Rock of Ages...

By now, it should be clear from my body of work here at "The State I Am In," that I love musical theater. I think I may just love movie musicals even more, because you can watch them from the comfort of your own home whenever you want, and the production values are usually better. The need for Hollywood star-power sometimes means that the quality of the singing is often less than one typically finds in a live-theater production (I'm looking at you, Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!, or you, Gerard Butler in Phantom of the Opera), but I'm usually willing to overlook that shortcoming.

Hence, it should come as no surprise that I would head out to the movie theater to catch Rock of Ages, especially after I was entertained, but not blown away by the stage version earlier this month. Even then, I was eager to compare it to the film, since I was not impressed with the staging of the version I saw, and thought it would be better with a bigger budget. 

For the most part, I was correct in my suspicion that the movie would be better. The script underwent serious changes from the original, including a complete revision of the story's villain. Instead of foreign real estate developers hungry to turn the Sunset Strip into a shopping mall, the film envisions the Strip under siege by 1980s "Moral Majority" political crusaders, led by Catherine Zeta-Jones. The change, I felt, was a good one, and the shuffling of musical numbers that accompanied it made little impact on the flow of the story. Besides, anyone who has seen the film version of Chicago (for which Zeta-Jones won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award), knows that Catherine Zeta-Jones was practically made for movie musicals. 

Unfortunately, the main storyline of Rock of Ages, the love story between aspiring singers Sherrie and Drew, was as forgettable as it was in the original stage version. Plus, the song "Oh Sherrie" was cut from the film, which was the entire reason the character was named that in the first place. The producers would have been better off cutting the entire character.

Much more interesting is the relationship between club-owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his employee Lonny (Russell Brand) who support one another through the difficulties faced by the club and end up finding unexpected love in the process. However, the best part of the entire film is the performance of Tom Cruise, whose dark, nuanced interpretation of rock icon Stacee Jaxx seems like it stepped out of an entirely differently film. Whereas the rest of Rock of Ages is a fluffy, pop confection perfect for light, summer entertainment, Cruise's turn as Stacee is almost disturbing in its intensity. It alone makes the film worth seeing, and it made me want to see a rock bio-pic with Tom Cruise in the lead role. 

I didn't go into Rock of Ages expecting brilliance, and I wasn't disappointed. Still, the film was quite enjoyable, if you manage your expectations properly. Plus, it doesn't hurt if you're a huge fan of movie musicals as a genre...


Piece of Cake...

As if all of the baking, cooking, and fussing in the kitchen in preparation for last week's baby shower wasn't enough, I signed up to take on this week's Cake Day at work. I've probably shirked my duties in that regard, as I don't think I've done one since April, when I used the leftover frosting from my birthday cake to top a store-bought mix, and called it a day. It wasn't quite up to my usual standards, but I didn't want that frosting to go to waste, and I didn't have the time to bake a whole new cake.

To make up for my perceived shortcomings last time, I decided to go all out with an elaborately frosted, completely made-from-scratch creation. For a recipe, I chose the maple walnut cake with maple cream cheese frosting that I had been considering for my birthday. Though it came with its own frosting recipe, I was eager to use the maple cream cheese frosting I discovered when I celebrated my blogiversary with carrot cake last year. I usually don't care much for cream cheese frosting, but this one won me over, and I was eager to see what else I could put it on besides carrot cake, and carrot cake sandwich cookies.

I was a little concerned about baking the cake itself, since my oven continues to cook inconsistently, though I haven't had another incident with it completely losing power. The cake's already long bake time of 50 minutes took nearly 65 minutes in my oven, though I started checking it at about 35 minutes because the commenters on Bon Appétit's website said that their cakes had cooked much faster than the originally specified time.

The cakes turned out rather dense, which I attribute to being made with a liquid sweetener. Usually, when you bake a cake using the creaming method, you cream together the sugar and the butter until the mixture is light and fluffy. This action causes the sugar to carve thousands of tiny holes into the butter, which form the seeds for the chemical leavers to expand those tiny pockets of gas into a light and fluffy crumb. Without granulated sugar to do that, the cake came out more dense, though it still rose.

Despite the seemingly enormous quantity of maple syrup in the cake, it wasn't overwhelming sweet. In fact, the maple flavor was subtle, though it certainly came through. I thought the walnuts were a perfect accent as well, though I've yet to meet a dessert that wasn't improved by the addition of nuts. The flavor combination actually reminded me of Maple Nut Goodies, the retro candies from Brach's that I used to share bags of with my mom when I was growing up. That connection alone would probably be enough for me to love this cake.

My beloved maple cream cheese frosting also went perfectly with the cake, though Justin found the combination of the frosting with the dense cake to be a little rich for his taste. It was very well-received by my coworkers as well, though there might have been something to Justin's richness theory, as everyone was content with a single slice.

Overall, I wish I'd made this cake for my birthday instead of the snickerdoodle-inspired confection that I ultimately chose. That cake was good, but this one was better, and the frosting was better by a long shot. I'm not sure when I'll have an opportunity to make this again, but I will certainly keep it in mind for special occasions to come. 

Maple Cake With Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted from Bon Appétit

3 c. all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons vegetable shortening, at room temperature
2 c. pure maple syrup
3 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1 1/4 c. whole milk
1 c. walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 325°F.
Butter two 8-inch-diameter cake pans with 2-inch-high sides. Line bottom of pans with parchment paper; butter parchment. Dust pans with flour; tap out excess. Sift 3 cups flour, baking powder, and salt into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter and shortening in large bowl until light and fluffy. Add maple syrup and beat until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add egg yolks and egg 1 at a time, beating until well blended after each addition. Beat in flour mixture in 3 additions alternately with milk in 2 additions. Fold in walnuts. Divide batter equally between prepared pans (about 3 1/2 cups for each); smooth tops.

Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, 50 to 55 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on racks 20 minutes. Run small knife around sides of cakes to loosen. Invert cakes onto racks; remove parchment. Cool cakes completely before assembling and frosting.


Family Ties...

Traditions have always been very important to me, whether they are habits that you observe with a friend, drawing on shared memories to renew a sense of closeness, or long-established family rituals that create unity through a sense of common identity. My love of tradition is why I trek to Daley Plaza in the cold every December to take a photo with Lisa in front of the municipal Christmas tree; why I continue to bake "S" cookies for my father, even though few people truly enjoy eating them besides him; why I join Sarah for girls' nights at La Madia at least once at month; and why I pull Justin aside next to a particular vending machine at the Roosevelt El Station whenever we happen to find ourselves there in order to reenact our first kiss. The traditions I choose to uphold are a vital part of who I am.

Now that I'm becoming more of a part of Justin's family, I find myself in the position of observing a whole new set of traditions. Today, for example, I joined Justin's family for their annual apricot dumpling party, after I nagged him into picking up some of the fruits on sale at a store near our house. He and his sisters gathered early for a full-day of dumpling-making with his grandma.

