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!

or,

A Lemon Tea Cake, My Dear Watson.

This week’s entry would not have been possible without the help of the fine folks at Chicago Computerland at 2640 N. Halsted.  First, a story of my own stupidity.

A few weeks ago, when I was posting La Macchina, I wanted to put in a few extra photos of Actual Ravioli that I’d made a few days prior, since the pasta shapes pictured in that entry were tortellini.  I was chatting up my roommate at the time, and I happened to be looking at him and not at my laptop as I moved to put my camera’s SD card into the laptop’s designated slot.  Welp.  I inadvertently slid it into the optical drive: the felt-lined slit where CDs and DVDs go.  Couldn’t get it out.  Cursing, and growing increasingly anxious, I tried to figure out how to remove the optical drive, and discovered that, on my laptop, it was a process so complex that it would have resulted in deconstructing the entire machine.  I can handle replacing a keyboard, or reconnecting the trackpad, but I’m not prepared to confidently reconnect every single part of my computer – that’s above my paygrade.

So to Yelp I went, and I found a willing assistance at Chicago Computerland; they performed the delicate computer surgery necessary, and restored my machine to its original glory.  It was $60, which was a small price to pay for my own foolishness.  Thanks, guys!

ANYWAY.

Back in March, I went to Seattle to visit my friends Heather and Kyle, and we cooked a ton: we made pizza, and mussels, and I taught Kyle to enjoy the tender mercies of a seared brussels sprout.  Heather taught me how to make this cake, which, true to the familial precepts that guide Heather’s absurdly-palatable pie crust recipe, contains oil instead of butter.  Some months later, I had a glut of yogurt in the fridge, and I decided I’d make the lemon cake.  But it wouldn’t do to simply reproduce the recipe, no indeed – not when you can just read it here.

Well, okay – the only difference here is that I changed the infusing syrup, but that does change the profile of this cake a bit – the tea adds a gentle astringency to balance the sweetness, which is, in turn, equalized by all the lemon.

A final note – always use parchment paper to line the loaf pan – this cake will get sticky, and no amount of pregreasing will ease its passage out of the pan.  Keep the cake in the parchment paper, even after removing it from the pan; it’s just easier for everyone.

Let’s get cracking!

Heather’s Lemony Yogurt Cake, Now With A Hint of Tea!
Makes one 9-inch loaf-pan full of tasty cake
The Set-Up

I mixed all the Dry Team ingredients in a tupperware container and set it aside for later, because I was originally down to two eggs and I needed three.

Ingredients:
Dry team:

  • 1 1/2 cups AP flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Wet team:

  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 tsp lemon zest
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla (or, if you want an even more pronounced lemon flavor, some lemon extract, although I might recommend almond)

And

  • 1/2 cup neutral-tasting vegetable oil (like canola, soybean, or corn)

Lemon-Tea syrup:

  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tsp loose black tea, bagged

The Heist

  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. In a smallish bowl, combine the Dry Team ingredients; in a larger bowl, combine the Wet Team ingredients.The Wet Team
  3. Fold the Dry Team into the Wet Team with a spatula until everything is incorporated and there are very few lumps.  Then pour the 1/2 cup of vegetable oil into the mixture and beat it soundly.  Ew, that’s creepy.  I’ll have you arrested for battery.  (Hiyo-o.)That's not funny, Ed McMahon.
  4. Line a 9-inch loaf pan with parchment paper and pour the batter into it.  Give it the old tappa-tappaand hurl it into your hotbox for 50 to 70 minutes, depending on A) the way your oven behaves, and B) how gooey you like your tea cake.  I like mine hella gooey, thank you much, so I tend to undercook it.  In this case, I don’t measure my toothpicks for whether or not they come out clean, but when they come out coated in batter, do they have too much batter on ‘em or just enough?The Old Poura-Poura
  5. As the cake cools in the pan, heat the lemon juice and the sugar in a tiny saucepan, and cook it over medium-high heat until the sugar dissolves.  Meanwhile, make the cup of tea and let it steep for about five minutes – you want to oversteep it a little bit, because we want some of that tannic overextraction.  Not a lot of it, but since the tea is going to be spread out across the entire cake, you want it to be a little bitter and noticeable.Oh, Tea.  You are my only friend.
  6. Give your nearest friend a high five.  Failing that, give yourself one.
    After all, you just made THIS!
  7. Mix the tea with the lemon syrup to taste – I might start with a quarter cup and add no more than a half; discard the rest of the tea, or drink it, if you like it bitter.Careful.  It is totally possible to just mainline this.
  8. Pour the lemon-tea syrup over the cake and let it soak – the cake will drink it up (and, in fact, the drier you cook the cake, the more tea you can probably add to the syrup.  Your call, though.).Bluaaaaaargh.
  9. Once the cake has cooled to room temperature, place it, and the pan, in the refrigerator until cooled through; then you may depan, slice, and serve.  Beware – these slices will be sticky.So okay Carolyn got this really silly alcoholic whipped cream and I've been putting it on everything.  Blame her!  I'm not a lush. *hic*

This whole Infused Cake thing has got me electric with ideas.  There’s no reason you couldn’t put any kind of syrup over this cake, really – I mean, why not blueberry syrup?  Why not ginger syrup?  Why not beer-batter cake with a hop-syrup infusion?

These things may await me in the future.  God, especially the hops syrup.  Has anyone ever done that?  Now I have to know.

Happy cooking, my friends!

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.

While my parents were in DC a few weeks ago, I was tasked with watching Penelope, the familial springer spaniel.  She’s a very cute critter, and last summer she stayed with me for a time at the House in Indiana.  She served as my amanuensis, and even took dogtation.

Penny averages 120 wpm (woofs per minute).  Yes, I've got the leash around my foot.

She’s very smart.

Anyway, I was dog-sitting in the suburbs for a week – my fabulous job (as a game-writer, not a professional tweeter) permits me to work from anywhere with an Internet connection.  My girlfriend, Carolyn, came to stay for the weekend, and that Saturday, we went garage saling, where we found some TREASURE.

  • Two unused yoga mats in a carrying case: $7
  • One bamboo jewelry-organizer: $2
  • Some lovely wrist bangles for Carolyn, including a chunky brass one that will be All The Rage next season (so she claims.  I think it makes her look like Wonder Woman.  No complaints there.): $10 or so
  • A lovely green glass vase, which was: $free
  • A never-before-used Krups Butcher Shop, still in its taped-up box: $5

And

LA MACCHINA,

which is what I have taken to calling this gorgeous Marcato Atlas pasta maker, which goes online for €51 (about $73 USD), which Carolyn and I acquired for … yes.  Five dollars.

LOOK AT IT.

CUE HEAVENLY CHORUS

Ah! Che bella macchina!  I behold you and I hear the swelling chorus of a Morricone score.

Carolyn and I looked at each other.  There was no way we couldn’t make pasta for dinner.  I had to know if it was hard to do; I’d tried to make pasta without a machine a few years prior, and I had a hell of a time (using a rolling pin) getting it thin enough without tearing.  It was also obnoxious to cut the pasta into fettucine with a knife, because it wasn’t thin or straight enough, and I didn’t have a food-safe ruler to use as a straight edge.  (And frankly, the idea of rubbing a metal ruler against one of my knives makes me cringe a bit.)

I’m not a food gadgety person.  It’s taken me a long time to embrace Carolyn’s strawberry huller, her cherry pitter, and her totally adorable water-carbonator, but I knew I would love LA MACCHINA immediately.  It had such a handsome shine!  It clipped to the table!  It could roll and cut pasta to even thicknesses and dimensions!  I was in love.  (For the record, it only took me three dates to embrace Carolyn herself, who is cuter than a water-carbonating device.)

But while I do love some gadgets, I’m also frugal (or a skinflint.  you decide), and although a new handcranked pasta machine certainly won’t break the bank, I guarantee you can find an unwanted pasta machine no matter where you are.  A pasta machine is just the sort of thing a couple might receive for their wedding, regardless of whether or not they put it on their registry.  Where there are garage sales, you will find pasta machines at reasonable prices.  And even if you did buy a new one: in the past two weeks, I’ve already created enough pasta to exceed its retail price – three different ravioli dishes, enough to serve four, assuming an average restaurant price of $14 per plate comes to (3 x 4 x 14) $168.  And that’s not counting the other pastas I’ve made.

