Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lord Hobo Sucks

We made our first... and most likely last... trip to Lord Hobo last night. Hugely disappointing. Beer was good, food was terrible. I ordered the Shepard's Pie and thought it was decidedly inferior... all the pieces were clearly cooked separately... it was a "meat and three" by somebody with poor aim (Whoops! I seem to have put mashed potatoes over everything!). Anna didn't even finish her wild mushroom polenta.... chock full of meh..

If I want good food and good beer, I'll got to Publick House... I certainly won't be going back to Lord Hobo.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Belgian Golden Ales

The New York Times has a pretty nice write up of a taste test of 20 Belgian Golden Ales. I've had #3 - Alesmith's Horny Devil, #5 - Unibroue's Maudite, and #9 - Brooklyn's Local One New York. All excellent. I've also had another three that didn't make their top 10 (Duvel, Piraat, Golden Monkey). Definitely second tier, but still very good.

Despite being "second tier", Golden Monkey by Victory is still one of my favorites. Mainly because it's one of the more cost effective beers on the list. While it's price of more than $10 a six pack here in Cambridge might seem exorbitant, it's quite a bit more reasonable than $20 for 750 ml's (about 3 8 oz servings).

As a tip, if you're new to this kind of beer but want to try them out... get a champagne stopper for those corked 750 ml bottles. That way you can just have a glass and put the bottle away... they'll last a week at least. Besides the glassware, it's one of the best beer related purchases I've ever made.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

No Kneading Needed?

"No Knead Breads" have been hugely popular for years now, with my own foray into bread baking starting with experiments with no knead recipes. While I can't say I've ever made a very good no knead loaf (kept burning the bottom), even as a n00b I could see the potential of the technique. But as a charter member of the "the longer it takes and the harder it is to make, the better it's going to taste" cooking school of thought... I still have had trouble believing you don't make superior bread by getting your hands (or stand mixer) in there for a bit. Of course, while I've made much better bread using Reinhart's techniques than random "No Knead" recipes on the internet, that doesn't mean that the 10-15 minutes of kneading is the difference... indeed Reinhart's new No-Knead book would suggest even he doesn't think kneading is necessary for great bread. And now, for perhaps the final word, we have Harold McGhee in his Curious Cook column doing a no knead investigation:
Several things became clear from my experiments. Wet, unkneaded doughs can make very good bread. Manipulating them for 10 to 15 minutes usually didn’t affect the results. Firm doughs do benefit from a few minutes of kneading, but only because it helps mix the flour evenly with the smaller proportion of water. Prolonged kneading didn’t make much difference in the finished loaves.

So why did we ever bother to knead? Mr. Suas explained that like supermarket breads today, homemade bread in the 1970s was modeled on English pan loaves, with a tight, even, fine-grained interior ideal for tidy sandwiches.

A firm, well-kneaded dough makes good sandwich bread, but not the open, irregular interiors of “rustic” loaves now in vogue. These are best made, Mr. Suas said, with a looser, wetter dough and gentler handling to preserve the pockets of gas from the yeast fermentation. The elastic gluten network develops slowly as the dough rises, and the baker helps out by occasionally lifting the dough edges and folding them over.
I guess, pretty much like everybody else, I'm a huge fan of the "open crumb" of the rustic loaf... still having nightmares about the dense brick breads of my youth... and thus have always leaned more to wet doughs. So maybe I'll have to get Lahey's and/or Reinhart's new books out of the library to see how they come out... because, even with all the evidence, testing, and testimonials, I still find myself skeptical that kneading makes no difference. However, the video's on Amazon for Reinhart's "Stretch and Fold" technique involves using an 80% hydration dough... which is pretty crazy, and maybe too open for me. We'll just have to see, I suppose.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Can you make a cassoulet with too much pork fat? Can God microwave a burrito so hot he can't eat it?

After coming in to work for a few hours on Saturday, I headed over to Savenor's to pick up the ingredients for cassoulet. As you may recall, I made confit a few weeks ago, and still had 4 duck legs covered in duck fat sitting in the fridge. I also had gone so far as to order a couple of pounds of the ridiculously expensive tarbais bean. So, I was ready as far as the hard stuff goes... all I needed was the meat. I was planning on the Saveur recipe that I made... almost exactly a year ago... wow, that's weird. I'm like clockwork, apparently. Anyway... it calls for slightly exotic things like ham hocks and a very plain pork and garlic sausage, but nothing I've had much trouble finding at Savenor's.

This time, however, the butcher overruled my recipe.

"What are you making, cassoulet?"


"I don't like that recipe all you guys are using... what you need to use is a lamb sausage... you need lamb in any cassoulet. Here take this."

"Oh.. O.K."

"And some pork belly. And some fatback. And some slab bacon. Here, take these. Now you are all set."

"Uh, thanks."

