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

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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

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

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

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

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 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.

Spent-Grain Bread

August 26, 2011

Or, “Beer Bread, Minus The Beer”.

Homebrewing is on the rise.  In 2010, according to a press release from the American Homebrewers’ Association, 82% of homebrew supply shops “saw an increase in sales of beginner [homebrew] kits”, which means, well, more folks are getting into the hobby.

Last summer, I started homebrewing, also from a beginner’s kit.  My friend Jack and I journeyed over to Perfect Brewing Supply in Libertyville, and I snatched up Jack’s father’s old carboy, as well as some of his other old brewing supplies.  Jack and I made a hefeweizen I named Too Clever by Hef, which was followed by a lemongrass and ginger-infused black ale I called Fit to be Thai’d, and that brewing season finished up with some hard apple cider (made from apples I picked with my friend Josh at his family’s home), which I dubbed Justifiable Applecide.

I am not a nice man.

Anyway, this year I’ve also been brewing – whenever a friend of mine visits, I put him to work in the brew-forges, crafting beers with me.  When Dave visited, we made a wheat beer.  When Michael visited, we made an October Ale (just like Foremole Diggum would have drunk – oo er aye.).

Now, when you make beer, you’re essentially making a sweet grain tea (the wort), which is a tasty substrate for your yeast to swim around in, eat up, and convert to alcohol and CO2.  You can make wort by adding malt syrup concentrate to a large quantity of water, or you can do a whole-grain mash and soak grains in hot water until they release all their sugars.  Basically.

Doing a whole-grain mash, as I do, leaves you with a lot of leftover, somewhat soggy grains – they don’t remain in the wort for fermentation.  And, if you’re like me, you might end up with quite a few pounds of spent grain.

Rather like this.

DON’T THROW THIS STUFF OUT.

Everyone’s always telling you to eat more whole grains.  Now you’re sitting on eight pounds of it and you just wanna chuck it out the back door?  No, sir or madam!  No, indeed!

Most of you are probably not homebrewers.  That’s okay!  Most of the people I know aren’t, either.  But, with the rising popularity of the hobby, I’m sure you have a friend or neighbor that brews.  I can think of two or three of my Chicago friends or neighbors who make beer, and I’m not even in any clubs.

My local homebrew shop, too, makes a lot of beer in-house (unsurprisingly).  I might call them, to see what they do with their spent grain, if I get the urge to make this recipe again.

Anyway, this recipe: it’s dense, it’s chewy, and it’s not too sweet.  I think a lot of bakers go wrong in their wheat breads by making them nearly dessert-cake-level sweetness.

I developed the recipe myself, after trying and failing to produce good bread with the spent-grain bread recipes I found online.  I have made this bread twice, and I am delighted to say that, for having developed a bread recipe on the fly, it works quite well.  (I followed my recipe to the letter the second time, so I know it works.)

AN IMPORTANT NOTE: this bread would taste awful if hops got into it.  Make sure that you get spent grains that haven’t touched any hops.  (This shouldn’t be an issue, if you’re brewing in the right order.)

Spent-Grain Bread
makes one large loaf

The Setup

Ingredients

  • 2 cups spent grain from all-grain mash, milled to a fine pulp in a food processor (measure after processing)
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

The Heist

Directions

1.  First, if you haven’t, mill your grains in a food processor.  If you’ve got a lot, as I did, this may take several batches.  That’s fine.  You’ve got all the time in the world.

Doesn't that look pretty?  And not like a bowl full of unspeakable?

2.  Mix the water, the yeast, the honey, and the vegetable oil in a measuring cup, and let it sit until the yeast wakes up, about five minutes.

(Photo note: these photos are from two separate sessions, which is why it’s night outside in some and day outside in others.  You don’t actually have to work from dusk till dawn to make this recipe.)

3.  Take two well-packed cups of spent-grain mush and plop them into a great big bowl.  Mix in the four cups of AP flour, as well as the salt, and mix until everything is incorporated – it might get a little ropy or clumpy, but that’s okay!  Break it all up with your fingers until everything comes together.  It should feel a little like wet sand, honestly.

It's sort of like playing with brown sugar.  It makes that same sort of satisfying thwop as it falls into a bowl.

4.  Make a well in the center of the dough and pour in the liquid ingredients; mix until everything is completely hydrated and doughy, but not sticky.  If it’s sticky, add flour, a little at a time, until the dough becomes workable again.

See - the mixed grain-and-flour looks kind of sandy-pebbly.

5.  Oil the bowl, cover it, and let the dough rise until it doubles in volume, about 90 minutes later.  Punch it down, and transfer it to a well-greased 9-inch loaf pan, which you should also cover.  Let the dough rise again for another 90 minutes to 2 hours.

It's not so terribly pretty, as far as breads go, I'll warrant.  But is really good.
6.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and, once it’s ready, bake the bread at that temperature for 50 minutes.  If you’re a stickler for doneness, and who isn’t with bread, you can check the internal temperature of the loaf when you pull it – it should be hovering around 190 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Isn't that better?  I think so.

Now, you don’t need to put anything on this bread, as bread that requires butter to taste good is scarcely a bread at all.  However, bread that asks politely is rewarded with a pat on the crumb:

Hello, little pat of butter.  You are going in my mouth.

Good bread.  Good little bread.

This hearty bread makes fine sandwiches, but I like to just cut hearty slabs of it, spread it with mustard, and top it with a few pieces of strong cheese.  I had some for lunch today with a few slices of freshly-cooked beet, and it was marvelous.

Happy cooking!

A Paean to Pea.

August 12, 2011

It was at Volo in Roscoe Village where Carolyn and I beheld an exceedingly awkward first date: he was a public servant, she was a Tea Party equity manager. He smiled at her blandly, steering the conversation away from politics in an attempt to be civil. She, upon learning that he worked for the government, snarkily retorted, “oh, so you’re part of the problem.” Despite agreeing to meet him at a wine bar, she confessed not just an ignorance of (which would be forgivable), but a disdain for wine. He had traveled to France during Beaujolais season. You can see where my sympathies lay.  Waiting for the check, Carolyn and I completely ignored each other to eavesdrop on this date. I gamely pretended to listen as she gamely pretended to comment on the attractiveness of the hydrangeas. But really, who were we kidding? Carolyn wanted to give the guy a pep talk while the girl was in the bathroom, but she never got the chance. I also think the pep talk would have largely been, “Run for your life, handsome lawyer guy!” Watching their awkward meal was the highlight of ours.

However! The second highlight of the meal was the meal, during which we were served a fabulous flatbread, bursting with verdant power, punch and perspicacity; the perfect pairing for pinot noir. Yes, friends: a springtime flatbread. A flatbread that was a paean to pea. It was a smallish, pizza-like disc of dough, slathered with a dollop of shockingly-green pea puree, slightly buttery peas, pea shoots, garlic, and little curlicues of Manchego. It was as appealing to the eye as it was to the palate. Nibbling a piece, I said to Carolyn. “It can’t be too difficult to make this at home.”

