Or, Let baigans be baigans.

Get it?  See, 'baigan' is Hindi for 'eggplant'.  And it sounds like 'bygone'.  I AM GOOD AT JOKES.

I’ve got another wine to pair with food for Raffi and Margaret over at Tuscany Distributors.  This week, it’s the Graffi white Pinot Noir, which has a pleasant, apple-y taste and scent, and a nice crispness when we drank it at about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which is maybe 20 minutes out of the fridge.

They also call them 'brinjals'.  I like that, too.

I planned an Indian meal around this wine: Madhur Jaffrey’s Baigan Bharta, from her lamentably out-of-print An Invitation To Indian Cooking, a book which I first encountered at my college roommate’s home in New Jersey; his mom served us some delicious chana masala – spiced chickpeas – and I eagerly inquired after their provenance.  Her copy was battered, taped-together, and falling apart.  If I were a cookbook, I don’t think I could imagine a greater honor.  Last year, visiting Heather and Kyle in Seattle, I found a copy in excellent condition in a used bookshop.  I pounced on it, explaining unnecessarily to the clerk that I had been looking for this book for some time.  She made a noncommittal noise of congratulation and indicated toward the register, as if to say, “So?  You gonna buy it or what?”  I purchased the book and left, feeling a little embarrassed.  And then I recalled a story from earlier in the week: I was taking the bus back to West Seattle from downtown, and I found myself seated across from a man reading a book titled How to Talk to People.  I tried, and failed, to strike up a conversation with this man:

“Hi, how’s it going?” I said.

“Uh.  Good.”

“I noticed your book.”

“My book?” he said, somewhat alarmed.

“Yes.  It, ah.  It’s called How to Talk to People.”

“Oh. Heh.  Yes it is.”

“How is that going?”

“Not well.”  He smiled weakly and looked away.

Basically, either Seattle is demonstrably weird and full of introverts who don’t like to be bothered, or I just kinda suck.  Either or.  Heather and Kyle have since moved to Los Angeles, if that’s any indication.  ANYWAY.  EGGPLANTS.

I also served a rajma dal, which is nothing more than slow-cooked red kidney beans and lentils, some steamed brown rice (throw in a half-stick of cinnamon and three cracked cardamom pods for a delicate fragrance – it doesn’t have a strong taste on its own, but it complements other Northern Indian foods nicely.), and some roti, although this would go quite well with naan.

This here is what the rice looks like when it's done.

The Graffi white Pinot Noir isn’t particularly dry, but neither would I call it sweet – it tastes of apple without being apple juice-y.  The heat of this dish blooms on your tongue when you follow a bite with a sip of wine – I wouldn’t use it to kill the heat; that ain’t what wine’s for anyhow.

You’re probably wondering, too: “Wait a second – I thought Pinot Noir was a red wine grape.  How is this a white wine?  Wouldn’t that make it a Pinot Grigio?”

That’s what I thought, too – but it turns out that Pinot Grigio is another grape varietal entirely.  You can, it turns out, make white wine from red grapes.  It sounds like a somewhat fiddly process, and apparently Pinot Noir is the most popular grape varietal to do this with.  To the recipe!

Madhur Jaffrey’s Baigan Bharta
Serves 4; adapted from Jaffrey’s Invitation to Indian Cooking

The Setup

You will need:

  • 3 large eggplant, washed and dried
  • 1 large onion, cut into quarters or eighths.
  • 2 inches of ginger
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • 1 smallish jalapeno chile, with or without the seeds (depending on your heat preference)
  • 1 can diced roasted tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
  • Lemon juice
  • salt to taste

Part of the traditional way in which this recipe is prepared is to take the eggplant and sear them over an open flame, or cook them in the ashes of a fire; I find that you still get an excellent smokiness when you broil them, but to assist that flavor, I like to use those ‘flame-roasted’ canned tomatoes that pretty much everyone makes nowadays.

Also, feel free to replace the vegetable oil with ghee (clarified butter), although I can honestly say I’ve never even tasted the stuff.  As it stands now, however, this recipe totally counts as Vegan.  Oh man, and I didn’t even do it on purpose.  Incidentally, if you buy dairy-free products online, check out my friend’s Amazon store, All Dairy-Free.

The Heist

1.  First, set your oven’s broiler to “HIGH”.  While it heats up, start prepping everything – you might as well!  Open the can of tomatoes; measure out your spices; quarter the onion, and peel the garlic and ginger.  When the oven hits temperature, put your eggplants (be sure to remove those produce stickers!) on a broiler pan and put them under the heat.  Broil for 20 to 25 minutes.  You could check on these every ten, and turn them with tongs (which I recommend, to keep ‘em from sticking), or you could simply let them go for the whole time – it’s not the end of the world if they get stuck to the pan; you’re trying to get the skin off anyhow.  Make sure your sink is empty.

Go on now, get to cuttin'!

2. While the eggplant is broiling, plop a few of the onion pieces, as well as the ginger and garlic, into the beaker of an immersion blender or a regular blender.  Pour in a few tablespoons of water, and blend into a paste – get everything incorporated, once the first big things of onion are all annihilated.  You’re going to want this to be nice and smooth and even.

Splorp. Brian indicates his approval.

3.  When the timer goes off, and the skin of the eggplants are nice and blackened, pull them out, and put the broiler tray directly into your sink and let the water run over the eggplants.  As the water cools them off, peel the burnt skin off with your hands, keeping the stem ends of the eggplants attached.  Put these in a colander or a deep bowl or a colander set over a deep bowl.  They’re gonna be a trifle wet.

It's a mighty fine smell they got, I tell you wut.

They’ll look like this when you’ve peeled ‘em:

Splorp.

4. Get out a nice big saute pan – nonstick is probably best – and heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in there (I would recommend something neutral like canola or peanut oil, rather than olive oil).  When the oil is nice and ribbony-hot (waggle the pan around and watch to see what it does), pour the onion-garlic-ginger paste from your beaker/blender, add the turmeric and garam masala, and cook over medium heat, poking it about with your spatula intermittently, for about five to seven minutes.  While you’re doing this, chop the cilantro, reserving half of it for a garnish.  Then chop the jalapeno pepper.

We cannae escape the maelstrom, captain! We're goin' dooooooooon.  Doon.  Doon.

5.  When the aromatic paste has reduced a little bit, and turned somewhat brown, add the jalapeno chile and the tomatoes (with all their juice), as well as the cilantro.  Cook this for about ten minutes, and while it’s working, cut the eggplant into smallish pieces.

Yeah, I made the mistake of  putting too many chiles in this one - it was a trifle unpleasant to eat.  I have since ironed out this error, and the recipe will reward you with a heat that is warming, but not punishing.

6.  High five!  You’re almost done.  Add in the eggplant and cook for 15 minutes.  Add salt and lemon juice to taste, as well as cilantro for garnish.

This is an earlier and less chilefied version.  And it was goddamn delicious.

7. Serve promptly: spoon it onto a plate, scoop it up with a piece of naan and some rice, and chase it with a sip of wine.

Wash 'er down.

Enjoy!  Or, as they say in Punjabi, भोग कीजिए! (bhog keejeeae – have a pleasurable meal!)

Happy cooking!

-D

A quick procedural note: this entry will begin a series of recipes commissioned by my friends Margaret and Raffi, who run the Ohio arm of an Italian wine distribution company.  They gave me and Carolyn a rather staggering quantity of wine, and in return, I’m going to write a series of recipes that pair each of those wines with a dish or a meal.  (If you ask me, it’s a pretty excellent deal.)  To those of you who have come here because of a Tuscany Distributors wine tasting hosted by Margaret and Raffi, welcome!  I hope you enjoy this recipe, and stick around for the rest of this series.

These are wines designed to be weeknight dinner wines – something to replace the somewhat blah, mass-market sameness of Barefoot or Yellow Tail wines.  Those wines have their place, and it’s when you’re hosting a party and you don’t want to blow a lot of money per bottle.  I’m no expert in pairing (although Margaret is; she’s a trained sommelière), but I’ll try to match these Tuscan wines with foods that complement their flavors.

Let’s get started!

Hello, beautiful.  Did I drink you all on my lonesome?  Possibly.

This Chianti is spicy and full-bodied, and I suppose tradition dictates that you pair it with rich red meat, but Margaret said it’d be perfectly fine to pair it with roasted poultry.  I wanted to play the peppery spiciness of this wine off of something fun and different, and that was the impetus behind this recipe.  I know aioli is a Provençal thing, and this wine is Italian, but that’s the point of this exercise – you already know to pair a Chianti with a Tuscan-style roast pork loin; I’m here to expand your horizons!

You might find it a little strange to smear mayonnaise on a raw chicken, and I want to address that up-front.  Mayonnaise, or, in this case, aioli, is nothing more than the colloidal, emulsified form of olive oil.  It’s just fat with a little egg yolk, and the reason I’m having you rub it on a chicken is twofold: first, it’ll stay in place better than a drizzle of oil, which will simply run off and pool under the chicken; and secondly, it will protect the garlic from burning – if there were no mayo, you’d have to put all that garlic under the chicken’s skin, which is more work than I’d generally ask you to do.

Still with me?  Great!

Chicken Aioli
Serves 4, with leftovers a’plenty, or 6-8, with scant leftovers

The Setup

You will need:

  • One chicken, 3-4 lbs, ideally whole or butterflied
  • one large head of cauliflower, OR
  • 1 large carrot, 2 parsnips (or 1 big one), and 1 sweet potato
  • 1/2 cup of olive oil-based mayonnaise, like Hellman’s, or homemade aioli
  • 3 to 5 garlic cloves, depending on preference
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp coarse-ground black pepper
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 3/4 cup water
  • A roasting pan

Note: if you made your own mayo or aioli, first of all, good on you!, and second of all, you may see fit to reduce the amount of garlic (but I certainly wouldn’t.)

The Heist

1.  Preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

2.  Take your chicken out of the refrigerator and put it on a plate – dry it off completely with paper towels.  Wiggle it around.  Get used to its presence.  Then push the plate aside, and wash your hands.

Give it a name.  Carolyn says this one is named Sam.  Sam still had a feather in her foot (see lower right).  I plucked it.

3.  Do your veg prep.  What you’re going to be doing is creating a bed of vegetables for the chicken to roast on, and they’re going to roast for about an hour; they’ll get very soft and squishy, and the parts beneath the chicken will taste exceptional.  You could use cauliflower here, but if you’re worried that the meal will turn out a little bit too white, feel free to use the root vegetables.  You can go either way, and it’ll taste delicious.

But choose one.  Don’t overfill the roasting pan – I had a rather small (and expensive!) cauliflower, and I compensated on the second run of this recipe by using too many vegetables.  I scooped the excess out of the roasting pan and made a soup from them later (and I’ve made the necessary adjustment in amounts for you; don’t worry).  I’ll be posting photos from both recipe tracks in parallel, so you can compare and choose, depending on the season or the availability of various vegetables.

Split the difference.  This wasn't enough veg. And this was rather a bit too much.

4.  Mince the garlic as fine as you can – you want it to be as powerful-tasting as you can make it, and small garlic is strong garlic.  Mix it in a small bowl with the mayonnaise, the black pepper, and the cayenne.  You won’t need to add salt unless the mayonnaise is uncommonly bland.  Taste for seasoning, and if it’s not garlicky enough, add more garlic!  And perhaps a touch of rosemary or basil, or both.

I'm a practicioner of Mixed Mayonnaise Arts.  Don't mess with me.

5. Nestle the chicken on top of the vegetables.

Comfy, Sam the Chicken?

6.  Now, with a spatula, or, if you’re feeling brave, your hands (do it!  it’s so much fun!), spread the seasoned mixture on the chicken, inside and out – dollop any extra on top of the vegetables.  Wash your hands again!

The lipid layer of the mayo will keep the skin and the garlic from burning.  Kinda like sunscreen.  Ew. This is an entirely different bird.  Let us call her Phyllis.

7.  Pour the 3/4 cups of water over the vegetables and wiggle the pan around to distribute it all.  Pop the roasting pan in the oven for 50 minutes to an hour, or until the thickest part of the thigh registers 160 degrees F, and the juices run clear.

Here’s the Cauliflower Chicken, which took about an hour:

What a noble beast!  Thanks unto you, Sam.

And here’s the Root Vegetable Chicken, which took under an hour to cook through:

I like the symmetry of a split bird.  Might make it my family crest.

That aioli will form a delicious crust, and it’ll keep the chicken nice and juicy.  Let it rest for a few minutes as you get the table set and the wine opened.  I used this time to quickly sauté some asparagus, because the first run of this recipe was, though scrumptious, a little unremittingly white.

Whatever.  Just because it's beige doesn't mean cauliflower's not good for you.

The vegetables become incredibly soft and yielding – particularly the cauliflower; it’ll absorb the chicken drippings and become rich and silky.  I ate about half of it before I even tasted the chicken, which is succulent and garlicky and everything you’d want from a good roast chicken.

Again, I wish I'd had a larger cauliflower - this may have been the first time I have ever wished that.

The root vegetables also take on a rather silky cast, but the carrot and parsnip will still have a pleasant enough bite after an hour in the oven.  And look at that crust:

Aww yeah.

Doesn’t seem so weird to put garlicky mayonnaise on a chicken now, does it?  Bon appétit!  Drink deep and enjoy the spicy interplay of flavors.

A final note: I worked on this recipe while spending a long weekend at my parents’ place, while I was dog-sitting for them.  I wanted to point out my holiday gift to them, which they had framed in a really beautiful way, and put up in their kitchen.

The delicious Four Seasons of Adriana Willsie!

I say this not to pat myself on the back about how excellent of a son I am, but to draw your attention to the artist behind these lovely prints – my friend Adriana, who really wants to paint your dog.  These four paintings constitute the Four Seasons of Food; she’s got Summer Red Pepper, Autumn Pumpkin, Winter Onion, and Spring Asparagus.  I have Spring Asparagus in my apartment, and so should you!  If there’s a beautiful animal in your life that you’d like to commemorate, take a photograph and send it to Adriana; she’ll make it a beautiful portrait.

Happy cooking!

-David

Mushroom Powder

January 14, 2012

And its multifarious uses!

I adore mushrooms.  I love shiitakes stir-fried with strips of flank steak, I love the earthy funk of fresh morels in cream sauce, I love porcini-and-pea risotto – I even love the unjustly-maligned white button mushroom (which is, you may not be aware, the exact same thing as a brown crimini or portobello mushroom – they’re all agaricus bisporus, and they don’t taste different in the slightest.).

Why is an Algonquin spirit selling mushrooms, anyhow?  I guess there's probably a Mushroom Manitou, but I would have associated that sort of nature spirit with, y'know, higher phyla like... chordata.  Or angiospermae.  Whatever, this undercuts my thesis that mushrooms are great, so ignore it.

I also love that my parents have a membership at Costco, where rather large quantities of dried mushrooms can be had for not too much money.  They recently picked up a big ol’ jar for me, at my request, since I’d used up most of the Chinese Black Mushrooms (same species as the shiitake, Lenintula edodes) that my friend Allison gave to me as a host present.  Thanks, Allison!  They were delightful, and giving people dried mushrooms is the best tradition.

Anyway, Carolyn and I were at Volo again, and we had the BMG flatbread on their current menu.  That menu won’t be around forever, since it’s seasonal, so here it is for posterity:

12        B M G     F l a t b r e a d
Berkshire bacon, mushroom, goat cheese

There’s no way that could be bad!  And of course, it wasn’t.  There were chunks of cooked mushroom, little batons of bacon, and half-teaspoon-sized dots of goat cheese – and simply typing that makes me salivate.  But the interesting part was the smell.  Cooked, fresh mushrooms don’t have a particularly intense flavor most of the time.  It’s the dried mushrooms that have that intense, musty flavor.  There was, I noticed, a dusty coating on the flatbread.  I asked the waitress, “Is this powdered mushroom?” and she was like, “Good eye, yes it is!”

So that was one of those things that I tried and immediately knew I wanted to steal.

