Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I Know How Alexander Graham Bell Felt

Sandwich made with this new kind of bread I invented

I am often out of bread. It's a shame but I sometimes don't have time to buy bread or make bread, and then well that's how you get to be out of bread. A while ago I was inspired by Jacques Pepin to try making a quick soda bread in a skillet. He did it on his show and it looked interesting so I did it a few times, but it wasn't great. Soda bread may be suitable for the some uses and I guess for the Irish, but it's a less than perfect substitute for real bread. Sorry the Irish, I speak truth to power. And drunks. And leprechauns.

A principle use for bread in our house is sopping, whether meat juices, barbecue sauce, runny egg, olive oil or soup, bread needs to be sop-worthy, and soda bread disintegrates too readily to sop. Compared to yeast bread, the crumb of soda bread is crumbly rather than spongy, which makes it terrible at sopping. Soda bread also tends to have a firm, craggy outer crust that can be hard and unpleasant to eat. French bread eats better even with a firm crust because the crust has a fine texture and acts like a kind of skin or envelope, holding together whatever you're eating. Soda bread also tends to have lingering aftertaste from the chemical leavening, a kind of baking soda bitterness that seems alien in my mouth. Soda breads are usually made with very little fat, which exacerbates the dry, crumbly texture. All tolled, soda bread is more of a biscuit or muffin than bread, and should probably be reserved for similar uses. Reserved for muffin duty.*

One night when Heather needed soup I made soup. No big deal, I'm on soup like Sinatra on the cigarette girl. Soup is my go-to, I can knock it out eyes closed. But Heather likes bread with her soup for sopping, and we were out of bread. I had been mulling over a couple of modifications to the skillet soda bread that might help with its deficiencies and this was a chance to try them out.

Both the texture of the crumb of yeast bread and the smooth resilience of its outside crust are the result of the gluten protein in the dough. The spongy interior is a web of protein that traps the fermentation gas of the yeast, and the gluten in the skin of the bread stretches as the dough rises and cooks to form a smooth browned exterior. To develop gluten, the protein needs to be teased away from the starch granules in the flour and then interlinked with other protein molecules to form a web. Conventionally, you develop the gluten by kneading the bread and giving it a long time to rise, but there are other ways. If the dough is extra-wet, almost a batter, then the starch molecules more readily free the gluten to do its thing, and if you use high-gluten bread flour rather than all-purpose flour there is more protein available and the gluten quickly becomes elastic. I had a hunch that using a protein-rich medium like eggs or milk to wet the dough also might help form the crumb.**

I decided to make a quick soda bread incorporating all these possibilities to see if it would function more like conventional yeast bread suitable for full bread duty***. I started the liquid medium with a couple of eggs, and when I reached in the fridge for the milk, I spotted a big tub of Bulgarian yogurt we'd bought on a whim at Andy's. Instantly I thought of a couple of reasons I should use the yogurt instead of milk. Yogurt has its milk proteins slightly curdled, concentrating and strengthening them, which might form a protein web with the gluten more readily. Also, the acid in the yogurt could be used to excite baking soda as a leavening agent, providing even more lift. I beat the eggs together with about an equal volume of yogurt. I don't know if Bulgarian yogurt is special, but it's pretty much like Greek yogurt, slightly less liquid than conventional supermarket plain yogurt. I had bought it because what the hell, Bulgarians can use my patronage, their roads are pretty fucked up. I added a couple of teaspoons of sugar and a pinch of salt to offset the tang of the yogurt, and it occurred to me that these three things, the yogurt's sourness, the salt and the sugar could all help to mollify the weird bitterness I associate with chemical leavening.

I melted some butter in a small non-stick skillet, about the size of an omelet pan but green and bought from the as-seen-on-TV store. These little things are great. They have a solid riveted handle, durable non-stick ceramic liner and are of heavier construction than anything else sold on TV. Definitely worth the six bucks or whatever. When the butter was melted I stirred it into the liquid mix and left the pan on the burner to heat.

