Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The feast of the seven fishes.

One of my favorite holiday traditions is the southern Italian "Festa de la Vigilia," or the Feast of the Vigil. On Christmas Eve, Italians gather as families to wait for the midnight birth of the Christ child. Since Christmas Eve is the last night of the penitential season of Advent, this is a fast day in the Roman Catholic Church. As such, no one can eat meat. So Italians being Italians, they eat fish. And lots of it. Seven types of fish, in fact. The fish represent the seven days of creation. Or the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Or the seven virtues. Or the seven deadly sins. Or seven of something important. Yes. This is my history. These are my roots. These are my people.

Well, not quite.

As I was doing research for this article, I found that this is actually an American tradition, not the quaint Italian one that I (and many, many other second- and third-generation Italian Americans) thought it was. I felt that a part of my childhood had been taken away from me. Surely I remembered Nonna and Zizi Angelina slaving away in the kitchen making a feast that would feed scores and last well into the night! That memory can't be false, can it? In desperation, I called my father. "Dad, I have a question. Did Nonna do the seven fishes?"

"No, she never did."

"What? But I remember her doing it! She made stuffed calamari and clams oreganata,  and scungilli marinara!"

"Nope. She did make octopus salad and bacala, and Nonno made eels, but that was it."

"So, when was the first time you heard about it?"

"Hmmmm. Freddy Larca first told me about it when we were working together."

"So you were an adult?"

"Yeah. Freddy and I didn't work together until I was in my 30s."

"Thanks, Dad."

Crestfallen, I hung up, and thought about my own family, and how, for the past 25 years, I've been making my own variation on the feast, creating my own memories of a youth that didn't exist.

But then, a Festivus miracle happened! I realized that what I'd done was to start my OWN tradition! One that my son may someday carry on (or not)! One that I could still talk about, and write about, and share with you!

You can make any kind of fish, of course, but here are some of my favorite recipes. I'll provide recipes for some of the dishes listed above as time goes by, but here is my version of la Festa de la Vigilia!

1. Ensalata di pulpo (octopus salad). OK, don't let this one throw you. Trust me, octopus is one of the great underrated seafoods out there, and this salad is a delicious way to enjoy the odd-looking cephalopod. To begin, go to your nearest Mediterranean neighborhood and find a fish market. Spanish, Greek, Italian, doesn't matter. Any of them will have octopus. And don't worry if it's frozen. Like most fish, octopus is frozen the moment it's caught and cleaned. In fact, it might even be better if it's still frozen, since you have no way of knowing how or when it was thawed. Also buy a head of celery, but get one with a lot of leaves on it. Buy two, if necessary.

If the octopus is frozen, put it into a large bowl of cold water to let it thaw. Put two corks from wine bottles into a large pot of cold water, and bring to a boil (the corks help to tenderize the octopus, and that's not just an old wive's tale). Rinse the octopus under running water to remove any sand and grit, and gently place it in the boiling water, Lower the heat to a high simmer/low boil and let cook for about an hour. Note that cooking time will depend on many factors, so you'll have to test the octopus for doneness. Pierce the thickest part of a tentacle with a sharp knife. If it pierces easily, it's done. If not, allow it to cook longer. While the octopus cooks, peel six to eight cloves of garlic and slice medium thick. You want bold garlic flavor here, so don't be shy. Remove all the leaves from the celery, and place into a bowl of cold water. Gently lift the leaves out and place on a clean kitchen towel to drain. Remove the stringy fibers from two ribs of celery (use a vegetable peeler), and cut them into ¼" slices. Put the garlic, celery leaves and sliced celery into a salad bowl.

When the octopus is done, remove it from the pot, and place it into a bowl of cold water. Let cool completely. When cool, peel (the skin will come off quite easily), and cut off the tentacles as close to the head as possible. Cut into bite-sized pieces and place in the salad bowl with the garlic and celery. Add salt and red pepper flakes to taste, and add ½ cup of extra virgin olive oil and ¼ cup of lemon juice (you can use a good wine vinegar as well, but never use balsamic vinegar). Mix well. Nonna used to store this in a mason jar in the fridge for a couple of days to let the flavors meld. I think that's the way to go, too.

2. Gambera bollito (boiled shrimp). For each person, take six large shrimp, head on if you can get them. Bring a large pot of salted water (it should taste like the ocean) to the boil. Add the shrimp, cover, and remove from the heat. Let sit for three or four minutes until the shrimp turn pink (or red). Remove from the water, and plunge into an ice bath. Serve with lemon.

3. Cozze cotte a vapore (steamed mussels). Buy two pounds of mussels, either wild or cultivated. Clean them by scrubbing them with a sponge under cold water. If any are open, tap them with another mussel. If they don't close, discard them: they're dead. Likewise, if any of them feel particularly heavy, discard them: they're full of mud and dead. If they're cultivated, they'll have no beard. If they're wild, use a paring knife (or pliers) to remove the beard (back of paring knife on one side of the beard, thumb on the other, yank free). Leave the mussels in a bowl of cold water for about an hour so they spit out any grit. Peel and crush three cloves of garlic. Peel and roughly chop two shallots. Chop ½ cup of Italian (flat leaf) parsley.

Put a tablespoon of olive oil (not extra virgin) into a 12" saute pan (a saute pan has high sides, a skillet has sloping sides; use a saute pan). When hot, but not smoking, add the garlic, shallots, and a pinch of red pepper flakes, and saute gently until they just turn translucent. Add the mussels and 2 cups of good white wine. Cover, and let steam until just opened. Add the parsley, and squeeze a lemon over the mussels. This needs to be served hot, with the broth that accumulates around them and a loaf of crusty bread.

4. Vongole sulla conchiglia (clams on the half shell). Get six little neck clams per person. Shuck, and serve with lemon juice or homemade cocktail sauce (it's easy enough to make, for god's sake).

5. Prime ostriche (raw oysters). Get six to 12 oysters per person (Blue Points are fine, but I really love Kumamoto oysters from the West Coast). Make a mignonette by whisking together two tablespoons of finely chopped shallots, one tablespoon (or to taste) of freshly cracked black pepper, and ½ cup of good red wine or sherry vinegar. Shuck the oysters and drizzle with mignonette. For a nice kick, get a fresh pomegranate. Squeeze one tablespoon of juice into the mignonette, and put three or four seeds on top of each oyster.

6. Capesante bruciati(seared scallops). Get six diver (or dry) sea scallops per person. Heat a cast iron skillet until it's super hot. Add a tablespoon of peanut oil (or another oil with a high smoke point), and place scallops into pan. Sear for 90 seconds. Flip, and sear on other side for 90 seconds. Serve with a squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of Tabasco.

7. Merluzzo in salsa di pomodoro (cod in tomato sauce). Traditionally, bacala (dried, salted cod) was used for this dish. The fish had to be soaked for two days, changing the water four times a day to remove the salt and rehydrate the fish. But I don't like bacala, so here's the method for using fresh (and don't get on my case for eating cod). Since we're doing seven fishes, one pound of cod will serve four people. Peel and crush three cloves of garlic. Dice one medium onion. Remove the pits from a dozen kalamata olives, and cut the olives into thirds. Chop ½ cup of Italian parsley. Drain one 28-ounce can of good quality whole Italian tomatoes (canned San Marzano tomatoes are the best for this; if you can't find canned San Marzano tomatoes, use Pomi brand chopped tomatoes). Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a saute pan. When hot, add onions, garlic, and a pinch of hot red pepper flakes. When onions and garlic have begun to color, add tomatoes (using your hands, crush the whole tomatoes into the saute pan) and olives. Let cook for 15 minutes, then add the cod. Cook until the fish is done, and flakes easily. Remove from heat immediately and sprinkle with parsley and the juice of one lemon.

The best way to enjoy this feast is family style, with everyone gathered around the table, laughing, telling stories, and creating memories. Serve with good bread, good wine, a green salad, and start a tradition of your own.

Buon appetito amici miei!

Friday, December 11, 2009

A cut above.

Of all of the literally thousands of kitchen tools and gadgets a cook can have, a good knife (or set of knives) is the most important. Oddly, it's the one to which most home cooks give the least thought, and the one on which they spend the least amount of money.

I began collecting knives over 30 years ago. As a wedding gift, I was given a mixed bag of German and French stainless steel knives: an eight-inch Wusthof chef's knife, a six-inch Henckel utility knife, a 10-inch Sabatier carving knife, and a four-inch Sabatier paring knife. I still have two of these, the six-inch Henckel and the four-inch Sabatier (the eight-inch chef's knife took one fall too many and the blade snapped, and god only knows what happened to the 10-inch Sabatier) and I still use them, though only rarely.

I have, of course, heard from "the experts" that the best blades are high-carbon steel, and that stainless blades are great for beginners, but that no serious cook would be caught dead using one. (This last bit is patently untrue. Most restaurant kitchens are equipped with the cheapest stainless steel knives that management can get away with for the simple reason that good knives tend to either get damaged or go walkies.) And while it's true that high-carbon is easier to sharpen, keeps an edge longer, and hones better than stainless, a good-quality stainless knife – that's maintained properly – will provide years of service.

