Author Archives: Megan

Top Chef Season 7: Foreign Affairs recap

The Ethiopian Quickfire was fun, and I think Marcus Samuelsson is pretty cool– I’d like to eat at Aquavit or C-House at some point. (Yes, I totally have a Life List of restaurants. Is that weird?) I was so thrilled when Tiffany won, but mostly because she isn’t Angelo. Seriously, shut up, Angelo. There’s no way you’re as great as you think you are.

When the challenge of preparing a dish specific to a given country is revealed (options are Brazil, Mexico, Spain, France, Italy, Japan, China, Thailand, and India– all fairly straightforward, in my opinion), Amanda says she wants to make French food, as she’s spent her whole career studying French food. I can understand feeling particularly confident and at home in a certain cuisine, but (a really big) part of me was completely full of, “So?” Kenny, who is a reasonable person, says that he feels comfortable with the cuisine of each of these countries. Given that they’ll only have Sterno (no ovens, stoves, etc.), I feel like it might be a challenge to prepare, say, and traditional tandoori-type food, or possibly even boil water for pasta (how hot does Sterno get, anyway?). Reason 435348972 that Angelo is annoying? “Growing up, my parents were very big into expanding our palates, so I was exposed to a many different types of cuisine.” La dee fricking da.

Knife selections shake out as follows:

  • Tiffany – Mexico (makes chicken tamales with radish pico de gallo)
  • Kelly – Italy (makes beef carpaccio with a shaved spring vegetable salad)
  • (effing) Amanda – France (makes boeuf bourguignon with pommes fourchette and horseradish mousse– and she says it with a big accent so we know she’s So Super Serious about French Cuisine, Y’all)
  • Kenny – Thailand (makes tamarind-braised pork with a rice-noodle salad and Thai green curry)
  • Alex – Spain (makes braised veal with a red wine sauce, olive salad, and torta)
  • Angelo – Japan (makes sashimi of tuna ribbons with avocado and candied wasabi)
  • Kevin – India (makes stewed chicken with curry, parsnip and leek puree, cucumber-mango salad, and lentils)
  • Ed – China (makes tea smoked duck breast and crispy potstickers)
  • Stephen – Brazil (makes marinated flank steak with chimichurri, pork beans and rice)

(Confession: there are still about three chefs whose names I don’t know right away and had to look up. This would not have happened last season, when they were arguably the most talented cohort to appear on Top Chef. Sigh.)

They shop, with a budget of $200 each at Whole Foods…for 100 people? How is that even going to work?

Kevin has never made Indian food? Really? Come on, dude. At least he’s using fenugreek and other seemingly appropriate flavors. During prep, a surprising (to me) amount of other chefs admit some degree of ignorance about the cuisine they’ve chosen/been assigned (uh, Ed, having had a Chinese girlfriend doesn’t necessarily make you an expert). Is it that they only get training on specific cuisine, and then go on to work in restaurants that make certain types of food? That makes sense, but I have to imagine that there is at least some individual experimentation or awareness of other cuisines…right?

Tom comes in to check in wth everyone, and we learn that Tiffany is determined to make her tamales meaty and Kevin is a little worried that Padma will be extra-tough because she’s Indian. Oh, and after the commercial, we learn that Kenny has opened a Thai/Pan-Asian restaurant. I’m going to go ahead and say that he’s going to be at or near the top…

Kevin talks to his kid and his pregnant wife, which marks him as Maybe Going Home. But then Kelly gets a care package from her husband, so maybe it’s her! God, why doesn’t anyone call Amanda or send her stuff? Oh, and let’s not forget that, apparently, Alex is such a “spaz” in the kitchen that the call-in survey question is about his clumsiness.

They set up to serve the diplomats, and I have a couple thoughts. First, what sort of quality are the judges expecting in this Costco-sample-style serving situation? Sterno can only do so much. Second, hahahahaaaaa, Amanda’s beef is dry. Suck it, Amanda. Alex, who previously mentioned that he was going to have exactly 107 portions, eats two of his tortas and is down to 105– hope that’s not too important. Tiffany scrambles to finish her prep, and then it’s time to serve!

Judging works out as follows (with José Andrés as the guest judge, and Marcus Samuelsson sticking around to taste everything):

  • Top three are Kelly, Kevin (wow, surprise! Good job, Kevin), and Tiffany. Tiffany wins, for her extra-meaty tamales, and also gets $10k that she says she’ll be using for her wedding. Yay, Tiffany!
  • Bottom three are Alex, Stephen (ouch, José, “a little nightmare”?), and Ed. Despite all the harping on Alex’s klutziness, Stephen is eliminated. Oh well, it’s not like I remembered his name this week, anyway.

