Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy Holidays

I fly down to my ancestral homeland of Baltimore Maryland this afternoon for a nice long break... I take the whole week between Christmas and New Year's because the 400 miles between Boston and Baltimore, while by no means insurmountable, is a big enough distance to limit visits to a few a year. So this is a good opportunity to see my family without it seeming like a whirlwind tour. In blog news, a little birdie told me I might be coming back to Boston with some improvements to my camera...  so I'm hoping I can take a step forward with the food photography by finally having shots properly lit.

See y'all in the new year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How Comté is Made

A nice picture heavy post by David Lebovitz about the art of cheese making in France... a process that has become a bit more interesting to me lately since Anna and I signed up for the famous cheese making class out in Western Mass. We'll just be doing soft cheeses I think... no long ripening hard ones... since it's a beginner class, but it's still neat to see the process documented.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Today in Maine/Salmon News

What with the holiday season and all, I haven't noticed a lot to blog about lately, but this was kind of interesting:
For the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF), the Penobscot Project represents a rare opportunity to restore a major river in the southern range of wild Atlantic salmon.

“The Penobscot Project is ASF’s top priority in the United States and one of the most significant projects in our history”, said Bill Taylor, President of ASF, “This is our last best chance to restore a significant run of wild Atlantic salmon in the United States.”

Beginning in 2011, the Penobscot Trust will remove the Veazie and Great Works dams and build a fish bypass around the Howland dam to open migration corridors long blocked by dams. When the project is complete, renewable energy generation will be the same as before the project or even increase.
As I've mentioned previously, I don't really fish, but this sounds like a pretty worthwhile project... especially if it's true about the renewable energy being the same even without the dams. Completely anecdotally it seems like New England really has a ton of dams... so producing renewable energy without bothering fish seems like a good thing for the region. And there's my "completely no expertise and/or knowledge that wasn't contained in a press release" two cents... but that's pretty much the definition of blogging.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Case for Ethical Foie Gras

I've only had foie gras once... at L'Espalier several years ago... and while it was one of the richest and most delectable dishes I'd ever tasted, I felt extremely guilty about loving it. Who doesn't when they think about force fed ducks? Well, Kenji put up on Serious Eats  a nice look at one of the three foie gras farms in the US, and makes, effectively I think, the case that it can be ethically produced. In essence, factory farming is factory farming and it's a terrible thing whether it's used for chicken eggs or 'gavage'... and both can be done fairly humanely if we want them to be (i.e.  are willing to pay for it). The key thing for me is that, as Hank Shaw pointed out, foie gras happens in the wild (albeit somewhat rarely).

So I dunno... I don't imagine many activists will be swayed by the argument... but it just reinforces the belief that the biggest source of animal suffering is factory farming, and not meat consumption per se. I know, I know, billions of people eating meat does seem to inevitably lead to factory farming... surely there is not enough land area on the planet for every cow we consume to run(meander?) happy and free until slaughter... but ensuring such a base standard of treatment is precisely how you reduce consumption because of how expensive meat becomes.

Homemade Tonnarelli in a Smothered Onions Sauce

Tonnarelli in a Smothered Onion Sauce and Green Beans with Yellow Peppers, Tomatoes, and Chile Pepper
Pictured above are the products of what was certainly one most productive co-cooking experiences Anna and I have had together. Homemade pasta, a smothered onion sauce, and some long simmered green beens... all completed in time for a 7:30ish weeknight dinner... not something I'd want to do every night, but it can be impressive what two people cooking together can accomplish. All of the recipes came from Marcella Hazan's wonderful book that, hey, could be a great holiday gift for any cook's in your life.

I'll note that our tonnarelli is a wee bit thinner and raggedy than the classical version, but whaddya want? We're still new to the whole pasta machine thing... it's all a learning experience... and it's was delicious regardless. So there. You can find the recipe for the smothered onion sauce here... where "sauce" seems like perhaps too strong of a word: it's basically caramelized onions. The twist being that you sweat them for an hour in butter and oil before starting the caramelization, which gives them a lovely rich flavor... and when you add in the flavors of the white wine that's simmered off at the end, you get some nice complexity.

Unfortunately I don't have access to the recipe for the green beans at the moment (if you have Hazan's book they are: green beans with yellow peppers, tomatoes, and chili pepper)... but they came out pretty well even though we were using some bargain basement old and sad winter green beans. The new life experience with this dish was that she had us peel the yellow pepper, which I had never heard of doing... and you know what? It was a revelation. Sure, it's a bit of a PITA (though not really that hard), but it seems that if there is any long simmering going on, your peppers are going to have a lot better texture if you take off the skin. I see it as basically the same reasoning for taking the skin off a tomato when they're going to be simmered...  that skin is never going to break down at all...  and it ends up as a heavy and slightly bitter distraction from the awesomeness of the tomato/pepper flesh...  which is what you are there for.