I eyeballed the volume of the wet mix and made a scant pile of bread flour about the same volume in a small bowl, whisked-in a fat pinch each of baking soda and baking powder, then plopped them into the wet mix and stirred vigorously with a wooden spoon. The dough came together really quickly, and I could tell the gluten was already forming by the way the dough behaved on the spoon. It had the rubbery strands I associate with bread, not the wet, blobby consistency of a batter. The chemistry was also beginning to kick in, and I could sense the dough beginning to lighten and rise, so I got it in the now-hot skillet and quickly flattened it into a disc. One trick I learned from Jacques Pepin's bread was to put a couple tablespoons of water around the perimeter of the bread and cover it to make steam, even out the temperature and encourage the bread to rise rather than settle. I lowered the heat on the skillet to medium and let it rise. In the past when I'd made skillet bread the top had an unappetizing flat color, so I turned on the broiler to remedy that.

After less than two minutes, the bread had risen inside the skillet and looked almost set, so I put the skillet under the broiler to finish, and that turned out to be the magic touch. The crust of the bread rose and smoothed itself, then browned nicely in a couple of minutes. Out from under the broiler, the loaf looked awesome; tight, smooth and nicely browned. I turned it out from the skillet and let it rest on the counter. From outward appearances, it appeared I had just made legit bread in like five minutes. I don't know if I could get as nice a finish by doing the loaf start-to-finish in the oven, but I suppose that's my next experiment. Nah, who am I kidding. If I can make legit bread in like five minutes this way, I'm going to keep doing it this way. Regular bread goes in the oven, this is for when I'm out of bread.

The proof is in the eating, and this bread was terrific. The butter in the mix kept the crumb moist and soft, but the bread had a nice sponge that held together when dunked in soup, and behaved basically like legit bread. The flavor was nice, sweet and slightly eggy, like challah bread or brioche, but I detected none of the creepy chemical quality I was worried about and fuck me, this was great news. I invented a bread. Now I know how Tesla felt when he first drew lighting out of one of his contraptions. Or Thomas Edison. Or Alexander Graham Bell. Or the first guy to do a pick slide to start a solo. Après moi, le déluge de pain frais de la skillet vert.

I was prepared for the bread to fail, but was relieved it had not. Had it failed, my next experiment would have been to try separating the eggs and beating the whites to a foam first, then making a thinner batter with the other ingredients and folding it into the whites, making the lift come from the meringue in the manner of a genoise or other sponge cake. I didn't do that initially because cake crumb is not as stable as bread, and I wanted to avoid making a fall-apart mock-bread. I wanted legit bread.

Emboldened by the success of the skillet bread, I have begun using it for other purposes. The other day H-Bomb (I still call her H-Bomb sometimes, she hates it) wanted a sandwich but guess what no bread. Guess again, pow! five minutes to bread. She only wanted one sandwich, and a full skillet would be too much bread, so I scaled everything back, one egg, one blop of yogurt, smaller pinches of everything I pinched in before, half as much bread flour, and I used a pastry ring inside the skillet to confine the dough and shape the little loaf into a bun**** suitable for sandwich duty. Everything in the bread is scalable. I could probably make a whole sandwich loaf like this.***** (vg)

* Muffin Duty is unfortunately also the name of a series of pornographic films made prior to the Brazilian wax epidemic that embaldened the collective pubis of the adult entertainment industry sometime in early 2006.
** "Form the Crumb," the side-long improv piece on Matching Mole's unreleased third album.
*** New from EA Games, Full Bread Duty, a first-person baker with mass online multibaker features. Epic chat.
**** Into a Bun also a porn franchise, but you probably guessed that.
***** Loaf Like This, the rejected title for a Ralph Records sampler from 1979

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Damned Torpedos, Huauzontle Ahead

Li-hing-rubbed torpedo with weird huauzontle and 
diced peppers

Torpedo with poached peaches on bulgur farrotto 
flavored with saffron and sage

Herb crusted torpedo with caramelized 
onion and fennel, on apple-onion risotto

One of my favorite ways to prepare sweet Italian sausage is as an oblong patty, locally known as a torpedo. Paulina Market sells beautiful torpedoes, so I usually get one one or two on every marketing trip. These trips usually include a swing by Andy's for vegetables, and it's there I discovered huauzontle*, branches of green buds that looked like a cross between broccoli and sticky nugs of boutique weed. One of the weirdest foods I've ever looked at, much less cooked.


