Carl Tashian

archives: cooking

20 Mar 02009

Sauerkraut & ginger ale at home

I love fermented food because time does most of the work. My go-to book is Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation, and these two recipes are adapted from it.

Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is cabbage and salt, plus time. Two weeks ago I shredded some red cabbage and carrots, added a bunch of salt as I went, packed it all into a crock, covered it with a plate that would fit snugly inside the crock, and some heavy objects (to squeeze the water out), covered the whole thing with a dish towel to keep dust out, and let it sit. For the first day, I pushed down on the plate occasionally, squeezing more water out of the vegetables. But once the cabbage was submerged in brine, my work was done. Over the next two weeks, I tasted the kraut every couple days as it got tangier, until yesterday when I declared it done, transferred it to a jar and put it in the fridge. Honestly, it could have kept fermenting for months.

fresh sauerkraut

Unlike the canned variety, fresh sauerkraut keeps a nice crunch. You can use cabbage, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and a lot of other vegetables. Katz recommends around 3 Tbsp salt per 5 lbs of vegetables. As long as the salt level of the brine is around 10% and the cabbage is fully submerged in the brine, it’s a pretty foolproof process. But there is one thing that may be alarming if you’re not expecting it: surface mold!

sauerkraut: surface mold

It’s harmless, it’s very likely to develop, it looks disgusting, and it probably keeps a lot of people from making their own kraut. Just skim it off, and don’t worry if you can’t get rid of all of it. If the kraut really has gone bad, you will know because it will stink up your entire house.

Ginger beer

This also takes a few weeks to make, but it’s one of the most refreshing drinks I’ve ever tasted. It’s non-alcoholic and it never cloys like supermarket ginger ale. It has a nice light fizz. You will need:

  • A one-gallon glass jug, with a tight fitting top (a screw-top apple juice jug is perfect)
  • Cheesecloth & a rubber band
  • 1½ cups + a few teaspoons sugar
  • a big piece of ginger root
  • two lemons

First, make a starter ferment in a small jar. Start with a cup of cold water, 2 tsp sugar, and 2 tsp coarsely grated ginger in a jar. Stir to dissolve the sugar, cover with cheesecloth and a rubber band, and leave in a warm corner of the room.

ginger beer starter

Every day, add another 2 tsp ginger and 2 tsp sugar and stir it up. Within 2-5 days, you should see small bubbles on the ginger itself or along the inside of the jar. The whole thing will get slightly fizzy. That’s when you know it’s ready for the next step.

Bring 2 quarts water to the boil, add 2-6 inches of grated ginger (more ginger will make it stronger) and 1½ cups sugar. Boil for 15 minutes and let cool to room temperature.

Strain the cooled mixture and the starter ferment, combine them and add the juice of two lemons. Stir and add this to your gallon jug, along with enough water to fill the jug (leaving a little headspace). Let sit for two weeks in the same warm corner. Cool, open carefully, and serve!

7 Mar 02009

Animal crackers!

animal crackers

A couple days ago I made Bittman’s parmesean cream crackers, and they were good, not great, but for my first attempt at crackers I did okay. Today, my mom came back with animal crackers, adapted from a recipe she found online. They contain oat and barley flour, which she milled herself from groats and barley, of course. My mom loves her grain mill.

Long story short, her crackers beat my crackers. The crumb has a great consistency, grainier than animal crackers in a good way, and the oat flavor was awesome. Must experiment more with oat flour, I see big potential here.

The recipe:

  • 1 c. oat flour
  • 1 c. barley flour
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1/4 c. quick oats
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 6 Tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1/8 c. honey
  • 1/8 c. half & half or water

Preheat oven to 325° and line a couple baking sheets with parchment paper. Combine flours, oats, sugar, and salt in a food processor or large bowl, add butter and cut it in until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the honey, then the half & half slowly, using only enough to form a cohesive ball of dough.

Divide dough into two equal portions, roll them out to at least 1/4” thickness and up to 1/16” if you like really thin crackers. Transfer to the pan, and score the crackers with a sharp knife into whatever shape you like (or use animal cookie cutters if you have lots of time on your hands). Bake 20 minutes or until lightly browned, and cool on a rack. Makes two sheets worth of crackers.

23 Jan 02009

Homemade Ramen

Last night I made my third attempt at Japanese ramen, and this latest iteration was so delicious that I had to write it up. I’m not talking about flavor packet ramen, but something closer to the kind of ramen honored in the movie Tampopo:

Ramen is not a dish so much as a cultural tradition—a form that holds a high place in the taxonomy of cuisine. Were it biologically classified, it would be a phylum. Rameniac has a map of Japan with ramen types by region, with 21 different types. But no two restaurants make the same ramen. So saying “I’m making ramen” serves only to pique the curiosity, raising more questions than it answers.

Apart from the flavor packet variety, the only ramen I’ve known is what’s available in New York. Ramen in New York is a delightful curiosity, and the handful of restaurants making it are in the position to define what ramen means to most New Yorkers. And, in fact, David Chang of New York’s Momofuku Noodle Bar confesses that he makes an Americanized version of ramen—he says he has too much respect for Japan’s ramen tradition to attempt it here in the US.

If he’s not going to go there, than I sure as hell won’t. I need to tell you right now that my ramen is an abomination, a disgrace to the traditions and people of Japan, and I would probably be shot in Tokyo for my attempts to emulate this hallowed dish using third-hand knowledge and all the wrong ingredients. But by going for it anyway, I am taking part in an American tradition of distorting regional specialties into international hits, and I urge you to join me because it’s really tasty.

To serve 4, you will need:

  • 3-4 pounds of pork neck bones
  • 3 carrots, chopped into a couple chunks
  • 1 stalk celery
  • 1 onion, quartered
  • greens from 1 bunch scallions (save the white parts, they will garnish)
  • a few strips of kombu — Japanese dried kelp (optional, adds umami)
  • bonito flakes (optional)
  • miso paste, red type, or soy sauce

Bring the pork to a boil in a 3-4 quarts of water, and skim the scummy stuff from the surface—there shouldn’t be much. Let it simmer, covered, for at least an hour but more like 3-4. Add the vegetables and keep simmering for at least 30 minutes more. Now add the kombu and simmer until the kombu is rehydrated, about 5-7 minutes. Add the bonito flakes, stir, and turn off the heat. Now strain the stock through a strainer, discarding the cooked meat and vegetables.

Put the stock back on the stove. At this point, the stock still has no salt and probably won’t taste like much. Add a generous amount of miso paste, at least a tablespoon, probably two, and stir it in until it dissolves. Or add soy sauce until the broth tastes right to you.

While the stock cooks, you can put the toppings together. Everything but the noodles is optional:

  • ramen noodles, or thin udon noodles if you can’t find ramen
  • shredded or sliced smoked pork
  • 4 medium-boiled eggs, shelled and halved
  • 1 sheet of nori
  • bamboo shoots in chili oil (sold in a jar)
  • carrots or cabbage, grated or shredded
  • cooked spinach or uncooked corn
  • sesame seeds
  • sesame oil
  • scallions, sliced on the bias into razor-thin ovals

Once your broth is ready, you can either cook the noodles in it (if you want them to take on the flavor of the stock, and if you want the stock to thicken from the noodle starch), or you can cook them in a separate pot of water. Cook the noodles al dente, so they still have a little chewiness.

Finishing the ramen is kind of like making a composed salad. Start with a tiny bit of sesame oil in the bottom of the bowls. Add the noodles and stock, carefully arrange the toppings, sprinkle sesame seeds over everything, and let the eater do the rest. Here’s what my finished ramen looked like:

homemade ramen

I used an Italian pasta bowl to really drive home the heresy. Note the lone noodle that is trying to slip away, back to its true heritage.

But seriously, don’t be afraid to try this at home — and if you do, let me know how it goes!

PS. Thanks to Winnie for helping me put this recipe together!

5 Oct 02008

How to make headcheese

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Head cheese is a pig head meat suspended in a jellied stock. It’s very delicious. Here’s the full recipe, adapted from Charcuterie by Micharel Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn:

For the brine:

  • 1 pig’s head
  • 2-4 pig’s trotters or hocks
  • 2 gallons of brine (1 cup Kosher salt and 1/2 cup sugar per gallon of water)
  • 1-2 pig’s tongues

For the stock:

  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 1 bouquet garni
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 8 bay leaves
  • 6 cloves

For the terrine:

  • kosher salt
  • parsley or other flavorings (nutmeg and/or allspice)

Brine all the meat overnight. Drain and rinse the meat. Add the meat and stock ingredients to a 20 quart stockpot and add water to cover as much as possible. Bring everything to a boil and maintain a very slow simmer for 3-4 hours, skimming fat as needed, until the stock is very dark.

Remove the meat and let it cool. Bring the remaining stock to a rolling boil until it reduces in volume by 1/3, about 2 more hours. Meanwhile, pick off the edible meat from the tongues, head, and trotters. The tongues must be peeled. Work around the bones and skin, judiciously selecting the meat and a little of the fat. The meat should fill one terrine, lined with plastic wrap, with some leftovers.

Mix the meat with the parsley or other flavorings. Ladle the reduced stock over the meat to fill the terrine, then salt the entire thing to taste.

Cover and refrigerate the head cheese overnight or until set. The terrine should be firm all around. Invert onto a serving plate, remove the plastic wrap, and serve with salsa verde, cornichons and other pickled accompaniments, mustards, bread and a salad.

14 Jul 02008

The 36 hour cookie

When I read David Leite’s article about the 36 hour chocolate chip cookie in the Times, I had to try it. The theory is that giving the batter 36 hours in the fridge results in a much better texture, because the flour has time to fully absorb the egg.

The Times cookies are 5 inches in diameter. I’ve generally been skeptical of big cookies like this, but their explanation was reasonable. With a bigger cookie, you’ll ideally get to experience three different textures: a crusty edge, an interior ring that’s somewhere between crusty and soft, and a soft, less-than-done center. A smaller cookie might allow for a more consistent texture (all crust, or all soft), but as Winnie said, variety is the spice of life! And besides, since chocolate chip cookies are a classic American invention, they must be immense (and suitable for eating while driving).

Before 36 hours

Here’s the dough before the 36 hour resting period, and before I added chocolate chips. It’s not exactly wet, but it’s not exactly dry either.

After 36 hours

After 36 hours, and with chips, it’s definitely dryer and sandier and darker.

Batch One

And here comes the first batch! Frankly, I’d rather wait 36 hours for one of these than for an iPhone. The texture was wonderful (neither gritty nor cakey), the chocolate was great (I stole Winnie’s Scharffen-Berger). There was a tinge of baking soda or powder (I couldn’t tell which) that blocked some of the flavor, but this went away in subsequent batches (a day later). Winnie suggested I try making my own baking powder next time, but given the intimidating statistics behind this recipe (2.5 sticks butter, etc.) it’ll probably be a while before I have the appetite for more of these monstrous handheld desserts. And by “a while,” I mean approximately 36 hours from now.

16 May 02008

Kapoosh!

I am loving our new knife block:

kapoosh

It’s called the Kapoosh and it holds a slew of knives without regard for shape or size. What a huge improvement over most knife blocks—I highly recommend it. Our other option was a knife magnet, but we don’t have the wall space for one, and it’s honestly not as easy to use. Our Kapoosh is situated right below the counter. Now I can whip out my steel in a moment’s notice.

27 Apr 02008

Spring pig roast!

I was up in Boston for an amazing ROFLcon weekend and last night I stumbled into/crashed a birthday pig roasting part for a guy named Craig, who I’d only met the day before (our mutual friend Christine paved the way). The victim was a 75 lb pig, purchased from Mayflower Poultry (“Live Poultry, Fresh Killed”). Lots of fish, scallops, shrimp, crabs, and mussels also perished. It was incredibly delicious. Here’s the whole gallery of crappy cell phone pics. Roasting a pig this size not a one-person operation. Three guys who love food, Craig among them, did the bulk of the work. These guys were having a blast, though after 15 or so courses they started losing steam, understandably, so I tried to do my part by slicing up some fruit for dessert.

The roasting box they used is called a La Caja. It’s insulated, it has aluminum walls, and you set the coals on top. A La Caja cuts the roasting time in half (down to 4 hours in this case) but still requires a lot of charcoal (set on top of the box, not underneath) — about 40-50 lbs total I think. At one point they removed the charcoal top and set it on the driveway while basting the pig, and the driveway’s tar started to melt. Wow.

But seeing the whole process gave me confidence in roasting a big animal, should the need arise. Sure, you need some outdoor space, a bathtub to brine it in, a big work table to cut it on, and a lot of people around to eat it, but otherwise it’s just like a chicken!

17 Apr 02008

Dear Blog

Dear Blog,
How are you? I am fine. I miss you. New York is big. I am busy. I know you worry about me. Am I safe and warm? Am I happy? Am I eating enough?

arr.

Blog, you don’t have to worry.

munch

See, here I am. Eating, all safe and warm and happy.

lentil soup for the soul

Lentil soup Winnie made tonight

smoked turkey sandwich & apples

Smoked turkey drumstick and cheese on Balthazar’s raisin-walnut bread

pasta with sun dried tomatoes

My version of pasta with Bittman’s double sun-dried tomato sauce

eggs in a baguette

Eggs baked into a baguette

tofu satay and rice

Karl’s amazing & simple tofu satay

trout!

Broiled trout with ginger

corned beef!

And Winnie’s huge corned beef -n- veggie dinner on St. Patrick’s day

I will write more often, Blog. I promise. Now that we’re finally settling into our new home, I will try to make more time for you. You are special to me. I’m sorry.

Love,
Carl

See also: Dear Rabbit and Dear Microwave via Get In My Belly.

2 Mar 02008

din din

IMG_4599

Bittman’s jamaican rice & beans, chicken & turkey sausage, red chard with soy sauce, and basil/goat cheese/tomato salad.