We decided we would make ravioli, and so I decided to do what I generally do when I’m staying at my parents’ house: mount raids on the freezer, the pantry, and the liquor cabinet.  I found a pound of frozen, uncooked shrimp, a can of tomatoes, and a handle of Stolichnaya vodka.

“Carolyn?” I hollered up the basement stairs, “Do you like vodka sauce?”

I couldn’t find a recipe for shrimp ravioli in my parents’ capacious cookbook library, but I found and tweaked a basic recipe for pasta dough from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian CookingThen I hunted around on the internet, and found this recipe for shrimp ravioli in a vodka sauce, which I have slightly adapted, defatted, and seriously copy-edited.

This recipe has a lot of steps, but isn’t altogether that complicated.  You can make the filling and the sauce well ahead of time, but the dough should probably be made the day you intend to assemble the ravioli.  However, they freeze beautifully, and we’ll get to that later.

Let’s get started!

Ravioli/Tortellini di Gamberi alla Vodka

The Vodka Sauce

The Setup

Ingredients:

  • 1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes in puree
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped roughly
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup vodka
  • 1/4 cup basil, ribbon-cut (chiffonade)

The Heist

  1. Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat, and lightly fry the garlic until fragrant.  Kill the heat.
  2. Add the vodka.  You don’t want to add liquor to a pot over a live flame because there could always be a wayward splash, a sudden flare-up, and then it’s goodbye, eyebrows (and possibly goodbye, face).  Bring the vodka to a bare simmer and let it cook over low to medium heat for about five minutes.
  3. Add in the tomatoes, bring back to a simmer, and cook for 5 minutes.
  4. Add in the cream, bring to the very barest of simmers, and stir.  It should get somewhat thicker after a few minutes.  At this point, add the basil and kill the heat.

What a pleasant color.

Pasta Dough (for Ravioli)

makes enough for about 50 ravioli or so
The Setup

Ingredients:

  • 2 egg
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 tsp milk or cream

(So, one half-cup of flour and one teaspoon of milk per egg)

The Heist
Put the flour in a mixing bowl, and make a little well with your fingers, or a fork.

  1. Crack the eggs into the well, and pour in the cream.
    Well, well, well, my pretties.
  2. With a fork, beat the eggs and the cream, first into one another, and then gradually begin introducing the flour into the egg mixture, until it’s fully incorporated.It's the world's tastiest vortex.
  3. Clean off the fork and begin kneading the dough with your hands until it has picked up most of the flour and is relatively unsticky. Pad the dough into a flattish round, and perhaps cut it into thirds or quarters with a knife or dough scraper.  Put another half cup of flour into the mixing bowl, because you’ll be using it later to dust the pasta.
    This might warrant a little more kneading - you can see how it looks a little rough at the right edge; it should be smooth all over.
  4. Cover the dough with a towel and let it hang out while you make…

The Shrimp Filling

The Setup

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb shrimp, defrosted, peeled, and deveined*
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
  • 1/2 cup ricotta
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 tbsp parmesan cheese
  • a generous handful of parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • salt and pepper

* Save those shrimp shells for a shrimp velouté for your SQUIZZA!  Or, if you like, incorporate them into the vodka sauce with the garlic – but be sure to strain out the shells before serving.

The shrimp don’t need to be big, or even that attractive-looking; they’re going to be minced into tiny little pieces anyhow.  Ah-ha-ha-ha.  But seriously, the part of this dish that looks good isn’t the shrimp filling; nobody can see that bit.

The Heist

1. Heat 1 tbsp butter in a pan, and gently cook the garlic until pleasantly scented, about 30 seconds to a minute.
These shrimp were already somewhat pink just due to their natural color, which was a little alarming to me.
2. Drop the shrimp in, and sauté until the shrimp curl up (which they do because of proteins contracting during cooking.  Shrimp cocktail pro-tip: if you want to prevent shrimp from curling, make little slits on the ventral side of the shrimp; it’ll hamstring that muscle and curtail the curling.

Of course, we don't care whether or not the shrimp curl up, now do we?  We're making a ravioli filling; the shrimp are invisible.

3. Remove from heat, and either mince the shrimp finely, or quickly pulverize in a food processor.  Move the shrimp to a mixing bowl and add the ricotta, the eggs, the cheese, and the parsley.  Season to taste (yes, I know there’s raw egg in there.  It won’t kill you.).

Much.
Making the Ravioli

4.  Pass a chunk of your pasta dough through the machine, on its widest setting.  Fold it into thirds, rotate it 90 degrees, and repeat two or three more times, until the dough is glossy, pliant, and cheerful.Yes, friends, it's The Thin Pasta, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy!

5. Begin passing the dough through the rollers at increasingly thinner settings – just once through on each setting will do.  I tend to stop at the penultimate thinness.

6. High five your significant other, for finding a pasta maker. *

7. Lay out a sheet of dough on your work surface – maybe one foot long by six inches wide (depending on how wide your rollers are).  Lay out another piece with similar dimensions beside it.

8. Take a 1/2 teaspoon measure and dollop out the filling onto one of the sheets, about an inch and a half away from each other, and from the edge.  This means that if your sheet is 6 inches wide, place one dollop at 1.5 inches, the next at 3 inches, and the third at 4.5 inches.

9. Wet a finger or a pastry brush with water or egg wash and brush down every part of the dough that doesn’t have filling on it.  Lay the other piece of dough on top of it, and crimp the dough around the filling.  Then press everything down so that the dough fuses together.  You can see Carolyn and I were doing something slightly differently, and making tortellini andravioli, but mostly because we weren’t sure exactly how to do either, at first.

Who knows!  There's no effin' rules, dude.  I mean, yes there are, but we don't follow them.

10.  Take a knife, or, if you have it, a scalloped pasta roller (I don’t have one yet, but I think I’d like one.  They can’t be hard to find) and cut the ravioli close enough so that you’re not just eating a sheet of dough, but not so close that you expose the filling, either.  Recover the dough, ball it up, and put it aside – you can mix it with the remaining dough to make the rest of the ravioli.

11. Sidenote 1: as you cut each raviolo free, dunk it in flour and shake off the excess; you don’t want them to stick to each other as you prep them for cooking – trying to separate stuck-on ravioli will rip their skins and expose the filling, which will cause you to curse assiduously.

12.  Sidenote 2: if you wish to freeze the ravioli, line a baking pan with parchment or wax paper, and plop the floured ravioli on as you complete them – let them sit in the freezer for at least 40 minutes before removing them from the sheet, putting them in a freezer bag, and throwing them back in cold storage.
These are not quite done!

13.  Bring salted water to a rolling boil and cook the ravioli until they float, and the filling is hot throughout, about 3 to 5 minutes, depending on size, quantity, and thickness of ravioli.  Frozen ravioli take 4 to 6 minutes to cook, on average.

That's what they look like when they float.  And when they're tortellini.

14.  Toss lightly with sauce, and serve.

Tadahhh.

* Just so you know, from now on, Step Six is always going to be “Give the person you’re cooking with a high five.”  I jokingly put in the original step six when I was writing out this recipe to myself in an email, while Carolyn read over my shoulder.  Now, whenever we reach Step 6 in a recipe, we high-five.  We have even gotten to the point where we refer to high-fiving as “step six”.

Sure, it’s ridiculous, but I think it’s also important, in a way: cooking is always more fun with others, and it’s important to acknowledge your co-chef now and again.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  Never high-five your co-chef while holding a sharp object.

Contra odii (a note to the haters):

I am aware that the images in the photos above do not depict ravioli, but rather tortellini.  Yes, they are not square.  Yes, they’re somewhat ring-shaped.  I got better at making them; more photos to come.

For additional guidance on making ravioli, I refer you to this video featuring Sergio Maria Teutonica (which is a pretty excellent name) making shrimp ravioli and a ragù di mare (a sauce of the sea – here grape tomatoes, shrimp, pine nuts, and basil).  It is, unsurprisingly, entirely in Italian, which I do not speak, but the technique is pretty self-explanatory.

I’m just starting to get into pasta; we’ll see where this takes us.  Probably weirder places than this – just warning you.  (I see more squid in my future.)

Enjoy, and happy cooking!

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.

So in Part One of my pizza-making series, I detailed how to bake quite-nice pizza in an oven at home, and earlier this week, Melissa Clark of the New York Times did a writeup on how to do, largely, the same thing.  She also has a neat video on dough technique, which, you might say, obviates the need to write this entry.