Mushroom Powder
Not exactly a spice, not exactly a condiment

The Setup

You will need:

  • 1 cup (by volume) of dried shiitake mushrooms (or other dried mushrooms, but shiitakes are relatively inexpensive)
  • A clean and odorless coffee or spice grinder

I'm not particularly concerned about sand or grit, because it's going to get ground so fine you won't even notice it's there.  Whatever, it's good for you.

The Heist

1. In batches, grind the mushrooms into a rough powder, and gradually add in the mushrooms until they’re all ground up, and continue to process until they become a relatively fine powder.  You could grind them into a superfine, almost cakey powder, if you wanted, but I think you’d have to add salt (the added agitation of the salt helps grind other, softer stuff).

2.  Put the resulting powder into a bowl – you should have, by volume, about a half-cup.  Store in a tightly-lidded plastic container, out of direct sunlight, for a few weeks to a month or so.  Whole dried mushrooms have a shelf life of about half a year before they start to lose a lot of their flavor, so I figure the ceiling on this powder is maybe two months.

It looks like sand but smelled like mushroom!  I felt like a WIZARD.

It won’t last that long, however, because once you make  a batch of this stuff, you’ll want to put it on everything, like…

Mushroom Popcorn!

The Setup

You will need:

  • 4 parts mushroom powder
  • 2 parts kosher salt
  • 1 part black pepper
  • oil
  • popcorn
  • a large, heavy pot with a lid

The Heist

1. Combine the mushroom powder, the salt, and the pepper in your spice grinder and process until everything turns into a fine powder.  For a half-cup (unpopped) serving of popcorn, I’d use 2 teaspoons of mushroom powder, 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, and 1/2 a teaspoon of pepper (and feel free to use the whole peppercorns here – they’re getting scrunched up anyhow)

If you need me, I'll be downstairs, with the shopvac.

When combined, it’ll look kinda like this:

You can call, but I prob'ly won't hear you, because it's loud with the shopvac on.

That is, rather like sawdust and pencil shavings.  Never fear, though; this stuff is delicious.

2.  Get some potholders ready.  Heat a few teaspoons of oil in your heavy pot, measure out your popcorn (more than 1/2 a cup of unpopped kernels in a 6-quart pot will result in I Love Lucy-esque overflow hijinks, so be forewarned.), and stir briskly over high heat for a minute or so, until the kernels begin to turn opaque.

3.  When this happens, cover the pot, and wait for the sound of popping kernels.  At this point, take hold of the pot’s handles with your potholders, and shake the pot vigorously, making sure it stays in contact with the heat.  Don’t shake it up and down, just side to side.  Give it a good shake at least once every ten to fifteen seconds so nothing gets stuck on the bottom.

4.  When the space between pops exceeds, oh, 10 seconds or so, turn off the heat, and let the pot stay covered for about a minute to protect yourself from rogue poppers.  Then decant into a large bowl, and from a relatively high height, sprinkle the mushroom seasoning mixture over it, and toss until coated and tasty.  You probably won’t need any additional oil to make the mixture adhere to the popcorn, since the grains are so small they’ll fit in the nooks and crannies of the popped kernels.  Health food!

Food blogger's secret: I test the recipes in full proportion, but sometimes, for photography purposes, I just make enough to create a single serving.   There is a second, smaller prep bowl underneath that popcorn, to give the appearance of greater volume.  The more you know!

I guess lots of upmarket restaurants, at least in Chicago, are giving out pre-dinner popcorn instead of bread.  Graham Elliot is known for it, and so is decorated newcomer Ruxbin.  It makes sense.  Popcorn is cheap, not particularly labor-intensive, and easier to customize on the fly than bread is.  It’s also less filling than bread, but it takes as long to eat.  Graham Elliot does theirs with parmesan and truffle oil; Ruxbin does it with furikake.  I’d like to put my mushroom popcorn right up against theirs.  I also love to douse popcorn in garlic oil, but we’ll get to that.

If popcorn’s not your speed, then allow me to return to a Clean Platter standby: Macaroni and Cheese!

Mushroom Mac
A recipe identical to the Essential Stovetop Mac and Cheese, with emendations in bold text.

  • 1 stalk of celery
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1/4 of a medium onion – about 1/4 cup, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk, any type of fat (I used skim and it was fine.)
  • 3 ounces, by weight, grated/dry mexican cotija cheese (or parmesan)
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons mushroom powder
  • 4 ounces mushrooms, sliced (optional but awesome; I didn’t have any fresh on hand)
  • 1/2 pound of elbow macaroni noodles
  • a 2-quart saucepan
  • a 6-quart pasta pot
  • a colander

The Heist

Prepare identically to the Essential Stovetop recipe:

1.  Dice the celery, garlic, and onion; measure your milk, cheese, fat, and flour.  Slice the mushrooms.

2.  Start heating the pasta water.

3.  Melt the butter in the 2-quart saucepan and cook the celery, garlic, and onion until soft, 5-7 minutes.  Add in the flour and mix into a paste over medium heat, stirring constantly, 1 to 2 minutes.

4.  Add the milk a little at a time, and stir vigorously but not extravagantly, until all traces of roux-lumps are gone.  Continue to stir and cook for another 5 to 8 minutes, until the mixture is pleasantly thickened.  Reduce heat to low.

5.  Add in the mushroom powder, stir, and taste.  Don’t add any salt, because the cheese is plenty salty.

6.  Yeah!  Add the cotija or parmesan cheese.  High-five the person nearest you.  Kill the heat, stir to combine.

7.  Cook the sliced mushrooms in oil over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until they’ve lost most of their liquid, shrunk, and browned.  Cook in a single layer.

8.  Cook the macaroni in the boiling, salted water, and cook until al dente – then drain and incorporate into the cheese sauce.  Add the mushrooms, stir to combine, and serve.

I only made a little bit, and I made it without the fresh mushrooms, and I should have put it in a ramekin and not a plate, but it’ll look something like this.Who serves Mac and Cheese in such a flat way?  It must be heaped, like a righteous, bounteous pile!

But with tasty chunks of mushroom on top.

Anyway.  I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a version of Volo’s bacon, mushroom, and goat cheese flatbread, but with an addition of my own – garlic oil!

Garlic oil!

You will need:

  • a head of garlic or two
  • a cup of good-quality olive oil
  • a clear plastic squeeze bottle – these should usually cost about 1 to 2 bucks.
  • a small saucepan.

Instructions:

1.  First, separate and peel all the cloves of garlic and, once peeled, tumble them into a saucepan.  Fill the pan with oil to cover the garlic, and put it on the stove over low heat – at the barest simmer.  You don’t want to really cook the oil here; you want to heat it enough to soften up the garlic, but you want to keep the oil as bright-tasting as you can.

2.  Let it go for about 20 to 30 minutes, until the kitchen smells magnificent.  Hot olive oil smells surprisingly fruity, so you may find yourself sniffing around for an unexpected banana (like ya do).

3.  Once the garlic is soft, remove it with a slotted spoon.  Let the oil cool off, and then pour it into a measuring cup, then a squeeze bottle.  Keep it in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

4.  Do something wonderful with the oil-poached garlic cloves.  Slather them on a toasted baguette, eat them plain, throw them into a batch of mashed potatoes, dab them behind your ears – I don’t care.  They’re going to be delicious, whatever you do.

Bacon, Mushroom, and Goat Cheese Flatbread with Garlic Oil
Makes either 2 full-size pizzas or 4 little flatbreads

The Setup

You will need:

  • A recipe of pizza dough
  • Garlic oil (see above)
  • Mushroom powder (see above)
  • a 4-ounce log of goat cheese
  • 4 ounces of bacon, cut into little sticks
  • 4 ounces of mushrooms, sliced thin.

The Heist

1. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F.  Cut your dough into either two or four balls, depending on your preference, and roll them out; place them on an oiled baking sheet.

2.  In a small skillet, cook the bacon over low heat until cooked through but not crispy.  Reserve the bacon, and cook the sliced mushrooms in the fat until they give off their liquid and turn brown.  Take off the heat and place in a bowl.

3.  Drizzle each flatbread with a teaspoon or so of garlic oil, then dot them with bacon pieces, mushrooms, and half-teaspoons of goat cheese.  Dust generously with mushroom powder!

4.  Bake in the 450-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes, until the dough is crisp and brown around the edges.  Let cool for two minutes, then cut and serve.

Well.  I think that’s enough for one day, don’t you?

Happy cooking!

-D

Or, I Did It Chai Way.

There’s a resale shop in Chicago – actually, there are a few of them – whose proceeds benefit the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago, the premier GLBT health services provider in the Chicago area.  It’s called The Brown Elephant.  I go there whenever I can, because A) It benefits a good cause, B) there are treasures in their used books section, and C) their kitchen goods section is expansive, awesome, and cheap.

I recently bought a teapot that matches my cup-and-saucer set, and since then I have been making tea like a lunatic.  Sure, I made tea before, but in that way that I never particularly liked; I’d fill a teabag with loose tea, plop it in a coffee mug, and pour hot water over it to steep.  It’s the single-serve coffee-shop way of selling tea in the U.S., the way I used to dish out tea when I worked in a coffeeshop as a teenager.  I don’t like the way the teabag flops out of the mug and hits you in the nose; it’s like being slapped by a tiny sea lion.  It seems evident to me that the best way to drink tea is in little cups, out of a teapot.  You can control the sweetener on a per-portion basis, you can make rather a lot at once, and you feel a little bit more like a grown-up, rather than an on-the-go-nup drinking lukewarm, second refill tea out of your sustainable but silly to-go sippy cup.

So, I’ve been drinking a lot of Kenilworth Estate Ceylon tea.  It’s the business, brother.  It’s damned fine, and I can get a pound of it for 16 bucks at the Coffee and Tea Exchange near Carolyn’s apartment (put that in your pipe and smoke it, Teavana, you 8-bucks-an-ounce tea thieves!).  I love this city.

Carolyn’s wanted a Chai Spice mix recipe for a while now, so here we go!  Chai is just Hindi for tea (Hindi and Russian and Persian and Aramaic and Mandarin and Japanese – cha/chai is an incredibly common pronunciation.  Medieval trade was global too, people.), and what we generally think of as the chai stuff in a chai latte is the chai spice-mix, the chai masala, and that’s what I’ll be describing today.

A spice-mix like this has applications beyond tea!  We’ll investigate them after I give you the recipe.

Aww.  Spicy group hug.

Four Friends Chai Spice Mix
A recipe in proportions

The Setup

You will need:

  • 1 part cloves, either ground or whole
  • 1 part cardamom, ground or whole (more on that later)
  • 2 parts ground cinnamon
  • 2 parts ground ginger
  • a spice grinder, probably
  • a plastic bag and a wooden rolling pin for the cardamom

Chances are, if you don’t have ground cardamom, you’ll have purchased the green seed pods.  These things are obnoxious, and until I figured out this option, I used to crack the pods open with my fingernails, and laboriously loosen each of the pod’s small black seeds free from the papery-white pith.  Predictably, the seeds would spring out like cannonballs, shooting across the kitchen, into my shirt, behind the refrigerator, onto the stovetop.  This would not do.

So, what I do now is take my cardamom pods, place them in a bag, and roll them over with a rolling pin or wooden dowel until they’re completely broken up.  Then I put them through the loosest wire-mesh strainer I have to catch the husks, and then I chuckle to myself for my cleverness.

Of course, you could always just buy pre-sorted cardamom seeds, which will keep their flavor longer than ground cardamom but save you the bother as well.  I think you’ll have to buy them online or in specialty shops, as whole cardamom is hard enough to find in this country in the first place.

The Heist

1.  Sort out and measure all your spices.

2.  Using a spice grinder, a mortar and pestle, or a draft horse-driven mill, grind all the spices into a fine powder.

3.  Bottle and label.  Store in a cool, dark cupboard.

 

Making a pot of Masala Chai

 

My girlfriend's parents bought me this lovely bowl as a holiday present!  Isn't it nice?  It came from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland.  I mean, it came from the museum store.  They didn't just lift it from an exhibit.  Although that would have been pretty sweet of them, too.

1.  For every cup of tea you intend to make, use one teaspoon of tea.  For every teaspoon of tea that you add, add 1/3 teaspoon of chai spice mix.  (Thus, a teaspoon of spice mix for every tablespoon of tea.)  And when you’re done calculating that, always add another teaspoon for the pot.  And use a black, unflavored tea, something with a strong taste and a good body – Darjeeling is traditional, but Ceylon or Assam will do fine.  Earl Grey is a no, because of that bergamot oil.

 

The artist's name is Barbara Humpage, which is a name I can't say without snickering and I'M SORRY.

2. Fill your teabag with the chai spice and tea, place it in the teapot, and pour boiling water into the pot.  Cover and steep for five to six minutes.

3.  Pour into cups, add milk and sweetener to taste (I don’t think it’s masala chai unless it’s a milk tea), and enjoy.

Sip.  Do not chug.

Making other things with your chai spice mix

Melissa Clark, the food writer I seem to reference the most often in these entries, has an all-purpose shortbread recipe, which Carolyn swears by.  After I made this spice mix, she made the Rosemary Shortbread, subbing out the rosemary for a teaspoon of masala.  I’ll reprint it here, but buy Melissa’s latest book, Cook This Now!  It’s a recipe book organized seasonally; unsure of what to make?  Befuddled by the variety of recipes available?  Flip open Cook This Now to January.  There.  She’s just made it easier for you.

Melissa Clark’s Everything Is Shortbread Cookie (Chai Spice Edition)

You will need:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon chai spice mix
  • 1 teaspoon plus 1 pinch kosher salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted cold butter, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons dark, full-flavored honey (optional).

Instructions:

1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. In a food processor, pulse together flour, sugar, chai spice and salt. Add butter, and honey if desired, and pulse to fine crumbs. Pulse a few more times until some crumbs start to come together, but don’t overprocess. Dough should not be smooth.

2. Press dough into an ungreased 8- or 9-inch-square baking pan or 9-inch pie pan. Prick dough all over with a fork. Bake until golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes for 9-inch pan, 45 to 50 minutes for 8-inch. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Cut into squares, bars or wedges while still warm.

You could also make Heather’s Blackberry Flan with chai spice instead of (or in addition to the vanilla) – take out the blackberries.  And my sister Julie likes these Chai Cupcakes, but I think you could get away with using a tablespoon of chai spice (or 2 and a half teaspoons of chai spice and a half-teaspoon of nutmeg), and make your own chai-spiced milk tea for the cupcake batter instead of using bagged chai.

But really, the applications are pretty widespread.

Ah, friends.  Where would I be without friends?  And tea?

Probably prison, that’s where.

Oh.  Oh, that was a rhetorical question.  You didn’t need to hear the end of that thought, did you?

Happy cooking, everyone.

Improv Dinner I

December 23, 2011

It didn’t start out this way.

Adam and Zev wanted to have a cooking double-date with me and Carolyn.  I would, based on their prompting, come up with a couple of recipes based on their suggestions, and then we’d all hang out in the kitchen and cook together.  We’d judge whether or not I’d done an accurate job sketching their relationship in recipe format, Z and A would take the recipe home with them, and we’d all learn something about each other.  Hooray.

Zev and I had a better idea.

When I asked him to think up a suggestion for me, he couldn’t summon up anything on the spot, so he impulsively challenged me thusly:

“So, I should just say ‘we have these five ingredients’ and you go all Lynne Rosetto Kasper on us?”

I said, “… A Stump-The-David Challenge sounds awesome.  Let’s do it!”

“I accept,”  he said.  “Prepare to die!”

He did not say that last part.

For the uninitiated, Lynne Rosetto-Kasper has a fantastic PRI food show called The Splendid Table, and one of her occasional segments is called the Stump The Cook Challenge – a listener calls in with five ingredients, and Lynne has to theorize a meal that could be made from them – she gets to pick three other ingredients that the caller has lying around her kitchen; water, salt, pepper, and oil she gets for free.  Usually Cook’s Illustrated host Christopher Kimball serves as Celebrity Stumpmaster, to help judge the proceedings.