24 Feb 02008

Roasted winter vegetable soup

Cross-posted on Thing-a-day

  • dice and roast a parsnip and 3 yams at 425° for 20-30 minutes, shaking occasionally
  • meanwhile, saute 3 shallots, finely chopped
  • add chicken broth, bay leaf, thyme, and a bunch of kale, chopped small
  • bring to a boil, simmer for 15 minutes.
  • add roasted vegetables, 3 cloves whole garlic, and a can of great northern beans
  • season with salt & pepper and simmer for 10 more minutes to blend flavors.
  • garnish with shredded beets
  • enjoy with buttered baguette bits
winter vegetable soup

27 Nov 02007

Apple Tart

Apple Tart

I really have to make these more often. A tart is simple to make, delicious, and for some reason it looks like an impressive feat. But with all that butter, it’s hard to screw up. The only goal is to deliver a crispy, flaky crust, and as long as the butter stays cold until the tart hits the oven, you’re home free.

Unfortunately, my standards for these things are way too high. It was the apple tart at L. Poilâne in Paris that spoiled me. A melt-in-your-mouth, gorgeous flakey pastry, baked over a wood fire like their breads. Absolutely omg wtf delicious, and it wasn’t just Paris’s psychological effect on the taste buds.

9 Nov 02007

lunch diary

K and I left Nashville on September 25th, drove 8,151 miles, hit a dozen national and state parks, another dozen cities, and now we are back.

Having travelled so far in such short time, I can finally post what may be my first Winnie-style travel food adventure. Winnie Yang seems to write these kinds of posts weekly: here’s a pig’s head she ate in Montreal, a lovely passion fruit on the beach in Kenya, and oh, that dim sum in LA… and that’s just the last couple months. The food below is a little more pedestrian, and a little less well photographed (shitty cell phone camera), but I hope you like it.

First, starting in Nashville with the catfish sandwich. Catfish!
This is from Fat Mo’s, a little drive-through place down the block. Between this sandwich the krunkest fish sandwich over in East Nashville, I predict Nashville will become an unlikely fish sandwich mecca. We do have the deep frying skills for it.

Lobster Roll But Portland, ME will remain the lobster roll mecca

Pork Chop Sandwich
And Butte, MT is the only home of the original pork chop sandwich, invented at Pork Chop John’s and served “loaded” with red onion, mustard, and pickles, on a toasted bun, for $2.90 (!).

Portland, OR: My first bit of beef this year! Local, sustainable Burgerville hamburger
This is a local, sustainable hamburger from the amazing Burgerville USA. Burgerville entrance
And to go with it, a mind-blowing pumpkin milkshake.

Side trip: While in Oregon, my aunt Joy took us shrooming. Don’t pass up an opportunity to do shrooms with your aunt. Shrooming!
Chanterelles

Talking of chanterelles and local food—we had a great lunch on the porch at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA: Rocket salad with beets and a chopped medium-boiled egg
Rocket salad with beets and a chopped medium-boiled egg Hand-cut wild nettle pasta with chanterelle mushroom ragú
Hand-cut wild nettle pasta with chanterelle mushroom ragú Provençal fish and shellfish stew with fennel, tomato, and rouille
Provençal fish and shellfish stew with fennel, tomato, and rouille Grilled pork roast with shell beans, roasted pimiento, and tomatillos
Grilled pork roast with shell beans, roasted pimiento, and tomatillos

Then, on our way back east, we went to Bryce’s Cafeteria in Texarkana, TX. This place was loaded to the gills with amazing home-cooked southern food. I wish I’d taken a picture of the buffet. The absolute crispiest most amazing fried chicken legs ever
The absolute crispiest most amazing fried chicken legs ever, with all the southern accompaniments.

And as my dad taught me, if you’re ever in Memphis, a stop at Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous is a must: charcoal roasted, dry rubbed ribs
Here’s a full order of their charcoal roasted, dry rubbed ribs. Heaven on a bone.

1 Apr 02007

Pecan Torte (raw food!)

the torte

I know it doesn’t look like much, but when my mom sent me this raw food vegan torte recipe the other day, and she used the word “fabulous” to describe it, I was intrigued. I’ve never “cooked” raw food before, and to be honest I’m deeply skeptical of the genre. Raw food is not easy to make taste good. We are not bunny rabbits. But—a good review from mom is reliable, and I’ll eat most things involving fresh strawberries. This is made like a cake, with alternating layers of fruit and a pecan/fig mixture. The nutmeg and citrus give it a mild fruitcake flavor.

Start with:

  • 2 c. pecans
  • 2 c. figs
  • 1 tsp. nutmeg
  • 2 tsp. soy sauce (raw soy sauce, if you want to be 100% orthodox—I wasn’t)
  • zest of one lemon

Whiz the pecans in a food processor to a medium grind, then add everything else and process well. You might need to work in two batches. Form half of the mixture into an even layer on a plate, about ¼” thick. Layer sliced strawberries or bananas on top, then the formed other half of the mixture, and top with another layer of fruit.

Now get out the blender and make the “frosting.”

  • 1 c. walnuts or pecans
  • 3 T. raw honey
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ c. water
  • a capful of orange blossom water

Blend ingredients well and spread/pour over the torte. Let chill for an hour or so in the fridge, and the frosting will solidify. (thanks, Mom!)

29 Mar 02007

Sour cream coffee cake muffins

the muffins

I made these this morning, adapted from Mark Bittman — it’s a mash-up of his muffin recipes. I like these because they cook faster than coffee cake, and they have more crusty goodness.

Preheat oven to 401°F. Grease a standard 12-guage muffin tin. Prepare three bowls:

Bowl 1, dry ingredients:

  • 2 cups (~9 oz) AP flour
  • ¼ cup white sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt

Bowl 2, wet ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp melted butter or canola oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1¼ sour cream or yogurt

Bowl 3, tasty ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp melted butter
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 cup finely chopped pecans

Mix dry ingredients to combine, burrow a well in the center, and add wet ingredients plus half of tasty ingredients. Fold in quickly until everything is just hydrated. Fill each muffin slot about 8/12ths and top with other half of tasty ingredients before baking. Pour a little water into any remaining empty muffin slots.

Bake 23 minutes. Let stand 4 minutes and 53 seconds before flipping the pan over and turning its contents into your mouth.

6 Feb 02007

Cranberry-Walnut Bread


29 Jan 02007

Pasta fresca, part three

First I laid out a few egg pasta recipes and examined their contents, then I claimed I finally understood how to make it. Now I have to take that back. I was only just beginning to learn. Making fresh pasta, with just 2 or 3 ingredients, is as “simple” as bread, which is to say it is very complicated. I got cocky, I thought I knew what I was doing. But I don’t. I am humbled.

Having said that, I just learned a few more things about fresh pasta from the book Heat by Bill Buford, and I think they will help answer my earlier confusion about it. Like bread, pasta will sing only when made with the best, freshest, most excellent ingredients you can get your paws on. And given the time commitment, I can’t see how it would be worth making any other way. In my post on pasta doughs, I’d wondered aloud why Jamie Oliver uses eight egg yolks plus 3 eggs in his dough, where all the other cookbooks used just 2 or 3 eggs. As it turns out, Mario Batali does the same thing at Babbo. Why? Well, first, the recipe calls for almost twice as much dough as the others. But more importantly, Jamie’s recipe freely admits something about the modern eggs we get from battery hens: they suck. The extra yolks are there to make up for the low-grade eggs that most of us use every day. Back when all chickens were grass-fed and life was great, you might’ve only needed 3 eggs. In parts of Italy, I’m sure that’s still the case. But if you don’t have fantastic eggs—grass-fed eggs with big, neon yellow-bordering-on-red yolks—you simply need more yolks to make up for it. Apparently Batali uses salt and oil, too, to further redress the egg quality issues.

FYI, here’s Batali’s pasta dough—made for American mass-produced eggs:

  • 1 lb flour
  • 3 eggs
  • 8 egg yolks
  • hint of salt
  • drizzle of olive oil
  • water as needed

Of course, all of these recipes assume you’re going to know by feel when the dough is perfectly hydrated, and when to add water. I’ve learned a little about this from breadmaking, but it’s not something that’s easy to explain in English. It’s kinesthetic. It’s about muscle memory, and when I read about it, I lament not working in a professional kitchen. Unless I’m making a ton of this stuff every day, kneading it out by hand, I don’t get a chance to teach my body the feel of perfect dough, just as I can’t easily teach my body how to poke and smell a steak and tell that it’s perfectly cooked. Anyway, the dough sould be tacky, but not sticky, while you knead it. After a few minutes of kneading, it should shine a little. So it won’t be dry, exactly, but it will be something you can knead easily.

Good luck.

16 Jan 02007

the secrets of fresh pasta

fresh-pasta.jpg

I finally figured out fresh egg pasta. It only took about five attempts. I thought I understood three attempts ago, and that it was supposed to taste gummy. No wonder so many pasta machines collect dust in the corner.



  1. Use the right flour Obviously, all-purpose will work, but lower-gluten flour is best for pasta. Last night I used some Marino Organic Wheat Flour Tipo “00” flour, which is pretty amazing and too expensive. But for “everyday” fresh pasta, if there is such a thing, you can use any pastry or cake flour. You can always mix in a bit of other flour (semolina, whole wheat).

  2. Not too wet, not too dry Start with 10oz flour and 3 eggs. Whisk the eggs and mix them into the flour. Once formed into a ball, keep adding flour a bit at a time until the ball isn’t sticky anymore. Then knead it for a minute or two, wrap in plastic, and let it rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

  3. Get to “5” or “6” without tears Using a hunk of 1/6 of the dough ball at a time, keeping the rest of the dough wrapped while you work, feed the dough through the #1 setting on the machine. The sheet should be totally smooth when it comes through the machine. If there are ruts or tears in the dough, it needs more flour on the surface. Add a little, fold the piece in half, and run it through the machine again. When it comes out nice and smooth, move up to #2, and so on, until you reach 5 or 6. #5 will give you linguini thickness. #6 is more delicate, and I would use it to make ravioli or very delicate pasta.

  4. Cook it properly. Fresh pasta cooks fast, but don’t take it out too early. It starts out firm and chewy, and when it’s done it becomes light and silky. It will never be “al dente”, as far as I can tell. It usually takes 3-4 minutes for linguini at the “5” thickness setting, but you really have to keep tasting it. Some fresh pastas will cook in as little as 1 minute.

  5. Salt the water, not the dough (this one from Daisy) “salt tenses up the dough and makes it stronger, definitely not what you want when getting to those thin settings.” I dump a bunch of salt in my pasta water, at least a couple tablespoons for 6 quarts of water, to cook 1 pound of pasta.

  6. Keep the sauce light A heavy bolognese is uncalled for. How about just pasta with butter, pepper, and really good quality parmesean? When you make that and it tastes delicious, you know you’ve made fresh pasta properly.

3 Jan 02007

Overnight Waffles

We made some “overnight waffles” for breakfast yesterday.

the finished waffle

waffle batter
a bubbly batter after 8 hours

They were creamy and delicious, topped only with maple syrup. I kind of cobbled a recipe together from a few sources. The batter is yeasted and rises slowly the night before, so the flavors get to develop nicely. And there’s no baking soda. These waffles are no more work than usual; you just have to mix the batter before you go to bed! Kind of like making a very slow-cooking dinner in the morning.

Mix:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp instant yeast

Add:

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 6 Tbsp butter, melted and cooled
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla

Leave overnight, and just before ironing add 2 beaten eggs. Buttermilk might be a great substitute for whole milk. Or you might get away with using a tablespoon of buttermilk powder with the dry ingredients. Maybe next time.

22 Dec 02006

Winter Clafoutis

In celebration of the beginning of winter, we made a sweet Clafoutis with cranberries and walnuts:

Winter Clafoutis

This is so easy and tastes amazing. It’s like a soufflé, but it doesn’t taste eggy. It is just delicious. It is from Suzanne Goin’s book Sunday Suppers at Lucques.

  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter, plus some for the pan
  • 3 extra large eggs
  • 1/2 cup sugar, plus some for the pan
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 3/4 cups walnuts, toasted and chopped
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
Hungry?

Almost gone..

Sorry, none left.

Heat the milk and butter in the microwave until warm, not hot, and the butter has melted. Whisk eggs, sugar, flour, and salt in a bowl. Whisk in the milk and butter mixture until incorporated. Rest batter for one hour.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter bottom and sides of a 10” cast iron skillet, then sprinkle with sugar and shake to coat sides, discarding any extra.

Pour the rested batter into the skillet. Add chopped nuts and cranberries on top—most will float near the surface. Bake 45 minutes until it looks like the above photograph.

Top with hand-whipped cream.

17 Dec 02006

sugar cookies

We made some sugar cookies last night. It is very easy and a lot of fun.

sugar cookies

Here’s the basic dough, adapted from HTCE:

  • 3 cups (14 oz) AP flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, softened slightly in microwave
  • 1 cup sugar (white & brown in any combination)
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  1. Find some nice cookie cutters.
  2. Mix flour, baking powder, and any dry add-ins in one bowl
  3. Cream butter and sugar in standing mixer on low speed until fully incorporated. Add egg, then add dry ingredients slowly, adding a little milk if the mixture gets too dry.
  4. Add vanilla and incorporate.
  5. Refrigerate a couple hours, to harden the dough.
  6. Remove 20 minutes before rolling out. Preheat to 400°F. Roll out to 1/8 inch between two sheets of floured parchment paper. Then cut your shapes! You can also roll the dough into a log and slice it into rounds.
  7. Bake 7-10 minutes on parchment papered cookie sheets, then cookies to a cooling rack for a few minutes.


Of course, we couldn’t settle with just the basic recipe. We also made a chocolate-orange variant and a ginger variant.

Chocolate-Orange cookies: Add 1 TBsp orange zest and a tablespoon of cocoa powder to the dry ingredients, omit the vanilla, and add 3 oz melted baking chocolate with the egg (you can melt the chocolate in the microwave on high—stirring every 15 seconds or so).

