Monday, January 31, 2011

xkcd on Cooking

That's pretty much exactly how it was with me and cooking out of college. Months between making anything and lots of pizza boxes and/or burrito wrappers in between. This dynamic is one of the reasons I have always preferred cooking "projects", as opposed to the more minimalist/Ratio approach of Bittman or Ruhlman. For me anyway, cooking has to be somewhat challenging and require a large time commitment for me to get fired up enough to do it regularly... I don't know why, but whipping up a decent stir fry in 30 minutes or less just doesn't excite me. Something to think about if you find yourself falling into the same pattern shown above.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Joy of Focaccia

Peter Reinahart's Focaccia
via Josh at The Food Section, we have Russ Parsons discussing the wonders of properly prepared focaccia:
Real focaccia is a lot closer to pizza than it is to anything that could be used to make a sandwich. In fact, if you imagine a slightly thicker, crisp-crusted, rectangular pizza with very restrained toppings, you're just about there.

But although pizza can stand in for a full meal, focaccia is more of a snack, or at most an appetizer. In Italy, it's a popular walking-around food.

Also, although cold pizza may have a certain raffish charm, focaccia really needs to be eaten when it's hot to be at its best. It stales very quickly. Though I'm enjoying the slice of focaccia topped with Gorgonzola that I'm eating for lunch while writing this, in no way is it nearly as good as it was last night right out of the oven.

Then, I served it with Champagne to start a dinner party. Served warm, the crust was crisp while the interior, rich with olive oil, was tender. The cheese had melted and browned, and the flavor was much more mellow than you might expect from a blue. The whole thing was deeply savory and made a perfect foil served alongside radishes from the garden and some thinly sliced dried sausage.
It may seem quite banal to point out that focaccia is best right out of the oven... what isn't? Some things actually, but that's a bit of a digression... the point being that with focaccia it's a much larger drop off than with something like pizza or your average loaf of bread. This is not to say that cold/old focaccia isn't good... it certainly is... it's just significantly different (and much much more awesome) when it's fresh. I definitely feel like our home baking of it was a revelation, and I've yet to have anything close at a restaurant or bakery.

Parsons provides two recipes, including a Reinhart one that is quite similar to the one I've blogged twice. So if you're interested in making it focaccia at home...  and you should be, since it's dead simple... those are good places to start.

As an aside, I'm still shocked as to how disappointing food photos I took with my point and shoot are compared to ones taken since I got a DSLR. Undoubtedly, part of it is that I've gotten better skill wise, but sadly a lot of it really does seem to be equipment based.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Units Matter

Beef Cheeks I Messed Up
I was quite excited about my first opportunity to cook and consume beef cheeks (see the picture I posted, well, excitedly after a trip to Savenors). I even realized that I should make the dish over the course of two days... avoiding my normal "whoops, this took longer than I thought so now I'm eating dinner at 11:30" thing. I went shopping on Monday, carefully gathering everything I needed, and then calmly proceeded to braise said beef cheeks in wine over the course of two hours. They looked great! Fork tender would have been an understatement. I took a picture and then let the dish cool down before placing it the fridge overnight. Braises always taste better the next day, right? Last night I gently reheated the dish over very low heat and cooked some elbow macaroni to finish it off. Once everything was nice and simmering I added some chocolate, but instead of adding the 3/4 of an ounce called for in the recipe I added 3/4 of a pound. Uhm, whoops? Let me just confirm that 16 times the chocolate isn't always a good thing. If I would have been doing anything other than slavishly following the recipe (unfortunately not following it well) 3/4 of a pound would have stood out as being obviously too much... hell, I think that's more than was in my turkey mole. Independent and critical thought would have been a nice addition to my cooking regimen. Oh well...  maybe next time.

If there's anything good that came out of last night's cooking fiasco it's that at least I started the cure on the pork belly I bought with the beef cheeks.