Well, Zev and Adam were going to be the Stumpmasters, and I was to be Lynne.  They gave me 24 hours’ notice of what they were bringing, and I was allowed to incorporate a few more ingredients into the mix – spices were free, but I couldn’t 1) use too many extra ingredients or 2) try to hide the ingredients that Adam and Zev brought.  I’d also have to use 3) three kitchen gadgets in the course of making the meal – something I’m not particularly used to doing.  I’m not really a gadget person; that’s more Carolyn’s territory, with her collection of culinary Happy Meal toys that include the Garlic Zoom and the Vegetable Chop (which seems innocuous enough, but watch the video – it’s like watching the Slap Chop’s violent stepdad.)

So what did they bring me?

Well, this!

From left to right we have:
1.  A 12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries

2. 2 pounds of boneless beef ribs

3.  1 pound of young turnips

4.  3 bars of dark chocolate

Oh, and

I don't even.

5.  A 2-pound sack of Tater Tots.

“Um,” I said, “Do I have to use all of the chocolate?”

“No,” said Adam.  “Just use enough of it.”

“And whatever Tots you don’t cook, we get to take back,” Zev said, a trifle unnecessarily.  I’m not so crazy ‘bout Tater Tots.

BUT!  In the interest of friendship and SCIENCE, I was willing to try my level best to make a meal for my friends that they would not only 1) enjoy but 2) be willing to recreate!

I had a plan.  It was time to put it into action. 

The Dinner

I decided to make a salad, braise the beef with the chocolate, mash the turnips with potatoes, and make the cranberries into a gastrique sauce.  The tots?  I’d… I’d figure something out with the tots.  With the help of my faithful assistants David and Carolyn, I knew we’d kick some ass.

Boeuf braisé à la Cincinatienne
Braised beef in the Cincinnati Style – serves 4 to 6

The Setup

I knew that, if I had beef and chocolate, I was probably going to have to return to the conceit of a Cincy-style chili (which, if you recall, contains chocolate, chili powder, and other non-traditional chili spices like clove, cinnamon, and allspice), because I’d be damned if I was attempting a mole.  Those things take forever, and I just didn’t have the time – Adam was picking up the ingredients from the apartment on his way back from work, so I was going to have to start cooking the meal around 6.  I wanted to get it on the table by 8:30 at the latest, so I figured I’d start with the thing that took the longest – the beef.

You will need:

The Heist

1. Set your oven for 250 degrees Fahrenheit.  Pat the beef ribs dry with paper towels, and sear them in a 6-quart dutch oven over high heat (with a touch of canola oil), two to three minutes a side.

I love the hiss and sizzle of seared meat.

2. You certainly don’t need to do this, but at this stage I used a Microplane (Gadget #1) to grate the chocolate.  Again, this is unnecessary – you can simply break up the chocolate and throw it in; it’ll all melt and incorporate anyhow.  Chop the garlic finely, and measure out the spices.

Yeah, you really don't need to do this.

3.  When the beef ribs are browned on each side, throw in the garlic and cook, stirring briskly, for a minute or so.  Then add the tomato sauce, the spices, the chocolate, the salt, and the water.  Mix this all together, and heat until bubbly – then take it off the stove, and put it in the oven for as long as you can stand to, adding water, if necessary, every hour or so, for a minimum of two hours.  You cannot overcook these ribs – not at this temperature – but somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 to 4 hours is probably ideal.  I wanted them to stay together and not flake when cut, so I hewed closer to the 2 hour mark.  When finished,  they’ll look something like this:

If the sauce breaks like this, just stir it and add a little more water.  It should reemulsify quickly.

Cranberry Gastrique

The Setup

I’d never made a gastrique before.  But I knew that I wanted to use the cranberries to bridge the gap between savory and sweet, so it wouldn’t be so impossible.  I hoped.  A gastrique is basically a caramel sauce with vinegar in it, which may sound horrific to some of you – it is, however, delicious – tart without being painful, and sweet without being cloying.

You will need:

  • 12 oz cranberries, washed
  • Water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 cup port

Directions:

1. Place the cranberries in a small saucepan with enough water to cover them.  Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, put the lid on, and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the cranberries are soft.

And there they go!

2.  With a potato masher (or a stick blender! [Gadget #2]), squash the berries into as fine or as thick a pulp as you desire.

3.  In a non-stick skillet, combine the sugar and the water, and mix, over medium heat, with a heat-proof spatula.  Stir briskly and cook until the mixture thickens and just begins to turn tan around the edges.We really had a lot of stuff going on in here, didn't we?

4.  Turn off the heat, add about a quarter-cup to a half-cup of cranberry pulp, and incorporate.  Turn the heat back on, and add the vinegar; stir and reduce over medium heat until thick again.

I was so exhausted after all of this that I'm pretty sure I fell asleep on Zev.

5.  Turn the heat off again, add the port, and resume cooking until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of your spatula, but not so thick that it can’t be poured (add more water if that happens, or more cranberry pulp).

This is approximately what nappé stage looks like.

6.  High five!  You made a gastrique!  Place in a ramekin and put that ramekin on a plate because this stuff is sticky and you don’t want it to get all over your nice tablecloth.

 

Neeps and Tatties
Mashed turnips and potatoes
I swear to God that’s what they call it in Scotland

The Setup

Turnips have a powerful, radishy taste that I wanted to temper with potatoes.  I think 1:2 is a good ratio for that.  Baby turnips don’t need to be peeled, but big old turnips do, so keep that in mind.  You’ll also want to cut the turnips smaller than the potatoes, because the turnips will cook more slowly and you want to get them to finish boiling at the same time.

You’ll need:

  • 2 lbs potatoes
  • 1 lb turnips
  • 1 cup milk
  • 4 tb butter
  • 1 tb sour cream
  • Salt

The Heist

Instructions:

1.  Cut the turnips into 1/2-inch pieces, and the potatoes into 1-inch pieces.  Tumble them into a big pot and cover with water – add some salt to the water, or the mash will taste fairly bland, and you’ll have to compensate with way more butter than you’d otherwise want to.

Somehow, turnips manage to be the most consistently dull-sounding purple food.

2.  Bring to a boil on the stovetop and cook until the roots are tender, about half an hour.

3.  Drain the veg, return the pot to low heat and mash with a potato masher (I think they counted that as Gadget #3), then add in the milk, the butter, and the sour cream, as well as additional salt to taste.  Add more sour cream if you think it hasn’t got enough tang to it.

Once they were sufficiently mashed, I whipped them with a whisk.  I'm a root vegetable sadist.

The Salad

The Setup

I decided to make something approximating a salade lyonnaise, which means frisée lettuce, little sticks of bacon called lardons, and a poached egg.  I also decided to put in fresh croutons and a bacon dressing, because why not?  I used Alton Brown’s bacon vinaigrette recipe, because, even if I don’t like him that much anymore, he still knows his stuff.

  • 4 ounces of bacon, preferably thick-cut or slab (ideally homemade.  But let’s be real here)
  • Half a baguette, cut into cubes
  • half a head of frisée lettuce
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 2 tb bacon fat
  • 1 tb brown sugar
  • 1 tb mustard
  • one egg per person

The Heist

Instructions:

1. Cut the bacon into small, thin sticks, and slowly crisp them in a pan.  Reserve some of the fat.  In fact, reserve it all, but put aside 2 tablespoons specifically.

2.  In another pan, crisp the cubes of bread in olive oil, and sprinkle with salt.  Set them aside.

3.  Wash and dry the frisée.

4.  Whisk together the 2 tablespoons of bacon fat with the olive oil, the cider vinegar, the mustard, and the sugar, and toss the frisée with it just before you’re ready to serve.

5.  In the pan that held the bacon, fry the eggs, one at a time, until their whites are set but their yolks are warmed-through but runny, about a minute and a half.  Plop the egg atop a pile of dressed frisée, sprinkle with bacon lardons and croutons, and serve!

Yes, the yolk should be that wet, unless you're immunocompromised, nursing, or ALLERGIC TO FUN.

 

Plating the finished meal

I decided to start off each plate with a mound of neeps and tatties – I made an indentation in the center of each mound with my ladle, and plopped in a single beef rib, with the gravy-like sauce surrounding it, along with a drizzling of gastrique.

I should have put the gastrique in a little squeezy bottle for easy dispensing, but I didn't think of it.

“What about the tots?” said Carolyn.

"Crap,” I said, and pulled them out of the oven.

What about the tots?

Hold on, that needs more gastrique.

Plating this made me feel like a 3-year-old.

Everything was well-received – we washed it down with a few half-bottles of remarkably bad wine (I don’t know where they came from.  They were ancient and corky and I think someone snuck them into my wine rack during a pizza party), poured the rest of the wine down the sink, and enjoyed ourselves despite it.  I happen to know that Zev is waiting for this entry so he can snatch up the ribs recipe (which, I suppose, for simplicity’s sake I ought to just call Cincy Ribs) – but I’m pretty sure I didn’t win the Stump the Cook contest.  A and Z were generous in judging me a success, but I think I failed on a tot-related technicality.  I could not, for the life of me, think of something fun to do with the tater tots – later, my dad gave me this idea:

“What if you put them in a muffin tin?” he said.

“How?”

“Let them come to room temperature, smash them flat, and make them into a tater tot bowl in the muffin tin, and bake them that way.”

So, I could have done that, and it would have been kind of fun!  Potatoes within potatoes, cogs within cogs – a cup of Tot full of turnips and beef.  Oh well.

Next time.  Because you can bet your ass I’m doing this again.  Adam said that turnabout was fair play, though – Carolyn and I could come up with a list of five ingredients for him and Z to use, the next time we’re over for dinner.  What should I choose?  What kind of mood am I in?  Am I a good friend, or am I a conniving bastard? (Am I both?)

You decide.  I look forward to your suggestions.

Have a marvelous holiday season, everyone.  I think I completed my last New Year’s resolution from 2011 just a few weeks ago, when I finally figured out how to pleat guotie (potstickers!), by reading and rereading my new favorite Chinese regional cookbook, Feeding the Dragonit’s a travelogue by a pair of globe-trotting siblings, Nate and Mary-Kate Tate.  Their writing is solid, and their recipes are reputable and easily reproduced – and what else can you ask from a cookbook?  They tell a great yarn, and I got a good sense for the incredible breadth of Chinese cookery.

Which gives me just enough time to start thinking about what my 2012 New Year’s resolutions are going to be.  I’ve been preempted – topping the list will have to be learning how to butcher a squid, thanks to the spunky and marvelous Susan of SusanEatsLondon; I mentioned in a comment on her Malaysian Squid Curry recipe that I’d love to know how to do it, and lord, did she deliver!  This entry is, perhaps, not for the squeamish, but if you’re a Fearless Midwestern Cook like me (*beams*), you’ll want to dive right into that squishy, baleful-looking cephalopod, and rip it apart with your bare hands, to remove, as Susan accurately puts it, “the squoogy bits.”  Happy Hanukkah, Susan!  Merry Christmas, folks!

Probably I won’t see you until the New Year.  Until then, remember, SQUID.  I’m doing something with it.

Happy cooking.  Stay warm.

-D

The Shroom

December 2, 2011

Or, “You’re Tearing Me Apart, Lisa!” Butter.

(What?  Oh.  You’re making a reference to a dumb movie?  Okay, cool.)

Oh-my-god that movie’s so magnificently stupid.

ANYWAY.  Those of you whom I have not yet alienated: hello!  By some stroke of fortune for me, and a stroke of misfortune for him, my roommate David’s brother was delayed in coming home from college for Thanksgiving – his parents had planned for the whole family to go out to dinner.  His dad elected to go collect the waylaid son, and his mother suggested to David that the two of them (she and the roomie) take me and Carolyn out to dinner instead.  To a fancy, excellent restaurant called The Girl and the Goat.  On the day after Carolyn’s birthday.  How could we possibly say ‘no’?

(Spoiler alert: we did not say “no”.  Thank you, Alice and Paul!  Y’all are great!)

I took assiduous notes during the meal, with an eye toward replicating some of the more accessible dishes in my home kitchen – requested especially was the Sautéed Green Beans In Fish Sauce Vinaigrette, With Cashews.  Those were a fantastic revelation – not so salty (and not so fishy!) as to be inedible, but salty enough to trick the palate into eating them ceaselessly.

Let’s review what the four of us ate:

  • “Not Campbell’s” Bread – Broccoli-and-cheese bread served with mushroom soup butter and tomato soup oil.  [Hint hint; this is the one this entry’s about.]
  • Apple Smacks Bread – Apple and pistachio bread with an apple puree and ginger butter
  • Those marvelous green beans
  • Empanadas with a goat-meat rillettes filling
  • Beet salad with beans, white anchovy, and avocado crème fraîche
  • Grilled baby octopus with guanciale, beans, radish, and a pistachio-lemon vinaigrette
  • Escargot ravioli in a tamarind-miso sauce
  • Crispy pig face served with a sunny-side-up egg (no, I won’t recreate this in a home kitchen; what do you think I am, a pork magician?)
  • Sugo – a rosemary-tarragon pulled-pork stew over papardelle, with tart gooseberries
  • Chocolate Thai chile gelato with chocolate cake, peanut fluff, pomegranate arils, and a stout-and-cream reduction poured over everything
  • A deep-fried wonton filled with poached, cubed pears in syrup, served atop a knob of tamarind gelato sitting on a puddle of parsnip puree, the whole business sprinkled with candied ginger
  • A cheese plate with Mont St. Francis goat cheese, from Greenville,IN, among others
  • and a Monastrell (red wine) from Jumilla, Spain

Gracious, I’m glad I wrote that all down – I’ve got loads of notes pertaining to those green beans and a few others, and I’ll endeavor to recreate them, but I very much doubt I’ll try to make the desserts.  Or the pig face (although, believe me – it was delicious!).

The most accessible item off the menu, I’m pretty sure, was that mushroom soup butter, so I decided to throw some together for a dinner party the next evening.  It’s easy, but it’d be a pain in the butt, I think, to make it in a small batch.  Thus, I recommend that you use at least two sticks of butter for this recipe, and freeze the rest of it (or, like me, bring a third of it to a dinner party, and throw the rest in your parents’ freezer for Thanksgiving, yelling “Eat it! It’s festive!”).  It’ll keep for up to a year, although, given its versatility, I don’t think you’ll need to test that out.

Mushroom Soup Butter
Inspired by the meal that transpired at The Girl and The Goat

The Setup

You will need:

  • olive oil
  • salt
  • One 8-ounce package of white button mushrooms
  • 3/4 cup (by volume) dried wild mushrooms, of any variety (but ideally possessing porcini and/or shiitake)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 sticks of butter
  • a large skillet
  • a food processor
  • plastic wrap

The Heist

1.  Begin by soaking your dried mushrooms in hot water in a fairly deep bowl, and let them hydrate for about half an hour.  Let this work while you start your fresh mushroom prep.

2.  Wash the fresh mushrooms, and slice them or chop them roughly.  Then get your biggest skillet out and start heating it over medium heat.  Then drain the rehydrated mushrooms, being careful to avoid the sand that’s probably collected in the bottom of the hydration bowl, and cut them up.  Feel free to retain the mushroom water, although it’s not strictly necessary for this recipe.

3.  Of the 2 sticks of butter you’ve got, slice off a largish knob – maybe two tablespoons’ worth, and melt it in the pan with a little olive oil, if you like, to prevent it from burning.  Then start cooking the fresh mushrooms, a little at a time – try to keep all the mushrooms in a single layer, if you can – the idea here is to get as much pan-to-shroom contact as possible.  Once all the mushrooms have started to brown, shrink, release their liquid and swallow it back up again (about ten to fifteen leisurely minutes), add in the cut-up rehydrated dried mushrooms. 
Cook the whole mixture for another 5 to 8 minutes, and then add in the milk, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid is either absorbed or evaporated – we want the taste of milk, here, not the added water content.
 
See how they're faintly glossy, but not WET? that's what you want.

4. Continue to cook the mushrooms until you are confident that they are reasonably dry.  Then let them cool, as you bring the two sticks of butter to room temperature in your favorite way, whether that be restin’ on the countertop, gingerly poking in ten-second spates in the microwave, or rubbing them briskly between your hands (I dare you to try this).

5.  Once the mushroom mixture has cooled enough to your liking, dump it into your food processor and mill it into a paste – this isn’t fine enough.

