Things Which Are Not Good Even When Famous Chefs Say They Are

Avocado Ice Cream.

Honestly. 

I love avocados.  Unreservedly love them.  I make guacamole every week or so, throw avocados into salads, salsas, relishes, casseroles, gloopy dishes of leftovers, anything.  I’ve never met an avocado I didn’t like. 

Until now.

There’s a new ice cream cookbook out this year with which I’ve had tremendous success.  Every recipe I’ve tried (especially the chocolate ice cream recipe) has been, if not earth-shattering (though many of them were), at least Extremely Excellent.  I’ve churned my way through almost half of the ice creams, sorbets and granitas and even dabbled among the toppings with nary a failure. 

Now, though–now I have been arrested by the aforementioned Avocado Ice Cream.

Some of you may wonder why on earth anyone would use avocados in sweet applications anyway.  And it’s true; in America they’re mostly used in savory ways.  I have it on good authority, however, that in the South and Middle American countries where they  grow, avocados are used as what they really are–a fruit.  Avocado milk-shakes are apparently one of the most popular ways of eating the things, period–guacamole notwithstanding.

AND, it must be admitted–I’ve made an avocado dessert before.  More than a year ago I made a chocolate-espresso-avocado mousse.  It was quite good.  The texture was creamy and as smooth as butter; the flavor was more chocolately than unadulterated chocolate–presumably the fat content of the avocado heightened the richness and aroma.  The color was a little grey-ish, but it light of its other, more positive attributes, the dish was counted as a success.  I knew then about avocado ice cream and avocado milkshakes–I’d even been planning to make one of those before I tried the avocado-chocolate combination.  Somehow I didn’t, though, until this year.

So.  I made avocado ice cream.  It’s really very simple: you blend the ripe avocados into cream and/or milk and/or sour cream, add sweetener, lime juice, a little salt, and you’re done.  Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker and you have avocado ice cream.

The problem, though, with the avocado ice cream that you have (or at least with the avocado ice cream that I have) is that it tastes bad.  It’s funky and off and even kind of, well, rancid.  It tases faintly of the smell of nuts gone bad, away in a forgotten cupboard.  It’s not so bad that it can’t be eaten, but frankly, I can’t figure out why anyone would want to make this. 

I tasted each of the ingredients individually, while I was making it–each one tasted fine.  In was only in combination that the unfortunate, dank overtones appeared.  They were present in the unfrozen mixture–I tasted it and thought: “Somehow this will be different when frozen, surely!”  Alas, no.  It stayed just as it was–faintly wrong, perplexingly dubious.  Off.

Avocados, though, are expensive.  So we ate all of it, gradually working through the batch as the week went on.  I made a spiced ginger syrup to pour over the top, which obscured the odd flavor somewhat, but I can’t see making a dish that I’d know I’d have to work to disguise.

I will definitely not make avocado ice cream again.  The chocolate-espresso-avocado mousse?  Maybe.  I may go back to just eating guacamole.

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Published in: on November 30, 2007 at 9:53 pm  Comments (4)  

Trashy Bar Food OR Why Garlic Powder is a Necessity

It was the day after Thanksgiving.  I was sick, out of my mind on decongestants and at work anyway.  I was also severely lacking in leftovers.

This year, my Thanksgiving repast was surprisingly austere.  We only had one guest, and I was under the weather, so my meal barely required two hands.  I made pumpkin soup, toasted pumpkin seeds, a big salad, cranberry-chocolate ice cream, and some last-minute biscuits.  We also bought a smoked turkey breast from our favorite butcher (who is a genius). 

It was all delicious (well, the soup wasn’t quite what I’d hoped), but I’d planned it to be a single meal, not a Lucullan feast that would produce fridge-busting overflow.  The salad was gone.  The soup was gone.  The pumpkin seeds and biscuits were gone.  There were a few slices of turkey left, but barely enough for a sandwich.  Ordinarily, this would make me happy–I become nigh-upon panicked at the idea of food, not ear-marked for any meal, just SITTING in the fridge.  That way lies Rot, Mold and Waste.  (Trust me, I know my household). 

This time was different, though.  I was so sick that while cooking was not beyond my abilities, I just didn’t want to do it.  I wasn’t prostrate, but on cold medicine my brain was muffled in cotton batting, and off cold medicine (to drive, etc), I was coughing so hard that I couldn’t breathe.  I needed something brain-dead simple for dinner–and something comforting wouldn’t hurt either. 

