Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cook Club: Cooking Up a Storm

Crab Bisque

Highest Scoring Dishes:  Crab Bisque (above), Bon Ton Bread Pudding, and Warm Potato Salad
Lowest Scoring Dish: Baked Rice Pudding  

In celebration of Mardi Gras (and as it so happened, the celebration of the New Orleans Saints Superbowl win!), January/February Cook Club focused on the cookbook COOKING UP A STORM: Recipes Lost and Found from the Times-Picayune of New Orleans.  Our Cook Club NOLA-alum, Anjali, selected this cookbook for us this round and it promised to be a good one.  This cookbook, chockful of recipes for nearly any occasion, was created after Hurricane Katrina as New Orleans residents began rebuilding their lives.  The Times-Picayune of New Orleans became a "post-hurricane swapping place for old recipes that were washed away in the storm."  I was so excited about this cookbook that I actually bought one for myself -- and I'm glad I did.  All the recipes come with an anecdote, giving you an insider glimpse into the back story of each recipe -- who requested it, who had it, where it came from, and so forth.

Below are all of our reviews of our dishes!  This is only a small subset of the over 250 recipes in the cookbook, so I hope this encourages you to try it out for yourself.


Crab BisqueAmanda's Crab Bisque
Score: 4.8
I made the bisque the night before, (despite the fact that the recipe recommended serving it immediately) which turned out to be a good decision. What was a bland, so-so soup turned out to be a very flavorful, nicely spiced starter to our meal. The recipe was very easy to follow and make. There was relatively little chopping and prep work, which was nice. I was also excited to make a roux for the first time ever! The only thing that I changed was the amount of black pepper and needed a lot more in my opinion! This was a crowd favorite at the dinner party. I saved the leftovers for my friend Tiffany, who could not be there...she said it best: "I was going to eat some for dinner, and save the rest for the next day, but before I realized it, the soup was all gone!" A definite success, in my opinion...I will be making this recipe again in the near future.

Stuffed PeppersAmanda's Cafe Degas Stuffed Peppers
Score: 4.25 (Amanda's Score = 4.5, Anjali's Score = 4.0)

Anjali, Lisa H, and I threw our dinner party on a Friday night, which was a good idea in theory, but meant that I was extremely tired from the week, and also explains why I chose to cut the peppers in half instead of leaving them whole for stuffing...duh! I very diligently cut and seeded all of the red peppers that evening, then realized my goof. I had no time to get more peppers, and had no idea what to do with nine pepper halves, so I worked with what I had. This silly mistake turned out to be a good decision, as the peppers were quite large, and probably would have been too much to eat whole with all of the other yummy food we had. The stuffing was fairly easy to assemble and had several of my favorite things...goat cheese, spinach, and walnuts, not to mention other tasty ingredients! The recipe also called for kale, which I was not able to find at the Tom Thumb I frequent, so I decided to wing it with extra fresh spinach instead of making trips to other stores. Despite the last minute modifications, the peppers turned out great, and were a hit at the dinner party. This recipe is a keeper! (Anjali also rated this dish with a 4.0)

Blue Cheese Puffs Jackie's Blue-Cheese Puffs
Score: 4 

The blue cheesy puffs were certainly a popular selection!  I managed to lock them up though and was excited to try these.  In the past year, I've been making quite a few dishes out of blue cheese (a certain blue cheese souffle comes to mind, mmmm.), so I was excited to try these out.  The little story that went along with it recommended doubling the batch if you're throwing a party because these would surely fly off the plate.  And even though there were only two of us eating them, they did fly ... into our mouths.  I've actually tried to make cheese puffs before and failed miserably -- those puffs deflated and basically tasted rubbery.  But these were light and airy -- the blue cheese wasn't too overpowering (although our house did smell like blue cheese for awhile afterwards) and reminded me of gougeres that I've had at restaurants.  We paired the last several blue cheese puffs with hot sauce -- reminded us of buffalo wings with blue cheese...but without the chicken of course :).  Definitely will make these again!

