so far gave it a 4 out of 4 rating. We'll see.

The no knead bread has been a big hit with both adults and kids since I first ran across it in the New York Times about 6 months ago. But in addition to this version, I'm also going to make the 12-18 hour version that is cooked in a heavy enamel pot from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery, also published in the New York Times, but back in 2006. The downside seems to be the 12 hour rise time, but the upside is that it appears to be a larger loaf. I'll report back on this version as well.

Albuquerque Butter

This compound butter goes great with steak, roasted corn, fish, you name it.

  • 1 stick / 8 T unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 - 2 t salt, to taste
  • 3/4 t cumin
  • 1/2 t oregano
  • 1/4 t cayenne pepper, more to taste
  • fresh ground pepper
  • 2 scallions, green and white parts, chopped fine
Combine all ingredients. Roll into log wrapped in plastic wrap if you desire slices for presenation, or put into ramekin. Re-refrigerate.

Keeps 1-2 weeks.

Grilled Tuna & Scallops / Marinated Zucchini

A quick Friday night summer menu:

Note the links above: Gourmet recipes are available on epicurious.com

This looked so appealing, and ended up being the biggest disappointment of the season for several reasons. First - despite cutting down on the sugar in the shiso glaze, the Tuna was sickly sweet. The marinade called for mayonaise to be whisked in - which not surprisingly broke, so I had little globules of mayo on the fish. And third, my local HEB pushed off some bad Tuna at $16.99 a pound, and I got sick about an hour after eating. Fortunately Ms. Finn and Nora were OK - I am the canary in to coal mine when it comes to food borne bacteria.

Positive #1: I bought a few sea scallops to alternate with the tuna on skewers, and they were better than the tuna, despite getting the same glaze.

Positive #2: Marinated Zucchini were awesome. The marinade from Gourmet was just OK, but the choice of using thinly sliced zucchini is awesome. They're not cooked, so they hold shape and texture, and they stand up better to the marinade than cucumbers. Totally awesome. I made them again a few days later with a simpler pickling liquid (3/4 rice wine vinegar, 1/3 C sugar, pinch of salt, roasted dried red pepper to taste). Even more awesome.

Another negative - snow peas turn grey in an acidic marinate. By the time the dish was served they were already turning, and they were sickly the next day. Poor choice for this dish, Gourmet.

And now you see the first appearance of one of my standbys: Albuquerque Butter. The first version I made from from Sheila Lukins and Julie Rosso's classic cookbook The New Basics. But I've since adapted my own version. While it is good for corn on the cob, it's even better melted onto steak. An all around star of the compound butter world.

Pasta Salad with Tomato, Olive and Herbs

From Cooks Illustrated - May / June 2008

I wasn't expecting too much from this recipe, just a simple fill in for a summer grilled dinner. In fact, 10 days later I can no longer remember the dinner. Maybe it was steak, but it I'm not sure. But the real reason for the memory lapse is because THIS dish came up by surprise and wowed me and Ms. Finn.

As with most CI recipes, this one was developed with extensive "scientific" experimentation in the kitchen. The secret to success is mostly in well chosen proportions and one sleeper ingredient - fresh toasted bread crumbs.

Oh.....I just remembered - it was grilled ground lamb patties on skewers - from the June Gourmet. Good idea, not enough seasoning. Quite bland, enough so that the kids liked them after all. And it was a little tricky to get the logs of ground lamb to stay wholly formed while on the grill. Close - but not enough make it again.

Back to the pasta. Fresh bread crumbs toasted in oil with garlic were added to a pretty pedestrian pasta salad with tomato, olives and more garlic. The recommended pasta was farfalle or other mid-sized tubes which is a good match for olive quarters and tomato cubes. The quatity of olives was excessive - 1C for a pound of pasta (or was it, incredibly, a half pound - dear lord). So I cut that back.

The additional mouth feel of the bread crumbs tied together the core ingredients. Seasoning was spot on. This is a keeper. In fact, I can't wait to go back and check the recipe for variations. I hope they published some!!

