Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Couple-Tree Frittate

A frittata is a great way to make something more substantial than a snack but less filling than a meal. It's hearty enough to be satisfying but doesn't leave you feeling stuffed and immobile. The first frittata was made with leftover risotto, bound with eggs and cooked entirely in the sauté pan. The risotto has the effect of adding additional moisture and softening the texture of the egg curd, so for a frittata of this type I wouldn't add any milk, water or stock to extend the eggs. When the frittata was nicely browned, I turned it out on the plate and garnished it with some diced heirloom tomato, rosettes of prosciutto, a chiffonade of mint and a siracha-garlic aoli with sesame oil and smoked paprika.

The mint plant has made the anger-shift from Bruce Banner to Incredible Hulk out back in the alley. Probably got peed on by something.* Forgive me honey we'll be garnishing with mint until he calms down.

The second frittata was formed in the skillet and finished under the broiler. I'll explain why in a minute. I've been on a kind of fennel kick lately, and I happened to find another apple-bottomed beauty at Andy's, so I offered her a cigarette and talked her into going home with me. Didn't get her name. Still got it fellas, just like Hef, hyachachacha. I sliced the fennel super thin, preserving the core for nice big fan-shaped pieces.

I started the whole affair with some 1/2-inch cubes of Paulina Market's house-smoked bacon and a little olive oil. Super delicious bacon. When the bacon was colored all over but not yet hard and gnarly, I added the fennel slices and sautéed them until they were just starting to color. I waited until the fennel was almost done to add some diced roasted red pepper and chopped garlic. I didn't want to risk overcooking them because the fennel can take her goddamn time getting ready jesus what are you doing in there come on we're already late. No you look fantastic. No the other one was not better. Okay if you think so but hurry. Yes you look fantastic. Jesus now with the hair. Are you kidding me.

While all that was going on I prepared the eggs. I used four eggs, mixed with a splash of sesame oil, some grated nutmeg, black pepper and a couple tablespoons of vegetable stock to lighten the curd. I chopped a couple of scallions and a handful of the fennel fronds real fine and mixed them with the eggs. I poured the eggs over the fennel and bacon, lowered the fire to moderate and covered the skillet to set the eggs. After a couple of minutes the bottom of the frittata was set but the top still had lagoons of runny egg. If I left the pan on the fire to set the frittata completely the bottom would most likely toughen and be unpleasant to eat, so I moved the skillet into the broiler to finish. I didn't want to brown the top or make a hard crust of it, just set the eggs without too much color and without toughening the bottom.

When the top of the frittata was set, I garnished it with the remaining chopped fennel frond, some celery leaves, a dusting of smoked paprika, olive oil and sea salt.

Comparing the two frittate (note pretentious italian plural), the risotto frittata had a fuller mouth sensation, almost like a rice pudding due to the bulking effect of the risotto, and the binding effect of the egg was helped along by the caramelization of the surface, which forms a kind of membrane and keeps the interior moist. The fennel frittata had a more substantial texture due to the big pieces of vegetables, but the mediating egg was soft and giving. They are fundamentally different dishes, despite sharing eggs as a principle ingredient and being made in the same skillet.

*Not what she said. I'm not going to do that for you every time.**

** That's what she said.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sushi Ninjas are Bullshit

Like everybody else who's been to a sushi bar, I assumed making sushi and maki rolls was some arcane and skilled art, full of difficult technique and requiring years of practice like glass blowing or finding the G-spot. Sushi chefs and aficionados encourage these assumptions and act like they're initiates into a select order. It takes two years before an apprentice is allowed to touch a knife. They practice rolling sheets of brass to build their finger muscles. They climb a mountain to a retreat where elders teach the technique for stirring rice. They walk silently and can kill with a single touch. They shit bonbons and sneeze kittens. They have the power of flight and their jism tastes like peach schnapps. Turns out it's a fucking scam and anybody can do it. Piece of cake. Lets go through the misconceptions the sushi mafia has instilled into our consciousness one by one.

