Monday, May 31, 2010

Tofu The Size Of Texas

I finally ordered some nigari (magnesium chloride) for making tofu. I had bought organic soybeans–both white and black–a while ago, but it took an age for me to get the order in. Once it arrived, though, the intervening time spent waiting helped spur me to quick action. I soaked some of the white beans overnight and re-read the tofu recipe I wanted to try from the Shunju cookbook. (Shunju is one of Tokyo's finest restaurants, and the book is beautiful. I haven't made anything from it before, but it has inspired a number of improvisations of late).

Basically, the technique is a two-step process. First you make soymilk, then you make tofu with that. You purée the soaked beans in the fo-pro for quite a while until they are seriously frothy. You take that foam and gently heat it, stirring, and add some boiling water to loosen the mass a bit.

And then you simmer, stirring frequently so it doesn't stick and scorch. And it bubbles up to many times its original volume, so be advised. Eventually (after about half an hour) the bubbles subside and you're left with the familiar off-white liquid that is soymilk, with all the solids on the bottom of the pot. You strain this, separating the latter (okara) from the former. Then heating the milk back up to 167˚ F I think, you add a bit of the nigari and stir it in. Then you let it sit to coagulate.

In this case, I poured some of the mixture into individual dishes so it would set up inside the confines of the square plate, making for a cleaner presentation than a lumpy pile spooned in after the fact. I drizzled a little light soy and sesame oil on top, along with minced scallions.

But first, to get going and provide a weather-appropriate cold soup, I simmered some fresh-cut red kale in the beef/lamb stock that didn't get reduced to demi-glace, puréed it all together, and strained it. The kale solids that remained in the strainer looked so similar to the okara from soymilk-making that I impulsively combined the two for a grainy green goodness which I made use of in the next course.

Which was okara-kale cakes. I added an egg yolk and a pinch of flour, plus a dribble each of nam pla, usukuchi, and sesame oil, then cooked them in a lightly oiled pan. To accompany, I made salad with some lovely curly endive: I fried up some large dice of our bacon, then dumped lardons and hot fat right into the bowl to lightly wilt the greens. I followed that with some vinegar and thinly sliced radish, then tossed it all together. I deglazed the fritter pan with a spoon of demi-glace and a splash of sake to make a rich little sauce for the cakes.

Then we had the tofu. It hadn't set all the way (I'm not sure how long it's supposed to take) so it was still pretty liquid. And the nigari was tasteable, which is not really such a good thing. Nigari is pretty awfully bitter and quite alkaline. So I should use less, obviously, but why then did it not set in the hour it had to sit? These and more questions will be answered when I use a source other than a book which appears to have been somewhat haphazardly translated–or at very least converted from metric to English. But the process is simple enough, and the result holds a great deal of promise–especially the ability to flavor and season the result.

For dessert, something that accidentally ended up being quite close in spirit to the book. Milo had been clamoring for me to take the coconut water from the remaining young nut that Mike brought over when we had Korean BBQ night and make a gel with it. Where he got the idea is anybody's guess. He's just sort of brilliant like that. So we bloomed a couple of sheets, then dissolved them in the coconut water which we sweetened with a squeeze of good local honey. Then we poured the mixture into a pyrex dish and chilled it in the fridge. We also had a cantaloupe on hand (shopping with children is hell for locavores) that was very sweet, so I cut both the melon and the gel into roughly equal sized cubes and served them in little glass bowls with a chiffonade of spearmint on top. This was a winner: sweet, clean, and light as a feather, it came closest to the sort of taste and texture I imagine based on extensive reading of the cookbook. Someday maybe I'll have cause and means to get to Tokyo and eat there, and I can revel in the subtle mastery of their technique.

And then I can upend the table and storm out, yelling over my shoulder that their tofu recipe tastes like drano.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Good Night And Good Luck

So we returned home from a day trip to Delaware county later than forseen, and with nothing at all planned for dinner. A quick stop at the place in town that carries wild Alaskan salmon later, and we were fully in business, thanks largely to the presence of some high-end leftovers in the fridge. And I like a high end. We lost power on Thursday, but it was only for four hours, so nothing was lost. I was beginning to sorely regret the purchase of our chest freezer, and vowed to stock it with jugs of water to add thermal mass if the power was restored fast enough to save all the beautiful meat, stock, and the heads of my enemies that we have stashed in there.

The fridge yielded potato salad–a week old, and needing dispatching–and the lentil soup-turned-salad that I haven't actually written about yet, so this post is ruined. Green lentils, some kind of stock, homemade prosciutto, duck sausage, carrots, aromatics, etc., all simered, blah blah blah you know how to make lentil soup.

So anyway, it was in the fridge, having undergone a subsequent transformation into a salad of sorts by way of the addition of copious vinegar, olive oil, fresh garlic, and chives to the mix. I took the potato salad (German-style, with vinegar and pickles, just like in a recent post that I can't be bothered to find and link to) and mashed in an egg yolk along with more chives, then formed it into little cakes, dredged them in panko, and got them all bronzed in a greezy skillet. The lentils I just heated up to a good bubble, covered, and took off the heat. I like to re-boil my meat-containing leftovers every few days when applicable.

The salmon got a dusting with salt, pepper, and some herbs, and a quick stay in the selfsame skillet on higher heat for a good crisping of the skin and a stabilizing and opacifying hit on the fleshy side. The center of the fillet remained translucent and meltingly tender, offering a lovely contrast to the crisp exterior. And I had cut a salad of young lettuces.

