What We're Cooking Now

What We're Cooking Now - My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Smitten Kitchen - Deb Perelman

Deb Perelman describes herself as "an obsessive home cook."  The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook reinforces that description and the characteristics of its author:  obsessive and a home cook.  
Perelman is no chef and her recipes are best suited to family cooking at home. Her recipes are a bit quirky and largely inconsistent.  Ingredients are not always listed in the sequence indicated in the method--very confusing.

Each recipe has a suggested yield which we largely found to be inaccurate and extremely variable (some serve 4, some 12, and 8 cups of broccoli slaw serves "several people"). 
Many of the recipes had too much dressing or sauce. And her personal stories verge on the obsessive--enough about how much and what you ate while pregnant and/or home with your newborn.  

From a design perspective, we loved the photography (Perelman describes herself as a photographer and the photos in this book are really lovely). We also enjoyed the 'cooking notes' and the 'do ahead's'--always helpful for the busy cook who is looking to get ahead, while still cooking from scratch. What we didn't love was having to flip and flap, back and forth between the ingredients and method pages, especially in some of the more labour intensive cake recipes. Made us CRAZY. NB cook book publishers--PLEASE have the whole recipe laid out on one double page spread. 

Although our final meal was good, in general, our consensus is that this book, although pretty, will not hold a special place on our shelves. We do not recommend it.
Chapter 1: Breakfasts

Recipes in this section relied largely on bread and flour-based items (e.g., scones, buns, challah, biscuits, bagel casserole). In general, the recipes lacked lighter and fresh items—limited items with fruit, etc, and were not really to my liking as I prefer a simple breakfast or something really out of the ordinary. I did not think this section delivered either of these.

Potato Frittata with Feta and Scallions (p. 39) - Julie
Described as addictive—given that we regularly eat frittatas we felt it was nothing out of the ordinary.  Ingredients were fairly straightforward and basic items that can be found anywhere and used in multiple recipes—always good to have a recipe that doesn’t require running out and purchasing jars or bunches of things that you won’t use.  Roasting the potatoes for 30 minutes does add a nice touch to the dish but adds extra time.  Nice, pleasant dish—wouldn’t go out of my way to make it again but a strong contender for those who do not make frittatas and are looking for a simple recipe with a lot of flavour.

Cheddar Swirl Breakfast Buns (p. 40) - Julie

These are a nice alternative to a sweet buns, but this is a time consuming recipe with multiple steps so definitely not a last minute meal.   Cheddar, dill and onion filler is a nice combination and easy to put together. Personally thought that they were nice but not spectacular for the amount of time they required but I took them to work and everyone raved about them.  Most likely a matter of personal taste so these could be considered a major success depending upon who they are prepared for.

Chapter 2: Salads

Vinegar Slaw with Cucumbers and Dill (p54) - Debra
This recipe was super easy to make.  It was fine on day one, but quite boring and soggy by day three.  The recipe says it serves 12, so unless you are taking it to a party, it's gonna last 3 days and it doesn't have the staying power.  I have a much nicer vinegar coleslaw recipe if you'd like to try it!

Kale Salad with Cherries and Pecans (p67) - Debra
Like lots of other people, I'm trying to incorporate more kale (and other leafy greens) into my diet.  So I really wanted to like this recipe.  I'm grateful for Perelman specifying Lacinato or Tuscan Kale, because this kale is so much nicer than the regular kale sold at the grocery store.  It's worth finding. Overall, I really enjoyed this recipe, although it was a bit overdressed and quite labour intensive.  In a funny way, though, it was a recipe that was about hiding the kale rather than enhancing it.  It wasn't interesting enough to make again.

Sugar Snap Salad with Miso Dressing (p69) - Debra
This recipe says it serves 4-6, but I'd say it serves more.  It was a bit time consuming to assemble.  The dressing was wonderful, but using half the dressing (as Perelman recommends) is ample, so why make so much in the first place?  The taste was great.  We all liked it.  But it did not keep well.  If you plan to try this one, I recommend tossing right before serving and composting what's not eaten because it does not keep til the next day.

Broccoli Slaw (p72) - Debra
This recipe was quite tasty.  The instructions for how to deal with the broccoli were pretty fussy, but setting them aside, the recipe was pretty easy to make.  Broccoli, almonds, cranberries and red onion.  Creamy buttermilk/may dressing.  Yummy.  It reminded me of so many salads of buffets and potlucks of my youth.  And with that in mind, while it was yummy, it was not the best of its genre, in my experience.  I might make it again, just to see, but it wasn't a for sure keeper.

