Saturday, February 27, 2010

OK, Then

An inauguration, of sorts, for the new kitchen, in that I actually took a few minutes to plan and think through a whole meal for the first time in a month. I had been to the store to get a few things, and as I always do at this time of year I grabbed winter veggies: leeks, fennel, turnips, and kale. I knew we had a duck breast in the freezer, and there were some kumquats in the fridge that needed using. So it sort of took shape around those two ingredients. Like the Wonder Twins, only it was just dinner–as opposed, say, to an orca riding an ice surfboard.

I shredded the fennel fine, caramelized it with some shaved onion, and then deglazed the pan with sake. I let it simmer covered until soft, then added in a bit of pure mustard oil and minced fennel fronds to make a sort of mostarda. Pure mustard oil isn't exactly legal for sale in this country, at least for culinary use, so it has to be marked "for external use only." But as all good parents know, that's just an invitation to open it up and see how it tastes. And it tastes good. Plus, it's like having your very own chemical weapon in the pantry!

I sliced and simmered the kumquats with blackcurrant brandy, honey, cinnamon, and star anise until marmaladey. The duck I just scored, seared, flipped, and rested on low heat for a few minutes to heat through without cooking past rare. I found some leftover enoki mushrooms, so I threw them into the still-hot duck fat to brown and crisp into little fries, and I'm so very glad I did. The silky, sweet-hot fennel, rich, tender duck, and sweet, sour, complex marmalade were pretty great by themselves, but enoki fries? In duck fat? If there were a Nobel prize for crispy, umamilicious garnishes, I would be a lock.

Tell me that you do not wish this had been your dinner:

To plus the perfect, a 2007 Domaine des Vallettes Borgueil–I first mentioned it here, about the last time I cooked something interesting–and it's a new favorite in the $20 and under category (which, let's be honest, is pretty much the only category we're buying these days). Light, elegant, and delicately perfumed with strawberries, it nonetheless has enough structure to handle fat meat. And you look for that in a wine.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Now I Need A Wide-Angle Lens



All told, it came in at just about two weeks of work, though spread out over three. There's a bit more to do, but it's all minor aesthetic stuff like trim and paint and doors for over the hood. I'll get to all that much later–probably after the garden is planted. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go fondle my butcher block.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


On my way back from Newark airport after dropping the family off, I accidentally bought this beautiful Le Creuset dish. Then, once the kitchen was functional and said family had been fetched and reinstalled here at home, it sort of seemed important that I take it for a spin on our new 101,000 BTU stove (not counting the oven, of course).

I dusted chicken legs with a mixture of flour, salt, and spices (all in the Indian flavor spectrum) and then browned them in their own rendered fat and removed them. Into the redolent schmaltz I then dumped carrot, onion, sweet potato, kale, and red cabbage, and let it all caramelize a bit (a bit being about a minute on the new stove). I added coconut milk, vindaloo paste, and water, returned the legs to the fray, and covered it to simmer. At the very end, I shook in some frozen peas. We had it on quinoa, with mango chutney.

Apologies to those of you waiting for renovation porn; I'll have those pics up soon, I promise.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Shabu Chic

The induction burner that I bought to cook on while I waited (with less and less patience) for the new stove has now transitioned from being the bootleg bachelor construction kitchen to being a useful appliance that now allows us to enjoy something I've been hankering to have for quite some time: shabu-shabu. Cooking at the table is fun, and customizing the doneness of every morsel makes for an excellent eating experience.

Good broth is a prerequisite, so I made dashi. But since we were going to be swishing some lovely Washugyu tri-tip therein, I added phở flavors as well because beef loves those flavors, and I figured the dashi wouldn't object. I charred half an onion and some ginger, and added them in with a star anise pod, half a cinnamon stick, and two cloves to simmer for a bit while I prepped the rest. After a while, I strained them out and added sliced burdock to soften.

Said rest consisted of enoki mushrooms, thin spirals of turnip, carrot slivers, and scallion slices. I used the saladacco for the turnip and a vegetable peeler for the carrot.

Predictably, it was a hit, and we have a new addition to the rotation. The broth picks up notes from all the various things that go into it and makes for superb slurping when all the goodies are gone. And all the fragrant steam fogs up the cold windows, pushing winter ever farther towards its impending end.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Nueva Cocina

The kitchen is almost done. As I write this, I have one more day of serious work before it's going to be fully operational, wanting only a day or two of cosmetic finish work (molding, trim, and paint). The new stove is like a Lamborghini; everything that used to take meaningful portions of an hour now takes mere minutes, countable on the hand without the spoon. It came in on time, and within acceptable budgetary parameters–meaning that various material/hardware expenses (and I went to the hardware store and/or lumber yard every day) didn't exceed 5% of the total.