To really set this off and make it special, I took a quivering spoonful of the demi-glace I made last weekend and melted it in the salmon pan, adding a splash of white wine and a pat of butter to emulsify them. Such a sauce. Chive flowers, tarragon, and lime thyme formed the garnish. And thus was leftover picnic food retooled into something shy of haute, but not too shabby on short notice. And to drink, a bottle of bucket-chilled 2009 Les Agaves rosé. I'm not going to bother with tasting notes; as with the others I'll cover in upcoming posts, it's classic Provençal herbs and minerals under reticent yet insistent fruit (leaning less toward strawberries than other offerings). At around $10, it's a must-drink. Please ignore the fuchsia rosés from other parts of the world that taste like Fresca or watermelon Jolly Ranchers. This is the shit.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Lighter Shade Of Fail

So prior to our dinner with Mike and Claudia, I ran out to procure some libations. Rosé was easy, and yes, I know I'm supposed to be writing a post about the ones we've been knocking back with extreme prejudice in this suddenly sweltering weather. (It's a good thing Al Gore is fat, or I'd really be worried about this climate change hoax that he's trying to scam us all with). But I also wanted sake, on account of the Korean barbecue.

Now our local place–that's pretty much across the street–has a good selection of rosé. Sake? Not so much. It looks like the Gekkeikan distributor made them an offer they couldn't refuse, so that's pretty much all they have. Except that they also have a bunch of nigori sake, the opaque, unfiltered sweet variety about which I know next to nothing. It might be worth mentioning at this point that I know next to nothing about sake period, other than a few kinds that I particularly like and a few words to look for. But the low alcohol and frequent use of the English word "sweet" kept me away from it.

So I asked Mike to grab a bottle from a different store about 3 miles away, remembering a particularly nice bottle of junmai daiginjo I bought there last year for about $25. I told him to call me from the store with any questions, and he did. He said "this place got mugged by Gekkeikan" or something along those lines, and he brought two bottles identical to those I had resisted buying next door. So we chilled, opened, and tried them.

They weren't altogether terrible. Unfiltered things can certainly have a character to them. And I love good sake. But for the life of me I can't think what marketing genius decided that this is the product that is finally going to break into the American market. It's sweet, yeah, and sort of cloying, but it's hard for me to imagine average joes getting behind something that looks like milk and tastes a lot like expired horchata. Hell, my 5 year old loves sake (I let him have little sips of whatever we're drinking) and he doesn't even like this stuff. And I'm pissed that I can't get something decent in the vicinity any more. These two bottles don't have Gekkeikan on the label–the only ones, apparently–but I'm wondering what exactly the hell is up with this seeming takeover of local liquor stores by this obviously inferior (and not less expensive) product. Anybody know anything? I'm going to put on my Very Serious Journalist hat and look into this at some point, but meanwhile I'll be straining the lees out of these bottles to make pickles, and using the liquid (both with and without the goat whey, since they're both cloudy and white) in marinades, gravies, and the like.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


After I made all the stock on Sunday, I threw the beef bones away and rescued the lamb stew meat from the bottom of the big stock pot. After hours of simmering, it was shreddy and lovely, but still had some good lamby flavor. I put it in the fridge with an eye towards doing something later using the goat whey we had left from cheese making. And a day or two later, I noticed the fillo dough in the freezer. Along with some ground lamb.

After thawing, I browned the ground meat well with onion, herbs, chopped Kalamata olives, preserved lemon, and copious minced garlic. I folded in the shredded stew meat, and made a roux using a little of the marrow-roasting fat (from two posts ago) that I had reserved for such a nefarious purpose, and then whisked in a bunch of the goat milk whey to make whéchamel. This I used to liase, elide, and otherwise dipthong the hell out of all the meaty goodness. And then I rolled it all up in about a dozen sheets of fillo, brushed with 50/50 olive oil and butter. And baked it until done.

We ate it with chives, their flowers, and a squeeze of lemon. Also playing an important role was another stunningly fresh salad of everything good from the garden, picked mere minutes before. Salad picked à la minute is noticeably superior to longer-languished greenery. Last, a delightful Provencal rosé; I'm going to write a little post soon about our current favorites since it's just about all we drink now that it's hot. A perfect match for this kind of food. The pie was even better cold for lunch the next day; using the whéchamel really helped avoid the gritty cold tallow texture that can be so off-putting when cold red meats are involved.

Dirt Makes You Smarter

There will be more food shortly, but in the meantime this article made me smile.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It's Only A Day Away

When at the butcher's the other day, I also stocked up on some things for pantry and freezer. First off, a big bag of beef knuckles for stock (which have now, along with a bit of lamb stew meat, been transformed from nearly 3 gallons of stock into about 1 cup of utterly sublime demi-glace) and some marrow bones because the kid adores marrow bones. When I mentioned that, the guy who served me asked me how old he is, and did a hilarious double-take when I answered "five." That's my boy.

After roasting the knuckles, I put the marrow bones in a dish with a sprinkle of big salt on top and let them go until bubbly and brown. While that was happening, I picked, washed, and dressed an herby salad. Now Fergus Henderson's epic marrow with parsley salad calls for pretty much all parsley, but I wanted to use what we had–a lot of which are the remnants of last fall's plantings, and need to get et and pulled so I can get the tomatoes in. As a result, there was parsley, but also chervil, arugula, mustard, mizuna, claytonia, radish, baby lettuces, chives, and oregano, all tossed with a tart, very lemony vinaigrette to really cut the bountiful fat of the marrow.

And toast: there was a little bit of bacon fat left in the skillet from the samples I cooked up for the cheese-making group we hosted earlier in the day (post to follow) so I just plunked some bread down in it and let it get all grilly. I like to leave good fat from breakfast or lunch in the pan on the stove in case it might come in handy for dinner. My wife does not agree that this is an admirable practice. She does, however, eat the result.

