Monthly Archives: September 2011

Finders Keepers

As a food writer, I’ve always cared too much about flavor and quality to be a “Semi-Homemade” kind of hostess. I want to serve visitors something better than they have at home, not just what’s easiest. But I’m beginning to accept the idea that better doesn’t necessarily mean made by me. Packaged goods these days are so delicious, healthy, and inexpensive that often it makes more sense to buy than to make.

This truth suddenly struck me as I was interviewing caterers for an article on trends in condiments and seasonings. Even the most upscale among these culinary professionals, whom I had long respected, were purchasing some pre-prepared dips and sauces, especially ethnic concoctions that would consume excessive time and money if they were made in-house. They were highly selective, however: They taste-tested often, chose favorites, and often customized the concoctions in their own kitchens.

I like the idea of being an arbiter of taste and introducing guests to items I’ve discovered and pre-tested for them. What’s more, I can count on the taste consistency of commercial products, which is helpful in combating my entertaining insecurity.

I’ve learned that you can derive as much appreciation for choosing carefully as for cooking. The wonderful Food Should Taste Good sweet potato chips I served to recent guests were instantly greeted with compliments. And I think that the people attending our dinner party last Friday enjoyed the melon and duck prosciutto hors d’oeuvre I served because it tasted good but also because my husband and I could share the story of how we sampled the meat at a farmer’s market while strolling in New York City and decided to bring it back for them.

I’ll be trying some of the products that those caterers recommended, selecting some of my own, and rating them in future posts.

Saved by the Bell

My mom always cautioned me never to make a dish for company that I hadn’t tried first myself. And, as I was reminded last weekend, as usual mom was so right! Even the most reliable cookbooks can contain typos or confusing statements, errors that can cause trouble to even an experienced cook.

Since two of my favorite authors proclaimed boneless leg of lamb the perfect company entrée for six, I decided to make one for my dinner party. One book even suggested that I’d feel very relaxed when greeting my guests, since the roast would go into the oven almost two hours before they arrived. As it turned out, the experience wasn’t as stress-free as advertised.

I started to fret when I realized that the recipe said to cook the lamb in a 450 degree oven until it reached an internal temperature of 135 for rare or 145 for medium, while the butcher had instructed me to cook the meat in a 350 degrees oven until it reached only 110 for medium-rare. Both sources told me the meat would be ready in about an hour and a half and both instructed me to wrap it in foil and rest it for fifteen or twenty minutes.

Such discrepancies could make the difference between raw meat and a charred mess. Consulting another trusted cookbook only exacerbated my problem, since that one said that a bone-in leg would take an hour and a half but the cooking time would be reduced to half for a boneless leg. It specified starting the meat at 425 degrees and lowering the temperature to 350 after 30 minutes.

In the end, I decided to trust my own judgment and to try a nifty piece of equipment that would put me in control: a thermometer with a temperature probe that would not only beep when the roast reached the prescribed setting, but also would show me how quickly the meat was cooking. I roasted the lamb at 450 degrees for twenty minutes to brown the top, and then lowered it to 350 and ultimately 325 because the process was progressing so quickly. I took it out of the oven when the internal temperature was 130 degrees, which even at the lower oven setting turned out to be about twenty minutes sooner than the experts had predicted.

Was the 450 degree setting a typographical error? Did the recipe omit an instruction to lower the heat once the lamb browned? Would it have made a difference if I’d been able to find a boneless leg with the shank bone still attached, something my butcher informed me was only available to a TV chef? I guess I won’t know until the next edition is published. But I’m happy to report that thanks to the probe and my years of experience, the lamb was cooked perfectly- juicy and beautifully rosy inside. Still, I could have avoided all that uneasiness, if I’d just cooked a dish that I’d made before.

Do It Now!

I’m finding that a good corollary to Daily Inspection is Do It Now (as Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, puts it).

Instead of speculating about when I’ll have time to squeeze in a small job (wiping a smudge off a window, eliminating cobwebs spotted between the balcony railings, sweeping the stairs leading to the office) I can usually get it off my list and my mind by attacking the task right away.

The more of those instant jobs I get accomplished, the easier it is to get the house company ready and the less uptight I feel if friends suddenly show up.