the duds of summer

This is me admitting defeat. You see, all summer I have been discussing this “queue” of recipes that I have auditioned and photographed, but never told you about. They’ve sat on my hard drive like a to-do list, taunting me, certain that I’ll never get to the bottom of it. Every time I swear I am going to bang them all out in a week of daily, brief posts, something better comes across our counters and I must discuss that first. Like bourbon peach hand pies. Or a dimply plum cake. You understand, don’t you?

innardsceleryasparagus sliversbaby potatoes

The queue won’t go away and summer is more or less over, which means that it’s time for me to admit that the things left in the queue aren’t that great. Oh, they’re not bad. They’re not inedible. We did clear our plates, though certainly not the leftovers out of the fridge the next day. They’re just not wonderful or magical or seriously, why have you not dropped everything yet and run to your kitchen to get this started. And I think that there are enough recipes out there, and in here, that are show stoppers that it’s not necessary to make ones that drew a big “eh!” from our mouths.

So, in the interest of me zeroing out my blogging-to-do list once and for all, let us get this show on the road:

new potato salad

Sara Jenkins Potato Salad: [Recipe] Okay, maybe this recipe I culled from New York Magazine a couple months ago wasn’t a total dud. Perhaps if I had found NY 188’s new potatoes from Keith’s Farm stand at the Union Square Greenmarket that weekend (and oh, I looked, but I did not find, either the stand or the red cuties) I might have enjoyed it more, but you know, it was just okay. I hate the way oil-based potato salads just absorb and absorb, and you’re left with something rather dry and dressing-less. It needed a lot of seasoning.

Verdict: Next time, I’ll make this new potato dish instead.

Asparagus Pignoli Pasta: Well, now, this wasn’t a dud either. One night, I boiled some whole wheat pasta and in a separate pan, cooked garlic in olive oil with a pinch of red pepper flakes before tossing in exactingly mandoline-d cross-sections of asparagus. They cooked in just a few minutes with a few splashes of pasta water and seasoning and I finished the dish with toasted pine nuts and parmesan. It was great. But I kept meaning to get back to the recipe and try to thinly slice the asparagus the long way, and well, asparagus season has long passed.

Verdict: Tasty, but needs tweaking. Perhaps next year, or perhaps one of you closer to an asparagus-producing season will pick this up where I left off.

italian bread salad

Italian Bread Salad: [Recipe] You know, I love a good bread salad. I’ve made summer and winter and spring panzanellas and even a “gazpacho” salad with toasted bread cubes in it, so it’s no surprise that I’d be all over a new, green and simple one in the June Gourmet. Except, it tasted very very green. Too green. And I didn’t even use all of the herbs it suggested. I think herbs are best when used as a contrast or accent, not as the bulk and texture of a dish. (Though I make small exceptions for pestos and pistous.)

Verdict: FAIL. We can do better!

black mushroom saute

Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Arugula and Sweet Bell Peppers: [Recipe] I was very excited to see the New York Times write up Ad Hoc, Thomas Keller’s $40 menu-less, family-style restaurant in Napa, because we had the chance to go there on our grilling trip last year and it was great. I was so excited that I immediately set out to make the black mushroom dish attached to the article. Except, well, a few things. First, I told Alex to look for them at the store but if they were crazy expensive to please not buy them, or simply to buy half and we’d just make part of the recipe. Well, they were so astronomically expensive, I can’t even discuss it here, and of course he bought the whole pound. Insert my longstanding guilt over wasting money and food, compounded with tiny uncomfortable fact: As it turns out, sauteed black mushrooms ick me out. The recipe doesn’t taste bad at all. But a pile of squidgy black wetness? Ugh. It’s been months and my stomach still turns. I couldn’t even eat my small plate of them, nonetheless the leftovers.

Verdict: Shame on me. With any other mushroom, however, this could have been love.

scoopedready for the ovenbakedflattened

Tomatoes Stuffed With Pasta Salad: [Recipe] I could write a book on how torn I am about this recipe and heck, nearly every recipe published by Mark Bittman but, oh, it would be the most boring book ever. I was going through the photos for this dish yesterday and my stomach started grumbling. Baked tomatoes, stringy cheese, charred-edged pasta and capers… what was wrong with it again? And then I remembered: Nothing specific. I mean, I had way too much tomato filling and found some of the steps sort of odd (I ad-libbed half the cheese on top instead of all inside–who wouldn’t?), but other than that, it was harmless. It just didn’t wow me. Somehow, all of those ingredients came together to make something kind of dull.

