Saturday, December 31, 2011

Agnolotti of Leeks, Kale and Magic Nuts

I have a modest kitchen. Since it's just Heather and me eating, I don't need to cook large quantities of anything, so I don't need a large pantry for staples, I get by with a normal civilian range and oven, and I don't like gadgets so I don't need storage for a crap like a duck press, egg slicer and cherry stoning machine. In a normal week's cooking I'll literally only need one knife, one skillet, one pasta pot and one rice pan. Occasionally I'll break out the dutch oven if I need to braise something or bake bread, but that's about it. I sometimes use a food processor, but they seem a little bit too fiddly for most chores and they're annoying to clean. We don't have a dish washer, and Heather, bless her heart, has never washed a dish in her life, so the less I have to clean, the better. I own a KitchenAid mixer but I haven't used it in years, and I don't have any attachments for it. I'm solidly against attachments, because they require attaching, detaching, cleaning and other things that aren't cooking. I'm pretty sure the KitchenAid is in the cupboard under the toaster but I'm not sure. I suppose I'll find out when we move.

About the only gadget I don't mind is the pasta machine. If you're going to make pasta, you either need a giant work surface and long pin for rolling it out by hand, which I don't have, or a pasta machine and a nine-inch square spot on the counter. That's my jam right there, the nine-inch one.*

I make cut pasta sometimes, but that requires an attachment**, so I'm more likely to cut sheets of pasta with a knife, or just use dry pasta from the store. Usually if I'm making fresh pasta it's for ravioli of some kind. I don't have any ravioli molds, so usually I just fold the pasta over the middles into little agnolotti or sometimes use a glass to cut circles for mezzalune.

Tonight's pasta was a way to use up the remaining kale from a massive kale indulgence brought on by some particularly nice bunches at the fruit stand. I had some endive, kale and a leek, and made a plan to stuff ravioli with the mixed greens and serve with some browned butter. I cut some bacon into 1/2-inch cubes and started them rendering in the skillet with a little olive oil, then added the leek to get it wilted. I like almonds with greens, so as an experiment I added a bunch of chopped cashews and almonds to the skillet. More about them later, they did magic. While all that was underway I stripped the green kale leaf web off the stems and chopped it into ribbons.

When the leek was tender I added the kale and salted everything. The kale goes in before the other leaves because it takes more time to cook. If I were using collards I'd put them in first, same with beet, turnip or mustard greens. Softer greens like escarole, frisee, spinach, celery leaf, herbs -- basically anything you might eat uncooked -- take much less time to cook, and can disintegrate if cooked too long. I'm always charmed by how much the volume of fresh greens cooks down. You start with an afro and end up with a burr. I chopped up the curly endive, and once the kale had wilted I added the endive and a handful of both celery and mint leaves, which have the effect of brightening any cooked greens..

Sometimes greens can have a slightly dank, musty undertaste, so when everything was tender, I took it off the fire and added a splash of rice vinegar to keep the muddiness at bay. I didn't want to make a puree out of it while it was still hot, because the bowl of the processor is plastic and I seldom feel comfortable about putting hot things in plastic, not just because I might distort the plastic, but because maybe some mutagen chemical could cook out of it and I'd get face cancer or grow a dick out of each armpit. I tasted a bit of the greens and liked them, but doubted the wisdom of adding nuts because they didn't seem to be doing anything. How little I knew then.

I turned my attention to the pasta, which was the same simple recipe I've used forever. I put enough flour on the counter (I guess it's about a cup and a half), then crack an egg into the middle of it, making a little well, add an additional egg yolk, some salt and a spoonful of olive oil, then start stirring the egg with a fork, gradually incorporating more flour into it until it becomes a mass of dough, then grab the whole pile and knead it with the remaining flour until it comes together as pasta. I used semolina this time, but the same basic technique works with almost any kind of flour. It seems like the flour will bind with the eggs until satisfied, then no more flour joins the party, so you basically can't fuck it up. I'm all for things I can't fuck up.

I kneaded the pasta for a while to develop the gluten and make it elastic enough to stretch around the middle of the agnolotti, which I expected to be lumpy from the nuts,*** then put it aside to rest for a few minutes. If you let fresh pasta rest before you roll it, it doesn't retract after rolling as much and rolls down to thickness easier.

Then the magic happened. I put the greens in the basket of the food processor and pulsed them. When I stopped to check the consistency, I grabbed a pinch and tasted it, and was surprised to find that the nuts had given up some of their fat **** and emulsified the greens into a creamy mousse. It was both richer and nicer to eat than the greens straight out of the skillet. I suddenly felt like a goddamn genius and like I invented something and started hollering for the patent attorneys again. I couldn't wait to get the pasta ready.

I rolled the pasta out in a scorched panic, laid it out on the table in yard-long strips and filled it with the greens like I was trying to win a medal in it. Only then did I realize I had no water boiling yet. I sorted that out, and while the water was coming up I ran out into the alley and grabbed a couple of big fuzzy leaves off Old Man Sage. It's incredible, Old Man Sage is still happy out there in his bucket in the dead of winter, laughing, pimping, dancing on the graves of all the other herbs. When I got back indoors, the water had come up to boil, so I salted it and tossed in the agnolotti, and while they boiled I browned the sage in the skillet with some butter and garlic.

 The sage butter was ready precisely when the agnolotti were, so I strained them into the skillet and tossed them until the butter and the residual pasta water emulsified into a light sauce. I plated the agnolotti, dusted them by grating the last of the homemade cheese and decorated them with finely sliced scallions and black pepper.

The nut transformation was evident even inside the pasta, making the greens rich and smooth, and the toasted flavor of the nuts made the agnolotti more complex, which married nicely with the butter sauce. Made it worth breaking out two gadgets for one meal.

* Said the Bishop to the Actress
** Said the salesman in the sex shop
*** Said the Bishop to nobody in particular. Maybe an actress.
**** Bishop again.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Look Ma Stuffed Tomatoes

On the phone with mom the other day I felt like a triple dirtbag. 1) I got super busy and didn't call her on her birthday. 2) I remembered as I was falling asleep that I needed to call her in the morning to make up for it, but then I overslept and was late and it slipped my mind. 3) Now I'm on the phone with my mom two days late and apologizing for not calling her on her birthday or the day after. Triple dirtbag. Then she lays this on me, "I've been reading your food blog. You're getting a little too precious with it."

A too-precious triple dirtbag. I hang my head.

So this one's for my ma, who taught me by example that you can make dinner out of whatever is in the pantry plus whatever anybody happened to bring home dead, to not waste anything, and now how not to be precious. Mom always bought in bulk and stored things in the freezer because you never know when you're going to need something, and that's a habit I've picked up as well.

I was responsible for a side dish for the buffet at the Mydyette-Hunter Thanksgiving feast, and not knowing precisely what people would want to eat, I got it in my head to make some stuffed baked tomatoes. Seemed like nobody could really object to a tomato. For the stuffing I imagined a savory pilaf, nothing too heavy. I started the rice by sweating some onion and garlic in a sauce pan with olive oil, then added the rice, some saffron, water and Vegeta. I didn't have any stock. Shame on me for not having stock. For normal fluffy rice I use 2 parts liquid to one part rice, but this was going to be cooked twice, so I cut the liquid back by about a third. I wanted the rice to be al dente when I stuffed the tomatoes with it so it would absorb the cooking juices from the tomato to complete its hydration.

In preparation I had got a bunch of hothouse tomatoes, so I cut the tops off them to make little hats and saved the tops on a wet paper towel in the fridge. I cut around the perimeter of each one to a depth of about an inch and a half, then hollowed out the insides with a spoon. I saved the insides in a big bowl and salted them to get the liquid to render. I'd need the liquid later.

When the rice was done to the point I could use it, I dumped it into a big mixing bowl to cool off, and added a bunch of chopped cashews. I tasted the mixture and it was good, but could use a little more complexity, so I went to the freezer, where I keep the pine nuts I buy in bulk (thank you mom), put a handful of pine nuts on the fire with some butter and browned them, then added them to the rice. They were toasty delicious. When the rice mixture was cool enough to handle, I chopped a couple of scallions, some cilantro and a bunch of mint leaves and stirred them in along with some olive oil and crushed Mexican oregano. The rice was a little too firm for easy packing into the tomatoes, so I ladled some tomato liquor from the bowl of middles into the rice to loosen it. I also tried a sip of the tomato liquor and it was delicious. Maybe Devin can devise another cocktail with it and open franchises in New Orleans. Sell them in big tomato-shaped goblets all shaved ice and rimmed with Old Bay. Call it a Tomatogarita or a Hurri-Tomatocane or a Mai-Tomato-Tai. Hang them off the necks of revelers with a lanyard and a long bendy straw. Have a mascot like the Kool-Aid man except a big tomato guy. People need work, why not. Franchise people in New Orleans call me.