Doesn't that look pretty, and not like mulch?

It should be more like this:

Viz., a fine uniform paste.  You know, I don't use viz. nearly often enough.

6.  High five!  You’re almost there.  Add in the room-temperature butter, and mix until everything’s incorporated.

Buttery goodness.

It’ll end up looking, well – kind of like canned mushroom soup, although thicker and less gelatinous and gloppy.  But roughly similar.  Feel free to season this compound butter, at this point, however you like.  I think it might be fun to add a little hint of fish sauce, honestly, to enhance the meatiness of the mushroom taste.

Piece by piece, puttin' it together.

7. Now, the fun part: line a piece of tupperware with plastic wrap, and plop in the contents of the food processor. 

PREPARE THE MOLD!

Let this set in the fridge overnight, or in the freezer for a few hours, until it’s firmed up and become solid again.

  Oh, that's so attractive!
8.  Take this butter and cut it into roughly stick-like portions, which you can wrap in wax paper (just like real butter!) and freeze, or stick some in a plastic bag with a corner cut off so you can pipe it into a ramekin, run a fork around it, and pretend like you own a fancy restaurant.

Oh man, look at that fancy forkin'

You don’t just have to spread this on warm, fresh bread (although I certainly think that’s a worthwhile thing to do) – it’d go great with any grain or starch – a pat on top of a potato pancake, for example, would be delicious, and I can’t see how it wouldn’t improve a spot of polenta.

It’d also be fun, I think, to put this compound butter under the skin of a bird you’re going to roast.  I just imagined putting this under the skin of a duck, and the fact that it would be completely unnecessary (by dint of duck’s fattiness) is eclipsed entirely by how much I’m salivating right now.  But a chicken, sure – a chicken would be a safe bet.

You might also be interested to know that I recently made bacon.  And it was actually quite easy!

My friend Sharon and I recently shared the cost of a small electric smoker (bought it off of Craigslist for $30.  It was an EXCELLENT decision.), with an eye toward making smoked meats and sausages.  The first thing we decided to make was bacon; I went to the Chicago Meat Market and bought about 7 pounds of pork belly.  If you were unaware, this is the fatty cut of the pig that one makes bacon from.

Rind up, lads and lassies; rind up.

Looks kind of unfamiliar to you?  Try this angle:

I summon a bacon elemental!

That little cross-section should suggest, well, bacon.  Bacon in its most elemental form.  Now, bacon is cured, which means that it has to be packed in salt for a while to draw out moisture and prevent spoilage – that’s the key principle behind preserving any kind of meat.  You have to remove water and make the meat an inhospitable place for bacteria.

Therefore, I used a recipe which called for about 30% more cure than meat, by weight – and that cure was half-sugar, half-salt, with a little bit of rosemary and other herbs thrown in.

Jingle jingle jingle.

I cut the pork belly in half, and packed each piece in salt, in large plastic containers, and let them sit for a few days, letting the salt do its work: the salt draws liquid out of the meat, and pulls salt in – the salted meat makes bacteria less likely to propagate on its surface.

After a few days, you can see what happened:

Daw, the snow is melting.

A big pool of liquid collected around the pork belly, which I drained off.  Before packing everything in with more dry salt rub, I took photos:

I actually think this looks really pretty.  Like promise.

You can see that the lean tissue is starting to firm up and get darker – it’s constricting into itself.  This is good!

A few more days of the cure and I ended up with something like this.

Doc!  Doc! I'm cured!

If you stop at this point, with cured, unsmoked belly, you have something approximating pancetta, although pancetta generally has a slate of particular tastes associated with it, like fennel and garlic.  Or we could just call it unsmoked bacon.  Whatev.

In fact, this is what I did with half of the belly – I stopped at that point and let it air-dry for a few days before refrigerating some of it and freezing the rest.  At fridge temperature, it still sliced pretty thick – I’d probably want to freeze it for a half hour before attempting anything other than cubes or lardons.  You can see what happened when I cut strips:

Who's ready for THE GREATEST BLT IN AMERICA?

Delicious, but probably a little too thick for most people’s tastes.

I heated up my tiniest black iron skillet (which is why these pieces of bacon are going to seem so immense), and cooked them over gentle heat for about ten minutes, until they crisped up, released a few tablespoons of bacon fat (oh my god so much fat), and cooled off.

I have no idea what I'm going to do with this bacon fat.  Probably make myself inordinately happy.

It looked like this:

 The rind's a little too tough to eat, but it is a LOT of fun to just kinda thoughtfully chew on.

Now, I smoked the other half of the bacon in a little metal box for about 4 hours. It ended up looking like this:

That might look gross to you.  Me, I don't know what's wrong with your vision.

And the smell was incredible – I used hickory chips, and replenished their supply every hour or so.  I may have gone an hour too long for some tastes – my parents, for instance, found it a little too smoky – but it was good enough for a first excursion.

For more information on how to cure and smoke meats, check out the two resources I’ve been using: Preserved and Charcuterie.

My friends and I – namely Sharon and Brian – have already attempted a few other smoked creations, including a fabulous smoked tri-tip steak, a pound of smoked shrimp, some smoked habañero peppers, smoked sea salt, and smoked garlic.  Yeah, all of those were in the smoker at the same time.  We’re awesome.

Happy cooking!

-D

After a recent pizza party, I ended up with a surfeit of goat cheese in my fridge.  One of the many distinct advantages to hosting a pizza party is that when everyone goes home, you’re left with a staggering amount of leftover unused toppings.  All the chopped onion, roasted red peppers, smoked and cured meat, and cheese make for fabulous frittatas in the week or so after a party, but then there are the matters of all those little logs of chevre.  Those, combined with the two butternut squash I’d received in my final CSA pickup of the season, inspired this recipe.

You see a lot of curried squash soups this time of year, and I wanted to do something that was perhaps a little less common – this soup takes more of a Provençal tack – we’ve got thyme, basil, and red pepper as contributing flavors, with a big ol’ hunk of goat cheese stirred right in.  For sweetness, two apples.

This soup is so simple to make, it’s almost harder to recite the first three letters of the alphabet in an endless mantra for 45 minutes than it is to make it.  That’s why I’ve dubbed it:

ABC Soup
A tasty autumnal potage!

The Setup

You will need:

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 butternut squash
  • 2 large apples, of the crisp and sweet variety
  • 4 cups water or stock (chicken or vegetable)
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp hot pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp ground pepper
  • 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 1 4-oz log of goat cheese

You’ll also need:

  • A large soup pot
  • an immersion blender (or a regular blender)

The Heist

1. Do your mise-en-place: peel and chop your butternut squash into one-inch chunks, chop (but don’t peel) your apples, chop your onions and garlic, and get crackin!

Howdy, squashies.

2.  In a large soup  pot, melt the butter along with the olive oil, and sauté the onion and garlic until brown – about seven minutes.

Get that butter WORKIN', son.

3.  Dump in the apples and the squash, and add the seasonings – cook over medium heat for ten minutes.

This is a super delicious smell.

4.  Add the stock or water, bring the pot’s contents to a boil, and reduce the heat – simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, until the squash and apple are soft.

Apples and thyme!  Apples and thyme!  List' to my rhyme for 'tis apples and thyme.
5.  Kill the heat, and either A) blend with an immersion/stick blender, or B) remove the pot’s contents with a slotted spoon to a standup blender and blend, using as much of the stock as you require, until smooth.

Blendification!
6.  High five!  You’re makin’ soup!

7.  Return the soup to the heat and simmer until thickened – another 30 minutes.

8.  When the soup is thickened, it’s almost ready to serve – you may choose to either drop in the log of goat cheese, like I did, or crumble it up and sprinkle it over each individual serving portion.  Individual-serving crumbles have a more pronounced goat cheese flavor, of course, but it’s sort of pleasant to have the other flavors predominate, too, and let the goat cheese sort of hang out in the background.

Droppin' a log.  Heh.  heh.  heh.  GROW UP DAVID

Enjoy!  I liken this soup to takin’ a warm bath.  A warm bath in butter and thyme.  Eat this and pretend to be a French stew, or something.

Look at that lil' swirl!

Happy cooking!

Take Me to the Pie-lette

November 5, 2011

I am but a stranger.

I’m not even going to try to convince you that pie is better than cake. I’ll just tell you that no pie-eating nation can ever be permanently vanquished, and that “in our own glad and fortunate country the seasons are known by their respective dominant pies.” We set our clocks by pie. Pie is, to be truthful, the pinnacle of human achievement, and anyone who tells you that it’s vaccines, rockets, and wireless internet is blowing it out his ass.

Well, if I’m reading my watch correctly, pumpkin pie season is here, and will be for another month or two. If, in that time, you choose to roast your own pumpkins (which I recommend, heartily! It’s fun!), you will probably end up with an excess of pumpkin puree, and, by extension, pie filling. Now, I wouldn’t stoop to call this a bad thing, but probably by the time you have leftover pie filling, you’re probably sick of making crusts – sure, you could nip out to the store and get a coupla pre-made graham-cracker crusts (that’s what I did, after all, because there ain’t no pie like spontaneous pie), but let’s imagine that it’s the day after thanksgiving, or, okay, two days after thanksgiving, and you’re exhausted from pie-crafting. But you desire more pumpkin – I feel that. I can identify with that. This recipe is for you.

Pumpkin Pie Custard Cups
 A scrumptious little nibble for the fall and winter months

Remember, a pumpkin pie filling is mostly just puree, milk, and eggs. It’s a custard! And what can you do with custards? You can dole them out into ramekins and bake them as crustless custard cups! Easy.

I do this in a water bath (or bain-marie) because the water regulates the temperature fairly well, and, though it’ll take a little longer than it would if I’d just arranged the ramekins on a cookie sheet, they’ll bake more evenly because of it.  Since these custards are in individual servings, they don’t need to set as firmly as they might for pie, but it’s really up to you.  The toothpick test will tell you whether or not the custard is at your desired consistency. I cannot.

The Setup

For the last several years, my go-to pie has been the late, marvelous Camille Glenn’s brandied pumpkin pie from her glorious Heritage of Southern Cooking by Workman books. I like it because there’s liquor in it. But also because I roast a pumpkin for it.

Roasting a pumpkin is no different from roasting any other kind of squash – you could do it two ways:

Way #1: Quarter the pumpkin, and, in a large roasting pan with an inch of water in it, roast the pieces at 350 degrees F, cut-side down, until they are soft – about an hour (The Acorn Squash method).

Way #2: Peel and cube the pumpkin, and roast on a lightly oiled baking sheet at 450 degrees until soft, maybe 20 to 25 minutes (the Butternut Squash Method).

I like Way #2 better, and it doesn’t really matter how you do it, because whatever you do, that pumpkin is going to be removed from its shell and scooped into a large food processor. Puree it into submission. Unless you’ve got an enormous food processor (or a relatively small pumpkin), you probably won’t be able to fit it all in there, and that’s totally okay. You can freeze your excess pumpkin and use it later.

Camille Glenn’s recipe calls for brandy, and brandy’s a fun flavor to have in pie, but you know what I like better? Whiskey. And Southern Comfort. A shot of each will do for flavoring this baby.

Very Nearly Camille Glenn’s Pumpkin Pie Filling

  • 1 cup of pumpkin puree, canned or otherwise.
  • 1 cup of evaporated milk
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp fresh-grated nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp cloves
  • 1 ounce bourbon or other whiskey
  • 1 ounce Southern Comfort liqueur

You will also need:

  • a 4-ounce ramekin for each custard cup
  • pumpkin pie filling (as above, or otherwise)
  • A glass baking dish

The Heist

1.  Mix puree with eggs and milk – beat with a whisk or a spatula until well-incorporated and maybe a little frothy.

2.  Combine sugar and spices, stir well to combine, and then mix with the custard mixture until fully incorporated and dissolved.  Set aside!

3. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.

4. Measure a half cup of pie filling into each ramekin and place it in the baking dish – then, when you’ve filled all your ramekins, pour water into the baking dish so that it comes up to about half-an-inch to an inch around the ramekins.


5. Put them in the oven until they’re set, 35 to 45 minutes.  Remove from the oven, and when the water’s cool enough to touch, remove the ramekins from the water bath.

While you’re doing that, you can get to work on the topping!

Now, originally, I thought, “Hey!  What if I put some marshmallows on top?  That’d be kind of neat.”  I had some marshmallows in the pantry – a little old, sure, but unopened and perfectly serviceable.  I figured, hell – this’ll work out fine!

However, what I neglected to realize was that melted marshmallows look… really unappetizing.

But.
Like someone sneezed in the pan. Or something. I don’t know. Draw your own conclusions.



But then I decided, “You know what this pumpkin pie could use? That’s right! More pumpkin.”

So into my pantry I went for some green, hulled pumpkin seeds – they’re called pepitas.

Toasty Pumpkin Seed Pie-Topping/Snack Mix Component

For pies or otherwise
Ingredients:

1. In a small nonstick skillet over medium-low heat, toast the pepitas and toss to coat with chili powder; cook for about 2 to 4 minutes.

2. Kill heat, toss with 1/4-teaspoon of salt, or to taste.
3. Sprinkle over pumpkin pie! Or mix with raisins and cashews and call it Autumn-Flavored Trail Mix.

And that’s it!  Enjoy that prince of foods, the wondrous pumpkin, in his most glorious aspect.
Pie.
I mean, if I wasn’t being clear about the most glorious aspect of the pumpkin.  Yeah, definitely pie.

Happy cooking!

-D

Cincy Mac

October 29, 2011

 
There used to be a place near my apartment called Cinner’s – it closed a few months ago, but before it did, it broke open my conception of what chili was.  Just, wham – broke it in half and filled the empty space between with a nest of spaghetti.  The restaurant was billed as a Chili Parlor and Cocktail Lounge, all done up in the style of Cincinnati, Ohio – Carolyn, an Ohioan (and don’t you forget it), squealed with joy when she first stepped inside, although I’m not actually sure if she’s ever been to Cincinnati.  I’ll ask her.

I had created, in my head, two classes of chili.  The first, a Standard-Issue Chili, made with ground beef, tomatoes, chili powder, and beans – the sort of thing I would have learned to make in the copy of Evelyn Raab’s Clueless In The Kitchen: A Cookbook for Teens that I got when I was twelve.  (Her chili has a little bit of curry powder in it.  Badass!)  The second class of chili was one that my high school friend Ian taught me about when we had a chili cookoff at my house – Ian’s family was from Texas, originally – a big, chunky stew of beef chuck cubes, ancho chiles, masa harina, and no beans or tomatoes.  I thought, “okay!  these are the kinds of chilis that exist.”  There was the Texan-style ur-chili, the proto-chili; and there were the bean-and-tomato-containing variations, like mine.

There was no room for Cincy-style in my repertoire, simply because it was off my radar.  I’d heard of it, sureBut I’d never eaten it.  It never stayed in my head for very long.

Cincinnati-style was invented in the 20s by a coupla Macedonian immigrants who put allspice, clove, cinnamon, and chocolate in their chili and put it over hot  dogs (they call ‘em coneys!) and spaghetti.  I didn’t know you could eat chili over spaghetti.  Okay, that’s not completely true – I did it once at my friend Jack’s house in high school, but his dad’s from Milwaukee, and God only knows what they do up there.  Cincinnati chili, or Skyline Chili, after the most famous Cincy-based place that sells the stuff, is almost more of a sauce than a chili, and what I like the most about it is that, unlike Texas-style chili con carne or my Midwestern Chili-an-beans, it’s got a completely uniform texture.  It’s tender, which isn’t really something that comes to mind when I think of ground beef.  Yeah.  This is one to make in your crockpot – it’s best after hours and hours of slow bubbling.

Anyway, the thing about Cincy Chili is that it goes over pasta, served with shredded cheddar (Cincy Chili 3-Way), cheddar and either diced onion or red beans (4-Way), or cheddar, onions, and beans (5-Way!).  But at Cinner’s, since their entire menu consisted of chilified food, they had other options, and among them was the legendary CINCY MAC.  This was just the thing for a blustery, miserable day in mid-february.  You’d sit down with a can of Hamm’s beer (which is a Minnesota beer but they sold it there proudly – it’s a thin lager on the order of a Pabst Blue Ribbon), lean on your elbow, and sigh as the steam from the Cincy Mac slowly wafted up into your nostrils and rejuvenated you.