And what a result. The key with this is to have all three components. The marrow is so rich, and the salad so cleansing and sharp, and the bread so crunchy and substrate-providing. Spread the marrow with a knife, top with salad, and go to town. It's humble and luxurious all at once–like most food should be. Milo was so excited about it that he wanted it again in his lunch for school the next day. So I mashed the one remaining hunk of marrow with some olive oil (for fluidity when cold), scallion, caper, and more lemon juice, spread it on a piece of toast, and put it in his snack container. It came back empty.

Monday, May 24, 2010


Friday night Mike and Claudia, our favorite celebrities, came over, but this time Mike cooked for us. It had been suggested by my wife that some Korean barbecue might be in order, since she had seen him make it on Bourdain's TV show (he loaned us the DVD) and couldn't shake the craving. (If you watch the Hudson Valley episode, you can see it too, as well as Mike's then 10-year-old daughter completely pwning Bourdain while Ruhlman looks on, laughing). Good times.

So I picked up some short ribs from Fleisher's and they brought the rest: shiso, sticky rice, denjang, gochujang, wine, sake, and a case of young coconuts for drinking. First up, after the coconuts, sticky rice rolled in shiso with the two pastes. Claudia made them, and they are a very addictive appetizer indeed. Here she is pretending to have a good time:

Next, Mike broke down the short ribs into thin slices, kindly saving both fat and bones for me to play with later. I had sharpened all our knives that afternoon, but he only gave me a C for the job I did. In my defense, Milo broke my sharpening stone last year, so it's harder than it should be. Never underestimate the "my kid ate it" excuse. Also, I'm lazy.

He whisked together a marinade using the pastes, fish sauce, scallions, sesame seeds, and probably some other things I didn't notice. Yuzu juice I think. So I pretty much failed this part. I blame Claudia, who was throwing paper airplanes and spitballs at me the whole time.

He also made some quick pickles: daikon kneaded with salt, asparagus with red radishes, and a wonderful salad of shredded scallions. We picked some fresh pea shoots, and a green salad for which he made a pretty insane dressing from preserved yuzu, ginger, walnut oil, and Indonesian long pepper. I got much geeky gratification from his delight that I have such things as preserved yuzu and long pepper on hand. My one A of the night. Claudia just kept making dick jokes.

Then we headed out to the screen porch where the shichirin was hot and ready. Armed with shiso leaves, we grilled the meat to rare-ish, then assembled all manner of variations inside the leaves. Grilled meat with pickles and salty, spicy pastes are such a winning combination, and when made at this level, with this quality ingredient, the result was something very special.

Then he did most of the dishes and took the whole stove apart, reprimanding me for not cleaning it that way every night. My wife thought that was better than dessert.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Stealth Stew

Beef stew was never something I liked much growing up. Nor was pot roast. We didn't have them all that often, though my Grandmother–a superb cook–liked to make pot roast. Boiled beef just always tasted like boiled beef and not much else, except for soft hunks of carrot and potato.

Since returning to carnivory about 6 years ago, I've learned a great deal about how meat flavors can be intensified and how stews can be made into sumptuous feasts rather than drab dinners that old people eat. The key is to use other ingredients that have lots of umami and/or umami-boosting qualities. For those squeamish about adding too many foreign-sounding things to their stew, or afraid that picky family will recoil in horror at the same, the trick is to use them in small enough quantity that nobody can tell they're there. The difference is pretty astonishing.

So next time something in this genre seems like a good idea for dinner, try this. Take the recipe you usually use for beef stew, pot roast, or similar, and just add the following as well, making no other changes:

1. Trim any silverskin or gristle from the meat before beginning. The trimmings can be used to make stock. Brown the meat all over after trimming if you don't already.

2. Add three anchovies at the outset when you sweat the onion, etc. (the small kind that come in little jars of oil).

3. Mince a few dried porcini, shiitake, morel, or black trumpet mushrooms–about a tablespoon, or more to taste–and add it to the mix.

4. Use homemade chicken or beef stock, ideally made with a charred onion.

5. Tie one star anise pod, one clove, a quarter stick of cinnamon, and five black peppercorns in a bit of cheesecloth and put them in along with the stock. If your stock wasn't made with charred onion, add half a charred onion to your bouquet.

6. Add a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste as well, and about as much soy sauce.

7. If you don't have a pressure cooker, make sure that it has a solid two hours or more to simmer low so the meat is really tender. Nothing is worse than dry, chewy stew meat.

8. Before serving, thicken the liquid with beurre manié (equal parts of softened butter mixed with flour). For extra wonderful, add minced fresh herbs (parsley, rosemary, oregano, etc.) and garlic to the paste. A couple of tablespoons should work well; all of these approximate measurements are for a stew made with roughly one pound of meat.

Now if you have the sort of family members who might be inclined to lunge for the phone and speed-dial the pizza place if they knew there were anchovies in their stew, do it on the down low. I promise you that nobody will notice anything other than how unbelievably good your stew has become all of a sudden. If their reactions are not sufficiently effusive, try again, using exactly the same techniques, but this time have everybody do a couple of bong hits before dinner.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bacon Sushi

Today I took a trip to Catskill Native Nursery to scope it out and get some information to help me fill in the picture for what I want to plant this year in the way of fruit and nuts in the field. It's a beautiful drive, and the day could not have been nicer. I came home with lingonberry plants, and some flowers for the bed next to the driveway that needs some work. I spent the afternoon doing that work, and I'll be posting pictures next week.