There was only one bunch of huauzontle at Andy's, and the guy in the apron had no idea how to prepare it or eat it. Or in fact what it was called. All he knew was that it was "Mexican.**" Naturally I bought them (it?) and when I got home I Googled "weird looking Mexican vegetable like broccoli or marijuana buds" and got nowhere. Clicking the "images" link got me to epazote***, another plant eaten by Mexicans, then some sidebars got me to huauzontle****. I now knew what it was, but instructions on cooking it were limited to "use like spinach" and a few references to fried fritters made with the buds.

Since the torpedo of sausage can be imposing if it's presented as a briquet, I usually serve it in slices over something like rice, bulgur or greens, and if I could figure out how to cook them like spinach, as intimated on the internets, the bulbous green tufts of huauzontle seemed like they'd be a fine match. Or maybe poison, who knows.

I tried a nibble of a huauzontle***** raw and it was pretty dull. Like a chlorophyllic version of the little nub on the end of a shoelace. I decided to try cooking the florets on the stove with some liquid in a covered pan, just close my eyes and pretend it was spinach or kale and hope for the best.

I sliced some garlic and onions and wilted them in a saucepan with some olive oil and diced bacon, then added the huauzontle buds after stripping them from the stalks. The stalks seemed impossibly tough and woody so there seemed no point in trying to eat them. Perhaps if they're straight from the huauzontle patch (tree?) and haven't sat around a produce section for a while even the stalks would be edible, I don't know. In their present state they were kindling, not food. The buds didn't seem to be rendering any liquid, so I added a generous glug of white wine, and once the alcohol had boiled off I seasoned the pan with some salt and crushed dry birdseye chile, covered it and turned it down to a simmer.

The torpedo was pretty straightforward. I made a wet rub of li-hing powder, salt, black pepper, olive oil and mashed garlic, coated the torpedo with it and browned it in a hot skillet. When both sides had a healthy crust on them, I added a couple glugs of white wine and covered the skillet to braise the sausage. If cooked entirely by searing, the fat and juice tend to drain out of the torpedo******, leaving a more-or-less conventional sausage patty, curled into the unappealing shape of the cup of an athletic supporter. Braised in liquid, the torpedo stays juicy and swells itself into a plump little lozenge shape that is much easier to slice and has no unfortunate associations.

When plump and ready, I removed the torpedo to a plate to rest, and added the huauzontle to the skillet along with its pan juices. Since the huauzontle didn't generate any pot liquor of its own, the extra moisture of the braising liquid would be useful, and if the vegetable was as flavorless cooked as it was raw, the added flavor could save the dish. I left the pan on a high fire to reduce the liquid, and when most of it was absorbed into the greens I added some chopped scallions and mint, tossed everything together and put portions onto plates.

I sliced the torpedo slightly diagonally to make nice presentation slices and arranged them on the huauzontle, drizzling the collected juices over everything. The plate looked a little drab so I grated some home-made cheese over everything and diced a small red pepper from the alley as a garnish.

The torpedo came out well, the seared exterior had a sharp bite to it and the li-hing had penetrated to add both a nice pink color and a whiff of licorice that complimented the fennel in the sausage itself.

The huauazontle was fine if not remarkable. The flavor was mild and slightly musky, and the greens absorbed considerable flavor from the wine, garlic and braising liquid. The li-hing in particular added a welcome anise undertone that complimented the lean nature of the greens as well as it did the succulence of the sausage. After a total of about 20 minutes cooking, the buds weren't tough, though the stemmy bits were stick-like and stiff as matchsticks. Further cooking would probably be pointless, so I think the solution would be to be careful in stripping the buds off the stems.

On the whole, huauazontle is unremarkable to eat. Weird to look at and weird that anybody ever thought to eat a bunch of twigs with some buds on the end, but otherwise not special. Didn't smoke any.

