the week of cooking averagely

The thing with having such a delightful run of flawless dishes is that you forget about the ever-present likelihood of hitting a dud, or perhaps three. I seem to have lost my kitchen kavorka this week, but in an effort to move past these fiascos, I hope you don’t mind if I air them out, in no particular order.

  • Dried White Beans from Garden of Eden — Shame on you, otherwise charming and reliable grocery store! I thought they looked a little flaky-skinned when I soaked them, a typical sign of being past their prime, but figuring I had nothing to lose, forged ahead. The truth is that simmering them for what became over three hours, going back frequently to taste them and still finding them hard and sand-like before finally calling it quits and throwing them in the trash was exhausting in the end, utterly disappointing, and that is something lost. Though our apartment did smell beany and wonderful for a while, my daydream of a white bean, cubed black bread, green onion and torn radicchio salad will have to wait for my patience to recover, as well a less shameful bean supply to cross my path.
  • Caramelized Leek Soup — How could this possibly go wrong? First, you caramelize leeks in butter for 45 minutes, deglaze with vermouth for 10, braise them in a small amount of stock for another 10 and then add the rest of the broth. This is well over an hour of labor, mind you, and for what? A flavorless, ugly soup (because the leeks browned, but only partly) that tasted like boiled chicken-y lettuce with no depth whatsoever. Hefty pinches of salt and pepper failed to save it. It’s crushing the way the a recipe reminiscent of something so transcendent can fall so flat.
  • Risotto Fritters — Am I incompetent? Isn’t the oldest trick in the book to form leftover risotto into little fritters, perhaps as a bedding for a fish or meat dish? They wouldn’t come together. Was my awesome risotto too awesomely creamy? Had I stirred too dutifully? (Really, it was barely stale two days later, which should make us question why I was fritter-ing them in the first place. Ah, right — variety.) I had considered myself a quality fritter fryer before this. Feh!

caramelglory be

In fact, about the only think keeping me from packing away my measuring spoons and spice tins and hiding out in takeout Pad Thai-Land for the rest of eternity is Orangette’s Tarte Tatin, which I made on Sunday night. In a slight variation from others I have bookmarked, she has you create a tearfully delicious caramel in the bottom of your (newly reseasoned) cast-iron pan, and then simmer the apples in it before tucking a circle of puffed pastry into the edges and slipping it into the oven. I especially love her suggestion to quarter the apples but give them a flat inner edge so the final dish appears as inviting as a pebble stone path when you upend it on a plate. That mine looked even halfway as pretty as hers (they’re pretty much my favorite pictures she has ever taken) filled me with an elation that brought my fragile cooking ego comfort through flaky beans, mushy risotto cakes and caramelized leek soup that felt closer to a punishment dinner. Thank you, Molly!

didn't even bother to clean the counter

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44 comments on the week of cooking averagely

  1. When I was down in SD recovering from my tonsillectomy, my parents and I experimented with risotto fritters and had the same problem. Ours needed some kind of binding. What, I have no idea.

  2. Madina

    Hi Deb, love your blog! Quick question here. What brand/size of the cast iron pan do you use? I’m considering Lodge pre-seasoned, but can’t decide between the 10 inch or the 12 inch one.

    Thanks for putting up a great blog, all of your recipes really work.

  3. deb

    Hilary — I was wondering if maybe a beaten egg mixed in would have worked, as it is what pulls fritters together, but I decided to instead bitch and moan that it wasn’t working and do nothing about it. PMS? Not me!

    Madina — I actually have a 12-inch, too, but this above is technically an 8-inch diameter, 2 quart lodge pot with a lid. I kind of wish I’d skipped the 12″, which is heavy, huge and used very infrequently (but that’s just me and my small-quantity cooking), and just bought a 9″ or 10″ in the first place. However, this pot, with a tiny lid, is perfect for almost anything. And cute, to boot.