Over the years I've added to my early collection with mixed results. My best buy is a 10-inch, high-carbon steel, 100+-year-old French chef's knife that I got at a church rummage sale for $1.00. It's an amazing knife that sharpens easily, hones beautifully (more on the distinction between sharpening and honing in another blog), and is easy to maintain. My second-best buy was a mixed lot of knives that I got at an auction for $12.00 that contained a 10-inch, high-carbon steel, 80+-year-old German chef's knife that, while tarnished, is as sharp as a razor, and a 10-inch, high-carbon steel, 80+-year-old butcher's knife (a thin, flexible, curved blade that's designed for tight work around bones). These three knives are the workhorses of my kitchen. I reach for them for everything from halving acorn squash to slicing tomatoes to carving chicken. With these knives in my arsenal, I knew I'd never need another knife again.

Well, so much for what I thought I knew.

I was recently given the opportunity to try a knife made by New West KnifeWorks, a small knife smithing company located in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The knife is "The 9" from New West's Phoenix collection, and it's a real beauty. It's a 9-inch, forge-welded, Damascus steel chef's knife that features a granton grind. (Huh?)

OK, let me break that down into language that's easier to understand. Forge welding is a process by which layers of metal are heated and then welded together. This can be done using the same metal or different metals, which are heated, folded over one another, and then pounded. This is the process by which samurai swords are made, and it's no coincidence that these blades are made in Seki, Japan, which has an almost 800-year history of sword making (Seki is sometimes called "Sword City" and is often likened to Solingen, Germany, home of Henckel and Wusthof).

Damascus steel refers originally to steel made in and around Damascus, Syria, but today simply means a process by which a pattern is left clearly visible on the blade (again, think samurai swords). While this is primarily cosmetic, it is a byproduct of the forge welding process, and attests to the strength of the blades. Yeah, but what the hell is a granton grind? You know those knives with scallops in the middle of the blade? Those are granton grinds. They're designed to reduce friction when slicing through wet, sticky things like roasts and russet potatoes while at the same time allowing you to make paper-thin slices of just about anything.

The chemistry of the New West knives is different, though, than that of many others. In the case of Phoenix blades – and I'll only talk about them, since I haven't used the Fusionwood line of blades – they're A-8 Japanese high-carbon, stainless tool steel that's clad in 410 Stainless Damascus Steel (HRC 58-59). All of that means they're a very hard steel that's used in making tools such as saw blades, drill bits, chisels, and other cutting tools, that's been wrapped in steel that's got a high-carbon, low-chromium content. The tool steel is durable and strong, and the 410 steel is minimally tarnish resistant and holds an edge better than high-chromium content blades. The result is a thin, somewhat flexible blade that will stay sharp and will easily take an edge.

The shape of the blade is a sort of a hybrid between the classic German and French designs (German: more of a curve toward the tip of the blade – good for chopping by using a rocking motion. French: more triangular toward the tip of the blade – good for using a slicing motion) with just enough of a curve to make chopping possible, but enough of the triangular shape to make slicing its true function.

So there, in a nutshell, is the technical stuff, but how's this puppy perform? In a word: beautifully. I've used the New West "The 9" exclusively over the past two weeks, and it does everything it's supposed to do. I carved a roast chicken with it and its flexibility allowed me to carve right next to the bone. I sliced tomatoes with it and its sharpness and thinness gave me nice, clean cuts, with no torn skin. I sliced raw tuna with it and ended up with sushi-like pieces. I sliced onions with it and got beautiful, paper-thin, translucent slices. I diced onion with it and got perfect 1/16-inch dice.

Normally before and after I use a knife, I use a steel on it (contrary to popular belief, this does not sharpen the knife, it just maintains the edge; I could get über geeky here and explain the differences between sharpening and steeling, but enough science for one entry – you'll just have to trust me on this), but in order to make this a full test, I didn't steel the Phoenix blade for a couple of days, and I must say that I'm impressed with its ability to keep an edge. After slicing, chopping, carving, and dicing, I sliced another tomato (my benchmark), and the blade pierced the skin nearly as cleanly as it did after steeling. And when I accidentally brushed my finger against the edge of the knife as it was sitting there on my board, the resulting wound was clean, deep, and paper-cut thin.

When I did steel the blade, it took the edge beautifully, returning to its razor-sharp original state. While this, like all knives, will need to be sharpened, it won't require as much maintenance as a high-carbon steel knife does. Kudos, New West Knifeworks.

As for fit and finish, the Phoenix "The 9" is a full-tang blade that comes with a choice of handles: either wood or a Corian-like material. I chose the latter, as I felt it was more balanced. For me, the wooden handle was too light, making the knife blade heavy. This seems to be true of the Fusionwood line of knives, as well, all of which have wooden handles. The blade and handle are designed so that there's enough clearance between hand and board when chopping. Included with the knife is a custom leather case that will protect the blade much better than any cheap-ass wooden block ever could, adding value to the Phoenix "The 9" and making it even more of a pleasure to handle and to use.

But what price quality? This knife will set you back $199.00, which may seem like a lot, but considering the quality of this knife, you'll probably own it for the rest of your life (and your grandchildren will probably fight over it). Compared to a $175.00, 10-inch Henckel, it's a real bargain.

You can find the full line online at newwestknifeworks.com, or, until Christmas, you can go to the Bryant Park Holiday Crafts Fair to see them live and in person. And no matter where you go to buy this or any New West knife, tell them that Chris, the guy with the blog, sent you.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

CSI: Cold Soup Investigation - Gazpacho

This is among my favorite food times of year. It’s full summer, and the tomatoes are finally arriving at the markets. And one of the best ways to enjoy them, aside from simply eating them, is in gazpacho. What's not to love about this soup? Cool, refreshing, full of the bright tastes of summer, and the best part? No cooking! Could anything be better?

Originally from Andalucia, the southern region of Spain, gazpacho is traditionally made with fresh, ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, red bell peppers, garlic, onion, olive oil, water, and vinegar. The key to making great gazpacho is to use the freshest vine-ripened tomatoes you can find. I don’t recommend using heirloom tomatoes. Go for beefsteaks. They’ve got the right combination of juiciness and pulp, as well as a good balance of sugar and acid. They’ll stand up to the rest of the hearty flavors you’ll be adding to them.

As for how to prepare gazpacho, the method is simplicity itself.

Start with a 3/4"-thick slice of day-old bread. Soak in water for about 5 minutes. Roughly chop some tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, garlic and onion. Add 1/2 of the vegetables to a food processor and pulse 3 or 4 times. Squeeze out most of the water from the bread, add to the food processor, and pulse to blend. Pour into a bowl, add the rest of the chopped vegetables, drizzle on some good-quality extra virgin olive oil and some good quality red or white wine vinegar, some sea salt, and some ice water if a thinner consistency is desired. Chill for an hour or two, serve, and enjoy. How easy is that?

OK, that's the basic recipe, and while it sounds dead boring, the bright flavor and refreshing coolness make for a perfect summer supper.

Of course, there are countless ways change the nature of this simple dish, making it heartier, fancier, richer, and more nuanced.

For a smoother consistency, add all but a few tablespoons of each vegetable to a blender instead of a food processor, and puree. Chill well. In the meantime, finely mince the reserved vegetables to resemble confetti. When ready to serve, sprinkle the soup with the vegetable confetti as garnish. The result is a lovely pinkish soup with a splash of color. Not only is it visually appealing, but the contrast of textures is a pleasure to eat. Try using yellow and green peppers for an even more interesting appearance.

For deeper and more complex flavors, roast the tomatoes, peppers, garlic and onions. Cut the top third off of an entire head of garlic, sprinkle the bottom two thirds with olive oil and sea salt, wrap loosely in aluminum foil (or put it in a ceramic garlic roaster), and place in the lower third of a preheated 275 degree oven. Slice the tomatoes in half, halve the onions, toss with olive oil (extra virgin not necessary here) and sea salt, and place on a baking sheet. Place into the top half of the oven, and let roast until tomatoes are soft. Roast the peppers as described in my salade Niçoise entry. When vegetables are roasted, put into a food processor and pulse to a coarse consistency. Chill well. Toast slices of country-style bread in olive oil and float on top of the soup. Garnish with thinly sliced scallions and fresh oregano.
Want to spice tings up? Add a jalapeno, serrano, or poblano pepper instead of red bell. These can also be roasted and used in the roasted gazpacho recipe.

To add some protein, rub skinless, boneless chicken breasts with lime and cumin and let marinate for an hour. Grill and let chill. Slice on the bias, and add to bowls of gazpacho. Garnish with chopped cilantro. You can also do the same with shrimp or lobster tails for a fancier dish that will thrill dinner guests (and your family).