To celebrate, even though the island is still just covered in 3/4" A/C plywood, we made a feast from some of the bounty acquired at Mitsuwa, where we stopped for lunch and a big shop on our way home from Newark airport. We got lots of Washugyu beef and Berkshire pork for future meals (see tomorrow) and tons of staples in the form of bottled and dried ingredients. And sake.

Last night's dinner was in three courses, because I was energized by both the sight of the finish line and the quality of the new goodies. To begin, some luscious, artisanal tofu that I would tell you all about but for the fact that every single thing written on the label was in Japanese. Fresh, silken circles of delicate deliciousness, it was. I made a sauce using fresh sea urchin puréed with usukuchi (light soy sauce), rice vinegar, a tiny dab of smooth peanut butter (since I find that uni have a slightly peanutty flavor) and sake with the alcohol burned off. It made for a very pudding-like, seductive dish, especially for those members of the family (everyone but me) who do not love sea urchin. It's funny, but "slimy orange invertebrate gonads" aren't that much of a selling point. Go figure.

The same was pretty much true for the mackerel. I freaking LOVE mackerel, but the other members of the family find it too fishy. I figured I'd hide this quality by cooking it escabeche-style, but to no avail. They saw through my ploy, and ate around the offending fillet. Fortunately for them, the rest of the dish was cabbage and scallion kneaded with salt until soft, then rinsed and dressed with soy, mirin, rice and ume vinegars, and sesame oil, and a tomato/vinegar/scallion/honshimeji mushroom sauce that were each quite tasty in their own right.

I scarfed down all the glorious, oily fish while they grimaced at me, picking out cabbage that wasn't tainted with mackerel cooties.

Last (I waited, since everyone loves the noodle soup) I defrosted some pork stock on the jet engine that is the new stove and added in some fat sanuki udon, usukuchi, togarashi, and more scallion. And there was much rejoicing. I drank Vouvray, but the bottle is all the way downstairs. It was very nice, especially for what I paid for it. I'll update tomorrow with the info; Loire whites are excellent values and make for wonderful drinking with most seafood.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Radio Silence

I'm neck-deep in renovations, the family is in Florida, and I've gone Full Caveman; I'm cooking with one portable induction burner until the new range arrives, skipping meals and working 10 or more hours a day to get this into some kind of shape before the family returns.

Thanks for checking in; I really appreciate all of you taking a few minutes out of your busy lives to read about what I made for dinner. Regular programming will resume next week after an ungodly amount of mopping.

Lest you feel enraged at this complete lack of content, I offer the following picture of roast beef, twice-baked duck fat/garlic potatoes, endive mash, and sautéed kale from months ago. Rest assured it's several orders of magnitude better than what I'm living on these days.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sweet Sweetness

Fresh on the heels of another fish delivery, and despite being pretty thoroughly covered in grout, I got giddy with the potential in our box of seafood and tried to make it into something befitting its freshness and quality. To begin, a dozen more oysters. I didn't photograph them, because they disappeared too quickly. John stopped by to pick up his order, and had a couple, and I polished off the rest.

Next up, a gorgeous hunk of yellowfin. Translucent fuchsia, it really needed nothing at all done to it, so I sliced it fairly thick and made sushi of a sort using the rest of the brown rice risotto from the night before. The consistency of the rice was a little wet, so after taking this picture I actually gathered the fish into rolls with the rice inside for easier eating.

I used the rest of the chicken stock to make simple miso soup, and caramelized some king oyster mushrooms and deglazed them with soy, mirin, and ume vinegar. Extra mushroom sauce made an extraordinary dipping sauce for the tuna rolls.

I took the triangular end of the steak that couldn't be sliced for sushi and minced it fine with scallion, sesame and olive oils, Espelette pepper, and ume vinegar to make a tartare, formed it into balls, and gave a hard sear in the mushroom pan to one side of them. I deglazed with a bit of the miso soup and soy sauce, and poured it over. You can't see because of the dark sauce–which, in retrospect, I should have poured on the plate first–but the underside is completely raw while the top has a nice brown burgeriffic crust.