  4. deb

    Jen — Get boxes from a local bakery for each cake layer, bring an extra tub of frosting, piping bag, icing spatula, and assemble it on-site. If you can, ice the whole thing there. Oh, and make a mini test cake ASAP, so you know it all goes together okay. Good luck!

  5. First…you should never worry if you have an off week, it happens to everyone (even Rachael Ray)! Also, you can blame it on the weather. If everything else is to be manipulated by Global Warming, why not the beans, leeks and risotto?

    Second…I shouldn’t look at your blog right before I start to cook dinner. It’s not fair to my eyes, mouth, hands and stomach. Now I need to get a cast iron skillet. My mom won’t let me steal hers, since it was my paternal grandmother’s. But, it’s already perfectly seasoned after 60 years of being cooked in.

  6. The tarte is brilliant, such simple ingredients with a lovely result. As for the arancini, perhaps your risotto was a bit too chock full? I use egg and bread crumbs as a binder (like this recipe), otherwise they fall apart.

  7. I giggled at “How could this possibly go wrong?” : ) Because I can think of so many things to go wrong with leeks. I actually don’t like them that much. I always burn them, and they tend to be stringy with an unpleasant paper-like texture for me. There are so many leek based soups but I just never enjoy them.

    That caramelized apple dish looks glorious. When I saw the picture, I thought: Apricots!! Suggestion for the risotto fritters: add a little bit of flour or something starchy to them as a binder and maybe stir in an egg. I’ve also found that forming them when they’re cold and then coating them in flour or breadcrumbs helps, with some very, very careful browning and turning in the pan. I agree they tend to fall apart. Also, I’ve never done this, but I’ve been dreaming of putting lots of butter in tiny individual serving ovenproof bowls, sprinkle with cheese then risotto, and then crisping up a nice, thick crust in the oven. Mmmmm.

  8. As I said over on flickr – gah, I’m so redundant – that is one GORGEOUS tarte, Deb! I’m so honored to have been the one to stop you from buying a one-way ticket to takeout Pad Thai-Land. I’m blushing! You did my tarte proud.

  9. Hey Deb,

    Longtime reader here who’s never commented on your brilliant and engaging writing. I am addicted to your site….

    Next time your beans won’t get tender on you, you can add a bit of baking soda, a tablespoon or two depending on quantity. If you have Harold McGee’s tome, you can read up on why this works. I’ve never had it fail me, though in my dozens of pots of beans, I have to admit, I’ve been so frustrated at times that I forgot about this trick. Also, you can try soaking the beans for longer, or in a warmer place. I find that a cold kitchen overnight is often not long enough. You can soak them for a longer while than you think, even to the point that they get foamy and start to smell off; you just drain and rinse VERY well before adding fresh water (not that you need to take it to that point, but sometimes we forget about our beans…). Also, always remember to drain soaked beans, rinse well, and cook in fresh water. You won’t be disappointed ever again once you’ve got more experience.
    Keep at it! :)

    (And as an aside, if you would tell e what font you use here, I would be eternally grateful. I just built myself a website and have not had luck in finding a readable font for long posts.)

  10. Deb, let me be the first to just say thanks for owning up to some failures. It bugs anyone who cooks when something goes wrong. And for those of us who blog about food, it’s so much more aggravating. One of the worst kitchen injuries I’ve come up against isn’t cuts or burns; its bruises to my ego.

  11. Maybe we should all post more about the horrible things we make in between the things that turn out well. I had a big miss today when I thought it would be a great idea to top a sweet, delicate, quivering raspberry gelee with a layer of dark chocolate mousse. Total disaster. The gelee may as well have not even been there, it was so overpowered by the intense chocolate flavor. And I had such high hopes! I am comforted by the idea that even the Smitten Kitchen has off weeks!