Lisa H's Artichoke and Oyster Casserole
Score: 3.625 (Lisa's Score = 3, Anjali's Score = 4.25)

For our party (thrown by Anjali, Amanda, and I), we actually made the appetizer of the casserole. I used phyllo shells and the crispy/flaky was good. I used two cans of artichokes and took off the leaves then put them in the food processor instead of fresh. I have never cooked with oysters and didn't realize they come in different sizes (something important to know prior to cooking with oysters;-).  The recipe called for 6 dozen oysters, I used 20 large oysters and cut them up. When making the recipe you need to look at the size of the oysters or I think you might get too much oyster.

I would rate this recipe 3/5, because of the large amount of anxiety I had prior to and while making this recipe. As a side note, I don't know that I have ever had anxiety prior to making anything. The appetizers had a great flavor and everyone seemed to like them. I would make this again. (Miss Anjali also scored this one!  This one for her got a 4.25)


Shrimp CreoleAnjali's Shrimp Creole
Score: 3.75 (Day of results = 3.5; Next day results = 4.0)

So this was pretty much the cookbook's version of a tomato-based shrimp etoufee (check out my Where in the World Wednesday NOLA edition here for more info!).  While I prefer the cream-based etoufee, I wanted to try the healthier kind! The recipe was very straightforward and easy to understand. My critique? Make this the night before!  I made the base several hours before my guests arrived and put the shrimp in just before serving, to avoid them getting tough.  The results were good. BUT, the leftovers the next day were amazing! Serve over rice and with an Abita. ;)

Becca's Meaty Gumbo Over Warm Potato Salad
Meaty Gumbo Score = 3.5
Warm Potato Salad = 5

I made the meaty gumbo over warm potato salad.  The gumbo contained lots of yummy (and hearty) ingredients, including ham, chicken, andouille sausage and pork sausage.  The original recipe called for a whole chicken to be split into cooking pieces, but I am not that savvy so I bought a split breast and two bone-in skin on chicken thighs.  The cooking process wasn't terribly complicated, but there were a lot of steps.  I had to brown the chicken in batches because my dutch oven wasn't big enough for a whole bird, so I just chopped up the veggies while that was cooking.  Once everything was in the pot, all I had to do was let it sit (and fill the house with yummy smells).

The potato salad was also pretty simple.  I had a hard time finding creole seasoning in my grocery store, so I made my own based on a recipe I found online (from Emeril Lagasse I believe).  Though I must confess I didn't write it down, I can say it was basically paprika, garlic powder, salt and pepper, cayenne, thyme and oregano.  I didn't have any onion powder on hand, but I don't think the dish suffered.  The genius thing is, you boil the potatoes in the creole seasoning (I cut them into bite size pieces first, though I think the recipe calls for boiling them whole - I like my way, maximum seasoning!).  After that just add celery, celery salt, a little mayo, grainy mustard and eggs.  The potato salad was really yummy on its own, nice and spicy, and when mixed with the gumbo, added a nice creaminess.

I would recommend giving this dish a shot, especially if you're, say, snowed in when DC is randomly getting 3 feet of snow...  I don't know if I would bother with the whole chicken (or the bone in parts even) because the gumbo is rich enough with all the other meats I don't think the chicken skin & bones add much other than the need to pull out skin & bones before you serve it.  This would be great for a non-vegetarian winter gathering.

Shrimp & GritsJackie's Shrimp & Grits
Score: 3.5

I was at a bit of a loss when I saw all the wonderfully tasty sounding dishes up for grabs in this cookbook.  So I put together a list of dishes that I wanted to make and sent them to Mr. J for him to pick out a dish for us ... and his selection was shrimp & grits!  I was excited to try this out because I loooove shrimp and grits, but have never made it myself.  This was quite easy to make, but took some time.  I wasn't expecting to put this dish in the oven, almost like a rectangular casserole --  the grits reminded me of sliced polenta instead of the creamy grits I've had in previous shrimp & grits dishes.  I really enjoyed the flavor of the grits though -- made simply with chicken broth and Parmesan cheese, they were savory but not overpowering.  The shrimp had a great flavor too, although I think next time, I would try to make more of a sauce to pour over the shrimp and the grits as they are baking together.