And it is not!

Essence of Springtime Pea-Puree Flatbread
makes four flatbreads, which is a cheery main course for four people, or a pleasant first course for eight.

The Setup
Equipment you will require:

  • one saucepan
  • an oven
  • a food processor
  • baking sheets
  • a spatula

For the flatbread:

  • 1 recipesworth of pizza dough, or enough for two pizzas.
  • 1 lb frozen peas (or, oo! Fresh! If you can get them, and it is springtime, and you are lucky)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 Tbsp butter – one Tbsp out on your work area, the other reserved in the freezer
  • a touch of crushed red pepper flakes
  • a lemon
  • a hunk of hard, fragrant cheese, like Parmesan, Romano, or Manchego
  • a handful of spunky salad greens, like mâche or arugula (or pea shoots!)
  • 5 to 10 mint leaves, depending on your preference and their size (optional)

The Heist

  1. Having made, risen, and rested your dough, form it into four small, equally-proportioned balls and let them sit under a kitchen towel for half an hour while you preheat the oven to 450 and prep everything else.
  2. Cut the top of the bag of peas – I assume you are using shelled frozen peas (get the sweetest kind you can!) for this recipe. Otherwise, y’know – shell, wash, and weigh out a pound of fresh peas, and lucky you for acquiring them! Slice the garlic thinly, and melt the one tablespoon of butter in a saucepan. When it has all melted, add the garlic and cook over medium to gentle heat, stirring continuously, for thirty seconds to a minute.
  3. When the garlic is fragrant, add the peas, frozen or not, straight into the saucepan, and stir until they are A) thawed, B) fragrant, C) soft, D) cooked through, or E) all of the above.
  4. Remove 3/4ths of the peas from the saucepan and put them in the workbowl of your food processor. Puree it finely, and, here’s the fun part – add in that frozen butter! If you want,you can cube it up really small before you freeze it, or after you freeze it, or not at all. This is sort of a takeoff on the traditional monté au beurre. Sort of. Not at all. The idea behind a monté au beurre is that you add a chunk of cold butter to a finished sauce to give it body and sheen, as the butter emulsifies the sauce. The principle is the same here – the cold butter will give the pea puree a little more body and shiny pleasantness.
  5. Season with salt, pepper, and the red pepper flakes, until it is DELICIOUS.
  6. Roll out the dough with a rolling pin, a tiny dowel, or by tossing it in the air like a champ. Lay it on the baking sheet or pizza pan. Now throw the rounds into the oven until they’re lightly browned – about six minutes. Remove the pans from the oven, dose with three or four spoonfuls of the puree, a few spoonfuls of unpureed peas, and a few shavings of cheese. Then throw it back into the oven again for another four or five minutes, until the puree is heated through and the cheese, while not the melting sort, should have begun to perspire a little.
  7. Finish the flatbreads with the greens, and either a little fresh lemon zest, a fairy-dusting of torn mint leaves, or a combination of the two (let it be known that both of these additions were Carolyn’s ideas.  And fine ideas they are). Let them cool, cut them into segments, and serve to a grateful public.
As always, good luck, and happy cooking!  And mysterious public sector lawyer guy, wherever you are, keep up the good work.  We’re rootin’ for you.

First, a musing on the balance of flavors:

Pizzas are, generally, pretty robust affairs; it’s a rare one that I’ve made that trades on subtleties.  I wouldn’t call myself a subtle cook – if cooking were painting, I’d cook in big, wet, Post-Impressionist brushstrokes.  A recipe calls for two garlic cloves?  I’ll use four.  Half a teaspoon of fennel seeds?  Hardly – I’ll use half a tablespoon.  I like working with bigger swatches of flavor, but that doesn’t mean that I neglect the balance of those swatches.  And it’s not that I don’t have an appreciation for subtlety.  But if I’m going to go to the trouble of cooking for a lot of people, I don’t have time to waste on subtlety – I want to hit them in the tongues with a gustatory hammer: I suppose, sir, I am above all, an American in this, and every regard.

Where am I going with this?

When making a pizza sauce, if you can’t see the herbs, you can’t taste ‘em.  Friends of mine ask me what’s in the sauce – because I’ve gone to the trouble of making all that dough, and putting everything together by hand.  I wonder if my answer is disappointing: “Well, tomatoes, mostly.  Crushed tomatoes in puree, garlic powder, Italian seasoning, black pepper, and a bit of fennel seed.”  Yeah.  Canned tomatoes.  Most of the year, they’re better than anything you can get in a grocery store, and they’re probably not grown by slaves.  Do I have a proper recipe?  Barely.

Tomato Sauce for Pizza
(sauce for about seven or eight twelve-inch pizzas)

Ingredients:

  • 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes in puree (don’t scrimp on this – a good can of tomatoes may top $2. oh no, Scrooge McDuck, my heart bleeds for you.)
  • Italian Seasoning (a collection of spices including but not limited to rosemary, oregano, marjoram, thyme, and basil)
  • garlic powder
  • fennel seeds
  • black pepper
  • kosher salt
  • tasting spoon(s, if you’re squeamish/professional)

Directions:

  1. Open can of tomatoes.  Using a spatula, empty the can’s contents into a large, deep bowl.  Prepare a tasting spoon, because it is the most important part of this recipe.
  2. Add in a full tablespoon of Italian seasoning, a teaspoon of garlic powder, half a teaspoon of fennel seed, and a quarter-teaspoon each of salt and pepper.  You may not need the salt at all, depending on the brand of tomatoes – check the label for the sodium content.  Mix.  Taste.
  3. If you cannot see the little green flecks from the Italian seasoning, add another tablespoon.  Mix and taste again.
  4. Repeat step three until you are satisfied.
  5. To sauce a pizza, take a large soup spoon and dip it into your bowl of well-seasoned sauce.  Plop the spoonful onto the center of your pizza, and, using the back of the spoon, spread it out in concentric circles, getting as much even coverage as you can until you need another spoonful.  Repeat two or three more times, depending on how saucy you like your pizzas.  Be careful, though – once, at a pizza party in college, my friend Jim declared, “This needs more sauce!” and emptied half the bowl onto the dough.  The pizza came out wet and soggy.  Dammit, Jim.

Toppings

I know I said I didn’t do subtlety well earlier, but I should issue a warning: Pizza will not brook your excesses.  Pizza is a vicious god, and requires a gentle touch when it comes to toppings.  Pizza is a balancing act between the crust, the sauce, and the toppings; the toppings, despite their prominence, are not The Main Event of a slice.  It is all three components in harmony that make for the best ‘za.