  12. Ian

    Hey, Deb. I just started reading a few weeks ago (I followed the link from Wednesday Chef, I think), and your site’s a great way to distract myself from actually doing my own work!
    Anyway, I adapted the tarte tatin receipe from Orangette a while ago, and it came out beautifully. The only problem was that we have one large cast iron pan, and use it to cook everything… and a good 99% of what we make involves a first step of “saute onions.” The result, of course, was a taste combinaton of caramelized apple and caramelized onion.
    Do you (or anyone else) have any idea how to get the lingering onion taste out of cast iron, short of scouring it down and reseasoning? Would that even do it?

  13. 2

    with beans like that you could try bringing to a boil post soak, turning the heat off and letting them sit again for a few more hours before you cook them. should do it.

  14. Ok, I’m gonna so try Molly’s tatin now – and I’ve also bookmarked the leek soup recipe, as I’ve got loads of leeks in the fridge now. Pleased to hear that Molly’s cake has saved your cooking week – I enjoy coming to your blog and reading about your cooking, so I would have missed you had you indeed gone the take-away route!

  15. Hi, just stumbled across your site and find it great! I hate days when you feel unsatisfied with your cooking, although I bet everyone else would find it just fine!
    The Ice Box cake looks so good!

  16. Me and leeks only get along when they are paired with impeccably lovely yukon gold potatoes in an irresistiably inviting burnished Potato Leek soup that’s been pureed smooth with a trusty immersion blender. Otherwise, we tend to violently disagree. I have rudely ordered them out of my kitchen on more than one occasion.

    There’s nothing like a kitchen failure to make you want to give up the ghost. Happens to everyone, hon….you’ll get back on track.

  17. In a fit of madness the other day, I ordered a mess of beans from Rancho Gordo. Why I needed beans mailed to me from California, I don’t know. But they were highly recommended, and I was all out of beans, so I splurged. I’ll let you know how they are.

    Your tarte tatin is beautiful – mine never flip out of the pan without some of the apples sticking to the inside and thereby messing up the “design”.

  18. deb

    Jenifer from Houston — Of course, of course. In fact, I used to mess up on recipes at least 50 percent of the time, it’s just that these days I do an obsessive amount of research before picking one, often opting for those already raved about by others, and saving myself much distress. And thank you.

    Mercedes — I think bread crumbs and eggs would have certainly done the trick. See what happens when I don’t do a lick of research? A lesson has been learned here.

    Rachael — Oh, no. You must try Julia Child’s braised leeks. It will alter your perception of them forever. They’re so soft and supple, with almost a potato-like tinge to their muted onion flavor. I had used that for my quiche a few weeks ago, and have been obsessed with getting the flavor back on my plate. Sadly, this soup was not the way. Onwards! Your gratin-ed risotto idea sounds fantastically hedonistic.

    Molly — You did! Furthermore, I have been obsessively researching them for the past couple days, and yours is much closer to the original than I’d realized, with the brilliant addition of forming the caramel before adding the apples. (I’m sure you know this.) Others I have eyed, Clotilde’s as well as Julia Child’s, both of which use short pastes/pate sucrees, are more modern approaches. God, I could seriously go on about this for days. But, I’d rather just try them all. :)

    dara – Thanks for the suggestions. Truthfully, they soaked for over a day and boiled forever. I supposed I could have let them go longer, but it was bedtime, and I felt I’d given them enough chance. I’ll keep the baking soda and other tips in mind for next time. Ah — and the font is Tahoma, though you can never go wrong with Verdana on a website, IMHO. Tahoma looks great on 90% of screens, but not as much older Windows versions that lack ClearType. And now I sound like I’m writing for my day job — geek!

    Terry B — Of course! I hope I haven’t given the impression I always make flawless foods, I just rarely see the point in bitching about an average approach to cauliflower I made last month or random throw-together meals. Yet this week, with three in a row (!), I just couldn’t keep my yap shut.

    MaggPie — Oh no! How could raspberry gelee and dark chocolate mousse go wrong? What a bummer. More sad is that I probably would have eaten it anyway — it had chocolate! Q: Do you use Epicurious recipes ever? Q2: If they fail, do you leave comments? I always wonder if I should more, but I rarely bother. (As in the leek soup, above.)

    mrbunsrocks — I spit mine out too! Some awful breaded tofu patty dish, many years ago. And then I got a stomach ache. I’ll never forget it. This is why I use recipes these days.

