Monday, October 25, 2010

8 Questions for Amanda Hesser


I'm so excited about this post! I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to interview Amanda Hesser, author, cofounder of food52.com, and longtime New York Times staffer. Her latest project (though many years in the making) is The Essential New York Times Cookbook, which was just released.

Before we get to the good stuff, I will take a moment to gush over this book. I received a review copy from the publisher, and while I was looking forward to perusing its pages, I did not expect to instantly fall in love (I still can't stop talking about how great it is!). If you like to cook, want to cook or enjoy a little cultural context with your recipes, you must buy this book. Not just nice to read curled up on the sofa, it is also extraordinarily useful: Hesser tested, perfected and annotated each recipe so that anyone can walk into the kitchen with their copy and emerge successful, with something good to eat.

So far, I have made black bean soup with salsa  and steak au poivre. I followed the soup recipe almost to the letter, and I loved it. If you don't think black bean soup can be particularly interesting or special, this is the recipe you should try (a ton of lime juice added at the end is the secret). The steak recipe, along with the many others in the book, served as inspiration for my own riff on classic steak au poivre--this is an excellent cookbook to turn to for unique ideas.

Here are a few more reasons why I love this book: each chapter list recipes chronologically (some go back 150 years); Hesser provides the title and author of the article in which each recipe originally appeared, as well as historical context when appropriate; and most recipes are followed by a list of suggested recipes from the book that could be used to construct a complete meal. Finally, as much as I enjoy cookbooks, most are not essential. Rarely do they have something new to offer. This one, however, lives up to its name tenfold. Now, here's what Amanda had to say about my new favorite book:

Amanda Hesser 
Photo Credit: Sarah Shatz


This book covers 150 years worth of recipes in the Times, so it’s a tremendous undertaking. How did you choose the recipes you would test? I find this process fascinating, so feel free to go into detail!

The first thing I did was turn to the New York Times readers and ask them (in a query in the paper) what their favorite recipes were. From their thousands of suggestions I tested the 400 recipes that were recommended most. This gave me a much-needed foundation of terrific favorites from the book. But it only took me back to the 1960s. For the 100 years of recipes preceding this, I had to just dig in and figure out what were the important dishes of each decade. With a recipe like Tomato Soup, I’d read all the recipes that were printed and then select the most promising one to test. The testing took 4 to 5 years.

Will you describe a recipe or two that looked promising on paper, but couldn’t be included in the book for some reason(s)?

Charlotte Russe, which is an old molded dessert that was very popular in the 19th century. I really wanted to include it but every version I tried turned out so firm and rubbery that it seemed closer to charlotte Play-Doh.

I imagine you had to test quite a few recipes that went totally against your personal taste. Did any of them surprise you or change the way you eat going forward?

I like pretty much everything so that wasn’t a problem. I think the biggest change is simply that by cooking 1,400 recipes, I vastly expanded my repertory, and now I have a lot more dishes I’m excited to make, like Amazing Overnight Waffles, Huguenot Torte, Craig Claiborne’s Fondue, and The Normandy (a delicious drink for fall).

Are there any particular writers or chefs whom you rediscovered (or became a first-time fan of) while working on the book?

I came to adore Pierre Franey, who was the chef at the storied Le Pavillon, and who later teamed up with Craig Claiborne to write the Sunday food page as well as his own column, “The 60-Minute Gourmet,” which was the 1970s version of The Minimalist. Franey wasn’t much of a writer but sure knew how to construct a recipe. He was precise without being pedantic.

You couldn’t possibly have one favorite recipe from the book, so how about giving us one favorite in each of the following categories?

As you’ll see I couldn’t select just one in each!

Hors d’oeuvres: Pickled Shrimp or Hot Cheese Olives
Easy entrée: Chicken Canzanese
Dessert: Teddie’s Apple Cake or Lucas Schoorman’s Lemon Tart
Anything beef: Spanish Fricco or Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew

You asked Times readers to send you their favorite recipes from the paper, which seems like a nicely democratic way to make your selections. But if you were a reader answering this call, what recipes would you have sent in to the author of The Essential New York Times Cookbook (and did they make the cut?)?