Verdict: You probably won’t hate this recipe. It’s not even bad. But have you seen Luisa’s cousin’s stuffed tomatoes? Now that’s what I’m talking about.

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59 comments on the duds of summer

  1. This is completely OT, but could you please add some more of your recent food photos to your smug-mug store? Some of your recent posts had a few stunner-s that I’d like to add to my kitchen decor. Thanks! =)

  2. deb

    Hi Lucy — I take so many pictures, I almost never know which ones to upload! If you want to let us know which are your recent favorites, we’d be happy to add them. Thanks!

  3. That ‘meh’ feeling is a bummer, huh? It’s nice to see I’m not the only one who isn’t always wowed by what comes out of my kitchen – in fact, just yesterday I totally ruined a batch of roasted tomatoes. Admittedly this was my fault, not the recipe’s, but thanks for sharing the so-called duds with us. And yes, Luisa’s cousin’s stuffed tomatoes had me drooling all over my keyboard yesterday!

  4. This is why I love your site so much – we all have disastrous failures sometimes, or even those wretched mediocres which haunt us into questioning our abilities, but you remind us that this is okay and it’s all about making things better, one dish at a time.

  5. That pasta dish looks like it could use some kind of Italian sausage or something. Anything to perk it up, although I like the simplicity of the dish. What kind of cheese did you use? Parmesan?

  6. Yvo

    The photos are simply gorgeous anyway, so thank you for sharing them. Admittedly the first photo is what had me clicking over, I was like what IS that, is that fideua??? Hehe.

  7. This is how much of my summer cooking has gone – lots of decent, edible food, but few wow factor meals. It makes for kind of boring blogging, unfortunately. And the best dishes have been the ones that are almost too simple to write down, like the many many tomato salads I’ve eaten. It’s actually comforting to know that you have similar experiences!

    (And I know what you mean about Bittman – he calls himself a minimalist, and I like to think that I’m a minimalist as well, but he and I have very different ideas about what steps and ingredients are necessary vs. what can be cut away, and his recipes never really impress me much, though I can’t put my finger on the problem…)

  8. Next time you need an excuse in the winter to create something summery, you can just say you’re doing it for the benefit of your readers who live in Australia, that are just now going into summer!

  9. Sarah in LA

    Oh man, I HATE IT when I get all excited about a recipe, and then one of the ingredients grosses me out while I’m preparing it. No way do I want to eat what I’ve made after that!

  10. Rachael

    I love that you even post the recipes you are not all that excited about. I saw the bread salad in Gourmet too, and it seemed a little too on the herby side for me. If you find a good substitute, please post it!

    PS – I tried the cold press coffee last night and have never enjoyed my morning cup so much!

  11. For the pasta dish we add Portabella mushrooms to it. It gives it the something extra you were missing. Also it needs plenty of salt and ground pepper. We even made it for our Italian relatives and got rave reviews.

  12. ahh, the “eh.” Such a let down. I have always wanted to like oil based potato salads but have found them lacking UNTIL this summer I came across one in one of those weekend newspaper inserts. It starts with roasted potatoes so they have a yummy crusty skin and don’t absorb all the dressing!!!!

    In my kitchen it has become this… heirloom potatoes cut in to bite sized pieces drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Roast. Dressing: Olive oil, minced garlic (lots), chopped fresh mint leaves, coarse salt, fresh ground pepper all mixed together. While potatoes are still warm toss with dressing.

    Oh so good!

  13. Susan

    Well, I’m glad that you posted the Wow-less recipes too. What doesn’t wow some, may be heaven to someone else. So..thanks for providing the link. There are so many recipes that appear(or read) like they’d be so good but even then seem like they are missing something. Sometimes I just go with my gut and experiment before making it as written. The down side of that wonder if the original made you miss the point of the recipe..especially if it’s a side dish where, maybe, it shouldn’t compete with, but compliment the entree’.

