Friday, November 30, 2007

Food Blog Awards

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Menu For Hope is one end-of-year tradition in the food blogosphere; the Food Blog Awards are another. Go nominate your favorite sites for awards and virtual glory at Well Fed. As a former judge, I can tell you that this is a tough chore for the folks behind the scenes, so give a big thanks to Cate and all the judges for their efforts in keeping this annual rite alive.

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Menu For Hope Approaches

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Menu For Hope, the end-of-year food blogger charity drive started by Pim, is about to start. Bloggers around the world contribute gifts, and everyone buys raffle tickets for the prizes they’d like to win. The money — over $60,000 last year — all goes to the UN’s World Food Program. If you’re a food blogger and you’d like to contribute a gift, contact the appropriate regional host. Bidding begins on December 10, and I will once again be writing the program that does the raffle drawing, so enter your bribes as soon as possible — uh, which I will ignore, of course. Did I say that out loud? (Technically, I’ll just run the program I wrote last year, but I have some features to add.)

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Monday, November 26, 2007

White Bean Hummus Crostini

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This last summer, when we first entered negotiations for the house, I envisioned us hosting Thanksgiving in our new dining room. I pictured our friends and family warmed by our new-owner glow and an abundance of good food and wine.

Have I mentioned that our house needs some work? Or that the negotiations took longer than we expected? Scrap my vision of dinner, and picture instead the two of us driving to my mom’s house. (This is no hardship: I inherit my love of cooking from my parents.)

But I did cook for Thanksgiving. My mom asked me to bring an appetizer, and the result was one of those lucky combinations of simple ingredients and creativity that can produce memorable dishes.

I started with “white bean hummus,” which I've been pondering as a way to use leftover beans. I cooked cannelini beans until they were very tender and then scooped them into a food processor. I drizzled in olive oil as the high-speed blade pulverized the beans, which went from chunky and coarse to smooth and fluffy. (Though not as much so as regular hummus. I suspect the difference comes from garbanzo beans’ oil content — twice the amount of other legumes, according to On Food And Cooking.)

I seasoned the bean purée with salt and coarsely chopped sage from our “garden” — a few pots squatting in the new backyard. Salt gave the beans depth and sage balanced the earthy beans with a zingy, vegetal spice.

I thought that the salt-packed capers in my pantry, once desalted in a bowl of water for an hour, would add a complementary flavor, a visual focus, and a punchy little morsel to each serving. It just wouldn’t change the palette of the dish: an olive green caper on a beige bean paste that was flecked with gray-green sage, all sitting atop a brown slice of toasted baguette. The dish needed color.

It also needed acid, a mouthwatering component that would bring the eater back for more. I weighed the idea of pomegranate seeds sitting next to the caper, but then I discovered the last of the red onion quick pickles I made for our last dinner party.

At my mom’s house, I toasted the baguette slices — in small amounts in the toaster when I should have used the already-running oven — spread a bit of bean purée on them, fished thin onions from their sweet-and-sour brine, lay them on top in a rough circle, and finally dropped a succulent caper into the middle.

In a way, it’s probably a good thing that I took the slow approach to toasting the baguette. We scarfed down the bites so quickly that, had I made more at once, we would have had no appetite left for turkey.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Mouth Wide Open

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I have a reputation for being a tough critic — I prefer “thoughtful critic” — when it comes to book reviews. But I’m actually easy to please: do your research, think about what you’re writing, and communicate your ideas clearly. You get bonus points for good imagery and rhythm, but they’re not necessary.

In the swamp of modern food writing, however, few authors poke above the miasma of mediocrity and deliver on my lean requirements. One of them is John Thorne.

I imagine many of you already know Thorne’s writing. His attitudes and beliefs are among those that form the substrata of my own. If you like this blog, you probably like him, and you won’t need my encouragement to buy Mouth Wide Open, the latest collection of excerpts from his magazine Simple Cooking.

If you haven’t yet found him, Mouth Wide Open is a great place to start.