The only problem with it, really, was the macaroni and cheese itself, which had the sort of rubbery consistency of a Type I mac.  So, after the restaurant closed, I decided I’d recreate it.  My way.

I hunted around for a multitude of recipes, since the owner of Cinner’s flatly refused to give me his.  And after an afternoon of kinda-hectic recipe testing with Carolyn (Sorry I was a jerk, honey), I came up with a recipe.  Well, two recipes.

See, there’s not so much artistry or variation in the technique of making a chili – you brown the meat, you cook the onions and garlic, and then you throw everything into the pot and let it simmer for hours.  No, the true art of any chili recipe is the spice mix.  Which is why I made two of them.  But both of them involve chili powder, which is its own thing – it’s the magical moment, for me, when a chile, with an e, takes its first step toward chili, with an i.



David’s Homemade Weapons-Grade Chili Powder
Less a recipe and more a set of ratios – make as much as you want

Ingredients

  • 1 part Ancho chiles
  • 1 part Pasilla chiles
  • 1/2 part to 1/4-part Árbol chiles – these chiles are very hot.  The half-part ratio was hot for me and I have an iron tongue.  However, in the chili itself, the heat mellowed.  But beware, is what I’m saying, because this stuff is hot.
  • 1/10th part cumin seeds – just throw in a teaspoon or two.  Nobody’s going to judge you for not doing it by weight.  I’m not, at least.

Directions

1. Cut the chiles into small strips with a kitchen scissors.  Keep the seeds, if you like fun.  Discard them if you don’t.  Over very gentle heat, toast the ingredients in a large skillet, stirring frequently, until the chiles are fragrant and the cumin seeds are lightly browned – about five minutes.  Be careful not to lean over the skillet while the chiles are toasting, because the volatile compounds that come off those chiles will HURT YOUR FACE.  There’s a reason they call it pepper spray.  It’s because it comes from hot peppers.

So good, but oooogh how it hurts.

2.  Let the chiles and cumin cool, and then grind it in a spice grinder or small food processor.  You could also grind them in a mortar and pestle, but that would also take a while.  Do that if you’ve got a really big mortar and pestle, and if you just plan to sit with the thing between your knees while you watch half an hour of television.

Blend the crap out of it.  It'll take a few minutes.

Me, I think it’s easier this way.  Although maybe that’s because nobody has ever given me an enormous mortar and pestle.

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you breathe the vapors that come out of the blender when you open it.  You will cough for half an hour.

3.  Bag it and tag it.  Taste it, too, on the tip of the finger, and close your eyes and blink back the tears as a sweet scourge of flame lashes your tongue.  This is the moment that chile becomes chili.  Know it well.

ALCHEMY.   

Now, with that made, we can continue on with the two spice mixes.  One is milder, and one is more powerful – not necessarily more spicy, but just bolder and more overstated.  To that end, I have named one Team Classico, pictured here:

These are some of my favorite pictures, actually.

And I named the other Team Hypa-Spice.

I spent way too long trying to portion out the spices into those little bowls.

Both recipes contain chocolate, clove, cinnamon, chili powder, and allspice, but in different quantities.  The (unsweetened!) baker’s chocolate is important, because it gives a deep, mellow bitterness to the whole dish – it wouldn’t be the same without it.  So! Let’s get to the real fun.

Cincy Mac

A schema-breaking chili!

The Setup

Option A.  Team Classico Spice Mix

  • 1 tablespoon Homemade Weaponsgrade Chili Powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground clove
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
  • 1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt

 

Option B.  Team Hypa-Spice Spice Mix

  • 2 tablespoons Homemade Weaponsgrade Chili Powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 5 allspice berries
  • 1 teaspoon ground clove
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
  • 1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt

They’re not all that different – it’s just that some of the proportions are doubled, and it makes a pretty big difference in the pot.  I prefer Team Hypa-Spice, but that’s my tastes.  You may prefer something a little less in-your-face.  (Although how else do you eat food?  Okay wait I don’t need to know.)

The Heist

  • 1 recipesworth of either Team Classico or Team Hypa-Spice
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 large onion, plus another for raw onion topping (optional)
  • 1 can of red kidney beans, rinsed and drained (optional)
  • Shredded cheddar cheese, for topping (optional, but what’s wrong with you?)
  • 1 recipesworth of Essential Stovetop Mac and Cheese

Directions

1. First, measure out all of your spices.  Put the dry spices into one bowl – the liquids in another, and leave the garlic on the cutting board because it’s going to be used soon.  You can use the time it takes to cook the ground beef to put your spices away.

 

2. In a large pot, cook the ground beef until brown.  Drain the fat and set aside – reserve a tablespoon or two of fat for the next step.

3.  Return the pot to the heat and add back some of the drained-off fat; cook the onions (and the garlic from the spice mix) until soft and translucent.  Return the beef to the pot.

No matter what else happens in my kitchen, this is still one of my favorite smells.

4.  Here, you could either A) transfer everything into a crockpot, add the spices and liquids, and cook, on low, for 4-6 hours, or B) add the spices, liquids, bring to a boil, and then simmer, covered, for 2-3 hours on the stovetop.  Why so long?  The spices need to get all integrated, the beef basically needs to be falling apart, and any variable texture should be gone.  It should be a molten lava-sauce.THE SPICE MUST FLOW.
  This must cook FOREVER.

5.  Make the macaroni and cheese as directed, and top with the Cincy Mac!  Don’t forget to pull out the bay leaves.

Splut.

6. High five!  You made some awesome-ass Cincy Mac.

7.  You could also just make spaghetti instead of the macaroni and cheese, and have yourself a merry little four-way:

Have yourself a merry little four-way; let your plate fill up, but don't come crying when there's not enouuuuugh.  Serve it up over olden spaghetti, lovely golden spaghetti... okay never mind.

I think my Cincy-Style chili could stand to be a little more sauce-like, in that I’ve seen other recipes that add a few cups of water to it to ease along the braising, but I really like it at this consistency.  It coats pasta well and it’s not too wet.

Oh, and I asked: Carolyn’s never been to Cincinnati.  Did someone say ROAD TRIP?

But seriously, Cincinnati residents: let me know if I’ve scrawled heresy all over your city’s dish.  Better yet, let me know if something’s missing from my recipe.

Happy cooking, everyone!

-D

So, with the onset of the colder months, like I’ve been saying, I think it’s time to hunker down.  The winds of winter are going to slice through the cracks between the wall and the windows, shred through your clothes, and freeze your blood, so you might as well fill yourself with food that keeps you warm.  To that end, I’ve decided to begin a new series on macaroni and cheese.

Actually, I think this was Editor Girlfriend’s idea.  Carolyn’s really good at saying, “Hey!  You should write about Thing X,” and providing an excellent rationale for it.  It’s not like she tricks me into thinking that something was my idea in the first place (that’s not her style), but she can just be very quietly persuasive.  Anyway, one of my most popular recipes on the blog is my Thai Red Curry Macaroni and Cheese.  I didn’t advertise it or anything; people just find it through Google searches.  And I want to provide recipes that people are looking for.  So I’m doin’ this series.  Let’s get to it!

Here comes everybody!  Also, that macaroni is whole wheat, yo.

There are three schools of mac and cheese in this country:


Type I: Blue-box Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  You cook the pasta, you drain the pasta, you add milk and a powder mix.  This stuff is well-loved for its comfort value, but I didn’t grow up on it, so I find it rather grainy, gummy, and glossy in that plasticky way, for my tastes.  Besides, making it barely counts as cooking.  But it is in a class of its own, and I’m sure it’s by far the most popular school of mac and cheese in the United States.  From 2008 to 2010, sales of packaged macaroni and cheese rose by 25%.

Type II: Macaroni Casserole.  You undercook the pasta, drain and rinse it, and toss it in a cheesy, eggy custard, and pour it in a casserole pan, dust the top with bread crumbs, and bake it until it firms up.  This is the sort of macaroni and cheese you’re the most likely to be served in a restaurant, because it’s really easy to do the prep on it, portion it out, and “bake it off” in individual servings.  It’s also easy to do in a cafeteria setting, because you can do exactly the same thing with an enormous aluminum tray of the stuff as you could with a single ramekin.  It’ll keep in the fridge, unchanged, for hours or even days until it needs to be baked.

Type III: Stovetop Macaroni.  I like to imagine that this was the version that Thomas Jefferson commissioned in 1802, although it is most assuredly not.  It was, however, in the early 19th century that Antonin Carême developed his classifications of the Four Mother Sauces, which Éscoffier would later revise and expand into five sauces.  Stovetop macaroni is dressed with a Mornay sauce, which is a cheesy version of the milk-and-roux-based Béchamel mother sauce.  This is the version we’re gonna be working with.

This is going to become a series on macaroni and cheese, and so a number of recipes are going to be referring back to this page quite often.  After a lot of testing, I have determined that this is, to be certain, my master recipe for Stovetop Mac and Cheese.  I may, at some point in this series, try and come up with a good Type II recipe, or even a Type I knockoff (although I don’t think I have the materials and wherewithal to make cheese powder.  I could be wrong! I haven’t even begun to research that.).  But I’m going to stick with Type III for now.

I’m not going to wax political for particularly long here, but I think the global recession has affected our stomachs.  It may just be how it looks from where I’m standing, but El Bullí is closed now.  It’s not 2007 anymore, and although sous-vide cookery is probably here to stay, and it’s still a nine-month wait to eat at The French Laundry, I think the era of conspicuously consumptive food is over.  At least until the next boom cycle.  America is aching – hurt, unemployed, uninsured, unhappy.  Now is the time for meatloaf, macaroni, cupcakes.  We just want a little comfort, something to take solace in while, bruised and brooding, we sit, blanket-huddled, with our friends and loved ones.  Something to allay the gnawing feeling that nothing’s going right for you.

Well.  I’m looking out for you, America.  Mac and Cheese is food for a period for austerity, but it sure as hell won’t feel like it.  Not the way I make it.  Make this recipe, close your eyes, take a bite, and allow yourself to feel, for a moment, that things are going to be okay.  Then lift your head high, get out there, and kick some ass.

Essential Stovetop Mac and Cheese
Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a side dish

The Setup

You will need:

  • 1 stalk of celery
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1/4 of a medium onion – about 1/4 cup, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk, any type of fat (I used skim and it was fine.)
  • 3 ounces, by weight, sharp cheddar cheeze
  • 1 ounce (by weight) of parmesan cheese (or 1/2 teaspoon salt)
  • 1/2 pound of elbow macaroni noodles
  • a 2-quart saucepan
  • a 6-quart pasta pot
  • a colander

The Heist

1. First, do your mise-en-place.  Dice the celery and the onion very small – 1/8th-inch dice, if you’re up for it.  Hell, if you can, brunoise them.  Why not, right?  And mince the garlic, too.  Measure everything out now, because sauce-making can be kind of tetchy work, and you want to have your full attention on making sure nothing burns, so what’s the harm?  Measure your flour, your milk, and your cheeses.

Yeah, that's totally not a brunoise.  I didn't say I was that good.

2.  Start heating the pasta water, too.

3.  Melt the butter in your saucepan and cook the aromatics (the celery, the garlic, and the onion), stirring occasionally, over medium heat, until the onion is translucent and smells cooked – approximately 5 to 7 minutes.

Carolyn says that the celery kind of gives the whole thing a very faint white wine taste.  I'm not sure I disagree.

4.  Add in the flour, and stir briskly until everything begins to come together in a chunky paste, about two minutes’ worth of stirring.

Like that!

5.  Add the milk, and stir briskly (but not overexuberantly!) for about a minute or so, until all the lumps of roux-paste are gone.  Continue to stir and cook for another 5 to 8 minutes, until the mixture thickens to the point where it coats the back of your spoon or spatula.

Here's your completed béchamel!  It should exhibit this kind of coat-a-bility.

6.  Give the nearest person a high-five.

7.  You may wish to season the mixture further, here.  I’ve added a teaspoon of homemade chili powder.  For funsies.

We'll cover how to make that chili powder in another entry.  I promise.

8.  Once thickened, kill the heat and mix in the cheddar cheese and parmesan (or salt, if you don’t have -  or want to use – parmesan).  Stir until it’s all incorporated and melted.

Other recipes want you to add way more cheese.  I think this is overkill, and something can only taste so cheesy, honestly.  It's just not going to get super powerful in a creamy sauce like this - that's just not really the way butterfat or milk interacts with the tongue - everything is kind of diffuse.  You want intense, pointed flavor?  Make a cheese sorbet.Actually, if you make a cheese sorbet, I will be frigging impressed.  I want that recipe, if you've got it.

9.  Cook and drain your pasta, and then plop it all in! You’re done.

Le plop.

10.  Eat with pride.  You’re going to come through this just fine.  There’s macaroni and cheese and you’ve made it.  We’re all going to make it.

The macaroni wants you to be happy.  You can do it!

Happy cooking.

-D

Justifiable Applecide

October 15, 2011

Depending on what part of the country you’re from, there are probably apples yet on the trees, hangin’ like a promise and achin’ to be picked.

Look at that, won'tcha?  Tempting as the takeout your girlfriend leaves in the fridge.

More than likely, though, there’s a bounty of apples on the ground, too.  These are called windfalls.  Some of ‘em are ugly.  Some of ‘em are bruised.  But are they useless in the kitchen?  Absolutely not.

At this time of year, just about everyone’s food blog lights up with suggestions of what to do with fresh, gorgeous apples; pie recipes abound, apples get baked, converted to fritters, or stuffed in the mouths of suckling pigs.  Y’know.  Simple stuff.

So I’ll focus on the apples that I see as getting short shrift: the big ol’ half-bushel baskets of windfalls they sell next to the donuts at the apple orchard.  They’re half the price of the kind you pay to pick, and they’re just as useful and delicious, in a slightly different way.

But look at how pretty they are!

For months, I had dreamed of Cider Season – I made some last year in Indiana, using a food processor, sixty pounds of apples, and a couple sheets of cheesecloth.  I pasteurized it and fermented it and turned it into very tart hard cider.  I had been thinking of doing it again this year, but properly – I commissioned my friend Josh to build me a real live cider press, but work was picking up for him, as well as training (he’s a USATF qualifying runner, and, if I ain’t puffing him up too much, supposedly he’s one of the fastest sprinters in the country.  Are you a sportswear company?  Throw him an endorsement!).  So he couldn’t build me one.

Carolyn and I went apple-pickin’ with our friends Adriana and Noah and Zev and Adam and a coupla others and we came away with, oh – maybe three-quarters of a bushel?  About 35 pounds or so.  About 20 pounds of that were windfalls, which aren’t great for eating.  Mutsus and Empires and Connell Reds and Ida Reds – all sorts of marvelously tart, funky, nuanced apples.  And I was gonna chop them into bits and drink them.

I realized I didn’t need a cider press after all.  Because I had a MEAT GRINDER.

Homemade Apple Cider
Makes about a half-gallon of unpasteurized amber wonder

Now, you can make this with a food processor quite easily.  I wouldn’t recommend it for making, say, a six-gallon batch, because, well, that took hours and hours to do.  But for a half-gallon, it’ll take you about half an hour.

The Setup

You will need:

  • 5 pounds of assorted windfall apples
  • a food processor, meat grinder, or juicer
  • a knife
  • a cutting board
  • some large bowls
  • a large cloth or fine-mesh bag

The Heist

1.  First, wash your apples.  Then cut them into one-inch chunks.  Cut out the brown, bug-eaten, or soft parts, but there’s no need to discard the stems or the peels – everything’s getting pulped, and everything contributes to the flavor of the cider.  This will taste like drinking an apple whole, and that’s why it’s special.

You are free to imagine me assaulting a pile of apples with two cleavers, Swedish Chef-style, and somehow ending up with all of these neat little pieces in a bowl.

2.  I set up my meat grinder on its coarsest grind setting, and prepped a bowl under it to catch all the runoff.  I’m also about to put a cloth bag over the spout, to catch all the solid pieces.