    I agree about the potatoe salad..I can’t get excited without some dressing smooshing around it.

  14. Allie

    I think the Bittman recipe would be better with feta and swap orzo for the spaghetti and forget the stuffing of tomatoes; instead make an orzo salad with tomatoes (fresh or roasted), feta, olives, capers. Gourmet has an orzo salad with tomatoes and feta that is wonderful and it could be tweaked to add olives/capers and roasted tomatoes. Not really the Bittman recipe, but what I’d like to eat.

    That said – hope spings eternal and I am going to try to make the chickpea salad he had in the NYT this week. Perhaps foolish.

  15. Lindsay

    Bittman? Really? I adore the man. His How to Cook Everything Vegetarian has changed my life. Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but he is definitely who I turn to when faced with the eternal “what the hell can I do with all of these tomatoes?” question. I don’t use his cookbooks for special occasion meals, but for the everyday, got-to-feed-the-family stuff, he’s wonderful. Humph.

  16. Christina

    This was an awesome post! I love knowing that recipes fail too. Makes me really BELIEVE in the other ones :) And believe me, I’ve been trying your recipes for a while now and have yet to be disappointed. Thanks!

  17. It’s good to hear an awesome blogger like you talk about some not so great recipes. I feel like I have a LOT more successful dishes in my kitchen than I did a few years ago, but there are still those nights when the dish is just ok, or even all out bad. It’s encouraging to hear your stories. Thanks!

  18. Patty

    Was that the same Bittman article with the recipe for rice-filled chard rolls? That was the recipe I picked to try (the tomato one sounded too pasta-y). The chard rolls were terrific. I agree that I feel cheated when a recipe I try turns out edible but not worth the effort. I always think I’m not such a great cook but that I read recipes well and can spot a winner. I hate when this isn’t so.

  19. I have to say, I definitely agree with you about herbs. I’m always astonished by how much better fresh herbs can make a dish, but too much and I feel like I’m sitting in the yard eating what I pull up. I’ve never had much luck with panazella, either. I am rather envious of your having enough time to blog regularly and even have things that you make and don’t post! For me it’s just a pipe dream that I’d be able to *make* enough food to post daily.

  20. deb

    Luisa — You’re hilarious.

    Okay, for those who asked, here’s the Bittman thing: I too have his How to Cook Everything Book and for a year or so there, it was my bible. Except. Then. I realized what I didn’t like about it. Exactly what makes it great–all of the options such as “this cheese or that” or “whole wheat or regular flour” or “add all ten of these extras or any combination of three of them”–is also what makes it kind of awful when you’re cooking things for the first time. Which way tastes best? Which way works best? Because there is a “best,” there are some combinations that make a recipe sing and others that won’t and sometimes, if you take none of the options, it’s quite awful and bland and how are you supposed to know which one it is? I came to prefer recipes that gave you fewer options, but a greater likelihood of a home run the first try.

    A great example is a Japanese noodle dish he mentioned… somewhere a couple months ago. (And I’m ad-libbing because I couldn’t find the recipe again.) It said you could use udon or soba or regular spaghetti. It said you could use dashi or chicken stock. Now you’re going to tell me that if you use regular spaghetti plus chicken stock that you’re going to feel like you’re eating a good Japanese noodle dish? No way, but the recipe doesn’t warn you about that dud combination.

    Heh. I warned you all that I could write a BOOK on it.

  21. the stuffed tomatoes made me laugh. i made his thai-style beef stirfry a few days ago, with harney county beef no less, and was salivating at the prospect of my first bite and it was…well…fine. not the usual mark bittman amazing, not bad, but really nothing. sigh.

    love the site! my favorite in my reader for sure.

  22. Kay

    Thanks for making me feel like I’m not the only one….
    Strangely I felt better after a making a plain old, bean and cheese burrito (fresh pico de gallo, hot sauce made with hatch chiles , marinated oninons, black beans, mexican rice and jack cheese).