To drink, as a celebration of this perfect seafood that we are so lucky to have access to (and the fact that the tile is grouted) I opened a 2003 Domaine Cheze Condrieu cuvée de Breze that is a deep yellow, dessert-looking wine, with some of the slightly oxidized, unctuous qualities of a great sweet wine but all in the service of a magnificent, dry late-middle-aged Viognier. Not a perfect match–a simple Muscadet would have been perfect with the oysters, and carried over just fine–but it more than sorta took care of business, elevating the whole meal like a movie star dropping in on your picnic.

Friday, February 12, 2010

All Truism

Another showcase for scraps and remnants, and another meal where the pressure cooker has lived up to its reputation as a most useful contraption, this dinner was exceedingly simple and extremely satisfying. We had leftover brown rice and a pot of chicken stock from a night or two earlier, so I combined them into a faux risotto of sorts that featured shredded kale, peas, and parsley. I pressure-cooked some navy beans with minced morsels of lardo and duck prosciutto, burdock, turnip, garlic, a small container of the lusciously soft veggies from the last post, and then stirred in tomato paste and fresh herbs from the pots in the dining room and seasoned it all with salt and pepper.

That was it, really–rice and beans. But there was enough going on in each half that they didn't really seem like settling for less than luxury. The next day, they made for superlative burritos with avocado, more kale, and a couple of homemade hot sauces. It's nice to eat clean and simple food like this a couple of times a week; it's good for the body and the planet, and it makes the more decadent meals into special occasions to be gratefully savored. And it uses up the detritus in the fridge before it grows hair.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Rub One Out

Shichimi Togarashi means "seven flavor chili pepper" in Japanese. Besides ground chili, it has nori, sesame seeds, citrus peel, sansho pepper, and poppy and hemp seeds in varying proportions. Many in the West like to call it "togarashi" because it's easier and sounds cool, though sticklers point out that that basically just means "chili" and thus is not accurate. Those people also tend not to get invited over for dinner very often, but that's sort of beside the point. (And I have an Alinea menu that just says "togarashi" on it, so there). It's a complex and useful seasoning, imparting a bright yet earthy heat to everything it touches. I like it on soup especially, where it can really embellish the transparent flavors.

A jar of particularly fine shichimi that John brought me from Japan. Also note the brand new, boner-inducing countertop that I totally put in all by myself.

But since I'm kind of a Mediterranean guy at heart, I've been inspired to invent a sort of European alternative that's better suited to certain preparations. After much tinkering, I've arrived at a blend that works very well for the purposes I had in mind. The iodine notes of nori are not present, and there's no citrus–though I have added sumac on a couple of occasions, since it's local, and ironically enough I just got a bag of Iranian sumac from a friend–but the beauty of hacks like this is that they're infinitely malleable. Every time I make it, it's different, and that's appropriate to how I make pretty much everything.

Look–I say just LOOK–at that counter.

This mise is not complete; I left out some tiny little dried hot pepperoncini from Siena that I keep in a not very attractive vessel. Sue me. The basic ingredient list is as follows:

Maldon salt or similar
Cracked black pepper
Pink peppercorns
Piment d'Espelette
Pimentón (sweet, hot, bitter, or a custom mix)
Dried hot pepper (chile de arbol or pepperoncini)
Herbes de Provence (homegrown if possible; this blend is rosemary, thyme, lavender, savory, oregano, fennel seed, and basil)

I bust everything up in my little suribachi until it's fairly fine. Everything plays a part, and of course it can be adjusted every which way. Sumac makes it wicked with duck or lamb. A pinch of sugar would not be out of place for certain applications. Pink peppercorns really do something special with the Basque and Spanish peppers, adding a horsey note that's not as strong as that of white pepper, and with that floral character that makes pink pepper so lovely and entwines so well with lavender. (I have a grinder for black, and another with a mix of pink and white in it for dainty things).

If you look down there at the bottom right, you can see a little sliver of my new counter.

I've used this blend on seafood, chicken, meat, grilled buttered flatbread, beans, pasta, and more. It works. Above all, though, it owes its invention to one pressing need that haunted–nay, tortured–me for weeks: what the hell was I going to use to cure this ham?

Sadly, that's not the counter; it's just our giant speckleware canning tub.