Don’t want to grill? Hard boil some eggs (again see my salade Niçoise entry for directions). When cool, dice. The easiest way to do this is to get out your wire egg slicer (you’ve probably got your mother’s tucked away in the back of your junk drawer) and slice the egg three times. First, along the axis. Rotate the egg 180 degrees, and slice again along the axis. Turn the egg sideways, and slice along the equator. Sprinkle on top of soup, and garnish with chopped parsley.

To any of these recipes, add a dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche for a richer taste. Can’t find creme fraiche in your local grocer? No worries, it’s easy to simulate at home. Put two cups unpasteurized (or at least not ultra pasteurized) heavy cream into a clean glass jar (if you can find it, you can also use raw whole milk that still has the cream in it). Add two tablespoons of cultured buttermilk and shake to blend. Let sit out at room temperature (no more than 78 degrees) for 24 hours. Stir to blend and keep refrigerated for up to 10 days. You can use creme fraiche anywhere you’d use cream or sour cream. Try some on fresh blueberries.

For an even more refreshing twist, make a citrus gazpacho. Peel a large grapefruit and two oranges. Separate into sections and roughly chop. Put in a large bowl, add basic gazpacho, mix well and chill. Garnish with fresh mint.

Homemade gazpacho will last in the fridge for up to 10 days, or you can freeze it almost indefinitely. Thaw some out in the middle of February to remind yourself that summer isn’t really all that far away.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Salade Niçoise.

Now that the heat and humidity of summer have finally arrived, it's time to start thinking about keeping the kitchen cool. And the best way to accomplish this is to not cook. But, short of ordering in, how does one do that and still serve a delicious dinner? One way is with the French classic, salade Niçoise.

First popularized in the United States by Julia Child, salade Niçoise comes from the port city of Nice, which is on the Mediterranean, between Marseilles and Genoa, Italy. Salade Niçoise is a salade composee (composed salad), rather than a tossed salad. The difference between the two is that a composed salad is arranged on a platter or in a bowl, in order to present a more formal appearance. The method for dressing a composed salad differs from that of a tossed salad in that the components of the composed salad are dressed before the salad is put together, rather than creating the salad, then adding dressing and mixing.

Salade Niçoise is another one of those meals that will look like it took forever to make. In fact, while it will take a little bit of time, with careful planning and preparation, you should be able to put it all together in well under an hour.

The shopping list:

Bibb lettuce (also known as Boston and butter lettuce) is traditional, though the type you use is your choice, really. I prefer to use romaine, and, while I'm not an iceberg hater, I wouldn't use it here. Likewise, I wouldn't use anything at all bitter, like arugula or radicchio. They'll just clash with the flavor of the other ingredients.

Plum tomatoes such as Romas or San Marzanos. You could also use some good cherry tomatoes. Stay away from heirloom varieties and beefsteaks, as they've got too much liquid in them, which will result in a runny salad.

New potatoes, either red or white. You'll want ones that are slightly waxy, rather than starchy. Think Yukon golds, rather than Burbank russets. Go to your local green market and look for fingerlings of various sort. If you're not sure what they taste like, or how they'll cook up, tell the farmer what you want. S/he'll be able to tell you which ones to buy.

Haricots verts. While regular green beans can be used, the crispness, look, and flavor of haricots verts will make your salad shine.

Hard-boiled eggs. Buy eggs that are laid by free-range, organically raised hens. The fresher the better, and don't overcook them. See below for cooking directions.

Red bell pepper. Traditionally used raw, I prefer to roast them. See below for roasting directions.

Tuna packed in olive oil, preferably imported and jarred, not canned. Ortiz makes one of the best out there. Shop around, as prices vary from $5.99 per jar to $14.99 per. This is one item you can get cheaper in your local Whole Foods than online.

Anchovies again, packed in olive oil. Use the plain fillets, not those rolled with a caper in the middle. Buy the best quality you can. If you're fortunate enough to have a Mediterranean market nearby (Italian, Greek, Spanish, French), go there, and buy a dozen anchovies from them, rather than a tin.

Red onions and shallots. Onion for the salad, shallots for the vinaigrette.

Black olives. For god's sake, don't use canned olives. Again, if you've got a Mediterranean market nearby, they'll have olives. Niçoise olives are the best to use here (duh), but you could also use Kalamata olives.

Dijon mustard. I prefer Maille, from one of France's oldest mustard houses (they've been in business in the same location in Paris since 1747, and yes, I'll be dropping by while I'm there), but Grey Poupon will do.

The method:

First, make the vinaigrette. This is important because you'll be dressing the elements of the salad as they're prepared, not at the end. Drain the oil from the tuna and anchovies. If necessary, add good extra virgin olive oil to make about 3/4 cup, and set aside. Rub a bowl with a clove of garlic that's been sliced in half (optional). Add some finely chopped shallot, the juice of one lemon, and some freshly ground black pepper. Add some sherry vinegar or good quality red or white wine vinegar (not champagne vinegar) if desired. Add 1 tablespoon of good Dijon mustard and whisk together until well blended. While continuing to whisk, slowly add the oil in a thin stream (you're making an emulsion here). It's important to do this by hand, and not by machine. The machine will break down the shallot, and will add too much air, causing the emulsion to become too thick. Set aside. Alternatively, you can add all of your ingredients except the oil to a jar with a lid. Shake the jar to combine, then add the oil 1/3 at a time, shaking to incorporate.

In the following instructions, I say "just enough vinaigrette to coat." "What the hell does that mean," you ask. You want the vinaigrette to add flavor and tang to the ingredients, but you don't want it to overpower them or become the dominant flavor of the salad. Be judicious, and start out with less than you think it will take to coat the ingredients. You can always add more later, but once you've put in too much, it's difficult (though not impossible) to remove some. A rule of thumb is 1/2 to 1 tablespoon for the potatoes, and no more than 1/2 tablespoon for the beans and eggs.

Scrub your potatoes. Place them in a pot of lightly salted water. Bring to a boil, and let cook until tender, between 3 and 10 minutes depending on type and size of potatoes. Remove from water with slotted spoon, and place in a bowl of cold water (ice not needed here). When cool enough to handle, but not chilled through, remove from water, pat dry, and cut either in half or quarters. Place in a dry bowl, and gently mix with just enough vinaigrette to coat.

Meanwhile, boil the eggs (figure one per serving). The best method that I've found for cooking hard-boiled eggs comes from Julia Child: Place the eggs in a tall pot and cover with cold water (the water should be at least 1" over the eggs). Place over high heat, and bring to a boil. As soon as the water boils, remove the pot from the heat, and cover. Let sit for 17 minutes exactly. Remove the eggs from the water with a slotted spoon, and plunge them into a bowl of ice and water. Let sit for two minutes. Meanwhile, return the water in the pot to a boil. Place the eggs back into the water for 10 seconds. Remove eggs, and place them back into the ice and water. Let chill for 20 minutes, and peel. (Chilling the eggs initially causes the albumin to shrink slightly, and re-boiling them causes the shell to expand slightly. This makes for easier peeling.) When cooled thoroughly, peel the eggs and cut in quarters lengthwise. Place in a dry bowl, and gently mix with just enough vinaigrette to coat.

Trim the ends of the haricots verts. Bring the water you used for the potatoes back to a boil. Drop in the trimmed beans and blanch for 2 minutes (3 to 4 if using regular green beans). Remove from water and place in a bowl of water and ice to stop the cooking and set the color. Place in a bowl, and mix with just enough vinaigrette to coat.

Roast the peppers. Wash the pepper, place directly over a high flame on the stove. As the skin blackens and blisters, turn the pepper to roast all sides. When finished, transfer to a brown paper bag. Close the bag, and let sit for 15 minutes. Peel the pepper, discard seeds and veins, and slice. If you'd prefer to use them raw, you can peel them or not, but certainly remove the veins and seeds.

Quarter the plum tomatoes lengthwise. If you'd like, you can peel and seed them. To peel, cut an "X" about 1/8" deep in the stem end of the tomato. Drop into boiling water for 15 seconds. Remove from water and plunge into a bowl of ice and water. When cool, take a paring knife and remove the skin. Cut into quarters lengthwise and remove seeds.

Peel the red onion, slice through the axis, and thinly slice across the equator.

Remove the pits from the olives. To do this, place them on a cutting board, and, using the side of a chef's knife or the bottom of a small heavy saucepan, press them so that the flesh breaks and the pit is easily removed.

Clean and spin dry the lettuce. Tear into bite-sized pieces. Add the sliced red onion. Place in a bowl, and mix with just enough vinaigrette to coat.

The assembly:

Place the lettuce and onion onto a large platter or shallow salad bowl. To the center, add the tuna. Add half the beans to one side of the tuna, and the rest to the other side. Starting at 12:00, alternate laying out an egg, a tomato quarter, a slice of red pepper, and a couple of pieces of potato. Continue around the clock until they're all evenly distributed. Sprinkle with olives, and top each piece of egg with an anchovy fillet. You could also group the ingredients together. Again, place the tuna in the center, and then arrange all of the like ingredients around it: potatoes at 12:00, olives at 1:00, eggs at 3:00, etc. The anchovies should then be placed in "Xs" over the tuna, egg, and potatoes. Either way, remember that in a composed salad, looks matter. Make this a visual treat before it becomes a gustatory one.

