Test Kitchen Community
What Does a Test Cook Eat All Day Anyway?
One of our books team test cooks kept track of everything he ate over the course of one week. You've never seen a food diary like this before.
12-14-2016
Russell Selander

Associate editor Russell Selander has been a member of the America's Test Kitchen books team for three years, during which he's worked on more than a dozen of our best-selling cookbooks. His favorite books to work on have been Cook it In Cast Iron and The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook. He enjoys simple preparations—a fresh oyster with a few drops of lemon juice, or a humble plate of charcuterie, cheese, and bread.


 

Developing recipes for America's Test Kitchen's book team is a pleasure—I get to eat a wide array of delicious foods from cuisines from across the globe. One day we might be developing a recipe for Moroccan-style couscous, and the next we might be tasting several variations of classic lasagna. Every day is different, and that keeps things fresh and exciting.

While we get to sample a lot of different types of food during the recipe development process, we also must eat a lot of everything we cook in order to zero in on the best possible version of a given recipe. Curious to know just how much I eat at work, I decided to keep a food diary for a week. The answer was—unsurprisingly—a ton. 

Monday

I started my day with breakfast, which consisted of 4 over-easy eggs and a cup of tea. I prefer coffee, but I’d taken a break for the week. I was feeling good. I was working at my desk on this particular day, so no recipe development for me.

First up were some just-out-of-the oven biscuits made for our upcoming book, Food Processor Perfection. A call came through on the intercom letting us know what book the tasting was for, and what recipe we were about to taste. With a little honey (or jam or butter), the biscuits were irresistible. I ate three.

Some time passed as I was working and we got a call for a tasting for another book we’re developing, The Complete Make-Ahead Cookbook. A team member had mushroom and barley stew ready for tasting. This was a fresh version—we like to taste a freshly prepared version of a recipe first to hammer out any kinks like flavor, texture, sauciness, etc., and then we test how making it ahead affects the recipe. We’ll often then conduct a side by side tasting of a freshly made version and one made the day before, two days before, three days before, or frozen. This particular tasting was a little too dry to be called a stew—it was more of a rich barley salad with tender mushrooms. The flavors were fantastic, but it wouldn’t fit in the soups and stews chapter unless we changed it drastically. At that point it’s up to the editors to move it to another chapter, or cut it from the book entirely.

Another call: butternut squash puree for the Make-Ahead book. Delicious—hard to go wrong with a simple, yet flavorful, recipe.

Lunch time came and went, and I was too full to even notice.

Pasta bake with broccoli rabe for Make-Ahead came next. While pasta bakes are not my thing, this was very tasty. The pasta was not completely blown out, albeit a little soft, and the broccoli rabe was just tender, but very bitter (as is expected). The chicken was overcooked and the pasta was not saucy enough. The recipe would need some more testing before it made it into the pages of the book. 

At about 3 o’clock we got another call: apple and pumpkin pie (two of each pie) for the Make-Ahead book. We compared from-frozen apple and from-frozen pumpkin pies to their fresh counterparts. We thought the fresh were better, but the frozen pies were also up to snuff.

Back at my desk, I was contemplating whether I would eat any dinner that night when another call came in. More pasta bake with broccoli rabe! The chicken was overcooked again, so we opted to take it out and sub in sausage. Cooking it less wasn’t an option as the pasta and broccoli rabe would be too firm. Pre-cooking the pasta or broccoli rabe longer was an option, but more fussy and the recipe would not line up with other pasta bakes in the book. The sauciness was nice; the flavors were rich and deep. A lot of food, but just another Monday in the test kitchen.

Taco dip, anyone?

First up were some just-out-of-the oven biscuits. They were irresistible, so I ate three.

Tuesday

I started the day with a large bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats with milk, and a cup of tea, before getting to work in the kitchen.

At about 10 o’clock, the Tastings and Testings team were testing watermelon slicers, so there were a lot of watermelon pieces up for grabs. I grabbed a large bowl—it was very good watermelon for that late in the season.

The Cook’s Country team was practicing their recipes for the filming of the 2017 television season in the kitchen. There were some extra parmesan-cheese-crusted potatoes; I hovered by the tasting until it was okay to take one. I then took numbers two, three, and four.

Lunch time came and there was a call for Make-Ahead: chili times two. We tasted fresh chili and day-old chili—not surprisingly, the day-old was a little better! The meat was slightly more tender and the flavors had more time to meld, adding depth.