Anyway...  a good cooking effort that I'm proud of and that we learned a lot from: who knew coat hangers would serve such a great dual purpose of pasta drying?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Seasoning Cast Iron with Flaxseed Oil

How to season cast iron pans in a household with a vegetarian has been a bit of an issue for us (well me really, I guess)... I've always sort of felt like we were never going to get that classic black matte finish that's perfectly non-stick if we were just using vegetable oil. Well apparently, the absolute best way to season cast iron is flaxseed oil (the food grade version of linseed oil). Maybe worth a try... her method is pretty hardcore though.

Truffle Hunting in Oregon

Pretty interesting post on truffle hunting by Hank Shaw. I have to say that I've really enjoyed his work on The Atlantic... I knew he contributes to Simply Recipes, but it appears he also has a well recognized blog of his own (where there is, unsurprisingly, a bit of overlap with stuff posted to The Atlantic) and a forthcoming book. I'm not a hunter, an angler, or a gardener, so it might not seem there would be much for me to glean from his work... but besides always enjoying skillful food writing... it's just nice to read about somebody whose food world is so admirably self contained. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Prime Rib Primer

Being that I might be tasked with cooking prime rib for Christmas Eve dinner for my family, I found Kenji's guide to be pretty timely. I'll probably be following this recipe, but with added Yorkshire pudding (sub required) since I've never had it and am pretty curious. I'm a little concerned that my mom likes her meat on the well side of medium... not even a little bloody...  last time I cooked prime rib for her (a couple of years ago) she threw her piece in the microwave (making me made me feel extremely guilty)... but Kenji says that this is OK,so I guess I'll just run with it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Misguided Vegetarian Case Against Free Range Meat

Free range chicken
James McWilliams at The Atlantic provides what may be the exemplar of what letting "the perfect be the enemy of the good" in food politics look like, while being a pretty typical oomnivore vs. vegetarian vs. vegan ethics measuring contest:
Opposing factory farming on welfare grounds affirms an important premise: Thoughtful consumers do not want animals to be needlessly hurt. That is, we believe animals deserve living under conditions that allow them the chance to seek happiness (which is not to say they won't become another animal's lunch). Accepting this premise means more than we might think. For one, it means we have an obligation—again, in the spirit of being deliberate eaters—to consider the issue of animal welfare as it plays out everywhere, even under free-range conditions.

And it's here where things get more complicated. Relatively speaking, free-range animals experience less harm than do factory-farmed animals. It's on this point that the vast majority of concerned consumers who choose free-range meat rest their case; if we're content to think in these relative terms, there's really not much to argue about. In fact, it's on this point that nearly every popular media report on the benefits of free-range farming screeches to a convenient halt. And why not? When it comes to farming methods and harm, free range is better.

But this position—the idea that free-range is automatically a responsible choice simply because it's more attentive to animal welfare—is morally blurred. Better does not mean acceptable. Consumers of free-range meat who oppose factory farming on welfare grounds (however partial) cannot escape an inconvenient question: Doesn't killing an animal we don't need constitute the very thing that factory farming perpetuates—which is to say, harm? This, as I see it, is the free-range albatross.
So basically, factory farming is terrible and free range is better but still bad: so be a vegetarian. Fair enough. If I was trying to convince someone who cared deeply about the suffering of animals to be a vegetarian that's probably the way I would go too... but in taking the position that free range farming isn't good enough because it's still killing animals, he seems to be missing the entire point of being a vegetarian (in my "not a vegetarian" view anyway). Isn't making the choice of vegetarianism implicitly acknowledging that while you can't personally stop the killing of animals, your diet choices can make it happen less. So shouldn't you really be for anything that lessens the suffering of animals? Anything that causes fewer animals to be killed?

We've been having this same moral and ethical argument about meat consumption since well before McWilliams and Jonathan Safran Foer came onto the scene... Indians have been doing it since 500 B.C.... and being that meat consumption keeps rising, it seems obvious that it isn't very effective. If we accept that one of the goals of any socially conscious vegetarian should be to lessen meat consumption overall, then the only proven way to do so is to make it more expensive. Luckily for us, caring more for animal welfare is more expensive: giving them land to run around in and making sure they are humanely slaughtered costs money. While I understand trying to recruit socially conscious omnivores into vegetarianism, it seems entirely counterproductive to treat free range as merely a marginal improvement over factory farming. Why don't we worry about which dietary and lifestyle choices are the most ethical and free from hypocrisy after we've dealt with the evil of factory farming, which is the thing we can all agree on?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Holiday Gifts for the Beginner Cook