Thorne is at his best when he writes long pieces about single dishes. He meditates on them, researches them, and cooks them. These are not Cook's Illustrated-esque diaries of adjusting a recipe by 1 tablespoon of this and 1 tablespoon of that until he arrives at some “perfect” rendition. These are thought-provoking and in-depth essays that reel in history and personal experience.

Consider his piece on the Piemontese dish bagna cauda, which I challenge anyone to read without experiencing a gripping need to make the dish as soon as humanly possible: “To get at the essence of bagna caôda, then, you must imagine yourself tired, famished, sitting in a field somewhere surrounded with comrades, a raw scallion in one hand and a tumbler of equally raw red wine in the other … your body glows in the warmth that comes from ingesting an overload of butter and oil. Life, for the moment, is nothing but unalloyed delight …” Discussing the role of anchovies in the dish, he writes, “These anchovies also satisfied something that reaches so far into the past that it predates humankind itself: the craving for salt.” How did the anchovies become so integral to a dish from a landlocked region? Thorne’s research points to the Jews who were booted from Spain in 1492. And as he outlines recipes from several decades of cookbooks, he notes how the ingredients have changed in recipes for this “traditional” dish — more garlic and less butter — and how it has moved from main course to appetizer. (He writes of bagna cauda’s evolution: “Which only goes to show that authenticity, slippery as an eel, can never be grasped for long … unless you’re willing to slam its head against the side of a table.”)

His long pieces on marmalade and on cod and potatoes will impel you with equal force into the kitchen. But even his short meditations will inspire you. In “The Cook Concocts His Midnight Snack,” Thorne writes about sweet corn and milk: “I blended the kernels and the pulp together, mixed in a cup of milk, a pinch of salt, and a dash of Jamaican hot sauce. Then I gently heated it up in a saucepan, just enough to have to blow on the first few spoonfuls to cool them, and served it up.” What a pity that corn season has ended.

Thorne invites comparison with Edward Behr, another of the food world’s greats, and indeed the two men are friends. (And one of the pieces in Mouth Wide Open first appeared in The Art of Eating.) But the two magazines have their own identities. Behr’s research combines travel and interviews with books and history, whereas Thorne’s focuses on books and the Internet. This is not to diminish Thorne’s work — you’ll find few publications with more thought behind them — but to say that his publication is, as Behr himself describes it, “close to home and kitchen.” As a happy side effect of this close-to-the-hearth position, the techniques and ingredients that Thorne describes are within anyone’s reach.

Gift-giving holidays are upon us, and bookstore shelves are about to groan with the weight of fluffy books rushed out for the season. Instead of some bland and middling food book, give your friends and loved ones a book that will open their eyes — and their mouths — to a universe of passionate writing and deep thought. Give them Mouth Wide Open.

This book was sent to me as a review copy.

P.S. For those of you who care about such things, I have reversed a long-standing style choice on OWF. Though most of my clients choose to drop the serial comma, the comma that appears before the last item in a list, I have decided to keep it in these posts. Since the only rule with style-guide decisions is that you apply them consistently, I thought it worth flagging this change to OWF’s style guide.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Around The Web

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A number of you have asked about the survey I ran a while back. I’ll post the results soon. In the meantime, if you want a break from Thanksgiving prep, here are a few good links for your enjoyment.

The eloquent Mark Morford, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrestles with ethical eating in the face of yummy food. Avoiding all questionable food would be so much easier if so much of that food didn’t taste so good.

What does your Thanksgiving meal look like? Turkey on the table, cranberry sauce on the side? Wired offers a different view: through the lens of a microscope.