Now, to be fair, he had no idea that I was planning on only using one out of my two pounds of beans when he put three pounds of pork fat in my hands... but then he didn't ask either. He probably just assumed I knew enough to figure out what to do with all that. I consulted several recipes, from Julia Child to Anthony Bourdain, but none really were exactly appropriate for what I had... so I decided to stick with the Saveur recipe, and use the slab bacon instead of the ham hocks... pork belly for the boneless pork shoulder... and fat back for the pancetta.

And to be honest... it worked out pretty well. Sinfully well, in fact. I just feel really guilty about how delicious it is, and how that likely relates to the ratio of pork fat to beans.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Walmart PWNS Whole Foods

Well, not exactly, but Corby Kummer has an interesting article at The Atlantic that Wal-Mart is likely better for local foods than you think... and at least the equal to Whole Foods.
The program, which Walmart calls Heritage Agriculture, will encourage farms within a day’s drive of one of its warehouses to grow crops that now take days to arrive in trucks from states like Florida and California. In many cases the crops once flourished in the places where Walmart is encouraging their revival, but vanished because of Big Agriculture competition.

Ron McCormick, the senior director of local and sustainable sourcing for Walmart, told me that about three years ago he came upon pictures from the 1920s of thriving apple orchards in Rogers, Arkansas, eight miles from the company’s headquarters. Apples were once shipped from northwest Arkansas by railroad to St. Louis and Chicago. After Washington state and California took over the apple market, hardly any orchards remained. Cabbage, greens, and melons were also once staples of the local farming economy. But for decades, Arkansas’s cash crops have been tomatoes and grapes. A new initiative could diversify crops and give consumers fresher produce.

Most interestingly, this isn't a program they publicize... they just do it... so you can't even claim they're doing it cynically to cash in on come Locavore craze. As a reality check, however, this "heritage" produce is only 4-6% of their total produce sales.

Regardless, it's a neat take from someone, like many of us urban liberal New Englanders, is predisposed to despise Walmart.


I thought I was taking this morning off, but got a 7 am e-mail that informed me otherwise. Honestly, no bitterness here (seriously!), just gotta bang something out ASAP.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"I'm gonna have to go ahead and ask you to come in on Saturday"


Homemade Ricotta

Serious Eats has the goods. Mario Batali demonstrates the basic concept here (in the first five minutes or so):

But Serious Eats examines several of the variables and breaks it down extraordinarily well. We have yet to venture into the homemade cheese department, but Anna has been intrigued since she read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle... and ricotta is by far the easiest from what I understand.

Fun Facts I didn't know before reading? Pretty much all organic milk is UHT (ultra-high temperature) and thus is not great for making cheese.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Beans Overload

No time for in depth blogging today, so here is a picture of another meal from last weekend. On the left we've got a Cook's Illustrated recipe (subscription required) for Sautéed Green Beans with Smoked Paprika and Almonds. Nothing exciting, but it came out pretty well. On the right is Giant Chipotle White Beans from 101 Cookbooks... except the beans are decidedly not giant. Anna wanted to go with the giant lima beans but, not being a fan, I vetoed that craziness... so we were stuck with your basic great northerns. The flavors were quite nice, but we both thought it could stand to be significantly saucier... if I made it again I'd probably double the sauce.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Vegan Bánh Mì

I suppose most would say it's not very romantic to make sandwiches for Valentine's Day... but what if you both really like sandwiches? And what if you make the baguettes for your sandwiches from scratch? And what if the recipe comes from trendy hip vegan chef Tal Ronnen's new Conscious Cook? Not convinced? Well, all right, I admit it's not super showy... but a weekend in Maine, a warm fire, some Nerd Games, and cooking is basically ideal for us... YMMV.

Regardless of how you feel about going out versus home cooking on Valentine's Day, these sandwiches turned out really well, and are totally worth making for any vegan/vegetarian. While Ronnen doesn't call his sandwich a "Bánh Mì", that's what it reminds me of, so that's what I'm going to call it. It consists of what I guess you could call braised tofu with a big ole' slice of cucumber, Asian slaw, chili oil, cilantro/coriander, and vegan "mayonnaise" all on a split demi baguette. We were able to find all the ingredients, even in Maine, but I could see how daikon (for the Asian slaw) might not be everywhere... jicama is likely the best substitute, though I wonder about clustering problems (i.e. what are the odds your store carries jicama and not daikon? Wouldn't they likely have neither?).

But before we get to the ingredient list for the sandwiches, there is the question of bread. Now, there is certainly no need to make your own demi baguettes... and I admit it's slightly strange to take a really easy 25 minute recipe and stretch it into a several hour effort spread over two days... admittedly, that's how I roll in general... but I did want to highlight how easy it is to make these baguettes. "Easy" and "baguette" are not words generally used together, and this stems from two things: commercial steam injection ovens the home cook can't access, and the difficulty in shaping a baguette. Steam injection is what gives your local bakery's baguette its crisp, shatteringly good crust... but thanks to people like Peter Reinhart, home cooks have made pretty big strides in that area. With a a baking stone, a preheated water pan, and a squirt bottle, a regular oven can apparently get close enough to produce the best baguettes in DC. So while you may never get close to that perfect baguette you had in Paris, you still have the ability to challenge any of the mediocre offerings you'd find at the supermarket... if not the best bakery in town. Plus: you made it yourself, which is not a small thing in my opinion.

