Saturday, October 24, 2009

Gourmet Today: roasted pears and candied celery

Right before we went to Boston last week, we had party with my uncle Luis, his wife Ana Maria, and my grandmother. The only dish I made that didn't come from Gourmet Today was the guacamole (excellent Rick Bayless version with tomatillos) and the guests -- all natives of Guatemala -- informed me that this chunky Mexican guacamole lacked the suave, elegant texture of Guatemalan guacamole, which is essentially pureed and, of course, far superior. Having stated their case, they basically scraped the bowl clean of the barbaric Mexican guacamole and my grandmother took the dish to her place at the table and used the last bits as a relish for the rest of the meal.

 I served straciatella, a chicken soup with spinach and egg that was fine, and an eggplant souffle, that was also fine but didn't rise one centimeter, so I called it a frittata. I forced myself not to apologize.
 For dessert, we had roasted pears with candied celery because I wanted to taste candied celery.

To make this, you halve and core Bosc pears and lay them in a bed of sliced celery and pour over everything a lemony, sugary syrup spiked with expensive dessert wine. 

I used the cheapest dessert wine I could find (Moscato) and it cost $15 for a half bottle, which gave me pain.

 You roast the pears until tender, remove them from the oven and place them in a serving dish while you boil down the syrup and celery. When the celery is shiny, sticky, and almost jammy, you take it off the heat, pour it over the pears, and serve.

Like the rest of the meal it was fine; the celery tasted only vaguely of celery, mostly it was just achingly sweet. We enjoyed this novelty dish, but I'd never make it again and I'm worried that a lot of Gourmet Today recipes are going to fall into this category.
There's more to this story. Many months ago, I stated steeping vanilla using inexpensive beans I bought in bulk on amazon. Since I couldn't decide what liquor to use, I made three batches: one with dark rum, one with golden rum, one with vodka. I cut the beans into pieces, stuffed them into three jars, and added the booze. Then I let them sit and sit and sit.

To embellish the pears, I decided I would make custard sauce and divide it into four portions and flavor each with a different vanilla, including a supermarket vanilla. Then we would taste them all, discuss, and declare a winner.
I wish I could say there was a dramatic finale to the vanilla experiment, but you had to really concentrate if you wanted to detect a difference between the batches of custard sauce. There was a weak preference for the homemade vanilla made with light rum and I would say the dark rum was the loser. The supermarket vanilla was definitely the mildest, but I'm not sure that was a bad thing; it didn't overshadow the bright flavors of the milk and egg. 

Really, though, the differences were so subtle it was hard to make a case for any of these vanillas. I haven't priced it out, but on flavor alone, homemade vanilla -- at least as made by me -- is no better than McCormick's. 


A scene from our home a few minutes ago:

Owen: Mom! Dad!

Tipsy: Yes?

Owen: I asked the Magic 8 ball if any more of our chickens are going to die and he said, "My sources say no!"

Tipsy (heart sinking): That's wonderful.

Husband: Ask the Magic 8 ball if I am the handsomest dad in Tam Valley. 

Owen: Aaahh! He says "Don't count on it." Wait, let me try again.

I find nine to be a very sweet age.


  1. I hope you're not casting aspersions on the ability of the Magic 8 Ball to correctly forecast the future. If we don't have faith in the Magic 8 Ball, what do we have?

  2. Did you use a melon baller to scoop out those pears? They look perfect!

    Off topic, I'm attending a brand spanking new book club meeting on Thursday. I'm in charge of suggesting three books for us to read next. Any recommendations would be appreciated! I have to lead from whichever book is chosen. I also possibly may have to cook a meal suggestive of the book. (I didn't make any promises when *that* was brought up.) We're reading The Help for this first meeting and the host is making a Southern meal.

  3. You have become one of my "daily visit" pages - your writing is wonderful, and I find you extremely inspiring. I was sorry to read about your chickens, loved the story of your family and the salsa, and bought the fixings to make homemade yogurt because of the article you wrote on Slate a few months ago. Just wanted to say "thank you!" Best, Ida

  4. Layne -- I think I actually was casting aspersions, but I would never burst his bubble

    AzureSong -- I did use a melon baller. I felt very clever because it was the perfect tool. Does your group like to agree on books, or disagree? Only fiction? Here are some books I loved in the last few years: House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey, The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (my favorite!), What's the Matter with Kevin by Lionel Shriver. I think those are eminently discussable and also great books. Thematic meals might be challenging, but doable. Jonathan Safran Foer's new nonfiction book Eating Animals is also eminently discussable, though not indisputably great. Meal would be vegetarian.

    Ida -- thank-you! I hope you enjoy your homemade yogurt. I want to tell everyone to strain their yogurt. I think that's the crucial step.

  5. Thanks for the book recommendations! I'm going to look them up now. I'm not sure what the group will want since we haven't met yet.

  6. My husband and I have been making and using homemade vanilla for about 3 years now. We primarily use vodka as the base, though we have a batch of cognac and a batch of everclear (pure grain) based vanilla. At six months none of them seemed worth the time. At a year, the vodka and cognac versions were flavorful. The pure grain version is just plain nasty. We periodically add either vodka or new beans to the bottle we use as the "go to" extract. Three years later, it is much nicer than McCormick's because it is distinctive. However, over three years, there are probably the remains of 3 dozen bourboun vanilla beans in that fifth of vodka. I like the mellow quality of Mexican vanilla better, but since I don't have a reliable source for the real thing, and since I cringe everytime I see the price of the extracts around here, I am happy with our home-steeped version.

  7. Heather, That is interesting. I will not give up on my vanillas and maybe they will improve with age. I do think it is cheaper to make vanilla -- I probably spent $30 and ended up with a maybe a quart and a half. I should break it down more scientifically. All I know is that an equivalent amount of supermarket extract would be punishingly expensive.

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