    But really, sometimes the simple stuff comes together waaay better than the fancy stuff and you’re like “oh yah…that’s why everyone cooks this stuff”

  23. I read your site almost every day, & this might be my first comment! I just had to weigh in on the Bittman comment. It (How to Cook Everything) too was my Bible when I was first learning how to “cook” (and not just mix stuff together). But, I agree with you Deb. I’ve had more “eh”‘s than “yeah!”‘s with him. For instance, in a rice dish (don’t have the book with me at work & can’t remember), he said red or white wine could be used, so I used red b/c I had some open. It was not so great. The whole dish tasted like red wine, and not in a good way. Leftovers aged nicely in the fridge – NOT. But, still, if I totally do not know how to make something basic or have a question about how to pick, peel, or chop something, I consult the book. Usually I tweak the recipe though these days to make it better :)

  24. Oh, I can’t lament enough about how many dishes I have on “back log” that I have yet to post. I churn out so many things, there aren’t enough days in the year! Well, there are, but I don’t have all of the time I need to do each piece justice. That’s OK though…I’ll get it together. And I really don’t enjoy Mark Bittman. I thought I wanted his book when I 1st started cooking professionally, but I don’t. Not really. People either love him or don’t like him. No hate. But still…

  25. You’re so right about Bittman. He is great for the basics.But the “or try this” part is definitely confusing.I laughed out loud reading the spaghetti chicken stock Japanese noodle comment.
    Too true.

  26. Wow, what a great idea for a post! I have so many planned posts that never came to fruition, so many recipes that were never quite right… I’m still working on getting my stuffed and grilled pork chops just right!

  27. I have to chime in on the Bittman rant. I think its a real bummer when recipes are very vague. What’s the point? Summer was a kitchen dud for me. Was out on vaca. I am kinda glad summer is (almost) over. Kids are back in school, which means I am back in the kitchen. Yay!

  28. Ciao from tuscany Do you know why EVERYONE makes panzanella with croutons instead of crumbling the bread more like couscous as we do here?

    I have taught Panzanella in the states when I travel and teach.

    Why not just call it crouton salad?
    Love your site!

  29. Tina

    I thought I was the only one who was not crazy for Mark Bittman’s recipes. I get so excited when I see his recipes in the Times but when I make them, eh. Love watching him on TV or the NY Times website but I now resist making his recipes for just the reasons you mentioned. Who wants to spend time and money making a dish, getting your hopes up only to have them dashed.

  30. They all look good to me….. I also have some not-posted items in my HD…. Slowly but surely……that’s the way to go! If it becames a “to do” thimg, it’s not fun anymore….

  31. Deb
    This post was a brilliant idea. I too have literally hundreds of photos from meals or dishes that were OK, but weren’t (in my opinion) worth talking about. These were usually just tossed together at the last minute to fill a need (hunger). Instead of posting any of them however, I think it’s time to add them to the compost pile. Thanks for giving my camera a much needed “Spring” cleaning.

  32. I agree about the mushrooms. That doesn’t look good at all, but I’m pretty anti-mushroom… so I’m a little biased. I’m glad you posted these recipes… it makes you a little more real to me… I assumed you always made perfect, beautiful dishes. Of course, your “duds” are still beautiful. Shutting up now.

  33. Marie

    OK. Here’s the deal. Stuffed tomatoes. Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Tomatoes a la Provancal. The Best. ‘Nuf said.

    Well . . . I just clicked on the link for Luisa’s Italian stuffed tomatoes. Oh dear. Sigh. I bet the Italian air and scenery help with the taste.

    BTW, if you are a new cook, I highy recommend Julia Child’s book. There is a reason it’s never been out of print since 1961. I bought it in 1964 (yes kids, I am old — and wise) and it’s the book that taught me how to cook. My mother was an all time World’s Worst Cook champion. She won gold metals in awful, terrible, gastly, inedible food. I’ve no idea how I survived. There was no way I’d learn at my mother’s knee. But thanks to Julia, I turned out to be a pretty good cook.
    Thankyouthankyouthankyou, Julia.

  34. Tracey

    Totally with you on the Panzanella “Verde” from Epicurious. We were very disappointed with it. We’ll stick to our own panzanella recipe to which I now add arugula. Yum!