On the other hand, shaping a classic French baguette is really hard. It takes a lot of practice, and is quite possibly, one of those things you can't learn from a book. I wouldn't know, as all I've learned to date is: I can't. Not yet, anyway. Point being, we're not talking about a traditional French baguette here, we're talking about a demi baguette... which involves virtually no shaping. This is just the Pain a l'Ancienne recipe from Reinhart that I've blogged once before, so I see no need to get into the nitty gritty of it... it's an easy recipe to get a hold of... but I think it's worthwhile to note how fool proof it is, even for those with little bread making experience.

It's hard for me to say how naive you can truly be to execute Pain a l'Ancienne, since Anna worked in a bakery, and this was a joint baking venture where I've always acceded to her lead... but honestly, I think the biggest margin for error is in kneading, but if you do it by hand it's hard not to feel the gluten happen. Just knead it until it feels different, and then knead it a minute or two longer just to be sure. It's almost impossible to over knead by hand, which is one of the many reasons why I like to do it manually.

So what was I saying about some sort of vegan sandwich? Oh yeah!

Here are the ingredients, assuming you are making 4 sandwiches:

Braised Tofu:
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp white pepper
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 14 oz extra firm tofu, cut into 1/4 inch slabs

Asian Slaw:
  • 2 tbsp agave nectar
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/2 julienned carrot
  • 1/2 cup julienned daikon radish
  • 1/2 cup water

For sandwich:
  • 4 French demi-baguettes, split
  • 4 tbsp vegan mayonnaise
  • 4 tbsp chile oil
  • 4 fresh cilantro sprigs
  • 1/2 English cucumber, cut lengthwise into 4 slices
The weirdest thing about this recipe is that he seems to think that you can cut 14 oz/1 lb of tofu into 8 1/4 inch slabs. This is clearly not the case if you've ever seen a block of tofu and know how slim a 1/4 inch is. The thickness works well, so conceivably you could just slice off 8 pieces and reserve the rest for another use... but we just cut up the entire block. We also didn't see the logic of using just a single sprig of cilantro per sandwich, since they're mostly stem, and thus broke the tops off of several. Note that half of one Pain a L'Ancienne is equivalent to a proper demi-baguette in this recipe.

To braise the tofu, whisk all the other ingredients together in a small bowl and then pour it into a 9x13. Place the tofu in a single layer in the dish, then turn over to coat. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 20 minutes, turning the tofu pieces over halfway through cooking.

While that's going on, mix the Asian slaw ingredients together in a bowl.

Then, once the tofu is out, cover half of each demi baguette with a tablespoon each of mayonnaise and chile oil. Cilantro next, topped with a slice of cucumber. Place two pieces of tofu on top of all of that, and top it off with a couple of spoonfuls of Asian slaw. Cut each sandwich in half and serve.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dungeons & Dragons doesn't kill people, people with guns do

That crazy woman who shot her colleagues at a faculty meeting because she was denied tenure, also apparently played D&D in college. She shares this "habit" with other crazy people. You know what they also share? Craziness and guns. Not two tastes that taste great together IMHO... but obviously I understand that nobody who doesn't play D&D has ever killed anybody.

Pressure Cooker Update

I have some substantive posts on "things cooked" in the pipeline, but since we got in fairly late last night I haven't been able to do much other than put some pictures on Flickr and start a draft post. Hopefully tonight I'll be able to finish it. In the meantime... as you might have guessed from the title... I do have some news regarding a new purchase. I succumbed to the pressure (ouch, sorry) and ordered the Fagor Duo Combi. I'm not sure we really need both a four quart and a six quart pressure cooker, since the info I've seen is not to get one less than six, but it was hard to resist the combo since the six quart one costs nearly $100 by itself... at the very least, $15 more for a four quart aluminum clad 18/10 stainless steel saucepan seemed worth it. I really have no explicit plans for what to do with it first... in a terribly boring fashion, the things I'm most interested in using it for are making stock, rice, and beans... which I'm not sure anybody really wants to read about. Alton Brown has a nice looking chili recipe, but in the spirit of relationship harmony and inter-dietary choices cooperation, the first pressure cooker dish should probably be vegetarian. What to do? I'm not quite sure, but we've got Cooking Under Pressure, so I expect to figure something out.

photo by Flickr user FotoosVanRobin used under a Creative Commons license

Friday, February 12, 2010

Off to Maine, Pt. 9 million

Presumably it's going to be a little colder than the mid June vista pictured above... though we have no intention of climbing any mountains to check... but one can dream.

We will do some cooking though, and I'm bringing my camera, so hopefully next week will be chock full of informative and entertaining posts... for once.

I'm taking Monday off for my deep and abiding love for all US Presidents, and Maine (where we'll be anyway) is not internetz friendly, so posting will be non-existent unless something truly phenomenal happens. I may Buzz the locals though.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Google Buzz privacy concerns overwrought?