*Pronounced "Wha-Wha-Zoontee-Lah" according to me, because of how I decided to say it.
**He was not Mexican. I know because I asked him. So I guess that was racist. Him saying huauzontle was Mexican is racist, not me asking him I mean. Was it rude to ask if he was Mexican? I mean how did he know?
***Pronounced "EP with non-LP B-side," 
****Google search also inexplicably got me to these:
*****Really, huauzontle? Is that the name? It sounds like a Jon Wurster character.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Toast, That's My Jam Right There. Plus Nuts.

Toast with chestnut puree, mushrooms, scallions and herbs
Toast with chestnut puree, chives and prosciutto
Toast with two savories, forcemeat of sweet sausage, porcini
mushrooms, shallot, Greek yogurt, thyme and parsley with
pickled onions, and saffron-infused potato-apple-garlic
skordalia with braised beef short ribs and fennel 

A rare few things in life are properly rated. Babe Ruth, properly rated. John Bonham, properly rated. Laying around on your day off doing fuck all, under-rated. Stealing bases, over-rated, catcher defense, under-rated. Backing vocals, probably number one most over-rated thing ever on earth. If there is a great celestial price/performance curve for every artistic endeavor, backing vocals are way out there on the continental shelf next to southern accent vocal coaches and gold plated toilets. Toast, the food item, is sadly under-rated. It may be the most under-rated food.

Toast is bread made delicious and useful. Un-toasted bread is okay for children's sandwiches and sopping up barbecue sauce, but for pretty much all other uses, toast is better than bread. An exception is when the bread is fresh from the oven, piping hot, with butter melting all over it. Then it's fantastic, but I would argue that bread fresh out of the oven is a kind of toast. Because I'm an asshole and I refuse to be wrong about something.

Toast is perhaps best used as a vehicle for sweet preserves, cheeses or savories, which can be overwhelming on their own. There is a bit of a trend in high class eateries to serve rich savory items, foie-gras, gelee, confit, ratatouille, monkfish liver or cooked mushrooms nude, accompanied only by some greens or herbs. I am generally opposed to this trend, as these items are hard to eat loose, and can taste strong enough to actually be unpleasant on the palate. I'd make an exception for monkfish liver. Monkfish liver should always be served by itself, as scraping it into the garbage untouched is slightly easier if there's nothing else on the plate. Maybe olive oil.

I ended up with some chestnuts, not sure how that happened*. I think maybe I walked by a big bin of chestnuts and thought, "fuck me, chestnuts." Maybe I'm a Dickensian rascal. No, that would be "fuck, me chestnuts!" Whatever, there were chestnuts. I'll admit to knowing next to nothing about chestnuts, except that cooking them would make them soft enough to puree, and chestnut puree is a classic element in Italian and French cooking, so I asked google for methods. The simplest seemed to be to poach them until the skins softened, then peel them and mash them, so I set to work.

The first step in poaching chestnuts is to cut through the outer hull, partly so the hot water can penetrate into the nut and partly so the nut doesn't explode from pressure. I found a third reason though. The market apparently knew nothing about chestnuts either, because cutting into the nuts exposed grey-blue mold on about a third of the nuts, indicative of... mold I guess. They had a big bin of moldy nuts. Having neither the confidence nor looming starvation of a caveman, I tossed the moldy nuts. Not even going to bother with a joke there.

The non-moldy nuts seemed fine, and I boiled them forever, like two episodes of Colbert Report plus an Antiques Roadshow where I skipped through all teapots. The google said to peel the nuts while hot because then the shells come off easier, so I did that. I had never handled hot nuts before** and was not really prepared for how hot they were. Painfully hot and awkward to handle. The hot nuts were hot*** both in and out of their jackets, and the skins, while softer than uncooked, were still tough to get through. About like carving through a wiffle ball to get at the wiffle. If you've ever done that. I tasted a nut**** and it was pretty good. Sweeter than I imagined and less oily than most nuts***** with a hint of dirt like a root vegetable.