  • You need special rice
  • You need to condition the rice after cooking
  • You need a sushi mat
  • Proportions are critical
  • You need a special technique for rolling
All bullshit. I used regular Calrose rice. I soaked it for a couple hours in water while I did other things, then rinsed it and cooked it in vegetable stock like normal rice. I didn't do anything to it after it was cooked, didn't let it ferment over night, didn't add any vinegar, didn't do anything, just spooned it onto the nori and spread it out. I didn't have a sushi mat, so I laid the nori on a kitchen towel. I have no idea how much rice is standard, so I covered about two thirds of the sheet with rice and then stacked the filling toward the front edge. I didn't know how to get the rolling started, so I just lifted the front edge of the kitchen towel and folded it over, continuing the until the nori was wrapped around the middles. Worked fine the very first time.

For the middle, I sliced and marinated some scorched-and-peeled red pepper filets in grated ginger, horseradish, garlic and sesame oil, and stacked them with some smoked ham, julienne of celery and mint leaves. I can't believe how easy it was to make totally tasty nori rolls. The JP doesn't permit soy sauce, so I started an attempt at a dipping sauce made with olive oil, siracha and horseradish, but it turned out to be totally unnecessary as the rolls went down great nude.*

I know these aren't beautiful, but they totally hold up as food, and that's a lot closer than the lore of the Sushi Ninja would have you believe possible for just winging it. Makes me want to try my hand at cataract surgery or watchmaking next.

*You probably thought this was going to be that's what she said, but no, it was just a comment about the rolls not needing a sauce. Cock. Double cock. Made you look at double cocks just now.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Pici with Bacon and Greens

Since most of my meals incorporate pasta, the Jimmy Page diet poses some particular challenges. Noodles made with rice flour are softer than usual and require a little more care, and they don't behave the same way on the fork or between your teeth. I've found that rolling rice pasta in a machine exacerbates its drawbacks, so I tend to make hand-formed noodles, like these pici, a long pasta with a slightly thicker diameter than spaghetti.

I made the pasta with rice flour, seasoned with a little salt and lemon zest, olive oil and egg yolks, reserving the whites for another use. I'm aware that Heather could get bored of eating rice pasta while she's on the JP, so I intend to make different styles of noodle, and one element of variety will be using just yolks in this one and just whites in another, firmer pasta.

The pasta came together quickly, but I let the dough mass rest for an hour anyway to fully hydrate and minimize the graininess I've encountered with rice flour in the past. Heather's diet is particular about acids and doesn't allow citrus juice or citric acid, but the zest of the fruit is mostly oil, so I use it occasionally. It doesn't make for lemon flavor exactly, it just brightens the taste of whatever you eat with the noodle. Instead of dividing the dough, I just pinched off portions and rolled out each noodle on the cutting board. The rice dough is a little fragile, so I had to keep the noodles to about eight inches or shorter to prevent breaking.

The condiment started with some lardons of smoked bacon cooking in olive oil, and when they were browned a little I added diced red onion, julienne of ginger, sliced garlic and some mixed greens including spinach, arugula and mint from the alley. I normally splash a little vinegar on greens to wet them and mediate their bitterness, but like I said the diet is particular about acids, and the only vinegar allowed is rice vinegar, which I don't have. In place of the vinegar to help wilt the greens and provide a liquor for the sauce, I added a ladle of vegetable stock.When the liquor had reduced almost to serving consistency, I dropped the pici into salted boiling water. They firmed up when cooked, but didn't swell nearly as much as typical noodles made with white flour.