Italian Enchildas

Well, not really. A couple Italian dishes AND enchiladas is more accurate. It's been a while since we've enjoyed a nice weeknight dinner, and last night I was finally able to try out an enchilada recipe from Cooks Illustrated that caught my attention last week.

The menu:

  • Grilled Asparagus wrapped in prosciutto - Gourmet, June 2008
  • Chicken Enchiladas Verde (or Suiza) - Cooks Illustrated, June/July 2008
  • Straciatella Tortoni "cake" - or more accurately: Frozen Amaretto Chocolate Tortoni - Gourmet, June 2008
Grilled asparagus was a huge hit, especially with my daughters (age 5 & 13). Great combination that we'll return to frequently. Be sure to skewer 3-6 spears to simplify grilling, and use the smalled diameter skewers. Four 6" skewers are all you need, not the 12" indicated.

Overall, this is a simple, no fuss recipe - but it could easily be over cooked or even burnt if the grill temperature and cooking times are not carefully monitored. But even more importantly, the quality, thickness and saltiness of the prosciutto is critical to this dish. I used $13/lb grocery store caliber (Boars Head) - and the saltiness was almost unbearable. Maybe using half slices would have helped. But higher quality prosciutto would be a waste, and thinner slices would come close to burning or melting on the grill. So fine tune the prosciutto to get this dish just right.

OK - while pulling down the photo online, I see the recipe called for Pancetta, not Prosciutto. Well then. Though I feel stupid about that oversight, most of the comments above still apply. It just that you'll have to use pancetta sliced thinner than normal instead of prosciutto sliced thicker than normal.

The enchiladas were great. Though the recipe seemed to take along time to build, it really wasn't. Rather, I had three fairly labor intensive dished going at once. Key steps in this recipe were
  • Poaching chicken in stock infused with sauteed onion, garlic and cumin (I used both boneless breasts and thighs)
  • Simple roasted tomatillo's and poblanos combined with poaching liquid to make the salsa verde
  • Plenty of chopped cilantro mixed into the chicken and cheese filling
  • Minimal use of cheese - just enough to hold each enchilada together
I'd make this again, and we'll try to get the kids to try the leftovers tonight. I used less cheese than called for, which was a good approach, and added thighs for additional flavor. Next time I'd use the leftover poaching liquid as a simple soup to accompany this dish. Definitely a winner.

The dessert was fine of course. Well, much better than fine. It was awesome - light, not too rich, multiple textures. No guilt, plenty of pleasure.

Reviews on epicurious.com indicated that shaving chocolate peelings was too labor intensive, and it is. However, the texture of a peeling vs. grated chocolate is a key attraction in a dish as light and simple as this.

Adding ground toasted almonds to crushed amaretti cookies and butter was a great step above other simple amaretti crusts I've made. There was a definite taste of fresh almonds present.

In fact, this dish is a variation on the amaretti / coffee ice cream cake I've been making for 15 years, also from a Gourmet recipe. It is simplified in that it is just the cream filling with meringue, and not the additional ice cream layer. Definitely a simple and effective summer dessert.

Ignore the step of creating meringue with a double boiler - I suspect it's just fear of raw egg on the part of the editors. The crust quantity can be reduced a bit - as it created too thick a crust layer for the height and size of each serving. But overall, a solid, simple dessert.

Sara's Memorial

Sadly, we're in Chicago for the funeral of my sister in law Sara Lee, my longtime partner in family cooking crimes.

The initial plan for the post-service gathering back at Chip's house was one involving simplicity and prepared foods. However, as Margie and Meghan began planning their trip to Costco, I was compelled to intervene. I mean, this is for Sara, a purist cook - how could we possibly buy trays of prepared appetizers and sandwiches? On the other hand, I wasn't going to cook for 10-12 hours and lose a night of sleep. Actually I wanted to, but was forbidden, appropriately, by Ms. Finn.

So I had the opportunity to mimic "Dinner: Impossible", the Food Network show where a chef is given a last minute catering job that seems impossible to accomplish. Fortunately, my mission was not impossible. We settled on a simple menu, so it was mostly the quantities that could pose a challenge.