Tonight, in keeping with the recent theme of lighter, warm-weather food, a quick improvised 3-course feast that turned out pretty well. I was tired, but so were the others, and we were all hungry. To get something on the table asap, I decided to do it in stages. First up, super-fast wilted spinach with garlic and a splash of white wine. I threw out the seed packet for this spinach, which is a pity because it's both beautiful and tasty. Since it bolted, this was the last of it.

Next, cubes of sweet potato steamed and then dressed with our old standard tahini-miso sauce. Those two things mixed with lemon juice and not much else (sometimes a little water) make for a pretty great anointment of most steamed vegetables.

Last up, a happy confluence of freezer and pantry in the form of Berkshire pork belly sushi. There was some black rice in a jar, and I hadn't made it in ages, so I pulled it out. And some thinly sliced belly, after a very prim kiss with a hot pan, draped ever so nicely over the sticky purple grain. I made a sort of insta-barbecue sauce by mixing hoisin, HP Sauce, and ketchup with soy sauce and rice vinegar, and dabbed a little on each piece, topping them with a claytonia leaf. It made kind of a mess in the kitchen; I spent more time cleaning up than I did cooking. But it was worth it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

OK, here's that sushi. Our regular fish guy is on hiatus, so we've been missing him and the superb product he purveys. Feeling the sun-inspired urge for something clean and raw, I went to a nearby store that sometimes has good fish. Good timing; they had both wild Alaskan salmon and sushi-grade ahi. Score.

Since we had leftover brown rice already in the fridge, this was beyond easy. I ran to the garden and massacred some asparagus, pulling up radishes, spinach, scallions, and herbs as well. I cut up a nice fat piece of burdock and set it simmering with water and soy sauce while I did the rest: tuna and salmon maki, each with scallion, sashimi of both fish, and a nice asparagus salad. I like to skin salmon by putting it skin-side down in a hot pan for a few seconds, then peeling the skin off. I chopped the skin into pieces, added it back to the pan, and followed it with the asparagus cut into pieces. Once of a doneness, I pulled it all out and put it in a bowl with a bunch of claytonia (miner's lettuce) which I planted years ago and has now become a most welcome weed, seeding itself throughout the garden. It's tender, mild, and the leaves have an elegant spade shape. I dressed the salad with an egg yolk beaten with rice vinegar and miso tamari.

Not much else to report, really. It was simple and good. On an unrelated note, yesterday would have been my Mom's 65th birthday, so you can read 2008's post about the dessert I made. Our lilacs are already done this year, due to the very early spring that no doubt harbinges impending global disaster. So we've got that going for us, which is nice.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Better Than Sports

I was going to write about some sushi, but it's raining so I think I'll go with some better wet-weather fare. I finally gave up and came in from planting various fruit in beds I've been working on, and when they're done I'll put up a post about them too. In the meantime, remember that grilled lamb from the other night? I mentioned that we also picked up some meaty lamb bones as well and made stock with them. So I strained the stock into containers and fridged it per usual, picking the not-insubstantial quantity of meat off the bones and putting that in yet another container.

That meat–sitting provocatively at eye level in a glass container–got me thinking about what do do with it. I had considered lentils, but we were out, so I grabbed the jar of chick peas and put a couple cups of them in a bowl to soak. Come evening, I minced up a little prosciutto fat (I save it all; it's as good as lardo, and there's a lot of it on our half leg) and then tossed in some of the last overwintered onions that grew back and divided. Then a pinch each of cumin, mustard, and coriander seeds, plus some carrots, a handful of Mediterranean herbs, and then the meat to soften and brown. Once all was glistening and fondtastic, I added a splash of wine, some of the lamb stock, and water to cover the beans and let it simmer for about an hour.

Towards the end of that hour, I made a pot of whole wheat couscous, fluffing it with olive oil and minced chives when it was cooked. I love how fluffy well-made couscous is. It's not at all like pasta, really; it seems closer to quinoa and yet doesn't have the grittiness or the slightly metallic taste that keep me from making quinoa more often. And it soaks up the liquid from a tagine very very nicely. The spices in the lamb stock melded beautifully with the spices in the stew, and the result was a lovely harmony of flavors. And it was all made possible by Sunday stock-making.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Right Stuff

The wife, she was out for dinner with a friend, leaving me and the boy to fend for ourselves. We took a walk, did some gardening, folded approximately one million more paper airplanes, and made dinner. When it comes to prep, rolling out pasta is his A subject. We mixed up a nice whole wheat/rye dough (about two cups of flour and two eggs, with a drop of water and salt) and let it sit in the fridge to relax for half an hour while we test-flew many planes off the balcony upstairs. Paper airplanes are as complex and frustrating a craft as any other once you move beyond the simple paper dart. There's a lesson in there, along with bags and bags of recycling.

The dough rolled out beautifully, and then we ran it through the fettucine rollers. I tossed it in some whole wheat flour to keep it from rejoining into a gloopy mass, and whipped up a super-simple sauce of homemade bacon, garlic, wine, tomato purée, and minced spinach from the garden. Some of the early plantings are beginning to bolt, so I'm pulling up spinach and arugula to make room for more heat-resistant salad stuff. It's a nice way to use the natural pace of plants to make more room in the finite confines of the garden. Having said that, it's still too damn small and in the fall–if not sooner–I'm going to enlarge it in two directions.