The truth is that when I was a reporter, I was so busy working on my own stories that I didn’t have time to cook from the Times’s food pages. One of the great joys of working on this project was getting a chance to cook recipes by colleagues like Marian Burros, Florence Fabricant, Molly O’Neill and Mark Bittman

As in any cookbook, there are going to be recipes that enjoy perennial popularity with readers and those that get neglected because they seem to lack an obvious wow factor. Please save us from ourselves and shine a light on a couple recipes you fear may not get the attention they deserve.

Sea Bass in Grappa
Tuna Salad
Bolzano Apple Cake
Delicate Bread Pudding
Broccoli Puree with Ginger
Raspberry Vinegar
Beets in Lime Cream

While writing this book, you also launched food52.com, a first-of-its-kind recipe site that combines the expertise of you and co-creator, Merrill Stubbs, with the creativity of home cooks and social media. As newspapers and magazines struggle, do you believe sites like food52.com will become the new chroniclers of American gastronomy?

I hope so – we’ve found our system of crowd-sourcing and curation immensely effective and rewarding. The ideas and recipes from the crowd are filled with soul and experience, and that’s hard to replicate with a single voice. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for experts and great writers, but I think we’ve managed to highlight another path to shaping the food conversation. The fluidity of the internet allows you to instantly see emerging trends and moods and changes, and at food52, you get a pure distillation of all of this from the people who are in the trenches, cooking at home and thinking about food day after day.

I want to thank Amanda for taking the time to answer my questions. I need to go read the Beets in Lime Cream recipe right now (I seem to be cooking beets about once a week lately). Do any of you have the book yet? Will you buy it? I would love to know if you've tried any of the recipes and how they turned out. Sound off in the comment section, and please leave your links if you've blogged about the book!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Three-Bean Salad


This is a fresher, healthier update of Three-Bean Salad. It's also leaps and bounds better than the canned Jolly Green Giant version, although I personally have a soft spot for that particular product (throw some onto a big tuna or chicken salad--yum!).

This is also a quick and easy side, which provides both a green vegetable and filling starch. It was all we needed to go with a simple grilled chicken lunch. I'm slovenly devoted to those no-mess, steam-in-the-microwave bags of frozen veggies, so that's what I used. Seriously, those products are god's gift to veggie lovers. If you want to blanche or steam fresh beans, that would be wonderful too.

Three-Bean Salad
This can definitely be made ahead, with the dressing acting as a nice marinade (add the parsley just before serving). However, the longer it sits, the duller the color of the green beans. A few hours is optimal, but I think a day ahead would be fine too.

Serves 4 to 6

1 (15 oz) can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 (15 oz) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/2 medium red onion (halved lengthwise), sliced paper thin
1 (12 to 16 oz) bag frozen green beans
3 Tbs safflower or canola oil
3 Tbs white wine vinegar
2 Tbs granulated sugar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped parsley

In a large bowl, combine beans and onion. Prepare an ice bath (fill a large bowl halfway with ice and add cold water). Steam green beans in microwave according to package directions (I like the beans slightly under done and firm for this salad). Immediately chill green beans in ice bath for about 3 minutes to stop cooking and preserve bright color. Drain and air dry or pat dry with paper towel. Add to bowl with other beans.

In a small jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine oil, vinegar, sugar and mustard. Shake until emulsified (if you don't have a jar, whisk in a bowl). Drizzle about two-thirds of dressing over bean mixture and toss. Add more dressing if desired. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Just before serving, add parsley and toss again.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Simple Cream Scones



There are many scone recipes on this blog (and another on NPR). In no way do I see this as a deterrent for posting more. Many of my scones follow a similar formula: judicious amount of butter + buttermilk. It produces a moist but dense pastry that isn't too rich to qualify as breakfast.

