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Notes from the Test Kitchen

When a Bud Light Just Won’t Do

I love my job, but some days are definitely better than others, and today was one of them. Anyone who knows me, understands my affinity for cocktails, beer, wine, spirits and all incarnations in between, so when Roxanne walked into the kitchen with 10 different Belgian beers to try, I was excited.

There were gueuzes, saisons, lambics, Belgian doubles, and golden ales, and most were from brewers I’d never heard of. After Chris took photos of all of the bottles, they were up for grabs. Five minutes later we had an impromptu tasting party with most of the staff in the kitchen sipping and comparing.

Planning for 2009

With the recipes developed and the food shot, Thanksgiving is officially over in the test kitchen. We’re now turning our focus toward the New Year holiday and ringing in 2009. It’s going to be a fun one because we’re showcasing food and libations from all over the world—literally. Our research has led us to drinks from the South Pacific to bites from the United Kingdom. We’ll be spending the rest of the month toiling away at the details (let’s just say Antarctic sno cones are involved).

For now, we’re still giggling over the oddest cocktail name of all—the duck fart—from Alaska. It’s said to be named for the chortle of approval given by the woman who first tried the drink. We’ll report back shortly once we’ve tried it for ourselves.

Pear-Walnut Tart Is a Big Success

Today we finally finished our Thanksgiving menu photo shoot, and I can honestly say that I am Thanksgivinged-out. But after cooking this menu over, and over, and over, I can also say that it rocks. It’s simple and sophisticated.

The rock star of today’s photo shoot was the pear-walnut tart with maple ice cream. After tweaking and changing the recipe a dozen times, we created the perfect Thanksgiving dessert to impress your guests. Not only is the tart pretty, it is delicious, and the nutty crust pairs perfectly with the maple ice cream.

After the photo shoot was done and the food could (finally) be eaten, the rest of the CHOW team came over and said that the tart was a “raging success.”

Bisque, Elevated

It’s a far distance between a dish that’s adequate and one that’s amazing, and our job is to ensure that CHOW recipes are the latter. Sometimes that means messing with tradition and/or common sense, like with the shrimp bisque we’ve been testing. Traditionally, bisques are soups that get their creamy, smooth texture from puréeing seafood (lobster, crab, or in this case shrimp). They should also be adequately thick and delicious.

Our first test for the recipe looked good on paper, with lots of shrimp for flavor, rice as a thickener, and a final whir in the blender for guaranteed smoothness. When we made it, the result was gritty, chalky, and too thick, but the flavor was promising. Not wanting to mess with the ingredients (except to eighty-six the rice because it was a pain to deal with anyway), we decided to work on the technique. We’re loath to publish recipes that require special equipment unless the payoff is stupendous, and seeing as it wasn’t, we tried to work around the blender step. Then, taking a page from our experience with gumbo where the dish ended up packed with shrimp flavor, we decided to make a stock. Along with a roux as the thickening agent, we came out with a bisque that had the tasters coming back for seconds, and proof that small tweaks can yield great strides.

Smiling on Set Really Does Work

During a recent trip I took with Aïda, I learned all about culinary production for a television cooking show. (I can’t mention the show yet because it hasn’t aired.) Basically, it was my job to assist her and the production team with any task that came up. With an already hectic environment of cameramen, producers, sound technicians, and lighting guys, I was asked to execute several of CHOW’s dishes at the last minute.

While Aïda worked in front of the camera, I ran around—literally—staging
 ingredients and organizing tools, recipes, and props. Between takes, I found myself yelling all sorts of directions to Aïda—“Sauté the onions first!” or “Only the zest in that, no juice!”—just to help her keep the six different recipes straight in her head. And from the show’s veteran food stylist, I was given insight into how impeccable preparation and a good attitude make a 10-hour, backbreaking day flow easier for everyone.

Starving for Decent Food

Seeing as we’re all about food, drink, and fun over here, we try to steer clear of any sort of food snootiness. But every now and then, we find ourselves around subpar food, and our closet food snobs emerge—like when Amy and I recently traveled to suburban Baltimore for work.

Stuck without transportation, and nothing for miles other than the snack corner at our hotel and a lackluster mall across the street, our dining options were slim. So we crossed the four-lane highway and ventured into the mall’s food court. We passed on familiar chain restaurants like Tony Roma’s and Red Robin, and tried one we hadn’t heard of: Don Pablo’s. The server was sweet, the place was cheery, and things started off pretty promising with crisp tortilla chips and freshly made tortillas. But things went downhill when our fajitas arrived. With overcooked meat, too-sweet salsa, and browned guacamole that looked like it had once been in powdered form, we suddenly lost our appetites. We tried our darnedest to enjoy the meal, but even the salad couldn’t cut it with its anemic romaine leaves and insipid tomatoes.

Luckily for us, my classmate from college lives in the area and showed us that you can’t judge a suburban book by its cover by steering us to the local sushi joint, Sushi Ya. For strip-mall sushi, it had fresh fish, creative rolls, and was quite tasty. In fact, the toasted black sesame ice cream almost made up for the scary guac from earlier that day. Almost.

Less Is Definitely More

Today I tested our Truffled Fingerling Smashed Potatoes recipe for the third time. Butter and cream are essential in making the perfect mashed potatoes, but sometimes adding too much of either can result in a side dish that may overpower the main dish. Keeping that in mind, we all decided to cut back on the amount of butter and cream we were previously using. I found that eliminating half the fat from the recipe didn’t really affect the taste or texture of the smashed potatoes. In fact, it actually allowed the truffle flavor to shine through.

Thanksgiving in October

At any festive holiday get-together, the kitchen is the spot to be, and it’s no different at CHOW HQ. Holidays are food, and as they get closer, the vibe in our test kitchen gets a little crazier—especially today. Adela is cooking loads of Thanksgiving food, Chris is taking pictures of it, and Meredith, Eric, and Blake are shooting videos of it. Aïda and I are writing up recipes and styling the food for pictures, the designers are debating which photo sizes to use for their layouts, and the rest of the staff keeps trickling in to sample what we’re cooking—all in our usually peaceful little test kitchen. Just like being around all of your family at once, we eventually drive one another crazy, but at the end of the day, we just have a cocktail.

A Photo Shoot in the Test Kitchen

Today was my first day back at the test kitchen after being on vacation for a few weeks. My first task was to make a pineapple upside-down cake for a photo shoot, and to make it with a CHOW twist, of course.

Instead of using canned pineapple rings, I spread small pieces of fresh pineapple evenly on the base of the cake. That way, when we flipped it upside down, the entire cake would be a nice golden yellow. Sadly, the first cake turned out to be a complete failure because I didn’t read the recipe correctly. I put too much batter in the baking dish, and the middle of the cake collapsed.

The second cake came out a lot better (even though Aida almost dropped it while turning it upside down!), and we were able to get the shot. Success—it’s good to be back.

My Suckling Pig Adventure

It’s always an adventure to shop for the test kitchen. Because the ingredients can get weirder from week to week, it’s almost like trying to find one needle in many haystacks.

This week’s needle: suckling pig for our upcoming holiday menu. Did I mention I only had two days to find one? After striking out in San Francisco’s Chinatown, I thought back to the research I did several weeks prior on local purveyors, and knew just who to call: Bryan’s. Standing in front of a dim sum restaurant, I grabbed my cell phone and placed the order (most of the local butchers, grocers, and wholesalers are programmed into my phone for just this reason). Suckling pig achieved!

Now I just need to find six pounds of cardoons. New week, new needle.