However, I kind of feel like the way she – and many food writers! – advocate a sort of oven technique that seems a little unsafe to me.  Call me a wimp, but I’ve always been uncomfortable sliding pizzas right onto the pizza stone.  I don’t have a pizza peel, and neither does Melissa, but she slides her pizza from a floured baking sheet right onto the screaming-hot rock, barehanded (because it’s too delicate an operation to attempt in gloves).  This is not for me.  I’ve burned my hands on pizza stones and spilled toppings far too many times to really be down with this technique any more.  I figure a pizza peel probably makes it better, but I don’t like pulling anything out of the oven without hand protection.  I like using Lincoln Electric welding gloves, which is something I learned from Alton Brown – they’re awesome because they give you added grip and maneuverability.  Fingers, man!  Why would you prevent yourself from having fingers?  Oven mitts don’t mean much to me at 500 degrees, honestly – I’ve melted at least two pairs of rubberized mitts, and burned my hands inside ‘em like Johnny Tremain.  Okay, not that badly.

Anyway, this is why I recommend using a baking sheet or a mesh pizza pan, because you can transfer them in and out of the oven using heat-proof gloves.  If you screw up (and believe me, if you make as many pizzas as I have, you will screw up, occasionally and spectacularly), you don’t risk losing the feeling in your hand for a week, or worse.

But Melissa also warns against the use of rolling pins, and I’m not really sure why.  She says it’ll flatten the dough, but she says it in a sort of jocular way that doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of weight behind it. What’s wrong with flattening the dough – isn’t that what we’re meant to do to pizza anyway?  I could be very wrong.  Maybe there’s a proper pizzaiolo explanation for why you shouldn’t use a rolling pin.  If it has made the pizzas I have made over the past few years not as good as they could have been, I apologize to the people who have eaten them.

Nevertheless, you’re reading this because you wanted to learn the technique, and I assure you it is neither fiddly nor complicated.  With very few exceptions, The Clean Platter is almost never Fiddly or Complicated.

So let’s assume you’ve got a ball of dough, created with the recipe in Part One.  Or let’s assume you’ve got an absurdly enormous collection of dough, because you’re throwing a pizza party, and you made a decuple (10x) recipe.  This was enough to make twenty pizzas.  (The fourth bowl is not pictured.)

00 that's a lot of dough

So, let’s get into this.

Dough Technique
For slightly less casual enthusiasts of the pizzetic arts

  1. Divide the dough into equal-sized balls.  I understand this can be a little obnoxious if you’re making more than a two-pizza portion of dough, so I just measured one of the dough-balls I had in the freezer: they should probably weigh 11 to 12 ounces, figuring an ounce of dough per inch of pizza diameter.  Roughly.01 dusted with flour
  2. Flour your work surface lightly.  I like to use a little kitchen worktable which comes up to about bellybutton height on me, but if you don’t think your kitchen surfaces are clean enough to rub flour on, then use a cutting board, preferably a wood one with a kitchen towel under it.  Wooden cutting boards don’t have as much nubbly texture as poly (plastic) ones do, and putting a kitchen towel under a cutting board prevents it from moving.  I put a towel on the table every time I have to use a knife.  Actually, I should probably make that a Kitchen Axiom, with apologies to Douglas Adams:
    Kitchen Axiom No. 9: Always know where your towel is.  And then make sure it’s under your cutting board.
    Once you’ve floured your work surface, place the dough ball onto it and dust the top of it with flour as well.  Then punch it down.  You are advised to keep your thumbs outside of your clenched fingers when throwing a punch, but you needn’t follow my rather extreme example.  Punch it, my friend.
    PUNCH IT WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE.
  3. It is definitely possible to do all of this dough work with your hands alone.  Flatten the ball into a round with your knuckles or the heel of your hand.  Then pick it up by one end and let it hang in the air – slowly rotate the dough and let gravity do the majority of the work widening and stretching the dough into a round.  A similar principle, if I have my physics right, is at work when you actually do dough-tossing (which I have yet to truly attempt.  I’ll let you know when that’s necessary for good pizza.  If you want to learn, more power to you.  I speak from a sour grapes position when I say it’s unnecessary).
  4. But I generally use a rolling pin.  Working from the center outward, I roll the pin over the dough in long, medium-force strokes, giving the dough a quarter turn after each roll, and flipping the dough after every, oh, fourth or fifth pass with the pin.
    03 transform and roll out
    Flipping homes is unethical, but flipping pizza isn't.
  5. When you’re done, the pizza dough should be fit the baking sheet of your choice.  And who the hell cares if it isn’t perfectly round?  Tug on it until it approximates a circle; they ain’t paying you to make tasteless frozen pies.  Probably nobody is paying you at all, in fact.
    05 stretch the truth
  6. Your pizza is at its required thickness when it satisfies the Window Test – when you hold it up, you can see light through it.  If it rips when you do this, oh well!  Fold it up and start over – it’ll take two minutes to fix it.
    06 pull it out
    07 the window test
  7. And there you have it!  Put the dough round on your baking sheet/pizza pan, top with your favorite toppings, and bake at 500 degrees until the crust has gotten well-browned, and to your desired crispness.  I like it pretty crunchy, but that’s me and my desires.  What sort of toppings go on a pizza?  How much cheese to put on?  What to use for sauce?  Jeepers.  I guess that’s another entry.

08 on the tray

 

What follows is a series of enticing photos taken by my lovely girlfriend of the latest pizza party I threw.  Whoever came up with the best savory pizza won this jar of mushroom salt, a recipe which I got from Melissa Clark, whom I respect immensely, despite having chided her in the beginning of this very entry.

Porcini Salt

It makes a great gift, and in fact, I made another, larger jar for my dad for Father’s Day.

Whoever made the best dessert pizza won a freshly-canned jar of strawberry preserves.  I called it the very essence of June.  Nobody seemed to chide me for being pretentious, which pleased me.

Strawberry Sauce

Clockwise from the top:

  • Adam’s Thai Red Curry Noodle Pizza (Savory)
  • Adriana and Noah’s Port-Stewed-Fig and Mascarpone Pizza (Dessert)
  • Philip’s Islamabadass – Pakistani rose-petal jam, mascarpone cheese, and cardamom (D)
  • Max’s prosciutto, poached egg, and brie pizza (S)
  • Rachel and Ben’s pineapple-mango pizza (S)
  • Carolyn’s Hot Date – (inspired by tapas) pitted dates, diced bacon, slivered almonds, parmesan cheese (S)

Thai pizzaFig pizza Hot Date PizzaIslamabadass mango pineapplePoached Egg Pizza

These pizzas are starting to get so complicated they’re beginning to scare me.  I like it, but I think I should make a point of saying, in the next email invite for Pizza Night, that mozzarella cheese is a perfectly acceptable sort of thing to put on pizza.  But we can’t afford to be purists – not when culinary genius like this blazes onto your plate.

Happy eating!

Cockles ‘n’ Mash.

June 3, 2011

The second main heading in the professional cook’s handbook I purchased a few weeks ago is “World Cuisines”, which is designed to familiarize the culinary professional with the key flavors of different food cultures.  The Americas get twenty pages.  Asian cuisines get fifty.  Europe gets about 40, with entries for Hungary, Portugal, Spain, and ‘Eastern Europe’.

The British Isles have no such entry in The Professional Chef.  This saddens my heart.  The late Laurie Colwin first opened my eyes to the notion that British cooking, particularly English cooking, could be enticing and wonderful in her book Home Cooking, which gave me a really good ginger cake recipe that I used to bake a lot in college.  But it wasn’t my idea to do English-style bivalves.  No, I give credit to Carolyn, my lovely librarian girlfriend; I was struggling with ideas for another Mussel Night. 

“Do something English,” she said.
”How would that work?” I said.
”Serve it over mashed potatoes!” she exclaimed.  “And put English flavors and aromatics in the mussels themselves.”

This was enough to set me off on a really excitable jaunt that stopped just short of Marmite (English Vegemite, or autolyzed yeast extract.  One puts it on toast.).  “What’s English?” I wondered aloud.  “Ooo!  Mustard!  Mustard is exceedingly English.  And bacon!  And ale!”