Prosciutto is sometimes rubbed with hot pepper during the curing process and/or coated with black pepper afterward while it hangs. The great hams of Bayonne often, but not always, get rubbed with Espelette pepper as part of their long journey towards total awesomeness. Lacking any sort of a tradition to draw from, I built this blend, mixed into copious quantities of salt and brown sugar, and slathered it all over this here big hunk of pig leg. I've been turning it every few days, and soon–it's not a whole ham, so I'm curing it for a bit less time than recipes call for–I'll rinse it and hang it to dry until next fall. If the smell at this stage is any indication of the final flavor, it will not suck.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Not Especially Swedish

This was one of those one-off, never to be duplicated sort of dinners, based as it was on leftovers and randomness. Now that I think of it, though, isn't that true for all of our efforts? So this meal had universal significance, and spoke to the very core of the Human Condition.

Also, it had meatballs in it.

I took some ground turkey and seasoned it with garlic, spices, and herbs (minced fennel fronds featured prominently, on account of I hate to throw them away but there are always so damn many on each bulb) and set them to brown in a skillet with some ghee. I had turned all the leftover chicken bones into a simple stock earlier in the day, so that was ready to go, and I ladled some of it into a saucepan with the leftover kabocha chunks and blasted it all smooth. Meanwhile, I sweated diced fennel, turnip, burdock, carrot, and onion, then added a bit of stock and let it all soften. And I made a pot of brown rice, because we're filthy, filthy hippies.

Once the meat was cooked, I poured in some blackcurrant brandy and flamed off the alcohol, then removed the meat. I sprinkled flour on the hot fat and stirred it into a roux. I added stock to gravify it, then stirred the result into the squash mixture. It all came together nicely; the meatballs were plenty flavorful, but, being turkey, needed some sauce to fill in for the near-total lack of fat. And the silky, glistening vegetables jumped right into this sweet purée with reckless abandon. It all made for excellent leftovers the next day, stirred together with more stock to make a thick, wonderful soup.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Marmitako ("from the pot") is a classic Basque stew of tuna and potatoes that evolved on fishing boats. In typical fashion, just about all of the ingredients (apart from the fish) are New World imports; Basques were early and enthusiastic adopters of the potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes (and corn, and beans, and chocolate, and pretty much everything that returned with Columbus) and they quickly became indispensable components of the cuisine. Despite the seeming similarity with Italian preparations, the flavor is not at all Italian, due mostly to the peppers. The use of green bell pepper in the soffrito, piquillo peppers in the stew, and a finishing dust with piment d'Espelette all give this dish (and many others) a uniquely Iberian and specifically Basque slant that's instantly recognizable.

Basques are also famous for their culinary flexibility and improvisation, which is a good thing, because I had Marmitako on the brain and was short a couple of major ingredients. First off, we had swordfish instead of tuna. This turned out to be better than OK, since the sweet, nutty flavor was an excellent match with the stew. And lacking piquillo peppers–which are easily found online, roasted, in jars–I used a couple of dried ancho pods instead, supplemented with a fat pinch of pimentón for some smoky depth. The rest was pretty standard: sautée onion in olive oil, add dried pepper, garlic, and some herbs, then sliced fingerling spuds and busted-up canned tomatoes with enough water to cover for a simmer. Once approaching tender, I added cubed fish, chiffonaded kale (nutrition trumps tradition) and let it simmer a few minutes more to firm up the fish. Then I took it off the heat and let it sit, covered, for about 15 minutes to marry the flavors.

The totally out-of-season ingredients made it but a pale imitation of what the real thing should taste like, and I plan to do this again in September when all of our very own personal nightshades are resplendently ripe and sweet. But having said that, this was very tasty and satisfying on a cold evening– all the more so for having used only one pot and taken about 40 minutes, including the 15 minute rest before serving.

I recently did a ton of research on Basque food for another gig, and it's nice to have all the reading finally begin to work its way into actual cooking. Never having been there, it's a slower process of assimilating ingredients, flavors and techniques into my regular practice, but it's happening. We had our vaguely Basque-themed dinner a few weeks ago, there's some salt cod in the fridge, and I've been messing around with the Espelette pepper recently, combining it with other spices with a nefarious purpose in mind. That post is just about ready. Don't touch that dial.

