Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hit Return

We made it back from Chicago in much less time than it took us to get there; all told we could nearly have driven the 800 miles in the 11-ish hours we spent on Thursday getting from here to there. Winter holiday travel can be such a treat. I'll put up a post about Xmas dinner, and I have a couple others which predate the trip, but for now we'll just have a look at what I made (after a quick grocery stop) this evening.

There's nothing not to love about having packages of thinly-sliced domestic Wagyu beef in the freezer, and this meal just further underscored that fact. All it took was some sweet potato and kale from the store to begin the long journey back from sugar-heavy holiday excesses in fine style. I steamed rounds of the spuds, and when soft, dressed them with a mixture of reduced carrot-orange juice (also from the store) and gorgeous near-locally made white miso which I strained to keep the lumps out of the final product. I made oshitashi with the kale, and the stems littering the cutting board got me thinking; I browned them in a little smoked duck fat, then deglazed and steamed them with sake until just al dente. I rolled little bundles of these up in the beef, pinned them with little skewers, and quickly sautéed them. In the same pan I whipped up a little sauce of the juices, ponzu, mirin, spicy pickled onion juice, and an egg yolk whisked in to give it some body, and I sprinkled a little togarashi over the finished plates. They worked very well, and offered a good way to showcase the considerable character of one of the humblest of kitchen scraps.

I dressed the kale with soy sauce, yuzu juice, and ume vinegar. It really is a delightful way to serve any dark greens.

There were a few beers left in the fridge by the people who stayed here while we were gone, so I drank a couple. There's a not-inconsiderable pleasure to cold beer on a cold night, provided the food is warm enough to make it all work out all right. Given that it's in the single digits out there right now, it looks like this will be a pleasure I can afford myself a great deal in the coming months.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Snifter On The Piano

I got a comment recently from a subscriber inquiring about a comment I left on her blog suggesting a possible use for the lavish surplus of salmon that they're burdened with up in Alaska. I elaborated a little bit, but then the idea was in my head so I needed to make it. It's different every time, but basically it's just a salmon curry with lots of lemon rind. Often there are potatoes, and it's usually tomato or coconut-based.

Normally I mince lemon peel (fresh or preserved) and add it to the onion and spices at the beginning, and that's what I did. But then it got all kinds of special behind some of the leftovers in the fridge. To wit: a baked sweet potato and some buttermilk. I puréed the sautéed onion/seed mixture (lemon peel, fenugreek, cumin, ginger, mustard, coriander, cardamom) with half the potato and all the buttermilk, then salted it. In this ridiculous goodness I simmered seared cubes of salmon and broccoli florets until the latter were just tender. I served it on whole wheat couscous with lemon juice, garam masala, and peas mixed in.

The extra step of puréeing the mixture really brought this to that deeply satisfying place that Indian food is so expert at reaching. Tangy buttermilk married to sweet tuber, all interwoven with spices and fragrant lemon- a salmon couldn't ask for a more elegant vehicle to transport it into the afterlife. And there was a nice Willm Gewürtztraminer that started out with a champagney kind of thing happening- just the slightest fizz and yeasty aroma, which is not normally a desirable quality in still wine- but it got over it in short order and made for a pleasant match with this food.

So I put up this post- though lacking, as always, any measurements- in the hope that it would help prevent her from quitting halfway through (which, you know, is something of a problem up there). And that got me thinking. So I make this offer to subscribers: ask me to make something, and if it's not completely nuts (in a bad way) I'll get to it as soon as I can. Initially I'm setting the rough goal of one per month, but being that erratic is my middle name, it is likely to veer between much more and much less than that. But you have to subscribe if you want to call the tune.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Thorough Bread

Growing up, there was a time before my Mother had to go to work when she gardened and baked bread all the time. Helping her weed and pick and knead and mix formed some of my earliest memories, and no doubt have much to do with how important those same rituals are to me now- and why I'm so pleased to pass them along to Milo.

