Of Roast Chicken, Cookbooks, and Le Creuset

A continuation of my inordinately long list of culinary discoveries this summer…

5. One of my goals this summer was to practice roasting whole chickens. I’ve only done it twice, which is less than I had hoped, but they came out great both times, so confidence is high. They were both Cooking Light recipes, a magazine which I have subscribed to off and on (currently on) over the years. First was a chicken roasted with herbs and homemade lemon curd (made the night before) which came out very moist and flavorful, and left me with a batch of lemon curd in the freezer to make lemon gem cookies later on. More recently was a flavorful rosemary-garlic recipe I have used before for turkey; with the carcass of this chicken I made two quarts of very flavorful stock, adding in the giblets from both chickens and the roasted onions from the pan.

6. I experimented with a wide variety of new recipes this summer, some of which have already become regulars in our repertoire: we’ve already made Lombo di Maiale Coi Porri (Pan-Roasted Pork Loin with Leeks) twice, and hope to make it again before Jeremy goes back to school. Likewise, I’ve made multiple batches of lemon bars, cream cheese pound cake for strawberry shortcake, and moist potato bread from leftover mashed potatoes. After a number of variations, I found a recipe for what might be my personal perfect chocolate chip cookie, crisp and chewy at once (the secret seems to be using a silpat on the top oven rack at a lower temp than usual). Other great successes included bittersweet truffles infused with fresh mint or jasmine pearls; an improvised crustless broccoli quiche with feta and Parmesan; a humble eggless cinnamon flop with deconstructed streusel that we’ve been enjoying for breakfast; and a number of pesto-based dishes: salmon baked with spinach pesto, fettuccine tossed with sun-dried tomato pesto, and last night, a semi-traditional trofie al pesto (fresh basil pesto tossed with green beans and homemade noodle twists, sans potatoes).

7. Part of the reason I finally took myself over to the public library rather than getting all my books from Hatfield Library and its consortia is because I wanted to be able to browse knitting books and cookbooks. Over the course of the summer I have found a few that I really liked, including an Amish cookbook that gave us the cinnamon flop and our Fourth of July oven-fried chicken; Nigella Lawson’s well-known How to Be a Domestic Goddess, where I found the recipe for that huge loaf of tender potato bread and one for peanut-butter Snickers muffins; and Bittersweet by Alice Medrich, from whence came scented truffles, chocolatey chocolate cookies, and a subtly spiced loaf of marbled Tiger Cake. I have a growing list of cookbooks to seek out in future visits, and look forward to trying out more new recipes.

Related to cookbooks in a way was my exploration of the world of food blogs. Food bloggers post recipes, discussions of cooking experimentation, favorite cookbooks, gadgets and ingredients, and such; they also host online events in which groups of bloggers all make dishes based on a chosen theme or ingredient. I read a number of these blogs regularly, and have successfully tried recipes from some of them. Here are a few of my favorite sites: 101 Cookbooks, Brownie Points, Chocolate and Zucchini, Simply Recipes, The Domestic Goddess, and Words to Eat By.

8. Moving on to the subject of new kitchenware, Jeremy got me a wonderful anniversary present in June: a 7-1/4 quart red Le Creuset enameled dutch oven (with a free cast-iron grill pan), a silpat, and a silicone muffin pan. We’ve already used Big Red (the dutch oven) several times, to braise beef and short ribs and that divine pork roast with leeks. It is extremely heavy, particularly when full of liquid, but does a magnificent job of even cooking and is big enough to fit just about anything I could possibly want to braise, stew, or roast–well, maybe not a turkey, but I can live with my roasting pan for that. Le Creuset is very expensive, but it’s the sort of thing that lasts a lifetime if you take care of it, and we found such a great deal on Amazon that Jeremy actually thinks it was a computer error (the price went up right after we placed our order).

The silpat fits my jelly-roll pan perfectly, and does an admirable job with cookies and leftover pizza. I still tend to use my stoneware for most baking needs, but when I have a larger batch of something to cook, the silpat will be very useful. Even more useful has been the silicone muffin pan. I love muffins, but I almost never had muffin liners on hand, and found the process of greasing and later washing out all the little edges of the pan to be almost too much trouble to be worthwhile. This muffin pan (can’t really call it a tin now, can I?) is almost miraculously non-stick and fits on my small heirloom cookie sheet just right (just for the sake of stability, as the silicone is too floppy to safely carry wet muffin batter to the oven in). The muffins end up hotter than the pan and I can use it multiple times without having to wash out gunk. Even the mess of melted Snickers bits came off instantly. My next outing with this pan will be cupcakes studded with bits of crystallized ginger and topped with ginger cream cheese frosting.

9. I’ve been using a few ingredients that didn’t really have a regular place in the kitchen before this summer, that I thought worth mentioning. Some are just things that came in handy for the recipes I wanted to try out, and others were born of the necessity of carrying groceries a mile on foot. For instance, we’ve started eating more couscous recently, as a lighter substitute for potatoes. Jeremy has high couscous standards, mostly regarding their olive oil content, but I am getting there. I also tried polenta as a potato substitute, but we didn’t care for that as well; perhaps it needs more tweaking. In addition to the fresh fruits and veggies I have been getting at the market a bit at a time, I’ve also found myself buying more lemons than I used to: we used them for the roasted chicken, lemon curd, and lemon bars, and I also roasted the zest of lemons and limes as I had it, grinding it to powder for later use in cooking. For baking, I discovered the joy of Heath bits mixed into chocolate chip cookies, and the convenience of cooking spray and no-trans fat shortening sticks. Cooking spray may seem like a no-brainer, but I have avoided it like the plague because of the strong alcohol smell of the Pam my mom used to buy; recently I realized that they now make some cooking sprays sans alcohol and trans fat. Bonus! Finally, although it isn’t exactly an ingredient, we were very pleased to discover Endangered Species chocolate bars, specifically the Bat Bar with its crunchy cocoa nibs and the Wolf Bar with almonds and dried cranberries. Safeway doesn’t carry this organic chocolate line, which makes us very sad, but we get them when we can snag a ride to Fred Meyer.

10. Finally, and this is something I won’t be able to confirm until at least Monday, but I think my final great cooking discovery of the summer is a 4-1/2 quart KitchenAid stand mixer, which I just ordered on sale from Amazon. I never really considered such a thing necessary, given that I have a perfectly functional hand mixer, but after reading reviews and talking with very happy owners of similar mixers, I decided that $99, free shipping, and a $20 gift certificate was too good a deal to pass up. I know I’ll use it, and eventually I can get some of the neat attachments, like the pasta roller and ice cream maker, to increase its functionality further. In the meantime, hopefully the weather will cooperate, and allow me to mix up a slew of wonderful baked goods before Jeremy has to leave for New York.

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