I initially recoiled from Buzz, turning it off as soon as I learned how... convinced it was just more useless social media. I imagine that is probably still the case... though the smartphone oriented "mobile buzz" features are interesting, if mildly frightening and creepy. However, after a little experimentation I think the privacy concerns might be a false alarm... either that, or they fixed it since the hue and cry first went up. I tested with a coworker this afternoon, and from what I can tell:
  • You have to have a public profile for anyone to even get to your list of followers
  • If you go to a public profile, and their followers list is also public (the default), you'll be able to see the people with public profiles in their list and the contacts(or maybe just followers?) you both share
  • People you don't know who don't have public profiles definitely won't show up
  • People not logged into a Google account won't see the followers list at all
Now, I may be wrong about the above... and I suppose if anybody clicks on my profile above and sees names and addresses of my very minuscule number of followers, then they should speak up in comments. But assuming I'm right, if you've bothered to create a public Google profile, I'm not really sure why you would complain that people can see it? If the argument is that you don't want people to know who it is you follow, then I guess I agree... it should have defaulted to opt out (though the "ultimate" opt out is just making sure nobody can see your profile in the first place). However, if you are worried that your girlfriend is going to think that you're still talking to that girl you had a fling with 3 years ago... or that your scandalous adultery will be laid bare... it seems the chances are vanishngly small.

I'm still not sure I think Google Buzz is worth anything, but I'm going to give it a shot for a while.

Snowpocalypse Fail

The "up to 10 inches" forecast for our sympathy snowstorm already felt inadequate compared to what's hammered my ancestral homeland, but this was just a downright embarrassing showing. Kids got off school and people worked from home for that. Shameful.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Knife Talk

Some tips from butcher Tom Mylan... now posting on the Atlantic Food Channel... on how to use a knife properly... I'll warn you that he has some fairly graphic descriptions embedded in there about the numerous ways he's given himself ghastly injuries with knives... so the squeamish should NOT click through. However, I've pulled out a couple of the tips that I thought were particularly good:
I prefer a cheap, solid, stainless steel knife. Some of the best can be picked up at a kitchenware or restaurant supply shop for well under 40 dollars. Brands that work well at this price are F. Dick, Victorinox, and LamsonSharp. Plastic or wood is a matter of personal preference, but I pay the premium for a wood handle and then promptly scrub the finish off the wood. Why, you might ask? Simple: fat. I will sometimes spend a solid hour breaking down carcasses, and, after a while, that animal fat renders a knife with a plastic handle as slippery as a live eel. Wood, on the other hand, absorbs the fat, ensuring that the all-important grip is maintained. More on this later when we get to the "ways to horribly wound yourself" section.
Victorinox is a favorite of Cook's Illustrated as well, and we have a chef's knife and santoku from them that have served us quite well. I'd certainly recommend them to anybody looking for a good and reasonably priced knife. While I have splurged on expensive Japanese knives recently, and don't think Victorinox knives hold an edge nearly as well as they do, it's hard to argue that there is a real need to spend over $100 on a knife. Just like how a expensive pan isn't going to make your food taste any better, a powdered alloy knife isn't going to make your mincing any more uniform.

His insight about fat and plastic handles is pretty interesting... and certainly true... but a home cook isn't probably going to have that much of an issue with it since we're not breaking down carcasses bigger than a chicken or turkey. Just go and wash your hands if they feel slippery.
If your knife is made of the tough and cheap type of stainless steel you will never get it as sharp as the guy at your local housewares shop. High-end Japanese and carbon steel can be made especially deadly, but you have to know what you're doing. Keep your eyes on the prize: keeping it sharp, which brings us to the matter of the sharpening steel.

Learning to use a steel properly is far more important than spending the better part of a night laboring over the whetstone. There are as many YouTube videos and online guides to using a steel as there are stars in the sky, but the key is to do it lightly. By using a steel, you're attempting to realign a few molecules of steel back into a cutting edge; heavy pressure will only lead to a truly dull blade.
I actually did get a whetstone for Christmas, but agree it's for hobbyist purposes, and not to save the $10 or whatever it is to send out knives to get them professionally done. I will say that there does seem to be some variance in quality of these guys, so check around (Chowhound is good for this kind of info)... I thought the people here in Cambridge we sent them our knives out to last time took off more metal than they really needed to, but the people Anna used in Maine did an extraordinary job (for almost nothing). While I have yet to get up the courage to put my knives to the new whetstone, it seems to me he's overstating the labor involved... but, regardless, there certainly is no reason to do it yourself unless you really want to.

The honing steel, though, is definitely key. I've noticed a real difference since I picked one up to use on my Shun knives... honing every few times I cook has made a huge difference in keeping an edge.

Buzz Off

Just an FYI, but if you're like me and have no interest in Buzz there is a little button to turn it off at the very very bottom of the Gmail page, just above the copyright and terms of use stuff.