I stuffed the tomatoes with the rice and arranged them in a shallow baking dish. I put the dish in the fridge to wait for morning, but reserved four of them for Heather's dinner. Those four went into a small tin and got baked in a 350 oven for about 30 minutes covered in foil. When they were soft and giving, I doused them with another little shot of the tomato liquor to refresh the rice, then shredded some parmigiano on top, drizzled them with olive oil and  browned them under the broiler for a few minutes. To balance them on the plate, I cut some croutons from some leftover skillet soda bread I made after watching Jacques Pepin do it on TV.

The tomatoes were delicious. The hot, astringent juice made a perfect compliment to the sturdy, rich interior, and the par-cooked rice didn't degenerate into mush. The tomatoes I cooked for Thanksgiving got a little mound of bread crumb mix made of panko, parmigiano, olive oil and black pepper instead of the cheese, and it browned to a nicer effect, adding a crisply toasted element. I had intended to put the little tomato hats back on for presentation but forgot all about them. If anybody has a suggestion for what to do with the little tomato hats, please let me know.* When we ate the tomatoes at Thanksgiving, I heard from the other guests about a supposed pine nut shortage that had recently crippled kitchens all over, and felt an unusual pride in having learned to buy in bulk.

Thank you mom, and happy birthday.

Mom in Hawaii for our wedding. We bought in bulk.

*You get a little tomato hat with your Tomatogarita.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pan Roasted Pineapple in Prosciutto with Li Hing and Umeboshi

My li hing mui obsession continues to find opportunities to express itself. Here's the next shot.

The celeriac skordalia was a big hit with H-Bomb. I call Heather H-Bomb sometimes. She hates it*. The last time I made celeriac I ended up with a little left over, so I needed something to serve on it as a main course. One of my favorite Hawaiian li hing items is fresh pineapple with li hing sprinkled on it. It's totally delicious, spicy and weird. At one of the PRF barbecues I was treated to some grilled pineapple rings wrapped in bacon, served with a spicy barbecue sauce. They were savory, hot and sweet and I thought I could make a version of them spiced up with li hing that would go well with the celeriac.

I'm a fan of bacon as an ingredient in its own right, but not so much of using it to dress up other things. It's such a strong flavor it tends to become the focal point of whatever it's used on, and that aspect has become quite a gimmick problem solver in professional kitchens. Dull menu item? Slap bacon on it, especially if it's incongruous, and tell the wait staff to crow about it and pull a face when they say the word "bacon."  Baconizing the mundane is now a first option, and has already worn out its welcome on me. I've seen bacon-slapped doughnuts, chocolate bars, brownies and baked items, bacon fat-infused coffee, ice cream and jelly. The baconification of restaurant food has even made me tired of the more traditional -- now ubiquitous -- bacon-topped sea food and poultry. My bacon nerves are pretty well shot at the moment, but at the point I was served the bacon-wrapped pineapple mentioned above I was still vulnerable to its charms, and I wanted to do justice to that younger, less jaded response.

Wherever bacon would be rude, I've had some joy substituting prosciutto, which seems to deliver a satisfying savory richness without being an obstacle to what lies beneath it. Lardo does just as well, but tends to read as butter rather than meat, and the celeriac needs a substantial entree to compete with its savory personality, not buttered fruit.

I cut a pineapple ring approximately 1.5" thick, then into six segments, making roughly pyramidal chunks, then dusted them all over with li hing powder, which instantly stained them a brilliant crimson. The color of li hing is probably largely synthetic, since the powder is made from a pickled plum, similar to the light pink umeboshi common to Japanese rice balls. I was intrigued by this difference, so I took out a jar of umeboshi to compare the two. As soon as I opened the jar, it occurred to me to include a piece of umeboshi in the parcel to provide a sour counterpoint to the sweet pineapple. I wrapped a pitted umeboshi plum with each piece of pineapple in the prosciutto, overlapping to bind it to itself closed. Since the pieces would cook quickly, I collected them on a plate to cook simultaneously. I presumed the prosciutto and li hing would be salty enough that I wouldn't need to season the hunks separately.

I pan-roasted the pineapple chunks in a skillet just barely wiped with olive oil. I didn't want to risk trapping any frying oils in the folds of the prosciutto or the crevices of the pineapple underneath. The prosciutto both rendered and crisped nicely, the fat becoming instantly transparent and the meat becoming red and supple before browning and shrinking to enrobe the pineapple. The little things looked cool as hell, and I couldn't resist eating one piping hot. It was delicious and reasonably balanced, though mild, so I made a quick vinaigrette to spice up the plate out of an egg yolk, some Sriracha, mustard, lime juice, soy sauce and garlic. I plated the celeriac skordalia first, then plunked the pineapple chunks on top, doused the plate with the vinaigrette and garnished with some alley mint leaves.

Heather was less taken with the pineapple than I was. "I'm not so into fruit for dinner," she said. I wish I could say I was unhappy she had eaten all the celeriac and left most of the pineapple chunks, but whatever emotional pain I felt was soothed by wolfing the things down like a snuffling pig.

Really, she hates it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Asparagus in Perilla with Pork Rillettes and Leek Chives

I mentioned previously that I got some "sesame" leaves at Jong Boo market. These are perilla, a Korean relative of the Japanese herb shiso. They taste somewhat of wintergreen or licorice and are about the size of small grape leaves. As soon as I had the Perilla leaves in my hand, I imagined wrapping something in them, and was pleased to discover while googling them that they are used that way in Korea. Since I also just acquired some nice white asparagus, I decided to make some asparagus rolls. I love asparagus for eating and am charmed by the magical way it transforms the smell of my urine. It's amazing how quickly it gets through your system. I've eaten asparagus as an appetizer and visited the toilet between courses a few minutes later and been greeted with the familiar (yet magical) transformation. Charming and intriguing. Nothing else does this to pee that I know of, though I've heard from a few experienced women that a diet heavy in celery improves the taste of semen.* So far I've been unable to confirm this due to scheduling conflicts, and my sole reference book on the subject doesn't mention it.

I like regular asparagus, but for some reason the white stalks are better represented in the produce sections of supermarkets around here. Lately whenever there are both white and green, the green is usually older, with open, drying florets and woody stems, while the white stalks are nearly pristine and closed tight. I have no idea why this is, but if I have a choice I'll take whichever looks better and lately that's been white. The modern Japanese restaurant Macku has an excellent white asparagus custard on its dessert menu, and whenever I see white asparagus in the store I make quiet plans to attempt something like that some day. Today was not the day.

With green asparagus I generally peel the bottom third of the stalks, more if the skin looks sturdy, and nip off the very end of the stalk, which can be scarred or fibrous. The "trick" often seen on TV cooking shows of snapping the bottom quarter of the asparagus stalk off is wasteful and crude. Just peel it like any vegetable and trim the bad part. White asparagus has a thinner skin, but I peeled and trimmed these out of habit.

We had eaten a bunch of braised pork shoulder recently, and there was still some left, so I imagined frying it into a sort of shredded carnitas to accompany the asparagus in the rolls. I still had some of the Korean leek chives (or are they chive leeks?) left, and while they proved underwhelming generally, I thought they could compliment the mild flavor of the asparagus and pulled them out of the fridge.

I got a pot of water boiling, salted it and threw the asparagus in. I figured it would take a couple of minutes, but while that was underway I could make use of the boiling water. Using a skimming ladle, I blanched the perilla leaves in the salted water, then shocked them in cold water to set their color. I did the same to a bunch of the leek chives, after tying them together to keep them in a tidy bundle for easier handling.