My impression of traditional English cookery is very much one in which flavors are tamped down and tamed – save the heat for vindaloo; tonight we’ve a lovely roast with mint jam for tea.  I can’t say I blame this on the books I read as a child, since my childhood was full of the glorious feasting dreams of the Redwall novels.  But I’ve long suspected that the English were mistrustful of members of the Allium genus, finding garlic and onions rather too brash and Continental for their tastes.  This suspicion stems from the way Geoffrey Chaucer describes the court summoner (sort of an ecclesiastical bailiff) in the 14th-century Canterbury Tales, which I’ve put at the end of the post, because it’s a little gross.  *

I know this isn’t really true anymore, and hasn’t been for many years, but I didn’t want garlic to be a major player in this recipe – if you feel that two cloves of garlic is too many, I respect your opinion.  But I wanted the mustard to come out and play – and if I were being really awfully traditional, I’d be using Colman’s dry mustard powder, not (hateful, French) coarse-grained Dijon mustard.  In fact, really, I should be thumping the table, eating a sausage off a knife, scratching my muttonchops, and damning the Dutch over my claret.  But I’m an American, by cracky – and I ask you to forgive my my trespasses.

I also felt that thyme was an herb so English as to be absolutely necessary.  You must let no man steal it, after all.  Jeez, this entry is so thickly buttered with references, I’m not sure what side would hit the floor first.

Important Note:

This is classified as a Mussel Day recipe, though there aren’t mussels in it.  The folks at my favorite fishmonger, The Fish Guy at Montrose and Elston, were out of mussels.  Jolene, who mans the counter on Wednesdays (womans the counter?), cried out, “Oh no!” when I came in.  “I’ve got bad news, Dave,” she said.  “We’re out of mussels BUT we have plenty of clams.”  I pretended to be angry.  “How could you, Jolene,” I deadpanned.  “I am so furious with your business-type establishment.”

She assured me I’d be happy with the clams, and I remembered that she’d asserted her preference for clams over mussels anyhow.  She prefers their taste.  They’re easier to clean, too – clams don’t have beards like mussels do.  Jolene is right: clams are excellent!  Mussel Day might become Clam Day for a while.

Important Note 2:

Cockles and clams aren’t exactly the same thing.  They’re both bivalves, and both part of the family veneridae (that’s right, all hinged-shell bivalves are named after the goddess Venus.), and that’s good enough for me.  A cockle is a little clam, and we’re using big clams.  I apologize.  I really wanted to name this recipe something jocular and Englishy, so there.  And phooey on your insistence on accurate nomenclature.  Go back to sleep, Carl von Linné; return to thy unquiet grave.

Cockles ‘n’ Mash, or English-Style Clams and Mashed Potatoes
Serves four

The Setup

For the clams:

  • A dutch oven, or any heavy pot with a lid, at least 5 quarts
  • 2 lbs clams
  • 1/4 lb bacon, diced
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 large cloves of garlic
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • 1 tbsp coarse-grained mustard
  • 1 bottle of ale (not IPA or stout), like Newcastle Brown Ale, or Boddington’s Pale Ale
  • 4-5 green onions
  • Salt and pepper

For the mashed potatoes:

  • a large pot, 4 quarts or larger
  • starchy potatoes, like russets
  • butter
  • milk
  • a touch of cream
  • salt and pepper(I’m not going to include a quantitative recipe for mashed potatoes because I don’t think I’ve ever used one.  I’ll just give you basic instructions.)

The Heist

The setup.  Oh man - if you can find a place that sells big old chunks of bacon, DO IT.  You will not regret such a purchase.

  1. Execute your mise-en-place – chop up your onion, mince your garlic, dice your bacon thickly (if you have chunk bacon, make them into little cubes or lardons), and chop your potatoes into quarters or sixths, depending on their size.  Scrub the clams with a brush and rinse them with cool water.  Do not cover the clams with water or they’ll drown, never mind the fact that you’re about to murder them in cold blood and hot beer.  You don’t have to worry about the green onions yet – that’s the garnish. 

    I love the texture of chunks of bacon - it's really pleasant; somewhat chewy, somewhat crisp.  Allwhat delicious.

  2. Collect your chopped potatoes and chuck them into your potato pot.  Cover them with cold water, sprinkle in a teaspoon or two of salt, and put it on the stove over high heat.
  3. Meanwhile, begin heating your dutch oven over medium heat, and start cooking the bacon in the dutch oven. 

    Awwwww yeah sucka that's RIGHT.

  4. When the potatoes come to a boil, turn the heat down to medium-high and cook until fork-tender, almost crumbling.  This will probably take about 25 minutes.  I might start the potatoes before anything else, honestly.
  5. While the potatoes are cooking, and when the bacon is sufficiently crisped, remove it from the dutch oven with a slotted spoon and reserve it for later.  Cook the onions in the bacon fat until they’re soft, and somewhat browned – perhaps 5 minutes.  Then add the garlic, the mustard, and the thyme – cook for a few minutes until the flavors all harmonize and start singing together (that is, when you can’t distinguish any of the individual scents so distinctly anymore).  

    This is one of those Awesome Smells.

  6. Pour in the beer and bring to a boil – wait for the fizz to abide before you make that judgment; it’s difficult to discern carbonation from boiling in that first minute.  

    Fizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

  7. Toss in the clams, and bring to a boil again – then clamp the lid on your dutch oven, lower the heat to medium, and cook for 7 to 9 minutes, until the clams open up.  Kill the heat. 

    Carolyn couldn't resist a little poke.  She cleaned the clams, and even started poking them to see what they'd do!  Oh, I'm so proud.
    Also, Lodge: Send me money.  Thank you.
     

    I'll take $200 in non-sequential 20s, please.

  8. Drain the cooked potatoes and return the pot to the stove over low heat – throw in a few smallish cubes of butter, a healthy glug of milk, and a little dose of cream (a tablespoon or two), as well as salt and pepper.  Mash, stir, don’t overdo it cause you’ll turn it to glue.  

    Booker T and the MGarnishes

  9. Slice the green onions thinly and sprinkle them over the clams – mix and then serve: fill half of a deep bowl with the mashed potatoes, and then the other half with the clams and their broth.  Top with green onions and the reserved bacon. 

    Aww look at that goodness.  Also, if you smush the mashed potatoes into the clam broth.  It makes a fancy instant chowder.  Sort of like a Rhode Island clam chowder.

Eat with splendid lashings of ginger beer, rhubarb tart, and post-colonial racism!  Spiffing, isn’t it?  Rather wizard! **

 

 *

The Slightly Gross Chaucer Bit, below the fold

Read the rest of this entry »


Carolyn's Kielbasa-Plum pizza.  There'll be many dispatches from the War on Pizza as we continue this series.
Once a month, I throw a pizza party at my apartment.  I used to do it every single Friday in college; by this point, I’ve probably used up twice my body weight in flour over the past three years – ask my old roommates and they’d probably corroborate that figure.  From 2009 to 2011, I probably made around 300 pizzas, give or take a dozen – and I feel that’s a respectable number for someone who hasn’t made a business out of making pizza.  Well.  I call it respectable.  You might call it absurd, obssessive, or somewhat obscene.  Tomato, tomahto.

Here’s how it worked: I’d make enough dough for eight to twelve pizzas late Friday morning or in the early afternoon (I didn’t have a whole lot of classes on Fridays), let it rise all day while I did homework, errands, or grocery shopping – then, around 4 PM, my friends would come over for our writing workshop – we’d critique our own stories, read the stories of published writers, and argue about them, while drinking cocktails and maybe nibbling a foccacia.  Then, at 7, everyone would set about making pizzas – the rule was that you had to bring something to put on the pizza, or failing that, a few bucks to throw in for my sake.

Then I graduated from college, most of my friends moved to New York, and I moved to Chicago.  My Chicago friends and I had all sorts of different things to do on Friday nights (seriously, you guys have no idea how much easier scheduling a D&D game or a weekly party was in college.) – I could no longer do weekly pizza nights, nor did I want to.  But when I learned that my high school friend Daniel was suddenly moving to Hawaii, some well-worn subroutine kicked into drive and I said, “Hey!  Let’s send him off with a pizza party at my place.”  This seemed to be a good idea, so I elaborated: “Everyone brings a topping.  Try to be as crazy as you possibly can.”  Eli brought pears and goat cheese.  Carolyn brought mangoes and fennel.  Julia brought Spam.