I mashed the nuts****** with a fork for a while, then gave up and threw them in the food processor with some butter, cream, garlic, salt and pepper. I tasted the puree and it was good and rich but needed something green to lighten it. I had bought some Chinese celery leaves at Andy's on a whim, and figured this was as good a spot as any to try them out. I chopped them fine and folded them in and they were perfect. I could have used parsley or cilantro, but the celery leaves were less intrusive and added a nice chlorophyll accent.

So now I had some chestnut puree. Perfect to spread on things. But what? Oh, right, toast. Success with the chestnut puree put me in a frenzy, my mind electric and alive with excitement over what I could plop on top of it. Maybe it was the mold, but I went on a tear. I sauteed some mushrooms with shallots, I sliced scallions, I chopped chives, I peeled slices of prosciutto off the parchment where the butcher put it. Before long I had an attractive plate of toast with savory toppings, all anchored in a mortar bed of chestnut puree.

The chestnut madness evolved into a kind of toast madness, wherein I spent inordinate time making savory toppings, partly as an excuse to use chestnut puree and partly because what the hell toast is awesome.

I made skordalia from saffron mashed potatoes by adding garlic, olive oil and chives, then crowned it with braised beef torn from spare ribs. I made a forcemeat in the food processor out of sausage, yogurt, shallots, porcini mushrooms and thyme, then grilled it into the toast before topping it with some sliced pickled red onion. The toast frenzy lasted a week or so, until I exhausted either the bread or the chestnut puree.

I have since found a packaged chestnut puree, but at $9 a jar, I'm inclined to search for a mold-free supply of chestnuts from a different grocer and roll my own again.

Despite having set it up on a tee, I should get some credit for not using Rudy Ray Moore's "Dolemite for President" chestnut joke. The one that concludes with, "That means you got my dick in your mouth baby!" That old chestnut. I'm not doing that.
** Come on. I mean, you people aren't oblivious.
*** Seriously, I feel like a douche even entertaining the notion.
**** Oh for Pete's sake.
***** Okay that one's not bad.
****** Bush league. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Plate of Blini Bedtime Snack

As a byproduct both of being profoundly lazy and having a small apartment, Heather and I do a lot of our eating in bed, right before going to sleep. It's probably bad for us in some health type way but we've been doing it so long it seems totally normal. I'll knock something together at midnight and we'll polish it off while talking about how our jobs are annoying or our friends or ancestry.com or whoever that was just now on TV or how it's snowing to suck four dicks right now or that one dude needs to not take so many pills or cancer, boy cancer sure sucks, or what was the name of that one band, you know they had the girl in the outfit? Had that one song? Went "na na na na" making a little ukulele gesture because you can't do full air guitar in bed don't be ridiculous.

Tonight's snack was a plate of blini, little potato pancakes you can garnish with all manner of things. I made a batter in the food processor of raw potato, fresh corn cut from a cob, sour cream, egg, salt, pepper and a little flour. I added baking powder to lighten the batter, but just a dab because when the batter is really wet like this it can overdo the fizz and make the final pancake bitter. I cooked them on the cast-iron griddle, of which I don't get nearly enough use. Cast iron is a fantastic cooking surface, but I never think to pre-heat it while I'm preparing the food, otherwise I'd use it all the time. Tonight it occurred to me, so the griddle was ready when the batter was.

Normal pancakes get semi-solid prior to flipping, but the heat transfers much more gradually in blini batter, so you have to flip them while the tops are still quite liquid. If you wait until the top is covered with pinholes like a conventional pancake, you will have scorched the first side. Blini retain heat off the griddle, so it's important to let them rest before garnishing, both to avoid the garnish liquefying and so the interior can complete its cooking. I stack mine on a plate in a kind of overlapping spiral. I am sometimes tempted to try to make a tower of blini, but not enough to do it. Tower of blini. Ridiculous.

When I had a plate of the little guys I poked around in the fridge for garnish, having neglected to acquire a bunch of caviar. Caviar, man that's a whole thing we could talk about. Like most ostentatious trappings of wealth -- Hummers, speculative investment capitalism, collagen injections -- it is both disgusting and unsustainable. Caviar brought an ancient species of fish to the brink of extinction. For snacks.