While the asparagus was boiling, I sliced an onion into thin rings and started them caramelizing in a skillet with some olive oil. I shredded a bunch of the slow cooked pork into the skillet to cook along with the onions. My plan was not just to reheat the pork but caramelize it with the onions, give it a crisp texture and intensify the flavor of the braising liquid that had clung to the pork. There was enough fat clinging to the pork that it wouldn't be lying to call it rillettes, but I would only do that if I was trying to impress somebody.** 

The pork would take a couple of minutes, so I removed the asparagus from the water and shocked it, then cut it into lengths that would fit inside the perilla leaves. I didn't intend to roll the ends of the leaves over like a burrito or dolma, but I didn't want the asparagus poking out the ends. I also made a quick dressing, a kind of loose aoli with some garlic, mustard, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, honey and Sriracha.

Since the water was already boiling, I got a third use out of it. I threw in some extra salt and a few colorful new potatoes to serve along with the asparagus rolls. The new supermarket had a special on colorful little potatoes, so I bought a bag of mixed hues, golden, blue and pink. They seemed like a good candidate for a side dish and they were small enough that they could boil in the time it took to make the rolls.

When the pork was ready, I made the rolls by laying a couple lengths of asparagus on a perilla leaf, dressed them with the aoli, laid in some of the crispy browned pork and a few of the blanched chives, then rolled them up. For presentation I cut a few of the rolls in half to show off the insides and made a nice pile of them on the plate. By then the potatoes were done, so I drained them and dressed them with the remaining aoli, black pepper and some of the chives, chopped fine, then set them on the plate and garnished with a couple of bright red olives. I was happy with the jolly look of all the different colors rumbling around on the plate. Reminded me of childrens' building blocks or Legos or something. Do they still have Legos? They must.

About the rolls, Heather ate them but said they were "a little thing, not a meal." She's right, I should have served them with something else, like a soup or a cutlet or some other more substantial item but I didn't think of it until she mentioned it.

It's honestly amazing about the pee.

* I don't even need to say it really.
** I am trying to impress you.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Three Minute Gazpacho

Made a trip to Andy's and got some beautiful little cucumbers I've never seen before. They had a bumpy, leathery skin and firm flesh, almost like a zucchini, but small, inoffensive seeds. About half the size of a salad cucumber, they tasted great and were much less watery than the waxy green dildos normally available. I sat down to watch a baseball game and ponder what to do with them. When Heather summoned me and claimed to be near death from hunger, it gave me a perfect opportunity to try my hand at a gazpacho, provided I could complete the task in three minutes*, the length of a commercial break.**

I peeled two stout little fellows, cut them into segments and put them in the carafe of the blender. Their tiny, feeble little pips saved me the trouble of de-seeding them, a task that may have taken several seconds. To the cucumbers I added a smashed clove of garlic, a small purple heirloom tomato, half a small sweet onion, a cigar-butt-sized hunk of ginger and the flesh of both a fresh jalapeno and a little red cherry pepper, all cut into pieces. The peppers came from the alley. Way to go alley. I pulsed the vegetables for a bit to break them up, then added salt, pepper, Sriracha, olive and sesame oil, the juice of a lime and a glug of spicy V8.

Before juicing the lime I grated the zest and reserved it for later. Grating the zest off a lime has the same effect as massaging the pulp, which makes the lime give up more of its juice. If you're not using zest for anything you can just roll the lime on the countertop and crush it a little. Also, get one of those little lime squeezer things from the Mexican supermercado. They cost a buck or two and are super efficient at getting lime juice out of limes. Liquefying raw vegetables works best if there are smallish pieces in a wet medium rather than trying to turn big hunks directly into liquid. That usually just results in the blade whirring past the bigger pieces while punishing the puree, resulting in unpalatable chunks surrounded by overworked paste, so it's worth it to do the puree in two stages, first to coarsely chop the pieces, then with a little added liquid to make it smooth.

Another trick for pulsing larger batches, especially in a food processor rather than a blender, is to add some crushed ice with the vegetables at the beginning of the process. The ice pieces act as auxiliary blades to help break up the vegetables while preventing the soup from getting hot from the friction of the blade and motor. Keeping the vegetables cool is critical in a gazpacho, otherwise the cells break down and the soup separates into ugly layers of water and fibrous matter. Gazpacho needs to retain some hint of its constituent ingredients in the body of the soup, otherwise it's just salty Jamba Juice. I didn't bother with ice this time because it was a small batch and I was determined not to spend too long on it.

I finished processing the soup and poured it into a bowl on top of some finely-sliced scallions and the reserved lime zest. There was very little foam, but I skimmed off what there was and tasted the soup. It was bright and complex and satisfying, and the oil made the flavors linger a little on the palate while providing body. I was happy with it as it was, but in future iterations I may try adding a little fish sauce to see if that makes the flavors hang around even more. Tasting the gazpacho gave me the idea that this would be really good as a savory sorbet, so I need to get some into Tim Mydhuiette's hands before everything goes out of season.

The alley bounty provided me with an assortment of peppers to dice for garnish, so I made a tiny brunoise of green jalapeno, orange serrano and red cherry pepper and sprinkled them on the gazpacho along with some chopped tarragon from the alley. I finished the garnish with a little dollop of Greek Yogurt and a sprig of mint.

And I made it back in time to see the Yankees dump one.

(vg) (v) without yogurt

** Overheard re: Bishop and actress.
** We have TiVo but I like a challenge.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Weird Little Mushrooms in Soup

After living a mile from it for a decade, I finally made a shopping trip to Jong Boo Korean Market, which I drive by often but had never set foot in. The occasion was a successful day of marketing that included the new fancy supermarket that just opened across from the Jewel, Paulina for meat and a fly-by of Andy's for some weird little cucumbers and such. Jong Boo was pretty cool, and I got some stuff I was curious to try cooking with, including red miso, a big hunk of fresh pork belly, Korean shiso leaves (colloquially called "sesame leaves" in Korean), Koeran leek chives, fresh Chinese noodles and a carton of weird little white mushrooms cultivated in a mass. As soon as we got home I decided now was as good a time as any to try making a soup with some of this stuff.

I started the soup by sweating some onions and garlic in some sesame oil reinforced with olive oil. When they were soft and smelled good, I added some finely diced ginger, carrots and peppers. The alley patch has been incredibly productive this year, prodigiously producing Hungarian wax peppers, jalapenos, tiny Thai chiles, little golfball-sized cherry red peppers and some red things that look like serrano peppers but aren't as hot. For this soup, I made a brunoise of a fat jalapeno, one of the red mock serranos and a couple of the little Thai firecrackers. Those things are pretty hot, but aren't disruptive unless you bite directly into a whole chile.

I salted all the vegetables, and once they made their introductions, I covered them with water and stirred-in a healthy blob of the red miso. When the miso had dispersed and formed a broth, I added a splash of fish sauce and let the whole thing come up to a boil. Meanwhile I boiled water for the noodles. Typical Asian soups have noodles boiled separately and added to the bowl, and that seemed like a good protocol to follow. Boiling the noodles separately keeps the starch in the noodles from leaching into the soup and clouding and thickening it. The noodles are less flavorful than egg noodles, so it's critical to salt the water they boil in or they'll be a flavorless paste. 

While the noodles were boiling, I prepared some herbs. I tried one of the leek chives, and it was underwhelming. Not a lot of flavor and a strong chlorophyll taste. I plunged one into the soup stock and let it blanch a little, then tasted it again and was surprised that the raw greenness had left, leaving a nice mild onion/chive/leek flavor. I chopped a small handfull and dropped them in the soup. I tried the shiso/sesame leaf raw and it was pretty rude, with a medicinal/poisonous licorice flavor that reminded me of sassafras and wintergreen. I was intrigued by the flavor and didn't dislike it, but I suspected Heather would be put off by it. I tried blanching a leaf and the medicinal quality was reduced considerably, leaving just the suggestion of anise and wintergreen. I rolled a couple of the leaves into a bundle, cut them into ribbons of chiffonade and added them to the soup. The final flavor of the soup was hearty and complex, with considerable spiciness and a rich mouth feel. Given the complex flavor of the shiso, I thought fresh mint and tarragon would compliment it, so I ran out to the alley and grabbed some, then chopped them fine to use as a garnish.

When the noodles were done, I made a little mound of them in the soup bowls, then ladled the soup over the top. The stock had turned a lovely amber color, but was a little plain, so I floated a couple slices of spicy capicola on it. The heat from the soup instantly made the fat transparent and the meat turned a bright rosy pink. I pulled a few of the weird little mushrooms off the cluster and plunked them in the soup, then scattered some of the chopped herbs over the soup, and the final look of the soup was nice.

The pork belly will be in play shortly.