Lizzie and Carrie boiling dumplings and toasting breadcrumbs, respectively.
The dumplings, known as marillenknödel in German, are an Austrian specialty, and a favorite of Justin's entire family. In his family's version, a complete apricot is wrapped in a dough make with mashed potatoes (it's not as weird as it sounds -- remember that some hamburger buns are made with potatoes and they're perfectly light and fluffy), boiled, and rolled in breadcrumbs that have been toasted in butter. When they are ready to eat, they are cut open, the pit is removed, and they are given a generous sprinkling of sugar. The apricot brings its assertive sweet-tart flavor to the mix, while the toasted breadcrumbs add a nice textural contrast. With sufficient sugar, they make a very nice dessert.

The finished product.
Apricots are never going to be my favorite fruit the way they are for Justin and most of his family. It was still fun though, to try one of Justin's most beloved dishes and share the experience with his family. Even if I never love apricots, I can certainly get behind adopting apricot dumplings as a new tradition in my life.


A Skewer Runs Through It...

Justin and I are settling in to life with our new Weber grill quite comfortably. Last weekend, we used it to make some simple brats, corn on the cob, and a marinated pork tenderloin that came out perfectly cooked. We worked out some kinks with our chimney starter (a more eco-friendly way to get the coals going that forgoes the traditional lighter fluid method), and learned heat management techniques through trial and error. Another visit to Home Depot netted us a fire extinguisher, which has greatly increased Justin's grill confidence, even though we hope to never need it.

Tonight, we thought we'd put kebabs to the test, using a recipe that employed both chicken and Italian sausage, because encased meats automatically make any dinner better. I was hoping that the chicken, which we marinated overnight in a combination of rosemary, olive oil, and garlic, would share some of the characteristics of the pork tenderloin I made last weekend, which has all of the same ingredients. Mom has been making that tenderloin for years, and it's long been a family favorite, so I was hoping to capture some of its magic albeit in a different context.

As it turned out, I should have just used the same marinade, as this one was surprisingly bland, given its components. I'm not sure how something so similar could have gone so far astray, but the chicken was practically flavorless, aside from the smoky quality imparted by the grill. I was also underwhelmed by the sweet Italian sausage, which I had used because the recipe called for it, despite the fact that we universally use hot Italian sausage in the other dishes we prepare in our household.

Between each piece of meat went a fresh sage leaf, which was the instruction of which I was most skeptical. Sage can be a very dominant flavor, and I was concerned that it would overpower the duo of meats. In reality, the sage was actually the part of the dish that worked the best, as it imparted a touch of extra herbal flavor without being too much.

We also could have made a better selection with our choice of vehicle for getting the meat onto the grill. We used bamboo skewers, soaked in water for about an hour before grilling, because that was what we had on hand. The soaking was supposed to keep the skewers from catching fire and burning, but the technique didn't work for us, and some of our wood disintegrated on the grill. Next time, we'll know to procure some fire-resistant metal skewers.

I still think there's some merit to the idea of a mixed grill using flavorful marinated chicken and juicy pork sausage. When I get around to making the appropriate tweaks to my technique, I'll be sure to keep you posted on the resulting recipe...


Bringing Up Baby...

Everyone kept warning me that I was on the cusp of entering a time in my life when all of my vacation time and disposable income would be spent going to weddings, and I didn't believe them. My group of friends, so it seemed, didn't seem to be in any rush to make it to the altar. Suddenly, however, I heard that three of my friends had gotten engaged within a span of four months, and we received news of a family wedding as well. It's official -- I'm in my mid-to-late 20s.

After the wave of weddings passes, it will only be a matter of time until the next round starts: baby showers. If you think about it, it's unfair how much disparity there is between the money men have to spend on celebrating their friend's life choices, and how much women spend.  Men throw bachelor parties and have to rent a tux to be a groomsman, but tuxedo rentals can't possibly compare to the expense of buying a hideous dress that will only be worn once, matching shoes, and a coif and makeup scheme to please the bride on the day of the actual ceremony. Women are also on the hook for wedding and baby shower gifts -- events that are more or less the exclusive domain of the female sex.

All complaining aside, I was actually very pleased to be able to co-host a baby shower today for my work colleague, McNulty (she goes by her last name.) She and her husband had tried to conceive for a long time, before turning to IVF treatments. Their first attempt with the IVF was successful in October of last year, and she's due to deliver a baby girl next month. If anyone deserves to have a big fuss made over her impending delivery, it's her.

I had to loan them some aprons to keep the icing off their work clothes.

My coworkers Jess and Erin partnered up with me to throw a shower for McNulty. We opted to hold it at my parents' condo, my former residence, as it was the most mutually convenient location for the various invitees, with the most plentiful parking opportunities. A Muppets theme seemed like the way to go, both because McNulty is a fan, and I could tap Mom's extensive collection of Muppets paraphernalia for use as decor. We also decided to make the event an after-work potluck, for the ease and convenience of everyone involved.

Jess, Erin, and I worked during the week to decorate cookies for the event. McNulty had expressed her preference for no pastel colors on multiple occasions, so we opted for an unconventional palette of green, purple, and white, which tied into the bright, multicolored Muppets theme. Though it was hard for me to give up control when it came to the cookie decorating (my perfectionism dies hard when it comes to baking), we had a great time working on the project together.

I also contributed a fruit salad, and the now-famous guacamole that is somehow becoming my signature dish this summer. I'm a little bewildered as to how I've managed to become so skilled at making a dish I can't stand to eat, but at least it seems to make people happy, which is all that matters. Erin brought the chips to go with it, along with some extra salsa, and Jess made one of those crazy punch concoctions that involve soda, sherbet, and flavored ice cubes that one generally only finds at events like baby and wedding showers.

The remainder of our office clique showed up to celebrate McNulty's new addition, along with one of her former coworkers. It was a small, intimate gathering, focused mostly on eating, gabbing, and opening gifts, though we did complete a crossword puzzle that Erin had made containing trivia about the mother and father-to be. (McNulty has an aversion to the traditional games played at baby showers that range from the humiliating, i.e. guess the circumference of pregnant woman's belly, to the disgusting, i.e. identify the melted candy bar that's been placed in a baby diaper. Frankly, who can blame her?)

McNulty and her husband Dan, opening a Spiderman dish set -- Dan is a huge fan.
Together, we had a lovely evening. I wouldn't say I'm eager for another one of my friends to turn up pregnant so I can have the chance to host another baby shower, but I was happy to celebrate this occasion. I do enjoy the occasional opportunity for entertaining, and I'm glad that tonight's affair turned out so well.


Tally Me Banana...

No matter how much kitchen experience I accumulate, no matter now many new techniques and new recipes I get under my belt, there are certain dishes that continue to elude me. I can make an excellent panini, for instance, but I can't seem to tackle a humble grilled cheese sandwich. I've never been able to make a decent stack of pancakes; they're either burnt on the outside and raw on the inside, or anemic all over and dried out. I've also never baked a decent loaf of banana bread.