Next week: Restaurant Wars! Will we finally be rid of Amanda? Will Angelo continue to be creepy? Will I write another recap?

Programming note – Top Chef: Just Desserts begins on September 15th! So excited.


Rustic Spanakopita-style Tart

Sometimes it seems as though some of my favorite recipes are either born out of impatience with an original recipe (I have to do allllll these steps? Really?) or sheer disaster that arises from an ingredient or process that blindsides me with its idiosyncrasies. A good example of this is phyllo– I’ve worked with it before, and knew, just knew that it required a lot of attention, adequate defrosting, the right level of moisture, etc. And yet! And yet, when I was getting ready to put together the Cook’s Illustrated version of a spanakopita pie, complete with authentic phyllo, I ignored everything that I knew. Who can say why this happened, but in the end I was left with a delicious filling…and disintegrating phyllo.

Here, though, is where my genius mother came to the rescue! “Why not just put a pie crust under it?” I tell you, the woman is a superhero. The following recipe is the closest thing to a perfected version of the spanakopita-style tart that resulted from her idea, with a few more tweaks to the original (already pretty perfect) Cook’s Illustrated recipe.

Rustic Spanakopita-style Tart
adapted from Entertaining from Cook’s Illustrated, Spring 2009

8 oz crumbled feta cheese
4 oz grated aged Myzithra cheese [If you can’t find it, sub a bit more feta.]
8-10 oz ricotta cheese
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
1-2 tbs dried dill [I’ve always used dried, but I think that fresh dill would be nice as well– maybe even better! If using fresh dill, use about 1/3 cup.]
juice from 1 lemon
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press
pinch of nutmeg
1/8 tsp black pepper
2 (10-ounce) packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and dried [Really, really squeeze all the moisture that you can out of the spinach. You don’t want to end up with a sad, soggy little tart.]

For the crust, I have (shamefully, yes) used store-bought pie crust (I recommend Trader Joe’s all-butter), but I’ve also made and used a double-batch of Orangette’s pie crust (with delicious results). So, really, it’s up to you. All that filling has to have something to sit on!

Mix all ingredients except spinach in a large bowl. Add spinach and stir until uniform.

Roll out the pie crust into a large rectangle (about the size of whatever sheet pan you’re using) and place it on an ungreased sheet pan.

Spread the filling over the crust– you can go pretty close to the edges, as there will be little to no spreading or leakage.

Bake in a 425-degree oven for about 30 minutes, until crust is golden brown.

Throw-It-Together Tuesday: Chipotle Mac and Cheese

Here is the series of events that led to tonight’s meal:

  1. I finally took my leaking-coolant-to-the-point-of-nearly-overheating car to the shop. Because I am a fool, I own a German car. Because repairing German cars (or, really any European cars– the in-laws have Saabs and many similar tales of woe) is expensive, ye olde bank account is, well…depleted.
  2. I got an official rejection letter from a recruiter I’d been talking to about a writer/researcher job (that was full-time telecommuting!), which didn’t lessen my job-hunting anxiety in any way.
  3. I’ve been watching a lot of Two Fat Ladies, and those broads do not shy away from the cheese, cream, butter, and oil.
  4. This recipe from Rainy Day Gal has been haunting me since it came up in my Reader. The minute I saw it, I knew it had to be mine! I also knew that, given some digestive challenges on the part of the husband, I would be on my own in eating it.
  5. I had a few chipotles left in the fridge after an only-semi-successful (read: not blog-worthy in its current form slow-cooker carnitas experiment.

And so, I give you…

Chipotle Mac and Cheese
adapted from Rainy Day Gal and Homesick Texan

2 cups dry elbow pasta (macaroni)
3 cups grated cheese (mix of cheddar, jack, pepper jack, and the like), plus more for sprinkling
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce
1 clove garlic
1 dash cumin
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup bread crumbs

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Grease a 9-inch cast-iron skillet or a 9-inch square or round baking pan with cooking spray. Add the dry pasta. [You don’t even have to cook the pasta first! Genius!]

In a blender, mix together the cream, ricotta, shredded cheese, chipotle chile, garlic, cumin, salt and black pepper until it’s smooth. Pour mixture over dry pasta and stir until sauce is evenly distributed. [What’s that? No cooking a bechamel on the stove first? Hah!]

Stir cheese/cream/spice mix into pasta, sprinkle with a little remaining shredded cheese and bread crumbs.

Cover the pan with foil and bake for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, remove the foil and cook for another 25 minutes uncovered or until brown and bubbling.