As a rule, the thinner you slice your toppings, the better effect they’ll serve.  If you can get ahold of pepperoni from the deli, ask them to slice it paper-thin; if you get it in stick form, go ahead and use that mandoline slicer that you got for your birthday and have been afraid to use (the hand guard is ideal for pepperoni!).  If you get pepperoni in a bag, well – don’t hurt yourself trying to cut those slices thinner.  Don’t worry about it.

Make sure your slices are in small pieces.  This may sound elementary, but I’ve seen pizzas whose toppings were not sensibly cut – usually, they were immense pieces of meat.  Zac, the amateur-turned-pro pizzaiolo I talked about a few pizza entries ago, would top his pizzas with large chunks of steak and chicken – larger than the bite-size pieces I would have cut had I been eating the toppings off a plate.  They were delicious, sure, but they fell off the pizza, onto people’s shirts or the floor – and they were large enough to choke on.  So, if you’re going to put meats on your pizzas, slice them thin and cut them small.  The same thing goes for something like prosciutto – I don’t like taking a bite of pizza and inadvertently pulling all the toppings off with my teeth.

Top your pizzas with some consideration as to how someone will eat them, not solely on the basis of aesthetics.  I’ve noticed this with a lot of sandwich places; a sloppy sandwich is not assembled with a sense of design – you have to approach the making of a sandwich with the end user in mind.  It’s no good to make a huge friggin’ Dagwood if you don’t have the hinged jaw of an Anaconda. 

You want your pizza to have flavor, but it shouldn’t have a dump-truck’s worth of toppings on it.  There’s no fun in that, especially when it all ends up on your clothes.

Unless your clothes are also pizza?  I guess?  No, that's stupid.

Three Simple Rules for Topping My Teenage Pizza
… Ew.

  1. Not too much cheese.  For a twelve-inch pizza, use half a cup to a scant cup of shredded cheese.  A scant cup, approximately 7.5 oz, is going to be a pretty heavy covering.
  2. Not too much sauce.  Use about a quarter cup, total, per pizza: approximately 2 ounces.
  3. Not too much anything else, either.  Your total topping volume should amount to about a half cup, or four ounces.  Leave overstuffed pizzas to a crust that can take it – I don’t want to eat my thin-crust pizza with a fork.  We’ll get to deep-dish pizzas eventually, and it’s then that you can go nuts: pile it on, my gluttonous brother!

If you can keep it delicate, you can get, dare I say it, kind of subtle, like this fig, duck, and tarragon pizza I made at a pizza block party in the East Bay (thanks, Chris and Carol, for the duck leg!).

Duck and figgy pizza

And if you’re feeling especially adventurous, you could always attempt the ambitious pizza al frutti di mare, or, if you prefer, the squizza.

This needs a different sort of sauce, in my mind, and it takes a little time, and a little classical knowhow.  It also takes shrimp heads.

 

Squizza

An adventurous treat for the pie-curious
The Setup

For the shrimp velouté (up to four days prior to making the pizza):

  • 1 lb shrimp heads and shells
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp flour
  • 3 cups of water
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • cayenne pepper
  • 2 oz dry vermouth

For the toppings (the day of making the pizza:

  • 3 oz cleaned squid, cut into rings or tentacle bits
  • a touch of garlic
  • some salt
  • 2 oz pre-cooked salad shrimp (the tiny kind)
  • 5 oz mozzarella
  • half a lemon

A velouté, in classical French cuisine, is a stock thickened with roux.  We want to make a somewhat thicker velouté, so we can sauce the pizza with it once it’s cool and somewhat set up.  See, you’ve probably heard this a bajillion times, but as you cook the roux, the starch granules in the flour gelatinize and spring open and, erm, basically capture water.  Don’t hit me, Harold McGee.

Usually this would be done with chicken stock, or a veal stock.  But you know what, if you can find shrimp heads or shrimp shells, I say go nuts and experiment.

The Heist (the sauce part)

  1. Thinly slice 2 cloves of garlic.  Heat 1 tsp of olive oil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium, and when the oil is hot, add them in, stir for about 30 seconds, and add the shrimp heads and shells. Let this cook over medium heat for about five minutes, until everything turns nice and pink, and the heady aroma of shrimp fills your kitchen (NB: if you do not like shrimp, or its scent, do not attempt this recipe – at least not without a fume hood.  It is odorous.)
  2. When the shells and heads have gotten nice and blushy, pour the three cups of water over them, bring to a simmer, and cook for about ten minutes.  Then kill the heat.
  3. Meanwhile, in a much smaller saucepan or skillet, begin making the roux: melt the butter, and stir in the flour.  Cook, stirring constantly, over low heat, until the roux is incorporated into a blondish paste.  Don’t overcook it, because we’re going for thickening power, not flavor, here.  Once it has reached a sort of tawny beige, kill the heat and let it cool down.
  4. Carefully strain the shrimp bits out of the stock by pouring it through a strainer into a bowl, and then back again into the pot.  Return to the heat, bring to a simmer, and carefully stir in the roux, using a spatula to get it all out of the little pan.
  5. Whisk the sauce as it simmers until everything is incorporated.  Add the vermouth and the other seasonings to taste.  Let it cook over gentle heat until the liquid gets viscous enough to coat the back of a spoon (which is the classical metric for judging a thickened sauce’s doneness).
  6. Let the sauce cool, put it in a tupperware container, and leave it alone, up to four or five days, until you are ready for…

The Other Heist (the pizza part)

  1. When you’re ready to make the pizza (refer to this entry for more elaborate instructions on that), prep your oven and your dough.  Take your dough round and top it with a few spoonfuls of now-cooled shrimp sauce.  Sprinkle on the cheese.  Throw it in the nice, hot oven.
  2. Slice the squid and set it aside.  You may also slice some garlic, if you wish – one or two clovesworth.
  3. When half the cooking time has elapsed, about six minutes, take the pizza out of the oven, toss on the (pre-cooked) teensy salad shrimp, and throw it back in the oven.
  4. While that’s going on, heat some oil in a skillet on the stove.  Add the optional garlic and cook briefly, before adding the squid.  Cook over high heat until the squid firms up and turns opaque, about 45 seconds to a minute.  Kill the heat and salt the squid very gently.
  5. When the pizza is ready, remove it from the oven, and distribute the freshly-cooked squid on top (I didn’t have you put it in there with the shrimp because squid is notoriously finicky – it’d be a shame to rubberize it, but even worse to undercook it).
  6. Let the pizza rest a bit, squeeze lemon over it, and serve with additional lemon slices.

Squizza

I would be surprised if it lasts five minutes.  The pizza had barely been cut before I managed to take this picture; in another 45 seconds it was gone – that’s why there are so many slices: everyone wanted to try it.