 Grind-o-tron hungers.  He hungers for apple-flesh.

3.  Start the grinder!  Or your juicer, or your food processor.  And work in batches.  Grind the apple pieces up until they’re as crushed-up as they can get, and then remove them from the workbowl of your processor and put ‘em in the bag in the bowl.

Always wear protection, kids.
4.  When everything is ground up, you should have a sack of wet apple pulp, sitting in a largish, opaque amber puddle.

I think this is the only time I have been not only happy, but ELATED to see a wet sack of pulp sitting in an opaque amber puddle.

5.  Wash your hands thoroughly, put the bag over a strainer, and squeeeeeze.  You will get a ton of liquid out, this way.  Normally, this is the point where the cider press would come in (people that are really committed run their apples through a specially-built garbage disposal in their garages, and then put that pulp on meshed racks for pressing.), but your hands will have to do!

Mm mm mm.  Just pretend you're juicing an enormous lemon.  A lemon that exudes cider. 

6.   High five!  You’ve got cider.  There’s gonna be some apple-particulate matter that escapes and gets into the cider, but do you really care?  If it’s anything, it’ll be a tiny, tiny piece.  And that’s delicious.  Meet your cider.

I swear to you I could drink that whole bowl right now.  One fell swoop.  Swoop. 

Funnel it into a bottle, refrigerate, and enjoy!  Drink it within a week or so, because it’ll start to sour and ferment if you let it alone for too long (and that’s no good, because you probably didn’t sanitize the plastic bottle you’re storing it in in the first place.  Don’t think you’ll make applejack, because you’ll just end up making Clostridium botulinum or something.)

This cider tastes like a short, powerful gust of wind, blowing red and brown sheaves of leaves off a tree.  It’s good.  Of course, it also depends on your apples, here – try to strive for a mix of as many different kinds as you can, and go for reds over greens.  Tart apples are good, but you don’t want them to predominate in this cider.  Avoid mealy, coarse apples like Red Delicious; although, if you’re going to the trouble of finding an apple orchard to get windfalls, I think you’re probably  as tired of Red and Golden Delicious apples as I am.  As Carolyn likes to say: “They are neither golden nor delicious.”

In the event that you tire of drinking your delicious, unpasteurized cider, I have someone you’d like to meet.  His name is Żubrowká, and he is very tasty.  He comes from Poland!

He, ah, how-you-say, he say, "Cześć".  Is like "hi."

Żubrowká, which you can say /ʐuˈbrufka/, if you wanna, is a vodka made with extract of bisongrass or sweetgrass.  The bottle comes with a It has a woodsy, cinnamon-vanilla sort of flavor to it, and by God does it pair well with apple.  My friend Ania, who is Polish, told me about this liquor a long time ago, and she’s had it with apple juice – the clarified, clear stuff.  And I think it’s a world of different with cloudy, funky, full-on-apply cider.

In Poland, a one-to-one mix of Żubrowká and apple juice is called a tatanka, from the Lakota Sioux word for buffalo, or a szarlotka, from the dessert called a Charlotte, which is sort of like tiramisu meets custard pie meets bits of fruit meets upside-down-cake.  I want one.

But in the interim, I’m happy to make this cocktail, which, since it’s not exactly a tatanka or a szarlotka, I have dubbed “The Buffalo Soldier”.

 

The Buffalo Soldier
A cocktail.

Ingredients

  • 1 fl. oz Żubrowká bisongrass-flavored vodka
  • 8 fl. oz unfiltered apple cider
  • cracked ice

Directions

1.  Fill highball glass with a lean handful of cracked ice or ice cubes.

2.  Pour vodka over ice and swirl it around.  Pour in the cider and stir with a long-handled spoon.

3.  Serve, and enjoy.

 Oh.  Yeah.  I cropped this out of one of the first images.  I was drinking the entire time.  Oops.

 

Happy cooking!

 

-D

Spaghettigeddon

October 4, 2011

or,

Preparing for the End Times the Tastiest Way I Know!

Probably you are tired of this by now, but I’m not:

WINTER IS COMING.

A gorgeous and long-awaited fall has graced Chicago, and consequently I am girding up for winter’s terrible onset.  Actually, I’m excited.  Carolyn is terrified, and already misses summer.  I scoff at her, and put on my favorite KWUR hoodie. 

I’m so ready.

The change in seasons has me collecting food like  a chipmunk.  I recently purchased a chest freezer off Craigslist – a big one, but not the biggest one.  It’s, uh, noticeable.

Oh, no - wait.  It's huge.

See, I kept on running out of room in my freezer.  I’d cook in quantity, and then run out of space for ice cubes.  I made a large quantity of leek and potato soup, and froze 3/4ths of it, and with the chickens I’d recently de-boned, the stock cubes I made from those bones, and the bottle of homemade limoncello that my friend Aaron gave me a year ago, there wasn’t room for much of anything else in my freezer.  And, having just eaten a quart or so of the stuff, I was in no hurry to defrost and finish the soup.

Now I have space enough to store a hundred meals (and, to anticipate a few wags, yes, a coupla corpses.  Don’t cross me.).  Finally, with room to store anything I could ever want to make, I’ve finally found my calling – COOKING IN OBSCENELY MASSIVE QUANITY.  My new friend Terri works at the Chicago Food Depository as a cook, and if I asked her, she’d probably say that my exuberance for that very thing might wane the moment I had to stick my gloved hands into “a massive bucket of mayonnaise.”  Despite my hearty Defense of Mayonnaise, I think she’s right.  And I shall have to avoid buckets of the stuff.

Anyway, having storage space like this means that I can save money by buying in bulk and not having to worry about spoilage.  It also means spending a lot of money up-front for long-term savings.  That pork shoulder is $1.99 per pound, but it only comes as a full 20-pound shoulder?  Well, okay!  Lemme just throw down 40 bucks and we can do business!

It was this kind of thinking that led me to the realization that I could (and should!) make approximately 18 pounds of my mother’s spaghetti sauce.  I mean, after all, what else are giant stockpots and chest freezers for? 

If I am not mistaken they are for holding THIS!

This is the spaghetti sauce I grew up with; it’s not a bolognese or anything – it’s just a chunky tomato, beef, and Italian sausage sauce with a whole load of fennel.  I’ve modified it slightly to fit my more fennel! more red pepper! tastes.

I understand that probably you don’t have an enormous freezer, or even a stockpot the size of your torso, which is why I present this recipe in normal proportion, with wildly incongruous photographs.

Mostly My Mother’s Spaghetti Sauce
Makes enough for two pounds of spaghetti.  Freezes like a champion.

If you like, I’ve made up the (roughly scalar – I recognize that 24 ounces is not 3/4th of 28 ounces, but it makes sense as you scale up the recipe that the tomato outpaces the meat) part-to-whole ratios, although I’ve got to admit that they get a little ridiculous as we get to the spices, because they’re by weight, not volume.

The Setup
You will need:

  • 1 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes (1 part)
  • 1.5 pounds ground beef (3/4th part)
  • 1.5 pounds hot italian sausage (3/4th part)
  • 1 large onion (1/2 part)
  • 4 or 5 cloves of garlic  (1/50th part)
  • 1 cup red wine (1/6th part)
  • 1 6-oz can of tomato paste (1/6th part)
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seed (approximately 1/100th part)
  • 2 tablespoons italian seasoning (1/200th part by weight)
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper (1/850th part)
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (1/850th part)
  • salt to taste (the sausage is probably going to be fairly salty, just warnin’ ya, so maybe don’t salt until after everything’s all together)

The Heist

1.  Dice the onion or onions and set aside.  Then peel and chop the garlic fine.  My friend Aaron was the first person to show this to me, so he gets the credit – there’s this video from Saveur magazine floating around lately that details a technique for quickly peeling an entire head of garlic.  Since I was using an entire head of garlic, I decided to try it – it certainly worked, but I think it’d be silly to do for fewer than eight cloves of garlic.  Don’t bother unless you wanna cover the insides of two bowls with garlic peels.

First, break up the head of garlic.

Then, give the garlic a hat and SHAKE PROFUSELY

omgz naked garlic look away (I washed the bowl to get the garlic paper out)
2.  Start browning the beef in a big, 6-quart pot (and, y’know, if you’re making it with 10 pounds of meat, use a great big multigallon stockpot).  Drain the fat (optionally, into a measuring cup) and set the meat aside.  I used a wire-mesh spider to get everything out of the pot.

That's a lot of meat.

4.  Deal with the sausage.  I actually liked that the sausage was still semi-frozen, because it made it easier to cut and portion evenly.

I stand corrected.  THAT'S a lot of meat.

Still.  That’s a lot of sausage.  I mean, we’re looking at a mountain of meat, here.  Cut or squish the sausage into 1/4-inch chunks and cook it in the same pot as the one you browned the meat in; remove the sausage from the pot once it’s evenly cooked through, and set it aside with the beef..  At this point, switch out your slotted spoon or wire spider for a Trusty Wooden Spoon.

The sausage, divvied.

5.  Dump the onion and garlic into the rendered sausage fat, add the fennel seeds, and cook over medium heat until your kitchen smells like heaven.  The onion will get yellow and soft, the garlic will melt like it’s sinking into a comfortable bath, and you will then…

Mmmm.  Garlic bath.

6. Give your sous chef, co-chef, guy- or gal pal a high five because it’s step six.  And Step Six always has a high five in it.  Secret handshakes, too, are admissible.

7.  Pour in the red wine and stir it into the aromatics – let the wine vapor fill your kitchen, and breathe deep: if it makes you feel special, you may pretend that a Calabrian has just burst.  (No, they aren’t from Star Trek.)

8.  Measure out your canned tomatoes and dump them in on top of the aromatics, the wine, and the fennel.  Wash the cans out with water (or more wine) and add their contents to the pot.  Stir to combine.

The metal thing beneath the bowl is a scale - I was working by weight because everything was in such quantity.

Tomato paste has such a pleasant look to me.  Y'know.  For a paste.

Shplop.

9.  Add in the cooked beef and sausage, as well as the red and black pepper, stir with your Trusty Wooden Spoon, and bring the mixture to a gentle bubble – reduce the heat and simmer for half an hour to forty-five minutes.

Blub blub blub

10A.  For service:  Fill your pasta pot with water (I’m assuming you’ve got a 6 to 8 quart pot) and a tablespoon of salt, cook the pasta of your choosing al dente (I like how this goes with spaghetti, even if it’s senseless and nontraditional to have a thin pasta with a chunky sauce.  However, nothing about this is traditional, or even Italian.  If you’re not into the long, thin pastas, the sauce goes nicely with penne rigate or rigatoni.  Crucially, reserve a cup of the pasta water before draining the pasta.

Drain the pasta, put it back in the pot (over low heat), spoon over the sauce (a little at a time.  By god, not all of it – you’ll probably end up tupperwaring 3/4ths of this anyhow), and splash some of the pasta water over everything.  The starchy pasta water will thicken up the sauce, and lend a really full-bodied mouthfeel to the already quite-substantial sauce.  Cheese is, at this point, almost superfluous.  But feel free to be superfluous.

10B.  For packing up and freezing:  As soon as it’s cool enough to pack up, portion the sauce into pint and quart-sized containers (leaving at least a half-inch of headroom to allow for the sauce to expand as it freezes).  Cover and let stand until they’re cool enough to put in the refrigerator.  Let them hang out in the refrigerator overnight (or for a few hours) – you don’t want to melt the stuff in your freezer.  Then label them, pop them in the freezer, and let them freeze into lovely hard pucks of sauce.

Playing Puck as saucy is, in fact, my favorite way to see the character portrayed.  Nobody likes a sullen Puck.

Then stack them to show how much there is.  Because you’re smart.  And stacking them is definitely a clever and intelligent thing to do.

Yeah, it fell over.  Shut up.
The sauce should keep for up to 9 months, and then get slowly less good as the months wear on, but let’s be real, here – unless you make an actual literal metric ton of the stuff, you’re probably going to eat it all inside of six months anyway.

11. To thaw and reheat: run hot water over the bottom of the container for about 30 seconds, until the saucepuck detaches from the container.  Plop the saucepuck into a smallish saucepan and pour a tablespoon or two of water over it.  Turn the heat up to medium, cover the pan, and go do something else for about ten minutes.  Uncover the pan, break up the saucepuck as it melts, and stir it around until everything’s warm and bubbly again.

Enjoy, and happy cooking!

The Whole Foods by my girlfriend’s apartment used to sell Sukhi’s Naanwiches, or at least, the kind she liked – the kind with spinach and potato and tofu.  She’d keep them in her fridge, and hurl one into the oven for dinner if the mood struck her.  I had one, once, and liked it.  I developed this copycat recipe back in February 2011; we made a bunch of homemade naanwiches and brought them to a Super Bowl party, where, despite the preponderance of popcorn, dips, and peanut M&Ms, they disappeared off the platter at Warp 9.

And then I forgot about it.  Completely.  Until Carolyn’s Whole Foods stopped selling the spinach Naanwiches.  “Remember when you made those?” she said.

“Sort of,” I said.

“I think that would make a great blog post,” she said, coyly.  I know what you were after, Girlfriend.  You mercenary.  She was in it for the naanwiches, America!

So, using the naan recipe I’ve previously detailed on this site, and the following recipe for saag paneer, I recreated the magic.  Except I did it a little differently; instead of just making a folded piece of dough like I had previously, enfolding the filling in a sort of folded pita configuration, this time I crimped the dough into little hand pies, so that they most resembled empanadas, or, more accurately, spanakopita – Greek spinach pies.  (Or Lebanese fatayer.  Or calzones!)

My cultural depredations lead me from India to the Levant to the Greek Isles* to, as you shall shortly see, Mexico.  I shall never rest.  I shall never stop bastardizing the cuisines of nations – not until I have trod on every page of Larousse Gastronomique.

I’d call this a samosa, except it isn’t, really.  It’s too large, and it’s baked, not fried.  I’m sure there aren’t exactly hard lines on nomenclature, but it feels like I’d be calling a knackwurst a cocktail wiener.  But yet, it’s not a spanakopita, either; it’s not made with phyllo dough, and it’s also a little bit too large.  If anything, it’s like a pasty, but it’s made with the wrong sort of dough.  It’s its own classification.  Naanwich or Naanakopita will do, although I prefer the second, for its quality of sheer phonemic bewilderment.

Now, palak paneer is a classic Indian dish, which I shall further insult by describing as being “essentially creamed spinach with fried cubes of fresh Indian cheese in it.”  It is very easy to make your own paneer.  I was going to advocate that you do it for this recipe.  In fact, I nearly did it myself, figuring there wasn’t any place within walking distance of me that sold paneer cheese.

But guess what?  There is.  Paneer is a fresh farmer’s cheese – it’s firm, kinda squeaky, and somewhat bland.  It doesn’t melt like other cheeses  would– it just gets nice and brown and crisp when you cook it in a non-stick skillet.  It is, in fact, identical to Mexican panela.  Identical.  There is nothing in the production of those two cheeses that would set them apart – you heat some milk; you add some lemon juice, you drain it, you press it, you salt it.  The end.  Cheese.

It looks like this!

Now, if you’re an American, and you live near a large city, there is undoubtedly a sizeable Mexican population in your community, and the grocery stores in your neighborhood undoubtedly stock Mexican goods.  You’re going to want to march right up to the deli counter and order several inches of cheese – don’t get it in slices, get it in a big ol’  chunk.  This stuff is delicious.

So.  If you can get paneer, excellent!  Good for you; it’s not so terribly difficult to come by in the first place.  And you could always make your own.  But I like the firmness of store-bought stuff.  It’s made with more patience, weight, and industry than I could ever muster.

* Which reminds me of a story my classmate Molly told, once.  She had pledged a college sorority, and her father, upon hearing this, exclaimed, “Excellent!  I’m so pleased you are Greek, now; did they bid you drink from the brackish waters of the Aegean Sea?”  Molly’s father is, evidently, awesome.

Naanakopita
A tasty pocket of spinach and cheese!