  • Assorted Sandwiches on Baguettes
    • Black Forest Ham and Swiss / and Cheddar
    • Pastrami and Provolone / and Swiss
    • Salami and Provolone
    • Turkey and Cheddar
    • "Everything" - all the of above
    • Cucumber and Herbed Cream Cheese on Roasted Garlic Baguette
  • Spanish Summer Rice Salad with Tuna
  • Spicy Moroccan Couscous with Dates
  • Pasta, Fresh Mozzarella, Tomato Salad with Microgreens
The sandwiches were a big hit, as Margie and Meghan found VERY high quality baguettes at Costco, especially the Roasted Garlic version. In fact, these weren't baguettes at all. They were not a baguette shape - they were more squat and rectangular in nature; and they were not French style at all - despite the "French Baguette" label. They were a peasant, country style loaf - very dense, very high quality with a perfectly hardened rustic crust. If anything I'd think of them as a Tuscan style.

The lesson is, as always, that the quality and/or uniqueness of a bread is the dominant factor for sandwiches, burgers, crostini, etc. And if you don't bake your own, you're well served if you seek out a high quality loaf or roll.

We were expecting 75 to 100 people to stop by Chip's house, and were not sure how many other dishes would be brought, so we wanted to have a very decent quantity of food on hand. Besides, Peter and his Marine friends, Jonathon's baseball friends, and all those Lee relatives would likely party into the night and devour several courses over time. So 16 enormous sandwiches were assembled, using 8 pounds of meat, 6 pounds of cheeses, and a couple Kirby Cukes and cream cheese.

We set up a great family fueled sandwich factory, in which we had cutters, assemblers and slicers. My father in law Pete, not one to participate in many cooking endeavors, was the heart of the factory. Next time we'll convince him to put triple the quantity of meat on the sandwiches, but otherwise, he was awesome.

My son Alex helped determine the meat / cheese combinations, and came up with the all important and quite deliceious "Everything Sandwich". I was inspired to through together a quick herb cream cheese spread, and created the cucumber sandwich, which went nicely with the roasted garlic bread.

Simple Herbed Cream Cheese
- 1/2 pound container of whipped cream cheese
- 2 small garlic cloves mashed with salt
- 2 t dried tarragon
- 1/2 t dried thyme
- Mix and allow to sit overnight.

The rice salad is the standby that I've been making for 10+ years. (I'll link to the recipe sometime soon). I used 5 cups of Berretta Arboria, to make roughly a triple batch. There was plenty left over. Not sure why - it usually goes fast.

The Couscous was the same dish I created two weeks ago (add link here). It's got a nice blend of spiciness from cumin and cayenne, along with sweeetness from dates and cinnamon. I used 4 boxes of couscous, roughly 2 C each. This too was a bit more than was needed.

While pasta with Tomato and Mozzarella is a classic picnic standby, I chose to pretty it up by using very small tube shaped paste - I think I've seen the name tubettes, but this Barilla version was digitalli or something like that. Tomatos were diced small (1/4 inch) to match, and mozzarella also diced small. These choices set the stage for microgreens. the ones I had from Trader Joe's looked to be roughly watercress in nature, but without the tough stems. I was quite pleased with how they looked in the pasta, as it was more interesting to see than strips of basil, though admittedly, they didn't add much in taste. They may have added a little texture, though the stems were very soft and eminently edible. The pasta was tossed with some garlic infused olive oil, plenty of salt and pepper and about 2 oz of a high quality parmesan per pound of pasta. I made 4 pounds of pasta, which was exactly enough. Very little left over.

Summery Sunday Dinner

OK - swim team is killing me - no time at all for blogging. But at least the menus need to get captured, or else this blog is worthless. And I'm so bummed that I've become a typical "challenged to keep up with it all" blogger.

Golf, neighborhood pool with the kids, then this dinner:

  • Grilled Wild Sockeye Salmon
  • Roasted Fennel with garlic and grilled zucchini
  • Couscous with dates, cumin, turmeric and thyme
  • Grilled and roasted corn on the cob

Also made marinade for Apricot Curry Lamb Shanks for tomorrow

Menu for Swim Team Board Party

Herbed Cheese Spread

I found this in the “You Asked For It” column in Gourmet, probably sometime in the late 80’s. I remember it came from a B&B, which served a crock of it to their guests right after they checked in. But I don’t keep issues that old, so can’t go back and attribute it properly.