I've tried many recipes over the years, including my mother's, which my friend Sarah fondly recalls from our shared childhood, but for some reason, whenever I try to replicate Mom's banana bread, it always comes out dry. Every recipe I try seems to have it's own problem -- too dry, moist to the point of being wet, lack of concentrated banana flavor -- you name it. Still, I'm reluctant to give up on banana bread the way that I have with pancakes (I've completely outsourced pancake cookery to Justin along with most breakfast foods). Not only is banana bread delicious, but it also provides a vehicle for disposing of uneaten fruit, and I always seem to run out of steam halfway through a bunch of bananas.

Lately, I've been craving a warm, comforting slice of banana bread, so I went out and purposely bought more bananas than I knew we could eat, and bided my time until they inevitably started to turn blackish-brown. For a recipe, I turned to Cook's Illustrated, who seldom let me down in baking matters, though I do prefer the famous chocolate chip cookie recipe from the New York Times to their brown-butter version. Given that their recipes are often overly fussy and complicated, this banana bread wasn't any more difficult to assemble than your standard loaf.

Even so, I think I went astray when I was making it. Wise bakers will tell you not to overwork a quick-bread dough, and I did just that. Instead of just barely folding the wet ingredients into the dry, I was forced to stir and stir again, as every subsequent agitation of the dough revealed a new, unincorporated pocket of flour. Unsurprisingly, I ended up with a loaf that was rubbery and tough.

The flavor of the banana bread was good, and it was sufficiently moist without being soggy. Aside from the texture (which I firmly believe was my own fault), my only complaint was that it could have used more nuts. Then again, I tend to think that about most desserts, so I've altered the recipe to reflect my own personal taste. I'm not ready to write off this recipe just yet. After all, it was still quite tasty after a brief trip through the microwave, complete with a slathering of butter. I have hope that this recipe has brought me one step closer to the end of my banana bread quest. With a little less stirring, I may just have a perfect banana bread...

Best Banana Bread
adapted from Cook's Illustrated

2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 c. granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 c. toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped (optional)
3 very ripe bananas, soft, darkly speckled, mashed well (about 1 1/2 c.)
1/3 c. plain yogurt
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
6  tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
1. Grease bottom only of regular (not nonstick) 9-by-5 inch loaf pan, or grease and flour bottom and sides of nonstick 9-by-5-inch loaf pan; set aside.
2. Combine first five (flour through walnuts, if using) ingredients together in large bowl; set aside.
3. Mix mashed bananas, yogurt, eggs, butter, and vanilla with wooden spoon in medium bowl.
4. Lightly fold banana mixture into dry ingredients with rubber spatula until just combined and batter looks thick and chunky–it might look at first like there is too much dry ingredients and not enough liquid, but don’t fret! It will come together, just keep folding gently but consistently. Scrape batter into prepared loaf pan.
5. Bake until loaf is golden brown and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 55 minutes to an hour. Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack.


The Big Chill...

It's no secret that I am no fan of hot weather. My gas bill in the winter is always lower than my electric bill in the summer because I prefer to keep my home approximately the same temperature year-round, and that temperature is on the chilly side. I figure it all evens out eventually.

With the forecast calling for another scorching, humid weekend here in Chicago the next couple days, I decided to do my part to beat the heat -- I would make another icy cold batch of sorbet. Sure, I still have some of that blackberry-lime sorbet in the freezer from last week, but for me, that was a bit of a failed experiment. Justin may have loved the tart, citrus-dominated flavors of that particular frozen treat, but I was still in the market for something that would appeal to my palate.

When I got an email from Mom announcing a 99-cent sale on apricots at the market near her house, I knew I had found my answer. She had passed along the information because Justin's grandma likes to make a wide array of apricot desserts, from apricot dimple cake, to whole apricot-filled dumplings, to homemade apricot preserves to use in other desserts, such as Sachertorte. Every summer, she asks her family to look for them on sale for her, so she can stock up for the rest of the year, and last year, we struggled to find them at an acceptable price. In fact, I'd been monitoring their price so far this year, and hadn't spotted anything under $2.99 per pound.

Aside from nagging Justin to pick up some fruit for his grandma, this year I actually wanted some apricots for myself. Given Justin's deeply-rooted love for apricots, I knew that I wanted to give apricot sorbet a try, since being made into sorbet improves pretty much any fruit. (Even lime was better as a sorbet, just not enough so that I wanted to eat it; some aversions die hard.) So I had Mom pick some up for me, and I used them today to whip up David Lebovitz's simple recipe from The Perfect Scoop.

Though I generally avoid cooked fruit sorbets in favor of quickly whirring everything together in a blender and churning it, this apricot sorbet turned out quite well. I might have preferred just a touch more sugar, as the sweet-tart nature of apricots has never really appealed to me, but the texture of the finished product was smooth and almost creamy.

More importantly, my resident apricot enthusiast enjoyed it. The fruit flavor was pronounced, and received his stamp of approval. I think peach sorbet will always be my favorite, but I'll hang on to this apricot recipe in case I find a good deal on apricots in the future and want to do something nice for my man. 

Apricot Sorbet
adapted from David Lebovitz

2 lbs. squishy-ripe fresh apricots (about 10-15)
1 c. water
1 c. sugar
3 drops vanilla extract

Split the apricots in half, remove the pits, and cut each half into thirds. Combine the apricot wedges and water in a medium nonreactive saucepan and cook, covered, over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Heat until cooked through, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar. Let the mixture cool to room temperature.

Once cool, puree the mixture in a food processor or blender until smooth. Taste a spoonful and if there are any small fibers, press the puree through a mesh strainer. Stir in the almond or vanilla extract. Cover and chill thoroughly in the refrigerator.

Freeze the mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.


Strung Out...

Chicago may be famous for its improv comedy scene -- Second City, the comedy training school/performance space has churned out such alumni as Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Dan Castellaneta, John Belushi, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Amy Sedaris, and Steve Carrell -- but I must confess that I'm just not that into it as a genre. I have several friends that are active in the local improv scene, but I am a terrible person, and have never gone to any of their performances.

I have been motivated, under extraordinary circumstances, to check out various improv shows around town (my love for Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility inspired me to check out the Improvised Jane Austen show last summer with my friend, Chaya), and this week, I found myself under the influence of one such rare scenario once again. A couple months back, I was engaged in my customary stalking of the Broadway in Chicago website in search of discounted theater tickets, when I noticed a listing for an upcoming performance entitled, "Stuffed and Unstrung."

Curious, I looked up the show on Google, and to my surprise and delight, found out that it was an improv show using puppets from the Jim Henson Company's Creature Shop. (Though they look like Muppets, Disney bought the rights to the characters of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Rowlf, et al and now only they can officially be called "Muppets.") The show is put on by a group called "Henson Alternative," which creates entertainment experiences for an exclusively adult audience. In fact, their website was full of warnings that their show was not appropriate for children.