So the tradition was resurrected.  Then I met another Chicago-area amateur pizzaiolo, Zac, who was turning pro – my friend Erica hosted a party to advertise his new pizza catering business (you call Zac, Zac shows up with dough and toppings, and he uses your kitchen to make pizzas for your party.  Then he cleans up your kitchen, takes your check, and leaves.  He makes a fine pizza, and it doesn’t hurt his business model that he’s pretty cute, too – the girls just gather in the kitchen and coo.).  I sat in Erica’s kitchen and just stared, watching him work, soaking it all in.  He ages his dough for a day or two; he cooks the pizza at the hottest possible temperature.  He doesn’t toss the dough, he stretches it.  I synthesized some (but not all) of his technique into mine, and I think, after several years of pizza-crafting, I’ve come up with a good dough recipe – one that isn’t difficult to put together, one that doesn’t require specialized technique to pull off, and isn’t any messier than baking cookies.

I scoff at the purported impossibility of recreating a good pizza in the home kitchen without an incredibly expensive battérie de cuisine.  You don’t need a wood-fired oven.  You don’t need a pizza stone.  You don’t even need a pizza peel.  Those things can help, sure!  I use a pizza stone about half the time.

Food writers have been hunting for the ideal home pizza, at the insistence of their editors, for at least a decade now.  Jeffrey Steingarten almost burnt a friend’s house down trying to disable the lock on an oven’s self-clean cycle.  That wacky fellow, Steve Raichlen, as well as many others, advocate grilling pizza, which works just fine.  Mark Bittman recommended giving a pan-fried pizza a shot (I’ve tried it!  It’s fun!).  Now, let me be fair to Mr. Steingarten – he was trying for a neapolitan-style pizza cooked in an absurdly-hot coal-fired oven (we’re talking thousands of degrees Fahrenheit); he was trying to recreate that toothy, chewy texture.  We’re not going for that.  We’re not making that kind of pizza – I think the closest you’ll be able to get to that is the grilled kind.  Look – nobody expects you to be able to make a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse porterhouse steak, the kind thrown into a 2000-degree oven for, like, 45 seconds, at home.  But you can make a perfectly good porterhouse that tastes just as good without a jet engine in your kitchen.  The same thing is true of this kind of pizza.  If you want to make a wood-fired oven in your backyard, feel free.  You already know what you’re doing.

For the rest of us, however, who live in apartments or don’t have the money or inclination to build a stone oven behind our homes, the regular household oven, set to 500 degrees, will have to suffice.

The “secret”, if it is one, to my dough, is the inclusion of semolina flour, which is what you use to make pasta.  It’s a coarse-grained flour made from durum wheat.  It’s about as expensive as whole-wheat flour – maybe a dollar a pound.  You shouldn’t have to upturn heaven and earth to find it – my neighborhood market had some Ziyad-brand semolina, and it’s worked out great.  It’s also about $1.50 for a 2-pound bag, which is a better deal than you’re going to get for rice, for a starter.  The point is, semolina is neither obscure nor expensive, which is why I will insist upon no substitutions.  Stop whining and find it – if you can’t find any in your neighborhood, leave a comment, tell me where you live, and I’ll find it for you.  I’ll stop short of actually purchasing it for you, though.

I use steel mesh pizza pans, which I got for about 6 bucks apiece at a restaurant supply store.  I also got a few serving trays at a resale shop in Seattle.  There’s no reason, however, that you couldn’t make these pizzas on cookie sheets, jelly roll pans, or any other flat piece of metal you can stick in your oven.  Cast-iron skillets are fun, but not really worth it unless you heat them to blazing on the stove first.

Here’s your absolute essential equipment list for pizza:

  • An oven
  • A large steel bowl
  • A cookie sheet
  • A knife, for cutting and serving

And maybe

  • A rolling pin

But that’s pushing it.

Here’s your non-essential but kind of fun additions list:

  • Pizza pans
  • A pizza stone or flat nontoxic paving rock
  • A pizza-cutter (a thing I do not possess)

You probably don’t have a pizza stone or pizza pans.  But that’s okay!  You do not need them.  I’ve made pizzas in a half-dozen kitchens without any of that crap, and the pizzas came out great – the pizza pans just make the dough a little easier to shape into a perfect circle, the pizza stone just crisps the bottom a bit and shortens cooking time.  The pizza cutter?  You probably have one.  I don’t.  Screw pizza cutters.

Pizza Dough
Makes two pizzas, feeds 3 or 4 people, if you give ‘em a nice salad, too.

The Set-Up

Ingredients:
(per two pizzas)

  • 2 cups All-Purpose flour
  • 1 cup semolina flour
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 tsp active-dry yeast
  • 1 cup water plus 2 tbsp
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

The Heist
A day or two before you intend to eat the pizza:

  1. In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients (including the yeast).  Mix with your hands until well-incorporated.I do so like the way semolina whispers into the bowl - it's such a pleasant sound.
  2. Measure out the water and olive oil.
  3. Make a well with your hands in the dry ingredients, and pour the water into that well, then add the olive oil.  You add the oil second because you don’t want it to clump up with the flour and not distribute itself evenly through the dough.Glub.
  4. Begin folding the dry ingredients up from the bottom of the bowl into the wet – scoop up from the bottom of the bowl with an open hand and fold over.  Fold, mix, and knead, until the dough is just shy of sticky.  Add another teaspoon of water or two if it’s still a little dry, but be patient; give it a good five minutes of mixing before you do that.  Then!  Knead it until it’s smooth – punch it, knock it, play with it, roll it around in the bowl while you listen to the radio or watch a cartoon or talk to someone (in person or on speakerphone – you won’t have much luck holding the phone to your ear while kneading – I suppose there is always the bluetooth headset, but let’s not scale Dork Mountain unless we have to.) for ten minutes.It should go from this... ... to this.
  5. Let the dough rise – oil the bowl, oil the dough, and let it sit for, at minimum, an hour and a half, if you intend to cook it that day.  If you’re aging the dough, cover the bowl with a plastic bag and throw it straight into the fridge.  Forget about it for a day or two.  If it gets a bit too puffy, just punch it down.Punch it, Bandit!
    The day you make the pizza
  6. Preheat your oven to 500 degrees F – if you’re using a pizza stone, place it on the bottom rack of the oven.
  7. Separate the dough into equally-sized balls.  (I’ll devote an entire post to the technique of rolling out the dough, so never fear if this sounds a little brief.)  Let the balls of dough rise for at least half an hour.
  8. On a floured surface, flatten the balls into rounds and roll out with a rolling pin, continually flipping the dough for even thickness.  Dust off the surface flour and lay on a baking tray or pizza pan.I'll be doing a more in-depth entry on dough-handling, simply because I don't have enough photos of dough-rolling to support it right now.
  9. Top your pizza with sauce, cheese, and toppings (and, again, there will be a separate entry detailing the science of these).I believe these are... Irina's hands.
  10. Put the pizza into the oven, and bake for approximately 13 to 15 minutes, depending on desired doneness and crispness.  If you wish, you may cook two pizzas at once in the oven, with one on the bottom rack and one in the middle – make sure to switch them halfway through for even cooking.
  11. Remove pizzas from oven and allow to cool and set for at least three minutes before cutting and serving – the cheese will coagulate a bit, and you’ll be the better for it because the pizza won’t collapse all over your hands in a searing, melting glob.  Trust me, please.  If you don’t trust me, trust my scars.Mushroom and... salami, I believe.  This was one of mine.

There will be a number of posts on pizza.  I will be elaborating further on pizza technique in subsequent posts, as well as updates from the trenches (what toppings are my friends bringing to the parties?  How does one throw such a party anyhow?), but I figure the dough recipe is the one you’ll be returning to – if you’re interested enough to make a pizza, you probably already know what you want to put on it.

Happy eating!

 

This time, Carolyn sang to the mussels.  “What do mussels dream of/when they take a little mussel snooze?” Carolyn intoned, to the tune of some song from some movie I haven’t seen.  The guilt at eating bivalves – cute, cuddly bivalves! – had grown in her.  Lauren had scrapped her previous argument – What if we get invaded by giant, sentient mussels? – but had replaced it with a more compelling one, which countered my argument of They don’t feel anything.  And they’re delicious with What if WE’RE DELICIOUS and the vastly-intelligent creatures that invade US don’t think we can feel pain, either? What about that, huh?

I said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, girls.  D’you want dinner or what?”  They wanted dinner.  My friends have it rough.

At this point, Lauren was less concerned with killing the mussels, and more concerned with whether or not they'd kill her.  "Is this one still good?" she's saying.  Thwap, thwap.  "Oh, okay.  It's still alive."