Friday, September 16, 2011

How Popcorn Came to Matter

Heather loves popcorn. We go through phases where she needs popcorn every evening, so I make a lot of popcorn. When I was a kid, my mom made popcorn with olive oil and butter as the frying medium. Timing was critical, because if the fire was too hot or the popcorn didn't come off the fire precisely when it was done popping, the butter solids burned and it came out horrible, but when it everything worked, it was delicious. I have tried making popcorn this way, but in the interest of a higher success ratio I have modified the mom technique.

I use canola oil for the cooking medium. It has no flavor, but can handle high temperatures easily, and a high temperature means fewer un-popped "old maid" kernels are left. For on top* I mostly use melted butter, and once in a while we get this ridiculous Irish butter that costs like ten bucks a pound just for the popcorn. While Heather was rocking the JP, and occasionally to accommodate movie night with vegan friends, I make a topping that is as delicious as butter but isn't butter.

I'm going to call it a dressing. I hate that word "topping." It's a food industry word for something fake and gross to use instead of something normal like butter. Worse, it's an all-purpose word, used equivalently for synthetic versions of mayonnaise, whipped cream, bacon crumbles or ice cream sprinkles. Fuck "topping" and "spread" and "chocolaty" and "creamer" and the rest of the industrial food replacement dictionary.

The non-butter dressing I've settled on is a clove of garlic emulsified with some liquid smoke, siracha, sesame oil and olive oil. There's more olive oil than anything else, but the other elements make the dressing complex enough to do battle with the Irish butter. I have tried adding various other savory sauces, Worcestershire (and its Sheffield counterpart  Henderson's Relish), Tabasco and balsamic vinegar, but none of them improved matters and some of them occasionally made kernels damp in spots. 

Regardless of the dressing, popcorn isn't really fit for eating without salt, and given the geometry and physics of popcorn and oil, popcorn salt needs to be ground very fine to do any business with popcorn. A civilized popcorn experience requires fine popcorn salt, and trying to make do with granulated table salt is what pruno is to wine. Like that prisoner's tipple, brewed in toilet tanks from packets of mystery fruit jelly (topping? sure) and moldy bread, it sucks, it's degrading and it's for people who have been shit on by life. At the million-plex theater where Heather and I go see movies sometimes, they don't butter the popcorn at the concession, they hand it to you and make you walk over to the oil pumps to butter it yourself. With topping, we can call it topping. Adding fuck you you're a sucker and we hate you to insult, there is no popcorn salt, only little paper packets of granulated salt like you'd get in a pre-pack of plastic cutlery. In prison. The next step down the ladder is a cavity search.**

To salt our popcorn, I tart-up regular sea salt with some dried Mexican oregano, black pepper and paprika, and grind it super fine in a mortar. It comes out like talcum powder and it disperses well into the popcorn's texture. If I'm in a rush I'll grind some Vegeta with the salt instead of individual herbs and spices. If we're using the olive oil dressing instead of butter, I'm more likely to just use plain salt and pepper for seasoning. Having just returned from Hawaii (thank you Hawaii) and still being in the throes of a Li Hing Mui obsession, I'll be trying that out on some popcorn real soon, and I suspect it will be wonderful.
Li Hing Mui
Stop Press! Just made some li hing popcorn and it was delicious. Made popcorn and dressed it with butter, reserving some for the li hing experiment and seasoning the rest for Heather with ground salt, pepper and oregano. For the experimental bowl I ground li hing powder with salt and dusted the popcorn with it. It turned my fingers a rather gaudy scarlet, but man that stuff is great. Sour, salty and pungent with fruit and licorice.

Li Hing, I will see you soon. I have plans for you. (v) or (vg)

* Bishop.
** Then blanket party.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Burdock What the Hell is Burdock

Like most people, the only time I ever come across burdock root is watching episodes of the original Japanese Iron Chef. They seem to throw burdock in everything they boil, and having eaten my share of Japanese food, I'm pretty sure I've eaten it, but I couldn't tell you what it tastes like and couldn't identify its flavor blindfolded. While at Mitsuwa buying a bunch of Asian stuff, I came across a pile of burdock roots, each about a yard long, in the produce section. Burdock certainly doesn't look like food, it looks like a dirty stick. Now's as good a time as any to find out what burdock is all about, I assured myself, and six bucks later I owned a solid yard of dirty stick.*

I did some googling but got bored with it and decided to just boil some and see what was up. Turns out it tastes pretty dull and isn't much fun in the mouth**. Kinda like dirt crossed with a turnip plus rope. The smell of it while boiling was pretty interesting though, like a wet dog and a rotting tree stump. If you've ever taken a dog for a walk in the woods after it rains you'll know what I'm talking about. I decided on the spot to make some vegetable stock with the burdock and use that to make a risotto as a vehicle for the funk.***

I don't know if you're supposed to peel burdock, but the outside is the part that doesn't look like food, so I peeled it and cut it into one-inch lengths. The burdock being pretty long, there were a lot of one-inch lengths to deal with.**** I started the stock by slightly caramelizing an onion, some celery and an apple, chopped coarsely, and a mess of little carrots from a bag. When they were browned a little, I seasoned the vegetables with a handful of salt and added four or five smashed garlic cloves, a couple bay leaves and the burdock, then covered everything with water and let it come to a boil. Once boiling, I turned it down to a simmer. I skimmed the stock a couple of times out of habit over the course of about an hour, but the stock was pretty clean.

Using cold liquid to make risotto takes a long ass time so I like to have the stock on a light fire right next to the rice pan so adding stock doesn't bring down the temperature of the risotto. While decanting the stock into the warming pot I noticed that the burdock pieces had retained their structure through more than an hour of cooking, while all the other vegetables were reduced to putty. Curious, I threw one in my mouth and it wasn't half bad. Still underwhelming but the texture had improved, and I could see pores in the center of the root had opened up, which might allow for a dressing to penetrate and make it tastier. I reserved a dozen or so of the burdock chunks to dress for later and pitched everything else.

I tried a shot of the stock and it was pretty good. Had the sort of dirty undercarriage musk I associate with mushroom stock, but without the lingering sensation of rot and slime. If I needed mushroom stock for something I wouldn't hesitate to use burdock broth instead.

Anyhow, made the risotto, starting with a sofrito of diced apple (or was it pear? I can't remember for sure, but I want to say it was pear) onion and celery, and while that was underway I built the dressing for the burdock hunks by making a puree of a garlic clove with a microplane and emulsifying it with an egg yolk, mustard, some sesame oil, siracha, rice vinegar, salt and a little honey. I covered the burdock with it and let it soak in. The risotto was coming together nicely but as the dirty color of the burdock broth intensified in it, the color was starting to look  drab and a little shitty, so I made a plan to enliven the plate with a roasted red pepper puree. It's a pretty good quick sauce for anything starchy, just throw a roasted red pepper in the blender with a little olive oil, salt and vinegar and you've got a nice bright red sauce that tastes delicious. I built the plates with the risotto surrounded by the pepper sauce, then loaded the burdock chunks on top, scattered some alley herbs and shaved some parmigiano over everything.

The risotto was excellent, with the murky taste of the burdock***** broth brightened by the tangy dressing and red pepper sauce, and while the burdock wasn't an exciting vegetable to eat, it was a decent vehicle for a nice dressing and was the catalyst for this whole thing. Sort of like an asshole buddy who introduces you to the love of your life, he gets a pass lifetime for that. (vg) (v without egg yolk or parmigiano)

* Do I have to spell it out for you?
**Overheard at the PRF BBQ
***"Vehicle" by the Ides of March is pretty funky
****Overheard at Quenchers pre-PRF BBQ
*****While I was typing that last bit, I mis-typed burdock as "buttdock," which was too good to just erase

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Homemade Cheese to Garnish Sausage and Peppers

Making cheese is way more daunting than bread. Bad bread, whatever, it's still bread. Bad cheese could end up a weird moldy science experiment that stinks like rotting garbage and cures syphilis. Nevertheless, despite not really knowing how, I thought I'd give it a shot. When I was a kid, my mom made a kind of farmers' cheese by curdling milk with lemon juice and straining the curd, and I thought I could handle that. I had about a half-gallon of whole milk in the fridge, which seemed like it ought to be enough to test the principle. Milk needs to be hot for the protein to react with the acid in the lemon juice, so I put the milk in a pot on a low heat with a little salt. I saw a cheesemaker on YouTube put salt in his milk, so what the hell me too. As a kind of hedge against the cheese coming out awful, while it was coming up to temperature, I steeped a handful of mint and Thai basil leaves from the alley in it. I didn't get that off YouTube, I came up with that on my own. If the cheese had an awful consistency it would at least taste like something.

