Spaghettigeddon

October 4, 2011

or,

Preparing for the End Times the Tastiest Way I Know!

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

WINTER IS COMING.

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

I’m so ready.

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

Oh, no - wait.  It's huge.

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

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

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

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

If I am not mistaken they are for holding THIS!

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

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

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

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

The Setup
You will need:

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

The Heist

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

First, break up the head of garlic.

Then, give the garlic a hat and SHAKE PROFUSELY

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

That's a lot of meat.

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

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

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

The sausage, divvied.

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

Mmmm.  Garlic bath.

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

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

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

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

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

Shplop.

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

Blub blub blub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy, and happy cooking!

The Taste of Disillusionment

September 18, 2011

or
An advanced lecture in alienating your audience.

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

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

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

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

Alton Brown is a jerk.

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

The Setup

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

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

Silence.

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

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

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

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

“Do you eat well?” he asked her.

“I think so!” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heist

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

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

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

I think he might be right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As well as another 300 miles to drive.  Urp.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.

Now, I trust you kept hold of that mussel broth, like I asked you to in the last entry.  This is one of those fridge-emptier recipes, one of those “Oh, damn it, what am I going to do with all this ingredient x” standbys.

Often, after having confronted a tasty bowl of mussels in a restaurant, one is left with a delicious pool of broth that one is powerless to address.  Sure, the waitstaff has brought out bread for the mussels, but it is never enough for one, is it?  One cannot request more bread, as one would feel like a glutton, especially if the mussels in question are intended to be the prelude to the evening’s entrée.  One is therefore resigned to bidding the delicious mussel broth a tearful goodbye.

No more, I say!  I’m not about to go out and say that you request to have the mussel broth boxed up and taken home with you, although that isn’t, strictly speaking, a bad idea.  But when you make mussels, reserve that broth!  Hold it tight to your breast, because that’s half the work of another meal right there.  There’s no reason that the work of one meal can’t be the work of two or three.  In fact, let’s codify that as a Recession Tip:

David’s Tips for Living Well in A Recession

Tip #4: The effort it takes to generate one meal can be redirected into easily making others.

I suppose I’d sort of forgotten about those.  I should point out that making your own coconut milk fits neatly into Tip 3#: process it yourself.

Anyway, let’s say you’ve just made either the Thai Mussels or the Garam Mussela, and you’ve got, oh, a cup and a half of broth left over or so – this is a coconut-mussel stock, with either wine or tomato providing the rest of the liquid.  This is the time when those little freezer packs of tilapia come in immensely handy, though this would, obviously, work with fresh fish of any sort.

It's easy to assemble!  No batteries required.

Morning-After Fish-and-Mussel Soup, à la Thaïlandais

Serves two, or one for breakfast and then lunch

The Setup

You will need:

  • a little oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • a piece of ginger the size of your distal thumb joint (the part with the thumbnail on it), minced
  • 4 ounces of mushrooms – about eight, sliced
  • 1½ to 2 cups leftover mussel broth, with the mussels removed and set aside
  • 1 tilapia filet, maybe 4 to 5 oz, frozen (or not.  Also, any other firm, white-fleshed fish in similar quantity)
  • a touch of fish sauce
  • the juice of half a lime
  • (optional) a splash of cream
  • Hot steamed rice, to serve with

The Heist

  1. Execute your mise-en-place: mince the garlic and the ginger, put in a tiny bowl.  Slice the mushrooms and set aside.
  2. Cut the fish into 1-inch chunks, and set aside while you heat a small saucepan with a little bit of oil.

    Fish is awfully easy to cut when it's frozen.  These tilapia also come in those little single-use packs that I so abhor for chicken breasts, but they don't seem to bug me for fish.

  3. Saute the garlic and the ginger until they’re aromatic and soft.

    As you read these recipes - especially if you don't consider yourself someone who cooks - start looking BEYOND the recipe and into the structure of the thing.

  4. Then add the mushrooms, stirring occasionally; cook till somewhat brown.

    For example, it seems like every recipe I ever start on the stove tends to involve the cooking of aromatics in a fat of some kind - in this case, our aromatics are garlic and ginger, and that fat is a vegetable oil. 

  5. Add in the mussel stock (reserving the mussels themselves – you’re going to add them in just before serving, because you just want them to warm through, and bring to a bare simmer.  Squirt in the lime juice, the fish sauce, and the optional splash of cream.  You are also free to add more stock, more water, or whatever you wish, if you feel that you lack enough liquid in the pan.