Suspecting that the show would be the kind of thing Mom would enjoy, I snatched up some tickets for the both of us as a combination Mother's Day/birthday present for her. I was a little concerned about the wisdom of my choice after Mom caught them on the WGN Morning News last week and pronounced them rather unfunny. However, after seeing their regular, not-fit-for-network-television performance tonight, I can safely say that my initial intuition was spot-on.

Both Mom and I really enjoyed the show, in which the puppeteers performed their act in full view of the audience, and a strategically-located camera projected the traditional view of just the puppets onto two large screens. That way, you could appreciate the craft of the puppeteering from two different perspectives. Audience members yelled out suggestions for a series of improv games, and the performers were adept at creating hysterical scenes out of thin air.

At one point, they pulled an audience member onstage, gave him a crash-course in puppetry, and proceeded to build a scene around him. For someone with no experience, the audience member was quick on his feet, and actually contributed to one of the funniest sketches of the night.

I also particularly enjoyed a pair of classic scenes created by Jim Henson himself in the 1950s, that Brian Henson, his son, recreated for the audience. One, "Java," I had seen before, but the other, structured around the song, "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face," was new to me. It featured the disarming, violence-based humor that characterizes Henson's work from that time, and is all the more funny because you don't expect puppets to behave in such a way. I was glad that Brian Henson chose to pay homage to his father's work in that way.

"Stuffed and Unstrung" is currently on tour throughout the U.S. It was playing in Chicago as part of the annual Just For Laughs Comedy Festival sponsored by TBS, through which Justin and I went to see Dimitri Martin and a roster of other stand-up comics last year.  If "Stuffed and Unstrung" makes it to your town, I seriously recommend giving it a chance. If puppetry isn't your thing, perhaps you'll enjoy the irreverent improv comedy. If, like me, improv isn't your favorite, perhaps the puppets will win you over. Either way, give it a chance if you have the opportunity. After all, how often do you get to witness a pug and a goat have a conversation about sex toys?


Rescue Me...

I've heard that anyone who has to buy zucchini during the summer doesn't have any friends. I think it's perhaps more true that you just don't have any friends who garden, or that you live in an urban area, because I certainly don't feel like I'm lacking in social interaction, and yet I'm constantly scouting out cheap zucchini on sale at the grocery store. After all, it's one of my favorite vegetables, and since I don't have a copious supply that I'm trying to get rid of, I usually just saute it as a side dish, or julienne it and toss it into a parchment paper pouch to accompany my beloved salmon en papillote.

So when someone at work recently asked me for suggestions for what to do with a surplus of zucchini, I didn't really have an answer for her besides mentally screaming at her, "Yeah -- share some with me!" I made a lame suggestion about chocolate zucchini muffins, but I didn't have a recipe to share with her, even for that. The exchange got me thinking about what else I could be doing with zucchini, and almost as if they were reading my mind, the folks at Slate published an article on that very same conundrum.

Their food writer, L.V. Anderson, proposed turning the summer zucchini bounty into a pureed vegetable soup, accented by roasted garlic and enriched by the addition of Boursin cheese. As you may recall, Boursin is one of my great weaknesses, and I happened to have a Costco multi-pack of it in my fridge as I read Anderson's recipe. I knew right away that I needed to make this soup happen as soon as possible.

As luck would have it, zucchini went on sale at Dominick's this week for less than a dollar a pound, so I dutifully gathered two pounds worth (it must not be a very dense vegetable, because it took a seemingly ridiculous amount of squash to reach that weight), and arrived at the conclusion that this would indeed be a good recipe to rid oneself of an excess of zucchini.

That assessment was only bolstered by the fact that the soup itself was delicious. I'm not sure that zucchini itself was the dominant flavor, since the vegetable doesn't have a particularly assertive taste in the first place, but it added some nice body to the vegetable puree. The predominant flavor of the soup was the sweetness of roasted garlic and just barely caramelized onions. Boursin brought a characteristic creaminess to the table, while adding some herbal complexity. I preferred it as a garnish, however, because I could taste it more.

It did take me longer than expected to get dinner on the table using this recipe, so it might work better as a weekend meal for most people. I think it would also freeze well, if you left out the Boursin and melted some into the soup upon reheating. That way, you could extend the spoils of your summer zucchini harvest for as long as you like, in addition to having a delicious meal ready to go at any time.

In fact, this soup was so tasty, I'd recommend giving it a try even if you don't need to be rescued from the zucchini taking over your yard. If you need to go to the store and buy some, like me, don't be ashamed. I'm sure your non-gardening friends would be overjoyed if you shared a batch of this soup with them.

Roasted Zucchini and Garlic Soup
adapted from Slate

2 small heads of garlic
2 lbs. zucchini, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 large onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil
5 c. chicken or vegetable stock, plus more as needed
1 5 oz. package of Herb & Garlic Boursin cheese

Preheat the oven to 425°F.
1. Separate the heads of garlic into cloves and peel each clove. Toss the garlic, zucchini, and onion with the olive oil and a little salt and pepper on a 13- by 18-inch baking sheet (or two smaller baking sheets). Roast, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until fully tender and golden brown, about 45 minutes.
2. Turn off the oven. Scrape the vegetables into a large pot and add the stock. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, add about half the Boursin, and purée with an immersion blender (adding a little more stock if the mixture is too thick). Taste and adjust the seasoning, then serve garnished with the remaining Boursin.


Love And Some Verses...

I know I've said this before, but I am a very lucky woman. I share a home with an amazing man, whom I not only find devastatingly handsome, but with whom I share much in common. I truly enjoy spending time with Justin, and am thankful every day to have him to make me laugh, cook meals together, and to share adventures with. Yet, despite all of the things we have in common, opportunities for compromise regularly come to light, and thankfully, we've managed to handle them with grace so far.

Tonight, Justin accompanied me to Ravinia, not to see the symphony, as we did last year, but for an Iron & Wine concert. As I mentioned in my assessment of classical music from last year's Ravinia visit, "My favorite part of listening to music is the craft of songwriting, and hearing how different artists combine words to not only sound harmonious together, but to evoke very tangible emotional responses." This is particularly true of Iron & Wine, whose hauntingly poetic music has been a part of my life for many years.

I started listening to Iron & Wine, the stage name of folk-rock artist Sam Beam, during my freshman year of college, when his cover of "Such Great Heights" by The Postal Service was included in the soundtrack to Garden State. Not only did the movie make quite an impression on me (I know a lot of people find it trite and overwrought, but it really spoke to me at the age of 19, and I still love it it for that nearly a decade later), but the soundtrack from the film basically became the background music to my life. All thirteen songs on the album made it onto the "25 Most-Played Songs" on my brand-new third-generation iPod.

Nineteen-year-old me thought "Such Great Heights" was possibly the most romantic song ever, so I quickly sought out the rest of Iron & Wine's repertoire, and fell in love. The low-fi production values and soft, quiet melodies made it the perfect music to study to, or fall asleep to during the bouts of insomnia I frequently suffered when I was younger. His lyrics were poetic, and seemed to come from a different time and place. As a result, his songs transported me to a calmer, more relaxing place, and I was hooked.