I decided I wanted to do Mexican-style mussels this week, using pretty standard flavors from the Mexican kitchen, but maybe with one or two items unfamiliar to American home cooks – cooking with dried chiles, for one, and trying out epazote, a Mexican herb which can be found in pretty much any Mexican supermercado if you ask politely – and not even in Spanish.  I don’t speak a word, and I got mine pretty easily – it’s with the other fresh herbs, at any rate, and besides, how difficult is it to say, “Disculpeme, donde está el epazote, por favor?”

There are a ton of dried chile peppers that belong in the Mexican pantry, but we’re going to start today with chile de árbol, which is a fairly hot pepper that’s usually found dried – you can probably get them fresh in the United States, but I wouldn’t ask you to try for those.  Chiles de árbol are skinny and red and long, and they tend to come in little plastic packets; don’t let me catch you paying more than 2 or 3 bucks maximum for one of them.  I’m pretty sure I pay $1.50.

Now.  Epazote is a pretty exciting herb, and a rather obscure one to the American palate.  I’m still not at the point where I can just nibble on it raw, the way I might with a basil leaf or a bit of chopped mint or cilantro, but I do like it.  I like its weird, strong flavor – sort of like a sprig of tarragon that’s been steeped in premium-grade gasoline.  No, it tastes better than that, like lamp oil and licorice.  No, seriously, don’t run away!  It’s good, I promise, and when you disperse it across a large body of liquid, it takes on a much subtler, friendlier flavor.  It’s especially good with black beans (and they say it acts as a carminative – that is, a gas-reducer.  The more you know!).

So those are your two Mexican flavors to get used to – the bright, punky jolt of árbol chiles, and the verdant, smoky embrace of epazote.  I almost want to compare it to cooking with Scotch, but not the terrifyingly funky Islay Scotch whiskey that my roommate loves – I’ve told him I think it smells like Swamp Thing.  Fiery Demon Swamp Thing.  He agrees, but still finds it delicious.  I demur.

Mejillones con Chorizo y Epazote – Moules à la Méxicainewrite the recipe in English already, for chrissake – Mussels with Chorizo and Epazote
Serves four

The Setup

THAT IS WHAT EPAZOTE LOOKS LIKE.  ALSO CHILES DE ARBOL.

You will need:

  • 1/2 lb fresh Mexican chorizo/spicy pork sausage
  • 4 cloves garlic, thickly sliced
  • 1/2 tsp cumin seed
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4-5 chiles de árbol, dried.
  • 1/4 cup to 1/2 epazote leaves, roughly chopped
  • 1 medium-sized tomato, chopped (optional, because I forgot about it)
  • 1/2 cup white wine (I used a Riesling)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2.5 lbs mussels, scrubbed (the most important part!)
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
  • 1 handsome squirt lime juice

The Heist

  1. Execute your mise-en-place: chop the vegetables, portion out your spices, chop the epazote and cilantro.
  2. Heat a large (6 to 8-quart) cast-iron dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Add the chorizo, and stir to break up – cook, stirring none too gently, for three or four minutes.Choriz you is or is you ain't my baby?
  3. Add garlic and cumin seed, and stir until nicely fragrant, perhaps two minutes.Next time I'll try to get fresh chorizo.  But they were sold out.  I am disappointed in myself.
  4. Deposit onion in pot and cook till soft.This is probably one of the greatest smells in the universe.
  5. As the onions are cooking, take the arbol chiles, break them in half, and rub them between your fingers over the pot – this will unleash a rain of very spicy seeds – you may wish not to use these seeds.  You would be wrong to do so, but it’s your prerogative, kid.  (They end up not being all that spicy, in the aggregate.)  Drop the spent husks into the mix as well.And then wash your hands to get the chile off.   This is a less pressing concern with dried chiles than fresh, but still - don't go rubbing your eyes or picking your nose.  Also, don't do either of those things while cooking; what's wrong with you?
  6. Once the onions are soft, add the chopped epazote and the optional tomato, and stir until the epazote is wilted.  Then pour in the white wine and the water and bring to a brisk little boil.Do you expect me to talk, Blofeld?
  7. Dump in the mussels.No, James Bivalve - I EXPECT YOU TO DIE
  8. Bring to a boil again – cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium, and cook till the mussels open – perhaps 7 minutes or so.  Sprinkle in the cilantro and kill the heat.    I'm not sure what cilantro wouldn't improve, at this point.  Possibly brownies.
  9. Apply handsome squirt of lime juice, mix, and serve with a crusty loaf of bread or lil’ homemade gorditas!I wonder how this would be with avocado.  Probably AWESOME.
    * note on service: what you see here is just a stylized representation of the plate – serve the mussels in deep bowls so you can collect all that marvelous broth.  Serve with spoons, too, so you can just eat it (and all that chorizo) when you’ve finished the mussels

    ).  I mean, look at it!You're glad you looked at it.

On gorditas:  Don’t hate me, people of Latin, Central, and South America: a gordita is an arepa is a pupusa.  Basically.  Sort of.  Not really.  A Mexican gordita is a small round of masa dough that has been fried in oil – it’s thicker and fatter than a tortilla (which is usually made on a comal or griddle without oil), and thus we call it a gordita, which means, I guess, lil’ fatty.  Venezuelan arepas and Salvadoran pupusas are similar, though not exactly the same – that’s sort of like me comparing a Chicago-style hot dog to a Detroit-style Coney dog – they’re superficially similar enough, but it’s a specious enough comparison that, if I spoke it aloud, would probably get me punched in the face.  WITH THAT IN MIND:

Lil’ Homemade Gorditas (chubby tortillettes*)
Makes two or three pretty chubby gorditas

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup masa harina
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • vegetable oil as needed, for pan-frying

* that is a word I made up.

Directions

  1. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl and gradually add water until the mixture comes together in a somewhat crumbly dough – go a little beyond this, but not too much.  It can be damp, but not gooey.
  2. Begin heating a non-stick pan with a little bit of oil in it.
  3. Shape the masa dough into little rounds with your hands (no need for a tortilla press or rolling pin here), and smack them back and forth between your palms until you have little discs about a quarter- to a half-inch thick – quite thick, as far as these things go.Don't flip it too much - it might fall apart.  Be gentle!  We're all learning here.
  4. Plop a gordita into the hot oil and fry gently over medium heat, 3 to 4 minutes per side, until golden brown, crispy, and delicious.  Drain on paper towels and serve with marvelous things.  It may also be possible, if the masa gods smile on you, to split the gordita in half like a pita and stuff it with things.  But I believe that takes time, practice, and proper obeisance to Quetzalcoatl, so we’ll cover that another time.

Happy cooking!

It came!

May 18, 2011

Oh, frabjous day!

Calloo, etc.

I ordered this lil’ jobbie last week.  This showed up on our stoop this afternoon, weighing about as much as the child my neighbor just gave birth to – an even eight pounds.  (Happy birthday, Ingrid!  Congratulations, Heather and James!)

Up there was the classic Clean Platter Comparison Lemon, for scale.  This thing is large.  What is it, though?

You're dying to find out, I bet.

It’s 1200 pages.  The frigging thing is enormous.

I cannot believe I threw out this bubble wrap without popping it.  WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME.  What kind of man have I become?

It could conquer Tokyo.

I apologize  for this, er, bookish striptease.  Wait.  No I don't.

IT IS THE PROFESSIONAL CHEF – the handbook of The Culinary Institute of America, eighth edition.  And now it is mine.

That's a pretty big lemon, but it's also an ENORMOUS book.

They say you don’t need to go to culinary school if you own this book.  Let’s find out, I suppose!

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.

Garam Mussela.

May 9, 2011

“Do they eat mussels in India? They must.” I thought of what little I knew of Indian food, imagined Salman Rushdie eating prawns in Breach Candy (which has to be one of the greatest placenames I’ve ever read about), striped-shirted fishermen hauling wicker baskets of their catches, chewing paan, spitting, and cursing assiduously (I assume fishermen all over the world are the same), and tried to imagine myself eating a fish curry at a seaside shack in the capital city of the state of Kerala, in the southwest – the name of the city (Thiruvananthapuram) would spend more time in my mouth than the curry, I expect.

The set-up

I didn’t find mussels in my sole Indian cookbook (Madhur Jaffrey’s Invitation to Indian Cooking, now lamentably out of print). I suppose I also wouldn’t mind owning a copy of Raghavan Iyer’s more recent 660 Curries, which, being a broad survey of Indian regional cuisines, probably has mussels in it.