The smell of bread baking has to be one of the great human sensual touchstones- maybe even the defining smell of civilization. And this delicious incense got me thinking about the other, subtler ways in which baking bread gratifies all the senses. Apart from the smell of baking, there's the captivatingly tangy and alive smell of sourdough starter colonizing a ball of dough, developing gluten and creating a matrix of bubbly goodness. There's the satisfying hollow thump of a properly baked loaf, and the little ticks of of a cooling loaf as tiny pieces of the crust spall onto the counter. And then the crackling of the crust when it is cut and bitten. There's the heat of the loaf right out of the oven, and the warmth in the hands as it's admired, and the contrast between crusty crunch and crumby chew. Obviously it's beautiful to look at, and to eat, but those are hardly unique to bread. All food appeals to all the senses to varying degrees, but there seems to be more of a five-way tie with bread. Or maybe I'm just biased by the here-and-nowness of it all.

It makes a dreary winter Sunday better, that much is for sure. And it's not even quite winter yet.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Tale Of Two Meals

Lateness often confounds my grand schemes and forces me to scramble, resulting in dinners that are far from my original intention but serviceable nonetheless. As always, freezer, pantry, and leftovers provide the difference between decent and awful.

In this instance, I grabbed some boudin noir from the freezer. While they were thawing, I threw some scarlet runner beans in the pressure cooker with leeks, onions, garlic, burdock, carrot, herbs, and some smoked chicken stock. Once that got all hissy, I cubed and caramelized some parsnip in a pan with just oil, adding a bit of salt when the pieces were nice and brown on the outside and soft in the middle. I cooked the sausages in a pan until they were done- the deep purple gone a lovely mahogany- and then sautéed bok choy with garlic in the sausage pan, deglazing with white wine. Last I toasted stale chunks of homemade bread with some oil and spices to make croutons, thereby shoehorning some grain into this pretty nutritious cacophony.

The key really was in taking the time to treat the ingredients differently; had I thrown it all together it would have been OK, but having the various things each done à point made for much more pleasurable eating. My original plan involved breaking this down into even more component parts, and giving them a wider variety of treatments, but I had an hour and so this was it. One of these days I'm going to do a better job of time management, especially as it pertains to dinner. Probably next year. Yeah, that's it.

A couple of nights later, similarly beset with haste, I grabbed the two uncooked boudins that remained and cut them up into small pieces, giving those a sautée with diced bacon from the end of a hunk. I just can't say enough good things about having slab after slab of homemade bacon in the freezer. To the meaty goodness I added some leftover sweet potato purée, leftover brown rice, and leftover collards cooked with grated turnips and bonito flakes that Chris had made when they came over on the intervening evening. (We made chicken-fried quail with biscuits and gravy and cranberry sauce).

I seasoned the hot mess and rolled it up in blanched collard leaves that I had stripped the stems off so they'd roll up nicely. And thus, stuffed cabbage remixed with the available. I baked them in a roughly 50/50 mixture of pork stock and buttermilk, using a few extra collard leaves as a lid.

That liquid reduced wonderfully, absorbing all sorts of complex leafy, meaty flavors and adding richness and acidity in equal measure. This was the very essence of peasant food- a complete meal, made from bits and pieces- but with all of those pieces being of the highest possible quality.

I can't remember what I opened with this- I think it was an '03 Jaboulet Vacqueyras- but we had an instructive wine duo with the Southern meal the night before. Chris brought a 2000 Sean Thackrey Aquila Sangiovese, and I pulled out a 1999 Ciacci Piccolomini Brunello so we could study the differences between old and new world Sangiovese. Starting off with the Aquila, it was a big glass of smiles; once his wines get to this age, the fruit and the funk are kind of tied in intensity, so there's a nice balance. But moving on the Brunello was a revelation- it was like a fine cigar dipped in pussy and black cherries and tar and smoked postcoitally in a magnificent horse barn with a view of the vineyards. Returning, the Aquila was a little like Cherry Coke. Not necessarily in a bad way, but it just showed the degree to which Italy is and will always be California's unattainable wet dream. And I say this as an avowed lover of Thackrey's wines.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

New Plates

At long last, the kiln fired. I began these pieces back in the spring, I think, so there's a bit of a learning curve at work, but I'm happy with most of them. For the next batch, whenever that happens, I have many more ideas. I may bring my Mother's wheel up from Brooklyn and start practicing. I've also got some ideas for non-ceramic serving pieces that I may get to in the near future, but there's a big project looming in the new year that needs my attention first (unless I procrastinate by doing little things, which may happen). In the meantime, these will give me some inspiration to cook more multi-course meals, which is how I like to eat.