Place the remaining vinaigrette into a cruet and serve on the side for diners to add more.

Serve with a loaf of crusty country-style bread and a sancerre, a sauvignon blanc, or a pinot noir.

It's not nearly as difficult or labor intensive as it sounds, and it makes for a cool, refreshing, and delicious summer dinner or lunch. I pretty much guarantee that this will be a welcome addition to your repertoire.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Juicy, delicious pork chops.

Hello, folks. Sorry it’s been so long between posts. I was just too bitter and angry to be blogging. I tried writing a few times, but the bile just kept coming through. I didn’t (and still don’t) want that bitterness to ruin my food or my writing, and I certainly didn’t (and still don't) want to lay all of that stuff on you.

At any rate, here’s my first re-entry into the blogosphere. It’s time to get back on track, and to get back to doing what I love.

And so, without further ado, here goes.

Last night, I was talking with a friend over a Smirnoff martini. He complained that no matter what he does, he can’t make a moist pork chop. After listening to him complain, I gave him the following advice and recipe.

One of the problems with commercially produced pork is that it’s too lean. In our zeal for “Lite” foods, we’ve bred pigs that have almost no fat, and are pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones. The males are also immunocastrated (yup, as piglets, they’re given an injection that blocks the hormones necessary to develop testicles). Ostensibly, this is done in order to produce a better pig. It’s supposed to eliminate “boar taint” (a flavor that’s been likened to a combination of sweat, urine, and feces). In actuality, it’s done because it makes the pigs more docile, so that as they’re living in concentration-camp-like conditions they don’t bite each other’s tails off. It also makes them grow larger and the reality of that is: more pig, more profit. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the idea of eating meat that’s got hormone blockers injected into it, particularly those that block the production of testosterone.

If you can, buy your pork from a local farmer who feeds the pigs naturally, and allows them to roam freely on the farm. It’ll be healthier, in general, and will contain more omega 3s and omega 6s than commercially raised pork. It will also have more fat in it, which means it will taste a whole helluva lot better.

If you can’t find locally raised and humanely slaughtered pigs, there are larger organic producers. Organic Prairie is one, and a quick Google search will provide you with others. Either way, you’ll pay a little more, but the taste far outweighs the cost.

Center-cut, bone-in, thick-cut pork chops
Red cabbage (you can also use endive or radicchio, or a combination of the three)
Vidalia or red onions
Tart apples (I prefer Newtown Pippins and Braeburns, but Granny Smiths will do)
Caraway seeds
Gewurztraminer or riesling (or a good pilsner)

First, brine your pork chops. In a glass, food-grade plastic, or stainless steel container, combine enough water to cover the chops with salt. Use as much salt as it takes so that the water tastes like seawater. Store covered in the fridge for between one and two hours.

Place a flame-resistant casserole or roasting pan in the oven, and preheat to 250 degrees.

Thinly slice the cabbage (or radicchio) parallel to the equator (this produces nice ribbons). If using endive, merely peel the leaves off, leaving them whole.

Thinly slice the onions. You’ll want about two cups.

Core and slice the apple. You’ll want about a cup.

Over high flame, heat a cast iron skillet. Add about a teaspoon of peanut, grapeseed, sunflower, or canola oil, and sear the chops until browned on both sides. Do not turn the chops until they release from the pan themselves (that is, until they no longer stick, and move freely when pushed).

Remove from heat, transfer chops to casserole.

Immediately deglaze the skillet with ¼ to ½ cup of apple cider vinegar (Bragg organic unfiltered). Avert your face, or you’ll choke to death. Allow to reduce slightly, and set aside; you’ll use this later. You can also use red or white wine vinegar, beer, or wine, but never “balsamic” vinegar.

Cover chops with cabbage, onions, apple and ¼ teaspoon of caraway seeds.

Add one cup wine or beer, and place, uncovered, in the oven.

Bake until internal temperature is 140 degrees, adding more liquid if necessary.

Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes.
Remove cabbage and pork from casserole.
Place casserole over medium flame to heat. Remove from flame and add ¼ cup calvados. Return to flame, and stir and scrape with a wooden spoon. Add reserved vinegar reduction, and stir to incorporate. Add any juices that have accumulated around the chops and cabbage. Heat thoroughly. You can add a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, sour cream, Greek yogurt, or butter, if you’d like, but I think that’s overkill.

Pour sauce over the chops and cabbage, and serve with a good Dijon mustard and good rye bread (for god’s sake, don’t buy commercial rye – go to a bakery).


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Watch this space!

OK, so I've been down, but I'm not out. I'm still blind in my left eye, and will be for the rest of my life, so it's time to move on.

I've been cooking and writing drafts, so I'm almost ready to move ahead with this project.

Thanks for your support, thanks for your understanding, and thanks for your patience. They will all be rewarded.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A fine kettle of fish.

One of the finest things to serve with that loaf of crusty, rustic sourdough bread you now know how to make is bouillabaisse. Hot, fresh, rich, and redolent with the aromas of land and the sea, this is another dish that is simple to make, and yet is sure to impress your family and friends. Basically, there are two steps to this Mediterranean fish stew: making the base, and cooking the fish in it. And while fish stews are made in fishing communities all over the world, bouillabaisse a la Marseillaise is recognized the world over as a classic of French cuisine.

To begin with, the fish. You'll want to use the freshest fish you can find. Halibut, cod, sea bass, sea bream, whiting, pollock, snapper, monkfish, weakfish, sea trout, squid, and eel are all excellent choices. You can also include mussels, clams, and oysters, as well as crabs, shrimp, and lobster, if you'd like. Buy the fish from your local fish monger, someone you trust, and someone with whom you have, or can develop, a good relationship. Your fish monger is your friend.

Don't live near the ocean? No worries. You can still get the same fish that seaside communities get. Whole Foods and other large supermarkets have seafood departments that sell high-quality, flash-frozen fish that comes direct from fish markets on the east and west coasts. Is there an Asian market nearby? Chances are they'll have a decent selection of previously frozen fish to choose from. Heck, last I heard, the wild salmon and halibut that I like so much come from the west coast, and those shrimp that I had last night came from the gulf. I'm sure that they're of the same quality that you can get where you live. It may take some time to find a source, but trust me, there's one near you.

Select fish that doesn't smell like fish or ammonia. It should have a clean, briny smell. The flesh should be resilient, not mushy, and the eyes (on whole fish, obviously), should be clear, not cloudy. So how do you judge these things? Ask to smell the fish. Ask if you can have one of their disposable plastic gloves to poke it. If they say no, walk away, and find another source. If buying whole fish (sea bream, snapper, etc.), ask your monger to fillet it, but tell him (or her) that you want to take the head and bones home with you. It's from these that you'll be making the base for your stew.

The fish:
Use various kinds of fish, some firm (halibut, monkfish, eel, etc.), some flaky (cod, haddock, pollock, etc.), in addition to squid, and shellfish. The choice is entirely up to you. Figure about 3/4 pound of uncooked fish per person (i.e., to serve 8, you'll need between 4 and 6 pounds of fish), a total of about 1 pound of squid, a total of about 1 pound of shrimp, and about a dozen each of clams and mussels. Cut your fish into chunks about 2 inches wide. If using squid, clean (if you don't know how, ask). Cut the body into rings about 1 inch wide. Keep the tentacles. If using shrimp, peel. Keep the peels, as they can be used to make stock. (Whenever I make shrimp, I keep all of the peels. I put them in a zipper-close bag, and keep them in the freezer. When I need fish stock, a handful or two placed into some water with a bay leaf, some onion, and some garlic and brought to a boil for 10 minutes makes a fantastic base.) If using clams and mussels, rinse them well under cold water. Trim the beards off the mussels. Place them both into a deep bowl of cold water, and put in the fridge. Place all of the other fish onto a large plate, cover with plastic, and place in the fridge.

The base:
To a large stock pot, add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add 1 cup of sliced onions 1 cup of cleaned and sliced leeks (white part only), 4 cloves of mashed garlic, and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. You don't want them to brown. Next, add 2 or 3 cups of chopped fresh tomatoes, or 1 or 2 cups of undrained Pomi chopped tomatoes. Cook for five minutes more. Add 2-1/2 quarts cold water, 4 sprigs of Italian flat-leaf parsley (unchopped), 3 sprigs of fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried), 2 bay leaves, about a dozen cracked black peppercorns, 1/4 teaspoon of fennel seed, a 2 inch piece of orange peel (wash the orange first), two large pinches of saffron, the fish heads and bones, and the shrimp peels. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, and allow to cook for 30 minutes. NOTE: As this cooks, a lot of foam will appear on the top of the stock. You'll need to skim this off frequently. After 30 minutes, strain the stock through a double layer of cheesecloth in a colander. Taste for seasoning, and adjust as needed. You're now ready to make your bouillabaisse.

