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March 06, 2006

On Hiatus

The Cookbook Critic is going on hiatus for about 6 weeks. I have been troubled by carpal tunnel syndrome for several months, which has decreased my productivity in the kitchen and on the computer keyboard. I'm having surgery to alleviate the problem, and hopefully I'll be back to full strength soon!

I intend to be back with new content during the week of April 10th. I have several books queued up awaiting my attention, so I can't wait to have full use of my right arm again. In the meantime, please take a look around the archives, and if you have comments or suggestions, please send them to me at: colleen@cornercooks.com.

See you next month!


March 02, 2006

Donna Hay: Off the Shelf: Cooking From the Pantry


Technique. It's Always About Technique.

The more cookbooks I examine methodically for the website, the more I'm beginning to realize that the main problem with most books is the description of How. How to prep the ingredients, how to assemble them, how to brown or broil or sauté -- the problem is very often a faulty description of How. This book is no different. The ideas are fantastic and the food is often excellent, but as I was cooking from Off the Shelf, I realized that I was doing a mental exercise about "next time." "Next time I'll make sure to slice the parsnips smaller so they cook faster." "Next time I'll add some garlic to this to make it zestier." "Next time I'll melt the chocolate with hot cream so that it doesn't seize." That's a lot of "Next times" -- shouldn't the recipes work this time? The very first time?

Unfortunately, in Off the Shelf the answer to that question, very often, is no. I had issues with the technique in very nearly every recipe that I tested. Most of these were not egregious; for example, I thought that a couple of small changes to Honey and Mustard Baked Pork would greatly improve the end results. Similarly, Balsamic and Tomato Roast Chicken only required a couple of small changes. But as I continued to cook from this book, I noticed that there were a lot of these changes that seemed necessary, and that a lot of the recipes would be really good if: If there were some garlic in it (Spinach and Ricotta Baked Pasta), if it were spicier (Harissa and Yogurt Baked Chicken), if it were prepared in a bowl instead of a food processor (Food Processor Cookies). That's a lot of adjustments to be making to what are essentially very simple recipes. What's the deal?

I can't actually say what the deal is, of course, but if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that oversimplification is a pitfall that a lot of experienced chefs fall into. For a food professional who works in a kitchen every day, it seems to be easy to become blasé about writing instructions. I don't think that Donna Hay is trying to confuse her readers; it's just that she's very confident and has become casual about how to get stuff done in the kitchen. And that comes through in the recipes, in a sort of breeziness that can lead to frustration on the part of the cook at home. I also have to wonder if the recipes were developed in a professional kitchen, as opposed to a home kitchen. The differences in equipment may explain some of the discrepancies I saw in the photos of the food. I believe that there's no way to achieve the deeply browned and charbroiled appearance of the Harissa and Yogurt Baked Chicken in a standard oven. But it's possible that this recipe was created in a restaurant or other professional kitchen with a high-powered oven that puts out a whole lot more BTUs than your Kenmore at home. That could maybe explain why my chicken and the book's chicken look so different from each other. Or maybe the food stylist just cheated. Hard to say.

It's not all bad; there are several things about this book that are excellent, and that I'd love to see more of in every cookbook. There is a photo of every single recipe. That alone makes me love the book, even with all of its problems. There's just no substitute for a picture of what the finished dish should look like, and even though the photos in Off the Shelf are sometimes rather different from what my own finished recipes ended up looking like, I still really appreciate having the picture to refer to.

Another good thing: Off the Shelf has a page of "Short Order" ideas at the end of each chapter, with quick and easy recipes for extremely simple dishes, such as penne with cherry tomatoes, or spiced tofu, or pear galettes on frozen puff pastry. Jacques Pépin has a similar list of ideas in his outstanding Fast Food My Way , and it's a wonderful resource in both books. On nights when you just can't come up with ideas for something to cook, but you don't want to settle for a can of soup or a plain old sandwich, these quick recipe ideas are a godsend. I cooked a couple of Donna Hay's "Short Order" recipes (Simple Zucchini Pasta and Garlic Roast Asparagus) and they were excellent. Some of the problems I had with other recipes in the book might be due to Donna Hay using the same quick instructions for all of her recipes, even the ones that need a bit more explication.

There are some very good recipes that work well without any "next time" mutterings: Green Curry Chicken with Sweet Potato and Pasta with Pumpkin and Sage Brown Butter were both very good, and needed no tweaking. Too many other recipes did, however. It's becoming a common refrain from me: I want cookbooks that don't have issues with How, or Next Time, or If.

March 01, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Spicy Chinese Five-Spice-Rubbed Chicken Wings with Creamy Cilantro Dipping Sauce

It's not the pithiest recipe title ever, but it does describe exactly what this dish is. From the Dave Lieberman chapter in Food Network Favorites , these wings are easy to make and very tasty.

Lieberman's instructions call for 40 chicken wing "pieces" or 20 whole chicken wings. If you buy whole wings, you'll have to cut off the wing tips (discard or save for stock), then cut the wings in half at the joint. That's a whole lot more fiddling around with chicken wings than I'm willing to do, so I used "pieces" -- at my market, these are labeled "chicken wing drummettes." I highly recommend using a product similar to this; if you use whole chicken wings, add another 15 minutes or so to the prep time, depending on your knife skills. There were about 12 to 14 drummettes to a package, so I used 3 packages. Between 2 1/2 to 3 pounds of drummettes will suffice for the recipe.

I don't think the recipe makes enough dipping sauce. It claims to yield "about 1 cup," but it was a very scant cup. I've doubled the recipe so that there's no lack of cool sauce to temper the heat of the wings.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Yield: 35 to 40 wings

2 1/2 to 3 pounds chicken wing pieces or drummettes (about 35 to 40 individual wings)
2 Tbsp Chinese five-spice powder
1 Tbsp cayenne pepper
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Creamy Cilantro Dipping Sauce:
2/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup light sour cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup plain yogurt
Juice of 1 lemon
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Place the drummettes in a large bowl. Sprinkle the five-spice powder, cayenne, about 1/2 tsp of salt, and several grinds of black pepper over the wings. Toss the wings with the spices until they are well coated, rubbing the spice mixture into the skin so that no loose rub remains in the bowl.

Line the wings on the baking sheet so that the side with the most skin is facing up. Roast until cooked through and crisp, about 25 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature with Creamy Cilantro Dipping Sauce.

For the sauce: Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix well.




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