    We cook things until they're brown, usually, because brown is evidence of tasty Maillard reactions or caramelization, which, in the case of the first, rewrites protein molecules so that they say Brown and Delicious, whereas, in the case of the second, sucrose gets melted and broken down into component sugars, which are also rearranged to spell Brown and Delicious, molecularly speaking.

  6. Tip in the chunks of tilapia and cook over medium heat until the fish is firm to the touch or tooth, about five to seven minutes.

    I'm sure I'll run afoul of a great number of organic chemists, particularly the ones that read alt-text (I know great scads of you read XKCD, anyhow).  If you happen to be one, and you recognize how poorly I'm representing these chemical reactions, send me an email: DavidRheinstrom@gmail.com.  I'm all ears.
    It should look somewhat like this:

    The point is, though, that, as a general rule of cuisine, we cook things until these reactions happen, and then, in the case of soup, we add a stock or a broth or some kind of liquid to cover, and the Brown and Delicious molecules get rearranged into a solution and in that way are distributed throughout a dish.  If you think about it, a deglazing is very similar, except that you use quite a bit less liquid.

  7. Stir in the mussels, and heat through, about a minute or two.

    Encourage yourself to start thinking beyond the constraints of Recipe, as they're only guidelines.  I didn't use a recipe to come up with this soup.  I just used taste memory, good sense, and  a long and storied relationship with soup to craft it.

  8. Serve over hot white rice, sprinkle with chopped cilantro, and eat with iced tea.  Enjoy your day.

    There's no reason why you couldn't do the same.

Thai Red Curry

June 27, 2010

Or, “Gaeng Warfare”.

I make no pretensions to be a master of Thai food.  Of the Asian cuisines that I’m conversant in, I know perhaps the least about Thai food.  Then again, I’m only ‘conversant’ (by which I mean, I’ve only cooked dishes from) the cuisines of China, Japan, and maybe once-or-twice of Vietnam.

So, y’know, take this recipe with a grain of salt and a dash of fish sauce.  Thai home cooks?  Speak up!  Teach me your ways.

Like most of the recipes you’ll see on the blog, this will be mostly an approximate recipe.  Believe me, I’m certainly not anti-recipe, but I think that once you cook for long enough, you handle the larger issues (cans of coconut milk, pounds of pork), and the smaller measurements – that is, the seasonings – will take care of themselves.  This is because I follow Kitchen Axiom Number 7.

David’s Kitchen Axiom No. 7: Taste, taste, and taste again.

There is really no way to know whether or not a sauce or a dish or a batter is really truly right and proper without tasting it.  There’s no shame in this, and to me, there’s nothing gross about it.  Ask a real chef; they definitely taste your food before it goes out.  I’m not saying they stick their fingers in it, and they probably use new spoons each time, but if your business is to supply consistent product (as it is the business of a line chef at a restaurant), you have to make sure you’re making everything the same way.

Recipes are a guide for the home cook, but by no means a religious text that cannot be contravened.  Yes, of course follow it verbatim the first time, because otherwise you have no right to complain about it not tasting right.

So, keep all of this in mind as I give you this recipe, and a little of what I know about Thai curries.

I’ve been treating curries sort of like stews, which means I’ve been applying the western/French mindset toward ‘em.  Probably I’m supposed to treat the meat more like a stir-fry, and cook it separately and add it in later, but here’s how I make it, and I’m sure someone will come along and tell me it’s not authentic.  So, with any hope of True Authenticity evanescing like dew at noon, let’s get to it, shall we?

The Set-Up

You will need:

  • a tablespoon or less of red curry paste (maybe 2 teaspoons)
  • oil or fat
  • an onion, sliced
  • a jalapeño pepper, chopped fine (or, if you’ve got ‘em, I suppose 1 or 2 little birds’-eye chiles, also chopped fine)
  • two cans of coconut milk
  • some pork shoulder, maybe 1-2 lbs
  • vegetables (in this case, green peppers, though they should’ve been red), perhaps a cup or two, thinly sliced (such as thin coins of carrot, thin slices of zucchini, mushrooms, whole baby corn, whatever)
  • Fish sauce
  • CILANTRO.
  • and a cast iron dutch oven, or a large 5-6 quart pot of some kind.