½ lb Feta cheese
¾ lb cream cheese
½ C mayo
1 garlic clove, mashed to a paste in salt
¼ t dried dill
¼ t dried basil
¼ t dried marjoram
¼ t dried thyme

Blend all in a food processor. Yes – it’s that simple. You can play around with the consistency some, based on how long you spin the processor. I prefer this more on the coarse side, rather than creamy. It has a little more character IMOO. This is also the only dish I can think of that is better with dried herbs than fresh. But, I think I’ll test that assumption again this summer.

Two quick anecdotes related to this recipe – (isn’t it cool that this recipe has anecdotes?). First is that I suggested to the head chef at my country club that he should do an amuse bouche prior to the monthly steak dinners. I gave him this recipe. He made it, but brought it out in a small crock, which had been run under a broiler to brown the top. It was great. I’ve always served this chilled or room temp, but like his version too.

Second story – until posting this blog entry, this recipe has lived on a small piece of notepaper for 15+ years. It could easily have been discarded during preparation for a big party, could fall out of its notebook, anything. Fortunately it survived long enough that I memorized it, but I lived a life fraught with risk along the way.

WTC Returns with a Vengeance

Well, after a long drought, this blog is returning to form. For a discussion of fairly non-feeble excuses for this absence, go here. Why the triumphant tone after abandoning the blog? Becuase this here entry you're about to read is what this here blog is all about.

The Scene: Saturday 5 pm. Ms. Finn and big kids are at church. Me and the 5-year-old Sunshine are at home, charged with whipping up dinner.

The Plan: Cook some chicken. That's it. We've got a couple packages of chicken breast thawing, essentially no other ingredients of note, and it's already 5 o'clock.

First step: Pour a cocktail. I mean you gotta get some inspiration, right?
Second step: Go to the greatest go-to cookbook of all: Cuisine Rapide. It's not really all too rapide, but it's rapide enough. The discovery: Chicken with Garlic and Balsamic Vinegar. I've got garlic and balsamic. Read further: need mushrooms. I've got no mushrooms. OK, we'll do it without mushrooms. Kids don't like them anyway.
Third step: Scrounge around. Hey - whatta you know? There's a bag of fresh sugar snap peas. The kids have never seen them before, so maybe they'll buy in to the "funny looking bean" / "peas inside" thing. Another good angle "they're like edamame but you can eat the pod". It didn't work , but it was a nice try. They had carrot sticks.

Here's the menu:

  • Chicken with Garlic, Balsamic Vinegar, Fresh Oregano and Sundried Tomato
  • Asian-flavored Sugar Snap Peas
  • Herbed Rice
  • Carrot Sticks (ha!)

The Results: excellent. The chicken was out of this world, the peas very nice, and the herbed rice among the best I've made to date, even as simple as it really is. Recap of each recipe:

Chicken: The Cuisine Rapide recipe called for dusting the breasts in flour, and old school technique we don't see a lot anymore. However, it created a nice little texture around the chicken, without the down side of egg wash, breadcrumbs, etc. Also kept the breasts from sticking in the very large non-nonstick skillet I used. Lots of S&P helped, especially since I was not planning to finish the balsamic sauce for the kids, so they needed some seasoning. After browning the breasts I added chicken stock, bay leaf, a half dozen garlic cloves and fresh oregano sprigs. Cover and saute for 10 mins. Perfect. Removed chicken for kids, added balsamic and sun dried tomato slices (Amy loved them), and finished the sauce with a touch of butter. Wonderful, wonderful. Kids really liked the chicked - "best you've ever made" from Alex, the pickiest of the bunch. The oregano and sundried tomato were added simply because I had them, and wanted to substitute for the missing mushrooms.

Peas: Steamed them in microwave, 2 min then let sit covered until done. Sauteed shallot, ginger and garlic in oil, added a splash of sesame then tossed with the peas. Not the perfect match for the chicken, but nice and fresh.