Bring the base to a boil, and add the fish (not the shellfish). Reduce heat to simmer, and cook without stirring for about 5 minutes. Add the shellfish, and cook until the bivalves open. Remove from heat and stir. Don't worry if some of the flaky fish breaks apart, it's supposed to.

Traditionally, this is served by removing the fish from the pot, and placing it on a platter, while the stock is put into a tureen, but I prefer to transfer it all to a tureen, sprinkle it with chopped parsley, and let my guests ladle portions into their soup plates. It makes for a more "family style" meal.

Serve with home-baked bread, a good rosé, Riesling, or Beaujolais, and you've got a meal fit for a French fisherman.

And don't bother telling anyone how easy this was to make. You'll be given credit for having spent all day in the kitchen, and chances are, no one will believe you anyway. I think it took me longer to write this entry than it did to prepare the last batch of bouillabaisse a la Marseilles that I made. Bon appetit, mes amis!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bread alone.

Thomas wrote: "How about a bread-baking entry? As in, if a random blog reader, named, say, "Tom," wanted to start baking, what would he or she (okay, the "or she" is unlikely) need? What are the merits of different flours? Baking stone or no baking stone? The list goes on and on.

Please advise!"

That's a mighty tall order, Thomas, and it will definitely take more than one entry to address, but I'll give you a basic course, and a recipe for making your own sourdough bread.

Bread is nothing more than flour, water, salt, and yeast. The first leavened breads were probably produced in Egypt (along with beer) about 5,000 years ago using these very ingredients. In fact, the people who worked to build the Pyramids were paid two loaves of bread and three jugs of beer per day. About 20 years ago, archaeologists found a bakery that dates from the reign of Pharoah Menkaure, under whom the Third Giza Pyramid was built. Some estimate that as many as 30,000 loaves were produced there per day. That's a lot of bread.

But on to your question(s). To begin with, bread dough is the product of fermentation. I could go into a long-winded pseudo-scientific explanation of how it works, but there are literally dozens of books out there that you can read that will do a much better job than I can (the two that I find is indispensable are Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes, by Jeffrey Hamelman, and Beard On Bread, by James Beard). Because of the fermentation process, the longer the mixture is allowed to rise, the more complex the structure and flavor of the finished loaf will be. It is, in fact, recommended that the dough be allowed to rise, be deflated, be allowed to rest, preformed, and then let rise for a second time. After shaping, the unbaked loaves should be allowed to proof (rise for a third and final time) before baking. This allows for the most structure, the best crumb, and the greatest flavor.

But there, I've gotten ahead of myself. One of my favorite kinds of bread to bake and to eat is sourdough. With its distinctive tang, sourdough makes for remarkably good bread. But where does one get the "starter" for sourdough? Well, there are many sources. It can be purchased from various sources. King Arthur Flour will sell you some that's been going for over 250 years. You can go to a commercial baker and ask for some. You can ask a friend who bakes for some. Of course, the easiest and least expensive source is to make some yourself.

Start with a clean plastic or glass wide-mouthed container (a mayo jar is perfect). Combine 1 cup of warm water and 1 cup of unbleached flour in a bowl. You can add some honey, if you'd like, but no more than a teaspoonful. Pour this mixture into your container, cover with cheesecloth that's held in place with a rubber band and put in a warm (70 to 80 degree) place. After 24 hours, remove and discard half of the mixture you've got. Add 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water, and mix well with a wooden spoon (you don't want to use any metal, as it can react with the starter). Repeat this process every 24 hours. After three or four days (it could be more, it could be less, depending on the quantities and types of yeast in your environment), your mixture should start to bubble, froth, and/or expand. It should also start to smell sour, or even a little beery. When this happens, your starter is ready. You can use it as is, or you can store it, covered, in your fridge (if using a mayo jar, punch a hole in the lid to allow some breathing room). If you store it, you'll need to feed it once a week by removing half of the mixture, and adding 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water. Mix, replace the lid, and return to the fridge. NOTE: If storing, your starter may exude a clear to dark brown liquid known as "hootch." This is nothing to worry about, it's merely a byproduct of the fermentation process containing small amounts of alcohol. If you notice this happening, either pour it off or mix it back into the starter. Pouring it off will decrease the sour taste of the starter, whereas mixing it in will increase the sour taste. You can use other types of flour in your starter, such as whole wheat and rye. These can be used alone, or they can be mixed in with the white flour. Each one will yield a different result.

When you're ready to bake bread, you first need to make a sponge. Take your starter out of the fridge. Pour it into a large bowl, add 1 cup of warm water and 1 cup of flour. Mix well, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and let sit in a warm place for several hours to allow it to proof. Check the sponge every so often. When it's bubbly and has a white froth on top, it's done. Of course, you can let it sit to develop flavor. The longer it's left alone, the more sour the finished product will be.

To bake bread, you'll need 2 cups of the sponge, approximately 3 cups of unbleached flour, 2 tablespoons of olive oil (you can substitute melted butter), 4 teaspoons of sugar and 2 teaspoons of kosher salt. You should have some leftover sponge, which is a good thing, since you're going to use it for your next starter. Simply place the leftover sponge into your container (having cleaned and dried the container, first), add 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water. Place back in the fridge and feed it weekly. Your starter is made, and you've begun your own baker's legacy (my baking teacher had some 100% rye sourdough starter that was first made by Great Uncle Rolf in Germany at the end of the 19th century).

Next, to the sponge, add the sugar, salt, and oil. Mix well, and begin to add flour 1/2 cup at a time. Keep adding flour until you've got a good, flexible dough that's neither too stiff nor too loose. Notice that above I said "approximately 3 cups of flour. That's because flour varies in the amount of moisture it has in it, depending upon what type of flour you're using, what variety of wheat it came from, where it was milled, how old it is, how humid or dry the day is. The point is, the amount of flour you use will differ from day to day. When kneading dough, trust your hands to know when it's the right consistency. After kneading for about 10 minutes, cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, place it in a warm spot, and let it rise until it's doubled in bulk. This will take from one to several hours. When doubled, place the dough onto a floured board, knead it for about a minute, and form into either one large or two smaller loaves (any shape will work here, but I prefer the classic round loaf; I think it cooks more evenly than a long, thin loaf). Sprinkle a baking sheet with coarse cornmeal, place the shaped dough on it, slit the top, cover with a towel, and let rise again until doubled in bulk.

Place a pan on the bottom of the oven and a baking stone on the lowest rack, and preheat your oven to 375 degrees. When the bread is ready to be baked, quickly pour a cup of ice water (with cubes) into the pan, put the baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven, and close the oven door. Reduce heat to 350 degrees, and do not open it again for any reason for the next 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, check the bread. It should be nicely browned, crusty, and may even be fully baked (depending on your oven). To test for doneness, rap the bottom of the bread with your knuckles or a wooden spoon. If it sounds hollow, it's done. If it's not done, put it back into the oven and let bake, testing every 10 minutes. When the loaf is finished, remove it from the oven, place it on a rack, and allow to cool for at least an hour. Your bread is now ready to serve.

Sound like a lot of work? Well, it's not, really. Most of the time is spent waiting for the bread to proof, rise, and bake. Are there shortcuts to this process? Well, sort of. You could use rapid-rise, commercial yeast. You could try the "no-knead" method. There's even one author who claims that you can "bake artisan bread in five minutes a day!" (I've tried it. It sucks.) But the only way to get a good, artisan-quality loaf of bread is by being patient. And I think that a truly good loaf of bread is well worth the wait.

I've got a ton more to say about bread and baking, but I'll just leave it at this for now. Do some baking, and let me know how it goes. Good luck, Thomas!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Stock answer.

Science Guy asked me: "So what's the trick to making chicken (or beef) stock? Is it just a subset of the chicken soup recipe? Also please mention recommended storage methods (freezing, canning, etc.)"

Basically, you follow the first steps in making chicken soup. After straining, you're done. Refrigerate in a tightly sealed container for up to a week, or put into airtight containers and freeze up to a year. I've heard lots of TV "chefs" recommend putting it into ice-cube trays so you can "pop one out whenever you need" stock, but I don't recommend that, as they'll absorb odors from other foods in the freezer, and even the fridge. Canning works, but it must be done right. You need ball jars, canning tongs, time and patience. Here's a good article to help you figure out if canning's for you.

Canning will definitely let you keep your stock, but unless you're making gallons of soup (or 800 pounds of pesto), I don't think it's worth the trouble. Of course, if you're making pickles or sauerkraut (coming soon to a blog near you!), it's definitely worth the effort to can them.

I was going to publish this beef stock article in two days (happy birthday, Dad), but what the hell. Strike while the iron's hot, I say.