Inasmuch as I’ve read, the first thing you want to do with a curry (and indeed, pretty much the first thing you want to do in almost any recipe) is activate the aromatics.  This is what I’m talking about with the purpose of recipes: look beyond the numbers and identify the qualitative patterns.  Cooking is a series of chemical processes, but it is not baking; you can handily afford to be a little less imprecise if you have a handle on the core mechanics of a recipe.  Now, if you decided to throw in an extra teaspoon of baking soda to your Irish soda bread batter, you would no longer have Irish soda bread; you’d have a low-grade oven explosive.  If you decided to throw in another teaspoon of thyme into your beef bourguignon, you’ve still got beef bourguignon (and even if you decide to use white wine instead of red burgundy, you’ll still have a stew, even if it’s not beef bourguignon).

But I’ve been rambling for much too long, and there haven’t even been any pictures yet!

The Heist

1. Sauté the aromatics: heat your pot over a medium-low flame, and heat the oil (and perhaps some salt) in the pan, until the oil starts to shimmer.  Then add your curry paste.

Some people make their own curry paste.  I don’t make enough Thai food to really merit it, and I’ve still got so many cans of the stuff that I haven’t yet deemed it necessary.

Don't let it burn.

Sauté this, stirring frequently, for about a minute or two, until it gets really fragrant and lovely.  Then add in the onions and the jalapeño, and cook until the onion is translucent, and everything is coated in the curry paste.

See, it's getting a little translucent.

2. Now, I remembered something at this point (this was before I had unpacked my books, so I was doing a recipe from memory): it’s customary to sauté the aromatics in a little coconut cream (that is, not coco lopez or sweetened coconut – that’s cream of coconut.  It is easy to get confused.  Coconut cream is a more concentrated coconut milk), to cook the coconut cream until its fat had rendered and was serving as more of the oil, really.

Well, I didn’t have coconut cream, I just had coconut milk, so I cracked one of the cans and poured in … probably less than 1/2 cup of the coconut milk, right on top of the aromatics.

You want to add just enough so that you're not boiling your aromatics, but still sauteing them in the coconut fat, dispersing the chile heat throughout the fat.  Capsaicin is really fat-soluble.

Reduce this until it’s hardly anything, just a slight film of coconut-fat covering the bottom of the pan, along with the oil and the curry paste.

3. Add the pork (or, if you’re not a pork person, chicken thighs or beef chuck).  Mine was frozen, so I defrosted it just enough to turn it from ice-cube to pliable.  Stir-fry the pork for a bit, until the outsides are no longer pink; you should not be concerned about cooking it through at all.  Just cook the outsides so that the pieces don’t stick to one another, or the bottom of the pan.  That’ll be five to ten minutes.

I get antsy putting up these in-process photos, because I don't think I photograph raw or semi-raw meat very attractively.4. Add the remaining can of coconut milk, plus another (so this recipe takes around 30 oz, or 880 mL of coconut milk.  Two 14.5 oz standard cans of coconut milk is, admittedly, a lot, but I see nothing wrong with using low-fat coconut milk.  Using one can of coconut milk, and a can’s-worth of chicken stock (about a cup and two thirds) would also probably work, but you won’t end up with the dish at the proper viscosity; it’ll be a lot soupier.  If that’s how you like it, that’s fine!  I’m sure it’d work.

I like taking pictures like this, where there's no visible can, and it just looks like it's raining coconut milk.  Well, it does to me.

5. Bring to a boil, then simmer on low for about an hour to an hour-and-a-half.  it should get to looking like this.

To me, that looks attractive.  I can understand how someone else might feel differently.  It is nothing without the smell; the smell is GLORIOUS.

At some point, you’re going to want to put in a teaspoon or so (maybe more; I used many healthy dashes) of fish sauce.  I have an enormous bottle, shown here next to the standard Clean Platter Comparison Lemon™:

Phú quôć, man!  I'm gonna start using that as an exclamation.  Yeah, I know it's a place.There is no way I am likely to go through a 24-ounce bottle of fish sauce in … I mean, that bottle should last me four or five years, at least.