Finally, Jason Haas, of premier Paso Robles winery Tablas Creek, gave me a heads-up about a recent post in which he discusses how the TTB’s decision to stop granting AVAs has impeded efforts to subdivide Paso based on soil and climate.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Vinography Book Review: Decantations

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Vinography.com readers may have noticed that Alder has started to run book reviews written by guest contributors. When our mutual friend Tim Patterson, the book review editor, asked if I wanted to contribute, I decided to review the wine book I was reading at that moment. You can read my review of Frank Prial’s Decantations as of today.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pardon Me, Turkeys

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Want a safe topic for the family’s Thanksgiving dinner chatter? Snopes tracked down the history of the presidential pardon for turkeys. Who was the first president to issue a pardon for birds headed to the slaughterhouse? It may not be who you think.

And don’t miss their other Thanksgiving entries. Turkey doesn’t make you sleepy, and the day after Thanksgiving isn’t the biggest shopping day of the year.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Elements Of Cooking

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One of my biggest complaints about recipes is that they may inspire but they rarely teach. Just like any other craft, cooking requires core skills, and few cookbooks explain them to the novice.

There are counterexamples. In Judy Rodgers’ Zuni Cafe Cookbook, the recipes are garnishes on long essays about quality and technique. To this day, it sits atop my list of recommended cookbooks. But those kinds of books come around only a little more often than moon landings.

And then there’s Michael Ruhlman’s The Elements of Cooking, which abandons recipes and glossy pictures altogether. Instead, Elements leverages Ruhlman’s time in culinary school and famous restaurants, and gives readers the building blocks to step above recipes and learn how to actually cook.

Give Elements to a friend who’s expressed an interest in preparing good food, and buy a copy for yourself. Even accomplished cooks will enjoy the essays at the beginning of the book that lay out the fundamentals of kitchen savvy. If you think of sauce as the liquid that pools on a plate around your dinner, read his long discussion of it and think again. He writes, “The mayonnaise that enriches and binds a tuna salad is its sauce; a quenelle of olive tapenade on a grilled duck breast can serve as its sauce.” Even if you already think this way, the book’s early chapters provide a good review of cooking fundamentals, much as its spiritual ancestor, The Elements of Style, reminds writers about the basics of their craft. Like that classic guide, you’ll want to revisit this book every so often to hone your culinary mind.

But if the essays are the soul of the book, the glossary is its body. Page after page gives concise definitions and short essays about common cooking terms and ingredients — at least the ones you’ll find in a French-influenced kitchen. I consider myself a knowledgeable cook, but I found a few terms that I had forgotten over time, if I ever knew them (à la ficelle, for instance). Though these definitions exist elsewhere, most notably in Harold McGee’s On Food And Cooking, Elements collects them into a small tome that can sit close at hand even in a crowded kitchen.

My conversations with friends about this book show me how useful such a reference can be. I spoke with one about Ruhlman’s admirable choice to use proportions instead of quantities. “For instance,” I said, “he writes that equal parts butter and flour in a roux thickens some amount of liquid.” But I couldn’t remember that amount (10 times the amount of roux, by weight). I spoke with another about how the book answers those little questions you sometimes have: I said, “Quatre épices is three parts pepper, 1 part cloves and cinnamon and whatever.” I couldn’t remember the fourth spice (nutmeg). Maybe your memory is better than mine; I’ll just use the book.

At times, though, I wish the entries offered more. For foam, Ruhlman writes, “While foam does have its uses (foamed milk in coffee is a good example), it can feel affected or gimmicky when used for the sake of itself rather than as an integral part of the dish.” What is it about the foam on coffee that makes it useful as opposed to gimmicky? And how would I as a cook know when a dish could benefit from foam? He never says. And inevitably, there are the questions about how one ingredient made it into the book while another didn’t: There was room for bladder but not for brisket?

If you’re as pedantic as I, you may find some nits to pick in this book. Under the entry for balsamic vinegar, for example, Ruhlman writes, “All true balsamics come from Italy, most notably Modena … and will say so on the bottle.” Unfortunately, so will all the industrial versions bottled in the same area; look for aceto balsamico tradizionale instead. Under the entry for generic vinegar, he blithely mentions that you can add wine to a starter without noting that most modern wine has too much alcohol for the vinegar-producing bacteria; dilute your wine to at most ten percent to keep your population alive. He describes cooking with wine, but fails to mention that oh-so-useful safety tip: Add the wine to the pan away from the roaring flame on the oven.