When the milk was just barely up to a simmer, I strained out the mint and returned the milk to the pot, then added the juice of a lemon and let the milk come back to a light simmer. I was concerned that lemon juice might not work as well as rennet, but it jelled fairly quickly, so I took it off the heat and let it rest. When it had cooled to room temperature, I stirred it to break the curd, then poured the curd and whey into a colander lined with cheese cloth. I was startled by how much whey there was, and how little cheese, and started to feel like an idiot. I wondered if there was enough whey to make it worth trying to make a ricotta, but decided against it, preferring to win one battle rather than lose two.

The cheese was profoundly wet, so I balled up the cheesecloth like a purse, tied it off and let it drain, sitting in a strainer resting in a bowl in the fridge. It was still about a cup's worth, so the maybe the effort wasn't wasted. I let the cheese set for almost a week before I tried to use it. Fort the occasion I made a little plate of salami and apple slices, and tried to incorporate my new cheese. It had the crumbly consistency of ricotta salata or feta, but was much milder in taste. The mint and basil imparted a cool herbal essence (1970 called, she wants her shampoo back), but overall the cheese was unremarkable. I wrapped it back up in its cheesecloth and stuck it in the fridge.

Much time passed. Heather and I went to Hawaii to celebrate our anniversary (really we just like to go to Hawaii once in a while), and while there we ate like royalty. On our first night back, I needed to make dinner, but we had very little in the kitchen, having depleted resources prior to leaving town. I made a quick run to Jewel and grabbed a couple of apples, some smoked bacon and a sweet Italian sausage. I was pretty sure I could grab enough stuff from the alley to make a decent ragu to serve over some rice, and that would be our dinner. In a quick ransacking of the alley, I grabbed two bright red jalapeño peppers, four little Hungarian Peppers and a big pile of both mint and basil leaves.

In the kitchen I started the rice cooking, then cut some bacon into chunks and put it in the pan along with a little olive oil to get things going. When the chunks were nicely rendered, I took the skin off one of the Italian sausages and pulled it into bits, which I added to the bacon. Giving the sausage a moment to compose itself, I diced half an onion, a small apple and a couple cloves of garlic, and added them along with some salt. When they were sweated down nicely I added the peppers, all cut into small pieces. When everything was brown and sticky*, I added a couple glugs of vinegar and let everything simmer to deglaze the pan and bind the components into a ragu.

By then the rice was ready, so I chopped the basil and mint into a heap and stirred it into the rice. The visual effect of the brilliant white rice and deep green herbs was nice, and when I spooned the ragu on top it made for a pretty plate. I tried a little of the ragu on its own and it was a little lean tasting. I don't mean it lacked fat, but the acidity of the vinegar and the natural tartness of the apples made it feel harsh, almost metallic in my mouth, and it cried out for something to enrichen it. It certainly didn't need any fat, so a drizzle of oil wouldn't help. I tossed a couple of pine nuts on as garnish, but that wasn't enough.

The obvious solution would be to grate some parmigiano on it, but we didn't have any. While poking around in the fridge, I came across my old buddy the homemade cheese, now hardened to almost exactly the same consistency as parmigiano. In one of my better what-the-fuck moments, I tried grating some onto the ragu. It still had a mild minty flavor, but through the drying process the milk solids now had an intensely rich mouth sensation, almost like a condensed milk caramel. It was neither as biting nor as salty as parmigiano, but it had a similar umame effect and was the perfect counterpart to the ragu.

So there's another personal milestone. Made some unremarkable cheese, then forgot about it long enough for it to become useful.

*Jesus I hope that's not what she said.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Slow Cooked Pork Spring Rolls

Got a beautiful pork shoulder from Paulina Market and decided to cook it for a real long time and eat it. I'm old and have traveled a lot, and the one thing I've learned is that very few things are universal. Not every culture is monogamous, not every culture has money or property, not every culture even has numbers to express quantities bigger than three. But everybody on earth not forbidden by religion cooks pigs slowly and eats them. Some do it by burying the pig in a hole full of hot rocks, some wrap the pig in leaves and build a fire over it, some rotate the pig on a spit over the fire, and some put it in a pot and braise it. The only  common feature is that a pig is getting cooked for a long-ass time and people are going to eat it and tell each other how fucking delicious it is. Pork is magical, in that as long as you season it and cook it for a real long time, you basically can't make it anything but delicious. We've all had bad barbecue or mediocre ribs. Delicious, wasn't it? Totally finished the whole thing.

I seasoned the shoulder with salt and pepper, after first scoring the beautiful fat cap into a diamond pattern, and started it off in the dutch oven. With pork I usually like to bring the meat up to temperature slowly, so it doesn't seize up and get tough. If I want to caramelize a pork chop or roast, Ill do it at the last minute under the broiler, once the meat texture has been finalized by slower cooking. For a big butt like this though, I brown it all over to develop a nice flavor and fond first, then let it braise long enough to break down and become unctuous. I started the browning on the fat cap, so the rendering fat would provide most of the cooking medium and I don't need to add much extra oil, just enough to get the fat started.

Once the meat was browned all over, I moved it to a platter to make room and loaded the pot with an onion and apple, both cut into substantial chunks, a handful of little carrots from a bag and six cloves of garlic, smashed but not chopped. I let all that brown in the rendered fat, then seasoned it all with salt, pepper and a couple glugs of vinegar. I threw a cinnamon stick and some dried hot chiles in the pot, nestled the pork back among the vegetables and added a  pint each of chicken stock and apple juice. Once it came up to a boil, I stuck it in the oven at 225 degrees with a lid on it and let it cook for christ knows how long. Hours. Five hours, maybe eight.

How was it? Dude, we've been over this. It was slow cooked pork, it was fucking awesome. Delicious, succulent, unctuous and tender. That's what you get when you do this. You strike a match, you get fire. You cook pork a long time, you get something delicious. When it's a big ass pork shoulder, you also get a lot of it, way more than can be eaten all at once, and that's where the spring rolls come in. We had so much left over that I could make enough spring rolls to feed both Heather and the poker crowd.

Somewhere in there Legs* sent me an email asking if raw apples would be good with cooked pork. I replied of course they would but then realized I hadn't eaten raw apples with cooked pork before. A regular late-night snack for Heather and me is a plate of apple slices with prosciutto or salami, and I cook pork with apples all the time, but raw apples with cooked pork, nope. Time to give that a shot. I began grating an apple in preparation for making rolls with it, but the grated apple began discoloring immediately. I tried acidifying it with a little rice vinegar but that didn't stop the discoloration. I decided that since the apples were going inside the roll the discoloration wouldn't offend, and stopped worrying about it. I made the spring rolls with the apples and shredded delicious braised pork on a bed of rice cooked in stock and saffron, and some parsley, basil and mint from the alley. I served them with a quick Siracha aoli made by emulsifying some Siracha with an egg yolk, a little honey, mustard, pureed garlic, salt, sesame oil and olive oil. It's a favorite quick sauce and all-purpose dressing. It goes well with anything containing strong flavors.**

Single men, for a good time in the LA area, call Legs. Can't find a photo of her at the moment, but picture the girl of your dreams, only sexier. That's Legs. She has a car and a Prince tape she plays in the car. She will sing along to Prince in the car. Guys, really it's better than I'm making it sound.

** Absolutely no dick jokes this time. Didn't even slip one in accidentally.***
*** Footnotes don't count.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

(App)Led Zeppole

Fried stuff is great, so long as you get it while it's piping hot. Since our place is small, I can get food from the kitchen to Heather in a heartbeat, so I fry stuff all the time. Usually I make little croquettes or other doughy things and fry them, but I thought they might be getting a little heavy after repetition and have laid off the fried things for a bit. Heather and I have been to Hawaii several times, including getting married there, and one of our favorite things from there are local dougnuts called malasadas that are puffy and light but tasty as all hell. I wanted to make something like that for the next fried thing, but savory rather than sweet.