We're a long way from subsistence farming, but what's missing right now is the space to grow enough roots and other storage crops to get us through the bulk of the winter. They grow and store easily, and I've been having success just leaving things like carrots and parsnips in the ground, so it's not a lot of work. If last winter was any indication, clocking in at exactly three months long, growing more of our own plants to eat is going to get easier before it gets harder (droughts, riots, dogs and cats living together, etc.); we had nettles, garlic mustard, wild chives, and some of the fall-planted garden greens in early March, and can rely on the garden until December, so that's not too bad at all. More turnips, beets, onions, and other durable goods along with frozen perishables safely ensconced in the new chest freezer (not to mention all of the fruit I'm currently planting) would really give us the level of independence and quality that I have imagined for so long. I'm hoping that by this time next year I'll be set up for the next stage of home food production.

I'm so happy to go out and let the garden/yard tell me what we're having for dinner. It doesn't take much to make a meal, really, when it comes to fresh greenery, provided that the pantry and freezer are well stocked. How ironic then that I should feel compelled to drone on about this subject in the middle of a post featuring tomatoes and cheese from Italy. Originally, my plan was to make a carbonara featuring our homemade bacon and some wonderful local eggs, but when I ran this by the boss he emphatically insisted that the sauce be tomato. So I figured I'd make him a little tomato sauce, and then bust out a carbonara for me, but when I saw, smelled, and tasted his plate, the carbonara idea sort of faded away and I actually made another batch of the red sauce exactly the same way. I grated a bunch of good parmigiano all over our bowls of wholesome goodness, and we tucked in.

A face full of food like this also is a powerful lesson in its own right.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Very Simple, Very Easy

What a perfect day. Sunny, breezy, in the low 70s, and smelling of high spring. We went out for most of the day. First, a short detour to look for arrowheads in a spot a neighbor told us has a good reputation. No luck. Then, lunch in Rhinebeck at Gigi, which is a perfectly nice place for lunch. Onward then to a nearby nursery, looking for thornless blackberries. They wanted the utterly ridiculous amount of $25 each for small, scrawny plants, so we left. Dutchess county kind of sucks that way sometimes.

Then, a lovely stroll at the Poets' Walk, where we got lots of sun and caught the breeze off the river. And last, a stop in Kingston to grab some grub for dinner. In this case, local lamb stew meat and bones. Once home, I roasted the bones and put them to cook with a carrot, a charred onion, a clove, a star anise pod, some parsley, a few peppercorns, and half a cinnamon stick. I also trimmed the stew meat and tossed it in a marinade of wine and coriander, cumin, fennel, and mustard seeds that I ground up with garlic, salt and pepper and mixed in. I did some gardening while the stock simmered, then came in with a handful of mixed herbs and greens to make pesto: radicchio, arugula, dandelion, chives, rosemary, oregano, peppermint, spearmint, thyme, and chrvil. I puréed it all with garlic and lots of olive oil to make a smooth, dark green paste.

I threaded the cubes (roughly) of meat onto skewers and lit the shichirin. While it reached nuclear hotness, I cubed and sautéed a sweet potato with a whole cinnamon stick and smashed garlic clove in some of the fat that had rendered off of the lamb bones when I roasted them. I tossed some (bought, sadly) flatbreads on the grill to toast and soften, and brought everything out onto the porch so we could continue to enjoy the gorgeousness of the day.

The meat cooked very quickly on the grill. Once the interior of the stove heats up–the inside of the barrel glows as brightly as the coals do– this thing gets so hot that anything cooks in seconds flat. I always overestimate the amount of charcoal needed, so there's tons of heat to spare. When it's still spring, though, and the evenings are cool, that heat is a welcome companion at an al fresco dinner.

I had really wanted to make a tzatziki-type sauce to go with this; there's nothing quite like the tangy, garlicky coolness of a yogurt sauce to make grilled lamb among the best foods in the whole world. But the rest of my family is off dairy for now, so instead I made a quick sauce of goat butter, red wine, and a bit of the lamb stock. (Butter is mostly fat, so it doesn't seem to have the same exacerbating effect on their allergies).

That was it; we folded these up and enjoyed the hell out of them. Bitter mash, sweet... uh... potatoes, rich, charred, tender, spice-infused meat, pillowy bread, and a buttery, winey sauce. I double dog dare you to make something better in as little time. For dessert, since like last time the furnace would not be denied, we grilled apple slices and drizzled them with honey. Afterward there was still a bit of honey left in the bowl, as you can see.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jar-Jar Binks Ruined Miso Forever

There are worse things in the world than roasting a chicken once a week. Of course given my lack of organization and general allergy to schedules, it never works out to be a regular, say, Sunday night thing for us. But we do it often enough, and now that it's warm the grill can step in to replace the oven. Whichever method you use, it is vitally important to save all the bones, even if you have guests; if they think it's weird, tell them to get over it. You boil them again, so what's the problem? Throwing bones away before using them for stock is a crime, plain and simple.

Lately there are lots of meals for which I don't open wine–it's expensive to drink all the time and takes a toll physically–but for a roast chicken I almost always pop a friendly, mid-weight red–lately Borgueuils and Chinons have been really doing it for me, but with a few more degrees on the thermometer, this is a meal designed for rosé. Speaking of which, it's back to utterly gorgeous outside (I'm drinking rosé now) but we went through a pretty chilly spell a few days ago. In response (and lately I've been thinking about how much the weather influences my cooking every day), I made sort of summer picnic food but with all of the cold-weather comfort quotient we needed on the evening in question.

While the (spatchcocked) bird roasted, I steamed peeled and cut Yukon Gold potatoes and then tossed them in lots of cider vinegar with minced cornichons, capers, garlic, chives, scallions, onion, olive oil, a minced ume plum, salt, and pepper. My Great-Aunt Martha made this better than anyone in the world, and hipped me to the necessity for adding the vinegar while the spuds are still warm. She didn't use ume or capers, but she would have approved. She was also the nicest lady in the world and made a Sachertorte that would blow your freaking mind. Very old school, but a profoundly gifted cook.