I made 8 each of most things- didn't see that these would fit together until I took the picture.

I had six of these bowls already. I made six more, with different glazes.

Little amuse tripods, about 3" across.

More espresso cups.

Geodesic bowls, about 6" across.

Rough bowls about 6" in diameter

Plates about 4" square

Another view

Rustic oval footed plates

Squares- I made one before and gave it away; these are a little bigger.

I'm going to make more of these with some refinements; they're too thick and the glaze needs work. But they'll do.

Last, a teapot. I made 8 matching little cups, but they didn't make it into the kiln.

The lid stuck during firing, and I broke it knocking it off, but epoxy made it all better. Now I can't give it away. Shucks.

There are other pieces, and they'll show up in future posts laden with various fare.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Yes We Can! As Long As Joe Lieberman Says It's OK!

So dinner yesterday was not soup, actually. It was steak. The roads improved a bit, so the family set off to buy a Christmas tree. And returned with strip steaks. (And a tree, sure, but let's concentrate on the important stuff). There were also maitake and brown birch mushrooms. Instead of just making sweet potato fries, I busted out the saladacco and spun a tuber into lovely thin strips which I then double-fried into appealing tangles of sweet, crunchy orange joy. To the steaks I gave what is by now standard procedure when there's no time for sous vide: brown them in butter and then grate homemade lardo over them while they rest. Then I gave the mushrooms a quick sautée in the steak skillet and deglazed with a little wine. That little grey mound next to meathenge is a mixture of grated daikon and black radish mixed with salt, pepper, truffle oil, and kimchi brine.

I should have taken the picture a minute later, after I added homemade red onion-habañero pickles and a fat dab of mustard to the plate. Lest anybody reach for their pearls at the dearth of greenery- that little thyme sprig only highlights it, really- there was a big bowl of lovely winter mesclun also in attendance. These fries need a tetch of tweaking to attain perfection, but they're close. And I should have made a post-mushroom pan sauce since they bogarted most of the wine I poured in. To make up for it, I poured some wine into myself- a 2003 Ada Nada Barbaresco "Valeirano"- that ably tarted up this barely glorified pub fare.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Snow Day

We got 8.5" of snow last night, so school was cancelled. I still had to schlep over to the garage and have the power steering belt replaced, but at least everyone else with an appointment that morning was still at home shoveling out so the guys got it done very quickly. I love all-wheel drive.

So with a kid to entertain, and after making a couple of snowmen (one had a homegrown carrot nose and a wine funnel for a hat) we retreated inside for lunch. I had made some saffron-pimentón pasta dough in the morning, figuring a hearty and labor-intensive meal was in order, so we rolled it out into fettucine. I steamed a couple of snow crab legs in sake, then cut them open and pulled all the meat out. I reduced the sake, added a pat of butter, a sprig of thyme, and some peas, then tossed in the just-cooked noodles. A few twists of pepper and a pinch of crunchy salt, and we were in business. A glass of wine would have been nice, but might have resulted in a painful postprandial face-plant. I've got no idea what to make for dinner. Soup, in all likelihood.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Season's Tweetings

We went to Boston for the weekend, and managed to cram a ton of socializing into a very narrow window of time. We managed to invite ourselves over to a couple of different houses for dinner, making for a much more enjoyable time since Milo is good for about 20 minutes in a restaurant before he starts to get bored. Friday Andrew made us celery root salad with preserved lemon persillade followed by polenta with sugo and then some excellent local ice cream. The next day we got treated to sammiches at a nice café in Somerville before heading off to the Museum of Science, which is every bit as great as it was when I was a kid, and eerily features many of the same exhibits that it did back then, in immaculate condition. I worked as a museum preparator for a time, and I'm astonished at the pristine condition of many of those mechanical things in vitrines where you push a button to make them go. They must have replaced a lot of motors over the years.