We discovered malasadas at Leonard's Bakery in Honolulu on a tip from Heather's dad, Charles Ellsworth Whinna, USMC ret. When he was stationed in Honolulu in the late 1960s, and then living there at liberty in the early 1970s, he had several regular haunts, and Leonard's was one of them. On our first trip to Honolulu we were delighted to find that virtually all of the favorite spots from his time in the Marines were still going concerns, and all still superlative food experiences. Other Chuck-approved wonders of Honolulu include lau-lau dinner at Ono and shave ice from Waiola Market. Malasadas are apparently of Portuguese origin, and are balls of leavened dough, fried, dusted with sugar and eaten instantly while still in the goddamn parking lot with the box in your lap because fuck me they are delicious. I am a genuine threat to fuck up a whole box of them by myself if there's coffee available. So I always order coffee.

Charles Ellsworth Whinna USMC

Malasadas use yeast, and yeast takes time to work and also is not JP-compliant, so that idea shit the bed before it woke up. In Italy there is another delicious fried thing, the zeppola, and while some zeppole are made of leavened dough, some use beaten egg whites or soda for leavening. I thought I could probably pull that off,* and use the batter to enrobe something savory and delicious. I started the batter by separating two eggs, intending to make the batter with the yolks, then beat the whites and fold them in at the last minute so the batter didn't have time to deflate. To the yolks I added a little sesame oil, yellow curry powder** and salt for flavor and a couple tablespoons of apple juice to provide enough liquid to hydrate the flour. I whisked the yolks until they were lightened somewhat and completely uniform, then added rice flour until the batter was slightly thicker than pancake batter. I expected the batter to thicken slightly as the starch in the flour hydrated, and if I guessed right, when I added the egg whites the composite batter would be thick enough to coat the apples but thin enough to form a nice smooth layer, and aerated enough to puff into an inviting shape when fried.

With that plan, I started on the innards of the zeppole. I cut some apples into thick planks and squared them just enough to get rid of the core and seeds without wasting too much. Each piece ended up being about the size of a matchbox.*** I wrapped each apple chunk with a slice of prosciutto and set them aside. I intended to dunk them in the batter and fry them like pieces of cod, with the light batter forming a puffy orb around them, but for a minute I was baffled by how I would dunk them and transfer them to the oil without marring the coating. Then it occurred to me that I could skewer each piece and use the skewer as a handle to dunk them in the batter and fry them. Bravo me, great idea. Skewers then. I stuck bamboo skewers in all the apple-and-prosciutto hunks. I should probably have soaked the skewers in water for an hour so they wouldn't burn, but I didn't, and ultimately I don't care if they burn. They're little pieces of bamboo, not innocent children. Also, they didn't burn.

With that problem sorted, I started the canola oil heating and returned my attention to the batter. I whipped the egg whites with a drop of rice vinegar until fluffy and folded them into the batter. The rice vinegar acidifies the whites in the manner of cream of tartar, which toughens the protein and stabilizes the foam, but saves me the trouble of having to own a tin of cream of tartar. Other than beating egg whites, what the fuck am I supposed to do with cream of tartar? I could beat the eggs in a copper bowl, which has the same effect, but I'm not a millionaire so I don't own a special egg-white-whipping bowl which sits tarnishing for 360 days a year. A long time ago I saw a thing on TV, maybe Graham Kerr, maybe Julia Child, I don't remember, but the test for when egg whites are properly beaten for inclusion in a batter is to turn the bowl upside-down, and if the whites stay in place then they're done. This is slightly stiffer than "soft peak" stage, but not the completely rigid stiff peak stage. If beaten to stiff peaks, the whites don't incorporate well, and tend to streak or break as they're folded into a batter, defeating their purpose.

The handle-skewer thing worked great. I was able to completely enrobe the apple hunks, move them to the oil and flip them while cooking without marring the coating, and I could even lift them out of the oil to check their color without using tongs. When the zeppole were done, I transferred them to paper towel to drain, and when cool enough to handle, the skewers came out easily. I think I have a kind of awesome thing going with the handle skewer idea. I think I'll call it Moreskewer. I need a patent lawyer right away. Also for Morepencil and Morecupcakes. If you're a patent lawyer and want me to be a millionaire so I can afford a copper egg-white-whipping bowl and a polishing steward to keep the tarnish off it, google up my phone number and give me a tinkle.

The zeppole came out puffy and light just like I had hoped, with a firm exterior skin and a fluffy, soft interior. Traditionally zeppole would be sprinkled with sugar, and I suppose I could have made a mock-icing sugar by grinding salt, white pepper and sesame seeds in a mortar, but I'm lazy, and in service of my laziness I decided that would be tacky. I made a dipping sauce instead. I ran a garlic clove through a microplane to make a puree, then emulsified it with some mustard, sesame oil, rice vinegar, siracha, salt and a little honey. I know, honey isn't JP, but the sauce was a little bitter without it, and it wasn't much.

The apples got warm but stayed firm, making a nice contrast with the puffy dough, and the sweet apple married well with the rich and savory prosciutto. The hint of curry in the dough and the spice in the dipping sauce all made for a multi-layered eating experience in a small package.

Seriously, patent lawyers call me about Moreskewer. It's a goldmine.

*Said the Bishop to the actress.

**I know curry powder is a bastardized version of a masala and unseemly in a proper kitchen. I know using it shows disrespect to the deep and varied cuisine of the Asian subcontinent, and I apologize for that. Regardless, curry powder serves a purpose occasionally and I have some on the shelf. We're not ninjas.

***A box of matches, also a little toy car about the same size. Matches are what people used for fire between the two-sticks-rubbed-together era and the Bic lighter era. Note: the Zippo was a primitive form of Bic.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Team Pork Rides Again

Having made delicious celeriac skordalia to accompany the ass-kicking steak, I naturally wanted to eat more of it. Team Pork worked so well the last time I thought I'd give them another shot. Called them up to the big show. Sent a bus ticket. Made a phone call. Talked their folks into letting them skip college.

I cut nice big slabs of bacon and browned them in a skillet. Poached the sausage to firm it up prior to slicing and browning so the pieces would hold their shape. Worked fantastically, I'm a goddamn genius. I diced a small apple and half an onion and cooked them along with the team. I also cooked a couple of tomatoes in the skillet to serve as a garnish, and they browned nicely in the rendered fat.

I started the plates with a base of celeriac puree, added Team Pork, the tomatoes and some fat leaves of basil and mint from the alley. The alley has been kicking ass lately. Italian basil is producing leaves as big as a shoe and both Thai basil and mint plants are going buck wild. The pepper plants are healthy and heavy with budding peppers, but we won't have any to harvest for a few weeks yet.

The plate was coming together but looked a little under-dressed, so I made an aoli to spiff it up a little. I pureed a clove of garlic with the microplane and emulsified it with an egg yolk, some sesame oil, freshly grated horseradish, rice vinegar, Siracha, salt and pepper. It came out a nice subtle orange color, and when I drizzled it on the plate with some olive oil, the colors made the whole plate look better. The garlic in the celeriac skordalia was still pretty strong, but the peppery spice in the aoili made a nice contrast.

The Electrons made the playoffs again, and unless the league starts testing for alcohol before games we're probably looking at the makings of a dynasty. This summer is developing a nice head of steam for both the Electrons and Team Pork.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fuck it, I'm Fixing a Steak

On my last trip to Paulina Market I spotted some beautifully marbled strip steaks and instantly nabbed them. There were six of the little beauties and I got four just in time, as one of the butchers then emerged from the back and set the other two aside, I'll assume for himself but maybe a favorite client. These steaks were fantastic looking. Three inches thick, ruby red meat capped with sturdy ivory (not yellow) fat, and veins of it running through the meat like a great Nile delta of flavor. This is what I talk about when I talk about steak. I had the butcher wrap two of the steaks separately so I could freeze them, intending to deal with the other two as soon as I got home.

Most of the red meat I've eaten recently has been grilled by Tim Mydhiett in his back yard. He masters a beautiful ceramic egg barbecue oven and tends to rub things on his meat* before sticking it in there*. Lately he has been using a rub of finely-ground espresso, salt, pepper and sumac, and it has been exceptional every time I've had it. I generally dry age beef a few weeks in the fridge before cooking it, but the rub is a pretty good approach for meat being cooked without aging. I wondered if I could incorporate some of the flavors of the rub into the aging process to make the meat even more flavorful, so I set up a little experiment. I intended to cook two steaks, one rubbed and grilled immediately and one rubbed and aged prior to cooking. I made the rub of espresso, salt, black pepper, cinnamon, mustard powder, turmeric, chile de arbol and cardamom seeds ground together in a mortar and pestle, and coated the steaks with it. I didn't have any sumac so I used the other spices for a whiff of the exotic. Yma Sumac was a Nice Jewish girl from the Bronx named Amy Camus anyway.**

As fortune would have it, the Myddiette-Hunter household was planning a dinner of grilled meats and ice cream, so I had an opportunity to try my rub a-la-minute. I say they were planning, but really I called and suggested they make such plans. Sue me.