There was some thawed pesto in the fridge, and some endive mash, so I figured I'd make gravy to help keep the picnic fare firmly in the comfort camp. Lacking any thawed stock, I whisked some miso into water with the pestos. After the chicken came out, I made a roux, and once nutty I poured in the mixture and stirred it for a bit. I've raved about pesto gravy more than once, and miso-pesto gravy is even better. There aren't many savory applications where miso doesn't make it better, for that matter.

Eating the potato salad while it's still warm is a treat. Of course, eating the rest of it standing up over the sink for lunch doesn't suck either. It's a gift that keeps on giving. And having a panoply of edible flowers going off in both herb and vegetable gardens makes for some pretty splendid garnishes these days. So far, this has been the nicest spring since we moved here. After last summer, which was horrible, we're cautiously optimistic that maybe we're due for some good growing.

Friday, May 14, 2010

I Miss Rome

There are several versions of this dish on my blog alone, but with good reason. Carciofi alla Romana were one of the first authentic Italian dishes I really mastered, having had much exposure to them from all my time in Rome–in particular, the little restaurant we called "The Green Door" that was around the corner from Palazzo Cenci where school was. Open only for lunch, with no sign, newsprint tablecloths, and presided over by a hard-working yet amiable older couple, it offered superb and frill-free Roman cooking at student-friendly prices. My standard outing there was a pair of artichokes and a bowl of homemade fettucine with butter and Parmigiano with a half carafe of the house red plonk to wash it down. Then I would often enjoy a solid nap, but strictly for cultural reasons.

And artichokes and beans have a sympatico for sure. I enjoy making them together whenever possible. I got the beans going in the pressure-cooker with homemade bacon, fennel, onion, garlic, herbs, carrot, a radish and its greens, and chicken stock, and let it hiss belligerently while I diligently bent and snapped all the leaves of the thistle flowers. A quick trim, a good gouge with a spoon to de-choke, and into a pan with water up to their shoulders and a hearty glug of olive oil to cover the water. Simmered on medium for about half an hour; the key is to listen. When the pot starts to sputter indignantly, it's time to pay attention. Remove the lid, stab a fork in the thickest part to check for tenderness, and lower the heat a bit. Let them fry in the oil after the water is gone until they get good and caramelized. That is the key. It also seems to make artichokes more wine friendly, which is nice, since they're widely regarded as wine-killers. All the gorgeously perfumed oil gets poured over the plate when all is assembled. Wilted pea shoots with garlic make a tasty garnish.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

There's No Place Like Home

Upon return home, it was decreed by those who had languished for a week without being properly cooked for that were would be having barbecued chicken. And me? I'm not one to argue. I'm a lover, not a fighter. Everyone knows that. Thus, sustainably raised and then killed for our sustenance chicken legs found their way onto our grill (which, since we were out of charcoal, I had to fuel with foraged fallen maple branches, taking this fully into the realm of the old school). I made BBQ sauce with tomato paste, red wine, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, coffee, balsamic vinegar, and passion fruit juice, and also brown rice and a salad of greens from the garden. No pictures. Settle down.

The point is, there were BBQ chicken bones in the fridge the next day. And the temperature had dropped faster than George Rekers' luggage/pants/rent boy (in that order), so soup was on. I simmered the bones with a carrot, fennel stalks, half an onion, a couple of cloves of garlic, and a knob of ginger for an hour or so. While that was doing its thing, man, I pulled half a package of wonton skins from the freezer and put them on one of the folding backguard shelves over the simmering stock to help them defrost so I could pull them apart without disaster. While that was going on, yo, I took roughly half a pound of ground pork (the other half had been used for a pasta sauce in my absence) and mixed it with garlic (our first, green, just to see how it's progressing) plus scallion, salt, pepper, a minced kumquat, and lemongrass (from the plant I recently moved outside).

Those pale edges are from being frozen and not properly wrapped for a length of time. It makes for a bit of brittleness, but I was too lazy to trim them all. The seemingly empty bowl has water for dipping fingers in and making seams. I made tortellini shapes with them, because they're fun. I strained the stock, reserving the carrots and what chicken meat there was to save, and discarded the rest. The wontons I poached in batches in the stock, removing them to bowls with a strainer-type device as they were cooked. Then ladles of stock, bits of chicken, hunks of carrot, and the following to finish: bolting cilantro leaves, mustard seed pods, radish slices, and skinny asparagus segments. Thus are last fall's plantings being consumed along with this spring's recent arrivals.

The stock was deep, chickeny, and slightly smoky from the grilled legs, the wontons were silky, the pork inside was fragrant with allium and citrus, and the various garnishes all added various bright and trebly notes to the mix. Bastardized? Sure. But so damn good.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


There's nothing like a series of splendid dinners to make a week of menial labor into an altogether pleasant experience. Using the wonders of technology, I was able to get in touch with some friends beforehand, and line up some highly enjoyable soirées. Here's a brief rundown:

First up, a dinner with Mary at Bussaco, owned by my old pal Scott. He opened a year and a half ago, and the fact that it took me this long to actually go was pretty embarrassing. We shared Mary's bottle of 1999 Karthauserhofberg Riesling Kabinett, which had an ebullient, oily nose and luscious, diesel-y clementine flavors. Not too much acidity made for ideal drinking by itself, and it did equally well with starters of Sardinian flatbread with anchovies and marvelous fresh pea soup. For the mains–serrano ham-wrapped chicken breast on favas and spring vegetables and lamb ravioli in broth–we had a 2007 Graillot Crozes-Hermitage which was young and tight (in a good way) and, lest that not be graphic enough, had the marvelous Northern Rhône quality which can also sometimes be modified with those same adjectives. A very enjoyable evening, and one I hope to repeat soon.

