In Week Sixteen, I finally had success with ice cream! If you follow me on Instagram, then you know that my first go at ice cream failed miserably. As this week showed me, sometimes there are bad recipes. It takes getting a good one to be reminded that a good recipe is a required first step.
We fired up our Ina Lunches again this week after a break for the holiday. Everything from this week was stunning. There is not one thing on this list that I regretted making, and trying to choose what to summarize proved challenging for this post. If you have questions about anything on this list, I am so happy to tell you my experience and share what I learned.
The unexpected wow factor from this week was the Celery and Parmesan Salad. I think I have told everyone I know about this crazy good salad. I thought it would be terrible (celery salad? really?), but I find myself craving it. I love discovering new and excitingly unexpected winners in the flavor category!
WHAT I COOKED
Lentil and Kielbasa Salad, Cooking for Jeffrey
Perfect Poached Fruit, Parties!
Parmesan and Chipotle Popcorn, Cooking for Jeffrey
Turkey Meatloaf, Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
Parmesan Smashed Potatoes, Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
Roasted Carrots, Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
Beatty’s Chocolate Cake, At Home
WHAT I LEARNED
PROVENCAL VEGETABLE SOUP WITH PISTOU. I am going to use my experience making this soup as a platform from which to preach the gospel of salt. I followed this recipe with exceptional attention to detail. I even used homemade chicken stock. Along the way, the recipe instructs us to add a specific amount of salt, and then at the end says, “Depending on the saltiness of your chicken stock, you may have to add up to a tablespoon more of salt.” I really appreciate this kind of instruction. So I tasted. It was, in fact, very bland. I added the full extra tablespoon of salt, and I tasted again. Still not loving it. At this point, I could have stopped, thinking I had done what the recipe said to do, and this must be the way the soup is supposed to taste, and I guess I don’t like this soup. But I have been cooking for so many years that I knew better. I know the truth about salt and the impact it has on a dish. I have always described salt as the light that turns on the flavors you otherwise can’t see. If you can’t taste the flavors, then you need more light. So I continued to add salt to the soup, half a teaspoon at a time, and eventually this soup came to life. I could taste everything: the onion, the leek, the carrot, potatoes, saffron, the basil tomato paste, the pasta, and the delicious homemade chicken stock. It was all there, waiting to be revealed by the correct amount of salt. This soup was so delicious that I ended up eating two bowls. If I had stopped seasoning when the recipe told me to, I would have barely made it through one bowl. This is the power of seasoning something well. The sad news on the seasoning front is, one size does not fit all. My tongue is not your tongue. My salt is not your salt. My broth is not your broth. There are so many factors at play, so many variables. God bless Ina. She really is doing the best she can to instruct the home cook in the ways of correct seasoning. She is better than most at giving specific salting instructions. But even with her directives, there is lots of room for error. The only way to get this right is to taste your food and choose to engage in the process of active seasoning. Sure, every once in a while you are going to go too far. But then you will know what too far tastes like, and you will stop before you get there next time. A perfectly seasoned bowl of Provencal Vegetable Soup reminded me that the lesson of learning to season a dish well is the difference between success and failure in the kitchen.
OLD FASHIONED BANANA CAKE. Banana bread, as we all know, is basically cake masquerading as a breakfast bread. This recipe takes what we are all thinking (“Isn’t this basically banana cake?”) and turns it into its logical conclusion by slathering the top with cream cheese frosting. Ina’s not afraid to call a spade a spade, and when it comes to this Banana Cake, I applaud her bravery. Every bite was a treat. It was simple to make. And the next day it was still moist and delicious.
SAFFRON RISOTTO WITH BUTTERNUT SQUASH. This is one of our family’s long time standing favorites. My daughter Norah has requested this as her birthday meal for several years running. Like a perfect bowl of Beef Bourguignon, Saffron Risotto with Butternut Squash is best served alone in the bowl with little else alongside. It has everything you want. A base of smoky cubed pancetta. Wine and shallots for depth and acidity. Creamy, perfectly cooked risotto. Roasted butternut squash for sweetness. And a salty pungent bite from an ample helping of Parmesan. Every bite is better than the last. The creaminess of the finished dish comes not from dairy, but from stirring the grains of arborio rice and encouraging it to shed its starch into the bubbling broth while it cooks, creating a base that feels rich and velvety on the tongue. Cooking risotto is not hard, and I think that Ina sums it up best in her note on this recipe. “After the first try, you’ll get the idea.” Once you make risotto, you’ll be hooked, and then you’ll be set and ready to cook risotto and enjoy it with your guests.
ESPRESSO ICE CREAM. After the ice cream debacle from Week One, I regained my footing with the best coffee ice cream I have ever tasted. This ice cream is perfect and infused with deep coffee flavor and a satisfying crunch from the chocolate covered espresso beans. This sounds silly, but it tasted like “real” ice cream. Sometimes homemade ice cream has a quality about it that, though delicious, is sort of a give away that it was not made my professionals. This looked, scooped, and tasted like something you would purchase from the freezer section of your local grocery store, but even better because it was homemade. I love that if desired, you could make this decaffeinated.
PARMESAN AND CHIPOTLE POPCORN. Chipotle chili powder is different from regular chili powder. Chipotles are smoked jalapenos. You may have seen canned chipotle chilies in the thick red adobo sauce. Same idea. If you take smoked jalapenos, dry them, then grind them, you get chipotle chili powder. Its flavor is vastly different from standard chili powder, and it packs a whallop of flavor and (if you’re not careful) heat. This popcorn is so good. It took three minutes to make, and manages to be smoky, salty, crunchy, and buttery in a way that had us scraping up the bits from the bottom of the bowl. This is a perfect game day snack. Perfect cocktail party fare. Or, a perfect anytime staple.
FILET OF BEEF WITH GORGONZOLA. Un-freaking-believable. Best sauce on beef I’ve ever eaten. I served this at an Ina Dinner, and (no exaggeration) every single man in attendance came up to me personally with a bit of a stunned look in their eye to thank me for such a delicious meal. It was stunning.