The End of "The Minimalist"

I'm not much of a minimalist myself, so I haven't cooked a huge number of Bittman's recipes, but I've always enjoyed his writing. Don't worry, he's not leaving the Times nor quitting writing about food. You can read his farewell column here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Cacio e Pepe (Spaghetti with Pecorino Romano and Black Pepper)

Cacio e Pepe
This is a pretty easy recipe from Cook's Illustrated (sub required) for a classic Italian dish. Note that there isn't a whole lot going on here, so you'll want good quality cheese and pasta and freshly ground pepper. I don't think you need fresh pasta in this dish... and I've actually seen it argued that good dried pasta is often superior in quality to fresh... but if you've got access to something like Dave's Fresh Pasta I'd use it.

Ingredients:
  • 6 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, 4 ounces finely grated (about 2 cups) and 2 ounces coarsely grated (about 1 cup)
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • table salt
  • 2 tablespoons half and half
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons finely ground black pepper
Directions:
  1. Place finely grated Pecorino in medium bowl. Set colander in large bowl.
  2. Bring 2 quarts water to boil in large Dutch oven. Add pasta and 1½ teaspoons salt; cook, stirring frequently, until al dente. Drain pasta into colander set in bowl, reserving cooking water. Pour 1½ cups cooking water into liquid measuring cup and discard remainder; return pasta to now-empty bowl.
  3. Slowly whisk 1 cup reserved pasta cooking water into finely grated Pecorino until smooth. Whisk in cream, oil, and black pepper. Gradually pour cheese mixture over pasta, tossing to coat. Let pasta rest 1 to 2 minutes, tossing frequently, adjusting consistency with remaining ½ cup reserved pasta water. Serve, passing coarsely grated Pecorino separately.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Caramelizing Onions

Kenji brings the science. Secret Ingredient: baking soda. 

It reminds me that I've been wanting to make French Onion soup for a month now at least.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Chicken Basquiase

Chicken Basquiase

As promised, here is a recipe adapted from Dorie Greenspan's latest: Around My French Table. As an ignorant American, this was a dish that was completely new to me... but I found it to be both a straightforwardly classic braise to prepare and also a dish that came out pretty uniquely spiced and multilayed flavor-wise. The key element that makes this "Basquaise" is the ragout of sweet and spicy peppers, onions, tomatoes, and garlic called pipérade (pee-pay-RAHD). The preparation of this pipérade is also what makes this dish best suited to a Sunday dinner or as a two day affair, as it's a little time consuming to make, but keeps for a good bit.

Note that another thing that makes this dish "Basquaise" is a stupidly rare chile powder called Piment d'Espelette (1 ounce = $38). Now, I'm not above spending ridiculous amounts of money on specialty ingredients in the name of authenticity... I subscribe to Saveur after all and I've spent more on beans for cassoulet than I'd care to admit... and you shouldn't have to look to far for rhapsodic tales of Piment d'Espelette's pure awesome... but there is no reason something so simple as a particular type of chili powder should keep you from making this dish. Seriously. The dish pictured above was made with some ancho and allepo chili powders, because that's what I had, and it was great. I bet it would be just as great with paprika or cayenne, and those are what I have listed in the ingredients below...  but if you want to make the real thing, Piment d'Espelette is your choice here.

Also, in regards to peeling the peppers: charring the skin of the peppers on a gas burner (without cooking the flesh) and letting them cool (some suggest in a paper bag to let them steam a bit) before rubbing off the skin... is the best way to accomplish this. It's way better than peeling with your standard vegetable peeler, and I think I can say this with some authority. Greenspan calls peeling the peppers optional... and I suspect you'll not burn in foodie hellfire if you don't... but I've come to believe that in a long simmered ragout like this you'll be a lot happier if do.