The second dinner was with Mary at Kris and Ken's place. A typically extraordinary lineup of wines accompanied Kris' excellent cooking: scallops in garam masala-spiced butter, then mushroom risotto, then veal stew with peas. Wine highlights included a 1992 Batard-Montrachet by Joel Gagnard and a 2000 Corton Grèves by Louis Jadot (the wine of the night) both brought by Jason. The Batard was a puzzle, with guesses ranging from Chablis down to Mâcon but nobody hitting it. Over time, as it woke up, it became clearer and we might have done a better job guessing after an hour or so. The Jadot, which none of us save Jason had had before, was the real deal: everything you look for in a Burgundy with transparency, power, elegance, and funk. I never buy Jadot's wines, but if I see this one again I'll grab it for sure. At the end, a 1982 Rieussec from K&K's cellar was a deep, golden yellow treat with a compelling balance between sweet, acid, and oxidative age.

The next night was dinner with Amy and Jonny at Lot 2 on my very own corner. It used to be a pleasant enough joint called kitchen bar, but Lot 2 is a finer establishment. The ingredients and techniques are of a refinement that would have been unthinkable in this part of town a few years ago, say when I lived there. (I actually ate there three times over the course of the week: brunch with my family when they dropped me off on Sunday, this dinner, and a much-needed burger on Thursday night.) We hadn't seen each other in a year and a half, so it was fun to catch up, swap blog gossip, and enjoy good food. We tried their house-made cured pork neck, which was silky and elegant, and the obligatory plate of dandelion greens (I had it all three times). I had crispy Spanish mackerel with lentils and a vinegary sauce that was a tad strong, but it did cut the oily fish; I like oily fish and usually prefer them uncut). Jonny had roast and confit chicken and Any had their grass-fed burger, the leanness of which is admirably overcome by the addition of lardo butter to the grind. Plus, now they live much closer than they used to, so with any luck we can do it again soon.

And the following night, dinner chez Brooklynguy. I slyly inveigled myself an invitation, since it's obvious from his blog that he knows how to cook and I wanted to drink good wine without paying restaurant prices or corkage to do so. We started off with Mas de Gourgonnier rosé, which we both love, and ate salad on their seriously lovely back deck. As it got dark, we moved inside, and he whipped up some Vietnamese-style pork belly: marinated and roasted earlier, he then cut it into 1" cubes and crisped it hard in a pan, then removed it and poured a nam pla-inflected marinade over the lot. I've been reading a lot of Japanese cookbooks lately, and one of the techniques I haven't fully figured out is the frying and then simmering of various things. It tends to end up on the soggy side, which I guess is the point, but it's never the best of both worlds when I do it. This was; the meat was crisp, tender, saucy, and perfectly seasoned to go with a big red wine (shockingly, I know).

The wine in question was a 1998 Beaucastel Châteauneuf, which we tasted blind. You can read his notes here, but he nailed it. His first guess was Southern Rhône, and we talked about how first guesses are very often the ones to listen to. Later, with cheese–three raw cow's milk varieties I've forgotten the names of–he opened a mystery white for me to taste. I thought Loire initially, because he loves him some Loire whites, but it wasn't a profile I was familiar with. As it woke up, it had a pretty pronounced lemon curd and dairy-like character on the nose–almost a cheesecake sort of aroma. I went back and forth, until finally he put me out of my misery, revealing a 2002 Cour-Cheverny "Cuvée Renaissance" by François Cazin. Cour-Cheverny is a newish appelation, planted exclusively to Romorantin, and in especially good years, when the fruit gets some botrytis, Cazin makes the Cuvée Renaissance. This is exactly the sort of high geekery I was hoping to experience, and makes me doubly sorry that I missed Chablis night on Saturday. As a bonus, the lovely and charming Brooklynlady returned home shortly before I left, so I got to meet her.

Later in the week, I had a pizza at Toby's (on an adjacent corner; our neighborhood got cool the minute we left) and got to watch both the Celtics and the Red Sox get slaughtered simultaneously on two different screens. As Lloyd Bridges might say, "I picked a terrible week to start watching sports again." Later on, Mike and Amy joined me for beers. The next day, delicious Chablis notwithstanding, I took the bus home so that for Mother's day my gift to my long-suffering wife would be her not having to drive down and collect me and all my tools. I drove myself down and back instead. It's good to be home, and I want to thank all the lovely people who made my week away into way more fun than it looked like it was going to be at the outset.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Contest And Giveaway!!!

So before I get to the Brooklyn post, I want to put up a little palate-cleanser. Today my lovely wife hurt her back choreographing a piece for an upcoming performance, and after suffering through the afternoon and a comforting dinner (to be featured shortly) she intimated that something sweet sure would hit the spot. So I suggested that maybe I might sort of be able to wrangle something along those lines while she put the boy to bed.

After making him something like a dozen different paper airplanes, (try this site if you have kids) I crept downstairs and got to work. Luckily, we uncharacteristically had all sorts of desserty goodness on hand. Here's what I came up with (and would totally be posting on CakeSpotting if they hadn't banned me ages ago).

I will be accepting clever names for these in the comments. The winner may or may not receive one as a prize, depending on how long they last.