Some of you are probably not familiar with nam pla, or as it’s called in vietnamese, nước mắm.  It’s fermented anchovy extract, and exceedingly salty.  It also smells, well, some would say, “terrible.”  I would say, “musky”.  But the difference that fish sauce makes in pretty much anything you add it to is absolutely incredible.  When you’re making this curry, smell what you’ve got going on in the pot.  Take a deep breath and remember the scent.  Then add the fish sauce.  Then smell the dish again.  It won’t smell musky or terrible or fishy, but it will smell a lot deeper, a lot more compelling.  Fish sauce doesn’t bring its own flavor so much as it supports other flavors (we call this glutamic, savory power umami. By we I mean Japanese people.  I am not Japanese.).  What I’m saying is, if you think fish sauce is too gross to use in your kitchen, you are sorely missing out.  I’m going to start using it in non-asian applications (chicken stock, hamburgers), and seeing what happens.  After all, I live alone.  Nobody’s going to complain about it but me.

6. Slice your vegetables; you’re going to throw them in about ten to fifteen minutes before you kill the heat and stop cooking.  The harder the vegetable (carrot, parsnip, broccoli), the thinner you ought to slice it, to go along with the less firm veg, so that it all cooks at the same time.

I think this was about two peppers.  Maybe two and a half.

Throw in your vegetables, and stir briefly.  If you extract a piece of meat from the stew at this point (because, remember, you should be tasting the stew once every hour or so, or whenever you season it.  Not a lot!  just a little), it should be fall-apart soft; this meal should probably be eaten with a spoon.

If you’re eating this with rice (which you absolutely should), I would start it around the time you prep your vegetables, or a little before.

7. When your vegetables are softened, you can add the cilantro.  Now, me, I like a lot of cilantro.

That's not enough.Kill the heat, chop your cilantro roughly, and add it in to the curry; the cilantro will pretty much liquefy; the stalks will turn limp, the leaves will shred like wet tissue paper. To me, that sounds heavenly.

Now, I left this on the stove a little too long, so it started to lose its vibrant color, and turned a little green.  But it’s still delicious!  Serve with rice, sliced radishes, maybe a squeeze of lime juice, and, of course, more cilantro.

IMG_7814

Now, I adapted this (very broadly, don’t blame her) from a Thai cookbook – Nancie McDermott’s Real Thai: The Best of Thailand’s Regional Cooking, which, for my money, is an excellent cookbook.  I’m still teaching myself about Thai and Chinese food, really.  I’m still trying to get my head around the patterns and systems of these cuisines.  So bear with me.  If you know anything about thai home cooking, I’d love to have feedback!  All I want to do is learn, and have you lot learn with me.

-D

I mean, not entirely.  But if I’m going to call it a food blog, then by crumpets I’d better start writing about food again.

So, to the question of the week: What do you do with sixteen pounds of pork shoulder?

The answer is: EVERYTHING.  But of course, freeze it.

We’ll get into how I acquired that amount of meat in a minute, but I’m designing this post around another Kitchen Axiom of mine, or maybe it’s a Recession Tip, or maybe it’s both.

David’s Guide to Living in a Recession Tips #2 and 3

#2: Buy in bulk (when it makes sense).

#3: Process it yourself.

Let’s address these in order.  If you’re like me, and you’re not a 9-to-5 worker (for me, it’s more like 8 to 8, in two-hour chunks), you’ve got the time to save yourself money on food purchases.  So if you’re driving by the Save-A-Lot and you see a sign advertising pork shoulder for $0.99/lb, perhaps you, Gentle Reader, will react as I did, and immediately acquire some.

Having never been to the Save-A-Lot before (which is a discount grocer like ALDI), I suppose I should have expected the pork shoulder to come in this quantity:

The lemon is for reference.  Do not use a lemon to cut things.  It is far too blunt.

It ended up being about 16.5 pounds, of which perhaps only a pound or two was bone (I checked).

Read the rest of this entry »

I had planned to make a magnetic spice rack for the kitchen (an idea that came courtesy of Mattie, and was elaborated upon by my friend Jack, who showed me this).  But then I found this old thing, mold-wracked and hidden in the back of a drawer, and I felt at once a wave of both joy and sadness, because I knew I had found the right sort of spice rack for my uses, but that meant I didn’t get to make one.

IMG_7575

It’s got ten bottles in it.  I realized (and I’m rationalizing here) that the problem with a wall-mounted spice rack is that you don’t actually use all of those spices on a regular basis.  Some spices (like cardamom and cloves, as in the picture in that Kitchn post) just don’t get used that often (and unless it’s an Indian kitchen, I don’t think cardamom and clove get much mileage).  I mean, think about it – you probably only use four or five herbs and spices in your core cuisine set.  Look at how I’m stretching it here – I put lemongrass powder in there!  I NEVER use lemongrass powder.  It’s there only because I had enough of it to fill the bottle.