Over time, Beam's style has evolved, and I can't say I've always been a fan of his evolution. I liked the unpolished, scratchy nature of his early recordings -- it created a greater sense of intimacy for me, as if I were there in his bedroom with him while he recorded songs on a tape deck. Now he's added more session musicians to his work, and the production values are cleaner, and more pop-oriented.

Still, when I saw that Iron & Wine was coming to Ravinia, I wanted to go, not only for the sake of nostalgia, but because there are so seldom modern, interesting acts that appear there. Justin gets a discount on Ravinia tickets through his new job, so I asked him to pick up a pair for us, though it took some gentle persuading. You see, while Justin possesses an appreciation for classical music that I do not, he absolutely can't stand Iron & Wine. He claims the music makes him sleepy, and refuses to listen to it in the car. 

Justin is somewhat of an audiophile, so the low-fi style of Iron & Wine's early recordings (precisely the ones I enjoy the most), drives him crazy. While I have invested a lot of time over the years listening carefully to the music on headphones, Justin alleges that he can't make out any of the lyrics. In fact, he does a hilarious impression of early Sam Beam, in which he pretends to pluck a banjo and mumbles incoherently about how indecipherable his words are. Maybe it's something you have to see to understand...

Sam Beam is the heavily bearded fellow on the right.
So it was very big of Justin to tag along for tonight's show, and truth be told, I think he enjoyed the evening more than he expected. The opening act was Dr. John, the New Orleans music legend, which appealed to Justin's tastes more than mine. I wasn't a huge fan of Iron & Wine's new sound, which was much more rock and pop-influenced than it once was, to the extent that he has rearranged most of his old songs to suit his new style. I was excited to hear a couple of my favorite songs, "Naked As We Came," and "Jesus, the Mexican Boy," but I was only able to recognize them by listening to the words. True, they may have been musically superior and better enunciated, but the mood of the music was completely different.

My favorite moment of the entire evening was actually the encore, when Beam performed alone, without his band. He played the epic ballad, "The Trapeze Swinger," perhaps my favorite song of his, and perfectly captured the spirit of the original. I get that musicians grow as artists, and that their evolution over time is necessary to their work. I also don't feel that, as a listener, one is obligated to follow a singer through their entire career. There's nothing wrong with liking an artist only during a certain period in their career. For example, I don't think there's any shame in admitting that I think Paul McCartney's best work was with the Beatles, not with Wings, and certainly not during his solo career. I feel the same way about Iron & Wine.

I'm glad a got a chance to see Sam Beam in concert, and to hear some of my favorite Iron & Wine songs performed live. I'm even more glad that Justin was willing to take one for the team and tag along. It means a lot to me to have a partner who is open to compromise, and willing to try new things. Thanks, babe!


The Proof Is In The Pudding...

The first time I visited Paris, I was eleven years old, and I had been eager to visit the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and to see the paintings of the Impressionists, with whom I was obsessed at the time. I wouldn't develop my interest in food for nearly another decade, and I was happy to eat croissants and drink impossibly rich cups of hot chocolate. 

My palate was far less developed at that point in my life, so when we engaged in an epic taxi journey to a restaurant on the outskirts of the city that had been recommended by one of Dad's well-traveled friends, we both found ourselves scratching our heads and wondering what all the fuss was about. The waitstaff there spoke no English, so we were on our own to figure out what we should eat. After what seemed like an incredibly average meal to me, it was time to select a dessert, so I went with the one word I recognized -- chocolate. 

What I had ordered turned out to be a chocolate pot de crème, and when I sampled my first spoonful, I exclaimed something along the lines of, "It's French chocolate pudding!" Pudding was just fine with eleven-year-old me, but it didn't seem especially fancy, given my conception of French desserts at the time.

It would be years before I encountered pots de crème again, but I've recently noticed it popping up on more and more menus as contemporary comfort food has become increasingly trendy.What could be more comforting than a cool, rich bowl of creamy pudding?  Pudding is the sort of dessert that your mom or grandma whipped up for you throughout your childhood and pre-packaged pudding cups were a ubiquitous addition to school lunches for pretty much everyone I knew. Slapping a French name on a bowl of pudding means that restaurants can charge more for it, and they usually do.

I'd been meaning to use our new ramekins to make some pots de crème of my own lately, and this weekend I decided to do just that. I was originally tempted by a recipe I'd seen for Mexican chocolate pots de crème, since I still have more Ibarra hanging out in my pantry, and chocolate seems like a natural match for pudding in my book. However, after last week's fudge, I figured many of you might be suffering from Mexican chocolate fatigue, and decided to go with another recipe that has been lingering on my Pinterest dessert board for quite a while now for maple pots de crème.

I was a little skeptical about maple pudding, but maple is one of my favorite flavors in general, and I just happened to have all the ingredients for it in my pantry, including the hard-to-find-in-the-Midwest maple sugar, so it seemed meant to be. When I told Mom about my plan, she was actually reassuring for once (much of the time, she finds my food and flavor experiments to be a silly waste of time and perfectly good food), as she recounted a memory of a now-discontinued maple Jello pudding flavor that she once found quite tasty.

With the exception of some oven issues that led to some uneven cooking of the puddings despite my use of a water bath, the pots de crème turned out with a lovely, subtle maple flavor. Unsurprisingly, I particularly enjoyed the caramelized almond topping, with added not only some nice crunch, but a pleasantly toasty nut flavor to the mix. Is there anything that can't be improved by the addition of caramel? I think not.

Next time I'm in the mood for pudding, I'll definitely be staying away from the stuff in the box and making something from scratch. I'm keen to give that Mexican chocolate recipe a chance, but maple was an unexpectedly delightful change of pace. The nice thing about these elegant, individual desserts is that they would make a perfect dinner party dessert; everyone gets their own portion and they can be made in advance and served chilled. I can see why they've gained so much traction in the restaurant industry lately...

Maple Pots de Crème with Almond Praline
adapted from Bon Appètit

For Praline:
2 tablespoons slivered almonds, toasted
3 tablespoons white sugar
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon light corn syrup
pinch of kosher salt

For Pudding:
6 large egg yolks
1/3 c. maple sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon maple extract
pinch of kosher salt
1 1/2 c. heavy whipping cream

For Praline:
1. Push almonds together in 4-inch square on a piece of parchment paper. 
2. Stir sugar, 1 tablespoon water, corn syrup, and coarse salt in small heavy saucepan over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat; boil without stirring until syrup is dark amber, occasionally swirling pan and brushing down sides with wet pastry brush, about 5 minutes. Immediately pour caramel evenly over almonds, coating completely. Let stand until cold and hard, about 30 minutes. Break praline into pieces or process to coarse crumbs. Can be made up to four days in advance and kept in an airtight container at room temperature.

