Jenny Rosenstrach

Jenny Rosenstrach

Welcome to February’s edition of Burning Questions, wherein I attempt to solve all your culinary head-scratchers. Or, well, at least three of them! Thanks for the questions Caitlin, Ashley and Em…

“Is there a heart-shaped entrée, other than meatloaf?” — Caitlin B. (via Instagram)

That made me laugh and also sort of wince picturing it, even though I am a meatloaf fan of the highest order. But it’s a great question because while there are an absurd amount of heart-shaped desserts, even Pinterest is pretty disappointing with dinner options. Here are a few things that might work: Burgers (serve them with the top half of the bun on the side so your eaters can appreciate your hard, cute work); or a free-form tart (here is an onion option, but might want to look into tomato — read: red — options). If you have heart-shaped ramekins or cookie cutters, then the world is your oyster: Deploy them for mini chicken or vegetable pot-pies; pan-seared tofu patties; hand-pies (using store-bought pastry dough, stuffing with greens and cheese); any kind of vegetable fritter; or even a frittata. There is pizza, of course! And if you don’t want to deal with molding the dough into an actual heart, you can do it with the toppings. When my daughters were preteens and starting to not really care about Valentine’s Day, we made ‘sweetheart pizzas‘ and wrote messages out of salami for toppings, like ‘ILYSM’ and ‘XOXOXO.’ They were into that. Lastly, leave it to Molly Yeh to come up with heart-shaped matzo balls. (Or are they dumplings?) As if chicken soup is not already a big bowl of love?!

“How do you know when a recipe is good before you make it? Besides word of mouth, of course. Or is it still a guess from even the most experienced cooks amongst us?” — Em 

This is the best question because I think of myself as something of an experienced cook and yet I still get misled by recipes that sound good but wind up requiring intervention in the, you know, flavor department. The first person I turned to for advice was Samin Nosrat, the beloved, famously gifted cooking teacher and author of  Salt Fat Acid Heat. Samin told me that when she’s trying to determine if a recipe is going to be good, she looks for how detail-oriented the writer is. ‘Are they paying attention to the same things that I pay attention to? For example, things as simple as type of salt, are they naming the salts used? (Not all salts are created equal.) If it’s a baking recipe, are they telling you what oven rack you should use? Are they using sensory cues to help guide you along, rather than saying “this will be ready in exactly 22 minutes?”‘ Sensory cues are such an important part of recipe-writing, I agree. I also turned to Matt Rodbard, co-author of the tips-and-tricks treasure chest Food IQ. He recommends ‘being very judicious’ about the recipe’s source, especially when you are not familiar with the cuisine, flavors or concepts being presented. ‘There are incredible publications and websites that you can trust, including The Woks of Life, Artisan Bryan, Maangchi, David LebovitzYooeating and many others,” he says. “Also, as a rule, I always (always!) trust anything with the Ottolenghi co-sign.” I co-sign on that co-sign. Thanks Samin and Matt!

“FTLOG, what are good appetizers to bring to a gathering that are not chips and dips??” — Ashley

Thank you to Ashley for asking this just in time for Super Bowl. While I have nothing against chips and dips (particularly if you think outside of the chip and guac box with something like pita and roast vegetable blends), I agree that it’s fun to get a little ooooh and ahhh when you unveil your contribution to the spread. I feel certain I’ve mentioned Marissa Mullen’s That Cheese Plate project many times before, but she is a genius at helping any old schmo curate a beautiful cheese (and fruit and charcuterie) spread, often from the most humble shopping list, and even for the exact occasion you need. Lastly, I am a big fan of the make-ahead vegetable tart, whether I’m hosting or bringing, because they are fine at room temperature (better even) and when you slice them into squares it presents like a fussy hors d’oeuvre but without any of the fuss. Go, team!

Thanks, everyone! As always, feel free to comment with other burning questions below…

P.S. More burning questions, and the best same-day peasant bread.

(Photo by Christine Han. Illustrated background by Abbey Lossing.)