The grilled steak was excellent, and proved the merit of grabbing good meat the moment you spot it.* Cinnamon by itself doesn't play particularly well on beef, bringing to mind the watery horror that is Cincinnati chili, but when made into a kind of masala with hot pepper and other strong flavors it does wonders. Tim has been working on his ice cream chops and fuck me he makes some delicious shit. He made a pearl green mint-basil-pepper ice cream and a ruby red sorbet of raspberry, cherry and lime juice with some way back mint that both blew my mind. Complex and satisfying, they made me lust after one of those countertop freezers and Tim's ninja skills.

So the first part of the experiment was a rousing success. Meat cooked over fire is delicious, even if you put coffee on it. After sleeping off the effects of the meal I settled into a normal life while the other steak rested and matured in the fridge. When aging beef in this manner there are a couple of things to be aware of. You need to keep the meat elevated so air can get all around it or you risk anaerobic activity and potentially lethal poisoning of yourself and guests. I do this by arranging a couple of skewers or chopsticks on a plate in a grid pattern to make a little rick, and resting the steak on top of it. You need to rotate the steaks a couple of times a month so the juices redistribute and you don't end up with rawhide leather on one end and mush on the other. You need a kitchen towel or something under the meat to absorb the condensation and sweat runoff, and you need to change it frequently or your fridge will smell like a corpse. It will smell like a corpse anyway, I just put that in there so when your fridge smells like a corpse you won't freak out, you'll just change the towel and let the steak do its thing. One of the things it does is smell like a corpse.

Time passed, I learned some things about myself and other people and had a couple laughs. I got a haircut, then a trim of the same haircut and finally a trim of the trimmed haircut. I noticed my eyebrows are still pretty bushy, but have a lot more grey in them than I remembered. I wondered if men go bald in their eyebrows like they do on their heads. There's basically no baldness in my family line. My father, his father and my maternal grandfather all went to their graves with full heads of black hair. I never thought to check their eyebrows. For the better part of a month, I basically forgot I had a beautiful steak in the fridge waiting for me to cook it.

Then out of the blue one evening I was struck with the desire to eat a big fucking steak, and remembered that I had just such a thing waiting in my fridge, smelling like a corpse covered in coffee, and resolved to cook the son of a bitch and eat it. It was big enough that I could feed Heather with some of it and still stuff myself with the remains.

I love eating mashed potatoes with steak, but earlier in the week I had bought a giant celeriac bulb and thought it would make a nice accompanying dish, since mashed potatoes weren't JP. I sweated half a sweet onion and some garlic in olive oil, then added the celeriac and a small apple, both peeled and diced into half-inch cubes, and enough salted water to simmer them. While they were cooking I tended to the steak.

If cooked indoors, I prefer the finish of broiled steaks to any other method of cooking, but I've found that a thick, cold steak cooked under the broiler generally stays cold in the center, and that can make for an unpleasant sensation in the mouth. I have taken to starting the steak in a skillet, then finishing it under the broiler, and the meat comes out nicely rare. I cooked this beauty just like that, with a couple of minutes on top of the stove in olive oil, then another three or four under the screaming hot broiler on each face. I slid a couple of halved tomatoes into the skillet for both episodes of the cooking process to serve alongside the steak.

When the steak was done, I removed it from the skillet and let it rest on the cutting board. This step is critical for aged beef because the peripheral meat can easily dry out if served hot from the fire. I used the resting period to finish the celeriac. I buzzed the contents of the pot (celeriac, apples and onions) with the stick blender until smooth and tasted it. It was good, but I was a little concerned that the strong flavors of the steak would overwhelm it and it would end up being just a kind of neutral matter on the plate. I decided to make the puree into a kind of skordalia by adding some strong olive oil and a couple cloves of fresh garlic. That turned out to be a really good idea. I plated the puree and was about to nestle the tomatoes in it when I remembered that the alley basil had recently bulked up, so I ran out into the alley and grabbed some fat leaves to set the tomatoes on. Little leaf boats. Adorable. I cut the steak into pieces, laid them into the celeriac and drizzled olive oil over them. A little cracked pepper and sea salt and the plate was done.

This meal was exactly what I needed to break the rice-and-greens monotony of the JP diet. A big fucking steak, colored purple and red by the aging process, seared and crackly on the outside, stinking like bleu cheese in a wet sock, on a pillow of savory puree that stung my eyes with its garlic breath. The fat had dried into a kind of cheese, and when I bit through the crust of seared rub and beef essence it bathed my tongue in an unctuous, marrow-like butter. Even the tomatoes were terrific, hot, astringent and wet, they acted like both a salad and steak sauce. I horked the whole plate into my gut like I was trying to impress somebody and lay down on the couch feeling like a fucking emperor. I was asleep in minutes.

Did the rub make any difference in the aged steak? Hell I don't know. A thick, quality steak like this with a couple of weeks dry age on it is so incredibly good you could probably empty out Dave's shop vac on it and it would still rule.

*You heard me.

**No she wasn't.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Vegetable Pilaf with Prosciutto Ribbons and Egg Yolk

The difference between what I would call a pilaf or a risotto is almost the difference between a salad and a soup. Risotto is served pretty wet, with the starch and liquid elements creating a kind of sauce that binds the rice, and risotto can hold its own as an entree. Pilaf has distinct grains and usually accompanies something else. Heather was hungry, but I didn't want to tie myself up in the kitchen for half an hour making a risotto, so I decided to split the difference and make a pilaf with some extra crap on it that would be substantial enough to serve as a meal.

I started by making a sofrito of onions, garlic and carrot and sweating it in some olive oil. Then I added the rice, vegetable stock (did I mention I made stock? It's awesome) and a mashed chipotle pepper and brought it to a boil. Once the stock was boiling, I dunked a plum tomato in it for a few seconds, then retrieved, peeled and chopped it. If you add fresh tomato at the beginning of cooking something like this it mutes the bright flavor and the skin tends to slough off, turning nice tomato pieces into a rubbery rude confetti with bits of mush. I wanted the tomato to be a fresh element, so I reserved it to add at the end of cooking.

Dropping the tomato into the stock immediately lowered the temperature to a simmer, so when I took it out I lowered the fire to compensate and keep the rice at a steady light simmer. I let the rice go for about 12 minutes, then shut it off and let it rest with the lid on until finished, which only takes a couple of minutes. I stirred the diced tomato and reserved juice into the rice and plated it, plopping an egg yolk in the middle of the rice. The hot rice denatures the yolk slightly, changing it from a runny liquid to a capsule of creamy, rich sauce, which I imagined Heather stirring into the rice after making a flattering "ooh" sound. She probably didn't make the sound, but imagining it is what keeps me going some times.

We had some very nice imported prosciutto from Paulina Market, so I cut a slice of it into ribbons and draped them over the pilaf, then sprinkled some chopped alley parsley and alley mint over the whole plate. A quick drizzle of olive oil, some fresh cracked pepper and crunchy sea salt and the plate was done. The rice itself had much of the flavor of the stock and sofrito, the yolk made itself into a rich sauce, the prosciutto was prosciutto and therefore awesome, and the herbs, tomato, olive oil and pepper added a bright vegetal top note.

I made two plates, one for Heather and one for me, and when I stirred the egg yolk into the rice I made a little "ooh" sound, in imitation of the sound I imagined Heather would make when she did the same. This bit of business allowed me the satisfaction of inducing an "ooh," even if it was a self-satisfied one and not the genuine article. I'm too old to care about such distinctions and sometimes I just "ooh" at my own food. Fuck it, nobody's listening.