The noodles were fragile enough that I didn't want to risk breaking them by tossing them in the sauce, so I plated the noodles, then spooned the greens and bacon on top and garnished with some olive oil, parmigiano, chopped celery leaves, pepper and sea salt. The noodles were substantial enough to carry the greens, but not rubbery or tough, and the greens enriched by the bacon made a lovely compliment. A paradox of the JP is that it's a weight-loss diet, but it doesn't prohibit rich flavorful ingredients like bacon and olive oil, so making satisfying meals is less of a struggle than with a purely calorie-restriction diet. Well bowled JP, well bowled.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Apple Celery Risotto with Ripe Tomato and Carrots

A few years ago I went to England to work on a record for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. The record kept me there from the beginning of July until Christmas, so I was away from Heather for an extended period and grew homesick. One night the late movie on BBC4 was the Blues Brothers, a movie I love, and I settled into my little accommodation to watch it. A few minutes in, seeing shots of Maxwell Street and hearing all the Chicago accents, I started blubbering like a baby. I called Heather and complained of my loneliness and she arranged to come visit me. She came to hang out in the studio and Jimmy and Robert were gracious and friendly with her, and in conversation she mentioned that since I'd been gone she'd been deprived of home cooking and had put on weight. Jimmy Page volunteered that he knew a terrific weight loss diet. His exact words were "I lost a stone in a fortnight. It just melts off you."

Heather, hanging out with Jim and Bob

A stone is 14 pounds and a fortnight is 14 days, so that's quick work. The diet as he described it is a list of prohibitions rather than a menu to choose from. No refined sugar, no wheat or gluten, no mushrooms, yeast or other fungus, nothing fermented unless distilled (beer and wine not okay, distilled booze okay), rice vinegar only, no beans or legumes, no citrus and no dairy (small amounts of non-cow cheese and parmigiano permitted). Heather adopted the Jimmy Page diet and lost a bunch of weight, as advertised. While she was on the diet, I had to adapt to its restrictions when cooking and I'll admit that it improved my versatility and flexibility as a cook. Heather has decided she wants to lose some weight again, so she's back on the JP, and I'll probably be posting a couple of Page-compliant meals as a result. While I'm not interested in "diet food," most of my meals are improvised around what ingredients are available, and this just makes a few things unavailable. While Heather was in her previous JP phase I never felt like the eating suffered as a result.

Risotto is a natural replacement for pasta, so for the first JP meal I settled on that. For a condiment I saw that we had a couple of nice reticulated heirloom tomatoes, some ripe plum tomatoes and a bag of little carrots. I get nervous when I see vegetables in a bag, but Heather loves carrots and there they were. I have mentioned that I'd been using Vegeta for vegetable stock, but I thought I'd use the Jimmy Page diet as an excuse to make a nice vegetable stock and keep it handy for soup and such, so I started a stock pot with an onion and a couple ribs of celery, bay leaves, about an inch of ginger, the trimmings and core of the apple I diced for the risotto and a handful each of parsley and cilantro. After it came to a boil, I added a splash of fish sauce and left it simmering on the stove so it would be hot when I added it to the risotto.

I started the risotto with an apple, some onion and celery, all diced pretty small. I sweated them in olive oil and when they were soft, added the rice and toasted it in the hot oil until it was opaque. The risotto was conventional, I just stirred in stock every few minutes until it was incorporated and the rice had a nice, loose texture. I prefer risotto to be a little wet when served, because it firms up as it cools but shouldn't ever solidify into a lump. It should always have a loose consistency or it feels too heavy to eat*.

While the stock was simmering, I dropped in a plum tomato and heirloom tomato for a few seconds, then peeled them and set them aside. I also put a strainer into the stock to create a reservoir, and poached the little carrots in it while the risotto was underway. When the risotto was done, I plated a ladle of it, then chopped the heirloom tomato and scattered it around the perimeter of the plate. It was quite loose and wet inside*, and the jelly and juice made for a kind of sauce. I sprinkled chopped mint and parsley on the risotto, then split the plum tomato into wedges and used them to dress the middle of the plate, adding the carrots and a little sprig of celery leaf. With a little drizzle of olive oil and some sea salt on the tomatoes, the plate looked nice.

I'm not sure what to think about those little carrots. They came out of a bag*. (v) without fish sauce

*Definitely not what she said.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Spring Rolls with Kale, Leeks, Fennel, Avocado, Orange and Mint

I figured out why the springroll wrappers have been splitting on me. I lay the wrappers on a kitchen towel to fill them, but the skins are very sticky prior to being fully hydrated. In order not to pick up lint from the towel, I would let the wrappers fully saturate so they would only stick to themselves. I had a little eureka moment when I realized I could use a wet towel and a slightly-less-than-fully-saturated skin fresh from the water bath, which would have some surface water clinging to it. The wrappers are much sturdier this way, don't pick up any lint, and they continue to hydrate after forming the rolls from the residual water. Much better results.