For Pudding:
Preheat oven to 325°F. 
1. Arrange four 3/4-cup ramekins or custard cups in 13x9x2-inch metal baking pan. Whisk yolks, both sugars, extract, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in cream. Divide pudding among ramekins. Pour enough hot water into baking pan to come halfway up sides of ramekins. 
2. Bake puddings until center is just set, about 35 minutes. Transfer to work surface; let stand 15 minutes. Chill uncovered until cold, at least 2 hours. 
3. Cover; chill overnight. 
4. Sprinkle praline over chilled pudding to serve.


Once You Go Black...

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that, "The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost." While I'm all for appreciating one's significant other and not taking people for granted, I think Chesterton must not have eaten very much sorbet in his lifetime. Because what better way is there to foster an appreciation for any given fruit than to turn it into a bowl of icy, refreshing sorbet?

For me, sorbet has been a sort of gateway drug to the world of fruit; with enough sugar and a quick churn in the ice cream machine, I have come to enjoy the flavor of raspberries, which I previously never allowed to pass my lips in any context, and peaches, which I spent most of my life only eating from a can, preserved in light syrup. Though berries are still a tough sell for me on their own, I'm constantly on the lookout for new ways to incorporate peaches and nectarines into my summertime menu planning.

Over time, I've come to wonder if I could do the same thing with other fruits. Does sorbet truly have magical powers on the palate? It seemed like a worthy experiment.

With valuable freezer space being taken up by bags of frozen blackberries, I decided that there was no time like the present. Though I have won two new ice cream cookbooks from my favorite food blog, Serious Eats, since last summer, old habits died hard and I found myself looking to David Lebovitz, my favorite guru of frozen desserts for inspiration. The Perfect Scoop offered me a few different options to use up my blackberry stash, but I ultimately decided to go with with a combination of blackberry and lime, because limes are one of Justin's favorite fruits and we always have a substantial stock of them on hand.

Thankfully, I was able to enlist Justin's help with the usually interminable task of straining the seeds from the pureed fruit, and he demonstrated a surprising amount of skill with this chore. With his stronger arm muscles, he was able to work the puree through my fine-mesh sieve in a matter of minutes. Now that I know he can breeze through the most tedious part of sorbet-making with so much natural ease, we may just be eating sorbet more often around here -- it may be a dangerous skill for him to have!

I have to say though, this is not the recipe for blackberries to win me over. The lime flavor was very pronounced, and dominated everything. It was more of a purple lime sorbet than anything else, which might be fun for kids, but did little for me. This batch of sorbet was quite tart. It would make an excellent palate cleanser after a rich meal, and Justin adored the sour, citrus-y flavor, but it just wasn't my taste.

Going forward, I'd like to experiment with blackberries and peaches, perhaps, or maybe just a straight blackberry sorbet to see if I can get more into the unique flavor of this particular berry. If I'm in the market for a citrus-based sorbet (probably for Justin, or perhaps a dinner party), I'd probably stick with a single flavor there as well. In the meantime, Justin will just have to finish this batch of smooth, refreshing sorbet by himself, though I'm sure he won't mind too much...

Blackberry-Lime Sorbet
adapted from David Lebovitz

3/4 c. sugar
3/4 c. water
4 c. blackberries, fresh or frozen
3/4 c. freshly squeezed lime juice, from about 9 limes
1 tablespoon vodka

1. In a small saucepan, bring the water and sugar to a boil, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
2. Puree the blackberries in a blender or food processor with the sugar syrup. Press the mixture through a fine mesh strainer to remove the seeds, then stir in the lime juice into the sweetened puree.
3. Chill the mixture thoroughly, then churn it in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.


Candy Girl...

For me, candy-making is sort of the final frontier of my self-education in pastry arts. Though my decorating skills need some work, I can confidently conquer cakes, and I've got cookies, brownies, and blondies down pat. I've dabbled in yeast doughs, though bread-baking doesn't hold much appeal for me, and I'm happy to work with puff pastry and phyllo dough, though I think the people who make them from scratch are crazy.

Candy though, has always seemed intimidating. You need to carefully watch a thermometer for one thing, usually while monitoring a vigorously bubbling pot of molten sugar. My deep and abiding love for all things salted-caramel has led me to garner some skills in caramel making, at least, but I'm still too intimidated to try making the famous caramels that Grandma Betsy gives away at Christmas, even though I've had the recipe for years now. I've been tapped to be her successor in making them, but for now, I'm just not willing to take up the mantle just yet.

I did, however, spot a recipe the other day for fudge made with Ibarra, the Mexican chocolate that I had to purchase for my Cinco de Mayo chocolate tart, and while the tart was definitely good enough to make again, I was forced to buy a sufficiently large package that I've been on the lookout for other things to do with it besides turn it into hot chocolate. (Though, given the unseasonably cold and rainy weather we're having here, a steaming mug of hot chocolate doesn't actually sound that bad.) Fudge sounded particularly appealing at the moment, because I'm deep in the midst of my monthly conversion into a temporary chocoholic, and I've been craving a chocolate fix like a junkie needs crack.

Hence, I thought I'd give the recipe a try, despite my lack of candy-making experience. After all, the recipe was based on one from Alton Brown, and I trust his cooking wisdom implicitly. As it turned out, my faith was well-placed. Given the grainy texture of the Ibarra, and my lack of skills in this particular cooking arena, I was afraid the fudge would turn out grainy, like many homemade fudges I've sampled before. My fears were completely unfounded, as this batch turned out perfectly smooth and creamy, with a soft, unctuous texture that melted on the tongue.

My only problem was with the flavor, which I would have preferred to be more intense. Alton's original recipe called for unsweetened chocolate, but the combination of Ibarra and semi-sweet chocolate suggested by the blogger whose adaptation I followed was a little too sweet for my taste. In the future, I'd consider trying a combination of Ibarra and unsweetened chocolate, to see if it would give the fudge a more intense chocolatey taste. I would also add a bit more cayenne pepper; I was conservative with it this time around, but in the end, it was barely noticeable, even though the cinnamon came across loud and clear.

I omitted nuts this time, because they weren't in the recipe I was following, but in my family, we're partial to nuts with our fudge, and I missed their presence here. I happen to think that brownies and chocolate chip cookies are also improved by the addition of nuts, so I'm not sure why I decided to leave them out here, but I won't make that mistake in the future.

The fact that this recipe turned out so well, even without any prior experience with candy making, and despite being substantially adapted from the original, means that it is certainly one worth trying. Now that I have a batch successfully under my belt, I'm curious not only what I could produce by further tweaking this recipe, but what other types of candy I could make if I put my mind to it. Stay tuned to find out!