    Ian — I am fairly new to taking care of my own, but my amateur suggestion would be to scrub it well, and perhaps reseason it. But I am eager to hear others suggestions. I just tried to search on Chowhound and such for suggestions for you, but didn’t see much.

    2 — I might try this next time. I already have a new bag, and I’m ready to go! Thank you.

    Pille — I can’t recommend the soup, personally, but if you have better luck, I’d love to hear about it. An alternative, if it appeals to you, is that I’ve had this ( bookmarked for ages now, and wish I’d tried it first!
    Freya — Thank you!

    Melanie — Tarte Tatins are usually apple, although I am sure apricots would be tasty, right? Or plums… mmm.

    Jancd — Averagely is the adverb form of average, and is in countless dictionaries. Not that I don’t invent words all the time on this site to suit my fancy — this just isn’t one of them.

    Kate — Potato leek sounds awesome. I am eager to try the half-pureed/half-chunky soup I linked a few comments ago next, to redeem my leeks!

    maggie — I’d love to hear how they are. I am finding it shockingly hard to find well-sealed (so I know they’re more likely to stay fresh) in my array of neighborhood stores. Alex grabbed some tiny white beans from Goya at Gristedes last night, and I’ll be giving them a try shortly. (I used chickpeaks from Goya to make hummus last week, and they were gorgeous and perfect.) Oh! And it’s totally normal for apples to stick to the inside. You’re just supposed to pluck them out and pop them back into place. Nobody’s in the kitchen but you, right? :)

  19. cg from boston

    I’ve had the same problem with risotto fritters – they just fall apart. I tried rolling them in flour or bread crumbs, but to no avail.

    Your tart looks so gorgeous – the pictures make me want to go buy some apples and make my own.

  20. Oh please. You don’t know what kitchen disaters are until you have seen the soup that is splattered all over the wall of my kitchen. And all I was doing was re-heating. We are lucky I didn’t burn down the building.

  21. i understand we all have doops, yet i doubt we’ll ever see one of yours. maybe it’s just your photographic skills, but every dish you put up looks amazing!

    the crust on that tarte looks as though its going to flake right here even in the still photo. beautiful work. and it looks very tasty. the color you were able to bring out in those apricots and the texture of the crust is truly amazing. bravo.

  22. Genevieve

    Isn’t it rather amusing that because of some delicious looking caramel sauce people are assuming that juicy, tasty apples are apricots (ew)???

    Maybe I am picking up on this because it looks so good and I am tempted to make it, however I don’t like apricots and probably wouldn’t look twice if that were what you used. This is my very round about way of saying thanks for another inspiring recipe using such tasty ingredients!

  23. Rest assured that even during your “week of cooking averagely”, your food is head and shoulders above the diet of the average American. I think that is our mission, as bloggers- to move food to the highest common denominator, rather than the lowest!

    I concur that your tart is beautiful and I am so jealous that you are able to capture its beauty on camera- a standar to which I aspire!

    Deborah Dowd

  24. Madina

    Thank you Deb! You inspired me, and now I need to re-organize my kitchen to fit the new tart pan and a cast iron skillet I currently covet. I think it will be a 10 inch.

  25. Celeste

    Leeks don’t have enough sugar in them for the kind of caramelizing you are used to. I agree with the others in that the only way I really enjoy them is in a potato soup. I like to cut them into rings and rinse them in a colander rther than slice and dice them, though; I think it’s prettier. I think cream is essential (at least some!) and I saute the leeks in butter only. Finely mash up some of the potato to thicken to taste; I tried a tip once to use instant potato flakes for speed, but I felt like it was too easy to overdo them and the soup seemed bland. Never again. This is one soup that I like better fresh. I use white pepper in it. I never want anything to go with it for dinner, but hopefully when you try it you will think of a side that would be perfect!