This week's trip to Andy's Fruit Ranch* was less than productive, as the produce looked pretty sad. Apart from some beautiful, fat lobes of ginger and a some nice leeks there wasn't much going on, so I had to suffer the produce section of Jewel. There's always quite a bounty there, but most of it is industrially-farmed crap, pretty and waxy on the surface, plump and perfectly formed for packing in crates but with the flavor and aroma of wet cotton. I've never bitten into anything from the Jewel and had my mind blown the way I have from about any farm stand or a good week at Andy's. Their shit is "that'll do I guess" caliber and never better. This week's that'll do items were a serviceable avocado, a pithy navel orange, a bunch of kale (how can you fuck up kale, it's awesome) and some fennel. I found a female fennel again, possibly a cousin of Latifa since she had a similar sass and ample caboose.

After splitting and washing the leeks I chopped them into fine shreds and wilted them in some olive oil. When they were soft, I added the kale, chopped into ribbons, about an inch of the ginger and the fennel bulb, both cut in julienne. I added salt, a couple sliced cloves of garlic and a splash of white wine, then let everything cook down into a dense green stew. When everything was tender I added the zest and juice of a lemon off the heat. I prefer not to cook lemon into greens, but rather use it as a dressing, as cooked it tends to synthesize weird overtones and seems less astringent. Vinegar seems to suffer this less, but because I intended to use orange in the rolls I didn't want to complicate the acidity by using both vinegar and citrus, which always tastes weird and like poison to me. I've never had poison. Wait... the salty lemonade at the Indian place Heather took us last summer, that was poison and it smelled like a dirty vadge.

I let the greens rest and cool in a bowl, and tried a sip of the pot liquor. Jesus I love the liquor you get from cooking greens like this. If they bottled it I'd drink it like Fresca. Devin needs to come up with a cocktail based on this shit, he'd be bartender-famous, which is like internet-famous but with a slur, a lean and a little wobble. "Fuckin' Devin man best fucking kale pot liquor caipirinhas, best ginger lemongrass daquiris, best chef pants... I love that guy..." I zested the orange and cut a bunch of supremes, and added the zest and byproduct juice to the greens.

I made the rolls by laying down a little carpet of mint leaves and fennel fronds, then laid in the greens with a slice of avocado and a couple of supremes of orange, which have a kind of natural agrodolce effect and an interesting texture. The avocado wasn't as tasty as I had hoped, but the buttery texture and oily richness were really good, and the colors looked smart through the translucent skin.

The rolls were good on their own, but the interior astringency hit your mouth before the avocado richness, and tended to make the initial sensation a little hard on the mouth, so I made a dipping sauce to make the initial impression a little gentler. The dipping sauce was pretty simple, some mustard, mayonnaise, soy sauce, Siracha and toasted sesame oil.

The best thing about using a spring roll wrapper is that it allows neat pairings of flavors and mouth effects. If a plate had all these elements on it, you'd need to construct an elaborate Alinea-style eating regimen to get the full effect of the ingredients. "What chef would like you to do is take the spoon in one hand and the forchetta in the other." They would totally call it a forchetta like that wasn't an asshole thing to do. "With the spoon, pick up some of the sauce, then nestle the fennel frond and lay a mint leaf on top of it. With the forchetta, move some of the greens-and-fennel onto the spoon, then stab the avocado and orange slices together, and in a kind of one-two motion, chef would like you to get the contents of both the spoon and forchetta in your mouth before biting down. Enjoy."