  35. Aunt Leslie

    I’m not sure how I found your website but I love it. My nieces (age 8,9 and 10) come over every Friday to cook and spend the night. Since we met you we have started making your recipes for dinner and then for Sat breakfast — and we love you. How do you have time for all that you do? You amaze me. And thank you — for the great pictures, the wonderful tips, and the awesome recipes. We love you, love you, love you. Oh, remember how you have to take turns with kids — who sits in the front seat? who sets the table? who gets the guest bed? Well, now we have: Who gets to print the recipes from Smitten Kitchen? Of course we all vote on what we are cooking. Blessings on you and your spoons.

  36. Shannan

    i JUST had a whole “meh…” dinner. I bought Mark Bittman’s “The Best Recipes of the World” and had only cooked a few things out of it. SOOOO I decided I was going to a do a Japanese meal completely out of the book. Miso, Rice Balls, Cuke/Onion/Chix Salad, Fresh Octopus Confit. Not one thing was praiseworthy. The meal was downright dull… not BAD, but ho-hummy after lots of work. I was depressed. (other recipes were good – I am not dissing Mark) I did like you do, the next day I went to my “go to’s”. Today I am prowling for new “Go To’s” (with a brief and somewhat satisfying foray into someone else’s disaster stories. *the stuffed toms may have been ick, but your tomatoes are so lovely. I pine for Spring and Summer.

  37. Elizabeth

    I made the asparagus pasta dish, slicing the asparagus lengthwise with a knife. In order to spruce it up a bit, I added onions, and used a rose wine instead of the water. Additionally, I added white beans to give it a little more heft (it was a post-workout dinner). Overall, it was still a very mild dish but not a dud. I think maybe using a dry white wine or maybe lemon juice and maybe making a creamier sauce.

  38. First off, congratulations to you and Alex and welcome Jacob!

    I know I am way late in the game, but thanks for the post – I am always hugely disappointed when a dish comes out as ‘eh’. Looking at the bright side, that means that most come out much better though!

    About the mushrooms: I cook up black trumpet mushrooms as often as I can get my hot little hands on them. – I expect that they are much more readily available (and fresher, not to mention cheaper) here in Northern California. The key to these (and most other mushrooms) is to use dry heat, rather than sauteeing in butter. Those little guys are full of water and wil get slimy otherwise. try it even on a regular mushroom – it makes a big difference.

  39. joant

    Happy New Year Deb!
    This belongs under “Mark Bittman” duds – but the link seems to be broken. Love-hate relationship on my end. Some of his recipes (swear his sauteed soft-shelled crab with wine and capers are the best I’ve ever had…and so easy); vegetable fritters and a couple of others I salivate over. However, I sometimes make things and go….are you kidding, Mark? The other night was no different…(not one but 2 of his dishes!!!!)…and the baby artichoke provencal. Big mistakes.

    I’m so happy to have found this section on your site. We always want our creations to be show-stoppers, don’t we. Isn’t it infuriating when they’re duds?! Time, money and mediocrity not to mention leftovers that you want to have nothing whatsoever to do with. There should be a law. Thank you for letting me know….it’s not just me. :) JT

  40. Raphaelle

    My father, a chronic mayonnaise-hater, makes an oil-based potato salad, and his trick is to use big, rather floury potatoes rather than new potatotes, and then to throw in chopped pickled herring with the dressing to keep it moist.

    Pickled herring is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s flavorful and certainly never dry.

  41. Merri

    Well, not everything comes out just the way you visioned it. Last night I had a genius idea to make a pizza puttanesca. Since I adore home-made pizza and I LOVE puttanesca sauce I thought it would be brilliant. I planned on making your recipe for puttanesca sauce then layer the sauce, thinly sliced mushrooms and red onions onto a thin, crispy whole wheat home made crust and sprinkle it with parmasian and asiago cheese. Unfortunately, while I was making the sauce I had a very bad idea. I really love the anchovy paste that you put into the puttanesca and thought, “If a little is good, wouldn’t more be better?” Haha, well, the pizza ended up LOOKING beautiful, but unfortunately it was WAY too salty because of the anchovy. And too fishy. I forced myself to finish my piece in order to save face in front of my husband. And then went to bed early.