Ginger cookies: Add 1 TBsp, or more, of ginger powder to the dry ingredients, along with some cinnamon and nutmeg (just a pinch) as desired. Cardamom would be great, too, if you want to go Middle Eastern with it.

11 Dec 02006

egg pasta doughs

Here are a few pasta dough recipes from around the house…

A New Way to Cook
To make 12 ounces, to serve 4:

  • 2 large eggs
  • a little more than 1 cup AP flour
  • 1/2 tsp olive oil
  • 1/8 tsp kosher salt

Jamie Oliver — to serve 4:

  • 1 2/3 cups bread flour
  • 1 2/3 cups semolina flour
  • 3 large eggs
  • 8 egg yolks

The New Basics—makes 1 pound, to serve 4-6

  • 2 cups AP flour
  • 3 eggs

Mark Bittman — for 1 lb:

  • 2 cups (10oz) AP flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 eggs
  • a few drops of water

Cook’s Illustrated

  • 2 cups AP flour (10oz)
  • 3 eggs

Questions:

  • Does one salt the dough or salt the cooking water?
  • Jamie’s version seems heavy on the eggs; is it too wet, or does semolina absorb more?
  • Cook’s tried bread, cake, and AP flour, and determined that AP made the “best” pasta. But they didn’t try semolina, as in Jamie’s version. Isn’t most dry pasta made with semolina? Maybe bread flour works well with it?
  • What is the thinnest setting on the pasta machine used for? How can you make dough that won’t fall apart at that setting?
  • Could pasta dough possibly benefit from some kind of fermentation? I mean, what doesn’t benefit from fermentation?

26 Nov 02006

Sunday bread breakthrough!

A few weeks ago I saw a Mark Bittman article about a loaf of bread that requires no kneading, is baked in a pot instead of a stone, and has a superior “rustic” crust.

Low humidity has always plagued home “hearth” baking on a bread stone. Commercial ovens have a steam-injection mechanism that keeps the conditions right for a nice, thick crust and a lot of “oven spring”—the extra rise that happens at the beginning of baking. I struggled with humidity in my oven before, and I thought I’d hit the peak of what was possible in a home oven. But I’d never really loved the crust of my breads.

Obviously, I was not thinking beyond the baking stone. Baking in a covered pot is a clever home technique when coupled with a very high-moisture dough, as it helps establish a humid environment for the critical first few minutes of baking (the cover is removed at the end, for browning).

Until today, when I finally got a chance to make the Bittman bread. Here’s the loaf that just came out of our oven:

This loaf is amazing. The crust is serious, like an Italian loaf from High Rise, and the crumb is perfectly creamy:

But the simplicity of this recipe is what makes it a gem. I have made a lot of bread over the past couple years, and today I felt like I was cheating, because this loaf took less than 10 minutes of work, spread out across 24 hours. Not only is kneading eliminated, but so is the separate pre-ferment (this bread is 100% poolish—fine with me!), the scoring, and the precarious transfer of loaf to stone. This is truly one of the quickest recipes I can think of.

Anyway, here is the Times recipe for this bread, and here is my slightly rephrased version of it, for when the Times recipe is no longer freely available:

Mix

  • 3 cups (430 grams) high-quality bread flour
  • 1/4 tsp instant yeast
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt (more would be OK too)

in a large bowl. Add

  • 1 5/8 cups water (345 grams)

and stir until hydrated.

Cover and wait 12-18 hours, the longer the better, until you see little bubbles along the top of the mixture.

Turn it out onto a floured counter. Sprinkle flour on top, enough to pull the dough out and fold it over itself, envelope-style. Cover and rest it for 15 minutes.

Coat a cloth towel with flour. Shape the dough into a ball with a seam, and place it seam side down on the towel. Sprinkle flour and/or oats on top. Cover with another towel and let it rise for 2-3 hours, until more than doubled in volume. Half an hour before the rise is finished, preheat oven to 450°F, with only the bottom rack in place, and put a medium to large covered pot inside as the oven heats up.

When the dough is ready, dump it into the hot pot, seam side up, cover, shake to evenly distribute the dough if needed, and bake 30 minutes. The seam acts as a score, so it eliminates the step where you might score the dough before baking it.

Take the lid off, bake another 15-30 minutes until golden brown. Cool on a rack for an hour or so at least (it’s still cooking…).

I think there’s a lot of potential variations. I’m really curious to see what my mom does with it; she has perfected whole-wheat bread and could probably make an excellent whole-wheat version of this.

22 Nov 02006

Food links

20 Nov 02006

Hot Chocolate

Hot Chocolate

Now that it’s getting cold outside, it’s time to start making hot chocolate again. Not that you really need a recipe for this—almost anything you can make with chocolate will taste good.

Anyway, this makes a small but potent cup of hot chooclate—double or quadruple it as needed.

  • 1/2 cup milk, whole if possible—plus a splash of water
  • 1 ounce 70-75% dark chocolate
  • 1/2 tsp high quality (eg. Valrhona) cocoa powder
  • pinch of salt
  • touch of vanilla extract, if desired
  1. Bring the milk/water mixture to a boil over medium heat in a small pot.
  2. Whisk in the chocolate and cocoa powder, lowering the heat.
  3. Turn the heat all the way down and keep whisking for a few minutes if you want more froth—note that 2% milk won’t give you as much froth.

I don’t add sugar, but if you like your hot chocolate sweeter, well, you know what to do.

16 Nov 02006

Spicy Jean-Talon Chickpea Fry

Here’s a recreation of something Karl and I ate at Montreal’s Jean-Talon farmer’s market. It is so simple, takes less than 10 minutes and is v. tasty.

olive oil
touch of anchovy paste
pinch of dried red chili pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp or more mustard seeds
1 small onion, diced
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
big squeeze of lemon juice
liberal salt & pepper

Fry the garlic, anchovy paste, mustard seeds, and red pepper in some oil in a small pan over medium low heat, just for a minute. Add the onion and cook until translucent, a couple more minutes. Add the chickpeas and salt and pepper, and fry for another 5 minutes or so, until everything is nice and hot and the flavors have blended a bit. Off heat, add the lemon juice.

Enjoy.

24 Aug 02006

How to can 1,000 tomatoes

Some days I wake up and the virtual world looks flat and spiritless, and I get the urge to do something that breaks into the physical space. In other words, I get the urge to do something real. Something that involves manual labor. And I have to say, cooking often satisfies.

The tomatoes are at their peak in New England, so now is the time to can for the winter. Yesterday Alex and I canned 1,000 fresh tomatoes—about 160 pounds. I’m still not ready to commit to the 100 Mile Diet, but this is a step in the right direction.

“You’ve got way too much time on your hands,” said my landlord as I was cleaning up the kitchen afterwards. And he’s right. But what I also have is a thousand canned local tomatoes, and that’s pretty sweet.

To pull this off, you will need:

  • 1,000 ripe tomatoes
  • 2 very large stock pots (20 and 35 quarts)
  • a small pan for heating jar lids
  • steamer baskets, jar lid rings, or another mechanism for raising the jars 1/2” from the bottom of the pot
  • 6 12-packs of widemouth quart jars (average 3 lbs tomatoes per quart jar)
  • a jar lifter
  • a large hand-held sieve or strainer
  • 2 Tbp bottled lemon juice per quart, for acidification
  • some kind of plunging device for packing the tomatoes down
  • cooling racks for hot jars
  • paring knives
  • two people
  • one very long day

Here’s 1,000 raw tomatoes, which we bought from Red Fire Farm:

Hmm, make that 999.

So, to make canned whole tomatoes in their juice, first you have to skin the tomatoes. Start by scoring a small X in the bottom of every tomato and removing any bad bruises or moldy bits. We decided not to core the tomatoes, but you can if it pleases you. While you’re scoring, bring a few gallons of water to boil in both stock pots—one for skinning, and one for sanitizing jars. For the lids, heat but do not boil water in the small pan.

Dump the tomatoes into the skinning pot in batches for a couple minutes, until the skins split. Usually this takes only 30-60 seconds, but with such a large quantity of tomatoes, it takes 3-4 minutes because the water cools down so much. Pull them out with the strainer, dump them into the sink, spraying cold water on them as you go. Bring the water back to a full boil before you skin the next batch.

When the sink is full, start pulling the skins off. It should be easy, with your fingers. Remove any stems and put them into another pot or bowl or whatever you can find. A spotless bathtub might be prudent at this point. Meanwhile, sanitize your jars and lid rings in the other stock pot, boiling them for 5 minutes, and sanitize the lids in the small pan, in the not-quite-boiling water. Don’t boil the lids, as it might weaken the seal.

As the sanitized jars come out of the water, add 2 Tbsp lemon juice and your skinned tomatoes to fill. Push the contents down and keep adding more tomatoes until the liquid from the tomatoes rises to 1/2 inch from the top.

Clean the jar rims with a damp towel, place the lids on squarely, and tighten down the lid rings with your fingertips, until they are “fingertip tight.” We made the mistake of tightening a few too much, and they bulged because the air could not escape while cooking.

Once they’re sealed, stash all the jars for the moment. Finish skinning and canning all the tomatoes. You will be impressed by the number of jars. Dump out your tomato skinning water, or use it to make a tomato bisque.

The final step is to boil all the filled jars in batches for 50 minutes each. The USDA says the water must be at a full rolling boil for the entire 50 minutes, so give yourself an hour and a half for each batch to account for the cooling of the water when you add the jars.

After 50 minutes of boiling, remove the jars to cooling racks. They may hiss slightly as they come out of the water. That’s OK. Let them stand 12-24 hours until they’re room temperature. Then remove the lid rings, test the seal by pressing the top (it should not give), picking the jar up by its lid (it should not open), and turning the jar upside down (it should not leak). Clean the jars and store them without their lid rings.

Here they are, all canned up. We had another 5 that didn’t seal properly.

Resources:

4 Aug 02006

this week from the farm

27 Jul 02006

quick food tips and a recipe

Some of these are from Mark Bittman. Karl and I have been loving How To Cook Everything—it has quickly become our most-reached-for cookbook (thanks Winnie!).

  • You barely need to “cook” corn, you just need to heat it up. You certainly don’t need to boil it. Fill a pot of water to an inch, add salt, put the corn in, cover, turn it on, and set the timer for 10 minutes. If the water’s already boiling, make that 3 minutes. Doesn’t matter if the corn is half-submerged. Just keep the lid closed.
  • Speaking of corn, do not put Tabasco on corn; it tastes awful.
  • Speaking of Tabasco, do put Tabasco on most other things, in leiu of salt.
  • Pesto freezes very well in an ice cube tray. Cover it with a thin layer of olive oil, to keep the nice green color.
  • You can make unripe fruit riper by macerating it. Toss the sliced fruit with sugar and let it sit for a few minutes. This concentrates the sugars in the fruit, and you’ll get some nice fruit juice at the bottom of the bowl.
  • Hot chocolate will froth up better when you make it with whole milk.
  • Speaking of froth, Alex is right — Diesel Café makes the best latte in town.
  • Speaking of cafés, French in Action is a great way to learn French. And if you know French, your food will taste better.
  • I don’t know French.

But I do know an amazing amazing pizza dough formula from Cook’s Illustrated. I say formula because it is a dough, and doughs are very formulaic. Hopefully my saying “formula” instead of “recipe” will give you pause before you fuck with it. This cooks in a home oven at 500°F with a pizza stone, preheated for an hour while the dough rises. It comes out with a beautiful thin crust that is crispier than I’d ever thought possible at home.

Crusty 500 Degree Pizza Dough Formula

1 1/4 tsp instant yeast (this is not active dry yeast)
1 cup water at room temp
1 3/4 cups (8 3/4 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1 cup (4 oz) cake flour! This is where the magic happens.
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar

You might also try this on the grill (I haven’t yet). Just add a 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the dough to help prevent sticking to the grate.

29 May 02006

recent meals

My grandfather made this salad, which the camera’s white balance made look like a cookbook photo from the 70s. All the better.


Karl and I enjoying the first spring meal on the porch: Couscous salad with grilled veggies.


And, for memorial day weekend, some real meat. Bacon-wrapped pork loin with a black olive chutney, balsamic-glased grilled pears, and some broccoli rabe that we threw in under the coals. This was all from Let The Flames Begin, which so far has taught me a lot about grilling.


Kombucha Update! The kombucha turned out well and I have gone on to make two more batches. It gets a little vinegary if you let it brew for too long, but when you drink it at the right time, it is delicious. It tastes like the juice of a yet undiscovered tropical fruit.

24 Mar 02006

fermentation

I love fermentation. It is at the soul of the best foods in the world. Chocolate, bread, and wine. Kim chi, pickles, yogurt, buttermilk, and cheese. And lots of other stuff. I’ve made some of these things, and I’ve always enjoyed waiting with anticipation while the flavors build over hours or days.

But chocolate, bread, and wine do not look like this when the fermentation process is going well:

This is my Kombucha tea, and I’m scared of it. In a couple days, I’m supposed to drink it.

It’s called Kombucha tea, but it’s not really tea. It started as tea 4 days ago. Then I added a bunch of sugar, cooled it to room temperature, put it in a sanitized container, and added that round thing that you can see in the liquid. That’s the Kombucha mother mushroom. Well, it’s not really a mushroom. It’s a symbiotic blob of yeast and bacteria that eats the sugar, turning the tea into Kombucha which, when made properly, is “a bubbly apple cider-like drink.” Apparently non-alcoholic.

I bought the mushroom online. They told me it’s totally safe.

See those nasty looking blobs coming up to the surface for air? Those are the beginnings of the baby mushroom. A new baby forms at the surface every time you brew Kombucha. You can give the babies to your friends and they can brew their own Kombucha. Built-in viral marketing!