Here’s what’s in my spice rack right now, in order of my approximate priority of usage:

  1. Kosher salt
  2. Italian seasoning (rosemary, marjoram, thyme, basil, oregano)
  3. Garlic powder
  4. Cumin
  5. Cayenne pepper
  6. Pepper flakes
  7. Curry powder
  8. Chili powder
  9. Lemongrass powder
  10. is empty.  I’ll probably grind up some black pepper and put it in there, bumping it up to 2.

And let’s be honest.  How often do I use curry powder?  Not so terribly often.  #6 is where my usage almost completely peters out.  I use a lot of spices, but only a smallish number are in truly heavy rotation.  Most of the other flavors come from aromatics and backbencher herbs and spices like cinnamon, fennel, coriander, and whatnot.  Or I use fresh herbs, like cilantro or mint.

IMG_7579

I’ll make this easy on you – I don’t ask what your top 10 spices are.  What are your top 5?

-D

I have definitely laid this down in print somewhere else.

David’s Kitchen Axiom No. 5: With a little imagination, anything can be a quesadilla.

And I mean it. Given tortillas, grease, and heat, anything in your kitchen can be made into a delightful quesadilla! But wait, you say. David, doesn’t quesadilla just mean ‘little cheesy thing’ in Spanish? Don’t you need cheese?

Oh, America. How little you know!

… Well, okay. You are right, technically. But I am more right, because anything in your kitchen can be successfully encased between two tortillas and cooked with some olive oil in a skillet, and rather than calling that a “pan-fried tortilla sandwich”, I propose the more familiar title. You can call it what you want, America.

But really. When in doubt, a sandwich is almost always your best option, especially when you’re trying to clean out the fridge. I kid you not, this can be done with anything: I made a quesadilla once with leftover tilapia and tarragon cream sauce, and it was delicious. Give it a try. What’s in your fridge right now, for example?

Say you’ve got some leftover barbecued chicken and some steamed broccoli (this is what is in my fridge at present, among other things). In fact let’s see what happens, here! Let’s do this, America!

Okay. Leftover blackened cajun chicken that Mama barbecued from the evening previous. We got some of that, we got some broccoli, we got… oh! Oh hell yeah! We have some jalapeño pepper that I chopped up about four days ago. Ooooh this is gonna be good.

Okay, I like to make my quesadillas primarily about the vegetables. You may have noticed that I am now eating poultry. Well. Yes. Red meat is a no, often enough, with rare exceptions (well.  medium rare exceptions)  But I’m trying to get the entire family to scale back on eating meat, and I think we can all have a little animal protein, so long as we have less of it overall.  So we have lots of vegetation to counteract it.

So note the proportion: three or four parts vegetable to one part animal.  I think that’s probably going to be my general rule of law from now on.  We have, looking like a weather-worn Italian flag (or a brand new and spunky Irish flag), orange bell pepper, onion, and broccoli, with that little sidebar of garlic and jalapeño.

A quesadilla is one of those foods that can just sort of fit around anything in the fridge, like I said; you can clean out the refrigerator with it, you can stretch a single barbecued chicken breast into a meal, it gets lipstick stains off your collar, it’s new, it’s improved, it’s old-fashioned, it never needs winding, never needs winding, never needs winding (apologies to Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan).

So a little olive oil and a skillet and I am in business, here.  And I’m not picky; I put it all together in the one pan.

A little cheese, a few tortillas, and you’ve got yourself a sandwich.  I like to squeeze lime juice over it.  Not a lot – just a lil’ spritz.

Fabulous.  It all works out really nice, and tastes lovely.  At least, with savory things.

Behold the fabulous train wreck that was the frutaycremadilla, a concoction J. and I came up with a few weeks ago.

Uh.

That was my idea.  We had a lot of fruit at the time.  And some whipped cream.

Look, I’ll say right now that this was maybe a dumb idea.  But it was a fantastic dumb idea.  (Those are the best kind.)

Yeah, don’t do this.

Sure, it seems like a great idea.  The warm fruit, the crispy tortilla, the soft, cool whipped cream…  … the soft, cool whipped cream.   … Damn it, I should have thought that through.

David’s Kitchen Axiom No. 5: Think it through.