Only a few of you will probably care about the occasional muddled sentence — Does the description for quatre-épices, “A working ratio is three parts pepper to one part nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove,” mean that you should use 3 parts pepper and 1 part each of the others, or 1 part of the others combined? (The former, according to his previous book Charcuterie.) And probably even fewer of you will care about the inconsistent layout of the glossary items. I feel like the publisher should have set forth a style guide specific to that section and then double-checked each entry against it. For stock, you find “a flavorful liquid made by gently heating vegetables, aromatics, bones, and meat …”. For spider, you find “A large flat mesh ladle used for retrieving fried items from hot fat is called a spider”. For beurre manié, you find “butter into which an equal volume of flour has been rubbed and kneaded becomes ….” Capitalize sentences and not fragments, okay; but what of beurre manié’s full sentence? Variety in a reference text keeps the pace lively, but the stylistic inconsistencies kept snagging my eyes.

I’m hoping they stop bugging me, though; I intend to flip through this book often.

This book was sent to me for review.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Our Last Dinner Party

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We hosted our last dinner party one week ago.

No, not really. But it was the last dinner party we’re likely to have in our apartment. Sniff. It’s held a fair number of parties, and it’s a nice space — the dining room is gigantic for an apartment — but I’m looking forward to smoking cuts of meat on the back steps, plucking preserves from the basement, and serving food fresh from my garden.

You might imagine that we would do a blow-out farewell in honor of our current space, but I decided to keep it simple.

Appetizers and Amuse
Just before our guests arrived, I put out an appetizer platter: olives; salumi; homemade pickled red onions; and layered strips of zucchini, carrot, and bell pepper that I marinated overnight in oil and herbs. I poured a nice Prosecco — I always like to greet people with sparkling wine — and we dug in.

After I read Harold McGee’s article about gelatin filtration, I decided to try a butternut squash consomme as an amuse-bouche for this party. I steamed the quartered squash until fork-tender — about 20 minutes — over a simple stock of squash pulp, butter, and seeds, and then I used that liquid to purée the soft, orange flesh. I added water until the soup had a thin consistency and then one package of gelatin for the six cups of soup. I froze it overnight and thawed it for a week in the refrigerator in a sieve. The liquid in the soup seeped through the molecular net and dripped into the bowl below. The result was decidedly strange: An almost clear, light yellow liquid that tasted like pure butternut squash. I made a sage gelée with the intent of plopping tiny balls of it into the consomme, which I served in a small glass, but the jelly was too sticky. Melissa came up with the brilliant idea of “salting” the glasses with the sage jelly by dipping the rim into a bowl of jelly. This sticky rim added just a hint of sage to each sip of squash essence.

As an aside, I tried making fruit leather from the quivering squash mass that remained after the filtration, but I didn’t spread it thinly enough in the dehyrdator. Fruit leather remains an ongoing experiment.

Opener: Fall Salad With Marrow Dumpling
I had a hard time deciding on an opener. I auditioned a tongue and tail terrine from The River Cottage Meat Book, but I decided against it. It was good, but it didn’t seem like a natural step in the dinner. Then I saw a dish in Art Culinaire that featured fried marrow dumplings, quail eggs, caviar, and lobster glaze. I played around with that concept, but I couldn’t find an adaptation that worked for me. The morning of the party, I finally concocted a simple salad: Three leaves of Belgian endive arranged in a Mercedes-Benz symbol and filled with roasted grapes. In one corner, I piled sautéed fennel and bacon; in the other two I drizzled balsamic vinegar. I placed a fried marrow dumpling (scoop marrow, season, refrigerate, cover with egg and bread crumbs, and deep fry) at the center of the plate. I poured a François Pinon Vouvray to accompany the salad, trusting in its acidity to counteract the rich marrow.