To make beef stock, start with 5 to 10 pounds of soup bones. Go to a butcher and ask for them. You can get shin bones (also called shank), knuckles (which are actually the knees), neck bones, or even oxtails (though these are loaded with collagen and make a very gelatinous stock). The important part is that there should be some meat and connective tissue on the bones, and they should be loaded with marrow. Roast the bones in a 325-degree oven for between half an hour to an hour. You want them to toast, not burn. If you smell meat cooking, that's good. If you smell meat burning, that's bad; remove the roasting pan from the oven and turn the heat down to 300, returning the pan after 10 minutes. Cut an entire head of garlic in half across the axis, not along it (see pic above), cut 4 onions (with skins on) in half along the axis, chop 4 carrots, and either 3 celery stalks, or one small celery root (celeriac); a rough chop is good here. I recommend roasting the vegetables as well as the bones, letting them caramelize to a fairly deep brown. (Alternatively, you can cook them in your stock pot in olive oil until they're brown, but that adds fat to the stock, and takes much more effort to ensure that the veggies don't burn.)

When the bones and veggies are roasted, place them into a stock pot, and cover with water. About 1-1/2 gallons should be right. You can substitute a bottle of white wine for some of the water, if you'd like. Add 3 bay leaves, 12 whole black peppercorns, 4 juniper berries, parsley, and, if you've used organic carrots with the tops intact, the carrot greens (yeah, they're edible, and they're delicious), and a lemon that you've scrubbed and cut in half. Again, no salt. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to a simmer. Let it simmer, covered, for 6 to 8 hours, putting the lid ajar for the last hour. Strain through a colander, and discard the vegetables. Put the stock in the fridge to chill for 4 hours. This will allow the fat to come to the surface.

Meanwhile, eat those bones! Gnaw the meat, sinew, and tendons off of them! Get a long, thin spoon (or a butter knife), and dig the marrow out of them. Spread that on bread that's been toasted and rubbed with a cut clove of garlic, and sprinkle with a dusting of chopped parsley, and a pinch of sea salt. Oh, man, my mouth is watering!

OK, now that snack time is over, remove the stock from the fridge and gently skim the fat from the surface with a ladle. You've now got to reheat the stock to a simmer, and strain it twice through a double layer of cheesecloth. Chill again, and skim again. Reheat to a simmer, and strain one final time through a double layer of cheesecloth (instead of cheesecloth, you could use a clean kitchen towel...here's a link for a great source of flour sack towels). You're now ready to store the stock. Can, freeze, or refrigerate, and use in place of canned or boxed stock. Of course, you can continue to simmer the stock for hours and hours, reducing it to whatever consistency you desire. I once made a lamb stock that I reduced until there was about a quart of thick, gelatinous goodness left (from 2 gallons of liquid). I used a spoonful of that reduction to thicken and smooth out sauces. I kept it in the fridge, in a sealed ball jar, and it lasted for about 2 years. The same can be done with beef stock.

Making stock, while time consuming, isn't particularly difficult. I think that the resulting product is worth every minute of effort.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cannellini bean soup.

Another of my favorite soups is bean soup. In particular, I like cannellini bean soup. Creamy, filling, and loaded with protein, cannellini are a versatile and nourishing food. Making cannellini soup isn't a difficult or time consuming task, either. It can be made within a couple of hours using dried beans, or within minutes, if using canned beans and ready made stock.

To begin with, start with two cups of dried organic cannellini (great northern or navy beans can be substituted). Spread them out on a baking sheet and pick through them looking for stones and other foreign matter (you'd be surprised at some of the things I've found in dried beans). Place the beans in a colander and rinse under cold running water. Place a large pot of water on high heat. When it's hot (but not yet simmering), add the beans. Cover and bring to a hard boil. Let them boil for about 2 minutes, and then remove from the heat. Let them sit, covered, for about an hour. This allows the beans to rehydrate, cutting cooking time, and eliminating the need to soak them overnight. When the beans are almost done resting, peel and chop a medium onion (about 1-1/2 cups); trim the fronds and woody upper stems from a large bulb of fennel, slice in half along its axis, and thinly slice (about 2 cups), saving the fronds for garnish; clean 2 medium or 1 large carrot (about 1-1/2 cups). Note: If you're using organic carrots, it's only necessary to scrub them clean. If using conventional, it's recommended that you scrub and scrape them. Finally, peel and fairly thickly slice 3 to 6 cloves of garlic. Heat some olive oil in a large pot. Add the vegetables and cook, stirring, until they've started to brown. Add one (or two) naturally smoked ham hocks to the pot. Alternatively, you can use a pig's foot (if so, bring a pot of water to the boil, and add the pig's foot; boil it for 5 minutes, and rinse it before adding it to the soup pot), pork belly, pork chops, fat back, 1/3 of a turkey leg, or a turkey wing (again, any of these meats can be smoked or fresh). Avoid using conventional bacon, as it's made with way too much salt and artificial smoke flavor. Of course, you could make this a vegetarian dish by omitting the meat. Substitute smoked seitan or tofu, but add them at the very end of the cooking process, so that they just warm through, and don't break down completely.

Once the vegetables have started to color, add the beans and enough cold water to cover by about an inch. You can also use chicken or vegetable stock, if you're not using any kind of meat. I usually also add about 2 cups of white wine which adds some acidity. Add 2 bay leaves. Don't add salt. If you're using any kind of smoked meat, it's got salt in it. Besides, as the water evaporates, the salt doesn't; it gets absorbed into the beans. There are those who say that this toughens the beans, but I disagree. I think it merely makes for a salty soup. Cover the pot, bring the water to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a bare simmer. Allow to cook, with the cover slightly ajar, stirring gently to prevent the beans from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Add more liquid as necessary. You want a thick soup, but remember, it is soup, not a stew. After about half an hour, add some fresh thyme sprigs (2 or 3, to taste). When the beans have begun to break open and become creamy, taste. If they're tender, they're done. You don't want them to be mushy, though, they should still be a bit al dente in the center, without being hard. Yeah, yeah, it's a fine line, but you'll know it when you taste it. By this time, the meat should be cooked through. Remove it from the pot, and debone it. Return the meat to the soup, add 1/4 teaspoon (or to taste) of freshly ground black pepper and stir to mix. Ladle soup into large bowls. Garnish with the fennel fronds and serve with crusty bread and lemon wedges. This soup keeps well, and will taste even better the next day.

If you're in a rush, you can streamline the process by using canned beans. Use high-quality canned cannellini beans (I recommend Eden Organic). Hopefully, you'll have some of your own homemade chicken stock on hand, but if you don't, a good low-sodium, free-range, organic chicken stock (Pacific makes a good one) can be used. I also recommend using spinach or kale in this soup, rather than fennel. They take less time to cook than the fennel does, and they add a nice bite that the beans won't have. Drain two cans of beans in a colander, and rinse well under cold water. You want to get rid of as much of the canning liquid as possible. Let drain. Chop onions, celery, carrots, and garlic. Heat oil in a large pot. Add about a 1/2 cup of minimally processed, naturally smoked slab bacon that you've cut into 1/2" cubes (in general, slab bacon is cured with fewer bad things like nitrates, nitrites, artificial smoke flavor, and high-fructose corn syrup). When it begins to render add onion, celery, carrots, and garlic. When they begin to color, add between 1 and 1-1/2 quart of stock, some fresh thyme, freshly ground blackk pepper, and spinach or kale. Bring to a simmer, and allow to heat through, stirring very, VERY gently (you don't want the beans to totally break down). Ladle into bowls, and serve with crusty bread and lemon wedges. Voila! A healthy, hearty, satisfying soup in about 20 minutes.

Whether you take the long way, or the shortcut, there's no reason not to serve this delicious soup. It'll warm you while you wait for the snow to melt, and spring to finally arrive.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Chicken soup.

There’s no food in this world that’s quite as comforting as soup. Whether well or ill, soup makes us feel better. It’s warming. It reminds us of Mom. It makes us feel cared for. Chicken soup, in particular, seems to have magical qualities to it beyond those of other, lesser soups. In the 12th century, Egyptian-Jewish doctor and philosopher Maimonides recommended chicken soup for almost everything, but especially for respiratory ailments, and, since the mid 1990s, scientists have shown that, while chicken soup won’t cure a cold, it will indeed alleviate some of the symptoms of one.

Good homemade chicken soup isn’t particularly difficult to make. It can be made from the bones of cooked chickens (or any fowl), from uncooked chicken, or from a combination of the two. Here’s my method for making chicken soup.