I'm still eating asado negro leftovers, and I haven't really seen a recipe or piece of food writing I want to comment on... so I thought I'd make the de rigueur blogger gift recommendations. I've oriented these towards someone who is interested in getting into cooking/baking or who is still pretty early in the process... basically I'm making a list for myself 3 years ago, but hopefully it can help others:
  • The New Best Recipe: The geek's Joy of Cooking. It's obsessive compulsive about steps and ingredients, but at least they explain why. While the Cook's Illustrated narrative style is often worthy of parody,  they always teach you a something about cooking... and it's also a godsend for the beginner since these recipes always come out (note that the magazine and their other books are less dependable in that regard). It's still my reference for any classic dish.
  • The Bread Baker's Apprentice: This is not a "no-knead" easy weeknight bread baking book. This is pretty hard core. This is a book for someone who wants to know the hows and whys and who isn't against spending more time to make sure their bread comes out right. In other words, it's the perfect bread baking book for someone who appreciated NBR...  i.e. someone like me.
  • Knives: This is fairly common advice, but I'll repeat it: don't get sets. You need basically three knives: a chef's knife, a paring knife, and a bread/serrated knife. I like my slicer, but I only bring it out for roasts and the like...  and I'd love a boning knife, but it's not like I break down chicken carcasses all that often. A good affordable brand recommended by Cook's Illustrated is Victorinox/Forschner... they don't hold an edge as well as my vastly more expensive Shuns, but we've got them in several locations we cook (home, Maine, beach) and they are solid and very dependable.
  • Knife sharpening: But if you are buying gifts for someone who already has decent knives... but perhaps never uses them...  it's worth considering getting them professionally sharpened. Sharpening is something that should be done at least once a year, is fairly inexpensive, and is easy to get done over the holidays. Obviously not a great thing to do as a surprise (ZOMG! Somebody stole my knives!!), but it should be well appreciated by any cook... and can make a gigantic difference. Using a sharp knife after months/years of getting by (dangerously!) with dull ones can be extraordinarily eye opening... and push them towards better knife care. Hardware stores and cooking stores are good places to ask about knife sharpening, but Chowhound can also be a place to seek info.
  • Honing Steel: In a similar vein, using a honing steel every 3 or 4 times I cook (I should do it every time really, but often forget) has helped my knives hold their edge longer. It's not hard to use at all... here's a slideshow from Serious Eats that gives the basics. Maybe a combo gift with the professional knife sharpening.
  • Kitchen Scale: Even if you don't think weight vs. volume makes a big difference in baking (you are WRONG btw), it's tons and tons faster... which makes it worth it all by itself, even if it didn't also make your results more consistent and repeatable. I actually have a scale on my list again this year, even though I already have one, because ours doesn't do small enough graduations to weigh out salt or yeast. I think you want one that can do at least 0.05 oz, like this guy
  • Instant Read Thermometer: In this day and age, it probably goes with out saying... but if you have any interest whatsoever in cooking meat properly then you need a thermometer. The Big League thermometer is the Thermapen ($$$), but a 10-15$ one is vastly better than nothing. I used to be a fan of those remote probes that allow you to monitor whatever you're cooking's temperature without opening the oven door... but I've just found that they break too easily. I've purchased at least 3 different ones from 2 different companies and they've all broken down fairly quickly. I say just get a regular thermometer and take the damn roast out of the oven to check it... you want to check the temp in a few different spots anyway.
  • Baking Stone: A little specialized perhaps... since it's only for people who bake bread or homemade pizza... but if they do... or would like to do... either of those things they absolutely need  to own a baking stone. Something I haven't tried, but that was recommended by my French bread baking instructor is to go with tiles instead of a stone. With a trip to the hardware store you could get them cut so that they perfectly cover one oven rack...  giving you significantly more usable space than a typical stone.
  • Fat Separator: Indispensable for making gravy or pan sauces. I have this one and love it, but Ruhlman praises this guy... and I have to admit it does seem pretty cool.
  • 6 to 7.5 Quart Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven: The is the most important pot/pan in my kitchen is not my skillet or sauce pan... it's my dutch oven. At least half... maybe three quarters... of the dishes I make are made in my dutch oven. The versatility of being able to move straight from stove top to hot oven, with a nice tight fitting lid, can not be understated. I might like pot roasts, stews, and braises more than the average bear... but it's just a great thing to own, and if you don't own one it really cuts off a large section of many cookbooks. You can still make perfectly wonderful food with a cheap beat up old skillet, but you're going to have a lot of trouble making even a beef stew without a dutch oven. Note that you don't have to get a $300 Le Creuset... as pretty as they are... there are lots of more affordable brands out there. The key is the cast iron for the even heating and heat retention and the enamel coating to keep the iron from reacting with any acidic cooking liquids.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Asado Negro Complete