Ibarra Chile Fudge
adapted from Macheesmo

2 3/4 c. sugar
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate
2 oz. Ibarra chocolate
1/4 c. butter, divided in half
1 cup half and half
1 tablespoon corn syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pinch of salt
1 c. toasted pecans, chopped

1.Grease an 8 by 8-inch pan with butter.
2. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar, chocolate, 2 tablespoons of the butter, half-and-half, and corn syrup. Over medium heat, stir with a wooden spoon until sugar is dissolved and chocolate is melted. Increase heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and boil for 3 minutes.
3. Remove the cover and attach a candy thermometer to the pot. Cook until the thermometer reads 234 degrees.
4. Remove from the heat and add the remaining butter. Do not stir. Let the mixture cool for 10 minutes or until it drops to 130 degrees.
5. Add vanilla, cayenne, cinnamon and nuts, and mix vigorously with a wooden spoon until well-blended and the shiny texture becomes matte. Pour into the prepared pan. Let sit in cool dry area until firm. Cut into 1-inch pieces and store in an airtight container for up to a week.


Nothin' But A Good Time...

When books and stage productions get turned into movies, the results are often disappointing; the vision of the characters and their environs that we create in our minds is sometimes vastly different from that of a director. While alternate interpretations can be interesting, they are rarely satisfying. This year will see the release of a number of movies that have been adapted from books and the stage, and while I am looking forward to seeing them (the always interesting Baz Luhrmann is releasing a 3D version of The Great Gatsby this Christmas; my favorite book, the notoriously un-filmable On The Road will also see a cinematic release; and my favorite musical of all time, Les Misérables, will finally receive a long-overdue film version), my expectations are low.

For that reason, I usually prefer to see the movie first, and then go back and experience the original source material, though I know that puts me in the minority. Things didn't quite work out that way today, as Justin and I were able to score some $25 seats to Rock of Ages, the jukebox musical that tells a love story against the backdrop of the L.A. hair-metal scene of the late 1980s. 

Ever since the show first came to Chicago, I've been on the fence about seeing it. I tend not to like jukebox musicals. Occasionally, they rise to be more than the sum of their parts, and tell a compelling story, as in Mama Mia! More often than not, however, they seem like an excuse to cram as many songs by a given artist into a show, so they can live another profit-bringing life. Movin' Out, the jukebox musical build around the music of Billy Joel, is perhaps the worst offender in terms of stringing together a vapid, uninteresting plot in the name of employing as many songs as possible.

I did pick up a bit of that vibe from Rock of Ages, which draws material from a range of hair metal bands and 80's artists, including Bon Jovi, Poison, Whitesnake, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, and Twisted Sister. While some of the choices seemed a little excessive/unnecessary, they mainly served to further the plot. The story arc may have been on the frivolous side, but the kitsch and constant poking fun at the 80's music scene was part of the fun.

The cast was far from the most talented group of performers I've seen on stage lately, but they almost made up for it with their tremendous energy. This particular production of Rock of Ages benefited greatly from being staged at the Broadway Playhouse Theater, the relatively small space located in the back of the Water Tower Place shopping mall. Not only does the intimate venue ensure that there are no bad seats, in this case, it gave the audience greater opportunity to feed off the energy of the performers. People readily clapped in time to the music, sang along, and fired up the cigarette lighter-shaped flashlights that had been distributed by the ushers. It's safe to say the audience was really into it.

All in all, the show made for a very entertaining and enjoyable evening. The production, as is the case with many touring casts, was very stripped down, with a minimum of sets and actors. I could see how it would be better as a movie, with a larger budget for increased production values. From watching the trailer, it's also evident that the plot has undergone considerable revision for the movie, which I can only hope will allow for a smidge more character development, which I think would greatly improve the show. 

For a fun evening out, I would readily recommend Rock of Ages, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how it compares to the movie. I'll be sure to let you know when I find out...


Girl Meets Grill...

All things considered, I had an incredibly productive weekend. Not only did I see two movies, but I also ran a number of errands and scratched several items off my to-do list. Justin and I headed to Home Depot, found some planters that match our apartment, bought some soil, and Justin re-potted all of our plants. Aside from looking better and more cohesive with our decor, most of our botanical menagerie was long overdue for new housing anyway.

While we were at Home Depot, Justin also purchased our long-awaited grill, which we've been talking about buying practically since we moved in. I actually don't like grilled food that much, as I find its charred flavor unappealing, but I find myself frequenting employing my grill pan to make all sorts of dishes. Given our questionable ventilation system, I manage to fill the house with smoke practically every time I pull out the grill pan, so I've been eager to move the entire process outdoors.

Plus, for the time being, the condo adjacent to ours is vacant, as it moves through the foreclosure process. Because we share a deck with it and another unit, we've been eager to snag a prime location for our grill while the competition is minimal. As of today, the spot officially belongs to our new Weber.

That doesn't mean that we've had the time to assemble it, however, so for tonight's "grilled" chicken, I had to turn to my stove top one last time. Predictably, our living room filled up with smoke, and the sticky, sweet glazed burned onto the surface of the pan, making it a nightmare to clean afterward. Next time, we will definitely be making this dish outside.

Despite my bias against grilled food, I actually rather enjoyed this dinner. It's hard to go wrong with peaches/nectarines as far as I'm concerned, and cooking them quickly over high heat seemed to intensify their sweetness. I was relieved that the glaze tasted strongly of peaches, because when I stirred the ingredients together it smelled overwhelmingly of barbeque sauce. It may be downright un-American of me to say, but I absolutely hate barbeque sauce. I think it has a lot to do with my strong aversion to molasses, but other than that, I can't really put my finger on why I loathe it so.

Thankfully, the adobo sauce from the chipotles, which added the color and smokey notes of conventional barbeque sauce, was ultimately quite subtle in the dish. In fact, I think Justin was disappointed that the dish wasn't spicier, after I'd told him that it contained chipotles. In the future, I might experiment with adding a bit more adobo.

Once we get our new Weber up and running, I'm looking forward to giving this recipe another chance. Keep a lookout for more grill-friendly recipes as the summer progresses!

Grilled Chicken and Nectarines with Chipotle-Peach Dressing
adapted from Bon Appétit

1/3 c. peach preserves
1/3 c. peach nectar
4 teaspoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons adobo sauce from a can of chipotle peppers
2 teaspoons olive oil plus additional for brushing
3 large nectarines, cut into 8 wedges
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1. Coat grill rack with nonstick spray. Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat). Stir preserves, next 3 ingredients, and 2 teaspoons oil in medium bowl; season dressing with salt and pepper. Transfer 1/4 cup dressing to small bowl.
2. Brush peaches, then chicken with oil and dressing from small bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
3. Grill chicken until cooked through, to 165 degrees. Grill peaches until slightly charred, about 2 minutes per side.
4. Place 1 chicken breast on each of 4 plates. Surround with peaches. Drizzle dressing from medium bowl over chicken and peaches.


Where's The Beef...

You may or may not have noticed that we don't eat a lot of beef around here. Besides the ground beef that gets turned into spaghetti sauce and burritos, I'm just not sure what to do wit it. I recently discovered that I can turn flank steak into a mind-blowing stir-fry with snow peas, but other than that, it seems like most beef recipes go one of two directions: grilling it and serving it in unadulterated steak form, which is problematic as I don't own a grill, or baking an enormous roast fit for 8-10 people. Neither of those choices really fit my lifestyle, and I'm not a huge fan of stew either. Plus, beef is crazy expensive, which makes me reluctant to experiment with it.