Anyhow, we had some nicely sustainable Greek yogurt, so I blopped a spoon of that on a couple. We had some spinach dip from a plastic tub. I don't go for that, but Heather dips chips in it when I'm not around to make little potato-corn pancakes for her. What the hell, I put some of that on a couple. Heather hates Marmite, but I adore it for things like this, so I spread a molecule-thin layer of Marmite on a couple. I drizzled some olive oil on the whole plate and grated parmigiano over everything. The yogurt ones looked a little sad and monochromatic, so I sprinkled some paprika on them and they instantly became quite festive. I finally found a use for paprika.(v)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Aged Short Ribs with Fennel on Saffron Potato Puree

Short ribs are delicious. They are on the working part of the animal so the muscles get a lot of use and are constantly being stressed and recovering, which means there is a lot of biological activity, and that creates strong flavors. Rule of thumb, the more biological activity, the more complex the flavors. Ripe fruit is more tasty than immature fruit. Bread is tastier than flour. Cheese, yogurt and creme fraiche are all tastier than milk. Cheese with veins of blue is tastier yet. Wine is tastier than grape juice, vinegar is tastier than wine. The same holds for meat. Loin muscle hardly does anything, so it has the least flavor. Rump, shoulder and shank are working most of the time so they are tastier. Short ribs are the muscles that control the body cavity, keeping the animal's body in line and contracting for things like taking a dump and ruminating. Inside the body cavity, skirt steak and hanger steak muscles do the most work, contracting the diaphragm all day so the animal can breathe, so they are more tasty yet. Same goes for the heart. Super tasty. Deeper in the animal are the guts, each of which has a specific biological function and hence specific flavor. In short, for flavor, go to where things happen.

Short ribs also have some marbling of fat, and the connective tissue web that holds the ribcage together has a lot of collagen and other structural molecules that break down when braised and add the unctuous richness specific to braised beef. Why doesn't spellcheck recognize "ribcage?" Holy shit, just checked with Scrabble and it won't allow RIBCAGE either. I'll bet a hundred bucks I've played RIBCAGE as a bingo word at one point or another. I guess it's "rib cage," or "rib-cage" like a goddamn Englishman. Rib-cage. Pfft. At least Scrabble recognizes "PFFT."

Short ribs are also cooked on their bones, so the bone and marrow enrich the cooking liquid, making the sauce and braised vegetables more delicious, and serving short ribs without them as compliment would be unthinkable.

I started work on these ribs immediately after buying them, about a week before cooking. I rubbed them all over with a modified Midyett rub (espresso, sumac, salt and sichuan pepper) and let them rest in the refrigerator to encourage a little more of that biological activity I've been crowing about. The secondary biology of beef in repose could be described as decay, but that sounds so indelicate I prefer the more culinary term "age." I let the short ribs age for a week. Sounds better than "I let them rot for a week."

When the ribs were old and weird looking, indicating sufficient decay age, I trimmed their more rotten aged extremities and prepared to cook them in the dutch oven by rendering some thick bacon planks in a little olive oil. I seared all sides of the short ribs in the olive oil and bacon fat, then removed them and added the vegetables, fennel wedges, carrot and onion, salting them so they'd give up their liquid a little and start to caramelize. When they had a little color, I nestled the short ribs in among the vegetables and glugged about a half bottle of red wine in there. As noted previously I know nothing about wine, but this was an Italian variety from California with an understated label, so it got the nod. I never buy wines with irreverent names like Peace Feet,  Fish Guts or Shitty Wine, for no other reason than I hate things being made cute and I want these wineries to fail. I know, they'll fail anyway, but my point is I hate them. I would rather have one of Spiegel's celebrity wines. Call me a small man, but I prefer bad to stupid, and would rather suffer the indignity of cooking with wine made by Drew Bledsoe or the dude from Tool than something called Zin Your Face.

After the pot came up to a boil, I turned it down to a wee simmer and let it go for a couple of hours. Maybe three. When I looked at them next the ribs were beautiful, blackened by the searing and Maillard reaction and falling apart from the slow braise. The carrot and onion were at the stage of near-collapse I find perfect for sauce, while the fennel had a nice gentle consistency that retained some texture. What a great vegetable fennel is. I wonder if there are some assholes out there who don't like fennel.