Rice: Suateed onion as a base, sauteed the rice as well, then added fresh thyme, fresh parsley, tarragon (I never have it fresh and don't think it grows in our harsh summer climate) and used half chicken stock / half water. I used an Emile Henry ceramic pot that can be used on the stove top, oven or microwave (and dishwasher). Love this pot. The key to this recipe though, was use of a high quality Basmati rice. The one I used was about $5-6 for 4 pounds. Pretty steep for rice, and the price will likely go higher soon with the news of rising rice prices worldwide. But, the texture, nuttiness and appearance are well worth it. This simple dish is really a stunning side that can hold up to and complement most any cuisine. Respect this one.

TTFN - and please wish me luck on staying current on the blog updates.

Shrimp Charmoula, Fennel Carrot Salad, fresh bread

For a Sunday post-golf meal, I considered the February issue of Gourmet and it's North African menu. While I would have been interested in trying more dishes from the menu, such as whole wheat flat breads and clementines in ginger syrup, there was not time for that many dishes.

Since my father in law liked the NYT quick bread so much, I was set on making another batch before he left. The Shrimp Charmoula looked good, as did fennel and carrot salad. So the menu:
  • Plate of cheeses and cured meats: manchego, sage derby, tuscan sausage
  • Shrimp Charmoula - Gourmet 2/2008
  • Fennel and Carrot Salad - Gourmet 2/2008
  • NYT Quick Bread
The Charmoula differs from the lamb chops charmoula first published in Gourmet in the summer of 1999 (Ruth Reichl's first issue as editor). There are markedly fewer ground spices and a much larger quantity of aromatics - shallots and serranno pepper. I chose to add a little more garlic than the recipe, and it could tolerate quite a bit more. But I didn't notice at first that the shrimp is marinated after being cooked, not before. It's actually a better approach, as is grilling the shrimp instead of the instruction to boil it. So I just tossed the shrimp in oil, S&P, skewered them and grilled briefly. They were then tossed into the marinade which included sauteed shallot, pepper and garlic combined with oil, lemon juice, honey, cilantro, turmeric and paprika.

Very positive results, and this recipe can probably withstand a fair amount of fiddling with ingredient proportions and choices based on what you have on hand.

The Fennel and Carrot salad was labor intensive, in order to cut the fennel pieces in to very thin slivers. The mixture of balsamic vinegar and lemon juice should have created a nice playful viniagrette, but it was dominated by an overly generous portion of chopped olive. In the end, the olives dominated all the other flavors. Not a great payoff for having done so much fine prep work on the vegetables. However, I hold out hope for the use of these two ingredients, with adjustments to the seasonings.

Chilean Sea Bass, Asian Slaw and Herbed Rice

For a weeknight dinner I had a craving for Sea Bass and was pleased to find it for only $14.99 a pound. Originally considered grilling, but settled on the saute and high heat oven technique. One fillet was just coated with olive oil, others with oil and the ground spice mix I've used for tuna. Unfortunately, a moderate dusting of this mix was lost with the rich sea bass. Also, since the fillets were thick, 1.5" at center, the coating didn't make it into every bite. So - not worth the trouble, unless you already have the spice mix made up - which I did.

Herbed rice was simply started with onion sauted in oil, added rice and continued to saute until a few kernels popped. Then added chicken stock, salt, tarragon, fresh parsley and fresh thyme. Finish in oven 15 minutes.

The winner of the evening was an asian slaw, of my own creation.

1 small head napa cabbage, sliced thin
6-7 raddichio leaves, sliced thin
1/4 C diced red onion
4 scallions, sliced
1/2 C cilantro, chopped
1 serrano pepper, seeded and diced finely

1/4 C rice wine vinegar (unseasoned)
2 T sugar
1 T salt
1/2 t sesame oil (more depending on strength)

Combine all, stir occasionally, needs at least 30 minutes to absorb flavors. Cabbage will wilt slightly.