Yesterday was a long drive, but we went more or less straight to Duncan's birthday party, where once again other people made our dinner. And a wonderful dinner it was, too. John made a roasted beef tenderloin, rubbed with herbs and cooked to a perfect rare. He also made braised daikon with a rustic version of gin-an sauce that was pretty spectacular. Pressed for time, I just sliced up a bunch of bresaola and duck prosciutto and made a platter of each.

I had a bunch of ideas for this meal, but they quickly collapsed under the weight of the available time- morphing quickly from an elegant, playful ode to late fall root vegetables into just another adequate dinner. The main culprit was the lack of four hours in which to hydrate methocel- don't you just hate that? I wanted to make parsnip-yogurt gnocchi but was foiled by the bell. I did have time to roast some of our beets- I'm pulling the rest out today, since we're getting a snow storm tonight- with olive oil and salt until they got all sweet, shriveled, and a little crisp at the thin ends.

So the main dish was just a pale imitation of the original idea: I caramelized onions and leeks with bacon, then added cubed parsnip, then beet greens, then hard cider and let it all get together. Then I tossed in cha-soba, seasoned one more time, and that was it. Perfectly OK, but annoyingly far from what I wanted. More and more lately I've been fantasizing about how great it would be to have all day every day in which to make dinner.

Friday, December 04, 2009

See How They Break Both Ways?

What to do when you're conflicted between broiling and tartare: both. Especially in the case of some gorgeous salmon. I minced it and mixed in sesame oil, yuzu juice, scallions, soy sauce, and pink pepper, then cooked it inside a ring mold on pretty high heat to get a good sear on one side. I made crispy crackers with the skin, and served them all on brown rice and diced garden roots (carrot, rutabaga, daikon) simmered in goose stock and then tossed with miso at the end to thicken.

A delightful continuum from crunchy, hot salmonburger to cool, velvety tartare. I deglazed the pan with some white wine and dribbled it around for a little extra something. Next time it might be fun to make little meatballs with this, browning the outside and leaving the inside raw, and serving them in miso gravy for like a Swedish/Japanese kind of thing.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Pendulous, Salty Meat

So I got a deli slicer for my birthday. Which I sort of asked for, in that not-exactly-asking-but-making-it-pretty-obvious-way that my expert wife has figured out over the years. It was a tough call, since I really want a new juicer (the old one suffered a child-related mishap, rendering it useless) but the one I want is three times more money than the slicer. So I got a slicer. It was win/win, really, since she knew that the minute I opened it I'd rush out and buy hunks of meat to cure, hang, and then slice into glistening tissues of salty splendor for us all to enjoy.

And that is pretty much exactly what happened.

I made duck prosciutto and bresaola. The duck is something I've had down for a while now, and it's just obscenely good. My first few tries at the beef ended up too salty, but I've arrived at the right curing time and this batch is the first one that's ready for prime time. Four days on the cure. No more, no less. It's ever so tasty, and makes a toe-curling carpaccio. I sliced both of the turgid, fleshy obelisks into silky slices, and arranged them on a platter. Over the top, a hand-picked selection of our finest winter greens: arugula, red mustard, mizuna, and some little sprouty things that taste wonderful but I forget what they are (they were part of a spicy mesclun mix and the packet is long gone).

Good unfiltered olive oil, a drip of balsamic, and a couple of grinds of pepper later, we were face-deep in the best damn appetizer known to humankind. Honestly, when you can make food this good at home, there's no point in ever leaving the house- especially to pay too much for mediocre restaurant fare. I ended up heaping many more greens on the plate after I took the picture, so it really was a salad. I just didn't want to obscure your view of the proud, pink, glowing glory of my meat.