So J. and I tried to make a quesadilla with fruit and whipped cream (and J. decided that it should be a cremayfrutadilla; nomenclature to, y’know, fit the contents), and everything was going swimmingly until that first incision.  I think those are J’s hands, not mine, because A) of the way he’s holding the knife and B) the fact that the backs of my palms are hairier.  Yeah.  Sorry.

J. made the cut, and…

There was splattage.  There was leakage.

The whole thing was a gorram disaster.  I will not post the image of J. attempting to eat said disaster, because it got all over him and it’s embarrassing for both of us, okay?  I don’t even have those pictures.  He does.  … Because I took them with his camera.

-D

Pizza is the single most divisive culinary concept in American society.

Not the proper construction of Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, not whether or not to put ketchup on your all-beef hot dog (the answer is ‘not’, if you were wondering.), not whether or not to serve pretzels with cheese or with mustard or whatever. No, America. The sectarian conflict that haunts our nation is a fight between three mighty factions. Friendships have crumbled along these fault lines, my friends. Marriages have rent themselves to shreds: Cheese goes on top! No, sauce goes on top. Floppy crust. Crispy crust! What about pineapple? No pineapple. No pineapple.

Well, you know where my sympathies lie, and that’s with the unformatted text. I’m a Chicagoan and my heart lies with deep-dish pan pizza. But I think I have moved past hometown allegiance to something a bit closer to objectivity. It is not news that Chicago-style pizza and New York-style pizza have a rivalry as big as, oh, I don’t know – Martin Luther and Catholicism, or Sunni and Shi’a Islam. The third Mighty Faction, by that token, is California-Style Pizza, which is sort of like Sufi mysticism, and it’s all like “chill, dudes; hit some charras or something.” (see, cause it’s tokin’. By that token. … Shut up, all of you.)

What my family does, because we’re economical, is when we order pizza, we tend to order cheese pizzas. Unless Dad gets sausage. A Lou Malnati’s deep-dish sausage pizza is a frightening thing to behold. God is it delicious but what an artery-stopper. We’re talking about a good quarter-inch thick disk of sausage, about 5/6ths the diameter of the pizza itself.

But what we do, because we’re cheap, is spruce up the pizza at home. Think about this: depending on where you live or the size of the pizzas you order, it might be anywhere from 50 cents to 1.50 for a topping. Now, that topping could be garlic, it could be pineapple, and it could be Canadian bacon. The cost is all the same for you, the consumer, regardless of the ingredients.

That’s a cheese pizza from Lou Malnati’s, back home. … There might be mushrooms on there. I might have violated my own rule. But don’t think about that too hard – David’s Kitchen Axiom No. 1*: do as I say, not as I have only partially done. Save yourself a buck or three and sauté some onion and mushroom with some garlic, or wilt some spinach.

Garlic and onion. And, apparently, mushroom. Look at that. I figure that’s mushroom in there; I don’t know – I took that picture back in December. But here’s the point:

David’s Living In A Recession Tip #1: If you must order takeout, do what you can to improve it at home without incurring greater cost on yourself.

(Or if you have the time, make it yourself.) Thus. Since December, I’ve been branching out and trying to make my own pizza with the help of my friends. We hit on a dough recipe that worked, from my roommate’s Better Homes and Gardens cookbook (don’t ask. He won it.).

flour, olive oil, water, yeast. We used aluminum foil plates to cook the things in our dormitory’s kitchen. Next year, when my two roommates and I have an apartment, we will have Pizza Day with some form of regularity. I’m not going to hold any of the three of us to any promises on that front, but once every two weeks would be neat. Behold the dorm kitchen we wrangled with this year:

They baked, in this oven that looks sort of like a shantytown if you squint:

And when they came out, they were, well, fairly crunchy. Quite nice – it’s how I like thin crust pizza, myself (but I am not, for the record, immune to the charms of a floppy New York slice. Trust me.)

When I got home, though, about a week and a half ago, my roommate, who had shipped many of his possessions home, had not yet received the box with his Better Homes cookbook, so I had to fend for myself.

Luckily, my house has about a metric boatload of cookbooks, and I found a willing and able hand in The Great Chicago-Style Pizza Cookbook, by Pasquale Bruno, Jr. I set about making my dough, which was, as I recalled it, only slightly different from the BH&G recipe.

We’ll continue with that in the next entry: “A Slice of Heaven, Part 2”.

-D

* yeah. There’s gonna be a bunch of these. Help me keep count.