Here's what you do:

  1. Melt a stick of butter in the double boiler along with a standard-size package of free-range chocolate chips and a pinch of salt.
  2. When melted, whisk in 6 or so finely minced seeded kumquats. A splash of good local apple brandy at this juncture wouldn't suck. Remember to add some to the chocolate mixture, too.
  3. Transfer the mixture to a larger bowl and add a couple of handfuls of cashews from the container in the back of the fridge that's been there for ages, and then stir in shredded coconut from the time you wanted to make macaroons and didn't. As it cools, the coconut will sort of bind it together so it doesn't flow all over the silpat when you spoon it on. Which is what you do next.
  4. Put them in the fridge for 10 minutes to cool down, and then make your wife very happy.
Store them in the fridge, since the butter makes them quite soft at room temp. They're really good, especially for a seat-of-the-pants invention. Let the naming begin. ("Crazy Chocolate Cashew Coconut Kumquat Clusters" is not eligible.)

Sunday, May 09, 2010

My Meme Meme Mine

Well, that was fun. I spent a week in an unfurnished Brooklyn apartment, updating the kitchen (because I can't get enough, and the components I used here at home were sorely lacking in umlauts) and painting most of it. Also, I ordered new windows! So there was no end to the excitement. But it paid off; today I got a deposit from a lovely couple and the stress of finding tenants has abated for a good while. The high points of the week were a series of dinners I lined up with food bloggers and friends that really took the sting (and stink; the week began with freakish heat) out of long days of manual labor. I will post about those tomorrow.

But first, while I was down there, armed only with my phone, a bit of a kerfuffle arose over a recent post of mine. See, I linked to another blog's post, using the meme idea within as a jumping-off point for an adorably opinionated tirade on the subject of mediocrity in the food blogtubes and how I thought that encouraging still more of it was not the highest-temperature idea I had ever heard. I have ranted here before, occasionally–always adorably, mind you, and I must emphasize that since it is my blog I get to say whatever I goddamn well want to–but never before was there such a teacupular tempest as this. See, the blogger in question took my whole rant and the comment thread that followed as a personal attack.

Update: We worked it all out, though it was a pain and used up time that could have been much more productively spent. I cut a section that no longer applies, but I'm keeping the bulk of the post because it addresses something general about the level of food-related internet discourse that has been bothering me for quite some time. This could have gone better, true, but I honestly prefer a good air-clearing to perpetual tiptoeing around on eggshells.

So here's MY time-saving tip to help you all get dinner on the table on a work night: stop reading shitty food blogs. If the content bores, move on. If the comment "thread" is an unrelenting stream of emoticons, exclamation points, and it feels like a mutual admiration society, move on. Leave questions, or thoughtful responses, or don't bother. Try, if possible, to actually create or sustain a THREAD. Do we really need 27 or 63 comments that are all variations on "OMG that looks so good! I'm drooling!!!!! :D ?" Why is everybody so freakishly afraid of saying what they actually think, or of saying nothing if they have nothing to say? If all the self-serving comment-whoring and vapid, rote reciprocity stopped tomorrow, the internet would be a better place and many of us would magically discover more time in which to engage in the real life activities that help provide high-quality food to ourselves and those we have mated with and/or spawned. And the remaining conversations would actually be worthy of the name.

I suppose that many bloggers think that if they can just get their traffic up to 150,000 unique hits a month, they might just get that book deal they fantasize about. (And that's what it takes–along with a good agent–at a bare minimum, lacking any other platform). And so memes and challenges and cupcake after cupcake after cupcake after godforsaken motherfucking cupcake all get foisted upon the web in an effort to go for that big fat sweet spot in the middle of the bell curve wherein lies most of the population. But every blogger-turned-author I know of actually has an original voice. It may not be particularly edgy, or profound, but they have something which gets and keeps other people interested. Attempts to bolster traffic read as such; this is why corporate ads never go viral, but the guy who sings "United breaks guitars" does. People can tell when it's real. We all have at least a Master's degree in semiotics just by living in this mediated time.

If we're building a community, then there will be dissenting opinions. If those opinions are more than gratuitous insults, then people are entitled to express them and have them respected as valid points of view. And we should be able to respond without having our heads revolve all the way around. I've had plenty of bad ideas (remote-controlled luggage, methadone suppositories called "I can't believe it's not Vicodin!" and a lesbian yoga studio called Om Depot, among others) and I don't turn them all into Things that embody my whole sense of self esteem. (Though, on second thought, Om Depot is money).

And I'll say it again: you don't get to complain about how little time you have to make good meals if you watch TV. Cancel your damn cable, already; 99% of TV–including food TV–sucks ass and makes you stupid, and it's underwritten by the exact same assholes who are destroying the planet by making the worst food possible available in unconscionably subsidized quantity. Voting with your eyeballs and hours is as powerful as voting with your dollars, and both are just as important as voting in every election. The internet is every bit as much of a time-suck as TV; there's more variety, sure, and it's interactive up to a point, but it's very very far from spending the same amount of time mano à mano with actual food, deepening our understanding and skill and interacting with friends and family. When so much of the food web is a weirdly antiseptic mixture of public eating disorder and circle jerk, with an epidemic phobia of hurting people's fee-fees reducing most of the "conversation" to the point of gibberish, it risks becoming more of a problem than a solution. Turn off the tubes and make dinner.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

It's Funny When You Say "Sustainable" Like Sylvester The Cat

For this month's Chronogram piece I profiled a restaurant across the river that does a pretty impressive job of being as local and eco-friendly as possible. I figured that after nearly 18 months as a food writer, it was about time to do a review.

Photo by Jennifer May