The Setup

You will need:

  • One full recipe of naan dough
  • a 10-ounce bag of fresh spinach, or, failing that, a thawed and drained package of frozen spinach
  • 1 cup of paneer/panela, cubed
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk (feel free to use 1/4 cup of milk with a teaspoon of vinegar – just let it sit for ten minutes)
  • 1/4 cup yogurt
  • 1 onion
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 2 teaspoons of ginger
  • 2-3 tsp curry powder
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • salt, to taste

The Heist

1.  First, make the dough, following the instructions in my entry.  Set the oven to 400 degrees F.

2.  Fill the sink with water, if you’re using fresh spinach, and soak the spinach in the basin, shaking it around to get rid of any sand or dirt.

3.  Dice the onion, mince the ginger, and mince the garlic, too.  Set it aside.  Cut the paneer or panela into smallish, 1/2-inch cubes.

4.  In a medium-sized nonstick pan, heat a few teaspoons of oil and begin cooking the cheese, not doing much to them.  Make sure they don’t stick (use a rubber or silicone spatula), but other than that, let them cook at medium heat, turning every four minutes or so, until they’re brown on a few sides.  Reserve the cooked pieces of cheese on a plate or in a bowl.  Keep the pan on the stove.

What a fantastic smell this is.

5.  Meanwhile, in a large skillet or pot, heat a little oil, and wilt the spinach in it – use a tongs to squeeze all the water out of it as it cooks down, and plop it into a bowl.  It should take about two to four minutes to wilt all the spinach.  I grow weary of having to blanch spinach in a big pot of water, only to have to squeeze all the water out of it endlessly.  I think this way is a little easier.

And there's fewer pots and bowls to clean, too.  The more surface area you have, incidentally, the faster this'll go.

6.  Give the person next to you a high five.  You’re making naanwiches!

7.  In the pan you used to cook the cheese, which should still have some oil in it, add the aromatics (the onion, the garlic, and the ginger), and cook them, with a touch of salt, the curry powder, the coriander, and an optional pinch of hot red pepper flakes, until the onion is soft and yellow, about 5 minutes.  I believe it was around this time that I said, “Maybe this is too much onion.”  Carolyn almost slapped me.  She was right.  It cooks down.  And there’s no much thing as too much onion.

Just like there's no such thing as too much garlic.  And just like there's no such thing as Toledo.

8.  When the onions are soft, add the spinach in – stir until the spinach is evenly distributed , then add the yogurt and the buttermilk.  Stir, taste for seasonings, and cook until the mixture is still a little wet, but not drippy.  We don’t want too much buttermilk leakage in the naanakopita.  Stir in the cubes of paneer and kill the heat.

You could totally stop here, too, if you wanted, and just serve the saag paneer as is.  We had a lot of trouble not eating it all out of the pan.  Just sayin’.

 

Still not too many onions!

9.  Line a baking sheet with tin foil, and spray it with cooking spray.  Roll out your dough into six-inch rounds – just like you would for the naan recipe, but thinner – you might be able to get eight to ten of these, depending on how thin you go.  Place these rounds on the greased tin foil on the baking sheet.

All rolled out.  I made mine into half-moons, just 'cause.

 

10.   Plop a 1/4 to a 1/2 cup of saag paneer into the middle of them.

10 deposit

11.  Fold them in half, and crimp up the edges.  There’s no need to seal them super well, because if they leak, they won’t leak so terribly much – the filling shouldn’t be all that wet.

Crimp my ride.  Yo, Carolyn - we heard you liked Indian food, so we put Indian food inside your Indian food so you could, I dunno.  Eat both at once.  Look, don't blame me.  I know I wasn't Xibiting proper judgment at the time.

 

12.  Bake the naanakopita at 400 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes, depending on how crispy and brown you want them to be.  Let them rest for at least 10 minutes before serving, because they will be insanely hot on the inside.

The one on top is upside-down.  You may want to flip them during cooking, if you want each side to be evenly browned, but I didn't mind.  It's still delicious.

These reheat spendidly. but they also freeze, uncooked, exceptionally well: cook them, straight out of the freezer, for 25 minutes at 425 degrees F – spray them with a little cooking spray first, though.  But pop ‘ em in, hot ‘em up, take ‘em out.  And that’s sort of the entire point of these – while they certainly make an excellent sit-down meal, I’ve designed these with long-term frozen storage in mind, so you can say, “Oh, dang.  It’s 5:45, and I want to eat something at 7, but I don’t want to make anything.  And I don’t want to get takeout.”  This is me, reaching out across the ether, preventing you from tearing the lid on another loathsome Lean Cuisine.

Why would you want to, honestly?

This is the first entry in The Clone Platter, a new feature in which I will attempt to clone an existing commercial product or piece of restaurant food, or generate a home-cooked equivalent.  If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments!  As a warning, I probably won’t take on anything that requires a deep-fryer – so I probably won’t take on the suggestion of “David, clone McDonald’s french fries!”, because, first of all, fried, and second of all, there’s an immense supply chain with a very specialized cultivar of potato (Oh sure, their website says they use regular old Russet Burbanks, but I’m convinced they’re the ones who buy up all the fancy Kennebec potatoes).  So there.  Lots of caveats, but request away.  If the product in question is available in my area, I’ll buy it, dissect it, and eat it, and then try to recreate it!  Otherwise, you’ll need to describe the hell out of it, and maybe take a photo.

Happy cooking!

The Taste of Disillusionment

September 18, 2011

or
An advanced lecture in alienating your audience.

I’m in Iowa. I won’t be by the time I post this, but, for now, as I write this, I’m in Iowa. Cedar Rapids, to be precise – the second-largest city in the state. It’s about four hours west of Chicago, and my cousin Beth invited me out to stay with her and her husband Matt, so that she and I could go see Alton Brown give a lecture at Theatre Cedar Rapids, which is a gorgeous theatre.

A little background: Alton was there for a program called Inside-Out, which the Cedar Rapids Public Library has inaugurated to draw more patrons to the library and its services. See, the library was pretty much annihilated in the 2008 flood, and the collection, too, was destroyed. The city’s plans to rebuild a fabulous new library and make it enormous and wonderful are inspiring, although Beth says their choice of location was a little suspect, and perhaps overexpensive. So this was a library benefit event. That’s background factoid number one.

Background factoid number two: I have always loved and idolized Alton Brown.  (As of this writing) I am twenty-three years old.  I’ve been watching Good Eats since I was a pre-teen – the show, now in its fourteenth and final season, has aired for the last twelve years.  Half my life.  For the duration of that period, Alton was one of my great food heroes – always explaining, illustrating, and above all, democratizing food in such a way that I could understand it.  I hold only Jacques Pépin in higher esteem, and that was because my father owned signed copies (!) of Pépin’s La Technique and La Méthode, magnificent instructional tomes which my parents bought for me in a consolidated edition shortly after I left for college.

Beth and I were pumped to see Alton, needless to say.  Hell, I drove 234 miles so we could see him together.  I’m not going to say I drove the entire time with his book in my lap, bouncing in my seat as I sped down I-88, because I didn’t.  But I’d like you to imagine that I did, so that the next sentence hits you in the gut like a sack of bricks.

Alton Brown is a jerk.

That’s the highest level of excoriation I can bring myself to type right now, as more than a decade’s worth of adulation, self-effacing Midwestern modesty, and the feeling of holy-crap-I’m-putting-my-name-to-this-I’d-better-not-invite-room-for-Brown’s-attorneys prevent me from saying anything harsher.  But let me elucidate.  There were a few things that happened during Brown’s chat that began to sour me on the guy – Beth, too.  Let’s get to ‘em:

The Setup

1. Alton began the chat with a gift of books to the library, which we cheered wildly!  The reason he’d been asked to come to Inside-Out was because many patrons of the Cedar Rapids library had checked out cookbooks – particularly his.  So he began with a gift of a complete set of his cookbooks, which he pulled out of a box with appealing fake surprise.  “Oh, what’s this?  Another one?”

But when he was finished with his own books, I had sort of expected him to stop with the jokes and give some other books to the library – essential cookbooks that had guided him to the place of knowledge where he is now.  But, nah – he gave the library The Story of Vinegar and White Trash Cooking – which, okay, looks pretty interesting.   But he held up one of the books and said, “So, okay – this book’s from the South, where I’m from, and it’s got a few things in it that might be kind of foreign and exotic to you Iowans.”  He turned the page.  “Look!  A real live Negro!”

Silence.

He muttered, “Okay.  Remind me not to make African-American  jokes in Iowa.”*

It’s totally within reason to make fun of the near-complete racial homogeneity of Iowa, which is upwards of 95% white, as of 2005.  I mean, it pretty much invites it.  But there was just something about the way he said the word negro, or even that he said it at all, that elicited a sudden lump in my throat.  “Really?” I mouthed at Beth.  At best, let us say it was a joke made in very poor taste.

2.  Alton had come to give a talk, of course, and he had a big ol’ Powerpoint up on the projector behind him: Ten Things I’m Pretty Sure I’m Sure About Food.  He won me back as  he began his talk by going on about how chickens don’t have fingers, and if children continue to ask for chicken fingers, they should be given chicken feet (which I have enjoyed on occasion, but never successfully cooked myself).  And as for the matter of children refusing to eat what is given them, Alton said, “Never negotiate with terrorists.”  Children ought to eat what their parents make for dinner, and parents ought not to make special, separate meals for their children (barring any allergies or sensitivities, but in that case why not make the whole meal child-safe anyhow?)

He then proceeded to look around the audience for kids, to ask them whether or not their parents were feeding them properly.   He singled out an 8-year-old girl in the audience, who was given a microphone.

“Do you eat well?” he asked her.

“I think so!” she said.

“I don’t trust you,” Alton said, to laughter.  “Where’s your dad?”

The girl passed her microphone to the man next to her.  “Sure, she eats well!” he said.

Alton nodded.  Then he said, “No, I don’t trust you either, Dad.  Where’s the girl’s mother?”  Again, laughter.

Alton couldn’t find the girl’s mom.  About ten awkward forever-seconds went by.

“Man,” said Alton to the girl, “If that guy next to you is your other daddy, I’m in the wrong state.”

Again the crowd went really quiet, but up in the balcony, I’m pretty sure Beth and I gasped.

Gay marriage is legal in Iowa, Mr. Brown.  Did you think that joke would work here?  Did you think that joke would work in Iowa’s second-largest city?  In a congressional district with a comfortably-reelected Democratic representative?

It was then that I realized he thought this was Ames, not Cedar Rapids – that we were an Iowa Republican Straw Poll state fair crowd, in Representative Bachmann’s tent, that we weren’t at a benefit for a library.  Do you think the sort of people that are going to come out for a library benefit, conservative, liberal or otherwise, are going to respond well to a joke about gay marriage?

Again, it was a joke in really poor taste.  The book I’d brought sat across my lap and started to feel a little heavier.  “I’m not sure I want him to sign this now,” I said.

3.  At some point during the talk, Alton said, “Restaurants aren’t churches.”  When you go into a restaurant, you, the consumer, are in charge.  You should be able to order off the menu.  You should be able to order anything off the menu.  I think this is true, up to a point: if they sell omelettes and fried eggs at a breakfast joint, you should be able to order scrambled eggs.  If they make grilled cheese sandwiches and scrambled eggs, you should be able to order a grilled cheese sandwich with a scrambled egg in it.  Fine.  That’s fair.

But Alton went on to tell a story about how he and his wife were in North Carolina, and they were at a seaside restaurant that had recently revamped its menu such that it no longer included hush puppies.  “And my baby wanted hush puppies,” Alton said.  So he ordered some.

“I’m sorry, sir; those aren’t on the menu,” said the server.

”They are so on the menu,” Alton (said that he) said.  “Your catfish, here, is rolled in cornmeal.  Your fried chicken is soaked in buttermilk.  Your french fries are made in a deep-fat fryer.  Combine the cornmeal and the buttermilk, make them in to balls, fry them, and serve them to my wife.”

“I’ll have to go speak to the manager,” said the waiter.

Alton said he didn’t get what he wanted until he scrawled “I’m comin’ back there!”  on a coaster and had it delivered to the cook.  And he recommended that we all give this a try.

“Oh, sure, because we all have name recognition and contracts with the Food Network,” I muttered to my cousin.

“And there’s no way that restaurant would kick us out,” she said.

Here’s the thing.  I knew Alton was a Republican, and that never bothered me in the slightest.  It still doesn’t bother me.  I understand and respect his desire for individualism and self-determination.  What bothers me is that he didn’t think this out fully, and I had conceived of him as being a deep thinker.  Individual freedom also means that a business owner has rights, too: if a patron’s being an asshole, I have the right to eject him from my restaurant.  It’s not some kind of snootified us-versus-those-fancy-restaurateur scenario – it’s “you don’t get to treat my waitstaff that way and expect to get served”.

The rest of the evening proceeded to illuminate his I’ve Got Mine, I Don’t Care If You’ve Got Yours philosophy.

4.  He had just finished inveighing against the USDA and the FDA.  “They’ll never be able to catch any of those diseases with more regulation – that’s BS.  It just makes things more expensive for the producers of American food.  Government should get out of the marketplace!  Leave my lettuce alone and go back to making missiles!”

And then he went on to inveigh against Walmart, for destroying small businesses as well as its own suppliers, just so that the American public can enjoy a can of Chinese-made chili for 39 cents.  He displayed an image of the can’s contents, which was a gelatinous goo full of pale beans and a few dried chiles.

“Is this what you want, America?” Alton said.  “Is this worth 39 cents to you?  Chili doesn’t come from China!  It comes from Texas!  We shouldn’t be trusting the Chinese to make us cut-rate chili!  Who knows what they put in it?” 

Now.  Maybe I’m misinterpreting the protectionist sentiment, here, but what’s wrong with Chinese canned goods?  Is it just that they’re making chili incorrectly?  Or is it because it’s marginally unsafe to eat food from mainland China?

I mean, China, after all, is the land of plastic-infused baby formula, scavenged oil, and phosphorescent pork.  A land of very little industrial regulation.

You can’t have it both ways, Mr. Brown, and perhaps I’ve cross-wired your America Firstism with my own worries about imported Chinese goods, but if I’m right, you’re a hypocrite.

The Heist

Beth and I left without getting my copy of I’m Just Here For The Food signed.  I was intensely disappointed.  In the parlance of our times, we “hugged it out” on the walk to her car, and I let my shoulders slump.

I don’t want this to be a “I’m a liberal and my hero’s a conservative; ergo he is no longer my hero” entry.  Please, God no – don’t let that be the takeaway.  It was more that my hero turned out to be a jackass, a bit of a bigot, and a hypocrite, and I wanted to share my disapprobation.  Hell – some of my favorite thinkers are conservatives.

It’s that I’m just disillusioned.  I told Dave, my old roomie, about it, and he said, “There’s a simple lesson here: never meet your heroes.”

I think he might be right.

What I failed to do here, and what I’ll be doing in the future with Alton, is separate the televised persona from the man himself – I had expected Real Life Alton to be as genial and friendly as Television Alton.  He’s not – he’s a good deal more cynical and curmudgeonly.

I don’t know what I should have expected – it’s like I expected Stephen Colbert to actually be the Bill O’Reilly caricature he inhabits on the air.  I blame myself, really.  But when I was in Cedar Rapids, I bought Jacques Pépin’s memoir, The Apprentice.  It’s excellent so far, but if he turns out to have been a collaborator under Maréchal Pétain, I’ll be fresh out of heroes.  Probably that won’t be the case, since he was a little kid during WWII – but if he turns out to be an asshole, I don’t know what I’ll do with myself.  I’m resolved to never find out, because I think I’d like never to meet Pepin now – not because of any ill will I bear him, but for the opposite reason: the real man might not bear up against the narrative I’ve constructed for him.

Well, that was depressing.  You know what’s awesome?  MEAT.

I’d heard on The Splendid Table (okay, there’s another hero!  Lynn Rosetto Kasper.  Ha! I’ve already forgotten you, AB.) that Iowa and Indiana hosted a particularly American delicacy – the pork tenderloin sandwich.  Now, I’ve eaten pork tenderloin, and I think I had a completely different image in my head when I first heard about these things.  I was imagining slices of pork tenderloin laid on a bun – this is a false image.