Once we finished the chili, another team member had a tasting: pumpkin pie! Classic and super tasty, and the crust was still crunchy—nothing to change.

Next up was a call for Make-Ahead: day-old roasted poblano soup. Everything about the soup was great—the corn was still toothsome, and the poblanos had not become slimy, but were still tender and potent. It’s a warm, slightly spiced, lean soup. Perfect for any season.

Another Make-Ahead call. This time we ate baked pasta with sausage and broccoli rabe. The broccoli rabe was super bitter—it was blanched instead of cooked in the pasta bake from raw. We liked the change from chicken to sausage.

Now it was my turn to force a bunch of team members to eat. I was testing a recipe for baked pasta with corn and tomatoes for Make-Ahead. We ate it fresh—instead of day-old—the first time around. It was a little dry, and there was corn cooked with cream and pureed that resulted in an unappetizing pulp in the pasta. We wanted more tomatoes, which were delicious and balanced the richness of the cream with their tart bites. We decided taking out the laborious step of pureeing the corn would make the recipe easier. To keep the sauce flavorful, I’d instead cook the corn kernels in the cream briefly. We also decided I should add additional broth, double the amount of tomatoes, and double the amount of thyme. It seemed like a lot of big changes, but the recipe was close. Once we’re tweaking a little bit of flavor or adding a bit of this or subtracting a bit of that, that usually means the recipe is almost finished.  

Sharing a laugh with my coworker, Afton Cyrus, during a tasting for baked pasta with corn and tomatoes.

Wednesday

Lawman Johnson, one of my team members who is working on a different book—our upcoming Complete Slow Cooker book, coming in October of 2017—made a heaping plate of steak and eggs for breakfast that was too much for him. I happily accepted half before heading into the kitchen.

The first call of the day was for day-old tomato soup. It tasted great, as expected.

I made the second call of the day: garden vegetable pasta sauce. It was a little too loose—the sauce did not cling to the pasta. We liked the tomatoes, but thought we wanted some that didn’t completely break down. I headed back to the kitchen to make some tweaks.

The photo team put some pizza onto the counter for anyone to eat. I made sure to grab a slice; it wasn’t long before the cutting board was picked clean.

The next call was for another soup: roasted poblano, two days old. Still good!

My next attempt at garden vegetable pasta sauce went a little better. The sauce was deeply flavored, but reserving some tomatoes to add in later meant less of them broke down which meant the sauce was less clingy to the pasta. We thought the amount of sauce was right, however, which means I was correct with the amount of vegetable broth I took out of the recipe. The bell peppers, carrots, and zucchini were all perfectly cooked and were a good size for eating with pasta. Umami-rich porcini mushrooms added good depth without making the sauce “mushroomy.” Someone suggested adding in cremini mushrooms instead, but we thought it might not work for a garden vegetable soup because you can’t really grow your own mushrooms. Sticking with porcinis, what I consider a pantry staple, seemed like the best route.

Food Processor biscotti was next up. It had the right consistency, texture, and flavor. I wish, pretentiously, I had had a little cappuccino to go with it. I grabbed a cup of tea, but it wasn’t the same.

The final call was for truffles (the chocolate kind) from the Food Processor book—not a bad way to end the day. I smuggled some home to my wife.

Here, I call my fellow book team members to come taste a plate of lamb meatballs.

Thursday

I ate leftover biscuits for breakfast with a cup of tea. I’d barely settled in before there was a call for roasted poblano soup. It was three days old and it was still great!

The next tasting was for my garden vegetable pasta sauce, which I’d made the day before and refrigerated. It reheated without complication. We really thought the zucchini would be overcooked if reheated, but it wasn’t. People wanted me to grate parmesan and serve it with the pasta—cheese makes everything better.

The next call was for pesto pasta this time. One day-old, one fresh. The fresh version looked better, but they tasted exactly the same. When this is the case, there’s nothing left to do but continue tasting the dish day after day.

Then came another tomato soup tasting—it stores well, I think this was its third day in the fridge.

A call for a salad recipe for the Make-Ahead book came through next! I was happy because it seemed like this might be a healthy day in the test kitchen. It was for Caesar salad. Not the most vegetable forward salad—but it was a salad nevertheless, and anchovies are healthy, right? Anyway, the dressing was two days old and the fish taste was getting stronger. Stirring in lemon juice helped dramatically. Croutons were tooth crackingly hard—it’s something we’d need to figure out.