Anyway, this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever cooked. Well, it’s not really cooking.

16 Feb 02006

ditch your Teflon

Lots of bad news about Teflon lately. By 2015, DuPont and a handful of other companies will eliminate a harmful chemical in Teflon called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which has recently been classified as a likely carcinogen by the EPA. No one will straight up admit Teflon is the next asbestos. But does it really matter? Hot pans kill birds.

Why restaurants never used Teflon anyway

  • Restaurants cook on high. To a restaurant cook, stoves have only two settings: off and high. And Teflon burns too easily on high.
  • It’s easy to scratch, so forget about using metal tongs, spatulas, whisks, or spoons with your pan anymore. What a great way to get people buying more cheap plastic tongs, spatulas, whisks, and spoons, right?
  • Teflon doesn’t sear food well. A restaurant kitchen must deliver beautiful food, of course, and a boiled-loking bit of chicken leg, cooked in a Teflon pan, just doesn’t look very exciting.
  • It isn’t even non-stick! Teflon is forgiving, but you can still dork up an omelet six ways from Sunday in a Teflon pan. So what is the point?

Certainly there are restaurants that use Teflon pans, but they typically use it for a handful of specific purposes like crepes.

Your options now

  • Old school cast iron pans are fantastic and cheap: $15-25 for a nice heavy skillet that fries food beautifully. But cast iron takes some care and takes an ice age to warm up. You have to season them if you don’t want you food to stick. More on this later.
  • There’s also enameled cast iron. This is more expensive than cast iron, but it doesn’t need any seasoning. I consider it somewhere in between cast iron and stainless steel: it warms up slow and holds heat forever, just as well as a heavy cast iron pan, but its surface is smooth like stainless steel. You don’t have to buy an expensive Le Creuset or Staub pot; there is a German brand whose name escapes me, and they sell the same thing without the 66% marketing surcharge (but that’s why the brand name escapes me…).
  • But how about stainless steel? Stainless steel is a great cooking surface but a bad heat conductor, so any stainless steel pan worth its salt will have an aluminum or copper core to help distribute heat nicely. These pans are much more expensive than cast iron, but they require zero maintenance and, when used properly, they’re effectively non-stick.
  • Lets not forget the carbon-steel wok. Great for a stir-fry. And they are cheap: about $20. You have to season them, but it’s easier than seasoning cast iron: just heat some canola oil on high and coat the inside of the pan with it for a couple minutes, until it starts to smoke. Turn if off. Clean your wok as you would a cast iron skillet (see below).

Tips for non-stickiness

OK, so you have your stainless steel or cast iron pan. The goal now is to prevent things from sticking in the first place. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Temperature is key. Most people do not heat their pans enough before they start to cook. When you add food to a hot pan, it will sear and release some water. That water vapor is the non-stick magic, as it will keep the food floating atop the oil. But if your pan is too cold, searing won’t happen, water won’t be relased, and the food will fuse to the pan. Oops. As a general rule, you need to preheat your pan in proportion to the amount that your food will cool it. If you’re going to fry up four pork chops that you just took out of the fridge, your oil should almost be smoking. But if you’re just frying a bit of garlic, you’re better off at a lower temp—garlic bits will burn easily.
  • Do not crowd the pan. Your goal is to sear. If you put 10 chicken legs into a 12 inch skillet—no matter how much you’ve preheated it—they will not sear. When in doubt, sear in batches.
  • Take the chill off of your ingredients before cooking. Food cools the pan dramatically when you add it. You’ll want to minimize the temperature differential. So get your eggs out of the fridge 10 minutes before you heat the pan, and just let them hang out on the counter. This may sound silly but I promise it makes a difference.
  • Use oil. You need some, but you really don’t need much. The more oil you add, though, the hotter and faster you can cook things without sticking.

Eggs fried fast and hot: Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high until tiny wisps of smoke start to rise from the pan, which happens about 30 seconds after the oil starts to shimmer. Add your eggs and spoon the oil over the top of them as they cook. They’ll be ready in no time. And they’ll be beautifully crispy around the edge and slightly brown on the bottom. Remove with a slotted spatula. No sticky!

  • Patience. When searing meat or fish over high heat, you might notice that it sticks to the pan right away. Leave it alone, and do not be afraid. It will unstick! It just has to brown first. A hunk of salmon will come unstuck after about 2 minutes of searing over high heat, and it will be perfectly brown. Take the leap of faith and discover that this really works, or you’ll lose the crispy goodness and have a tough cleaning job ahead of you.

At this moment you might be thinking, “This is really annoying. Too many rules.” But if you lose the Teflon, you’ll see that these techniques really become second nature.

Oops, my food stuck. Now what?

You don’t have to soak the pan forever in the sink. Just put a little water in it and heat it to a simmer on the stove. Whatever was stuck to the pan will come away in short order. For anything that isn’t seasoned, you can use a cleaner like Bon Ami to quickly remove a really tough fond.

Cast iron pan care

Stainless steel pans are so easy to take care of, but cast iron requires a bit more work.

  • Keep it seasoned. A seasoned cast iron pan has a tiny bit of oil fused to the pan, which makes for an exceptially good non-stick surface and prevents rust. Most cast iron pans are already seasoned when you purchase them. But if you start to see rust forming, you need to reseason your pan. Seasoning a pan is easy, and it’s been covered many times elsewhere.
  • Barely wash it. Pour some salt in the pan and rub it around with a paper towel. Rinse. Done. It’s ok if a bit of your oil from cooking remains in the pan for the next use.
  • But if you have to wash it… Don’t use a lot of soap, and don’t let it soak. Use a tough sponge to remove the stuck bits. Dry it thoroughly, because if it gets rusty you will have to reseason it.

Resources:

14 Jan 02006

baba baba baba ganouj

On a hot grill, blacken two or three eggplants on all sides. They’ll come out like this:

When cool, slice them in half and scoop out the pulp. Strain it to get rid of the bitter juices, then put it in a bowl. Add a few dollops of dairy: yogurt, sour cream, and/or pickled lebna. Add lemon juice, a dash of paprika, salt, pepper, and a big spoonful of tahini. Keep tasting. Top with pomegranate seeds and olive oil:

Adapted from “A Mediterranean Feast” by Clifford A. Wright.

13 Dec 02005

pizza

Jon was over the other night and we made pizza with artichoke hearts, asparagus, and this spicy red pepper sauce I got from a Turkish shop.

pizza.jpg

The dough is as follows, from “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice”:

You need to start around noon. Not because there’s 6 hours of work to do, but because you’ll need to give the dough 3-4 hours to relax in the fridge, at minimum.

For six 6-oz crusts, you’ll need a standing mixer, a scale to weigh everything (“real bakers don’t use measuring cups”— a scale is more accurate), and preferably a pizza stone:

20.25 oz flour (bread flour, preferably cold)
0.5 oz salt
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1/4 cup olive oil (optional)
14 oz ice cold water (40° F)

Mix everything together in the mixer bowl. Mix on medium for 5-7 mins with the dough hook. The dough should stick to the bottom of the mixer bowl, but not the sides. If it’s too sticky, add flour; if it’s too dry and doesn’t stick to anything, add water. Easy does it.

Don’t go way over 7 minutes, because you don’t want to raise the temp too much.

Scrape the dough out of the mixer bowl and onto a floured counter. Flour the top of the dough and your hands, and divide the dough into 6 pieces of equal size. Now you can freeze them by putting them into airtight bags (make sure they’re coated in olive oil so they come out easily), or put them in the fridge on a sheet pan (cover the pan with plastic wrap, or put it in a bag, so the dough doesn’t form a skin).

2 hours before they go in the oven, what as many as you need out of the fridge (the rest will keep up to 3 days). Put them onto a floured counter. Press them out into disks of 5 inches in diameter, cover them with plastic wrap (oh, and oil to keep it from sticking), and just let them sit. You will shape the pizza at the very end, right before it goes into the oven.

45 minutes ahead, crank your oven to the highest temperature possible. Put the rack on the lowest position, with pizza stone on top if you have one.

When you’re ready to bake, shape the dough on a peel or on the back of a sheet pan, covered with a little cornmeal to keep things moving smoothly. The shaping is something I still haven’t fully worked out, but you just have to do it anyway. You can push it out, or try picking it up and flinging it around like Mario. Have fun, but watch out because it will tear pretty easily; don’t make your pizza super thin. Leave a bit of thickness around the edges if you want a nice crust.

Now slide the pizza into the oven. This is the tricky part. Hopefully your cornmeal will make it easy to slide the pizza around, so you can just slip it in. The pizza is done when the cheese is melted and the crust is golden—about 5-8 minutes (but check it sooner!).

On top, add whatever you want. You can get pizza sauce in a can, and then just add all kinds of cheese and good stuff. I know you’ll use your imagination. One of my favorite pizzas at Emma’s has roasted potatoes, cranberries, cilantro, and smoked bacon. I’ve noticed that toppings are almost always better if you cook them in advance: slowly sautee or roast them, then add them to your pizza dough. Emma’s seems to use roasted tomatoes generously.

Baking the final pizza is mostly about cooking the crust and heating up the ingredients so the cheese melts.

9 Nov 02005

custard

CRW_6212.jpg

This week I wanted to bake custards for some reason. I thought the process would be mystifying, tricky and somewhat painful. Turns out a custard takes almost no time to make and it’s pretty simple. After some scrounging around online and in books, I made up a standard recipe for baked custard:

Preheat the oven to 325. To fill six small ramekins, heat 3 cups of milk/cream in any combination until almost boiling. Add a little bit of vanilla extract (or half a bean, with the seeds scraped into the milk) and optional flavorings. Turn off the heat and let it sit for a few minutes. While the flavorings are steeping in the milk, beat 2 eggs and 3 yolks together with 1/3 cup sugar. Now add a little of the hot milk—just a little, straining out your Whisk it into the eggs to temper them. You want to slowly raise the temperature of the eggs, mixing all the while, so keep adding milk little by little. Be gentle and you can’t screw it up.

Place the ramekins into a roasting pan and add enough hot (not boiling) water to go halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Pour the egg/milk mixture into the ramekins. You can just short of the top. Cover with foil and bake for 30-40 mins. Check after 30. A finished custard will may jiggle around a little and look like it’s not done, but when you touch the top, you’ll see that it is solid in the center. Also, it will cook a little more after you take it out of the oven.

On the left—syneresis! This custard curdled because I overcooked it. The cooked-egg protein bonds that thicken the custard got a little too tight and pushed out all the water.

On the right—a reasonably well cooked custard. Yum.

Flavorings:

This form can be taken to a lot of different places. Sugar and vanilla are not the only way.

I made chai custard this week, so I used Rooibos Chai as the flavoring— which I think is made from the same plant as Red Bush tea. Tasty. I brewed 4 teaspoons of it in the hot milk for about 5 minutes before combining with the eggs. Instead of sugar, I stirred honey and a little maple syrup into the milk.

You can really go anywhere with flavorings though. Spices, fruit rinds, pumpkin purée, peanut butter, chocolate, etc, etc. Fermented black bean custard, anyone? You can also make a syrup of any kind and pour a little into the bottom of each ramekin before baking. A caramel custard is made with a simple syrup, but anything that can be reduced to coat the back of a spoon will do.

I wasn’t joking about the fermented black beans. I’m going to make some crazy savory custard at the next full moon.

Something else:

If you are dying for custard and you want it fast, you can make a stirred custard on the stovetop. Forget the ramekins and hot water bath. Once you’ve mixed the milk into the eggs, transfer it all back to the pan and heat over medium for 2-3 minutes, whisking the whole time, until the custard thickens up nicely.

PS. baking911.com has an excellent custard site that is impossible to read but gives the back story on many more custard varieties and methods.

1 Sep 02005

popovers

popovers.jpg

7 Aug 02005

a summer banquet

CRW_5723

We threw a summer banquet last night! We had about 20 people. It was a whole lot of fun to put together. (view the menu, or the slideshow)

Here’s how it all went down…

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Picking up food at Haymarket…

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Pot o’ oil for pasteis de bacalhau.

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Appetizers on the plate.

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the appetizers…

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the roast, and potatoes fried in duck fat

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grilled mussels

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lots of dirty things

Lessons learned:

  • You always need a lot less of everything when you’ve got many courses.
  • Especially cheese.
  • Always use dripless candles. Never use drippy candles that aren’t white.
  • A three or four hour meal is great. But at around six hours, people want to take a nap. And maybe it’s the sugar in the coffee, or the prospect of going home to bed, but somehow by hour seven everyone tends to wake back up again.

9 Jun 02005

progress on the three-speed

Stephen and I replaced almost everything, from headset to crankset. In fact, the only thing I’m keeping is the frame and the rear hub (it’s almost 60 years old — will it hold up? cross your fingers…). The front and rear wheels are ready, but I still need to get rim tape, tubes, tyres, break cables, and some other minor stuff.

8 Apr 02005

green coconut curry attempt one

This makes a ton.. like 8-10 servings. I have never made this before so I looked around for recipes and just sort of made something up. I had heard from a friend that you simply put everything in a pot with coconut milk and boil it until it’s done, but I thought I could cook things more evenly (and get some nice browning) by doing the whole thing in a wok. I think this is a decent first attempt.

2-3 Tbsp peanut oil
1 eggplant, 1/2” dice
1 red & 1 green pepper, sliced thin
1/4 lb green beans, ends lopped off
1 medium onion, roughly chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2” ginger, minced

6 kaffir lime leaves
2 Tbsp green curry paste
2 Tbsp fish sauce

2 14oz cans coconut milk
1 cup chicken stock
2 boneless chicken breasts, 1/2” cubes

Thai basil (if you can find it) or just basil, to top.

Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high and stir fry all the veggies. When they are almost done, clear a space at the bottom of the wok and add the garlic, ginger, lime leaves, curry paste, and fish sauce with a little extra oil. Press the mixture into the wok with a spatula and let it fry for a few seconds before mixing it in with the veggies.