Chapter 4: The Main Dish...Vegetarian

Sweet Peas and Shells Alfredo (p121) - Debra
Very good.  Creamy and awesome.  However, there's A LOT more sauce than the picture reflects, so I'd increase the amount of peas and pasta next time (or cut the sauce in half). Also, it works just fine with table (rather than whipping) cream, so use that.  I think everyone I know could have come up with this recipe on their own.  Tasty as it is, it warrants being in a magazine or newspaper article, not a cookbook.

Linguine with Cauliflower Pesto (p123) - Debra

Now this is interesting.  Who'd have thought of making a cauliflower pesto with raw cauliflower to boot.  I loved this one, but I love the ingredients:  sun dried tomatoes, capers, pine nuts, parsley and Parmesan.  I appreciated that the cauliflower had both size and weight description.  Not sure you'll ever serve 8 people a main course from 1 pound of linguine.

Slow-Cooker Black Bean Ragout (p137) - Debra
This is a solid, tasty recipe for black beans, which could even pass for black bean soup.  The taste is nice, the beans come to a perfect texture and using the slow cooker is a great time saver.  I've no idea why it's called a ragout though, and in my view it is a side dish, not a main course.  I appreciated the recommendation to thicken the ragout, but even so be prepared for a lot of broth.  Again, the yield is incorrect.  It says 6 cups ragout, but with 9-10 cups water plus a pound of beans to start, you'll end up with much more than 6 cups.  (Perhaps by ragout she means beans drained of broth?)  [Since writing this, I've made this a second time, and that's enough.  It's not interesting enough to make again.]

Chapter 5: The Main Dish...Seafood, Poultry, and Meat

Tarragon Oven Fries (p156) - Debra
We've made these fries several times.  The kids really like them, they're easy to make and better for you than deep fried.  The techniques Perelman recommends work, so try them.  They include:  parboiling the fries and completely drying them before baking, and preheating and oiling the pan before putting on the fries.  The fries took a fair bit longer to cook in the oven than the suggested 20 minutes.  The yield is suggested as 2-4 people, but you'll be hard pressed to feed 4 if two are children.  

Seared Halibut & Gazpacho Salsa with Tomato Vinaigrette (p159) - Diane
Halibut is a very expensive fish--and at the end of this recipe, you have some very expensive fish with some boring tomato salsa.

Sesame-Spiced Turkey Meatballs & Smashed Chickpea Salad (p167) - Diane
Loved the meatballs, the chickpeas...not so much. 

Harvest Roast Chicken with Grapes, Olives and Rosemary (p175) - Diane

This dish, along with the Kale Salad (p67) and brown butter mashed potatoes (p188) made the cut for our final dinner. The chicken was so moist and flavourful. We all loved the salty/sweet combination of the olives and grapes. And those potatoes? To die for!

Maya's Sweet and Sour Holiday Brisket & Roasted Fingerling & Carrot Coins (p183) - Diane & Bonnie
Tasty. Tender. Liked the fact that it is made in a slow cooker—but in addition to slow cooking it, this recipe requires  several hours (or overnight) of resting time. There is a lot of fat in a brisket, so even with the resting time, the cold fat was kinda gross…glad to be rid of it though.

Tomato-Glazed Meatloaves with Brown Butter Mashed Potatoes (p187) - Diane
Have you ever had brown butter mashed potatoes? These are incredible. Meatloaf was very moist-a revelation using fresh bread to make breadcrumbs.

Chapter 6: Sweets

Buttered Popcorn Cookies (p195) - Bonnie

Intrigued by the salty sweet promise, this was the 1st recipe I tried in this cookbook. Sadly—the results did not bode well for the rest of the book. The popcorn goes stale almost immediately after taking the cookies out of the oven. Texturally it was just odd. All of my work colleagues agreed. This is just...weird.
Alex’s Chocolate Raspberry Rugelach (p 212) - Bonnie

Very good. My first rugelach experience and it will be my go to recipe. Dough was easy to work with, but fair warning, needs to be chilled for at least 2 hours in the fridge before you make the cookies so plan accordingly. As per her warning, make sure to line your baking sheets with parchment as the melting bubbling jam makes a mess.