These scones are completely different. With no butter whatsoever, they rely solely on heavy cream for fat, moisture and texture. Fortunately, this formula works, and it's dead simple. The cream (it MUST be heavy cream; half and half and milk lack sufficient fat to make the recipe work) makes these scones very light with a fine, moist crumb. Since you don't have to spend time working butter into the flour with a pastry blender, your fingers or a food processor, they come together in no time.

I really liked this style of scone. It's closer to the type of thing you'd eat at high tea, perhaps with jam and clotted cream. I found the recipe on A Cooking Life, an excellent blog by a chef who swears that anyone can use this recipe and produce a respectable scone. I think she's right. No worries about overworking the dough, or letting the butter get too soft. Just stir and go. I even threw together the dry ingredients the night before, so  all I had to do in the morning was add cream and bake. They were perfect with this casserole for brunch. You can use any additions you like, but I went with dried currants to keep these classic and British-y.

Simple Cream Scones
Adapted from A Cooking Life
Other dried fruits, especially raisins, cranberries or blueberries would be a nice swap for the currants. As the creator of this recipe says, no substitutions for the heavy cream--It's the only source of fat in the recipe, and if you take some of it out, they won't taste as good.

Makes 12 small or 8 large scones

1 cup/130 g all-purpose flour
1 cup/130 g whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tbs baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup dried currants
1 cup plus 2 to 4 Tbs heavy cream
2 Tbs coarse sugar, such as turbinado (granulated may be substituted; use less)

Preheat oven to 425 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder, salt and currants. Stir in the cream, just until flour is moistened. You may still have some crumbs at the bottom of the bowl. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and briefly knead into a ball (if your dough will not come together, drizzle very sparingly with 1 to 2 Tbs additional cream). Divide in half and roll or press each piece into a 3/4 to 1-inch disk (to make large scones, roll all the dough into 1 disk and cut into 8 triangles). Cut each disk into 6 triangles and transfer to baking sheet, spacing scones at least 1-inch apart. Sprinkle with coarse sugar and bake 12 to 15 minutes, or until bottoms are deep golden brown and a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean. Transfer to cooling rack. Serve warm with jam.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Healthy Breakfast Casserole with Eggs, Sausage and Broccoli


This dish is easy, good for you and ideal for feeding a group. With potatoes and sausage, it's also satisfying without relying on hunks of bread and a lot of cheese like a typical strata, or other baked breakfast casseroles. You still get richness in the form of cottage cheese and flavorful cheddar, and I like that it combines both whole eggs and just whites.

I made this when we had guests over the weekend and I think it will become my go-to brunchy thing when I have company. Enjoy with hot sauce and something less healthy on the side, like mini cream scones or goat cheese biscuits!

Healthy Breakfast Casserole with Eggs, Sausage and Broccoli
Adapted from  Taste of Home.
Liquid egg whites work great here and save you time (and possibly wasted egg yolks). For the chicken sausage, I really like Brat Hans brand spicy Italian. They are natural, nitrate-free and fully cooked. 

Serves 8

1 1/4 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced
1/2 cup water
2 fully cooked chicken sausages, cut into 3/4-inch chunks
1 1/2 cups frozen broccoli florets, semi-thawed
6 eggs
8 egg whites
1 cup (8 ounces) 1% cottage cheese
3/4 cup (3 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese
5 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup milk
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Hot sauce for serving (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F and lightly coast a 9 x13 baking dish with cooking spray. Place potatoes and water in a microwave-safe dish and microwave until just tender, stirring 2 or 3 times, 7 to 9 minutes. Drain water and spread potatoes evenly in prepared baking dish. Top with sausage. Cut any large broccoli florets into smaller chunks and add to baking dish.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and egg whites. Add remaining ingredients (except hot sauce) and whisk to combine. Pour into baking dish and bake, uncovered, until center is set, about 45 minutes. Rest 10 minutes, slice and serve with hot sauce, if desired.