Steak and Potato Frittata with Blue Cheese Butter

With Margie's father in law Pete visiting us for most of the month of February, we needed a nice Saturday morning breakfast today. Cuisine Rapide (CR) has a couple of frittata recipes which have been staples for years. Today's frittata uses some ingredient proportions based on the CR recipe, but differs greatly in main ingredients.

The choice of steak is based on some leftovers in the fridge. Chunks of ham, chicken, or pork would work as well, but you would want to adjust the herb choices. Fresh basil works with most anything, but I felt rosemary and a touch or oregano was a better match for the steak.

We also had some left over blue cheese butter. A half teaspoon on top of a warm frittata slice is more than enough to add a finishing complementary flavor.

We also served this with browned sausages and fresh baked bread using the NYT no-knead recipe.

A classic frittata recipe calls for flipping it in the pan after cooking about 2/3 or 3/4 of the way. However, I've avoided that complex and risky step through effective use of the broiler.

Steak and Potato Frittata

3/4 lb potato, sliced thin
2 T butter
1 red pepper, diced finely
1/2 C red onion, diced finely
1/4 t rosemary (dried). 3/4 t if using fresh

1/8 t oregano (dried). 1/2 t if using fresh

1/2 to 1 C leftover steak, cut into small cubes

10 large eggs
1/4 lb gruyere or other medium white cheese
Pinch of cayenne pepper, salt

1. Pre heat broiler
2. Add butter an potato slices to large, oven proof skillet. Cook 4-5 minutes, until potatoes are softened.
3. Whisk eggs and cheese with cayenne and salt.
4. Add pepper, onion and herbs. Mix with potatoes and cook 2-3 minutes.
5. Add steak cubes and cook 2 minutes
6. Pour egg mixture into pan, incorporate thoroughly, then leave pan alone for 1 minute to allow eggs to begin to set.
7. Gently life edges of cooked egg, tipping pan and allowing more egg to run underneath.
8. Cover and cook 2-3 minutes. Top center of eggs will be not yet be cooked.
9. Place pan under broiler until center of eggs are cooked, and the entire surface is browned.

Using spatula, check a thick part of frittata for doneness. If not fully set, cover pan and rest on stove for 3 or more minutes. Frittata can be covered and kept warm for 10 or 15 minutes before serving, but if covered, it will deflate slightly.

Cut into 6 or 8 wedges, serve with small dollop of blue cheese butter.

Blue Cheese Butter

2 T Blue cheese
2 T butter
1/4 t salt
1/4 to 1/2 t pepper

Allow cheese and butter to soften, then combine all ingredients. Keeps for 1-2 weeks refrigerated.

New Orleans Style BBQ Shrimp

After golf Sunday morning Paul dropped by to watch a little of the AT&T Pro Am at Pebble Beach and was thinking that a shrimp appetizer was appealing. I grabbed a couple pounds of shrimp on the way home, but still had no plan upon arriving. Knowing that I was limited to whatever specialty ingredients were already in hand, I decided to go with an all time favorite: BBQ Shrimp.

This dish is a New Orleans creole classic, having nothing in common with grilling or barbeque sauce. 

Rather, it is a rich pan fry of shrimp in herbs, garlic and butter which is then finished as a rich sauce. I am not personally familiar with the history of this preparation, despite a cursory Google search, but know with certainty that it is a staple in New Orleans restaurants.

My adaptation is based on an out of print cookbook: Pierre Franey’s Cooking in America (Knopf, 1992). Pierre in turn adapted it from Paul Prudhomme, which in part explains the excessive quantity of butter. But before you back off the butter, realize that a large group can dig into this sauce and still leave a major portion of it behind – as it is so rich, I don’t remember ever seeing it completely consumed. Typically, we’ll run out of toasted bread for dipping even before the shrimp itself is gone.

I use the spice mixture in the same proportions as Pierre, and think that he mellowed the vast quantities of pepper in a Prudhomme recipe by using artful selection of herbs. In fact, I think it’s the rosemary that marks the secret to the flavoring of this dish. I also greatly increase the quantity of shrimp, as the volume of sauce is ample for as many as 3 or even 4 pounds of shrimp. If cooking more than 2 pounds of shrimp, be sure to cook them in multiple batches.