In Iowa, a pork tenderloin sandwich is made by taking a piece of tenderloin, pounding it to an absurd thinness (1/8th of an inch or so), then breading it as one would a piece of wiener schnitzel.  And then deep-frying it.  And then serving it on a comically-tiny bun.  We’re talking hilariously teensy, here.  The bun may take up as little as 1/3 of the area of the fried slab of pork.  Although the sandwich is dressed with pickles, onions, and maybe mayo and mustard, the predominant flavor isn’t pork, but fried.

When you look up Pork Tenderloin Sandwich in the encyclopedia, the image that comes up is from Joensy’s, an Iowa restaurant that’s famous for serving the “Biggest and best” pork tenderloin sandwiches in the state.  I got a sandwich at the original Joensy’s in Solon, Iowa, on my way back to Chicago.  I don’t know about best – it was pretty crispy on the outside and tender on the inside – but it certainly was friggin’ enormous.

There she blows to our leeward side, Starbuck!  The great white whale himself!  Seriously that thing is huge.

If I may utter some out-of-state blasphemy, I think the sandwich is ill-served by being pounded so thin, and therefore so large.  More than an immense plane of fried, I think I wanted to taste the meat itself.  I think I would have been satisfied by a slightly thicker patty of similar weight.  I know it’s kinda fun to have the pork exceed the bounds of the sandwich, but by god does it make it difficult to eat.

They put some onions on the sandwich, but I think it's mostly to taunt you.

And when you’ve finished eating around the bun, you still have an entire sandwich to go.

As well as another 300 miles to drive.  Urp.

I wish they’d given me more cole slaw.  That stuff was excellent, and I got maybe a quarter-cup of it.  You’d think that a restaurant that gave me a square foot of deep-fried pig would have been less stinting on the slaw.

My takeaway: it’s legendary for a reason, but I think it falls into the sort of state fair food that I only need to eat once every five years.  For now, it’s zucchini and kale until the meat sweats stop.

Speaking of better living through veggibles, here’s a little stalk of tomato vine, with some of my 5-Star Grapes maturin’ on it:

Summer came late, so the growing period continues apace.  I expect to get another five pounds at least out of my plants before first frost.

So.  Everything grows; everything progresses.  I’ll not abjure my love of Good Eats, but I won’t be in a hurry to see Alton’s next program, I’ll tell you that much.

 

* changed to reflect the account of Chad, AKA lilzaphod, and his wife.

The Further I Slide

September 2, 2011

or, Moribund the Hamburgermeister

I'm a tease.

One of the many marvelous things I acquired on the single greatest day of garage sale-hunting in American history was a meat grinder.  Not a hand-cranked jobbie, no: I’ve got one of those – an ancient piece of work from the 1930s.  I’m sure it works, but it’s more decorative than anything, and, more than that, I can’t really find any surface in my apartment to attach it to.

No, what I acquired was a never-before-used Krups Butcher Shop – a fully-automatic, electric plug-in combination meat grinder, pastry extruder, sausage-maker, and ice-crusher.  Also makes julienne fries (no it does not).  They don’t make the Butcher Shop anymore, which is a shame.  Krups pretty much only makes coffee machines now, and coffee-and-spice grinders.

But I bought this fabulous workhorse, capable of grinding 2.2 pounds of meat per minute (it says so on the box!), and my mind flooded with ideas.

When you use it as a pastry extruder, it’s possible to make cookie sticks, which is probably one of the most dangerous phrases you will read in your entire life.  We’ll cover cookie sticks when the weather gets cooler and I can start baking again in earnest, as opposed to what I do now: hatefully turning on the oven, giving myself a sweat-bath, and pulling some hard-won chunk of breadstuff out of the hotbox, cursing all the way.

But the best idea yet came to me after Michael and I cased a museum.  My friend Michael stayed with me for a bit, recently: we made beer together, beer from which I developed my spent-grain bread recipe.  I’d send him out on the town during the day while I worked, and we’d adventure at night.  I should explain about the casing the museum: I’m writing a book, a YA book in which teenagers have to pull off fabulous heists in famous Chicago locations.  To that end, Michael and I went to a Particular Chicago Museum that houses a Particular German Sea-Vessel.  My friend [redacted], who was kind enough to give us a tour, was wise to our scheme, and pointed out various things on the U-505 that we could steal.  You know.  In the book.

Anyway, Michael and I were in the car, windows down, headed north on Lake Shore Drive up from the museum, on the way to meet his friend (now my friend) Sharon, for dinner.  And out of nowhere I hollered, “MICHAEL!”

He went, “What!?”

I said, “TINY HAMBURGERS.”

“What about them?”  His long hair seemed to form a question mark in the breeze.

“WE’RE MAKING THEM.  TOMORROW.”

“From scratch?” he said.

“Oh yes,” I said.  “Everything from scratch.”

It should be noted that, when it comes to food, Michael is almost as, but not as insanely, devoted as I am.  Like me, he keeps a jar of schmaltz in his fridge.  Like me, he’s willing to take on absurd food adventures at a moment’s notice.  Unlike me, he’s apparently pretty good at making pork chops.

Needless to say, sliders were nothing the two of us couldn’t accomplish with our combined powers.

First, a definition:

Slider. /ˈslaɪ.dər/ Noun.  Americanism.  A small, round sandwich, usually two to three inches in diameter, generally with a ground-beef filling.  Named for the way they are said to slide down one’s gullet.  Slyder, with a y, was once a trademark of the fast food company, White Castle, which is known for its tiny hamburgers.

Notable usage:

2011: D. Rheinstrom, The Clean Platter 9/2/2011, “Let’s go make some friggin’  sliders.”

The Setup

We knew we wanted to grind our own meat.  It’s safer, because you know what you’re putting into the meat, it doesn’t stay compromised and uncooked for long, and you get to control precisely the proportion of fat and lean tissue that goes into the mix.

We decided we were going to do several different kinds of sliders – The Classic -  American-cheese and grilled onion burger – the Beet’n and Bleu, which, well, features sliced, cooked beets and bleu cheese, and the You Go Your Way, I’ll Gomae Way, which features wasabi mayonnaise, Japanese gomae spinach salad, and a single slice of pickled ginger (gari).

We also did a last-minute Edamame Burger, which I wanna call Ed’yo-mame’s-so-dumb-she-doesn’t-know-veggie-burgers-are-delicious.  But I won’t.  Because it’s too long.

Slider Day had four components:

1. The Buns

2.  Curd-istani Corn Salad

3. Cheater’s Gomae

4.  The Burgers

 

Setup 1: Buns

You certainly don’t have to make the buns, which we made from this King Arthur Flour recipe; just make sure to make the buns half as small as the recipe directs you to, and when it says 2 tablespoons of butter in the ingredients list, it means 2 tablespoons of melted butter.

They look like this when they're done!

But you could totally just buy slider buns somewhere.  They definitely sell them everywhere.

Setup 2: Curd-istani Corn Salad

A spicy side dish for Wisconsinites, or those who wish they were

A brief prefatory note: I understand this has nothing to do with Kurdish food.  I don’t think the Kurds have corn – I would assume that cucumber would predominate more.  No, this recipe came about because Carolyn acquired some cheese curds, and, despite not being from Wisconsin (ahem, honey), professes a profound love for them.  Okay, fine, she has Wisconsin roots, but she also has a tiny rack of antlers mounted on a wooden outline of the state of Ohio.  You can’t serve two masters, Carolyn.

A secondary prefatory note: Some of you may not know what Wisconsin Cheese Curds are.  They’re the fresh byproduct of cheese production – small hunks of mildly-flavored curd that squeak between your teeth in a really pleasing way.  I popped them into this hot corn salad for fun, and Carolyn was delighted.

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups fresh corn kernels (about two ears of corn)
  • 1/2 an onion, roughly chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped fine
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded (or not!) and chopped fine
  • 1/2 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  • 1/2 cup fresh cheese curds, or Chihuahua cheese (if this, then cut into smallish chunks)
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • juice of half a lime

Directions

1. Divest the ears of their kernels: I like to do this by breaking the cob in half, placing the broken, now-flat side down on the cutting board and making stable, slow cuts down the length of the cob.

Joshua fit'the battle of Jericorn, Jericorn, Jericorn.  Joshua fit' the battle of Jericorn, and the walls came tumblin' down.

2.   Heat the oil in a medium-sized skillet or pot, and saute the aromatics – the onion, the garlic, and the hot pepper.  Stir briskly until the onion has softened, 5 minutes or so.

3.  Dump in the corn and heat everything through – you’re looking for a slight change in color, but not much – you don’t have to cook the kernels until they turn brown, just till they brighten a bit.  It doesn’t take much to cook corn; I can eat it raw.  This should take maybe two or three minutes.

4.  Add in the tomatoes and stir to combine.  Once they’re heated through, about a minute, kill the heat.

5.  With the heat off, add in the cheese and stir – the residual heat should make the cheese slightly melty, but they should retain their essential shapes.  Add in the lime juice, as well as some finely-chopped cilantro, if you’ve got it.

 

Setup 3: Cheater’s Gomae

A traditional dish for people who hate tradition

Horenso no goma ae (spinach in sesame sauce) is a traditional japanese salad.  You boil the spinach and then grind sesame seeds with sugar in a pottery mortar (suribachi) with a wooden pestle (surikogi) and add water and soy sauce until they become a fine paste.  Then you dress the boiled spinach with the paste.

Well.  I have neither pestle nor patience for that kind of tradition.  Not when I’ve got pre-made sesame paste in my fridge.  That’s right.  Tahini!

A very not-Japanese thing.

This is how I make gomae, which, by dint of its inauthenticity, I call Cheater’s Gomae.  Let’s go steal a tradition.

Ingredients:

  • 10 ounces frozen, chopped spinach, or 1.5 lbs fresh spinach
  • 2 tbsp tahini paste
  • 1 to 2 tsp honey
  • 1 tsp soy sauce, or to taste
  • 2 tsp black sesame seeds (kuro goma)
  • 2 tsp white sesame seeds

Directions

1. Either blanch the fresh spinach in boiling, salted water, or defrost and drain the frozen spinach.  Squeeeeeze as much liquid as possible out of the spinach.

Plop.

2.  Slice the spinach into ribbons with a knife, or, if you’re using frozen, chopped spinach, skip this step.

Squish.

3.  In a bowl, mix the tahini, the honey, and the soy sauce, until it tastes how you desire it.  From here, you can either toss the spinach with the dressing, or keep them separate until service.  Regardless, keep them both in the fridge; gomae is best when it’s nice and cold.

Delish.

4.  When you’re ready to serve it, either A) take a clump of spinach and drizzle it with the dressing or B) take a clump of already-mixed spinach and sprinkle it with the sesame seeds.

 

Setup 4: The Burgers

For people who love themselves very much

For the burgers, Michael and I turned to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, a man who takes his hamburgers very seriously.  We’re talking about the man who had an In-N-Out burger dissected, divided into zip-loc bags, and air-freighted from Los Angeles to New York so he could study the thing in his burger lab.

So when it comes to making hamburgers from scratch, Lopez-Alt is the man to consult.  After reading a number of his perfect-mix recipes, we decided to use a mix of chuck, short-rib, and brisket, but when I went to the (glorious, marvelous, WHOLESALE) Chicago Meat Market, they were fresh outta brisket.  So chuck and short rib it was.

You could totally just use chuck (which is the beef shoulder and neck primal cut), but Lopez-Alt likes the mix of fat and connective tissue that you get from the three meats in combination.  To make up for the lack of brisket, I asked politely for some beef fat, and received it in abundance, for something like 20 cents a pound (“what the heck were we gonna do with it anyway?” the butcher said to me.  But more to the point, what the heck am I going to do with the rest of it?).

 

Here's the shortrib.  Aw man yeah lookit that marbling and fat.

Slider Pre-Fab Meatmix

  • 2 parts chuck
  • 1 part short rib
  • 1/4 part unrendered beef fat

1. Before you begin, freeze everything for at least an hour, including every component of your meat grinder – the die, the chute, everything.  It should be as cold as possible so as not to smear the meat, and make sure that everything comes out cleanly.

2.  Cut up the meat and fat into one-inch cubes; separate the short ribs from the bones; reserve the bones for stock and throw them into the freezer for later.

3.  Grind the meat.  Michael and I could only watch, awestruck, as the magical grinder churned out fluffy pink snowdrifts of meat.  I was in love.

Imagine if it snowed beef instead of snow.  You could make Meat Angels!

4.  Form the meat into smallish, loosely-packed pucks of meat, and lay them in piles, on a plate.  They should weigh no more than two ounces.

I had another plate just like this.  Oh god so many tiny hamburgers.

Here’s the edamame burger recipe I used, except I switched out the millet with quinoa – it takes the same amount of time to cook.  Also, lose the panko – it’ll make them crumble and fall apart.  Make this mix well-ahead of time (maybe the day before), or your kitchen will be a god-awful mess.

Now you’ve got everything in order.  It’s time for…

The Heist

I’m pretty sure there’s only one way to cook a hamburger indoors, and that’s in cast iron.  You might want to consider getting a splatter screen, though, because these burgers will generate a lot of hot fat (in fact, it might behoove me to eliminate the extra fat in the mix, but I doubt it will), and it will spatter all over your cooktop.

Directions:

1.  Let the iron skillet get nice and hot.

2. Lightly salt and pepper them, and then cook the patties for 2 to 4 minutes a side, until they reach your desired doneness.

That sizzling you hear is the sound of hope.

3.  When one batch of burgers is complete, shunt them off to a waiting (nice and hot) plate.

4. Begin assembly! 


Pictured at left: the corn salsa.  Pictured at bottom right: that's a coaster, not an empty birth-control foilpack.
The Classic is a smallish slice of American cheese (no other kind will do!), with a sprinkling of grilled onions, and a squirt of ketchup.  Some mayo. too.*  Maybe a thin slice of tomato.

The Beet’n and Bleu probably should have had less bleu cheese on it.

And it needs mayo.

The You-Go-Your-Way-I’ll-Gomae-Way’s wasabi mayonnaise requires about a teaspoon or so of dry wasabi powder stirred into a quarter-cup of mayo.  Maybe less, maybe more, depending on your preferences.  I like to spread mayo on the lower bun, and hot Chinese mustard on the top, with a lil’ bit of gari atop the patty for fun.  Plop a little bit of gomae onto the bun and go to town, my friend.

I am salivating so hard you have no idea

 

Here’s the veggie version of the Japanese slider!  Hello, there:

 

"Hello," it says back.

 

These sliders will all disappear.  Like, immediately.  So secure some for yourself, to explore the various flavors you’ve created.  And branch out!  Invent all sorts of crazy toppings.  In fact, don’t even stick to beef, or even hamburgers!  Make tiny sausage patties out of pork!  Or shrimp!  Put crabcakes on a bun!  Zucchini latkes!  Polenta!  The world is your oyster.  Oo!  Oysters!  Make tiny po’ boys.

Whatever you do, tell me about it in the comments.

Enjoy!  Have a lovely Labor Day Weekend, America, and happy cooking!

 

-D

* ON THE SUBJECT OF MAYONNAISE ON HAMBURGERS

It’s really popular to hate on mayonnaise.  It’s fun to look at mayo and be like, “Ew, that’s a horrible, boring white-people condiment.”  Fine.  Whatever.

You know what’s really sexy and cool right now?  Aioli.  It’s everywhere.  It’s on the haughtiest haute-cuisine menus; it’s in neighborhood bars gamely attempting to turn themselves into gastropubs; it’s got 222 hits on the Food Network website.

Guess what aioli is.

Yeah.  I dare you.

IT’S GARLICKY MAYONNAISE.

Now get over yourselves and start putting mayo on the bottom buns of your hamburgers.  Here’s why – fat repels liquid.  A thin layer of mayo will protect the bun from the gradually-seeping meat juices of the burger, which prevents it from getting all soggy, and, as a bonus, creates an amazing, savory sauce that acts as another note in the meat-chord that is burger.

P.S.

Bonus if you’ve read this far!  Here and here are the songs I was referencing in my title and subtitle.

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