Ingredients:


Pipérade
  • 2 large Spanish or Vidalia onions, sliced lengthwise into 1/4" strips
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 green bell peppers, peeled, cut into 1/2" strips
  • 2 red bell peppers, peeled, cut into 1/2" strips
  • 3 serrano chiles, seeds removed, diced small
  • 6 whole peeled tomatoes from a 32 ounce can, cut into chunks
  • 4 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt (or 1 teaspoon table salt)
  • Pinch of sugar
  • 2 thyme sprigs
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon of a "pure" chili powder, spicy paprika, cayenne, or aleppo 
Chicken
  • 8 bone-in chicken thighs, about 2 pounds, at room temperature and patted dry
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3/4 cup dry white wine
  • White rice, for serving
  • Minced cilantro or basil, for garnish
Instructions:


Pipérade
  1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat in a dutch oven or other large high sided pan with a lid. Cook onions in heated oil, stirring often, until softened but not colored, about 10 minutes.
  2. Add remaining tablespoon of oil, stir in the peppers and chiles, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until all the vegetables are quite soft, about 20 minutes.
  3. Add the tomatos, garlic, salt, sugar, thyme, bay leaf, chili powder, and freshly ground pepper. Stir to well, cover, and cook for another 10 minutes.
  4. Remove the cover and let simmer for another 15 minutes.
  5. Remove the thyme and bay leaf before tasting and seasoning to taste with more salt, pepper, and/or chili powder. The pipérade can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.
Chicken
  1. Heat the oil (2 tablespoons - pay attention to how much this covers the bottom of your pot) in a Dutch oven over medium heat and brown the chicken pieces in batches (don't overcrowd!). Start skin side down and brown until golden, about 5 minutes, and then turn the pieces over and cook for another 3 minutes. Transfer the browned pieces to a bowl, season with salt and pepper, and continue until all batches are browned.
  2. Discard the oil, set pot back over high heat, add wine, and scrape up all browned bits with a wooded spoon. Continue cooking down wine until it has reduced to about 2 tablespoons (you paid attention to how much space those 2 tablespoons of oil took up, right?).
  3. Return the browned chicken to the pot, along with any accumulated juices, and spoon the pipérade over top.
  4. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to produce the barest of simmers, cover, and simmer gently for 40 minutes.
  5. Adjust salt and pepper to taste and serve over white rice, sprinkled with your garnish of choice.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

WoW PSA: The Battle.net Authenticator

Penny Arcade has a comic up (probably NSFW) about Gabe getting his World of Warcraft account hacked, all of his phat lewts stolen, and his character left in the middle of nowhere... and being that I had my own WoW account hacked over Thanksgiving, I thought I could add some more anecdotal evidence to the implication to secure your own WoW account a little more thoroughly. Getting your account hacked is not fun... I was anxious and cranky the whole holiday weekend after it happened... and if you're as dumb as I was, and have the same password for WoW (or anything) as your primary linked e-mail account (change that!), then you can be vulnerable to a lot more than having your characters stripped naked. Luckily for me, it seems all the Chinese hackers wanted was to broadcast gold farming spam until the account got locked, but clearly it could have been far far worse.

Enter the Authenticator, which comes as either a key chain fob that you buy for $6.50 from Blizz, or an app you download to your iPhone/Android based smartphone for free. Either version just supplies you with a random number to enter along with your password every time you log on. Yes, it's a little weird at first that your video game characters are more secure than your bank account, but it's totally worth it in my view. I've got the mobile app, and since I always have my phone nearby it's been pretty convenient. Just a suggestion, but it could save you some serious future frustration to get it now...  before your account gets hacked.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I Got Nothing, So Here is a Picture of a Cat

Precarious
This is Louie, and no he is not my cat (my mother's). He just got to be the subject when I was home for the holidays and checking out my new flash and lens. You can find more Louie pics here if you go for such things.

I actually have a couple things cooked from Around My French Table that I'd like to put up, but since the book is new nobody has blogged them yet (that I've seen)... so I can't just cheat and link to somebody else's transcription of the recipe and just add my own thoughts... this is of course good in that I won't be blogging things that have been blogged a billion times before, but it does mean more work for me and so is a tad slower.