Happy eating!

P.S.  Everyone should check out my friend Heather’s blog over at the Minimum-Wage Hedonist; we’ll probably be cross-linking in the coming weeks and months, because her food ethos is pretty similar to mine (for God’s sake, it’s in her title), and she is, barre none, the cleverest and best baker I know.

In fact, I’ve got a big ol’  thing of yogurt I should probably use up, which means it’s time to make the lemon yogurt cake of legendary legend.

Fun with Coconuts.

April 30, 2011

(or, Pumping Up Your Mussels)

You’ll never see a can of coconut milk for under a dollar.  Not the good kind.  -Sure, there’s the Roland Classic kind, which sometimes sells for 99 cents, but that brand has guar gum in it, which artificially thickens and emulsifies the coconut milk.  A sign of good coconut milk, surprisingly, is that it doesn’t emulsify – when you open the can, you should see a nice, chunky cap of solid coconut fat.  This is called the head.  What’s great about this is you can use this head to start a curry – you gently fry the curry paste in the coconut fat and let the aromatics bloom.  The rest of the can – the thinner, more watery milk – is used to make up the liquid body of whatever dish you’re making.

Anyway, a good can of coconut milk, like a 14-ounce can, will probably run you about $2.19, in 2011 dollars (assuming that, y’know, those of you reading in the future haven’t switched over to beaver pelts or the bimetallic standard, and you still know what a U.S. dollar is).  I wondered about coconut milk – why was it more expensive than a can of chicken broth?  Well, probably, first of all, economies of scale and the relative popularity of chicken broth (as well as a surplus of unused bones from all those boneless-skinless chicken bits) account for that.  But perhaps, too, it was more effort to make a can’s worth of coconut milk than a can’s worth of chicken stock.  I resolved to find out.

Doctor, I've got the strangest pain in my forehead and I can't figure it out.

A single coconut at HarvesTime, my local grocery store, cost $1.29.  Cackling, I drove a screwdriver into one of its three eyes – those sunken, dimply patches on the coconut, and drained the water.

Here’s an important distinction: many people think that if you poke a hole in a coconut, coconut milk comes out.  This isn’t so; a coconut is full of water.  What we call coconut milk is the meat of the coconut, which has been ground into a pulp with plenty of water and strained.

This is what comes out of a coconut:

Coconut spinal tap.  Yeah, I bet you weren't thinking that.  Now you are, and I'm not sorry for it.

It seems like there have been al sorts of coconut-based drinks cropping up these days – coconut water has lots of potassium and electrolytes, so it’s being touted as a sort of low-carbohydrate, all-natural Gatorade.  People have been drinking coconut water in Southeast Asia since the earth was young, but I’ll say this: a mature coconut is probably not your ideal vector for coconut water.  You want to get your coconut juice from a young, green coconut, because this stuff was – I’ll be the first to admit it – slightly vile.

I'll see what the younger-coconut stuff tastes like soon.

It was bitter, salty, and kinda funky.  Not one to waste anything in my kitchen, I quickly realized that the only way to make it potable was to make the coconut water into a cocktail.

The Man Friday
The Set-Up

  • The juice from one mature coconut
  • 1 oz heavy cream
  • 2 oz Malibu coconut rum

The Heist

  1. Mix or shake ingredients together until well-blended.
  2. Serve over cracked ice.

 I missed a really obvious "Lime in the Coconut" opportuntity here.  Look, we can't all bat 1.000, people.

Fortified with my cocktail, I picked up the coconut’s worst nightmare – a claw hammer.  Having made sure that the coconut was mostly empty of juice (this is best done over the sink, or outside), I rapped the coconut sharply around its circumference with the claw portion of the hammer, until I had made enough cracks in the shell to peel it off, or twist the thing in half.

What remains is a ball of coconut meat, slathered all over its surface with what looks like Crisco – this is raw coconut fat.

Try to scrape as much  of it as you can off of the inner black husk.

With a knife or a pastry scraper, cut the coconut in half and start breaking it into pieces.  You can see the big hollow where the coconut juice had been.

I know this is going to sound strange, but I swear it smelled and tasted very much like romano cheese.  Don't ask me why that is.

At this point, the coconut goes into a food processor; I used my girlfriend’s 3-cup mini-prep, since it lives at my apartment now.  She used to work at Williams-Sonoma, and suffers from an unfortunate condition; she possesses altogether too much kitchen equipment for her apartment.  I swear this isn’t why I’m dating her.  (Hi, honey.)

Mix the coconut meat with water until it’s a completely smooth, blended mixture, about the consistency of thin pancake batter.  This needs more water:

Much more.

Eventually it’ll get to looking like this.

Ooh, baby.

Now, this coconut milk still has all of those pesky coconut solids in it, and you’re going to want to isolate those for later.  This means you’ll have to strain them, through a method that I have become more and more comfortable with – pouring the whole mess into a (clean!) kitchen towel and squeezing it dry.

Things about to get MESSY up in this kitchen.

It’s sort of unfortunate, y’know; I blame my old college roommate David for this – every time I pour some kind of chunky solution into a container, I will invariably think, or make aloud, some noise similar to “Bluaaaargh,” as though the first container is throwing up into the second one.  Thanks, Dave.

Bluuuuuuuuuargh.

Now you’re doing it too, aren’t you?  I’m sorry.  I’m a jerk.

I'm kidding.  I'm not sorry.  I'm never sorry.

Now, squeeze!  Squeeze for great justice!  What goes into the bowl beneath is marvelous, fresh, fatty, and fine: it’s coconut milk, and you did it!  You did it, you son-of-a-gun in your gray flannel suit.  You’ve created coconut milk, and it only cost you about half an hour of your time, as well as the use of a hammer, a clean towel that you’ll have to wash, and the use of a food processor.  Time is your greatest currency in the kitchen, next to, y’know, actual currency. 

So is this really worth it to do on a regular basis?  I certainly don’t think so.  Might be if I’d started with, like, ten coconuts – but really!  What would I do with all of that at once?  The argument for canned coconut milk gets pretty compelling; you start to see where that cost comes in.  But every once in a while?  Heck!  Why not?  It’s fun to do!

You know, I bet if you had one of those fancy juicer machines, you could probably make pretty quick work of a coconut.

Reserve the coconut meat for later.  It’s unsweetened, so it’s got this sort of nutty, raw flavor.  It’s good, but best if you mix it with things.  We’ll come back to that.

Let’s take an abrupt left turn to talk about mussels.  Mussels are cheap, plentiful, sustainable, and delicious.  I’m not exactly sure when I first started eating mussels, because I’m pretty sure I found them sort of terrifying for most of my childhood.  At some point, I came to the realization that they were, in fact, fantastic – briny, rich, tender, and pretty easy to do well.  I’ve been making them in my own kitchen for just under a few months, and I have yet to screw them up.