Remove from oven and serve.

I'm in ur arteries, rasin' ur cholesterol.

Lo, comfort food! I mean, someday I’ll have a Real Librarian Job and enough money to pay for maintenance of a German automobile (although I’m thinking the next car I own will be Asian), but in the meantime…at least there’s this mac and cheese.

2 cups dry elbow pasta (macaroni)
3 cups grated cheese (mix of cheddar, jack, pepper jack, and the like), plus more for sprinkling
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce (I use Embasa brand cans that can be found on the Hispanic food aisle)
1 clove garlic
1 dash cumin
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup bread crumbs

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Grease a 9-inch cast-iron skillet or a 9-inch square or round baking pan with cooking spray. Add the dry pasta.

In a blender or with a hand blender, mix together the cream, ricotta, shredded cheese, chipotle chile, garlic, cumin, salt and black pepper until it’s smooth. Pour mixture over dry pasta and stir until sauce is evenly distributed.

Stir cheese/cream/spice mix into pasta, sprinkle with a little remaining shredded cheese and bread crumbs.

Cover the pan with foil and bake for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, remove the foil and cook for another 25 minutes uncovered or until brown and bubbling.

Remove from oven and serve.

Zucchini fritters

Zucchini has been a recent obsession in our house– it began innocently enough, with a little salt, pepper, and olive oil under the broiler, but then quickly escalated to a zucchini pesto pasta dish and, yes, these fried little cakes. Who am I to resist the making of the cute little patties, the frying, and the cheese? Oh yes, the cheese. Funnily enough, the recipe that I decided to use as the basis for this little experiment comes from a blog called The Skinny Chef…

Zucchini Fritters
adapted from Skinny Chef
makes about 8 fritters

1 pound zucchini, stems removed (about 4 medium)
1 egg lightly beaten
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp dried dill (optional)
1/8-1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine all of the ingredients except for the zucchini in a large bowl. Whisk to form a batter, removing large lumps, about 1-2 minutes. Grate the zucchini and add it to the bowl. The moisture from the zucchini will produce a thick batter as you stir [you may not believe this at first, but it’s true! Those zucchini are packed with moisture!]. Use the batter immediately [as in, before it becomes unmanageably soggy].

Heat olive or canola oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Using a 1/4-cup measure, pour out 3-4 cakes. [If you’re not incredibly, madly in love with your measuring cups, I highly recommend these. They’re hefty and truly wonderful for baking.]

Cook 2-3 minutes on each side until lightly browned. Drain on paper towel.

These were pretty tasty as is, but here are two changes I might make in the future: first, maybe lessen the amount of Parmesan (this sounds insane, I know, but I think the zucchini flavor might shine a little more with a reduced amount of cheese). Also, I think some breadcrumbs might lend a crunch that was definitely missing, despite the nice browning that happened (also, I could see how someone called The Skinny Chef might shy away from adding any carbs to this dish). Given that the batter really was just that– batter– dredging with eggs, flour, and the lot would be a little challenging, but maybe there’s a way around this. Let me know if you find one!

Thomas Keller Oreos with peanut butter ganache

These cookies represent a convergence of two truly miraculous recipes– hang on, of course I’ll tell you. First, what seems like a bajillion years ago, I had a Super Bowl party, the highlight of which was probably a delivery by a thoughtful friend from Bouchon Bakery of macarons and Thomas Keller Oreos (the lowlight, if you’re interested, is documented here). Still intimidated by the idea of creating macarons at home, I was determined to find a recipe for those Oreos, so that I could enjoy the chocolate-y, wafer-y goodness whenever  I wanted. Of course, the internets had exactly what I needed, and I also happened to have a good amount of peanut butter ganache left over from a cupcake experiment about a week earlier. And so, given the Scientific Fact that chocolate + peanut butter = OMG I want to eat all of this right now, I knew what I had to do:

THIS. I didn’t have a small cutter, and ended up with absolutely enormous cookies, but the best part about this dough is that it seems to be endlessly variable, shape-wise. So get seasonal! Certainly there is some sort of Uncle Sam cookie cutter that I can use for the 4th, right?

Thomas Keller Oreos (recipe from GraceNotes NYC)

makes about 3 dozen sandwich cookies

1 1/2 cups plus 3 Tbsp all purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp salt
15 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into 3/4″ cubes, at room temperature

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and salt, and mix on low speed (Note: make sure your bowl is big enough so everything doesn’t splatter!)

With the mixer running, add the butter, a piece at a time.

The mixture will be dry and sandy at first, but over 2 minutes, will form pebble-sie pieces that start to cling together. Stop the mixer and transfer the dough to your board.