Looking for a little help with the romance action this weekend? The New York Times has you covered with an in depth exploration of everything we know about edible aphrodisiacs. Pretty standard stuff overall, but then there's this:
In one small experiment on sexual response to food scents, vaginal and penile blood flow was measured in 31 men and women who wore masks emitting various food aromas. This was the study that found men susceptible to the scent of doughnuts mingled with licorice. For women, first place for most arousing was a tie between baby powder and the combination of Good & Plenty candy with cucumber. Coming in second was a combination of Good & Plenty and banana nut bread.

The study, conducted by the Smell and Taste Research Foundation in Chicago, also found that the aroma of cherries caused a sharp drop in excitation among women, as did the smell of meat cooked over charcoal.

So gentlemen stock up on the Good & Plenty this weekend, because remember... this is SCIENCE! As a side note, I'm glad I don't have to recruit subjects for sexual arousal studies.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Can you learn to cook from a cookbook?

An interesting discussion at Serious Eats about whether you can learn to cook from books... apparently all spawned by an article in the New Yorker back in November claiming you can't. As you can imagine, this produced some reaction among people who write cookbooks for a living... so much so that they're still talking about it three months later.

As someone who has learned most of what he knows about cooking from cookbooks and food blogs, you'd probably assume I'd be 100% on the side of cookbooks... but I can't say that I am. Certainly I think if you buy the right cookbooks... New Best Recipe, Alton Brown, etc... you can be pretty effective in the kitchen, even starting from virtually no knowledge(ME!). However, I do feel like there's only so far you can get that way... that really what I've become is someone who is good at executing recipes, and that there are certain things about flavors and seasoning that I just don't understand... because, well, I just haven't spent my life tasting and thinking about food from a chef's perspective. I don't want to oversell that, but I think there's a reason you don't see self taught home cooks on Top Chef, and it's not a selection bias... it's just that working on a line devoting your entire existence to cooking food imparts something we can't get in a home kitchen with no guidance. Now, presumably most of us don't aspire to that level of cooking... I have no dreams of opening a restaurant... but what I'd like to be able to do someday is to make wonderful food without needing recipes. Can a cookbook teach you that? Maybe, I don't know... certainly a book like Ratio or a show like Good Eats tries to show you more about how cooking works than explicit recipes.

What I think more home cooks should consider doing is taking the occasional cooking class, where you can ask questions and see techniques demonstrated. The knife skills class I took last year was immensely valuable to me, even if it didn't make me much faster. Learning how to use a knife correctly can probably be taught by diagrams and videos, but having someone there to demonstrate and correct you it seems like a big advantage to me. I keep meaning to sign up for more, but they're on the expensive side... somewhere in the $75-150 range, depending on the length of the class. I've got my eyes on a Sourdough and French Bread class, but have yet to pull the trigger.

photo by flickr user chotda used under a Creative Commmon license

Heirloom Chickens

An Atlantic writer tastes four nearly extinct chicken breeds:
I took my first bite of a breed called the Ameraucana and tasted it as I'd been taught to sample cheese and wine, breathing the flavors into my mouth, paying attention to what part of my tongue responded. The meat was chewy, its personality direct yet smooth, and there were definite notes of liver and blood. Next was the Barred Plymouth Rock, a black-and-white-striped bird that was tough to chew but had a long-lasting taste with hints of corn and caramel. The Buff Orpington (what a name!) reminded me of buttered popcorn with a hint of grass. I tried the skin. It had the most buttery chicken flavor that has ever crossed my lips. Finally, I understood what people mean when they say "chickeny."

The last bird was the Jersey Giant, a genetic cross between several Asian birds that was created in New Jersey in the 1870s in an attempt to breed a large chicken to compete with the turkey. Not surprisingly, the Jersey Giant tasted like its competition, with a nice bite and a lingering flavor.

All of these birds were unlike any chicken I'd ever eaten. Or seen: the dark meat of each breed was brown like chocolate.

I'm not sure how appealing "notes of liver and blood" sounds, but maybe that's just me. Honestly, I have to admit I'm a bit of a heirloom animal skeptic... I'm just not sure I see how the it can be anything other than a curiosity or a niche market. I know part of the philosophy is that we should be willing to pay a lot more than we currently are for food, but to charitably assume that a chicken that takes "more than twice as long to fatten up" is only going to double the price... is that really workable on a large scale? Though I imagine the overall consumption of heirloom vegetables isn't really all that large either... maybe just raising awareness at the margins is enough to make a significant difference in people's eating habits?

photo by flickr user Gabriel Kamener used under a Creative Commons license

Monday, February 8, 2010

Was there some sort of sporting contest last evening?

Gratz to the Saints!