It just so happens that the Fish Guy Market on N. Elston has a special on mussels every week – I’m actually hesitant to tell you the day, because I’m worried you’ll snatch up all the mussels before I get there.

So I’ve started making mussels every week, because, for goodness’ sake, they’re 5 bucks a pound, and far cheaper than that on the coasts.  Two pounds of mussels easily serves four people, given a loaf of good bread and a tasty vegetal side dish.

So I’m going to do just what Francis Lam says (click the word sustainable three paragraphs up) and explore pretty much every flavor combination I can possibly throw at the mussel.

This week, it’s red curry mussels!

Red Curry Mussels with Coconut Milk and Prosecco

Adapted from this Bobby Flay recipe

The Set-Up

Not only am I ripping off Food52 by styling the ingredients this way, it's also a good reminder to get all your prepwork (your mise en place) before you start cooking.

  • 2 lbs mussels, scrubbed and cleaned
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger
  • 3 tablespoons Thai red curry paste (I used Maesri brand)
  • 1 1/2 cups painstakingly-prepared coconut milk, or one 14-oz can (like Chaokoh brand)
  • 1/2 cup prosecco, or slightly less-fizzy white wine, like vinho verde.
  • 1 to 1-and-1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • one big handful basil leaves (thai or italian will do)

The Heist

  1. Heat your favorite dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Add some vegetable oil of your choice or melt a bit of the coconut milk’s fatty head.  Once it renders, add the ginger and curry paste and fry till fragrant, about a minute and a half.
    I swear this is one of my favorite smells.
  2. Add in the fish sauce – the original recipe calls for a full two tablespoons, and I feel that this makes the pursuant broth rather a bit too salty for my liking.
    Not my hand; note the total lack of fur.
  3. Add the coconut milk, and smile as the fragrance of the tropics wafts through your kitchen.
    This broth tastes so good.  How could it not?
  4. Add the wine.  I used prosecco, because it’s what was available – it was pleasant and dry!  I’m not sure if the bubbliness does anything, but prosecco has a nice dryness to it – a mild bitterness that does well here.  Bring everything to a boil.
    Blub blub blub.
  5. Once the liquid is at a boil, add the mussels and heat till boiling again.
    The mussels have the right idea.  I would totally take a bath in that, if it weren't 200-plus degrees, and it wouldn't result in my being eaten by other people.
  6. Cover and cook for five to ten minutes, shaking the pan every once in a while.  Lodge, send me some money.
    C'mon, seriously.  Your product looks so good in this shot.  And hey!  Next to that dutch oven?  Why, I believe that's a Lodge Brand Cast-Iron Skillet!  Good gracious I use your products often.
  7. You’re looking for most of the mussels to open, but not all of them have to.  If you like, separate out the cooked ones and leave the closed ones in the pot for more cooking.  Don’t waste your time if they don’t open after that, though – chuck ‘em.Chiffonade the basil (cut it into ribbons) and toss it into the pot, and mix everything together.You guys it's confetti you guys
  8. Ladle mussels into serving bowls, pour the lovely, fragrant broth over it, and serve with slices of crusty bread.  Enjoy with the rest of the Prosecco.

   

There’s certain to be more mussel posts on here; I don’t know where they’ve been all my life, honestly.

 

Oh!  And that leftover coconut meat from earlier?  I used some of it in some tembleque.  Tembleque is a Puerto Rican dessert I first learned about when I made it with my friend Rafa last Thanksgiving; it’s a delicate coconut pudding.  You make it by cooking coconut milk with cornstarch until it sets up; I cheated and used the Goya box mix, because it was a last-minute impulse buy.  It’s basically stovetop just-add-milk pudding mix; I added some coconut meat to give it some more body, portioned it into ramekins, and unmolded it like a flan.  It’s called tembleque because it trembles so much when you jiggle the plate.  It’s kind of fun just to poke it with a spoon.  Makes y’feel like Dr. Cosby.  Kinda.

 

I made Jell-O from a coconut!  Rudy!  Rudy, come see!

Or,

Necessity is the mother of culinary insanity.

 

So I moved.  I live in the city of Chicago, now, in a lovely apartment, with a kitchen that pleases me, in a neighborhood I am swiftly coming to adore.  And last night, I did something I rarely do, which was to improvise a completely new dish.  I was half-heartedly fumbling through the kitchen for something to make for dinner around 5 PM, and I looked at the contents of my refrigerator:

  • A gallon of milk
  • half a package of shredded mozzarella from the spinach lasagna I made last week
  • approx. 2 oz of red curry paste in a little saran-wrapped cup
  • a red pepper
  • a bunch of cilantro

as well as a couple of artichokes, some carrots, and some parsnips.  I put an artichoke over a steamer (30 minutes) and made an aioli while I schemed (non-franco-traditional.  Egg and oil and tons of garlic and some dried tarragon and a little bit of coarse-grained french mustard and salt and pepper, whisked until mayonnaisey).  I figured if whatever I made for dinner completely failed, I’d at least have an artichoke to retreat to.

I did this because the idea had already begun to coalesce in my head that a macaroni and cheese dish had to happen, and it had to use the curry paste.  And this seemed to me at once a wonderful and a terrible idea.  But living in St Louis, the idea of combining thai curries and mozzarella cheese was not foreign to me, and I decided, “To hell with it!  LET’S DO THIS THING.”  To my surprise and delight, it worked.  I think the idea is to make sure not to use too much cheese, or to use any cheese more powerful than mozzarella (an aged provolone would be, I think, a terrible idea in this case).

I didn’t really write down my measurements, but for a 9×13 inch casserole pan, I can give you the approximate amounts.

The Set-Up

You will need:

  • 2 tablespoons of red curry paste (I use Maesri brand)
  • 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • Approx 1 & 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 cup shredded cheese
  • 1 lb elbow macaroni noodles
  • 1 red pepper, diced fine
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
  • a pot for the pasta, a 2-quart saucepan for the curry-cheese sauce, and a 9X13 casserole pan for the finished dish

The Heist

Macaroni and cheese, in its most anatomical sense, is just elbow noodles tossed with a sauce mornay, and then baked.  Sauce mornay is a béchamel with cheese in it.  A béchamel is milk with a roux in it.  If these words sound like gibberish to you, don’t worry.  I’ll decode them.  I’m also being pretty simplistic, but let’s face it, none of us are French hotel chefs, circa 1870, so I don’t think the specter of Escoffier is going to float through my door and begin thwacking me about the giblets with a rolling pin.

A roux: an equal proportion of fat and flour, cooked over low heat to crack open the starch molecules in the flour – a thickener.

A béchamel: a white sauce made by thickening scalded milk with a roux. One of the French Mother Sauces.