Asado Negro

I spent Sunday afternoon making this Venezuelan pot roast from Sam Sifton and The New York Times while I waited for the Ravens to lose in soul crushing fashion to the hated Steelers. Oh well... at least the food was good (and if I'm honest I'll say the game was good to, but it's never so rewarding for you team to lose "The Game of the Year"). A first for me here, in that I had never made caramel before, which is the base of the sauce and source of the color. The sauce never got quite as dark as the picture in the Times, and I wonder if my inexperience with making caramel was part of the issue... I was pretty scared of burning it (Why? I'm not sure...  it's just sugar and water... and I could have just done it again if I ruined it) so I might have turned off the heat before it got dark enough. Here are Sifton's comments regarding the caramel sauce:
And so we begin with caramel, a chemistry-class lesson for the home. Sugar is dissolved in water and heated until the water evaporates and the sugar molecules break down, turning heavy and dark. Add to this sticky pool some vinegar and dry red wine, which impart savory, acidic notes to what will amount to a braising liquid, as well as some brown sugar for rustic depth. Pour the liquids carefully, for the caramel will spatter and hiss. Then allow the sauce to become whole again, stirring occasionally.
It was heavy and sticky... but not uniformly dark... so I think I abandoned ship a little early. But the "savory, acidic notes" came through like a champ, so I can't say I'm disappointed really...  it's just a note for next time to try to push it a little farther. Another interesting aspect, and not obvious from the picture, is that the roast itself really did turn a deep shade of velvet at midnight as it rested... it was more of a deep red when I was basting and turning it. I'm not sure what sugar chemistry led to that transformation, but it was pretty cool. Don't forget to cut against the grain when you are slicing up the beef... I forgot when I started, so I had my own little lab experiment between the two cuts... and the difference is epic.

I didn't even think to make rice with it... not reading Mr. Sifton's recommendations closely enough... but it's so obviously the perfect thing to soak up the amazing sauce that I'll be making some tonight for the... even better a day later (I hope)... leftovers.

All in all I was pretty pleased. Reminiscent of ropa veija because of the tenderness of the beef and presence of the peppers, but infinitely more complex in its flavors. Worth making on a free weekend afternoon... I bet it will impress.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Jealous, Indeed

Scalzi gloats about his possession of an ARC (advance review copy) of The Wise Man's Fear... available to people without connections in the literary world March 1st. If you're a fan of fantasy and have never read The Name of the Wind you should do so RIGHT NOW. May favorite book of the last decade or so I'd say.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Raclette

Raclette
Recipe from the New York Times, but it's so simple you don't even need it. Boil potatoes, cut in half and top with cheese, melt cheese under broiler. Voilà. The only hiccup would be if you don't have oven safe plates that can survive under a broiler for 3 minutes. Being that I wasn't sure and didn't want to be responsible for ruining plates, I started them in the regular oven until Anna came in and told me our plates are oven safe... and I gotta say the broiler is a totally better way to go if you can. In the oven the cheese took like 20 minutes to melt (probably drying out our potatoes a bit) and didn't get any color... where it just takes a few minutes under the broiler and looks great after.

A little indulgent admittedly, but very tasty and easy. Recommended.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Asado Negro

Sam Sifton:
It is beef the color of a velvet dinner jacket seen across a dark lawn at midnight. It makes mockery of pot roast.
I was thinking of making carnitas this weekend, but this sounds waaaaay cooler.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bees don't want to eat right and stay healthy either

The strange story of Robitussin red "honey" in Brooklyn:
Maybe the bees were hitting the juice — maraschino cherry juice, that sweet, sticky stuff sloshing around vats at Dell’s Maraschino Cherries Company over on Dikeman Street in Red Hook.

“I didn’t want to believe it,” said Ms. Mayo, a soft-spoken young woman who has long been active in the slow-food movement. She found it particularly hard to believe that the bees would travel all the way from Governors Island to gorge themselves on junk food. “Why would they go to the cherry factory,” she said, “when there’s a lot for them to forage right there on the farm?”

It seems natural, by now, for humans to prefer the unnatural, as if we ourselves had been genetically modified to choose artificially flavored strawberry candy over strawberries, or crunchy orange “cheese” puffs over a piece of actual cheese. But when bees make the same choice, it feels like a betrayal to our sense of how nature should work. Shouldn’t they know better? Or, perhaps, not know enough to know better?

A fellow beekeeper sent samples of the red substance that the bees were producing to an apiculturalist who works for New York State, and that expert, acting as a kind of forensic foodie, found the samples riddled with Red Dye No. 40, the same dye used in the maraschino cherry juice.
I guess menu labeling is probably not the answer here.