Meanwhile, boil the coconut milk and stock, and add the chicken bits. Cook a few minutes until just about done. Add this to the wok and bring the whole thing to a nice simmer.. let it simmer a bit to blend all the flavors.

Serve with the basil and steamed rice. Yum.

Notes to self for attempt two:
- figure out stir fry time differential for the different veggies, so that I know when to add at which stages (this is really just a practice thing, I think).
- how long does chicken really take to boil/fry?
- make this a one-dish meal: do the whole thing in the wok.
- It seems too liquidy, too thin. Use only 1 can coconut milk, and possibly reduce it with the stock for a while before adding the chicken?
- use a little less curry paste and perhaps one or two more lime leaves or some extra lime juice.
- add bamboo shoots?
- How can I blend the flavors better (we’ll see tomorrow whether time in the fridge does the trick)

10 Feb 02005

stuffed naan

I love stuffed naan. Any kind of stuffed naan will do: potato, nuts & raisins, onions, paneer cheese, olive, mushroom, whatever. My favorite is the peshwari naan they serve over at Namaskar in Davis. But until I get a 900 degree clay oven, I probably won’t be baking it. So the other day I was happy to find out that Pillsbury actually makes frozen paneer-stuffed naan. And what’s more, the Indian food store down the block sells it!

Pros:
cooks up nicely from frozen in 5 minutes
it’s actually crispy and tastes good, nice and spicy.
I got to see the Dough Boy cozy up to a plate of naan on the package. You can sort of tell by the look in his eye that naan is his true love, that the cookies are really too sweet for his taste and he’s tired of flavorless crescent rolls.

Cons:
still not as good as Namaskar naan, though I wasn’t expecting it to be.
I don’t think they make a frozen peshwari naan. Aside from my paneer naan, I think there was one with carmelized onions or something. But I’m sure someone out there sells frozen peshwari naan, and I intend to find it…

20 Jan 02005

how to make an 'ino

A restaurant in the West Village called ‘ino (recommended by Winnie) taught K and I the rules for a panini sandwich:

  • start with rustic Italian bread
  • slice it very thin (1/4”)
  • cook all the veggies in advance: roast your tomatoes and asparagus, sauté your sweet onion, etc.
  • use pesto, but not lettuce or mayo
  • find a way to involve a meat ending in ‘ata or ‘utto
  • a cheese or two ending with ‘ano or ‘ella is always good.
  • limit your ‘ini to 3-4 ingredients.
  • don’t overstuff. roasting everything will concentrate the flavor, so keep the ‘ini thin and crispy.
  • dust off and bring out the George Forman grill, because this is the only time it’ll be helpful. Or just fry your ‘ini in butter on the stove, on both sides until its toasty. Start saving up for one of these. Mmm…
  • invite your friends over whose names end in ‘ini, open a bottle of red wine, serve and enjoy.

akin to bacon

If you want something akin to bacon fat, with that kind of richness of flavor but without all the fat and dead pigs, try this

1 cup EVOO in a small jar
fill the jar with dried porcini mushroom pieces—as many as can be submerged (maybe about 2oz?)

let it sit a month or two on the shelf. I put it in soups, on pasta, etc. It’s lighter than bacon fat, obviously, but it’s very hearty.

mushrooms will never fail to surprise me.

10 Jan 02005

feast of the Epiphany

Here’s a great NY times article about France’s feast of the Epiphany,
during which everyone gorges on galettes—round pastries with almond
paste and trinkets inside.

Whoever finds the trinket in the galette (the fve), is king/queen
for the day. People have written books about fves past and
present. One guy has a collection of 60,000. Each year there’s a
fve guidebook.

La France est la bombe.

14 Dec 02004

latest stir-fry

my latest stir-fry attempt is quite good. Stir frying hasn’t failed me yet. If you don’t have a wok, I highly recommend getting one and get into the habit of using it. The stainless steel ones are $15. You just start with sesame oil and fast fry everything on very high heat— it’s so quick. Right now I’m really into making stir fry-turned-fried rice. I’m going to eat it with rice anyway, so why not always add the rice right to the wok and get it nicely coated at the end of the cooking time?

today’s was, in the order added to the wok:

2Tbsp sesame oil
1 onion/2 garlic/0.5” ginger/pinch of crushed red pepper
1/4c coarsely chopped walnuts
10oz sliced mushrooms
and 1c rice, cooked
with teriyaki sauce (like Veri Veri Teriyaki) and scallions added at the end.

I think it only cooked for 5 minutes, max: 2 mins for the onion, 2 more for the mushroom, everything else at the very end.

I don’t use that much oil, maybe a couple tablespoons?, so toward the middle-end of cooking, things tend to dry out a little. That’s when I throw in a spash of soy sauce and it all works out.

6 Dec 02004

the cure

I’ve been eating out a lot lately, for one reason or another. Last Thursday I felt sick and worn out, there was no food in the house, and I didn’t want to cook. I craved one of the incredible bowls of Japanese udon noodle soup with tempura shrimp from the family-owned Ittyo, right down the block from my house, that costs $8 and cures all ailments. But I started to wander through the Porter Exchange mall/bazaar where Ittyo is located, and I found the Rustic Kitchen that opened a few months ago.

Rustic Kitchen is a chain originally owned by Todd English that he gave to one of his original partners to settle some lawsuit between them. I’d never been to a Todd English restaurant, but I had a gut feeling that this place, and any other restaurant currently or formerly associated with English, should be avoided. He has always seemed like the celebrity chef who cooks for Boston tourists and others who have primed themselves to believe they’re having a good dining experience. That’s why I think his restaurants are mostly confined to Quincy Market (the Boston tourist Mecca) alongside places like Legal Seafood that have a great reputation only among people who don’t live here. I should’ve listened to my gut, but Rustic Kitchen’s menu spoke louder with the lush adjectives of faux high end cuisine.

So I ordered, to go, a $19 seafood stew with saffron that sounded great. My rationale: I feel gross, I’ve had a long day, I need this more expensive soup, because somehow it will be better. Fifteen minutes, she said. Ittyo takes five, but okay, this is slow-cooked French food we’re talking about. They’re probably out back picking the herbs right now… in the parking lot.

But I wouldn’t know, as there’s no view into the kitchen at Rustic Kitchen. I did notice right away that the dining room was not exactly rustic. It felt more like someone’s idea of what rustic feels like. It’s rustic in the same way that The Cheesecake Factory is rustic. In other words, not at all. It is engineered rusticity: too clean, too perfect, too new, too well lit. No restaurant with a TV—especially a plasma TV—behind its bar should have the word “rustic” in its title.

Ittyo, on the other hand, is a rustic kitchen exemplified. Its kitchen takes up most of the stall that it’s located it, leaving enough room for maybe five tables. Peering over the counter into the kitchen, you might see big pots of broth on a huge gas stove, tempura frying, a little radio tuned to slightly off of an AM station, noodles flying all over the place, and a couple cooks who are totally absorbed in what they’re doing. While you wait, you can see, hear, and smell your dinner being prepared. There is no plasma TV, nor is there a bar for it to go behind, but it’s totally visceral. And totally rustic. Charmingly simple and unsophisticated.

Meanwhile, back at the “Rustic Kitchen”, I stared blankly at a muted ESPN News while waiting for my food. A full thirty minutes later, it finally came out. Five minutes after that I was home again, tearing open the package, only to be confronted by a pile of lukewarm, overcooked seafood in a puddle of broth. Ittyo’s soup comes in a huge bowl filled with a rich steamy broth and lots of goodies mixed in with the noodles, and I was expecting something similar here (sans udon). I knew a French “stew” implied a thicker broth and less of it, but this was ridiculous: there was maybe 1/4 cup of broth here. But even after accepting that I didn’t get what I’d imagined, this stew just wasn’t very good. The caper berries were way over-salted, the piece of bread on top was burned, and there was no detectible hint of saffron in anything. The seafood was just OK. Mostly cheap mussels. Two shrimp. A couple clams.

So next time you’re in the Porter Exchange mall, I urge you to visit the real rustic kitchen: Ittyo. In fact, it’s well worth the trip out to Porter Square next time you feel the cold-weather blues.

four meals in one day

Yesterday was Karl’s birthday and somehow we ended up dining at four restaruants. I guess that’s what happens when you leave me to plan a birthday.

In the morning we took a trip out to Brookline to meet some friends at the Washington Square Tavern. It’s a smallish neighborhood place, home to the original chef from Matt Murphy’s Pub. A friend had a hunch that the Sunday brunch was delish, so we all met up at high noon, and the hunch was confirmed. The food was excellent. Their paninis were great: not greasy, lots of flavor, simple ingredients. The french fries were the best I can remember ever having in Boston. The eggs benedict was very tasty, perfectly cooked. At no point was there the hint of recycled Saturday night dinner that I’ve come to expect from brunches. And the price is right, with most items around $8-10. It’s a shame I didn’t go to the Tavern more often when I lived in Brookline.

Anyway, that tided us over until about 6pm, when we went to the El Salvidorian Tacos Lupita on Elm St in Somerville, about a block away from my house, for the best tacos I’ve had in New England: two corn tortillas, grilled chicken, loads of onions and cilantro, a big chunk of lime, and a bottle of Jarritos. Yes. $2.99, and way better than Anna’s Taqueria.

We followed it up with a cup of tea and a long chat at Café Algiers in Harvard Square. We’ll be going here more often, I think. It’s a quiet room with a nice window overlooking Brattle St. It has comfortably slow service that allows an entire conversation to take place over a cup of tea. There is no obtrusive music and, as far as I can tell from two or three visits, there’s no attempt to shuffle you along once you’re done. For Harvard Square, that alone is worth the price of $3.50 for tea.

At 9:30pm we had reservations at the tiny Craigie St. Bistrot. Some friends had worked there in the past, and I’d read this article about the Sunday night $35 prix fixe. There is no menu; you just know that there will be four courses. The restaurant is closed early in the week, so chef Tony Maws likes the clean out the fridge on Sunday nights. Even the wait staff doesn’t know what’s going to come out of the kitchen a couple minutes before its done. It sounded like an adventure and a lot of fun.

And it was! Since I don’t know my exotic ingredients that well, describing what we ate will be a bit like a game of Telephone, but I’ll give it a shot. The entreé was a plate full of excellent seafood: crabmeat, shrimp, mussels, sea urchin, and more all peeled and shelled, then perfectly cooked in an incredible creamy sauce with some toast points for dipping. I thought this was the best dish of the night—though I couldn’t be sure, as every table was getting something different.

The second course was a sole fillet rolled up and served on top of a pureé of cardoons and some (fava?) beans. It had a salad of some little green bits and fried potato shavings on top. Very tasty.

The main course was a foie de veau (veal liver, as they explained) served with wild mushrooms in a rich, dark sauce. Karls not into the taste of liver, and it’s not my favorite food either, but we forged ahead. Were I a big liver fan, I know Id be loving this dish. The preparation seemed perfect, as it kind of melted in my mouth as great sushi does. And anyway, I can’t complain when Im at the mercy of the chef who’s practically giving away a great, spontaneous prix fixe meal.

I got grits for dessert, and Karl got a chocolate tart with bourbon ice cream. Both were excellent. My grits had fruit compote on the top, a dusting of Demerara sugar, and some handmade vanilla wafers on the side.

The service and atmosphere were all great; just what I would expect from a place like this. Friendly and not the least bit snooty or intimidating. Attentive, but not obtrusive. I would highly recommend the Bistrot, and I may return soon if the occasion arises.

30 Nov 02004

risotto

I just made a lunchtime risotto that took a turn for Spain.

1 cup Arborio rice
~4-5 cups chicken stock, at a slow simmer
1-2 cloves garlic and some choppen onion if you want
2 tbsp olive oil
1 pre-cooked chicken Andoullie sausage, sliced
1/2 cup chopped red pepper
1 tsp spicy paprika

Heat the oil in a heavy 3-4 qt pot for a minute or two on medium-low. Fry up the garlic and onion until just soft, then add the rice and cook it for 3 more minutes, stirring. Add a cup of hot broth, the paprika, and about 1 tsp salt and some ground pepper and stir & simmer as you would risotto. Keep adding broth and stirring for 8-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, brown the sausage in a cast iron skillet on medium-high, then set aside.

After 8-10 minutes the rice is coming along pretty well. Add the red pepper and browned sausage. Then just keep adding broth until it’s all done. It should take ~25-30 minutes in total.

The paprika + sausage really makes it happen. Enjoy.

17 Nov 02004

pre-thanksgiving thanksgiving

A few weeks ago a friend had a pre-thanksgiving thanksgiving party. She made 3 different versions of each of these Thanksgiving mainstays: a “greens” dish, a stuffing, a potato casserole/pie, a cranberry sauce, and a dessert. Then she invited a dozen people over to eat and vote on their favorite dish (she’ll be making the best when the real turkey comes around next week). I don’t remember which dishes won when she tallied all the votes, so this story doesn’t resolve itself cleanly with a list of “perfect” thanksgiving recipes. But I did remember which dishes I loved in particular. And here they are:

Corn bread and chile stuffing
Cranberry Sauce with Cherries and Marsala and Rosemary
Leek and Wild Mushroom Stuffing

10 Nov 02004

a day of intense cooking


3 Nov 02004

matt murphy's bread pudding

I did a google search for this because it’s exactly what I want to make around this time of year, when everyone seems so cold and sad. I wasn’t expecting anything, since it’s such an obscure thing to want to cook, but the Internet was in rare form tonight. So here it is, a dessert to ameliorate your electoral woes.

29 Sep 02004

Tamarind Bay

Nine steps below the street lies this quaint Harvard Sq Indian restaurant called Tamarind Bay. It’s adventurous Indian food served up in an unadventurous setting. It’s got spice, it’s exotic (I’ve definitely never had banana dumplings before), and it’s definitely in a class of its own.