This might it as far as blogging today goes... as my boss's boss just handed me something that needs to be done before I leave today.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Snow Jealous

I imagine this is a post I'll karmically regret, but I think it sucks that all the snow is bypassing us. To entertain your crazy uncle who thinks local snow accumulations are a good substitute for the climate modeling, it has been an extraordinarily light year here in Cambridge. I should be thankful, but I'm not.... I love to wakeup to a big snowfall. even though it means tons of shoveling.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Coq au Vin

For anyone who's familiar with this blog, my deep abiding love for cassoulet probably makes clear that I have some affection for French food. However, that affection is accompanied by very little experience with the cuisine. I don't live in France after all (nor even visited)... and, in America anyway, while classical French cooking was insanely popular in the 60's and 70's (presumably due in large part to the efforts of Julia Child), it had fallen pretty far from fashion by my youth and through most of my adulthood. Indeed, I grew up thinking of French food as either heavy with cream sauces or full of snails (or both!). But most of all, I thought of it as overrated... i.e. that you spent a lot of money at a French restaurant solely for the experience of high class dining, not specifically for the food. To some extent that's obviously true... there are innumerable 4 star restaurants around the world that don't serve French food; you can have an incredible meal in any cuisine. Regardless of this truth, my first real "fine dining experience" was French (L'Espalier - back when they were in the brownstone), and it totally blew my mind... I reevaluated my stance on French cooking immediately on the spot. While certainly the artifice of the occasion was exceptional (maître d', sommelier, etc), it was much more the fact that I had just never eaten food like that. Even to this day, it's probably the best dining experience of my life (from a food and service perspective I mean, there are other... ahem... elements best forgotten).

Even as I've broadened my palate, French food has continued to fascinate me... especially as I've learned to cook. For whatever reason, no other cuisine has really caught my imagination. Nothing thrills and terrifies me as much as... say... making a hollandaise... or even a roux, let alone cassoulet. I just really like making French food, be it peasant style or haute cuisine... but generally the more traditional the better.

Enter Coq au Vin. As evidence of my minimal experience with French food: never had it. I have made beef bourguignon (as well as the Italian Brasato Al Barolo), so I'm not unfamiliar with braising meat in wine. Now, I have to admit I didn't do a whole lot of research... going straight to Cook's Illustrated, as I often do, when I'm trying something for the first time. The following text is mainly a 1999 Cook's Illustrated recipe (subscription required) that I've adapted in a few ways (chicken thighs instead of leg quarters, 10 ounces of mushrooms instead of 8, etc.). I used fresh pearl onions, but you could omit the blanching/peeling step if you use thawed frozen ones.

  • 8 chicken thighs (about 3 pounds), trimmed of excess fat, cleaned, and dried
  • 1 bottle of Red Zinfandel
  • 2 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock
  • 6 ounces bacon (preferably thick-cut), cut crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 6 - 7 tablespoons unsalted butter , at room temperature
  • 1 large carrot , roughly chopped
  • 1 large onion , roughly chopped
  • 2 medium shallots , peeled and quartered
  • 2 medium cloves garlic , skin on and smashed
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • 10 parsley stems
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons tomato paste
  • 1 lb of fresh pearl onions
  • 10 oz package of white mushrooms (small), quartered
  • 2 - 3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
  1. To peel the (fresh) pearl onions: Cut an “x” in the root end, blanch them in boiling water for 30 seconds, remove them with a slotted spoon, and refresh them in a bowl of ice water. Then slice off the very tip of the roots with a paring knife and squeeze the onions gently from the blossom end. Worked like a charm. You could possibly get this done while the chicken is simmering, but I did it ahead of time.
  2. Season your chicken with salt and pepper and set aside.
  3. Bring red wine and chicken stock to boil in large, heavy saucepan; reduce heat to medium-high and simmer until reduced to about 4 cups, about 20 minutes.
  4. While that's going on, fry your chopped up bacon in large Dutch oven or deep, heavy-bottomed sauté pan (if you use a sauté pan, know that you'll need a lid later in the recipe) over medium heat until fat has rendered and bacon is golden brown, about 5 minutes.
  5. Remove bacon with slotted spoon to paper towel-lined plate to drain; set aside. Heat 1 tablespoon butter with rendered bacon fat; add carrot, onion, shallots, and garlic and sauté until lightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Cook's says to "press vegetables against side of pan with slotted spoon to squeeze out as much fat as possible," but I used the slotted spoon to scoop 'em up and then used another spoon to squeeze out the excess fat back into the pan, before transferring the vegetables to the pan with reduced wine mixture. Whatever works: the point is to keep as much fat as possible out of your reduced wine. Discard all but 1 tablespoon fat from your Dutch oven or sauté pan.
  6. Return Dutch oven or sauté pan to burner over medium-high heat and add another 1 tablespoon butter. When butter is melted, add chicken (in two batches to avoid overcrowding) and cook until well browned all over, turning once during cooking, 12 to 16 minutes. Remove chicken to a plate; set aside.
  7. Pour off all fat from Dutch oven or sauté pan; return to heat and add wine-vegetable mixture. Bring to boil, scraping up browned bits from bottom of pan with wooden spoon. Add browned chicken, bouquet garni (thyme, parsley, and bay leaf tied together), and tomato paste to boiling wine mixture; return to boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer gently, partially covered. Turn chicken once during cooking, until tender and infused with wine flavor, 45 to 60 minutes.
  8. While chicken and sauce are cooking, heat another 2 tablespoons butter in medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add pearl onions and cook, stirring occasionally and reducing heat if butter starts to brown too fast, until lightly browned and almost cooked through, 5 to 8 minutes. Add mushrooms, season with salt, cover, increase heat to medium, and cook until mushrooms release their liquid, about 5 minutes. Remove cover, increase heat to high, and boil until liquid evaporates and onions and mushrooms are golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes more. Transfer onions and mushrooms to plate with bacon; set aside.
  9. When the chicken is cooked, transfer to serving bowl or platter; cover with aluminum foil to keep warm. Strain sauce through fine mesh sieve set into a fat separator, pressing on solids with wooden spoon to release as much liquid as possible; sauce should measure 2 to 3 cups. Return sauce to pan; leaving the fat behind in the fat separator. Counting 1 tablespoon each of butter and flour for each cup of sauce, mash 2 to 3 tablespoons each butter and flour in small bowl or plate to make a beurre manié, as shown above. Bring sauce to boil and whisk in beurre manié until smooth. Add reserved chicken, bacon, onions and mushrooms; adjust seasoning with salt and ground black pepper to taste, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer very gently to warm through and blend flavors, about 5 minutes. Check seasoning one more time and adjust with additional salt and ground black pepper if necessary; add parsley. Transfer chicken to serving platter; pour sauce over chicken. Serve immediately.
Took about 3 hours, so only stay at home parents or freaks like me would make it on a weeknight... but definitely a worthy Sunday dinner, fo' sho'. While the inclusion of a full bottle of wine means it's not super cheap, the use of chicken thighs ameliorates that, and none of the ingredients are particularly hard to find. There's no fine chopping or fancy prep work, and you don't ever have more than two things to monitor at once. I found it to be a pretty leisurely paced dish to make.