A sauce mornay: a béchamel with cheese in it!

So.  When you’re making a roux, it’s important to remember to cook the roux over really low heat; this isn’t the sort of thing you can just set up and walk away from – you have to keep your eye on the saucepan, and stir frequently.

Normally, when I make the sauce base for a macaroni and cheese, I start by sautéing the aromatics – the garlic and the shallots.  I can’t think of anything more aromatic than sautéing curry paste; it’s how a Real Curry begins, too.

0. Start heating your pasta water – I tend to salt mine pretty heavily, but yeah, do what you like.  Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.  As you make the sauce, cook, rinse, and drain the pasta.  Grease the pan.

1. Heat a saucepan and add a little oil – drop your curry paste into it and begin to poke it around with a spatula, let it sizzle for about a minute over medium heat.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the flour.  Stir gently, but assiduously.

You'll roux the day!

2. Eventually, your roux will turn into a sort of thick, bubbly paste.  This is good.  This is very good.  It’ll probably take about five to seven minutes for this to happen.Squinch. 3.  Add the milk.  Stir or whisk for many minutes to get the lumps out, and let it cook – don’t let it come to a boil, because you don’t want to make the milk taste funny.  It should go from looking like this:

A pan full of milk with some red lumps in it

to this: a pan full of orange stuff that is of a uniform consistency

 

4.  Stir in your cheese, and stir gently.  Add a little more milk, if necessary (or! oh ho!  some pasta water.  Added starch and a little bit of flavor.).  Cook over low heat until your sauce has reached the desired consistency – thick, but not too thick, and not too stringy, either.

5.  At this point, your pasta should be done, and your oven should be preheated (you did pay attention to instruction #0, didn’t you?  There’s no reason you can’t cook a pot of pasta while this sauce bubbles away).  Mince a red pepper very fine, mix the cheese-curry sauce with the macaroni, and throw in that red pepper, too.

God that's a lot of food.

Plop this all into your casserole pan.

6. Bake at 375 for 15 minutes, then remove and let cool.

7.  Serve with a healthy pile of cilantro, if you’re into that kind of thing.

 

and I am!

Man!  You never know what you’re going to find yourself coming up with.  The creaminess of the cheese sauce complements the sharp, poky angles of the curry paste, which has these angles of lemongrass and ginger and galangal that poke through.  It’s hot, but it’s not Too Spicy.  It’s weird! It’s adventurous.  But it turned out pretty damned good, if I do say so myself.

Give it a try!

Chicken-and-Mushroom Baozi

October 21, 2010

Or,

“Ming SIGH.”

I was really excited the first time I got hold of Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger cookbook last year, and even moreso when I started leafing through the recipes – so many inventive fusings of high Chinese cooking and French technique – french-style braised chinese shortribs, shrimp and cabbage potstickers, duck two ways with garlicky mashed potatoes – oh, how delightful they sounded!

Imagine my disappointment when I tried to cook one of these, however, and discovered that it didn’t work as written.  Blue Ginger is a damned sloppily-edited cookbook, one of the sloppiest I’ve ever owned, to be frank.  Only by a determined application of intuition did I shape the following recipe into the dish it is supposed to be.

I know how it must be: you’re a successful chef, your restaurant’s doing well, and you’ve got a well-liked PBS TV show.  Maybe you don’t oversee the adaptation of your restaurant’s recipes to home-cook proportions.  Or maybe you’re doin’ it yourself and you haven’t hired a copy-editor.  I understand, too, that chefs are not authors and that I should afford them some slack.

However, when a recipe won’t work as printed, because of obvious clerical errors, i can’t help getting irritated.  For example, the instructions for the dough in this recipe advocate adding up to five more cups of additional water, depending on the humidity of the region.  What I think Tsai meant to say was five tablespoons.  Five cups of water in this dough would give you very thin paper-mache.

Anyway.  This is all to say that this is mostly Ming Tsai’s recipe, still, with a few emendations thrown in by yours truly.  With that in mind, let’s get a’crackin’.

So, first of all, what are baozi?  They’re those little steamed buns that you get for dim sum (AKA Cantonese brunch, AKA the greatest meal in the universe AKA get some next weekend, for God’s sake).  Usually they’ll have red-roasted pork (char siu) or shrimp or any number of other delectable fillings.

These steamed buns are chicken and mushroom.  I have been lately given to understanding that several of my friends do not like mushrooms.  I’m not sure what could be substituted here instead of mushrooms; little else approximates their meaty, woody flavor, their soft unctuousness, their delicate sylvan squish.  I dunno.  Consider tofu.  Or consider EATING MUSHROOMS.  Heretics.

Ingredients

Dough

  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 3/4 cup warm water
  • 1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 1/2 tsp vegetable shortening, lard, or chicken fat
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Filling

  • 2 tbsp canola/peanut oil
  • 1 tbsp garlic, chopped fine
  • 1 tbsp ginger, chopped fine
  • 1 lb mushrooms (button, crimini, shiitake or some combination thereof), chopped small
  • 1 lb ground chicken
  • 1/3 cup chopped green onion (or, as Tsai suggests, chives)
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil (or, as Tsai suggests, truffle oil)

Directions

The Dough

Note on flour: You may use all all-purpose flour if you want, but I find that the buns are a little bit TOO light and fluffy for my tastes, then.  I don’t know.  Maybe I’ve gotten too granola lately.

1. Melt your fat in the warm water, add the sugar, and then add the yeast to proof.  While you wait for this, consider grinding the chicken, if you haven’t gotten it pre-ground.

I use chicken fat as a happy medium between lard and vegetable shortening, which I like to think is a fine compromise between guilt (also known as saturated fat) and flavor.  Besides, it makes the dough itself vaguely chickeny, which I like.

2. When the yeast has proofed, add a scant teaspoon of salt, as well as the flour.  Mix until a ball forms.  If necessary, add up to 5 tbsp of water.  Let this sit while you prepare the filling, maybe about half an hour.

Lookit it grow!

The Filling

Mark Bittman recently wrote a paean to the wonders of the food processor.  Chief among his glad little cries was that he never again had to buy ground meat at the store.  He’s right.  Per pound, ground (dark meat) chicken made at home will be about $1.50 cheaper than the (generally breast meat but who’s checking besides the USDA?) ground chicken purchased at your average butcher’s counter.  And no grocery stores that I’ve ever been to grind their own chicken in-store.  It’s only beef that grocery stores process in-house, and even that’s kind of rare.

If e. coli outbreaks worry you (and they really should), stop buying factory-ground meats and grind them yourself.  Your kitchen may be messy, but it’s unlikely to contain the deadly strains of e. coli that end up being mixed into industrial-process ground beef.  Generally, there haven’t been a whole lot of chicken recalls for e. coli, but I’m not saying they don’t happen for other reasons.  So grind your own.  Hell, what were you using that food processor for, anyway?  The annual pesto-making jag?  The once-a-year latke binge?  I bet you don’t even use it to grate huge quantities of cheese, do you?