Continuing my recent minor (extreme) saffron indulgence, I decided to puree some saffron-infused potatoes to serve under the meat. I boiled the potatoes as described one post below but didn't shock them. Instead I quickly made a stiff puree with the hand mixer, enriching them with some greek yogurt. This makes the potatoes quite firm, almost gluey, which would be bad for a lot of uses, but under a substantial and stinky piece of meat like this, the starchiness gives the puree enough body not to seem trivial. I could have used polenta or a risotto instead, but potato puree was the first thing to come to mind.

I plated the potato, then sorted the ribs out, spooned some of the fennel and sauce on the dish and scattered chopped chives over it. The bright color of the saffron potato and chives kept the plate from looking too stodgy, which is a real problem with braised meats. I made more than we could eat, which is fine, because that gives me stuff to make food out of later. After removing the remaining meat from the dutch oven for future ravioli or spring rolls, I whizzed the vegetables and jus into a puddle, which I intend to use as a pasta sauce.

If there are fennel-haters out there, they and the brussels sprouts guys should start an asshole club. Call it England. Or the aged rotten asshole haters of the delicious club.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Saffron Potato Cashew Pancakes

Potato pancakes are great. I like the little flat French ones made with raw potato, but for an entree I sometimes make a thicker, more cylindrical patty out of boiled and crushed (not really mashed) potato. I'll often spice-up the flavor of potato by boiling it in stock with saffron. This only works if you peel and dice them so the stock can penetrate the flesh. Saffron adds a sharp, mineral tang to anything you cook with it, and it's perfect for making something starchy feel like a more complete food.

These little guys began life that way, as saffron-boiled potatoes. I learned a potato boiling technique from Jacques Pepin, where you just barely cover the potatoes with water or stock, and once they're up to speed, remove the lid from the pot and let the water boil off. When done, there is only a dab of liquid to drain off and the potatoes are less saturated, so when mashed or crushed have more body and don't become slushy. They also seldom require additional seasoning. I do this basically all the time now.

One of these days I'm going to try something I've been thinking about for a while.* What I like about the saffron gimmick is that it makes the flavor of the potatoes evolve as you eat them into more than a single-note bland matter. Adding a curry powder, chili pepper or garlic puree does something nice as well, but the saffron has a flavor outside the normal spectrum of vegetables that makes it especially good. I sometimes brine pork in coca cola, which adds both a complex spicy richness and a similarly sharp alien tang, probably due to its phosphoric acid. I've wondered if boiling potatoes in a brine made with coca cola would be similarly tasty.

Now there's a thing. Phosphoric acid is horrible stuff. It leaches calcium, so dentists use it to dissolve tooth matter and etch enamel. If you submerge a bone in it you end up with a slurry. Its principle industrial use is as a rust remover, yet we drink it regularly in coca cola, which is delicious.

I've also taken to boiling mustard seeds with potatoes. They swell but retain their constitution and add a nice element of surprise to a potato thing. Surprise, that's why we do this.**

So I boiled the potatoes in stock with saffron and mustard seeds, then drained them and mushed them with the back of a slotted spoon because I still don't have a potato ricer.*** The saffron tinted them a lovely canary yellow. I chopped up a bunch of cashews really fine and added them to the hot smashed potato, along with a couple of cloves of garlic, which I ran through a fine microplane for a smooth puree. Microplanes are great for that and are much easier to deal with than either a garlic press or mortar and pestle.

I added some finely minced scallions and formed the potato into patties. It's important to get this part done efficiently so you don't knead the starch out of the potato and make the patties gummy. You can bind the potato with egg or egg white, but I don't. If you don't manhandle them they keep their shape fine without. If you're concerned about it, you can let them rest and wait for the starch to congeal in the refrigerator for an hour or so, but I don't because I like them to have a soft, open texture rather than a sturdy one.