Monday, January 17, 2011

J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets?

Just trying it out in preparation for rooting against the hated Steelers. I assumed I'd have to cheer for the Patriots, but clearly the Jets had different plans.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Internet Typography Fight: Double Spaces After Periods

camisetas sans / serif
Farhad Manjoo proclaims the vileness of excessive spacing between sentences at Slate:
What galls me about two-spacers isn't just their numbers. It's their certainty that they're right. Over Thanksgiving dinner last year, I asked people what they considered to be the "correct" number of spaces between sentences. The diners included doctors, computer programmers, and other highly accomplished professionals. Everyone—everyone!—said it was proper to use two spaces. Some people admitted to slipping sometimes and using a single space—but when writing something formal, they were always careful to use two. Others explained they mostly used a single space but felt guilty for violating the two-space "rule." Still others said they used two spaces all the time, and they were thrilled to be so proper. When I pointed out that they were doing it wrong—that, in fact, the correct way to end a sentence is with a period followed by a single, proud, beautiful space—the table balked. "Who says two spaces is wrong?" they wanted to know.

Typographers, that's who. The people who study and design the typewritten word decided long ago that we should use one space, not two, between sentences. That convention was not arrived at casually. James Felici, author of the The Complete Manual of Typography, points out that the early history of type is one of inconsistent spacing. Hundreds of years ago some typesetters would end sentences with a double space, others would use a single space, and a few renegades would use three or four spaces. Inconsistency reigned in all facets of written communication; there were few conventions regarding spelling, punctuation, character design, and ways to add emphasis to type. But as typesetting became more widespread, its practitioners began to adopt best practices. Felici writes that typesetters in Europe began to settle on a single space around the early 20th century. America followed soon after.

Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It's one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork and fashion designers know to put men's shirt buttons on the right and women's on the left. Every major style guide—including the Modern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style—prescribes a single space after a period. (The Publications Manual of the American Psychological Association, used widely in the social sciences, allows for two spaces in draft manuscripts but recommends one space in published work.) Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren't for a quirk of history. In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine's shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we all still type like we do. (Also see the persistence of the dreaded Caps Lock key.)
I was taught to always put double spaces after periods, but switched to single spacing at some indeterminate point after college. I'm not entirely sure whether I ever recieved an angry lecture on the subject (I've certainly run in circles where such things could happen), or whether I just absorbed it by osmosis in working on manuscripts with people who read style guides for fun.

It's a relatively minor aesthetic point... especially when you consider our browsers make a lot of decisions for us in that regard... but in writing in a word processor I agree with a preference for a single white space between sentences, as otherwise it tends to screw up justified text and leave it riddled with gaping holes. Which is how we come to real aesthetic problem involving Manjoo's column: ragged right text alignment is the typographic alignment of unlettered barbarians and philistines! Oh, but it's so popular you say. Bah! Popular with idiots maybe, but I don't see how anyone can stand it... there's so much evil whitespace at the the end of his sentences that his paragraphs look like KKK rallies. Whitespace subtly and joyously interspersed throughout ones lines to create hard right margins is how the FSM wants us to typeset... shown by His choice of the word "justified" for His preferred typesetting alignment.

EDIT: It's fairly awesome what the Justification gods did right there.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Adventures of a Stupid Baker

Burnt BottomsYesterday's bread baking session was not particularly successful: I burnt the bottom of the loaf I was baking again (actual loaf not pictured but picture is indicative of level of charring) and I didn't get the hydration level of the dough high enough, leading to a closer crumb (i.e. no big holes) than I find ideal (the flavor was great though). The burnt bottoms is a problem I've had for ages with boules (not my baguettes however), and clearly evidence of my inability to deviate from recipes even when outcome after outcome shows that something is clearly wrong with my approach. I've known since my first no-knead loaf (also a failure) that my oven runs hot and that the direct heat emitted from its heating element is so intense, that putting a baking stone or dutch oven very close to it is asking for trouble... especially during the long baking times required for a large loaf...  but I've kept doing it anyway. Why? Because BBA says to put the stone on the bottom of the oven and so that's what I do...  apparently hoping it's going to go right one of these times... and that's pretty much the definition of stupidity, right? Doing the same things but expecting different outcomes.