Still, a few enticing beef recipes have found their way into my recipe queue, leaving me to bide my time until I could find some reasonably priced meat. Memorial Day, which is apparently the official kickoff to summer grilling season, brought with it a "Buy $20 worth of beef, get $5 back," promotion at my local grocery store, so I went on two separate days to stock up. With my freezer bursting at the seams with various cuts of meat, I decided this weekend that it was time to delve right in.

For starters, I chose a dish from Saveur that I've had my eye on for quite some time. As I've mentioned, a Saveur recipe that can be made without a trip to a specialty grocery store is rare thing indeed, and this one was particularly unusual in that I happened to have all the ingredients in my fridge and pantry, except for the beef and some fresh basil leaves, which I only purchase on an as-needed basis. With the beef on hand, throwing this meal together was a cinch, though it still took some time.

I enlisted Justin's help in pounding out the steaks to 3/16" inch thickness, as he has more experience in wielding a meat tenderizer than I do, after years of making schnitzel with his family. From there, all I had to do was sprinkle the beef with seasonings, cheese, and prosciutto, roll them up, and secure them with toothpicks, which was actually somewhat fun. The meat braised in a simple cooking liquid for over and hour, leaving the majority of the prep time for the recipe hands-off.

Justin really enjoyed this dinner, though I felt that it was a bit on the salty side. The recipe had called for seasoning the steaks with salt prior to rolling them up, but I feel like that was overkill in light of the Pecorino cheese that was also part of the stuffing. The sauce, however, was deeply flavored, in spite of its simplicity. 

Sadly, I had to inform Justin that I wasn't sure when he would get to experience this meal again, despite how much he enjoyed it. Not only is it rare for us to find affordable beef, but there are so many recipes in my experimentation queue that we repeat dishes very infrequently. Still, I could definitely see myself recreating this dish for a special occasion, or when I want to do something to make Justin particularly happy. It's always nice to have a pleasant surprise up your sleeve for the person you love, don't you think?

Stuffed Beef in Tomato Sauce
adapted from Saveur

4 4 oz. beef scallopine from top round, pounded to 3/16" thickness
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 c. finely grated Pecorino Romano
4 thin slices prosciutto
7 fresh basil leaves
1/4 c. olive oil
1 onion, minced
1/4 c. tomato paste
1 1/2 c. beef broth
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes

1.Working with one piece of beef at a time, season beef with salt and pepper and rub with 1⁄2 tsp. garlic. Sprinkle with 1 tbsp. Pecorino; top with 1 piece of prosciutto and a basil leaf. Working from one short edge of beef, roll beef into a cylinder. Secure with toothpicks. Repeat to make 4 rolls; set aside.
2Heat oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add beef; cook, turning, until browned, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Reduce heat to medium; add onions and remaining garlic; cook until soft, 5–6 minutes. Add tomato paste; cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of beef broth; return pan to medium-high heat. Cook until broth has evaporated, about 1 minute. Add remaining broth and bring to a boil. Add beef and remaining basil; bring to a boil; reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer until beef is tender, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Transfer beef to 2 plates and remove toothpicks; cover with foil. Add tomatoes to skillet, bring to a boil, and season with salt and pepper. To serve, uncover beef and ladle tomato sauce over the top.


Science Fiction Double Feature...

Okay, so technically, only one of the two movies I saw today was science fiction, but how could I resist that title?

Usually, my goal for any given year is to see at least twelve movies in theaters, or one every month. Until today, I was woefully behind, having only seen two movies so far in 2012. This sorry state of affair has partially been due to being consumed with moving and settling in for the first three months of the year, but also partially because there haven't been that many movies this year so far that I was interested in seeing. Now that we're nearly fully settled into our new home, and summer movie season already seems to be in full swing, I have no excuses on either front, so today I thought I would kill two birds with one stone.

Though most of my movie watching comes in the form of date nights these days, there are still old family habits and traditions that are worth keeping. For instance, for most of my life I've seen superhero movies with my dad, as they are by and large the only action movies I really enjoy, and Dad has had a thing for superheros ever since he was into comic books as a boy. With a spate of superhero movies coming out this summer, I left Justin and Dad to decide how to divide my time, and they settled on an arrangement by which I'd see The Avengers with Dad, and The Amazing Spiderman with Justin. I have no idea what I'll do about The Dark Knight Rises, other than than go with both of them at the same time, or see it twice.

I also wanted to see Men In Black 3 with my mom, since I had seen the previous two films with her when I was in middle and high school (I'm officially old now, and I knew she was interested in rounding out the trilogy. Since yesterday was technically her actual birthday, even though we celebrated it last weekend, today seemed like an appropriate time to come spend time with her, and since I'd already be up in the burbs at the movie theater, I figured I'd scratch The Avengers off my list as well.

Even though neither film could be considered a cinematic masterpiece, both were perfectly entertaining summer blockbusters, with dynamite special effects. The Men In Black franchise may have been more exciting when I was younger, when computer generated special effects were more impressive than they are now that they're ubiquitous. There were plenty of funny moments, though the time travel premise was a little much for me to swallow. It felt at times that the writers of the screenplay hadn't ever picked up a history book. In 1969, Will Smith gets pulled over for driving while black, but then not more than 30 minutes later, we're supposed to believe that his long-lost father was a high ranking military official in charge of the Apollo 11 launch? I don't think so.

Still,  Josh Brolin was perfectly cast as a young Tommy Lee Jones. He was so convincing, you'd think he was his real-life son. Will Smith seems to be gaining gravitas with age, so his jokes weren't quite as funny as they were ten years ago, but he still delivered an acceptable performance. Nobody really acted their heart out, or delivered any particularly memorable lines, but it wasn't really that kind of movie.

Much was the same with The Avengers. Though Joss Whedon should be commended for making a movie that managed to balance an ensemble cast made of characters that have all starred in their own films, none of the individual superheros particularly stood out. Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man was full of sass, as usual, and Captain America came off as predictably self-righteous. The Hulk may have actually gotten the best lines of the bunch, including a scene where he tosses Loki, the villain, around like a rag doll. I wasn't really expecting much from Black Widow or Hawkeye, and I wasn't disappointed, but I would have preferred to have seen better usage of Thor, as I actually enjoyed his eponymous film quite a bit, even if it was ridiculous at times.

I don't think The Avengers was the end-all, be-all superhero movie that it was hyped to be, but it certainly provided a solidly entertaining experience for a summer afternoon. The special effects were breathtaking, and the action was balanced with a perfect amount of humor. I'm going to hold out for The Dark Knight Rises to be blown away by a summer blockbuster, since the grittier, darker style of that franchise suits me better. My tastes will always lean towards the moody, Academy Award fodder that is released during the winter months, but until then, I will do my best not to fall too behind on my annual quota of Hollywood releases.