Main: Slow-roasted Pork Shoulder With Brussels Sprouts
This wasn’t the prettiest dish I’ve ever plated, but even my talkative internal critic agreed that these slabs of pork, which I rubbed with salt and oregano and slow-roasted at 250° for two hours, were juicy and flavorful. I de-leafed Brussels sprouts and sautéed the greens in duck fat before braising them, and I dressed the meat with a brown butter sauce (which caused a stir in the dining room when it foamed violently after I added vinegar to the hot fat). I served Cantillon’s Rosé de Gambrinus, a raspberry-infused lambic beer, which I joked was a regional pairing: Cantillon is based in Brussels.

Cheese: Montgomery Cheddar
Given that Eat Local queen Jen Maiser was one of our guests, I joked that I tried to source ingredients from as far away as possible, but I only picked up the Montgomery Cheddar, a true English farmhouse cheese, because my cheese shop was out of the much more local Fiscalini bandage-wrapped cheddar. I served a dry Lustau oloroso sherry to complement the rich cheese.

Dessert: Pomegranate Sorbet With Pistachio Tuiles
Since I like to make frozen desserts early in the morning of a dinner party, you can imagine my frustration when I realized the night before that I hadn’t bought enough pomegranates. I had enough time to assemble the sorbet, but the delay stressed me out.

For once, I had success using the whack-with-a-wooden-spoon technique for extracting the blood-red seeds from the halved fruit, and I used a food mill to extract the juice from the ruby drops. I combined the tart liquid with sugar, strained fig jam, vodka, and a bit of red wine vinegar to get the taste right. But even a deep red sorbet isn’t very eye-catching when served naked, so I made lacy pistachio tuiles that I could pose like a sail in the sorbet. A number of my recent dishes have combined red and green in unexpected ways: Maybe all the Christmas decorations in stores have influenced me.

Mignardise: Candied Buddha’s Hand And Pine Nut Brittle
I’ve already written about the pine nut brittle, a simple candy that I’ll make again and again. The candied Buddha’s hand, however, was a morning-of addition. I spotted a Cthulhu-esque Buddha’s hand at Market Hall, and I decided to try candying it. Of course, you have to chop all the pretty yellow tentacles into bite-size strips, but I hoped the unusual flavor would come through in the final product. It did, but I think next time I’ll only blanch it twice instead of the three times I do for normal candied citrus peel. There wasn’t enough bitterness to stand up against the sugary syrup and coating.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

"Power Boil" Burners

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We bought a nice, one-year-old stove off of Craigslist, and this weekend we hooked it up in the new house. This stove, like other modern stoves, has a “power boil” burner with more flame and a “precise simmer” burner with less. This drives me bonkers. Why not just make all the burners go from the lowest temperature of precise simmer to the highest temperature of power boil? Why force me to put stocks on my back right burner and stir-fries in the front?

It reminds me of the famous dialog between Nigel Tufnel and Marty DiBergi in This Is Spinal Tap:

Nigel Tufnel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and...
Marty DiBergi: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?
Nigel Tufnel: Exactly.
Marty DiBergi: Does that mean it's louder? Is it any louder?
Nigel Tufnel: Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?
Marty DiBergi: I don't know.
Nigel Tufnel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?
Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven.
Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.
Marty DiBergi: Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?
Nigel Tufnel: [pause] These go to eleven.

My friend meriko mentioned that they probably just have different sizes of pipes running into the burners, which prompts the question: Can I hack those pipes to install new, bigger ones to all the burners? I’m already planning to make a pizza oven by removing the lock that kicks in for the self-cleaning mode. Maybe I could swap in new pipes as well. Anyone know how to do that without blowing up the house?

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Equator Coffee Responds

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A few days ago, I posted about The Shot’s assertion that The French Laundry was using mediocre, expensive coffee in lieu of making a good cup.

Brooke McDonnell, the owner and master roaster for Equator Coffee, saw my post and commented in defense of her company. I know not everyone reads the comments, so I thought I should post her statement, unedited except for HTML friendliness, here for you all to read. As I said before, I don’t know anything about coffee, but I’m willing to let people defend themselves and correct misimpressions.