A call for a farro salad for the Make-Ahead book came next. It was tasty, but the dressing became muted the longer it sat. We decided we should reserve some dressing for stirring into the salad when we wanted to taste it next, rather than dumping it all in at the beginning. We’d try that next.

The Tastings and Testings team were tasting more watermelons, so there were more watermelon cubes. I think I ate more than a watermelon’s worth.

The photo team then dropped some Beef Wellington off on the space on the counter where we put food that is up for grabs. It was incredible. I went back for seconds. And thirds.

Then came a baked pasta call for Make-Ahead: baked ziti with mushrooms. It was flavorful, but we wanted it to be saucier. There was too much cream in it; it seemed too rich. We ate it again a little bit later. It seemed to us like it should be a weeknight dinner if it could be made that fast—that’s always a good sign. It was very flavorful the second time around. I had seconds, as did everyone else. 

Though I had a rough idea of the amount of food I eat each week in the test kitchen, keeping a diary brought it all into sharp focus.

Friday

Breakfast was an overpriced chocolate croissant from the bakery next to my home. I ate it with a cup of tea.

The first call of the day was for biscuits from the Food Processor book. They were perfect—I stashed a few away to take home to my wife. After a couple minutes, I ate two more. It seemed I’d be taking less home to my wife.

The Cook’s Country team was testing their TV recipes again. This time it was fried peach hand pie. Spectacular.

Next up: pesto pasta for the Make-Ahead book. It was the same story as the day before: the flavor was great, but the fresh one looked brighter green than the multi-day-old one. Again, it was still tasty and acceptable.

The test cooks working on the soup chapter for Make-Ahead then called for four soups. First was a roasted red pepper soup. It was great—absolutely one of my favorite soups (and I'm not just saying that because it's a make-ahead adaptation of a recipe I created for the Complete Mediterranean book). Because of the bulgur, the day-old version was not as good—the bulgur absorbed too much liquid, got too big, and got too mushy. The solution was to keep the bulgur out and stir it in when reheating the soup. I took an extra bowl to snack on later.

The next soup was fish stew. It was a bit seafood-y—the fish flavor was getting stronger, but all the vegetables and flavors held up after a day. I asked if we could serve it with lemon wedges.

The next soup was posole, a Mexican soup that often features hominy, which is nixtamalized corn (or corn treated with lye or slaked lime). Hominy is essentially corn kernels without their shell, and they puff up like popcorn when cooked. The soup was great—one of my favorites.

The final soup of the tasting was chickpea and escarole soup. It was the first time I’d tasted it, and it was very good. The chickpeas held up, the escarole added a pleasant bitterness, and the broth was very flavorful. A well-rounded soup.

I held a tasting next for my garden vegetable pasta again. This time we were tasting a from-frozen version. It did not go well. Somehow the zucchini was both mushy and chewy. (Guess you can’t freeze this one.) We decided we’d test a four day-old version the following Monday. (Update: It went so well, I secretly high-fived myself in my head.)

Later, a call for the Make-Ahead salad chapter came through: cannellini bean salad with sherry vinegar and red peppers. Very flavorful. The beans were tender and rich with an acidic dressing—it was very pleasant. The day-old version needed a bit more sherry vinegar added in.

The Cook’s Country team left some unguarded pulled pork tacos in the kitchen. As I passed the tacos, I caught eyes with Steve Klise, one of the test kitchen’s staff photographers—we both snuck a taco or two.

We noticed the Cook’s Country team was busy tasting flank steak tacos, so we hovered around until their tasting was over. There was plenty left over. Another taco down the hatch. Both the tacos were fantastic. Which was better you ask? Two different beasts, my friend, but they were both perfect in their own right.

Another salad for Make-Ahead: lentil salad with feta and herbs. This one was exquisite. Rich, tender lentils, topped with briny feta, and covered in a fresh, herby vinaigrette. I definitely grabbed a pint container to take some home.

Later, a nectarine and blackberry tart appeared on the counter. I wasn’t sure where it came from, but it didn’t matter. The slice I grabbed was bigger than my plate. I ate it like a big slice of pizza.

I made the last call of the week for Make-Ahead: defrosted mushroom bolognese heated up and tossed with pasta. It was exactly the same as fresh—no textural or flavor differences. Success! Finally, it was time to clean up and head home for the weekend.


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