New Orleans Style BBQ Shrimp
  • Seasoning mix; 1 t cayenne, 1 t kosher salt, 1/2 t thyme, ½t fresh black pepper, ¼ to ½ t oregano, 1 T dried rosemary, crumbled. 
  • Alternate: two large sprigs fresh rosemary, 6 long sprigs of fresh oregano, 4 sprigs fresh thyme.
  • 6 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 t worchestershire sauce
  • 2/3 C shrimp stock (see below)
  • 1/3 C bottled beer, preferably hearty (yesterday I used Fat Tire)
  1. Melt 1 stick butter, add seasoning mix and garlic, mix to combine
  2. Add shrimp, cook approx 2-3 minutes, shaking pan and turning shrimp
  3. Add stock boil 1-2 minutes
  4. Add beer and additional 2-4 T butter, simmer until butter melts.
Serve with toasted baguettes or sourdough bread. The NYT no-knead bread would be an ideal choice.

Shrimp Stock
  • Shells from 2 pounds shrimp
  • 2 celery ribs, chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 6-10 black peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 7 C purified water
Bring to boil, simmer 5-20 minutes. Strain.

Essential Herbs and Spices

Many cookbooks include a laundry list of essential pantry items, cooking tools, and so on. In my experience most are fine, though they tend to be overly inclusive. For many cooks the process of stocking a kitchen full of pots, pans and tools encompasses several or many years. Pantry and spice drawer selections and priorities are definitely the result of several years of trial, error and experience.

So what advice to give a new, enthusiastic cook who is starting from scratch? In these posts I'll share my preferences and recommendations for provisioning a new kitchen. I break it down to three major categories:
  • Herbs and Spices
  • Pots, Pans and Tools
  • Pantry and Crisper
Later, for more intermediate and advanced provisioning, we'll cover exotic staples (for example walnut oil, crystallized ginger) and specialty pans and cooking tools (e.g., crepe pans, olive pitters, the chinois) and specialty ingredients. Before we get to the items themselves, you'll also want to consider what is already on your shelves and in your drawers. If you have herbs and spices that are more than a year old - throw them out. If you already have some of the pots, pans or tools that I list, but they are many years old, inexpensive or worn out - keep them for now, but make plans to replace them in time. In each section I'll provide a rationale and recommendations on how to select high quality provisions and tools.


I. Everyday Necessities

  • Thyme*
  • Rosemary*
  • Dill
  • Oregano
  • Cumin
  • Basil***
  • Bay Leaf
  • Tarragon
  • Herbs de Provence
  • Chili Powder
  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg
  • Paprika
  • Sesame Seed
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Whole Black Peppercorns
  • Red Pepper Flakes
  • Kosher Salt
  • Sea Salt

II. Other common herbs & spices

  • Sage
  • Coriander Seed (whole)
  • Fennel Seed
  • Marjoram
  • Curry Powder
  • Chinese 5 Spice Powder
  • Turmeric
  • Black Sesame Seed
  • Saffron
  • Mustard Seed
  • Allspice (whole and ground)

The strategy for buying herbs and spices is to find a high quality brand and buy in relatively small quantities. For the past few years I've liked the Morton and Bassett brand, but also have had positive results with Frontier. Spice Island is widely distributed and is a good second tier choice, but not if the others are available. I avoid truly mass-market brands like McCormack's, as it is generally believed that their products are often years old when on supermarket shelves.

In an earlier time and a more cosmopolitan place, I used to buy all my herbs and spices in bulk at gourmet or other specialty stores. I bought a couple dozen glass jars and hand wrote an initial or two indicating the spice on plastic screw top lids. This is a very cost efficient method, but there are few of these stores left. You might find some items in the bulk section of high end groceries, but you'll have to judge quality and freshness carefully.

The asterisk * indicates that it is nearly always better to use fresh versions of these herbs rather than dried. Though most recipes don't call for fresh herbs, they will be improved by using fresh. A general rule of thumb is to use 2 to 3 times by volume of fresh than dried. Exceptions would be sage and maybe oregano - but there herbs are not in the asterisked category of "definitely" substitute.