Eating one of these rolls did pretty much exactly what I wanted. The sauce opens your palette, then you taste the greens and feel the bite of the acid, then both the richness of the avocado and the texture and agrodolce effect of the orange kick in, have a party, get drunk on pot-liquor caipirinhas and fuck on the sofa. Finally the minty quality of the herbs lingers in your mouth as a denouement for a while. I just said denouement like it wasn't an asshole thing to do. (v)

*Should totally be the name of a gay bar featuring Devin's pot liquor caipirinhas.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Ham and Apple Soup with Pastini

Using leftover stuff to make something for dinner is one of my principle occupations as a cook, and every single thing in this soup was a remnant. There were a few scraps of pasta left after making strozzapreti, so I diced them super fine into pastini and saved them in a ramekin, prescient that I would make soup sooner or later. When Heather professed her starvation I did a reconnaissance of the kitchen, finding a few pieces of cooked ham, a shallot and a solitary apple available. I thought I could make all that into a soup.

I diced the ham, shallot, a knuckle of ginger and a couple cloves of garlic fine and sweated them in the soup pot with a little butter and olive oil. While they were working I grated the apple. I was surprised how the volume of the apple reduced when grated. This was a pretty big apple and it only produced about half a cup of grated apple, which was also quite wet. I used a relatively fine grater, perhaps that's why. I added it to the pot and let it cook with the aromatics. When everything had dried out a bit and become familiar, but before getting any color, I added about a glass of white wine and let the alcohol boil off.

I didn't want to make a heavy soup, just something with nice flavor, so instead of stock I used plain water and the heel of an exhausted wedge of parmigiano. Parmigiano rind is a good way to add richness without muddying the flavor of a light soup, as the complex chemistry of this particular cheese includes salts, some milk fats, the aromatic products of aging and some MSG. You can actually make a decent meatless stock by chopping up several parmigiano heels and simmering them. I've been curious to try a clarified consommé of parmigiano made like this, maybe gussied up with some chives, chervil or tarragon. Another project for after I go deaf and have a bunch of time on my hands.

They used to make a frozen foamed essence of Parmigiano at El Bulli that was described in print as "a wisp of air that tasted like the cheese." I saw a demonstration of it on some cooking show. Apparently they made a broth of an entire wheel of Parmigiano, whipping air into it and collecting the foam, then froze the foam inside a serving vessel. That might be the number one example of what bugs me about molecular gastronomy, nashing* an entire wheel of beautiful cheese to make a frozen novelty wisp of nothing, and the best thing you can say about it is that it tastes like cheese. Pretty sure the cheese itself already tasted like cheese there Pepe.

When the stock had formed around the ingredients, I removed the parmigiano heel before it started to break down, added the pastini and let it simmer for a couple of minutes. I used those couple of minutes to run to the alley and grab some mint for a garnish. When I got there I realized that old man sage plant had not just survived the winter outdoors in his mud bucket but had come back full throttle, ready to throw down and get his swerve on with big downy leaves already in evidence. I've always liked the combination of fresh sage, apple and pork when mediated by butter, and along with the butter used at the start I thought the parmigiano heel would serve the same purpose, so I chopped a couple leaves of old man sage along with the mint. Way to go old man, let's get you laid. Don't let anybody tell you you're too old to party.

I stirred a handful of the herbs into the soup and gave it a final taste. It had a nice aroma and feel in my mouth but was initially a little polite on my tongue. I regretted not using any hot pepper in the original sofrito, but I remedied this by compounding a mayonnaise using Siracha, some vinegar and a little honey, and drizzled it in a swirl on top of the soup in its bowl. It looked nice and added the desired peppery insult. The soup now expressed itself over time, initially with the scent of the herbs and ginger, then the taste and texture of savory elements and pastini, richness from the slightly sweet broth, a nice lingering salinity, and finally a little throat burn from the siracha in the dressing. It was a pretty good soup.

*Nash is a Louisville term I learned from Clark Johnson. It means to waste something unnecessarily, as when a party guest leaves a half beer on a shelf someplace and then gets himself a fresh one. Nashing a beer is a beating offense, or used to be. I could propose a range of punishments for nashing a wheel of parmigiano reggiano, with beating on one end of the scale and howling nightmares of the Inquisition on the other.