All told, however, it is not in my opinion the best Indian meal in Beantown. Namaskar and Bhindi Bazaar still reign supreme.

But Tamarind Bay’s rich home-cooked flavor makes it very promising, and I think it’s a place to keep a close eye on. They change their menu seasonally, after all. With some refinement, it could be an excellent restaurant. But tonight the entrees were way too oily, the naan was cold, and the rice was lukewarm (I like my food steaming hot when it hits the table, like at Punjabi Dhaba in Inman Sq). And while the food was exotic compared to your typical Indian fare, sometimes the spiciness killed all potential subtleties.

I have to admit a bias of mine about Indian food, though. These days when I go to new Indian places, I do a little prayer before my meal—inspired by Namaskar’s food—asking that they please involve saffron in some way in my entreé. And at Tamarind Bay my prayers were unanswered. I can’t really blame them for this—why should they use saffron, anyway? Do Indians really use saffron in home cooking?

Apparently not.

Name: Tamarind Bay
Menu: slick black plastic/faux-leather
Bathrooms: ‘tiny’ and ‘tinier’
Tablecloth: White, covered with plexiglas
Seats: Cloth-and-vinyl-backed benches and wood chairs.

14 Sep 02004

lunch again!

I have been making these crazy meals lately. Too much spare time? Today for lunch I had a seared piece of salmon sashimi with this roasted vegetable salad/relish I made, homemade hummus and pita, whipped potatoes, a few slices of pickled diakon radish from the farm share, tea, and In the Loupe. I feel so lucky to have the time to occasionally live.

10 Aug 02004

ketchup?

Today I wanted to make that sesame-ginger dressing they use at good sushi bars and Japanese steak houses. I looked around on the Net and found a few alarming varieties, including more than one with ketchup as a main ingredient. Huh? Since when was ketchup a traditional Japanese ingredient? I’m all for “fusion cuisine”—unless it means Americans squirting ketchup all over the world’s food.

And that’s what appears to be happening. Karl and I were in a dubious Mexican restaurant in Portsmouth, NH a while back and we encountered ketchup in our enchiladas. Granted, the place wasn’t trying to be anything more than a sports bar, and this was about as far as we could get from Mexico, and enchiladas do involve tomatoes in some capacity, but ketchup? I was disgusted.

Ketchup evokes strong American memories from my childhood, like afternoons at the Tennessee state fair with corn dogs, fries, and funnel cakes, a summer day on the beach in New England with a sandy hot dog, or a messy 4th of July hamburger and Fritos on a paper plate with a can of Coke. I love these traditional American dishes, but they’re in vomitive dischord with my favorite ethnic food experiences: eating tacos made with chopped onion, avocado, cilantro, lime, and beef on a flour tortilla, visiting the Chinese tea house for a solemn three hours of meditation around a pot of jasmine tea, or picking plates of raw fish from an indoor stream at a minimalist urban sushi bar.

The irony is that ketchup began its life in Asia as ke-tsiap a few hundred years ago, though back then it was a pickled fish sauce without tomatoes. But that was a few hundred years ago, and this is now, and I doubt whether our circa-1870s varient of ketchup has a place in old-world cuisine. Yet I’m surprised by the frequency with which it appears in intriguing (disgusting) ways in “ethnic” online recipes from all over. Isn’t this sacrilegious? Or am I just being a curmudgeon as usual?

My theory is that English translators of recipes made before the 1980s knew you couldn’t find white miso paste or caper berries or fish sauce outside of the biggest cities, so in order to reach the widest audience they said, “No problem, just put ‘ketchup’ instead, nobody will notice.” And this is how world cuisine came about: When you don’t have something needed to make a dish in the traditional style, you need to improvise with whatever’s locally available. Now you have something new!

Which is why I’m now paranoid in restaurants, always peering under the sashmini for a hint of Heinz, or directing a suspicious eye toward the red soup paste on the table at the Vietnamese restaurant. We have assimilated traditional food from other cultures into our cruel, thankless culinary melting pot, and I’m not going to sit idly by while we ruin meal after meal. I want to catch the cooks red-handed, the ketchup still oozing from their plastic squeeze bottle into the bowl.

But deep down I know I should be forgiving. Taste conquers all in the end, doesn’t it? And surely someone more meddlesome than me is probably mixing up an incredible ketchup-laden Korean-inspired beef marinade or ketchup-infused red wine reduction as I write this.

So lets get back to ginger-sesame dressing. After picking what I liked out of the online recipes, here’s the dressing I ended up making. Throw some stuff into the blender: a chopped shallot, a small chopped carrot, an inch or so of minced ginger (about 2T), juice of a lemon, 2T rice vinegar, 1/2 cup sesame oil, a couple teaspoons of toasted sesame oil, if you have it, and blend. Add salt and black pepper (or even some chili oil/paste) to taste.

PS. For great ketchup recipes, check out Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything.

2 Aug 02004

bbq feast

It’s 2pm the next day and I’m still not hungry.

Last night was a feast at Sasha’s. It was visceral, primordial, and carnivorous. Everything made from scratch, even the barbecue sauce (especially the barbecue sauce). It was hot coals, beef, pork, and chunks of soaked hickory in the back yard. It was a meaty, grisly, bone-marrow-sucking, beer-drinking evening. And it was cole slaw and potato salad and buttermilk biscuits at sunset. It was summer raspberry and peach tarts.

Good people and good conversation out on the tree-house deck. The screen door swung open and shut as people stepped into the kitchen for another beer or extra napkins. The next door neighbor’s dog wandered over, timidly, for a taste. This is an American tradition I can get into.

31 Jul 02004

what we did with the food

cucumber and tomato salad with basil
zucchini/eggplant/cabbage/onion ratatouille
tomato surprise
grilled corn on the cob
carrot cake
roasted beets, zucchini, and summer squash
coleslaw
squash/tomato pizza
bread and butter pickles

29 Jul 02004

farm share

Thursday is farm share day, when we get a box full of veggies from Brookfield Farm.

Here’s what’s in my fridge right now:

3 lb summer squash
3 lb zucchini
2 heads lettuce
4 lbs tomatoes
1 head white cabbage
1 head red cabbage
unidentifiable herb
1 head bok choi
4 heads baby bok choi (“I want my baby bok, baby bok, baby bok…”)
1 bunch kale
1 bunch beets and beet greens
1 bunch Italian parsley
garlic scrapes
3 eas corn
2 onions
2 bunches scallions
green bell pepper
1 bunch celery
dill
1 lb bing cherries
2 lbs carrots
3.5 lb gigantic cucumbers

13 Jul 02004

more ciabatta

Last Sunday I visited iggy’s “factory outlet” store in Watertown. They sell super fresh bread and pastries of all varieties, many of which they don’t distribute to local stores (no Shaw’s would know what to do with one of their 2 foot long crazy huge rustic loaves, for example). But I avoided the exotic stuff, cool as it looked, and instead got the standard loaf I usually get from them, a small francese, which, as far as I can tell, is the same as a ciabatta.

I’ve always noticed a distinct difference in the flavor of Iggy’s bread that I couldn’t put my finger on. A word did come to mind on Sunday, though: saffron. Is it possible that they add saffron to their bread? Had I discovered the great Iggy’s conspiracy? Probably not. I bet they just have superior flour. But I couldn’t get the saffron out of my head. So today I made a saffron ciabatta, just to try it. I ground up a scant 1/4 tsp of saffron and mixed it with a couple tablespoons of boiling water, waited about 10 minutes for it to “brew”, then mixed all of this with the rest of the water for the final build of the loaf.

I took it the first loaf of the oven about an hour ago, and I just ate a couple slices of it. The saffron is definitely present, and I think the overall flavor is subtly better than previous ciabatta. It’s at least as good as Iggy’s, in my opinion, but I’m biased because I made it and it’s much fresher than I could ever get from Iggy. Technically my loaf (and perhaps Iggy’s) is unorthodox in that it strays from the standard water/flour/yeast/salt of white bread, but I don’t care. It’s tasty.

23 Jun 02004

hydration potential

Progress on the bread front. I finally got the flour/water ratio right on ciabatta: it’s gotta be wet. Wet doughs make loaves that are springy and not dry on the inside. You can see it in the way the crumb looks as you pull the bread apart: big air pockets and a great elasticity. The final bread only tears after a stretch. Mmmmm….

A tiny amount of water makes the difference. I started with the normal flour/water ratio I use, threw it in the mixer, and then added only a couple ounces of water while it was kneading. Usually the dough sticks to a spot at the very bottom of the mixer bowl when it’s done, but by the time my extra water was incorporated, it was sticking to the whole bottom of the bowl. More water would have made a pourable slurry, which you can’t really shape, so you have to stop while you still have dough and not batter. But that line between dough and batter is where the best bread happens.

pasta

I will never buy canned pasta sauce again.

Instead, I’ll make a simple sauce, which takes about as long as it takes to boil water and cook pasta. This is 102938 times tastier than canned sauce:

heat some (2 T) olive oil, a couple cloves of garlic, some (1/4 tsp) crushed red pepper flakes, and a little (1/2 tsp) anchovy paste
cook for a minute on medium. don’t kill it.
add 28oz of good canned diced tomatoes
and some red wine if you have it
cook for 10 minutes to thicken
add
8-10 basil leaves, chopped
a dozen kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
some (2 T) capers
a pinch of cayenne
ground pepper

cook 3 more minutes.
add some pasta cooking water if you feel like it.

The gist of this is from the Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook. The motivation is to cook simpler and more often. All of the ingredients are things you should always have at hand anyway, because none of them are fresh (except the basil.. which you might as well grow in your kitchen).. so why not stock up?

21 Jun 02004

bread variations

You can make enriched breads with liquidy things like milk, eggs, oil, and melted butter, but what about cranberry juice or grenadine?

Here are some bread variations I’d like to try:

rosewater challa
fig/prune panettone
French caper loaf
strawberry jam pain à l’ancienne
hot chili sauce kaiser rolls!
wasabi ezuki wheat bread
roasted garlic and wild mushroom ciabatta
Emergen-C breakfast baguette
or: red wine baguette
cinnamon grape walnut bread
fanny farmer spanish pickle focaccia
vodka marijuana ciabatta
saffron bagel
granola anadama bread
mexican chili chocolate multigrain
or just coffee chocolate bread

One complication is that the salt content needs to stay around 2 to 3%, because it kills yeast. Might need to reduce the amount of salt when making the chili sauce bread, for example.

Another complication is that gluten might not develop as well when you use brewed coffee, for example, instead of pure water. Furthermore, the yeast might not like coffee, in which case you can forget about your rise. Yeast are pursnickety.

And the third problem: Every ingredient needs to withstand temperatures > 205°F without spontaneously combusting.

15 Jun 02004

the sourdough story

I am still baffled by the magic of bread. With only flour, water, yeast, and salt, how is it possible to create so many varieties, textures, and flavors?

I’ve started trying out different variations on these four ingredients, starting with the most subtle: the salt and water. I switched from Morton table salt to fine-ground Mediterranian sea salt recently, and from Brita-filtered Boston tap water to French bottled spring water. Having just baked my first loaf of bread with both of these new ingredients, I can’t say that I noticed any flavor difference. I’m not surprised, since I have a hard time telling the difference between these salts and waters alone in a taste test. One day I might try a side-by-side bread comparison, when I have time for a big bake-off, but for now I think I’ll stop buying $1.50 bottles of water and just go with the free stuff until I can convince myself that I’m capable of discerning such loaf subtleties.

The yeast is another ingredient worth playing around with. I have tried both active-dry yeast and instant yeast in the past (no difference, but different quantities are used), but the final frontier is wild yeast. Wild yeast is just out thre, floating in the air, looking for a place to grow. If you give it a nice room temperature bowl of flour and water to develop in, it’ll flourish with no work at all on your part. This is the origin of sourdough.

So I started my first sourdough starter last week. A 100% sourdough loaf does not use any instant yeast at all, it’s just flour, water, salt, and the bacteria living in your kitchen. Some of this bacteria contributes to the flavor and some of it causes the dough to rise.

To make the starter, I started with a ball of dough using dark rye flour and enough water to hydrate it all and hold it together and I let it sit on the counter overnight. The next day I added some bread flour and water, mixed it for a minute, and put it back. A few hours later, it already had a 50% rise with lots of nice little air pockets. It smelled horrible, though, so it had to go on for a couple more days to brighten up. Each day I discarded half of what I had and replaced it with fresh flour and water. After 4 days of this, I had a wild-yeast starter that would double in bulk over 6 hours and smelled like sourdough bread. I mixed this with more flour and water, let it sit for a while, and threw it in the fridge. This is the completed sourdough starter.

Now that the starter is active in my fridge, the real challenge begins. I have to use some of it and feed it fresh flour and water at least every 3 days. So I’m sucked into either baking a loaf every 3 days, giving some starter away to a friend every 3 days, or throwing some starter out every 3 days. If I’m to keep this up for longer than a week, I think I’m going to need the help of my roommate, Whitney.

Luckily the process of making sourdough bread can be split across 3 days, so it’s not one long time-consuming day of work. It’s maybe 10 minutes of work each day, spread out across 3-5 hours, with a little extra work on the 3rd day for baking. On the first day, you mix some of the sourdough starter with fresh flour and water and let it sit on the counter for 4 hours. Then you throw it in the fridge overnight. On the second day, you bring it back out, let it warm up for an hour, chop it up, mix it with more fresh flour and water, shape it, and put it back into the fridge overnight. On the third day, you bring it out, let it sit in a proofing basket for 4-5 hours, and bake it for 30 minutes.

I figure if I write out a schedule for Whitney and I to follow, whomever is around can do a little bit of the work each day. Dough is pretty flexible, so if we miss a day it’s not the end of the world, we just might get a more sour loaf (because the dough has been fermenting for longer). And if we’re both out of town and no one can feed the starter, it can left in the fridge for a couple months and still be recovered without much trouble at all.