To begin with, you’ve got to save carcasses from at least four chickens. If you’re like me, that can take as few as two weeks (although I have been known to ask family and friends for carcasses, but they’re really very close family and friends). Keep the carcasses in the freezer, wrapped in a double layer of plastic wrap, or in a zipper freezer bag with as much air squeezed out of it as possible. The best bones to use come from roast chickens, as roasting lends a deeper flavor to the bones, but really, bones from any type of cooked chicken will do. In addition to the bones, I add uncooked chicken in the form of backs, which can be bought at the butcher or supermarket for about 89¢ per pound. They’re full of collagen, which adds a richness and silkiness to the soup. They’re also full of fat, but we’ll deal with that later. If you can’t find backs, legs work, as do thighs. Just make sure you’re not using the skinless boneless ones, as they’re more expensive, and you won’t get as much flavor out of them. You’ll also need carrots, celery, onions, and garlic. I don’t put in other root vegetables, as I find they detract from the chicken flavor. If you need a list of ingredients or quantities, just ask; I’ll be happy to provide one for you.

Cut the carcasses into quarters, just so they’ll fit more easily into the pot. Cut the carrots and celery into slices anywhere from ¼" to 1" long. Don’t worry about being too precise here; we’re after flavor, not looks. Without peeling, rinse the onions, and cut them into eighths. The onion skin adds a deeper color to the broth. Cut the garlic cloves in half. Again, do not peel them. When all the vegetables are cut, heat a large stock pot over medium-high heat. Add olive oil and vegetables and cook, stirring, until they wilt and just barely begin to color. We don’t want any kind of serious caramelization here, but a touch isn’t a bad thing. Add the chicken bones and enough water to cover completely (between 1-½ and two gallons). Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat so that it’s just simmering. To the pot, add three or four bay leaves, four or five sprigs of fresh thyme (or ¾ teaspoon dried), twelve black peppercorns, and three or four juniper berries. When the liquid is simmering, cover with the lid ajar, and allow to simmer for at least 12 hours and for up to 24. Be sure the heat is adjusted so that the liquid is just simmering, and there’s no danger of it boiling over. The longer it simmers, the richer the flavor will be. Add water or white wine, if necessary, but do not add more than an additional two cups of liquid. You do want the liquid to reduce, which will cause the flavor to intensify.

After simmering, strain the soup, removing all of the solids. I find that twice through a colander and then twice again through cheesecloth works best. Put the stock in the refrigerator or, if it’s below 40 degrees, outside Be sure it’s tightly covered. Allow to chill completely, at least four hours. Remove from the fridge (or bring inside) and carefully remove the lid. You’ll notice that the top of the stock is covered in a layer of congealed fat. Using a ladle or a large spoon, gently remove that layer, being careful not to incorporate the fat back into the stock. Refrigerate for another hour, and skim the top again, if necessary. You're not only removing the fat, but also other impurities that will adhere to it.

At this point, you’ve got a rich chicken stock that should be completely clear and anywhere from a rich golden to a deepish brown color. This stock can be jarred and refrigerated for up to two weeks, or frozen for up to a year. It can be used for anything you'd use stock for, but the best part is that now you’re ready to start making some fine chicken soup.

You’ll need more carrots, celery, onion, and uncooked chicken (now’s the time for the boneless and skinless thighs). Bring the stock to a simmer. Meanwhile, cut the carrots and celery into ¼" slices. Peel the onion, slice in half along its axis, and slice into thin semicircles or chop into
¼" dice. Cut the chicken thighs into ½" cubes. When the stock is simmering, add the veggies and the chicken. When the carrots are tender, and the chicken is cooked through, the soup is ready to eat.

Notice that I haven’t added any salt to the stock or the soup. The reason is that as the liquid in the stock evaporates, the salt does not, it merely concentrates, making for one salty stock. If you’d like to add salt, add it with the new veggies and chicken, but I really recommend adding it to individual servings. Adding freshly squeezed lemon juice also adds a nice zip and brightness to the soup, lightening the flavor a little.

If you’re a chicken noodle fan, you can either add some noodles to the soup about 10 minutes before the chicken is done cooking, or cook the noodles separately, and add them cooked to the finished soup. Adding uncooked noodles to the soup will thicken it, whereas adding cooked noodles to the finished soup will not (reason: the starch from the noodles acts as a thickening agent). Like fresh mushrooms in your soup? Add them about 10 minutes after the veggies and chicken have been added. Like tomato? Add some with the veggies and chicken. Add corn that’s been freshly cut from the cob at the very end of the process, allowing it to just heat through (frozen corn can be substituted). Add cilantro and lime juice for a Mexican twist. If you like it spicy, add jalapeno with the vegetables at the beginning of the stock process, then roast a jalapeno, chop it and add it to the soup with the carrots. Lemon and egg make avgolemono, a Greek classic. The variations are only limited by your taste and your imagination.

While it may seem like this is a labor-intensive dish, it really isn’t, as most of the time spent is simmering and chilling. The actual time to prep, chop, mix, strain, and skim should take just about an hour, tops.

Good soup is something we should not deny ourselves or our families. I recommend you try this technique soon to feed yourself body and, dare I say it...

Jeez, even I'm not that cheesy...

Saturday, February 28, 2009


Science Guy wrote: Blog request: Veal scallopini. Ate it in a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Italian Alps. Have tried unsuccessfully on several occasions to recreate what I remembered it tasting like.

Well, the short answer is, I can't help you re-create what you ate. Scallopini isn't a dish, it's a method of preparing meat. The word scaloppina comes probably from middle French and means shell. Simply put, scaloppina (plural, scaloppine) is a thin slice of meat or poultry that has been pounded to make it even thinner and more tender. Some dishes that can be made with scaloppine include, Milanese, Francese, Parmigiano, marsala, al tartufo, pizzaiola, limone, saltimbocca, romana, giuda, etc., etc., etc.

Since your memory comes from your time in the Italian Alps, I'd be willing to bet that what you had was something very similar to cotoletta di vitello alla Milano, or veal Milanese. Cut from the leg, and pounded paper thin, cutlets of veal are dredged in flour, dipped in egg, coated with breadcrumbs (fresh and unseasoned), and then fried in butter until golden, which shouldn't take more than three minutes per side. Served simply with lemon and parsley, this is a traditional Milanese dish that is often served with risotto Milanese (arborio rice that's cooked by first toasting the rice, and then adding small quantities of hot stock; risotto needs to be stirred constantly to prevent burning).

Another dish from the north of Italy is saltimbocca (jump in the mouth) which was probably first made in Parma. To make this dish, veal cutlets are covered with a slice of prosciutto and a sage leaf. They're rolled and either tied (traditionally) or sealed with a toothpick. They're then dredged in flour and fried in butter. When they're cooked, the pan is deglazed with white wine, which is allowed to reduce. The veal is added back to the pan to warm and to be coated in the sauce.

Of course, you might also have had what's called veal Francese, a dish that was invented in New York and has since found its way to Italy. Henri Soulé and Pierre Franey, were chefs who were here for the 1939 World's Fair. At the outbreak of WWII, they stayed in the U.S. as war refugees, and in 1941, they opened Le Pavillon, the restaurant that defined French food in the States for the next 40 years. Franey invented the dish. Veal cutlets are again pounded thin, and are simply dipped in egg, dredged in flour and then fried. A sauce of white wine, butter and capers is made and poured over the veal (lemon is sometimes added, but is not part of the original recipe). This is supposed to be a lighter and more refined dish than the "rustic" Milanese.

It's unlikely that you had veal marsala, which originated in Sicily. Here, the veal is not dredged in flour or breadcrumbs. Rather, it's simply sauteed in butter and oil until golden brown. They're removed from the pan, and garlic and shallot are added and allowed to wilt (1 minute) Mushrooms (porcini, if possible, if not, crimini and shiitake can be substituted, but avoid portobello, as they tend to turn the dish a dark brown color) are added. It's important to not stir the mushrooms until they've given up their liquid and that's evaporated. Moving them too soon will cause them to steam rather than saute. When the mushrooms have started to brown, sweet marsala wine is added and allowd to reduce by abou half. The veal and any accumulated juices are returned to the pan, and are just warmed through. Stir in a tablespoon of butter, to finish the sauce, and serve.

Be careful when buying veal, however. Factory produced and processed veal is loaded with antibiotics and growth hormones, and is extremely low in iron (which accounts for it's pale color). Veal calves are frequently sick, and suffer awful, brief lives that are, if anything, worse than those lived by beef cattle. If you can find it, purchase grass-fed, free-range veal. You'll find that the flavor is more defined than factory veal.

Thinly sliced and pounded, beef, pork, turkey, and chicken can all be used in place of veal. Try using skinless and boneless chicken thighs for a heartier flavor. Turkey and chicken breast are milder, and take on the flavor of whatever they're cooked with. Pork loin makes particularly good scaloppine, as its structure is more similar to that found in veal. Whatever you use, though, be sure to buy the best produce you can. Cheap meat is just that, and it tastes it. The better your ingredients, the better your food will taste.

And with that, I'm off to the greenmarket. Good luck, Science Guy.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Quick tomato sauce.