Oh... and it's delicious. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Chicken and Root Vegetable Hash: A Semi-FAIL Story

Trying to use up the leftovers from Thomas Keller's Roast Chicken and Root Vegetables, I decided to make some chicken hash. I've not actually had much experience with chicken hash... or really, any kind of meat hash... and I'm not entirely certain why. Certainly, over the years, I've had tons of leftovers and the idea of tossing them in a pan with some onions, potatoes, and spices to make another meal isn't rocket science... but my mom would use the chicken from the night before in a stir-fry or soup, but not in hash, so it's really never occurred to me.

I noticed a recipe for it, however, when I was paging through Barbra Kafka's roasting book. I didn't have any trouble using up my leftovers when I made her chicken, but Keller's had significantly more in the way of roast veggies that were getting a bit intimidating... so a little chicken hash to spice up the 3rd day leftovers seemed like a solid plan.

I had already shredded my chicken to separate out the bones for stock, so I just chopped up my veggies a bit more (a little messy) and diced and onion and I was ready to go. Unfortunately it took ages to get to the table because Kafka's recipe is pretty involved... and in retrospect I think that's because her recipe was for the case where you have only the chicken as a leftover... and need to cook the veggies (parsnips in her case) while imbuing them with chicken flavor. My veggies had already been roasting in chicken fat and juices for an hour, were already well browned, and really developed no additional benefit from the the long stages on the stove top. I thought the idea of pouring in chicken stock and then simmering it off sounded like a great idea, but it really seemed to have little effect with my ingredients.

In retrospect, I'd just wanted to caramelize some onions and then work to heat through the chicken and root vegetables, while introducing some spices to make it a little more interesting. All I used was salt, pepper, and a dash of allspice, and found myself reaching for the Sriracha immediately. In figuring out how I could improve the spicing is where I feel the most like a novice cook... and where my underdeveloped palate seems like the largest handicap. I'm forced to look around for recipes to get ideas, and have yet to find one that I think would be a vast improvement.

Now, I found it fairly decent, and certainly better than just reheating in the microwave, but it was still disappointing. Tonight is Coq au Vin so hopefully that will lift my cooking spirits.

picture of chicken hash I had absolutely no role in making (or consuming) by flickr user calamity_hane used under a Creative Commons license

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Gumbo for the Super Bowl?

Mark Bittman has a Minimalist column this week for a pretty solid looking gumbo with scallops... which reminds me! It's been Maine shrimp season for several weeks now, and I have yet to screw up a a gumbo... something I'll have to rectify ASAP, since it's been almost a year since my last attempt screw-up. Even though I haven't ever made a gumbo I think is spectacular (I'm sort of obsessively critical about it), I still think gumbo is a solid idea for a Super Bowl party... especially for those of us in the Northeast, as it's both scallop and shrimp season up in Maine, so you should have plenty of fresh options at your fishmonger... even if they aren't exactly the traditional Cajun or Creole ones. Being from Maryland, winter seafood seasons are still pretty weird to me... but what's essentially a mildly spiced seafood stew served over rice seems a perfect winter dish... if I ever find my ideal "New England Gumbo" recipe, that is. No luck yet, but no reason to stop trying.