Sausage Dumplings in Gravy

I had a blowout on my hands. A band was scheduled to do a one-day session, during which they intended to record and overdub three songs, an ambitious amount of work to do in a day even under normal circumstances. Over the course of a couple hours at the start of the day, two tape machines and the air conditioning unit for studio A all took a dump. Given that we were short-staffed, moving a third tape machine in from the second floor would take a long-ass time and the studio was getting uncomfortably warm, so the band decided to pull the plug. I felt awful about the studio letting the band down, so I offered them an additional day on the house so they would have enough time to get done what they wanted without feeling rushed. The whole thing put me in a rotten mood, and by the time everyone split it was early evening, so I decided to invent something for dinner to take my mind off it. I had been thinking about boiled dumplings, and wondered if I could enrobe something in a dumpling dough to make a more complex, less stodgy dish.

Don't get me wrong, I love plain dumplings in soup or stew, but I wanted something less solid, and with surprises inside. We still had a couple of fresh bratwurst from Paulina Market, and sausage is a pretty good surprise*. Instead of mixing uncased sausage into a forcemeat filling, I decided to cut the sausage into little nuggets and surround them with minced vegetables inside the dumplings. To firm them up prior to cutting into portions, I put them in a pot of cold water and turned on the fire. While they were coming up to temperature, I made the vegetable portion of the filling.

I had made lunch for Heather to take to work the day before, some little rice paper parcels full of mixed greens, which I decorated by including some colorful herbs, vegetables and apple. I only needed a half-dozen slices of apple for her lunch, so I sliced and dressed the rest of the apple for future use. I made a vinaigrette of rice vinegar, mustard, sesame oil and some left-over steak rub containing ground espresso coffee, yellow curry powder, salt, pepper and ground chile de arbol, and coated the apple slices with it. After marinating overnight, they were slightly pickled and chutney-like. I diced the apple slices fine, and did the same with some slices of carrot, ginger, red pepper and plum tomato, then mixed them all together with the residual apple dressing and a couple of mashed garlic cloves.

The sausages had come up to a simmer, which was enough to make them firm, so I took them out of the water and let them rest and stabilize until time to make the dumplings and turned my attention to the dough.

Since rice flour has virtually no gluten (the rice flour marked "glutenous" is actually a nearly pure starch useful primarily as a gelling agent), I needed to bind the dough with something to keep it together. Normally I'd use eggs, but the fat in the yolk tends to weaken the dough. The interior of these dumplings was going to be lumpy and wanted a pretty sturdy casing, so I used a couple of egg whites instead, mixing them into a mixture of rice flour and brown rice flour. This also had the effect of keeping the dough a pure white. When the dough had come together I let it rest for a moment while I cut the sausages into inch-long segments.

For each dumpling, I patted the dough into a circle, then filled the middle with a spoonful of the vegetables and a sausage nugget, then pleated the dough closed and rolled everything together into a smooth ball between my hands. The dough was barely holding together, and if I tried anything more decorative it was likely to tear or puncture. I placed the dumplings in simmering salted water and let them bob around until done. The hot water cooked the egg whites and stabilized the shape so the dumplings were sturdy enough to manipulate once they came up to temperature.

While the dumplings were poaching I made the gravy. I started by putting the remaining vegetable compote in a skillet with some olive oil, and when everything had caramelized slightly I added some vegetable stock and some leftover saffron rice. Once everything was cooked soft, I ran a stick blender through it. The rice thickened the gravy without the pasty effect a refined starch can leave in your mouth. After seating the dumpling in the gravy I dotted the bowl with some Siracha for spice and color, snipped some nori shreds over the bowl with scissors and scattered some black volcanic sea salt. I was happy with the result.

The next night I made another gravy for the remaining dumplings using apple, tomato and onion, but the leftover rice was gone, so I used a roasted red pepper to provide body instead, and the gravy came out a nice deep red color. I made a quick mayonnaise with olive oil, mustard and fresh horseradish, and dotted the sauce with that in a kind of photo-negative mimic of the Siracha.

I got so wrapped up in making the dumplings I totally forgot I was in a rotten mood. I hear that's why alcoholics drink booze. I hope I don't have a problem.

*Really? That's where we're going with this?

Monday, July 18, 2011


Since she started up with the JP, I have been trying not just to make dinner for Heather, but some kind of portable lunch when possible so she doesn't have to go off script if she gets hungry at work. I know what she likes, but sometimes it's hard to make something portable. Tupperware tubs of soup can be hard to reheat or serve from, and a lot of what I make is only really presentable when served hot. The one solution has been spring rolls, but mercy, how many damn spring rolls can a girl eat without feeling put upon. It was time to try something new to keep the spark alive.* Hyachacha.

I like the effect of bitter greens being tempered by a sour dressing or tart fruit, so I decided to make some little rice paper parcels with greens and a savory dressing, but I shuddered at the thought of Heather confronting a drab hockey puck of cooked greens staring up at her from a plastic tub. Hulk Smash mint out in the alley had come into flower, and I thought I could use the buds and leaves to add some visual interest, with a slice of apple framing them inside a contrasting background.

The Greens were pretty standard. I wilted kale and leeks with some sliced garlic in some bacon fat and a splash of vegetable stock, and once they were cooked I mixed in some fresh basil, mint and parsley leaves from the alley. While the greens were cooling down I made the dressing. The dressing was also pretty standard, some sesame oil, Siracha, chopped garlic and hot mustard whisked together into a quick vinaigrette. The hot elements contrasted nicely with the cool herbs and the acid complimented the bitterness of the greens, making the effect savory and complex rather than rude.

Also drank a shot of the pot liquor. Fuck me delicious. Somebody's gonna make a fortune off pot liquor.

For each parcel I soaked a square rice paper sheet in hot water and laid it out on a damp kitchen towel like a baseball diamond, then arranged a mint bud or other leaf and a slice of golden apple as decorations, occasionally accenting them with some shaved carrot strips or sliced tomato, then mounded the greens on the apple slice and doused them with the dressing. When bound up in the rice paper the visual effect was gauzy and muted, which had the rather nice effect of making the parcels seem less clinical, less like botanical specimens.

Look, I know this is a kind of trick. It's basically a spring roll in a different shape, and the decorations don't really change the eating experience, but cut me a little slack here. I'm trying to make it so Heather doesn't get bored or have to hide in her office eating some mud-colored putty while everybody else is whooping it up with pizzas and caramel macchiati.** 

That's what they do there. They whoop it up.

*Attributed to unspecified woman, possibly an actress.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Huevos con Papas sin Papas

One of Heather's favorite breakfasts has long been huevos con papas. Growing up, she had close family friends who made them for her, and I'm certain it appeals to her because it's both delicious and nostalgic. She can usually put away four or five of these breakfast tacos, stuffed with fried potatoes and eggs, usually with some onion, sometimes chorizo, and always with cilantro, jalapeño and lime juice for flavor. While she's on the JP, I strive to make her meals as appealing as her favorites from the regular world, and I decided to try to make a breakfast that was evocative of huevos con papas, but without the forbidden lime juice and potatoes. I have my doubts about tortillas as well. They seem far too bread-like to be permissible, but from the crude rules we operate by (taken from memory of a single conversation over 15 years ago), they've always been fair game. To be on the safe side, and because we didn't have any tortillas in the house, I decided to use spring roll wrappers instead.

I started by making a sofrito of onion, garlic, fennel and diced linguisa, which were all cooked together in olive oil until the linguisa had rendered a little fat and color and the vegetables were soft and giving, with a hint of caramelization. While that was underway I prepared the eggs. I beat three eggs and some sesame oil, lightened with a little vegetable stock, until they were absolutely smooth, then I added chopped parsley and fennel fronds, salt, pepper and some Mexican oregano, crushed. When the vegetables were ready, I folded the eggs into the skillet, moving them around until just shy of being set. Eggs keep cooking for a couple of minutes after they come off the heat, so I always take them off while shiny and slightly wet.

Instead of potatoes, I used slices of avocado to support the eggs inside the spring roll, wrapping them together with some cilantro, scallions, crunchy sea salt and juilienne of ginger and jalapeño. When cooked conventionally, the potatoes would be soft and rich, having absorbed considerable olive oil or butter, and the buttery, smooth avocado was a pretty good potato proxy. The visual effect was a little drab, but when served with some salsa the whole dish looked okay. The salsa came out of a jar, and I'm sure it had some non-JP elements, but fuck it, we're not ninjas.

The linguisa was a nice alternative to chorizo, which can be a little greasy and loose, and the overall effect was solidly tasty. It wasn't really that much like huevos con papas, but it was pretty good. Pretty good. That's what we're shooting for folks, pretty good.