Grapefruit Olive Oil Pound Cake (p241) - Bonnie

We all loved this-a rich super moist cake, with a refreshing twist of grapefruit rather than the regular lemon glaze/syrup. My favourite part of the recipe was the very hands on technique of rubbing the grapefruit zest into the sugar...what an amazing scent!

I sersiously consdiered making another batch of this grapefruit/sugar mixture and using it as a body scrub in the shower. Heavenly!
One note however—my glaze was much more clear that hers, and in fact was almost invisible on the loaf--it also did not adhere to the cake, and just puddled around the base of the cake. If you can figure out a way to make a better glaze, I would do that--but the cake itself was delish.

Blueberry Cornmeal Butter Cake (p245) - Bonnie
This was my daughter Ava’s favourite recipe from this book. A good basic blueberry coffee cake to have in your repertoire. I personally really liked the cornmeal addition—added a nice toothsome texture to the cake.

S’more Layer Cake (p263) - Bonnie
Who doesn’t like a good s’more? The cake is perfect and foolproof. I love love love the taste of graham cracker that comes through loud and clear with this cake.
However, the chocolate layer is way too liquid and even after cooling it over ice water, and then letting it firm up in the fridge for 2 hours, it still ran when put on the cake (and my cake was baked the day before, so was completely cool). I wish I could have used all of the filling, to create a good and thick layer of milk chocolate, but the more I added, the more just spilled off the side. The cooked egg white frosting is very good and once torched is quite impressive looking.

Red Wine Velvet Cake with Whipped Mascarpone (p267) - Bonnie

Having made red velvet cakes before with great reluctance ie using red food colouring, I was happy to find a more ‘natural’ colouring agent.  I was, however, quite worried when the mixture appeared to curdle in the mixing bowl. I went on with the recipe and hoped for the best. After all, what's a more natural combination than chocolate and red wine? Well…sometimes too much of a good thing, is just not a good thing. This is the booziest cake I’ve ever had. There should be a warning on this cake for anyone under the drinking age. It was very strange. Having said that, I LOVED the Mascarpone filling.

I will never make another kind of cream cheese icing for any carrot cake I make in the future. This one is it.

Chapter 7: Party Snacks and Drinks
The recipes in this section, once again, suffered from a lack of fresh and light options. There weren't a lot of appetizers, and sadly only two drinks--hardly merits a chapter.

Spicy Brittled Peanuts (p. 286) - Julie
This is a simple and easy recipe with limited ingredients which is always nice. It came together very easily, but the timing was off from what was indicated in the recipe. This was way more sweet than spicy. I would have preferred a more balanced approach to the seasoning with a bit more heat--especially since "Spicy" is in the title. These nuts stored well. 

Smoky Deviled Eggs with Crisped Jamon and Crushed Marconas (p. 290) - Julie
Even though Marcona almonds are not always easy to find (we had to look in a few different stores before we sourced them)--they are worth the effort.  This recipe is easy to prepare and a nice alternative to traditional deviled eggs. Overall a winner that I would make again.

Blue Cheese and Black Pepper Gougeres (p. 292) - Julie
Nice alternative to gougeres typically made with a milder cheese--the blue cheese really adds a wow factor in these tasty little treats, without being overpowering in any way. Loved that there was guidance indicating that the gougeres can be made, frozen and then served when you need them. I would make these again. 

Rosemary Gruyere and Sea Salt Crisps (p. 294) - Julie
I couldn’t wait to make these as I had never made crackers before and thought that these looked and sounded wonderful because they had three of my favourite flavours at centre stage.  After combining the ingredients it was quickly evident that something was seriously wrong with the recipe—it was incredibly dry and had no apparent way to bind the mixture. I placed it in the fridge and hoped that the chilling process would help it bind, but it was still a flaky mess after a few hours. I then placed it back in the fridge overnight—sadly, still a flake mess the next morning. Then I decided to add a bit of water to moisten it and it did help it bind a bit but they were, for the most part, a total disaster.

I would never waste my time (or money as gruyere is pricey) and attempt these again. Total fail.

French Onion Toasts (p. 297) - Julie & Bonnie
Bonnie made these and they were awesome—didn’t want to make them for the meeting as I wanted to make things that no one had tried before.  Great French onion soup taste on a toasted baguette slice—can’t go wrong. A wonderful recipe for those who love French onion soup—nice alternative for those who aren’t typically crazy about the soup version as there is something about the crispy toast and onion/cheese mixture that should appeal to most people.

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