Not that I don’t advocate good and responsible knife skills, but why deny yourself the convenience of the food processor?  However, if you’re a lazy spendthrift, and you went ahead and bought pre-ground chicken (or you didn’t buy or inherit a food processor), you may disregard the preceding jeremiad, and I hope you enjoy your salmonella, you heedless son of a bitch.

If you are grinding your own, be sure not to process the chicken into a paste – I cubed mostly-thawed thighs and pulsed them until no large masses of meat remain.  You want it to be an even consistency, but you don’t want it to be a gummy, gluey mass.  Says me.

Oh but that looks ... actually quite terrifying.

Set this aside, and wash your hands, my friend.

1. Chop your mushrooms finely – ‘dice’ might be overdoing it, but you want the pieces fairly small.  (Mince, however, your garlic and ginger).  I may enjoy getting a sudden spike of aromatic exploding in my mouth, like unto a zesty grenade, but I don’t know if you do.  For even distribution, chop the aromatics nice and fine.

2. Heat a wok or a skillet and oil it once it is hot.  Quickly stir-fry the aromatics until they become fragrant – about one minute.  Then add the mushrooms.  Stir-fry 10 minutes over medium heat.  You could even turn it to low and vaguely pay attention to them, while doing other kitcheny things.  I understand that this is very un-chinese, and therefore not really stir-frying.  But I like to be gentle to mushrooms.  After all, what have they ever done to you?  Cook them until they’ve released and then reabsorbed their liquid.

Oh man that's a lotta mushroom.

3. When the mushrooms are cooked, add your choose-your-own-adventure options (that is, scallions/chives and sesame/truffle oil), and the soy.  Taste now, because you won’t be able to in a minute.

I like to add a dash or two of fish sauce, but that’s just me, bastardizing the cuisines of the world to suit my ghoulish, demoniac whims.  (Forgive me.  I just read an H.P. Lovecraft collection.)

3. Turn off the heat.  Wait five minutes for the mushroom mixture to cool. Upend the contents of the wok into a bowl, and spatulate your ground chicken into that bowl.  The chicken is raw; obviously you can’t taste your filling now.  Think of what you’ve got now as a fresh sausage filling, to be used within three days of its creation, or frozen.

Why don’t you cook the chicken with the mushrooms?  Because the buns are steamed, and it takes as long for the dough to cook as it does for the chicken to reach a safe temperature.  You also couldn’t really form the buns with cooked sausage, not as well.  And it would be overcooked and chewy and kinda gross.

Now.  You could stop here.  You don’t have to make the buns.  The filling described above makes a fantastic protein base for fried rice, for example.  You could use it anywhere you might use a pork sausage (although spaghetti sauce might be stretching it somewhat, given the flavor profile).  Less so if you used truffle oil – why would you bury that flavor?

You could make burgers from this stuff, crumble it on pizzas – I don’t konw.  Go nuts and report back to me.

Meanwhile, let us sally forth with the rest of the recipe.

Bun Assembly and Steaming

Bao dough is a yeast-risen dough, but it’s not exactly a bread.  It contains fat, but neither is it a biscuit.  It… I dunno.  It’s a bun.  I’m not sure why I brought it up; let’s move on.

1. Divide your dough into as many pieces as you can – you should be able to get about 20 to 25 balls, about 3/4-inch to 1/2-inch in diameter.  Flour a great big surface, your favorite rolling pin, and a smallish plate.  Roll out the dough into thin rounds, maybe 2 1/2- 3 inches in diameter.  Flour each one lightly and start stacking them on the plate.  This will take a while.

Floomf.  Use AP flour to roll out the dough.  Whole wheat, as I discovered, makes things a little too firm and proteiny to work with.

2. Now commence filling the buns; atop each dough round, place a teaspoon or two (no more than a tablespoon) of filling in the center, and fold the dough up around it, bunching up the folds into a neat little package.  You needn’t be fancy here; it simply has to be bunched closed.  Mine look like little hobo bindles, without the sticks.  Pinch them closed and set aside to rise.

Try not to overfill the bundles.

3. Actually, I like to let them rise on the steamer racks.  I use a cheapo bamboo steamer that I bought at a chinese grocery store (approx $15).  Admittedly, these things are sizable, so if space comes at a premium in your kitchen… I’m, uh… still working on a solution for you.

But letting the buns steam on the bamboo is a bad idea, because they’ll stick.  So what I like to do is lay down three or four pieces of Napa cabbage (or, as you can see, fork-pricked tin foil) over the steamer tray, and oil them assiduously before placing the buns on there to rise.

4. Allow the buns to rise for 30 minutes while you heat several inches of water in a large pot, big enough to place the steamer basket over.  The buns should rise a little, and maybe double in size if you’ve got ‘em in a reasonably warm place.

5. Steam for 17 minutes or so.  They’re done when the buns are glossy, and the filling is firm and cooked all the way through.  Remove the whole steamer basket assembly from atop the pot and place on a plate.  Carry this plate to the table to serve; it’s more fun that way.

Feeds four or five people quite happily for dinner, and two for dinner and again for breakfast and lunch.

Or one person for several absolutely wonderful days.

These buns freeze really, really well; simply place them on baking sheets and insert into the freezer.  Once hard, pop them off the sheets and store in freezer bags.

Well.  I’ve spent enough time workshopping this recipe.  I don’t think the buns need any kind of sauce, but I suppose if you wanted to you could whip up something with rice wine, soy sauce, pepper flakes, and scallions – I think it’s scarcely necessary, though.

C’mon copy-pasting foreign characters, go!

食飯! (sik fan; let’s eat!)

Tell me how this recipe works out for you.  I’d love to hear what you do with it.

-D

On the growing of things.

August 12, 2010

In the course of my brief experiment with agriculture, I have come to enjoy gardening a great deal.

IMG_8025

Indulge my bourgeois frothing for a second, please: I very much enjoy the feeling of working in the earth, of trimming and pruning and making things grow.  It is a work, it seems to me, unrivaled in its honesty; I love the idea that I can help coax something green (or red, or orange, whatever) out of the ground.  I can often be found in my garden in front of the house, filthy, on my hands and knees, coated in mud, weeding or trimming or making the dirt squish between my toes (there is something to be said for gardening barefoot.).

Okay.  Rank sentimentalism over.  However, I do not recant for a minute my belief that gardening is cheap, easy enough, and immensely enjoyable.