Brooke’s comment:

In response to the espresso critic quoted in this blog, a bit of clarification:
1. Equator coffees & teas does not supply, nor has it ever supplied, the espresso for the French Laundry which comes from Illy. (We supply their drip coffee). As a roaster I appreciate anyone who takes an interest in and promotes the crafting of specialty coffee in all its forms, yet, it is startling to read a review disparaging of Equator in the context of French Laundry espresso for the second time from the same critic.
2. As traditionalists we may have objections to the automatic espresso machines, however, in certain environments, where there are multiple servers, these machines eliminate inconsistencies and improve the execution.
3. Espresso preferences are subjective: Illy is just one style of espresso that when pulled properly has a strong constituency based on its balanced sweetness and moderate acidity. At recent barista competitions the trend was towards very tangy, citrusy, salty origin espresso. This is a big tent subject that leaves plenty of room to promote ones preference and appreciate other styles of espresso.
4. As any roaster knows, the key is always control over the variables that effect espresso, and, as any roaster knows, the same espresso can yield different results at different locations under different hands. The espresso critic's ratings confirm this. Even when there has been on-site training (which we do), the roaster has limited influence over the final espresso translation. Simply put, we cannot compel those on the front lines of retail to have a passion for the process.
5. Regarding the Panama Geisha served at the French Laundry: after visiting the Esmeralda farm, I arranged for one of owners to meet the French Laundry staff and provide background on the coffee varietal and microclimate prior to introducing this coffee. The staff took the time to educate themselves on the agronomy of this coffee farm. They also spent time evaluating different roast styles and brewing methods. I was impressed with their commitment to raise the bar on their brewed coffee program.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Chard Stem Pickles

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When I cook chard, I take out the stems and cut across the leaf. I braise the dark greens, but I’m left with naked stems. The other night, I decided to transform chard stems into quick pickles, otherwise known as refrigerator pickles because that’s where you have to store them. I turned to Quick Pickles for inspiration, and though there are photos of chard in the book, that particular item never appears in the index. Odd.

But a bit of leafing through the book gave me enough examples to develop my own recipe: 1 part salt, 2 parts sugar and 4 parts vinegar. Bring to a boil, pour over chopped chard stems, and add dried chile and thin slices of lime. Let cool to room temperature; cover and chill. The chard stems taste mostly of their brine, but they do have a satisfying crunch and a pleasant vegetable flavor.

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Tips From Art Culinaire

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I’m always of two minds about Art Culinaire, the quarterly hardback food porn publication aimed at chefs. On one hand, the editing is slipshod and the recipes are unreliable. On the other, the photos are gorgeous and the ideas are inspiring.

A couple of ideas from the current issue grabbed me as I plotted out the menu for our most recent dinner party, probably the last one in our apartment. I tried them out, and I’ll definitely use them again.

Pine Nut Brittle
Swapping peanuts with pine nuts in crunchy caramel creates an odd candy. When you bite into it, there’s an explosion of pine nut flavor, but the nuts themselves disappear. You can see them, but you don’t feel them as your teeth slide through the sugar: I compared them to Rice Krispies. I didn’t bother looking at the Art Culinaire recipe; I just followed the peanut brittle recipe in David’s The Perfect Scoop, which is in turn our mutual friend Mary Jo’s recipe.

Extracting Marrow
Want to get marrow out of a beef bone to use as an ingredient? One recipe in this issue suggested putting the bones in a double boiler, but I don’t own a double boiler that can fit four big bones. Instead, I made a bain-mairie — which I view as a double boiler in different proportions — by placing the bones into an 8x8 glass baking dish, which I then put into a roasting pan. I added enough water to the roasting pan to come halfway up the side of the baking dish and covered the baking dish with foil. I cooked the whole thing in a 350° oven for 10 minutes. Then I scooped out the softened marrow with ease. (I put it into a dumpling and fried it; more on that later.)

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