Actually, if you need a break from frantically battering the refresh button on this page you could do worse than to read Jonny's excellent post about hake in green sauce, another Basque standard.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Everything You Need, Nothing You Don't

Last week I went to a dinner and brought a nice apple tart. The brilliant, perfect crust I learned from my Grandmother, local apples, and a glaze made from apricot jam, honey, and local apple brandy were the whole thing, though I dusted it with 5-spice and a twist of black pepper before sliding it into the oven. It's really all about the crust, and secondly about not oversweetening the fruit. Thinner is better; a slice held pizza-style by the outer edge should remain perfectly flat all the way to the point, even allowing for impassioned gesticulation without any deformation. Letting the fruit taste like fruit is the other key. Rolling the pastry out thin also obviates the need for blind-baking, so there's that bonus as well. Thick, covered pies have their place, but it's not often I eat one that's much better than decent. Most of them are sickly sweet, starch-thickened disasters that make my teeth hurt while I'm eating them. A tart like this, though, is a thing of beauty, a timeless classic.

Sunday, February 07, 2010


Notwithstanding the ebbs and flows of the kitchen modifications–three major steps crossed off the list (hood/backsplash, counter/sink, tile) with no major fuck-ups so far–I've managed to keep a working kitchen through most of it. We've had some takeout, true, but it's been due more to abject fatigue than lack of functionality. And tonight, to celebrate the beautiful new Moroccan tile, we had some friends over to admire it, since they're in the process of redoing their kitchen as well and they wanted to take a look at our sexy, sexy counters.

And they brought a chicken.

So we spatchcocked it, rubbed it, and roasted it, and served it with their pressure-cooked burdock and some steamed kabocha, sautéed collards, gravy, and it was freaking delicious. But what I want to talk about is the first course. We had a dozen oysters lurking in the fridge from last week's order, but I hadn't gotten to them yet (see above) and also because I had this idea and I needed a bit of time to get it together. See, I also still had the rest of the whey left from the cheesemaking, and that got me thinking about chowder, naturally, and so I curdled, simmered, and strained it to make a whopping two tablespoons of ricotta, which I ate. Then I took the resulting liquid and strained it through paper towels twice until it was truly clear and pale yellow.

I shucked the oysters and strained their liquor through a fine sieve into the whey and added the last four ice cubes of fish stock from the halibut skeleton we'd received as a gift last fall. I very gently poached the oysters in this, and then added in finely diced carrot, fennel stalk, and endive that I'd caramelized a bit with minced lardo in a pan until just tender. I let this all simmer barely for another minute or two, and then ladled it into bowls. The result was a sort of translucent chowder; there was the dairy richness of the whey, the cured pork element from the lardo (but not the overwhelming power of bacon) and the toothsome and colorful vegetables for sweetness and complexity, all in service of these gorgeous, plump, briny oysters. It was a lovely dish. Potato would have made it a bit more traditional, but I left them out for no particular reason; they just seemed like they'd be too heavy. As it was, the oyster liquor clouded my painstakingly clarified whey, so you can't see these beautiful Wellfleet bivalves in their frilly splendor. But they're in there, lurking below the surface like fat little dumplings. Next time I'll strain it all one more time after combining.

The scallion garnish was more than mere decoration; it added a bright, alliumaceous tang that set off the oysters excellently. A little more tinkering, and this could be a thing.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

I'm like AC/DC, But With Food. And Without The Schoolboy Uniform.

Tonight I'm going out, so I made a quick dinner for the family: a kind of variation on saag paneer using tofu in place of the cheese. To compensate, though, I cooked the chard (and the last spoon of pesto) along with half an onion and spices in about two cups of whey to add stealth cheesiness and play wonderfully with the similarly tangy taste of the tofu. I puréed the greens and then added cubed tofu which I'd browned and seasoned beforehand, then let it all simmer for a bit to thicken and get acquainted.

Last night was a good one for soup, and we still had one last bit of thin-sliced Berkshire pork belly in the freezer, so the rest followed pretty naturally. A combination of fish and chicken stocks made the base, and I added wakame, pesto, and finely grated turnip to enrich and thicken it. Before cooking the udon, I blanched carrots and broccoli separately in the boiling water. Assembled with a dollop of homemade sambal and a sprinkle of togarashi, it was a handsome bowl of dinner that went very well with the better part of a growler of Gilded Otter IPA left over from my grueling research on local microbrews (see previous post).

Regular readers might be growing weary of the endless parade of noodle soups, and to them I say the following: this one was kinda different, on account of it had pesto in it, and big bowls like this are good in the winter, and I'm lazy/tired/short on time these days. And honestly, if you're a regular reader of this drivel let's face it: another post about noodle soup is the least of your problems.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Small Beer

The new Chronogram is out, with my rigorously scientific analysis of local microbreweries contained inside like the prize in a cereal box, or the toy in a happy meal, or the worm in a bottle of Mescal.

photo by Jennifer May