But besides my inability to learn from my mistakes, as I was searching the intertoobs looking for solutions... it occurred to me how much harder baking is than regular cooking (for me at least). Part of that is clearly the aforementioned lack of adaptation to my oven, but I also think that the variables in bread baking just seem to have a much more profound effect on the outcome than in something like, say, a braise. Cooks will often point out that while nice pans and fancy ranges are great, you can produce just as wonderful dishes in a beat up aluminum pan on a portable propane burner as you can in an All-Clad skillet on a Viking range. My limited experience suggests this is largely true, but much less so for baking. Ovens can just be so weird...  with hotspots in unexpected places and temperatures off from the dial as much as 70 degrees... that it seems people can be aces on their home oven and train wrecks in an unfamiliar one. In addition, the differences in dough hydration...  even with careful weighing...  that can occur on dry vs. humid days means that you really have to know what a 65% dough should feel like...  something that can pretty much only come from experience. The same thing can be said for other types of cooking I suppose, but it seems that as long as you use an instant read thermometer for the doneness of any meat and are following a decent recipe... you'll be in pretty good shape.

Anyway...  next time I move the baking stone up to a higher oven rack and maybe put a pan underneath the stone to shield it from direct heat a bit... and maybe I'll finally have some loafs worth crowing about.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Snow Day

Snow Day
While I generally don't enjoy snow storms these days nearly as much as when I was a kid... they are especially unfun when you lose power all morning. I was briefly tempted to trudge into work and at least get something done since the trains are still running... but I had plans to bake some bread with a still unused banneton. So those are my big plans for the day. That and shoveling.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Kindle

Kindle
This is about 3 years late for any kind of trenchant tech talk... but I got a Kindle on Friday and am digging it pretty hard. The price... and my sagging bookshelves full of mass market paperbacks... were too hard to resist. Initially the weird e-ink screen refresh was a little jarring, but it didn't take long to get used to... what was much harder to adapt to was not having a touch interface. It's funny how quickly you get used to something like that, but it does seem the "next" and "previous" page buttons are ergonomically placed for long reading sessions... and I guess it's nice my grubby paws won't be all over the display. Part of me thought I should go straight for a iPad like device and do my reading on it instead... but the e-ink stuff is pretty nice relative to back lit devices, and a Kindle is a fraction of the price of a iPad... and when I eventually break down and get one I can read all the stuff I buy on Amazon with it regardless.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Imperfect Quiche

Imperfect Quiche
This was the same recipe for pie crust and filling that I've detailed before... but the garnish was Gorgonzola and apples. It is delicious and the custard has the perfect texture... coming out better than the link above... but everything floated to the top. I guess there's really nothing to be done about it except choose a different garnish. A Saturday afternoon well spent regardless.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The $84 Stir-Fry

I presume this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but a non-cook ends up spending $84 (and over 3 hours of time) trying to make one of Mark Bittman's "essential" recipes. There are some fair criticisms of this take... a $50 kitchen scale impulse by is included in the dish's price, you're only going to have to buy a pepper grinder once, why not factor in your rent into the price, etc... but I do think it illustrates that getting started cooking from virtually zero kitchen knowledge isn't as easy as accomplished cooks want to think... and while if you look at the "real ingredients" here the stir-fry probably not more than a couple dollars per serving... easily beating out a random combo meal... I do tend to think people overrate how cheaply you can cook a meal if you don't know your way around a grocery store and how to get the best deals... especially if you are only cooking for yourself. Of course, Bittman acknowledges many of these points:
There is one notable thing these recipes are not: magic. You cannot produce them without having a functioning kitchen (a sink, a refrigerator and a stove will do it); some minimal equipment, including a pot, a skillet and a bowl (though in a pinch, the salad could be made in the pot); a couple of knives; some utensils; a strainer and a cutting board; and the ability (and money) to stock a pantry and at least occasionally supplement it with fresh food. These requirements cannot be met by everyone, but they can be met by far more people than those who cooked dinner last night.
He's maybe a little optimistic on how long it will take for the beginner, but then I'd guess if you don't know what a button mushroom is, then you probably do have to expect it to take a little longer... though with a smart phone that question could be answered without leaving the grocery store or asking for any help.