Anyway, the point is that I’m an ignorant gora (white guy, foreigner) when it comes to Indian regional cooking. I immediately figured Goa would have something to offer me when it came to the cooking of mussels, as it is a thriving seaport with a Portuguese colonial history, and nobody loves the fruits of the deep as much as the Portuguese, except, perhaps, the Goans. So, had I done a little proper research, I would have given you a mussels recipe similar to a vindaloo (from the portuguese carne de vinha d’alhos) – a vinegary, spiced (fish?) broth, a coconut-oil saute for the starter aromatics, which would have been ginger, fenugreek, and mustard seed. And God knows if that would have tasted any good, because I just made that up right now.

No, instead, all that came to mind when I thought about Goa was coconut milk and fish. Now, you’ll recall that I recently made my own coconut milk, and talked about whether or not it was worth it to make yourself (short answer: no, not unless you’re making a whole lot of it, in which case, yes). I quite liked the broth that resulted from the Red Curry Thai Mussels, and desired something similar. I also very quickly zeroed in on a pun and refused to let go of it, never mind that garam masala is a Hindi thing, and therefore Northern Indian (to be unspeakably broad, ignorant, and blunt), and pretty damned dissimilar to the food of the Indian Southwest. I just knew I had to put it in a mussel dish.

As luck would have it, I found a recipe online that answered to my desires; there are sometimes advantages to being a sloppy American food tourist, leafing with my blunt, sausagey fingers through the cookbooks of disparate cuisines, knocking my neck-tethered camera against the grocery stall, mumbling, in crappy Hindi, kya apa me giving-eka-those-things, please? Sometimes you get to use that cultural distance to get away from those twin, imposing obelisks that we call Authenticity and Fusion, and knock them down to make a structure called That Tastes Good.

Before I get to the actual recipe, I should offer a bit of a warning that I may have neglected to offer last time: mussels are still alive when you buy them. I suppose this isn’t common knowledge, even to people that really love mussels – I was surprised to see them open and close and wiggle very slightly the first time I took home a sack of them. (Although it is impossible to purchase the obviously-alive and absurdly-phallic razor clam without acknowledging his membership in the club of living things.)

Behold: 

mussel animation
I say this because I was divvying up kitchen responsibilities between me, my girlfriend Carolyn, and our friend Lauren – this was the night we were also making naan and Madhur Jaffrey’s curried cauliflower. And I said, “Okay, who wants to clean the mussels?” And both of them volunteered, until I allowed that the beasties were still alive: I demonstrated how to pluck the little beardy byssus from the abyssal bluish bivalve (sorry), I told them that sometimes it was necessary to poke the mussel with a spoon or a butter knife to make sure it closed properly. Caro demurred on cleaning the mussels for another day, and set to work on a different kitchen task, but Lauren bravely took on the task, though she repeatedly apologized to the mussels as she cleaned them.

I harbor almost no compunctions about cooking mussels, and while I was a little skeeved out by the one time I drove an eight-inch knife into the head of a live lobster (dude, it kept wriggling), I didn’t exactly feel guilty. I side with Alton Brown when he says that arthropods are basically cockroaches, and I feel a similar remove from bivalves. Nevertheless, I understand and respect your reservations about dropping a couple pounds of living creatures into a bath of boiling liquid.

But there’s really no other way to do this, and I urge you to to chance the consequences; in the rare, rare case that, as Lauren posits, the first sentient beings to make contact with humankind are enormous, intelligent bivalves, likely to be incensed at our treatment of clams, mussels, and scallops, we can just hide those empty shells behind our backs and say that someone else ate them.

Garam Mussella

adapted from this gourmet magazine recipe – I didn’t change much of anything save for reducing the amount of mussels, and upping the amount of garam masala; as directed, the garam masala flavor was depressingly subdued.

Serves four, plus a little left over
The Setup

  • 2 .5 lbs mussels
  • 3 to 4 tbsp olive or coconut oil
  • one medium onion, diced
  • one largish fennel bulb, diced, fronds removed and reserved
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 2 to 3 tsp garam masala
  • ½ tsp aleppo pepper
  • 1 can diced tomatoes in juice
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 1 cup chiffonaded (ribbon-cut) basil leaves

The Heist

1. Clean the mussels: run them under cold water (don’t let them sit in cold water – they’ll drown! Remember, they’re not freshwater creatures.), scrub ’em with a brush, pick off the byssal fibers – that’s the stuff they secrete to hook themselves to rocks in mussel-clumps. Sometimes we call that the beard, but I’ve never heard of any closeted mussels in lavender marriages. Heteronormative, oppressive jokes are okay when they’re about bivalves! … Right?

2. Prep the veg: I’ve cut enough onions and garlic to figure that you don’t need to see how it’s done at this point, but perhaps you’ve never encountered a bulb of fennel – or maybe you’ve poked fun at it in the supermarket and never taken it home. It is, I will admit, kind of silly-looking – the sort of vegetable that Hayao Miyazaki might invent. Anyway, trim the fronds with your knife so all you have is the bulb. It doesn’t look so weird now, does it? Denuded of its fluffy green hackle, it resembles nothing so much as a friendly old onion. Treat it the same way – bisect the thing, root-end to frond-end, lay it on its flat side, and dice it.

Choppity chop chop.
3. Heat a sturdy cast-iron dutch oven on the stove, and once it’s gotten nice and toasty, add the oil; you could, if you like, throw in the spices now, and flavor the oil – I also see no reason why you couldn’t throw in whole spices here, like cumin seed or coriander. Saute the aromatics (the onion and the garlic), the spices, and the fennel over medium-high heat, until the onion and fennel are soft, about ten minutes.

Aaand there we are.

4. Add the coconut mik and diced tomatoes, stir to combine, and allow the broth to come to a boil.

The by-now customary BLUAAAARGH.

Plop in the mussels, let it come back to a boil, and then cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and steam for eight to ten minutes. After making several batches of mussels, I’ve determined that you probably have to go overboard by a factor of five minutes to seven minutes in order to overcook the things, so I wouldn’t really worry about a twelve-minute cooking time.  These things cook quickly, sure, but you’re not going to turn them into rubber with an extra thirty seconds to a minute of cooking.  Kill the heat, and add the basil, and a smallish handful of those feathery fennel fronds, chopped.

Adding the basil

5.  Ladle mussels into bowls, pouring maybe a quarter-cup of broth over them. Serve with naan, and a smile on your face.

My apologies to the people of India.  Accept this tasty bowl of mussels as my way of saying sorry.

Reserve that mussel broth, too, when you’re done. I seem to recall someone telling me once that cooked mussels don’t keep very well. This is BS – they’re perfectly fine for a couple of days; just store them in broth, plucked from their shells. I’ve got plans for that stuff.

All lined up, so pretty and fine

By reading this WEB-LOG POSTING (hereafter referred to as the “post”), the RECEIVING PARTY (hereafter referred to as “you”) shall enter into an AGREEMENT (hereafter referred to as ‘an agreement’) with the DISCLOSING PARTY (hereafter referred to as ‘me’ or ‘I’); the party of the first part agrees to partake of that which the party of the second part deems particularly relevant to this post, namely the post in its entirety.  By reading this paragraph, you agree to participate in the particulars imparted by the party of the second part, and, failing that, to promptly depart.  Still with me?  Let’s party.

NAAN.  The bread of a hundred Indian suppers, that unattainable bread only made in tandoors, by cryptic, grinning breadsmiths, men and women unwilling to offer up the secrets of their clay-oven magic.  Well.  Prepare to be naanplussed, because I’m about to drop some knowledge on you: it’s not impossible to make naan at home.  Matter of fact, it’s quite easy.  We’re gonna do it in a pan over reasonably high heat, because most of the cooking that a piece of naan bread goes through is through contact with a heated surface (what is that, conduction?), rather than the convection of heated air going through the tandoor.

Most naan recipes I’ve seen in my time are yeast-risen breads.  Many of them have eggs in them.  Many have at least eight ingredients.  I have never made a recipe easier, faster, or more delicious than this one, however, which has four ingredients (flour, yogurt, salt, and baking powder), and takes about an hour, start to finish.  Naan is a leavened bread, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that needs to be leavened with yeast; that’s what the baking powder is for, and it cuts down the waiting time.  This is a quickbread, something to throw together when you decide, at 4 PM, “I’ve got a half-pound of yogurt in the fridge that expires in four days, a head of cauliflower, and a big ol’ sack of chicken thighs.  I’m gonna make some Indian food!”