Basil *** is a special case. Fresh basil is one of the most fundamental herbs used in cuisines from Italian to Asian. It stands well nearly alone (slices of fresh mozzarella, tomato and olive oil), as a seasoning (in tomato sauce or pesto), or as an edible garnish or finishing flavor (strips tossed over past or meats). However, dried and fresh basil are not always interchangeable. Generally if a recipe calls for fresh basil, you are going to need fresh basil. If it calls for dried, you can substitute, though it isn't always recommended. In my herbed feta cheese dip, I would never use fresh basil, nor would i use it in the sauce for osso buco. Most of the time you can use fresh in place of dried. But I also don't particularly care for dried basil - to me it's a bit of a red flag indicating a questionable recipe, especially if it is one of the predominant seasonings.

A couple other notes:
  • Herbs de Provence can be assembled by mixing basil, rosemary, oregano and a few other herbs; already mixed versions tend to include lavender seeds and other minor amounts of ingredients I tend not to keep on hand. Plus, if it's a good mix the proportions will be the same in every bottle, which may not be true of home made.
  • Curry is awesome if made from scratch, and will have a pretty long shelf life. However, it also requires a number of unusual products that won't be used too often - I'm thinking of a jar of cardamom pods that has been barely tapped into. So I recommend, making your own curry sometime, but not as a primary way of keeping it in your spice drawer. Oh - also - some brands of curry powder are simply awful. Find one you like and stick with it.
  • Kosher salt can be used for nearly everything but baking. I find it more flavorful, easier to control saltiness, and overall improvement over table salt. A basic sea salt has some of these same characteristics, only more so. But cannot be substituted as easily as Kosher can be for table salt. Specialty sea salts - well, that's as much a budget consideration as a flavor one to me - but I've not plunged into many varieties.
  • Bay leaf grows will as a potted plant or outdoor tree. Fresh bay flavor is generally a little stronger, but can be used interchangeably with dried.
III. Your Herb Garden

Having read the prior comments on fresh herbs, here are my recommendations for an herb garden. All of these are easy to grow, several are perennial in the south, and sometimes even the north. I'd like to grow even more, but this selection already goes a long way and only required twice a year maintenance. A good sunny plot is all you need, very little water, definitely less than what lawn gets. Some, like thyme and oregano can be used as decorative ground cover, and I"ve seen them used in front yards I've grown plants from seed, but tend to just buy a couple pots of what needs replenishing in the spring to get a faster start. They tend to run only about $2 per pot anyway - less than the cost of one package of fresh herbs in the grocery.
  • Thyme - my favorite fresh herb
  • Oregano - not called for fresh in many recipes, but a wonderful flavor that differs substantially from dried. Will take over garden over time, so needs annual thinning (but not as aggressive as mint)
  • Sage - fuzzy leaves in an aqua/green shade. Also would like more recipes that use fresh sage
  • Basil - the backbone of the summer herb garden. Volunteers from prior year will be hardier than new plants.
  • Lavender - I grow it but have not used it for cooking that I can recall. Makes a nice addition to the garden, thought.
  • Chives - in garden and in pots. Would like to get these plants to be more prolific, as I seem to cut about 1/3 of my plant to get 2-3 T. Garlic chives and scallions are sometimes sold as plain chive. You'll want the delicate thin stalks for sure. The other varieties are useful, but do not have the delicate flavor of the classic chive.
  • Rosemary - after reaching maturity (thick, woody central stalk) will need to be thinned every couple yearsMint - in pots, since it will take over a garden in a matter of a 3-4 months. Many, many varieties and flavors.
  • Parsley - in large pots to grow full plants. Need to protect them from caterpillars, which can eat an entire mature plant in a day and a half. Grow both flat leaf and curly.
  • Cilanto - dried cilantro is not ever a reasonable substitute for fresh. Fortunately this is usually inexpensive and plentiful in the grocery store. In fact, Cilantro is a core herb in cuisines from Europe and the Middle East to Asia.
Cilantro and parsley do require daily watering in the south - so we grow them in pots and water them along with our flowers.

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