Baking bread is the kind of process that can easily be pipelined, where three or sourdough loaves are in various states of completion and are pushed forward by one step each day. Modern bakeries must love this, because they can create a mini-factory to churn out loaves of bread. But at some of the better bakeries in France, and surely some in this country, the bakers are responsible for their loaves from start to finish. Everyone in the kitchen is an expert at all parts of the process. So one day a baker may have 50 loaves in the starter stage, the second day she’d ferment them, and the third day she’d shape, proof, and bake. But for Whitney and I this kind of pipelining would mean baking a loaf every day, and I don’t think we could eat that much bread…

18 May 02004

bagels

Finally made bagels today, which was lots of fun, very tasty, and not too much of a time commitment. It takes two days of mostly waiting, but I can imagine the prep work taking only about 20 minutes if I were used to it. The prep work gives you a couple trays of bagel dough that must ferment in the fridge overnight. The next morning, you drop the cold bagels into boiling water for a couple minutes, bake them for about 10 minutes, let them cool for 15, and you’re done.

I wasn’t used to the stiffness of bagel dough, and it definitely felt like I was doing something wrong. My standing mixer actually started smoking after trying to knead the dough for a couple minutes, so I had to do it by hand. I thought I was doomed, but after kneading and letting it rest for 20 minutes, the dough had a really great consistency and was ready for shaping. Shaping just involves poking a hole in a chunk of dough and widening the circle.

I topped some of the bagels with kosher salt and shallots, but left most plain… and they were delish.

(the bagel recipe is from the excellent book The Bread Baker’s Apprentice)

10 May 02004

a new loaf

I finally got my banneton proofing basket out and I made this loaf, which I’m really happy with how it looks. I haven’t sliced it open yet (still cooling).. but the exciting difference here between this and my past Italian loafs (other than the shaping) is the flour. I’m using Bob’s Red Mill organic white flour. I could tell by the feel and look as it rose that this flour is definitely a different animal from my standard King Arthur stuff. It’s also $1.25 per pound vs. $0.35 for King Arthur, so I’m probably not going to use it in the long term. I’m very interested in trying bagels with this flour next, as supposedly they are best made with the highest gluten flour available.

16 Apr 02004

cheddar pepper redux

I made a loaf of cheddar pepper bread and this time it came out beautifully. I started again with the standard Cooks’ Illustrated “Rustic Italian Loaf,” which has not yet met its match of crust and crumb (time to branch out).

The key to cheddar pepper was M&M-sized chunks of cheese, rather than shredded cheese (which disintegrated last time). I used about 1.5 cups of it—a mixture of sharp and smoked cheddar. It’s a fantastic loaf! You can see the cheese in each slice, and when it’s toasted it melts a little. The pepper was coarsely ground and really brings it all home. Bread & Company used to make a loaf with cheese and jalepeno peppers but it was too spicy. Ground black pepper has just the right kind of kick (and it’s pervasive, not surprising).

I know I keep saying “this is my best loaf yet,” but this is my best loaf yet. Tomorrow for breakfast: “egg in the hole” with cheddar pepper bread. Mmmmm…

Off to bed, to dream of other things that can be mixed into the dough.

28 Mar 02004

bread books

Two new bread books this week, and definitely too little time to read them.

One I bought used at Rodney’s book shop in Central Sq, across from where I work. It’s called Bread Alone: Bold Fresh by Daniel Leader and Judith Blahnik. This book caught my eye because it was cheap, it covered variety of breads (most notably sour dough, which I’ve been wanting to get into for a while), and it seemed respectable: It had measurements in weights, it had no 50s-era photos of nasty Wonder Bread loaves—in fact, it had almost no photos at all. Densely informative.

This book has failed me so far. I haven’t been inspired to make anything from it yet. The learning curve is too steep, partly because Leader is so demanding about his ingredients and I have a hard time deciding which recommendations I should take seriously and which I should ignore. Page 48: “Grind your own coarse or fine whole wheat or rye flour from hard spring wheat berries.” Yeah, right. Even if I don’t mill my own flour, the flour required for most recipes is almost impossible to find without mail ordering, so I’d have to mix it at home from two or three different kinds of organic stone-ground flour. So I’ve had a hard time getting beyond the 60-page introduction and into the actual recipes.

But I did read through some of the recipes, and there’s something uninspiring about how they’re presented. In 332 pages of technical discussion and recipes, this book has only one illustration of process: a time-series showing how a poolish looks hour-by-hour as it develops. The rest of the photographs are of Parisian celebrity bread chefs and their breads. I’m still not inspired.

Beyond that, the unbleached paper and frequent mention of stone-ground whole wheat suggests these recipes are way too healthy for me to bother. Timelines are given for many recipes, so at least I know how long things would take a professional, but he does nothing to convince me that I, a mere mortal without my own flour mill, can make an edible loaf with one of his recipes.

Putting my own laziness aside, I’d venture to bet the actual recipes are fantastic. But my MTV brain needs more visual stimuli to understand the process better and get inspired.

I got the inspiration I needed with the second book, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. It’s a photo-rich book that just oozes with potential. The breads in here make my mouth water. Color photographs in each recipe show key parts of the process.

And it’s not all eye candy. The information design is great. I get the feeling I’d learn more by reading this book than I would in a local bread class. Reinhart includes, for example, the baker’s percentage formula for each recipe and an explanation of the baker’s math-formula system, so I can scale any of these recipes up to whatever size I want. I picture myself starting a bakery using only this book and a Hobart floor-standing industrial mixer, weighing out yeast by the pound. He includes kneading times for standing mixers and hand kneading. He talks about the “mise en place” and gives a checklist. He illustrates the general process of bread making well, then expands on it with the recipes.

It’s well designed and well written. Step-by-step photos illuminate many of the recipes. Some cookbooks get by without photographs or drawings, but because bread is so physical, so technical, so… visceral, I think a great bread book must explain in more than one form if the reader is expected to start from scratch. Reinhart has succeeded.

I made a loaf of Ciabatta from this book a few days ago. It’s the first bread I’ve made with a poolish, which is a very wet pre-ferment (as opposed to the more doughy biga). What you’re going for with Ciabatta (and with most poolish-based loaves, I’d imagine) is as wet of a dough as you can handle—wetter dough makes chewier bread. I followed Reinhart’s ratios exactly and ended up with a dough that wasn’t wet enough, I think, but I pushed on through, not wanting to adjust the recipe the first time through. The result was a good chewy loaf with too-small holes and a too-soft crust. For bigger holes, I think I just have to add to the rising time… but the crust is the tough part. I’m quickly finding out that crust control is the biggest challenge of breadmaking.. my goal is to get that almost-crunchy crust of an Iggy’s loaf, but I’m not sure where to begin. Lots of things can affect the crust: the shape of the loaves, the rising time and gluten development, the decision to slash the loaf before it goes in the oven, and of course the temperature and humidity in the oven. Steam is key to a good crust, but producing a good blast of steam in a conventional home oven is not easy.

But with this book I feel at least a few steps further along. I don’t need any more bread books now—I just need to bake a few hundred loaves and I’ll get the idea.

14 Mar 02004

more bread experiments

I tried it alone. I tried it with jam on top. I tried it dipped in coffee and with tea. I tried butter. I toasted it and tried that. But no amount of dressing up made it remotely tasty, or even mildly edible. I’d made a shitty loaf of bread.

There was really no denying it when I sliced that first slice and found a dense whole-wheat grain that resembled the edge of a broken cinder block. I might have gotten the hint earlier, though: removing it from the oven after 45 minutes without any rising, I saw that my 6 cups of flour had turned into a fist-sized loaf which, on lifting, approximated the density of tungsten. I might have even known it while I was kneading the loaf earlier and my standing mixer started made the same sound a lawnmower makes when you happen upon the hidden stump of a Civil War-era oak tree.

But as usual I didn’t pick up on these subtle hints, and a gentle tap on the finished puck elicited not the deep hollow sound I expected, but a sharp knuckle pain and a faint knock. Better luck next time.

10 Mar 02004

cheddar pepper

Finally made the cheddar pepper loaf yesterday for Karl.. yet it turned out to only be a pepper loaf. I added a couple handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese to the dough and it completely disappeared in the final loaf. No trace of it whatsoever. Next time I’ll use more cheese (in cube form) and add it later in the kneading process.

Meanwhile, I found out that a pepper loaf is pretty tasty.

29 Feb 02004

bread experiments

I made my best loaf of Italian bread yesterday. What made it so good? I think I finally worked out how much water you’re supposed to spray onto the loaf before it goes in (for the best crusty crust).

Anyway, I think I’ve reached a peak with this recipe, and it’s time to move on to some interesting variations, or some new kinds of bread. I’m not saying that my loaves have been entirely consistent. Ratios of ingredients, the temperature of the oven, and time are about the only things I have a good control over and understanding of. The weather patterns in my apartment, the freshness of the yeast and bread flour from Star Market, the bacteria in the air in my fridge, the quality of Somerville tap water… these things all add a certain voodoo to the process.

I like a little voodoo. It helps my mojo. I’m glad I’m not trying to run a bakery, though.

My next experiment will be a cheddar-pepper loaf. But how much cheddar and pepper should go into a 2 lb loaf of bread? The recipe calls for 2 tsp of salt. So maybe I’ll try 1.5 tsp of pepper at first. As far as the cheddar goes.. well, I don’t have a good answer yet. 1/2 cup?

The recipe I use right now involves a pre-fermented biga, which is a quick version of the sourdough starter. The biga is dough that sits out on the counter for a few hours, then in the fridge overnight, before comprising about 1/3 of the final dough for the bread. It’s what makes an Italian loaf taste different from white bread.

Once I get a decent cheddar-pepper loaf going with my current biga-based recipe, my next step will be to start a sourdough starter. This is more of a liquidy thing, definitely more of an animal in your refrigerator. You have to feed it pretty frequently (with flour and water), and you use a portion of it to make sourdough bread. The longer you keep your starter going (assuming it stays healthy), the more flavor it’ll contribute to the final bread. It’s pretty intense stuff.

Beyond sourdough, there is desem bread. It’s a Flemish loaf my boss turned me onto recently, and it involves a 50/50 ratio of whole wheat and bread flours. The desem is like a sourdough starter, but from what I’ve heard it’s even more finnicky. Myriad pitfalls await, most of them resulting in an entirely foul loaf. The The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book dedicates an entire chapter to desem cultivation.

Question: Could we use genetic algorithms, baking simulation software, and some kind of target taste algorithm to create the perfect loaf of bread?

Hmm. Sounds unlikely.

12 Feb 02004

simple cooking

Received my first issue of Simple Cooking. I have to say that for an 8-page newsletter, $5 per issue is expensive. On the other hand, this thing is chock full—with a 10-point font—of epicuriocities. Looking at the recipes, it feels like the Cook’s Illustrated with a twist: while Cook’s shows how to make classic recipes taste classic (just as you’d expect them to taste), Simple Cooking’s recipes tend to be either new discoveries of the “eureka!” variety, or based on rumors/hypotheses that played out well. For the back story on “Fried Eggs with Bananas, Fresh Chiles, and Onions in Coconut Oil,” Thorne writes, “… Christine Mackie’s remark in Life and Food in the Caribbean that ‘frying eggs in coconut oil is the finest way you can cook a fresh egg,’ got me to seek out some virgin coconut oil and try it.” And so we follow him on his adventure toward the included recipe.

So how’s the food? Well, so far I’ve only got one data point, but it’s a very tasty data point. This issue is all about breakfast, so I tried it out this morning. I had all the ingredients for “Fried Eggs in Olive Oil with Capers” at hand… on toast, it was a great breakfast, definitely simple, and something I’d never have dreamed up on my own. That’s all I’m looking for. Tomorrow: “Lancaster Farmhouse Baked Oatmeal.”

10 Feb 02004

lemonade

Last summer I was working in my lab, trying to recreate the lemonade served at Baraka Cafe in Central Square, Cambridge. I think they added a category for Best Lemonade to the Best of Boston specifically so they could award it to Baraka. You’d be surprised by how many people share my passion for this particular lemonade. It frequently comes up in conversation, at random. Anyway, now that spring is … uhh… getting ready to start thinking about coming around, I thought I’d post it. If you’ve tasted the Baraka lemonade for yourself and you have your own variation of it, let me know.

Baraka Lemonade

8oz lemonade (sweetish)
cinnamon stick
1/4 tsp rose water
1/4 tsp orange water
a couple dried rose petals (hard to find.. the spice shop in Inman Sq has them)
and some ice

Mix it all together, make sure the rose petals dehydrate a little, and serve. The cinnamon stick is not quite right… it doesn’t give enough cinnamon flavor to the drink. Baraka somehow gets cinnamon flavor into the drink without using powdered cinnamon. Is there such a thing as cinnamon extract

A variation is to do about 1/3 seltzer and 2/3 lemonade as the base… nice fizzy drink.

30 Jan 02004

fried eggs

Here are the best possible fried eggs. This is only worth making if you have great eggs. Get them fresh if you have some hens or geese around. I don’t, so I get the local/organic ones at the market.. they are one of the few organic items for which I notice a vast difference in taste.

Put a non-stick pan over low heat, almost as low as it will go.
Wait 3-4 minutes
Add butter, let it melt and bubble (about a minute)
Add eggs, salt and pepper, then quickly cover and cook 3 minutes for nice runny ones, or more if you no like runny.
No need for flipping.

Serve with simple buttered toast.

For more breakfasts, see John Thorne’s In Defense of the Savory Breakfast.

28 Jan 02004

bread, water, salt, yeast

How is this possible?

We are not at the pinnacle of technology. Technology peaked when we discovered bread.

25 Jan 02004

mousetrap

Today I found myself at Formaggio Kitchen, a specialty food store in North Cambridge, staring—with the unrequited epicuriosity normally reserved for glossy food pornography—at fifty dollar bottles of olive oil (750ml), bizarre varieties of wild mushrooms, organic kumquats, yucca root, and of course the cheeses.