As for my eternal bane, the dark Louisiana roux? Here's a post from Chow that has the color progression mapped out with some tips that might help you out if you're following Bittman's recipe. I'm obviously no expert, but from my limited experience and faulty memory, I'd say that 15-20 minutes on medium low heat will probably get you firmly into the "peanut butter" stage... and thus isn't likely to be too problematic... it's the dark ones that are always on the edge of burning.

Maine shrimp photo by flickr user looseends used under a Creative Commons license

Molto Mario on Hulu

Via Serious Eats, I see that full episodes of Molto Mario are on Hulu now... looks like the entire first season. I didn't know how to cook at all when that stuff first aired... but still loved watching Mario for the cooking as a spectator sport angle, I guess... so I'm curious as to what Mario Batali had to teach when he was just starting out on a nascent Food Network. Certainly of the "dump and stir" of the early Food Network days, Mario's is considered one of the best.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Smartphones and Cooking Shopping

Sarah Dickerman has an article about the impact of her iPhone on her cooking with a fairly obvious conclusion, but it's one still worth noting:
Having tried a few cooking applications, it seems to me that the only undisputed advantage of cooking from a smartphone is the ability to fold shopping into the process of making a meal. I mentioned Epicurious' handy shopping list. Grocery Zen is even better. The app downloads recipes from Amanda Hesser's Food52 site—like, say the couscous, fennel, and almond salad I tried out—and breaks the ingredients into a shopping list. You can add non-recipe items like Bon Ami or Cheerios and cross off items as you fill your cart, or, if you like, send the list to your sweetheart to pick things up after work. This fluidity between procuring and preparing also allows you to respond to the market: If you see a nice stash of mackerel at the fish counter, you can find a recipe online and purchase the other ingredients on the way home, without a second trip. Shopping applications (there are others, too, like Grocery IQ) combined with recipe apps take full advantage of the iPhone's mobility. Back home in the kitchen, though, mobility isn't really what you're seeking: You just want something easy to read and able to survive a splattering of Sriracha. (That's why, when I do work from Web recipes, I generally print them out—backward as that may be.)

Neither Epicurious or Grocery Zen apps are available on Android, so I have no personal experience with either... but grocery shopping is definitely the area of my cooking life where having a constant connection to the internet is the most beneficial. The absolute ideal thing would to have digital access to all my cookbooks via my phone while I'm at the store or farmer's market... but baring that, being able to search Epicurious or Cook's Illustrated while looking at the produce is pretty handy. Being able to make a shopping list on my phone is more of a novelty I'd say... but whatever.

For those writing NIH grants to adhere to the new guidelines...

I pity you. 25 pages to 12? Yikes. Our lab has found the slides here (PDF) to be extrodinarily helpful. The blog itself is generally quite useful.

Thomas Keller's Roast Chicken with Root Vegetables

I did this one straight off of Amateur Gourmet... and Adam Roberts has a fine enough description of it that I won't blather on about the dish too much. One thing I'll note is that a rutabaga is a yellow turnip, so when the recipe calls for rutabagas and turnips I assumed it meant yellow and purple turnips, since that's what Shaw's called what they carried... but here's the disambiguation page if you are as clueless about gardening as I am. Jicama is a kind of turnip? Who knew?

I actually overcooked it a bit... not pulling it out of the oven until the thickest part of the breast was cresting 165, but it was not dry and chalky at all and was still quite juicy. Not sure why that was... the chicken perhaps? I buy air chilled (e.g. Bell Evans) or kosher (e.g. Empire) chickens exclusively now and have generally found I have more leeway and don't need to brine. That makes sense for kosher chickens (which are salted), but I'm not sure it does for air chilled (which is what I used here)... but I'm pretty sure it wasn't my imagination.

I also threw the veggies back into the oven while the chicken rested for its 20 minutes... because I wanted a little more roasting action. Seemed kind of silly not to, but YMMV. Anyway, it came out great and I was thoroughly pleased.

P.S. Don't forget to make chicken stock from the carcass! I basically follow Ruhlman's advice from his oven turkey stock. Long slow simmering overnight is easiest in the oven (assuming your oven goes to 200 or below).

Truffle Hunting

David Lebovitz has a fascinating post up about truffle hunting in Southern France. It even has an adorable pig, so you know you have to read it... unless you don't like pigs, or mushrooms, which means there is probably something wrong with you.

My only experience with truffles... beyond truffle oil... was seeing a sign at Savenor's that they were available a couple of weeks ago. I was getting my duck legs for confit, and was on the phone with Anna asking her if she wanted anything when I read the price as $60 a pound. Of course, if you know anything about truffles, that's either the steal of the century or grievous pricing error. I had read the wrong sign, and the cheapest white truffles they had were actually 3 times that price... per ounce. The black truffles that Mr. Lebovitz is hunting, being an additional doubling beyond that. Yowsa.

It's sort of hard to imagine anything could really be that good... to be worth hundreds of dollars per ounce to shave onto your risotto... but obviously there are more than a few people who think it is so. This may be one of those things that it's just better to be ignorant about.