No deep thoughts here...  just wishy-washy "both sides make good points" rambling. Bittman does a decent job of pointing out the caveats in the "just cook for yourself!" mantra about healthy and cheap eating, but I think it's hard to underestimate just how sizable the ignorance of the kitchen is in so many of my fellow children of the 70's and 80's...  but it's deep man, and on this I can speak from experience. 

Artisanal Mac and Cheese

Artisanal Mac and Cheese
This is a Saveur recipe that I've made twice now... once with all three cheeses (that are what I guess makes it "Artisanal" instead of just mac and cheese)... Gruyère, Comté, and fontina... and a second time, over the holiday (and pictured above), with just Gruyère and fontina (using 6 ounces of each). At my mom's house near Baltimore, getting a hold of Comté requires a trip to the expensive and distant grocery store... that just wasn't all that appealing on Christmas Eve... and a difficulty in acquiring Comté is probably the situation of many home cooks who don't have Formaggio Kitchen within walking distance. While the Comté definitely adds something to the final dish, I've come to think of this  as more of a "master recipe" for any béchamel based mac and cheese I make (the superior kind of mac and cheese in my view) and think you can pretty much do whatever you want with the cheeses and it will still come out great (well ok, maybe not anything). I think this is especially true if you use a kitchen scale (and you should!) since it's easy to keep the ratios the same and play around with the cheeses...  and if you subscribe to Bittman's love of the food processor for cheese grating you can even cut your prep time down to practically nothing by just weighing out the different cheeses and dumping them in the food processor. It's an easy but delicious recipe that I'm glad is in my bag of tricks.

Oh, and don't be scared of  béchamel... it's not hard. I swear it just sounds fancy because of the accent in there...  you're just thickening milk with a roux, and all it takes is some elbow grease with a whisk to keep any lumps out. To paraphrase Julia Child: if I can do it, so can you. If you like some mac and cheese I promise you won't be disappointed by this dish.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Beef Bourguignon

Beef Bourguignon
Made this for Christmas Eve dinner with the family, and it came out really well... sometimes the classic recipes don't need updating. No, it's not a one pot meal and yes, it's a lot more work than your average beef stew... but then it's a lot better than your average beef stew too. The sauce is really the star here (which is good, since that's the fussiest aspect)... so much beef flavor it's making me hungry just thinking about it again.

EDIT: Oh, and yes, it was superior to the pressure cooker version I made a while ago... by a fair bit...  the sauce in the authentic version is just so much more refined and robust... but it's hard to beat the pressure cooker on time commitment, and while you could replicate the classic by using multiple pots/pressure cookers it doesn't seem like that would necessarily be worth it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

D'Artagnan Cassoulet Kit 20% Off

Just an FYI for anybody who has considered making cassoulet. The kit is pretty pricey even on sale, but it comes with a lot of stuff that's hard to find in this country... especially if you don't want to bother making your own duck confit. I've not personally used it, but my boss has, and he really liked it.

Anyway, here is the linky.

White wine with cheese?

David Lebovitz makes the case. A nice Belgian style beer (nothing too hoppy) seems a good pairing as well.

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Cookbooks

The Cook Book Haul
There will be some French cooking in this blog's future. Also: bread.