I began the garden in June of this year, eyeing our sandy, tufted, long-ignored lawn, with an intent to rip it all up and build a plot in its place.
“You’ll need to rent a rototiller,” my mother had said.  I was just getting established in the house, didn’t know anyone then – I asked around at the local hardware stores – the ones with nurseries – and they didn’t rent ‘em.  I’d have to drive 40 minutes into another town to rent a rototiller, spend some 80 bucks, and lug the great big thing about somehow in the spacious but relatively shallow trunk-space of my compact automobile.  This wouldn’t do.

There is a very particular kind of laziness that sets in when a man does not keep regular hours.  Don’t get me wrong: I work, but I keep no set schedule.  I have no office save for my own home, or wherever a writing surface happens to be.  This laziness compels me not to leave Michigan City just to rent a rototiller.

“Do I even need a rototiller?” I asked myself.  “Hell, what good are they, anyway?”

The gardener’s manual I bought suggested that a gardener rototill her first plot, because to till by hand on unbroken ground was a “backbreaking labor.”  Heh.

“Hell,” I thought.  “I could surely stand a little of that, couldn’t I?”  I ran over to Big Lots, bought some work gloves and a pitchfork, and made ready to strike the earth! (Sorry.)

That weird amalgam of laziness and heretofore-unblossomed cheapskatery drove me to till by hand.  I would not recommend such a chore for one person, for a garden exceeding, oh, 25 square feet.  My garden is about 30-some square feet, and, well, while my back remains unbroken, I don’t think I’d do it again so readily next time.  Lukcily, I don’t need to: the ground only needs to be broken up to a depth of about a foot the first time you till it, so I read, and after that, it’s more superficial tilling to aerate the topsoil.

Shortly after breaking ground, June 14 The completed plot, two days later - June 16

I mixed in three bags of organic soil, pitchforked it all into an indistinguishable mass, and started prepping for planting.  I also started composting around this time, rescuing lawn clippings, dead leaves, and vegetable leavings.

My garden began with four tomato plants and a dusting of herbs; a little market opened up near my house, and a woman there sold plants that she had started from seed, ready to plant.  I bought two varieties of tomato – Sweet Baby Girls (a cherry tomato), and Black Krim (a Crimean Black tomato).  I also bought three kinds of peppers – sweet bells, an unidentified chile, and habaneros.  I planted the tomatoes, caged and staked ‘em.

Well, it didn’t look like much at first.

Not much.

Some of my neighbors took to calling me Farmer Dave, though I hadn’t much to show for it (I think they were making fun of my exuberance.  I deserved it.); all I had was a scanty patch of brown dotted with green.

I decided the time was right to stake a claim on my garden as mine.  And what does a garden need?  A scarecrow!  Yes.  So I dug this old wooden goose out of the basement and installed it in the garden.  Its wings flap in the wind.  I am certain that it terrifies the crows, because I have yet to see a single one.

The red, baleful stare of don't-screw-with-me

Then the first flowers started appearing on the tomatoes!  And then tiny buds!  and then TINY TOMATOES!  HA!  Sweet victory!  “Go, go!” I cried (What.  You’re supposed to talk to your plants.  Shut up.)

The goose sees all.

Daww.  These are the Sweet Baby Girl tomatoes. This is the rather larger Black Krim.

Tiny, budding peppers!  YES.

Then I bought the cucumber plant.  You’d think this would be a zucchini story.  I bought a zucchini plant.  I planted it.  It grew.  Big whoop.

But I get the feeling that my fairly late start (mid-to-late June) has retarded somewhat the growth of my zucchini monster.  It’s still manageable, but I don’t have fruit yet; it might have to do with the heat of the late summer.  I don’t know.  I’m not an expert.

No, the beast to rear its head was the cuke, man.  I fell into my daily watering routine once the garden was laid out and planted, and sometime in July, the cucumber began to slither.  I had anticipated my zucchini doing something immense and terrible, so I planted it alone in the corner, away from the rest of the plot.  I reserved the cucumber no such space; do recall this is my first time growing anything.

Everything in the lower third of the image is CUCUMBER PLANT.  That respectably-sized fellow in the rear right is the zucchini.

Some little tendrils sprang out from the vertices of the plant, wrapped themselves into tight helixes, and spiraled up into cute green peaks.  But others lit out for open space and found it occupied, taken up by tarragon and thyme.  So the tendrils snaked ‘round the stems of these herbs and commenced throttling them.

In the cucumber I have a plant that does its own weeding.  of course, it also tried to wrap its little tentacles around its own stem.  Plants are dumb.

So I moved my tarragon over a ways, and disentangled the far reaches of the cukevines from my thyme (which, ladies, no man may steal).  Problem solved.  Except that the cucumber is, like spiky.  It has thorns!  Why did nobody tell me this?  I thought cucumbers were, like the least offensive vegetable you could grow, but the thing that sprouted forth from the spent flowerbud was this wicked green truncheon-looking thing, the sort of prop that a leather-clad prod in a bad sci-fi movie from the 80s might use to menace Kurt Russell (or perhaps Patrick Swayze, in Steel Dawn. God, what a … no, there are no words.).

SHEER TERROR.

But does not a plant have needs, like unto a man?  Doth not drink, not eat?  As far as I can tell, a plant needs nitrogen at its roots for sustenance as much as it needs water, sunlight, and oxygen.  I’m no agricultural engineer, but I think, if I remember my nitrogen cycle correctly, sympathetic fungi at the roots of a plant convert the nitrogen into other nutrients, which the roots sop up.  I think.

Anyway, my little plot was doing splendidly, but I wanted to ensure a good yield on my crops, so a few days ago, I decided to amend my soil.  I wasn’t going in for the big-bag fertilizer; it made me uncomfortable – I’m just not sure where that stuff comes from.  So, like I said, I composted, and after about six weeks, my eggshells, potato peelings, and carrot shavings had turned into rich damp earth (thanks to a plastic garbage can and a coupla handy worms.  I haven’t completed my rotating compost tumbler yet.  Patience, friends, patience.)  I layered this goop, this wet, handsome earth (and to my surprise, it smelled wonderful.   I quite liked it) atop the roots of my plants and watered it assiduously, muttering, “Drink, my children, drink!”

I am preparing to harvest my first cucumber now – it began as a terrible, spiky bolus, a wicked, prickly cactus-babe.  Now, mature, it has begun to mellow.  Its prickles have de-prickled.  Now there are only tiny bumps.

The chiles are surprisingly fiery.  And adorable.  Can you help me identify them?  The card that came with them just called them “Chili Pepper Red – HOT”.  And that’s not a thing.

IMG_8619

The first pepper I harvested!  The others have been significantly larger.

The tomatoes – the few early adopters of red faces and vine-retiring dispositions – have been the sweetest I have ever tasted.  It’s enough to make a fellow wish for a bumper crop.

IMG_8642

Beach Glass Count (I sorta slacked off with this): 202 pieces.

IMG_8278