Once formed, I dusted the patties with rice flour and browned them on both sides in a skillet with a little olive oil. You have to be careful when turning them not to separate the seared crust from the patty itself. I use a thin metal spatula. When they were done I arranged them on a plate and seasoned them with some fresh black pepper and grated Asiago. Potato pancakes are often served with sour cream or creme fraiche, but I prefer Greek yogurt, which is more substantial and tangier. I could have dressed it up with some chopped cucumbers and lemon juice for a kind of faux-tzatziki but I didn't feel like it or have any cucumbers or something. (vg) (v without garnish)

*That's what she promised herself.
**That's what she missed most.
***Birthday reminder, July 22.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

I Used to Make Gnocchi All the Time

I used to make gnocchi all the time. Like twice a week. I don't know why, but I fell out of the habit. Feeling a twinge of nostalgia, when H-bomb needed dinner and we had nothing prepared, I made a batch. Gnocchi are an under-appreciated pasta, probably because when they're made badly they're heavy and tough

I've been adding apples to things recently, mostly because I'll see an apple sitting there while I'm making something and think, whatever, maybe that would be good with apple. When I decided to make gnocchi, I noticed an apple sitting there, and nature took its course.

Conventionally, potato gnocchi are made from cold cooked potato, flour and eggs. This requires the foresight to have cooked and cooled a potato in advance, something I do not have. I typically peel and dice the potatoes, boil them and shock them in cold water to make the temperature manageable. If the potato hits the flour and egg while the starch is still hot, the whole mass becomes elastic and gluey and no fun to work with or eat. For this batch, I diced the apple and added it to the potato prior to boiling. On a whim, instead of water I decided to boil the potato and apple in vegetable stock with a pinch of saffron. I love the way saffron brightens otherwise starchy foods and thought it might make the gnocchi a little more interesting on their own.

When the potato was ready, I mushed it up with a whisk since I don't have a ricer,* then added the egg and flour and kneaded it briefly. I don't use the whisk in a beating motion, but like a more conventional potato masher, up-and-down. It's important not to handle the dough too much or the gluten in the flour binds with the starch of the potato and the pasta gets tough and gluey. With a conventional pasta you need to work the dough so the gluten develops, which helps the texture of the finished noodle, not so with gnocchi.

Another difference is that once the gnocchi pasta is formed, I like to cut it quickly and get the gnocchi into boiling water immediately so the gluten in the flour doesn't have time to get rubbery. With a conventional pasta, I'd rest the pasta before rolling to make the dough sturdier. Gnocchi are relatively big on the fork and in the mouth, so they need to be tender and light or they're a drag. I try to get through the process quickly, without using my hands too much**

I rolled the gnocchi pasta into little logs and cut it into lumps, then grooved them with a fork and plopped them in the water. They cook fairly quickly, but not as quick as cut pasta. Once they float, they need about another minute on the boil and they're done. Normally I just dump the pasta pot through a colander to collect the cooked pasta, but gnocchi are fragile enough (when made well) that I usually scoop them out with a wire basket. This also drains them well enough that I can toss them straight into the skillet for finishing.

After boiling, I like to toast gnocchi a little in olive oil or butter. They can be served like that with some herbs, parmigiano, black pepper and salt, or dressed with a sauce. We didn't have much to make a sauce with, but we had some V8 juice, which is pretty tasty, so I thought I'd give that a shot. I've used V8 instead of vegetable stock in other applications and it has proven versatile enough to make me take occasional excursions into the unknown like this.

Once the gnocchi were browned a little, I splashed a glug of V8 into the skillet and tossed the gnocchi, and in no time at all the V8 combined with the olive oil to make a nice thick emulsion that glazed the gnocchi as it intensified. I crushed some dried herbs on them before a final toss, then plated them and grated some Asiago on top. The saffron was a great idea, it made the gnocchi a bright yellow color and gave the body of the gnocchi a delicious whiff of the exotic, and the mineral overtone was balanced by the sweet-sour character of the apple. The glaze was tasty, but the acid in the V8 changed during cooking, leaving a slight chemical undertaste, and made me wish I'd just served these little yellow marvels on their own. I'm sure I could make a reduction of fresh juices that would work better, but I'll still endorse V8 for future experiments.

*My birthday is July 22
**That's what she said