Why anyone would use jarred tomato sauce is a total mystery to me. Loaded with salt, sugar (in the form of high-fructose corn syrup), and chemicals, overcooked, and then pasteurized, even the best of the jarred sauces tastes like...well, crap. I've heard all the excuses, "it takes too long to make my own sauce," "I'm not Italian, what do I know about making sauce?" "I don't have time to cook sauce after working all day." Poppycock. In the time it takes to boil water and cook the pasta you're going to serve it with, anyone (well, almost anyone, but that's another story) can make homemade tomato sauce from either fresh tomatoes or from high-quality packaged tomatoes.

When I first met my wife
(happy 25th anniversary, honey), she thought she couldn't make tomato sauce. She was intimidated, she said, because of my Italian background. In one lesson, I taught her to make as good a sauce as my grandmother. In two lessons, she had left Nona in the dust. And Nona claimed to have taught Chef Boiardi how to cook. Which would explain a lot. (For the record, I think that Nona was speaking metaphorically, since Boiardi lived in Cleveland, and Nona had never been west of the Hudson River.)

The secret to a great quick sauce is in not expecting a "Sunday" sauce. Sunday sauce was traditionally started early Sunday morning (duh), right after Mass. The women would come home from church and start to cook. Meatballs, braciole (both of which were made from scratch on Saturday), sausage, and pig's knuckles were all browned and added to fresh tomatoes that had been canned the previous summer. This would simmer for hours, until the meat was tender and the sauce was thick and rich. Can you get that taste in 30 minutes? Absolutely not. You can't get it out of a jar either, though, so why bother trying? But what you can do is to make a very, very good marinara style sauce in 30 minutes.

To begin with, start boiling water for the pasta. There are rules about which shapes go with which sauces, but for now, let's just concentrate on long pasta (spaghetti, linguini, cappellini, perciatelli, etc.). While the water's heating, thickly slice some cloves of garlic and roughly chop a small onion. Heat a cast iron skillet over medium high heat and add about a tablespoon of olive oil. When it's just starting to shimmer, add the onions. Let cook for about two or three minutes and then add the garlic. Lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring, until the garlic begins to color. As soon as it does, add a pint of cherry tomatoes (for two people). You could slice them in half, if you'd like, but it's not necessary. Turn up the heat to medium high again, and cook, stirring or shaking the skillet. The tomatoes will begin to break down, releasing their liquid. The water should be coming to a boil about now, so add your pasta to it. Allow most of the liquid that the tomatoes have lost to evaporate, and let the tomatoes begin to caramelize (the natural sugars will begin to turn brown. Only foods with sugars caramelize. Meat does not!). Add some hot red pepper flakes, and turn off heat.

Cook the pasta until al dente, which means "to the tooth" (it should yield easily to the teeth, but have a bit of resistance or even crunch in the center), bearing in mind that pericatelli will take longer to cook than cappellini, drain the pasta and put it into the skillet with the tomatoes, toss to mix, add some torn basil and some freshly grated parmigiano reggiano or asiago cheese, and serve.

For pasta alla putanesca, add four anchovy fillets with the onion, up the red pepper at the end, and instead of basil, add a teaspoon of chopped capers, about 15 chopped kalamata olives (for god's sake, never use canned olives), and a handful of chopped parsley. With this sauce, rather than cheese, add the juice of half a lemon just before serving. The anchovies and olives add depth and smokiness, and the lemon adds a brightness that lightens the dish and enhances the flavor of the capers.

Want to get fancy? Toss in some sliced crimini mushrooms before the tomatoes. Let them brown, and give up all of their liquid. Grate a pinch of fresh nutmeg on the mushrooms, swap some fresh thyme for the basil, and use freshly grated black pepper rather than hot red pepper flakes.

Want to add meat? Before adding the tomatoes, add some sliced (or, better, crumbled) Italian sweet or hot sausage, some ground pork, some sliced chicken, or some bacon. Allow to brown, and then add tomatoes.

Want a thicker sauce? Start with crushed tomatoes. Stay away from cans; they're loaded with sodium (one brand has 300 mg of sodium per serving, and 13 servings per can!). Rather, buy Pomi chopped tomatoes. They come in a box, are imported from Italy, and taste almost as good as fresh. Let them cook at a slightly higher temperature, since they have more moisture.

Try different kinds of tomatoes! Grape tomatoes are sweeter. Roma (or plum) tomatoes are not as moist. Round "salad" tomatoes are slightly less acidic (and also less flavorful).

All of these sauces are infinitely variable, depending on your taste. Experiment! What have you got to lose? In the time it takes to cook pasta (which you'd have to do anyway), you can serve a delicious homemade tomato sauce that will blow any jar out of the water. Buon appetito!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Hundred dollar ham.

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking past Grand Central Terminal (not Station). I remembered that there’s a marketplace in the terminal now, and thought “hmmm… maybe some cheese from Murray’s would be nice.”

As I walked through the door, I was greeted by a young woman offering free tastes of
chorizo. I tried some, and realized that I was standing in front of Murray’s Real Salami. Murray’s is the fabled city of El Dorado to those of us who look for the best in cured, smoked, and cooked meats. As I savored the chorizo, a Spanish sausage, I looked at the refrigerated case in front of me. I thought, “I'm a dead man.” It contained ham, salami, bologna, head cheese, liverwurst, kielbasa, hot dogs...as I stared, I heard a voice saying "try some raw bacon, sir? Looking up, I saw a man holding out a paper-thin slice of pink and white meat. Without hesitation, I said, "sure!"

Now, before you think I've totally lost my mind, let me explain that I was not being offered hog
tartare. Bacon is a cured meat. It is not heat cooked, but it is chemically cooked. Think gravlax. This dish is made from raw salmon that is coated with a mixture of salt, sugar, dill and pepper, which combine with the water in the salmon to make a brine. This brine changes the nature of the protein in the fish, curing it. Likewise with bacon. Pieces of pork (the belly, the cheek, the leg, etc.) are treated with salt and sometimes spices, and hung to cure. Some, like "American" bacon, are smoked. Others, like prosciutto, are not. Cured bacon is not raw, and it can be eaten without having heat applied to it. Does this mean that for breakfast, I'm ready to tear open a package of Oscar Mayer, slap a couple of slices on a plate with my eggs and tuck in? Of course not. Knowing how the bacon was handled, how it was cured, how it was processed all need to be taken into consideration. My thought was, "hell, this is Murray's. They're not going to offer me something that's going to make me sick, so why not go for it?"

"I like that answer," the person behind the counter said. "Most people look at me like I'm kidding when I ask them that." I took the bacon and put it in my mouth. Slightly salty, slightly sweet, unctuous without being overwhelmingly fatty, and with a silky smooth consistency that literally melted in my mouth. It was
amazing. "That's some mighty good bacon," I said.

Looking at the other choices in the case, I saw speck, which is a type of bacon from the
Tyrol region of the Alps (once part of Italy, now part of Switzerland). "I'd like a quarter-pound of the speck, please," I said. "Certainly, sir. Would you like to try it?" Indeed I would, and did. Speck comes from the hind leg of the hog, like prosciutto. Unlike prosciutto, however, it's boned, and cured with not just salt, but also with juniper, bay, pepper and other spices. After curing for several weeks, it's then cold smoked (under 68 degrees Fahrenheit) over the course of a week and then left to age for at least five months. It was not dissimilar to the bacon I'd had, but there was more "meat" and less fat to it. The texture was a bit chewier, and the flavor of juniper was unmistakably prominent. The finish was not as salty as and somewhat sweeter than the bacon, too. It was eye opening. At $19.99 a pound, it was a treat, but not a particularly extravagant one.

It was then that I saw the
jamon Iberico de bellota. Long illegal in the U.S. (as was prosciutto di Parma until 1989) Iberico de bellota is made from the hind legs of a breed of pig known as pata negra, or black foot. They're descended from wild boars, and are the last herd of free-ranging hogs in Europe. Their diet consists primarily of acorns (bellota), which gives their meat a deep mahogany color and an unmistakable nutty flavor. Looking at the Iberico, I gasped at the price: $99.99 a pound. I had to have some. "What's the least quantity of this that a person can buy?" I stammered, trying not to seem cheap. Without missing a beat, the butcher replied "an eighth of a pound, sir."Would you like to try some?" Would I like to try some? I've just eaten raw bacon, and ordered a quarter pound of speck. What do you think? "Yes, please," I said, and, doing my best imitation of Rain Man, I quickly calculated that 2 ounces, at $100.00 per 16, would cost me a whopping $12.50. Not quite so bad, right? "I'll also take an eighth of a pound, please." The butcher shaved an incredibly thin slice of Iberico, and handed it to me. I put it in my mouth, and went weak in the knees. If the bacon was amazing, and the speck was eye opening, this was nothing less than revelatory. It was like nothing I'd ever tasted before. Nutty, rich, smooth, silky, smoky (although it's unsmoked), with an oaky finish, it was heavenly. "This is without a doubt the best meat I've ever tasted," I said. "Yeah? Makes you wonder what the ones that cost $10,000 taste like, doesn't it?" asked the butcher.

$10,000 for a ham? I guess there are just some things I'll never experience.