Naan

Adapted from this Bon Appétit recipe from 1998 – makes 8 pieces of naan

The Setup

You will need:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1½ to 2 cups yogurt, plus more if needed

The Heist

  1. Mix dry ingredients together in a large bowl. I like to do this with a whisk, or with my fingers.  Or a fork, I guess, if you must.To hell with flour sifters.  This isn't Martha Stewart's kitchen.  It's Alton Brown's.  What can a flour sifter do that a whisk can't?  Spread grass-seed?
  2. Plop in the yogurt, a little at a time, and mix – now, with your hands.  The whisk won’t do you any good, and neither will a fork or a wooden spoon.  Now is the time for brave and wo/manly deeds.  Now is the time for triumph.  Suck it up.  Use your hands.And not your whisk.
  3. Knead in the bowl until the dough ceases to be shredded-cloth/sofa-stuffing consistency, and becomes a smooth, elastic ball.  Add more yogurt, or more flour, as the situation merits (but not much of either).  Set the dough aside and let it sit for half an hour to 45 minutes.  The dough won’t rise (no yeast, remember), but the flour will hydrate, and that’s what you’re looking for.Knead it as much as you can first before considering additional flour or yogurt.  This is true of all dough recipes; get everything incorporated before you start making judgements about flour hydration.  Don't prejudge your hydration situation.  That's a metric that, I feel, has pretty much dominated my system of decision-making for most of my adult life.
  4. After letting the dough rest, divide it into eight pieces, flour a flat surface, and start rolling them out: first make each eighth into a ball, then flatten the ball with the heel of your palm.It helps if you have SUPERSPEED, like me.  But yeah seriously this takes about two minutes for all eight of them.
  5. Making sure each side is lightly floured, roll out the dough into flat rounds, about a quarter to an eighth of an inch in thickness.  Brush the excess flour off and set on a plate, or, if you’re feeling really finicky, between sheets of wax paper.But that level of finickiness is totally unnecessary, and, to be frank, a little off-putting.  Stop looking at me that way.
  6. Once you’ve got everything rolled out, start heating a nonstick pan (or, my favorite, cast-iron), with a little bit of oil in it, over medium-high heat.  A LITTLE BIT of oil.  Not a lot.  Story to follow. A painful, painful story.
  7. Once the oil has heated, gently lay down a round of naan, and let it cook, wiggling the pan occasionally, for five minutes per side, or until a multitude of brown Doneness Freckles™ mark both the obverse and reverse faces of the dough round.Doneness Freckles ™ is a licensed trademark of DavidCorp.  DavidCorp: "By Far,The Most Litigious of the Zaibatsu."
  8. Sometimes, the naan will get puffy!  This is okay!  Just give it a few pokes with a fork, let the steam out.

    Violet!  You're turning violet, Violet!
  9. Keep warm in a 250-degree oven, and serve with delicious things, like Madhur Jaffrey’s curried cauliflower, or these delicious Indian-style mussels (recipe to come).Awwww yeah sucka that's right.  (Apologies to Phil Redman)

On flipping naan, and impressin’ the ladies:

My sophomore year of college, I had a debilitating crush on a fellow film major; we worked on movies together late, late into the night – sometimes calling it quits at 3 or 4 in the morning.  After weeks of working with her, I finally built up the courage to ask her if I could make her dinner, at her place.  She said yes.  I was elated.

I made her an Indian feast: saag paneer, biryani, curried potatoes, and naan, as well as chocolate truffles with rum-vanilla whipped cream and sliced strawberries.  We were in the kitchen together when I was making the naan, and I decided to impress her by flipping the naan without a spatula – just tossing them in the pan like flapjacks.  I made it through three or four naan breads without incident when, finally, on the last one, I used a bit too much oil, and flipped: the bread rotated dully in the air, and came down heavily in a puddle, shooting a stream of hot fat into my face, centimeters below my left eye.  I had a little red mark there for weeks, as though I’d been shot with a bb gun.

Needless to say, I impressed the girl.  I didn’t win her heart, but we’re still very close.  You ain’t gonna make someone love you with this recipe, but you’ll win friends for life.

And, for the love of God, use a spatula, unless you’re sure there’s not too much oil in that pan.  Failing that, wear lab goggles.

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!

Tortillas

April 27, 2011

This is the first in a series of posts that I’ll be crossposting on my friend Mercedes’ Mexico Travel portal.  I’ll be diving into Mexican food, starting with basic recipes that are general to the whole country, and then taking side trips into the wonderful and multifarious regional cuisines of Mexico; probably that will mostly be Oaxaca and Puebla, for a start.  Ooo, maybe the Yucatán, too.

At my side I’ll have two of Rick Bayless’ books: his Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen, and Mexico: One Plate at a Time.  I may pick up Diana Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, should the need arise, but I’m given to understand that Bayless covers a lot of ground.  We’ll see – his books are quite comprehensive, but in case I need something absurdly specific (and, indeed, what else is Mrs. Kennedy for?), I’ll look into picking up her very, very comprehensive tome.

Let’s get started!  Staff of life.  Brilliant.

Let me start off this entry on tortillas by saying that, by god, they were a lot easier to make than I thought they’d be.  I just made four or five to start with, because it was the afternoon, and I had already eaten lunch with my friend Colleen, and I wasn’t actually in much of a mood to eat more than one tortilla.  But, yes!  Despite having seen the pertinent Good Eats episode, I was still under the illusion that making tortillas, without a tortilla press (which looks like this), would be awfully difficult.

It was not.

The process begins with masa – fresh cornmeal dough.  Or, failing that, masa harina – cornmeal dough that has been dried and powdered.  Maseca brand will do just fine, and it should be in pretty much any grocery store, assuming you live somewhere in the United States where there is a Latino population.  There are several different kinds of dried masa – varying coarsenesses, fine masa intended for tamales, stuff like that.  Make sure you just get masa harina or Maseca (which I assume is a portmanteau of the words masa and seca, which, yeah, means dried masa).

It looks like this.

From there, it’s as simple as following (most of) the instructions on the back of the package:

The Setup

for four tortillas (and really, in most situations, why would you want so few?)

1/2 cup masa harina

1/3 cup water

a pinch of salt (1/8th teaspoon)

01 ingredients!

The Heist

1. Mix dry ingredients, and add the water slowly, mixing with your fingers, until it has come together into a dough.  Don’t let it get too wet.  It can be very slightly crumbly.

This still needs that other 1/6th cup of water or so

 

2.  Form the dough into a ball; cut or divide the ball into four equal pieces.

You're such a baller.

3. Let the dough rest for a bit while you put your heaviest piece of cast-iron on the stove; heat it over medium-high heat for four or five minutes.  While the pan heats, get out a piece of plastic wrap, and plop one of your masa balls on it.

It should be a decently-sized piece of plastic wrap.

4. Fold over the plastic wrap and very, very exceedingly gently roll out the tortilla – the masa in this state will not brook a whole lot of abuse, and if you’re not gentle, you might accidentally press down too hard and split the tortilla in half.

Gentle like the breeze through the sagebrush

5. Peel back the plastic wrap and put the tortilla on the griddle – ignore it for about a full minute while you prep the next tortilla.

Tortillas are traditionally made on cast-iron or earthenware griddles called comales.  I don’t own a comal, and, probably, you don’t either.  A cast-iron skillet will do fine.

Not a comal?  Eh.  Good enough for government work.

6.  After the minute is up, flip the tortilla with a spatula and let it cook for another minute.  It may not be the prettiest thing, but that’s okay! 

Don't worry, tortilla.  I think you're beautiful.

You’re not looking  for a whole lot of brown, really – too much cooking and it’ll be a little too well-done to fold.  You just want to make it a little more opaque, a little lighter in color than it was, a little more cookedlooking.

From there, it’s not such a big deal to throw some cheese on there, top it with another freshly-made tortilla, and make a quesadilla.  But, y’know what?  I ate that first tortilla plain, because it was really just that good.

And, um.  That’s it!  That’s the Staff of Life!  … Helluva lot faster than bread, I tell you what.  And so easy!

Store your freshly-cooked tortillas on a plate, and cover with a kitchen towel.  Stack, cover, serve with your meal.

Unless you regularly buy from a tortilleria (tortilla bakery), or eat at a taqueria that gets its tortillas from such a place, these are probably going to rank among the best tortillas you’ve ever had.  There’s no question in my mind that tortillas were designed to be eaten promptly after they were made.

A quesadilla.

I probably won’t make tortillas every time I make Mexican food, as I work through this series.

But I just may.