The cheeses are great because you know exactly what to do with them. They do not require sisyphean knife wrangling or the resurrection of lost North African tribal recipes, buried for thousands of years beneath match books, scotch tape rolls, dish towels, toothpicks, and (of course) dirt, all of which have configured themselves into an Indiana Jones-style quagmire in the drawer by the sink.

The cheese case at Formaggio Kitchen has a bumper sticker on the side that reads, “Life’s too short to eat supermarket cheeses.” They sell a hundred or so cheeses, from small sculpted goat cheese pyramids to handmade farmhouse cheddar to blue cheeses that aren’t blue. It’s a sight to see, and beyond that, you can taste any of them on the spot. Sometimes a bit of wine is served alongside the cheese, accompanied a dozen or so upper-middle class Cambridge lushes.

It’s certainly a guilty pleasure. I only go every few months. Everything seems overpriced—everything is overpriced—yet I can convince myself that perhaps it’ll be worth it. I wonder if such a high price makes me hesitant to regret a purchase, but needless to say I never have. So I bought a half pound of salami, a wedge of Brie that felt, through the cellophane, like the supple breast of a nubile bovine, and a bottle of red wine (“the perfect Super Bowl wine,” I’m told by someone who looks like a Harvard professor). I leave, a weight lifted from my wallet, wondering how I will conceal the bovine from my roommate.

18 Jan 02004

simple food

With people from our distant offices in town for a few days, I got into a conversation about business travel, and how horrible the food is. People who are constantly on the road just want a simple meal, while vacation travellers might want something different. The latter audience is well served by higher-end hotels and their shitty, expensive brunches. But what about these business travelers who just want a simple meal? I think Cracker Barrel has been successful serving this need, at least out on the highway. But what about hotels? A simple meal from room service might be: a bowl of some simple non-creamy soup, a few slices from a misshapen loaf of brown bread, a salad with home made dressing, and a nice piece of fruit (not standard food service grade fruit—a piece of fruit with flavor). Who would want more than this?

Right now the formula of high-end restaurants is to serve fairly simple, straightforward food made with excellent ingredients, in an environment which is appropriate for the price tag of the meal. I like a high-end meal from time to time, maybe once a year or something, but the restaurants that really get my consistent patronage are mid-range restaurants, typically small and independent, that manage to serve simple, straightforward food made with great ingredients, in a simple, straightforward atmosphere. Restaurants can do this as long as they don’t want to make much of a profit. At some point, the bulk of mid-range restaurants choose to skimp on good ingredients in the name of capitalism, or use more filler ingredients as a substitute for expensive ones.

So why can’t a hotel follow the formula that the best small restaurants do? I think a hotel is so high-stakes, compared to the corner restaurant, that it cannot help being profit-driven to the point of deminished quality. This is also why I think chains can never be as tasty as independent restaurants, though I may be proven wrong. If someone finds out how to make a chain that doesn’t sacrifice quality, they will be very successful (though maybe not very rich).

10 Jan 02004

beans.

It’s 3° F here in Boston, so I’m staying home and making bourbon baked beans
from my favorite cookbook, Sally Schneider’s A New Way To Cook.

This is the time of year when, aside from cooking baked beans, I want to
hole myself up in the darkroom and spend a weekend making photographs and
listening to the BBC.

Further thoughts on the gaming table: It’s said that tea drinkers are sippers,
and coffee drinkers are gulpers. I think of the gaming table as a tea drinking
activity, so perhaps the aesthetic should take something from the things
we associate with tea. Not to say it doesn’t belong in a coffee shop.

Physical/emotional things I associate with tea:

  • obviously, a relaxed, lingering mood.
  • small doses
  • wood
  • Asian stylistic simplicity: bamboo, cast iron and porcelain pots and cups, etc.
  • subtleties
  • roundness
  • aroma
  • winter weather, rain/snow


On other fronts, I’m looking with great interest at different interfaces, one of which may be ideal: it’s a touch screen but you can spill coffee on it, it works with an overhead DLP projector, and its got 0.1mm accuracy. It can also pinpoint who, of the people at the table, touched the screen! This is pretty exciting, but whether I can actually get my hands on one is another story— it’s still in a prototype phase.

Meanwhile, people I’ve described it to seem excited and receptive to the idea. One discouaging thought I had, though, is that the feel of board games may be eliminated by my design. The feel of wooden scrabble pieces, or playing cards being shuffled, or a soapstone chess piece in hand. It may be that this is a big part of the appeal of board games, and that my idea could fall flat by not being able to provide any substitute for this. What do you think?

5 Jan 02004

Harney & Sons

The first thing that struck me when I stumbled out of the car in Lakeville, CT last Friday was how clean the air smelled. Bostons air is stale and lifeless, and I get used to it so easily. So I stood there for a minute and took this in: mountains in the distance, the sound of a nearby stream, light snow flurries, and that sweet clean air. Otherwise, total silence. I needed nothing more to raise my spirits. This was my first visit to the Berkshires, after three years living in Boston, and I immediately understood why so many New Yorkers and Bostonians go here. Route 7 winds through picturesque New England towns at a relaxed pace. How had I missed this?

Yet somehow I managed to arrive before Starbucks. And that could only be good, because we wanted nothing to do with a cup of coffee. Nancy, Laurie and I were here to visit Harney & Sons shop and tea tasting room, in whose parking lot we were now standing. A path through the snow-covered garden led to their front door. Nostrils now detoxed, I stepped.

The tasting room was cozy and bright, with things tucked away in every corner. Myriad teapots—glass, porcelain, and cast iron, French tablecloths, Scottish shortbread, Moroccan tea glasses, jams and jellies, and so on. Oh, did I mention the tea?

Each tea was a sensory overload. I started by choosing one from the hundred or so varieties available. OK, Paris. The girl behind the counter took a large black and gold canister down from the shelf, opened it up, and showed off the goods. I pushed aside the feeling of being offered illicit drugs, leaned over the counter and went in for a whiff. Beyond the immediate visceral impact, this tea, and many of the others, evoked memories—of my grandmother, my parents, last winter’s big snow storm, and so on.

Were I interested—and I always was—she’d make a cup of it for me to taste. Of the ten or so teas I tried, few needed sugar. Milk wasnt even offered. It was here that I became a tea snob. There were teas with five distinct flavors that arrived at different times. There were teas from the mountains and teas from the valleys. There was Winter White Earl Grey, there was Fenghuang Shuixiang, and there was Rooibus Chai. After two hours of tea tasting, and the mild warning signs of caffeine-induced cardiac arrest that followed, I managed to pick a handful of teas to take home, and we finally buzzed out of the shop.


High-quality tea is a hot commodity in America these days, and Harney has become the largest distributor of the good stuff. John Harney started the business in the basement of his Salisbury, CT hotel 20 years ago, and he now sells tea to everyone from Au Bon Pain to the Ritz Carlton. The company just moved into a bigger factory for the third time in as many years.

The factory is set back from Route 44 in Middleton, NY. Bev Kosak, who sits among small offices in the front of the building where mail order calls are taken, gave us a tour. The factory is about 35,000 sq. ft, on two levels, and handles everything from tea blending to shipping out individual orders. Bev took us through the process in order, starting with a large storage room filled with specialty tea crates from around the world, sorted by variety. Most of their tea arrives via Hamburg, Germany—the tea distribution capitol of the world—in big wooden crates and boxes. From here, tea is moved into plastic containers, 50 and 75 pounds at a time. Some teas are then blended in 10-foot high rotating drums. I imagined how much scaling trouble they must have had going from tea blends made by hand, in a small mixing bowl, to these huge cement mixers. Even the best recipes dont survive that kind of scaling, so they probably had to do a lot of experimentation to get things right, slowly working their way up to larger and larger mixers.

Once all the blending is done, the teas are ready to be packaged. Loose tea is measured and packaged in canisters and bags by hand, but the tea bags, both of the silk and paper variety, are made by machine. Vacuum cleaner A, located at one end of the Rube Goldberg contraption, sucks up tea from a 75 pound drum B, and fills each bag C with exactly the right amount. The bags are sealed shut, tags are attached, 20 are counted out, and a box, is built and filled. Finished boxes stack up neatly at the other end of the machine.

Once the tea is packaged, it goes to an inventory storage area, much like an aisle of a grocery store, filled with every product Harney produces. The people who fill orders and ship them out go to these inventory racks to get what they need, box them up, slap on a label, and away it goes.

I havent been in many factories before, so I had images from Metropolis in my mind before going in, of the incomprehensible machines, and of workers as cogs, putting in 20 hours a day, not able to see what role they play in the bigger picture. I don’t think many factories in America are like this, and Harney definitely isn’t. The people at Harney were clearly enjoying themselves, and I think the product and the company’s growth reflect that. The visit reaffirmed the idea that business is all about the people and the relationships. At Harney’s current size, not a small factory, I was happy to be able to get my head around the entire process. Next year, who knows.

7 Dec 02003

sense cooking

Today I thought, “Cook with all your senses”. That is, make empirical measurements rather than getting out those dreaded spoons and cups. Not only is it a faster approach, it also feels more natural somehow. If you understand the ingredients, what their typical ratios look or feel like, and what they look like when they’re properly cooked, you don’t need much in the way of recipes. I remember the story of the French bakers who know, down to the drop, how much water to add to their dough as they knead it. They know by look, they know by feel, and they know because they’ve done it all their lives. I tend to go in this direction when I make a recipe more than once. Someone recently told me they never make a recipe more than once, and while I appreciate the adventure of it, it might never allow them to fully experience one recipe, take it to the n-th degree, learn how to do it blindfolded, and personalize it.

29 Oct 02003

etc. and cooking

why are car break lights binary? why aren’t they set up to become brighter as more pressure is applied?

I was reading yesterday about faceted classification, here and here. I like the wine.com vs. Best Cellars examples. I was trying to think of other industries that could use this kind of revamp to get more customers. Of course, any industry selling varieties of things could do with an organizational rethink. Super markets (Bread & Circus has about 20 varieties of apples right now, as well as hundreds of cheeses), cigar shops, and book stores come to mind (amazon.com has addressed this in one way with the rating system / reader comments.. but how about books classified by how “fast” of a read they are? etc.). The nice thing about selling stuff online is that you can slice the data any way you like. The Best Cellars web site could offer searches on vintage and winery if you really knew what you were doing, and seaches by flavor (mild, fruity, medium-bold, etc) if you didn’t.

Also thinking about recipes today, and how I never have my cookbook when I need it: on my way home, when I’m walking past the store. So I went online and looked around at cooking sites.

My ideal cooking site would have:

  • a fast and easy way to find and build your own online collection of good, high quality recipes, complete with background info, etc!
  • a place to learn and discuss techniques with others.
  • an encyclopedia of equipment and ingredients. Something that can tell me what mirin is, with a brief history, nutritional info, how to store it, how long it lasts, and people’s comments on their favorite mirin.
  • perhaps an area for beginners, about how to stock your kitchen in the first place, the virtues of (and sources for) good ingredients, etc.
  • a periodic “newsletter” bit about food (not recipes).

Here’s my take on a sampling of them:

foodtv.com is more about the channel and its celebrity chefs than it is about cooking, and while they have some nice recipes, the organization and UI is not great, and the site is slow with too much gratuitous graphical content.

Epicurious has a nice collection of recipes that they’ve culled from (conde nast?) magazines and cookbooks. I love this approach because the quality is bound to be higher on average. The recipes I looked at were thorough and well explained. The downside is, they haven’t incorporated community/ratings systems very well. Each recipe has a score (from one to five forks) and comments from other visitors, but you can’t sort or search recipes based on the score, so unless I look at all of the roasted lamb recipes, I won’t see which one is favorite.
They also have a food dictionary and etiquitte guide, but it’s definitely not the best content— no community features, no illustrations of anything, no passion! Kind of boring overall.

Cooks Illustrated’s site looks really bad, I’ve always been turned off by it, so I won’t subscribe to find out if the membership reveals something great. I’m surprised by their failed approach to the web, because their magazine and books are so good.

allrecipes is chock full of ads. Pop up, pop under, flashing all over the damn place. They have some useful features: ratings for recipes, conversions to metric, printing for recipe cards. In fact, my biggest complaint is that there’s too many features and too much crap getting in your way. Just give me what I want: a set of known good recipes. What alllrecipes.com wants to do is set up an infrastructure and let all the visitors do the work, and while that might be a good approach, their design has caused unmitigated content to take over. At least it’s rated.

Top Secret Recipes is kind of ghetto but I love it. It’s a very simple site, but the focus is finally on the food! A simple interface. Thanks to these guys for not spending tons of money on web development; no need for it. And finally I know how to make those Waffle House Waffles!

RecipeSource is one of the oldest and largest recipe archives (formerly known as SOAR). Recipes on this volunteer site are nicely categorized, and it definitely qualifies as vast. How does the novice chef know which among 15 variations of Chicken Paprikash is best?

RecipeLand looks like a slightly less cool version of RecipeSource that wanted to be more cool (a pay service), but can’t pull it off. I admit I didn’t get very far into this site.

Of course I cannot leave out Outlaw Cook. John Thorne is one of the best food writers out there, who cares if he’s not also the best web designer. Check out his article In Defence of the Savory Breakfast. When I’m retired, I’m going to stop eating Eggos. Thorne’s site may not be a recipe archive in the traditional sense, but with someone so passionate about food, who cares?

Maybe the Internet just isn’t the place for recipes right now. I bought my first real paper cookbook recently, called A New Way to Cook by Sally Schneider, and I’m very happy with the recipes in it. They are all clearly well thought out and well explained, with interesting variations that get you thinking more like a real chef (and less like a line cook, just following orders), and she has some great chapters on techniques and ingredients. I just wish I could access the book from work.