Crawfish BreadAnjali's "Jerry's Crawfish Bread"
Score: 4.5

I have had my share of crawfish bread when I lived in NOLA, and I always loved it, so I thought having this in my arsenal would be a good idea. Unfortunately, I am not a baker, so it made me very nervous!  The base of this dish was again very straightforward.  It was the construction, with putting the filling into the bread and then carefully closing it and putting it into the oven that was a little difficult! The dish calls for cream cheese, presumably to make the filling thicker, but I think the water from the vegetables still made it runny. Plus, I used a more natural version of cream cheese, so maybe this affected the texture?  Either way, once this finally came out of the oven, it smelled amazing and was a hit at the party! Add a little extra hot sauce for a nice little kick. :)


Praline CookiesAmanda's Praline Cookies
Score: 3.65 (Amanda's Score = 3.8 and Anjali's Score = 3.5)

I'm not sure where my thought processes were when I was grocery shopping for this cook club, but they were clearly absent (see stuffed pepper review). The recipe called for pecans, which I quickly grabbed while shopping a few nights before our dinner party. I got home and realized that yes, I purchased pecans, but they were olive oil and sea salt roasted (quite yummy, but not for pralines). Yikes! I called Anjali in a panic, and she saved the day with regular pecans. Once my pecan issue was solved, I quickly assembled the cookies. The recipe was very simple, and required few ingredients. The final product was good, but I was expecting the cookies to be a little more...something. Sweeter maybe? Perhaps I had higher expectations because I love pralines, so I wanted these to be similar. As a cookie lover, I'm sure I will make these again in the future.  (Miss Anjali also scored this dish with a 3.5)

Baked Rice PuddingBana's Baked Rice Pudding
Score: 1

Can I give this recipe a negative score?  Because, truly, this was the saddest excuse for a rice pudding recipe I've ever encountered.  Rice pudding is one of my favorite desserts and there are two basic ways to make it - baking or boiling.  As it turns out, I much prefer the boiling method (the only way I've made it up until this failed experiment).  The flavor itself was lacking and the pudding never really set, resulting in a semi-sweet rice soup, as opposed to a creamy custard.  For the first time in a long time (maybe ever?), I can say that I definitely won't be trying this recipe again.

Elaine's Eggnog Bread Pudding with Rum Sauce 
Score: 2

I am used to bread puddings that are much thicker than this recipe (maybe it's English Bread Pudding vs American? not sure) so I would definitely double the recipe next time but use the same size dish. I soaked the raisins before baking in the hopes that they wouldn't dry out like rocks in the oven (this usually works when I make oatmeal raisin cookies) but that didn't work. The flavor of the pudding was good and not too sweet but there just wasn't enough of the pudding to have a creamy bottom and a crusty top. Next time, I would also maybe try cutting the bread up in smaller chunks instead of just halving the bread slices and overlapping them according to recipe. For the rum sauce, the recipe called for corn syrup but in the UK they have golden syrup so I used that instead. The resulting sauce wasn't very rummy but very sweet so maybe next time I'll use one big glug of rum instead of 2 tbsps!

Bon Ton Bread PuddingLisa H's Bon Ton Bread Pudding
Score: 4.75 (Lisa's score = 4.5; Anjali's score = 5)

I changed some things in this recipe as well. I added an additional two egg yolks and combined all of the wet ingredients together. I combined the wet ingredients because I was worried the milk and egg solution would not combine. I also added an additional 2 cups of bread. When making bread pudding I think it should be soupy, but not all custard and there was a little too much wet so I added the extra bread. So, I would 'eye' it. The pudding baked up well with crispy on the top and soft on the bottom.

Moving on to the Whiskey Sauce. I made the sugar/butter mixture three times because the sugar would not dissolve as the recipe instructed.   I totally abandon the double boiler, because it didn't seem to get warm enough. The third attempt I decided to try to go ahead with the recipe and see how that went was perfect.

I would rate this a 4.5/5. I liked this and I think everyone else did too. I would make this again. (Miss Anjali also rated this dish and gave it a big 5 (with lots of exclamation points, hee hee))

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