    I love your blog. It’s so peaceful here.

  26. It happens. Heaven knows, it happens. I’ve made everything from gorgeous souffles that deflated the second (the very second, mind you) they left the kitchen to sure-fire dishes that were not. Sometimes you can spice or butter your way out of it. Sometimes you order pizza! C’est la vie.

  27. Flour. Always works to bind overly wet mixtures that won´t shape up. I had a minor debacle with my mum-in-law´s fish cakes (too much water in the potatoes). But the flour trick really worked.

    Lovely Tarte Tatin. Did it make up for the other recipes?

  28. Well Deb, let me just say that I, for one, am hugely appreciative that you sometimes botch things in the kitchen. I love your blog, read it regularly and learn a lot! (and the photographs!! Talk about food porn!) But intimidating much? Mere mortals are held in your sway. Let’s hear more about your all-too human failures!

  29. I love that you have ‘off’ days – it makes you gloriously, lovably human! The food, even the ruined experiments, sounds amazing.

    My boy set his kitchen on fire twice in about 3 weeks. Now THAT’S off.

  30. Noah

    I’m a professional chef turned food salesman and I worked in a Euro Bistro that had a risotto fritter appetizer. We combined: Cooked risotto (prepared simple, no cream, butter etc) crumbled spicy sausage, diced roasted red peppers, chopped herbs, fresh mozz (diced small), shredded mozz, and the key binder – powdered parmesan.

    I always added the parm last so you can adjust the moisture level. Powdered parm is a drier, so it will firm up the fritter mix. Roll into golf ball sized balls, then put through the standard breading procedure (flour, egg, parmesan breadcrumbs) and then refrigerate.

    You can always do a tester fritter to adjust seasoning and see how it holds up. The combination of powdered parm with the breading will keep your fritter from blowing up in the deep fryer. It takes a ton of work to do it right, but they’re worth it!

    Hope this helps,

  31. I used to do the soaking thing followed by hours of cooking, but truth be told, I found a wonderful organic canned bean company, and with through rinsing and then proper dressings or timing when adding to soups, these beans really hold up.

    I’m a personal chef and many of my clients want all manner of healthy bean dishes. Many canned beans are tender enough for salads and soups but have none of the citric acid flavor or mushiness. Good beans in cans are out there, and there is no shame in using a quality brand. It took me a while to come around, Deb.

    I’m new here but have been a fan, especially of your cookbook. Hope to hang out a lot more.

  32. Ashwini

    It was so comforting to read this post. I love your blog and met you when you were doing the book tour. I love to cook and like you I do a lot of research before honing in on a recipe but unfortunately I took Ina garten’s mac n cheese and buttermilk biscuits to a party (halloween) and they were such disasters that I’ve given up on ever cooking for others again :(. The mac n cheese was yummy when I made it but dried up when it was reheated and I don’t even know what went wrong with the biscuits. I had to tell someone who would understand and maybe this will get me out of my despair :).

    1. deb

      I haven’t made Ina’s mac-and-cheese but cheese does… curdle a little when rewarmed which can make it seem more dry. The best thing is to use a recipe that has a lot of sauce, so it will remain creamier when reheated. A lot of people really like this one from Martha. And these are my favorite biscuits. Honestly, I don’t think there are bad cooks, just bad recipes. Try different ones and you’ll be excited to cook again. ;) I’m glad we got to meet!

  33. Molly

    I am the better part of a decade late to this party, and an avid non-commenter across the board, but I have a risotto thought. We made risotto cakes and fritters pretty frequently at a place in San Francisco I used to cook at. We definitely cooked the rice to the point of being quite a bit drier than one would want for like, actual risotto. If you’d poured it out on to a plate, it would have had none of the fluidity of a proper risotto. But we would cook that extra liquid off before finishing it with butter and cheese, spread it out on a sheet tray, and cut or scoop it. Fritters got panko’ed for extra stability in the hot oil. Worked like a damn charm.