To finish, a straight-up penne alla puttanesca. This was elevated above normality (which is pretty damn good) by the use of some of the cured duck prosciutto fat that I trimmed off after cutting it down from over the sink. If there's a tastier lubricant for a skillet on the planet, I haven't found it yet. Good anchovies, good olives, good capers, and homegrown parsley made it perfect. A couple of tiny little pepperoncini gave it the requisite zing. When forced to use canned tomatoes- as we are, since this summer was not so productive- I find that puttanesca is much better than arrabiata (our other standard) since it masks the canned flavor of the tomatoes so much better.

Still fuming about the Burgundy for the previous night, I opened a 2003 Jaboulet Vacqueyras. I've praised it before and it is every bit as good as ever, if not more so with more age on it. Having said that, though, at this writing I did finish off the last glass of said Givry and it may yet reward further patience; it's softening to a point where the mouth starts to live up to the nose. Another year or five (or at least a vigorous decanting several hours before dinner) and I'd be willing to try it again. Burgundy is such a fickle, frustrating thing- and as rabbit holes go, on the pricey side. But when it's good, it's better than anything- except homemade charcuterie.

Or a good dick joke. Right, Claudia?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

There Goes My Légion d'Honneur

First, some things cassoulet is not.

Fussy. Difficult. Complicated. Intimidating. Very good for you.

Some things it is? Very good to eat. Peasant food. Food for people who really should have spent most of the day chopping wood with their bare hands in order to work up a need for the caloriffic ordnance that this dish also happily happens to be.

Cassoulet- notwithstanding the sputtering, indignant protestations of traditionalists- is beans slow-cooked with a shitload of decadent meat. Period. The beans should be white, yes, and duck or goose confit is pretty standard, true, and garlic sausage is always welcome in a pot of legumes- duh- but lacking one or more of those things is no reason not to make and stand proudly behind a big, bubbling, name-brand cast iron Dutch oven full of awesome and call it whatever you like. Including cassoulet. Anyone who has a problem with that can feel free to get the hell out and not eat any.

In this case, we had us some leftovers that were hankering hard to be transubstantiated into just such a dish: half a gallon of goose pho, two legs of duck confit, bacon skin, and newly-cured bresaola. I like making skin-on bacon, because the skin allows for tossing it into pots of beans to add smokiness and extra unction- even after the bacon is all gone. So I soaked about a pound of local, organic pinto beans and then simmered them in goose pho with bacon skin and a few slices of the cured beef for a couple of hours until tender.

Next, I heated up the duck and shredded it into chunks. I browned diced carrot, celery, and rutabaga in the duck fat along with herbs and a lot of garlic, then deglazed with white wine. To this I added two spoons from the quivering jar of goose gravy left from Thanksgiving, a couple of crushed canned tomatoes, and then all of the beans. Once bubbling gently, I dusted the top with panko rubbed with goose fat and moved it into a 225˚ oven. A couple more hours, and this:

The genius of this dish is really in the second cooking; there was very little liquid in the pot, but since the beans were cooked they didn't need much. They just got super-tender and harmonious with all the meaty goodness. The finished product had no remaining liquid, just perfectly cooked beans and shreddy meat all the way down.

I did make sure to sauté some spinach with garlic while this was cooling down so there'd be something green on the table. And that was dinner. It almost made me wish that it had been 15˚ below outside, with a howling gale- just so I could have gone out after dinner (barefoot, in shorts) and had a good laugh at the feeble elements. The only bad part about this meal was the wine- a 2005 Choffelet-Valdenaire Givry. I've been waiting for the '05 Burgundies to come around- my first forays were not happy ones- but this wine just plain sucks. Tight, sour, thin- it was hard to see how it will ever amount to anything good to drink. Re-tasting today with lunch (a cassoulet burrito with homemade red onion-habañero pickles and smoked salsa) confirmed it.

Btw, cassoulet burritos are full of win. And cassoulet.