Preheat oven to 350F. Separate dough into 2 pieces. Roll each piece of dough between 2 pieces of plastic wrap or parchment paper to 1/8″ inch thick. Using the cutter of your choice, cut into rounds. Scraps can be pieced together and rolled out again. Place 1/2″ apart on baking sheets lined with Silpat liners or parchment paper.

Bake for 12-15 minutes, rotating halfway through baking. Remove and cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer cookies to a cooling rack. Cool completely.

Peanut Butter Ganache Filling (from the Crazy for Cupcakes cookbook)
(Note: the original recipe was for “peanut butter frosting,” but based on the texture of the finished product, I’m going to go ahead and call it ganache. Feel free to disagree, but you’d totally be wrong.)

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
4 tablespoons water
1 1/3 cups smooth or crunchy peanut butter
2 tablespoons vanilla extract


In a saucepan over high heat, bring the butter, brown sugar, and water to a boil and continue to boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Stir in the peanut butter and vanilla and beat until smooth. The finished product will be pretty runny, so you can leave it out to firm up at room temperature, or pop it into the fridge to speed things up.

(Another note: this recipes yields a crazy amount of ganache. You could easily half it and have enough for the cookies, but the leftovers are nice with ice cream…or a sneaky teaspoon here and there.)

High fives all around for Michael Ruhlman!

A short break from our regular programming– for an awesome video in which author and chef Michael Ruhlman dismisses claims that Americans are “too busy to cook.” Can I get an amen?

Avgolemono – Greek lemon soup

Last weekend, we took a trip to Yosemite. It was my second time there and Greg’s first, and I can confidently say that we left every shred of our will to climb right there on those hiking trails– we averaged about 5-7 miles per day, and easily a couple thousand feet of elevation over the three hikes we took. The downside of this, besides having every muscle from one’s waist down absolutely screaming in agony (it’s tough to go from watching tv and eating Pringles to hiking up ridiculous mountains), is that somewhere in the midst of the hiking, the chilly night temperatures, and generally running ourselves ragged over the course of our four-day trip, someone managed to contract a nasty cold. Armed with both of the ‘quils (Day- and Ny-), he attacked that cold, and I figured the least I could contribute (besides rolling out the garbage cans for trash pickup day) would be some soup. Now, I am all for chicken noodle, and even keep a box of the Manischewitz matzo ball mix on hand (probably a travesty of matzo ball soup, but I got hooked in college and can’t give it up), but my go-to sick-busting soup is avgolemono, or Greek lemon. I have searched high and low for just the right combination of eggs, orzo pasta or rice, and lemon juice, and while a local diner makes my absolute favorite version of this, I think that I’ve just about hit on the right homemade version for nights when a trip to the diner (which only serves breakfast and lunch– for shame!) isn’t possible.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 quart chicken broth, preferably homemade [But who am I kidding? I usually use those little concentrate packets from Trader Joe’s. They’re pretty potent, though, so use only three of them to make a quart of broth– it will be plenty chicken-y.]
½ cup orzo or long grain rice [Choose orzo. Trust me on this one. It gets all soft and melty in the soup, and you will want to crawl right into the bowl.]
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon) [Adjust to taste.]
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons chopped dill or parsley [I’ve used dried dill– remember when using dried spices to cut the amount by 1/2 to 1/3!]
2 chicken breasts
2-4 cloves of garlic, minced or run through a garlic press [Depending on how garlicky you want your soup to be, of course. Remember, garlic has immune-system benefits!]

Cut chicken breasts into about 3/4-inch chunks, and season with salt and pepper [I’ve also added the dried dill at this point to, in order to help with the whole “layering of flavors” thing.] Pour olive oil into a large saucepan and heat over a medium-high burner. Add the chicken and cook until the outside is done, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Pour in the chicken broth and bring it to a boil. Add orzo; cover, reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes, or until orzo is al dente. (If using rice, add another cup of chicken broth. Simmer according to package directions, or until grains are tender.)

While the orzo is simmering away, beat eggs in a medium bowl until thick. Whisk in lemon juice and zest. Gradually add ½ cup hot broth from saucepan, whisking constantly. Add 2 more ½ cups of broth, whisking after each addition.

Pour mixture back into saucepan and reheat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until egg cooks and soup slightly thickens. Do not boil, or eggs will curdle. Add salt and pepper to taste, then sprinkle with dill or parsley. Serve hot or cold.

Update: The soup worked (and the ‘quils might have had a hand in it, too)– so take heart, friends! It is tasty and will cure what ails you.