Thank heavens for Teacherman. 

When I got home I discovered that he had been shopping and was ready to do everything for me.  There was a package of jointed chicken wings and a huge bag of parsnips on the counter, and he was hard at work at the mandoline and deep-frier.

While he sliced and fried the parsnips to shattering crispness, I bestirred myself, determined to help in some way.   I tossed the chicken wings in an easy spice rub–equal amounts of a random grab of things from the spice cabinet.  Cumin, (one of my ur-spices), marjoram (Teacherman’s favorite herb), smoked paprika (which is one of the best things ever invented), salt (of course), and garlic powder. 

I almost never use garlic powder.  I admit that I use jarred minced garlic on a daily basis (I hear you draw back in horror), but I am lazy and hate peeling the cloves.  When I’m making something garlic-heavy, I do use “real” from-the-head garlic.  Garlic powder, though, lives in the back of my spice cupboard and only comes out for one purpose–dry spice rubs.  Real garlic is wonderful in a marinade, but in a rub, when everything else is in tiny, dried particles, powder is the way to go.  (Garlic SALT, though, is anathema.  Do not mention it again).

In any case, I rubbed the wings with the spices, then arranged them on an olive-oiled baking sheet.  I roasted them at 425 for 20 minutes, then flipped them over and left them in for another 20.  Even my addled brain could handle it. 

Dinner–the sweet and salty parsnip chips and the smokey, spicy, blisteringly hot chicken wings–was perfect.  The fat on the wings had melted away in the oven, leaving behind tender meat that pulled away from the bone at the slightlest pressure.  The skin was crispy, but not greasy, almost like the parsnip chips.  The parsnips emerged from the frier as caramelized shards of the essence of parsnip, so well-fried that they left no residue of oil on our fingers.

(Moreover, all of the flavors were assertive enough to register well even on my cold-suppressed taste-buds, while not being too strong for Teacherman). 

Wings and chips?  For dinner?  Yes, those are things that most people buy in bars, or ready-made at the grocery store.  I make no claims that our meal was cuisine.  It was, however, satisfying; the next day, I started to get better.

Published in: on November 26, 2007 at 12:28 pm  Comments (2)  

Who For Such Dainties Would Not Stoop?

When I was a child, I loved tomato soup.  It was, in fact, the archetypical American-childhood tomato soup–Campbell’s condensed, rehydrated with milk (never water), served perfectly smooth and absolutely unadulterated by additions of any kind, with a grilled cheese sandwich on the side. 

(I understand that the grilled cheese sandwiches, called “cheese toasties” in my family, were one step away from the norm in that they were usually made on caraway rye bread, rather than white [which we never had in the house], and with Colby-Jack cheese rather than American [ditto].  But I’m not talking about sandwiches, here, I’m talking about soup).

I do still sometimes long for that creamy, slightly processed, stewed-tomato flavor, but I’ve come to enjoy the sharper, more acidic flavor of real tomatoes (even when canned, the tomatoes I buy these days are more “real” than those in condensed soup), and the rough, pottagey texture of home-blended soup.  I rarely make tomato soup, but when I do, I make it that way.

Funnily enough, I almost never crave tomato soup during tomato season itself.  It’s when the weather turns cold, dreary and damp that I want it–conditioned, no doubt, by memories of childhood tomato soup lunches on snow days or after being caught in the rain.  Thus, I always make tomato soup with canned tomatoes. 

Though I scorn to peel tomatoes for almost every other application (including even those that I admit to needing it), I prefer peeled tomatoes.  And because diced canned tomatoes almost always have the skin on (indeed, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen them otherwise), I use whole, peeled tomatoes, which I then puree before using.  This means that there are fewer discrete pieces of tomato in my soups, but more tomato in every bite, which I enjoy.  In my opinion, a broth–no matter how delicious–with pieces of tomato floating therein is not tomato soup.  I’m sure this is also leftover childhood conditioning.

Sunday night, I wanted tomato soup.  Teacherman and I had been out of town all weekend, and had driven 5 hours back from a warm and balmy St. Louis, to find our home city gripped by sneaky cold winds and lowering skies.  There was almost no food in the house, but when I opened up the pantry cupboard, a big can of whole, peeled tomatoes stared back at me. 

I sauteed shallots–lots of them.  I added two minced red jalapenos, three big pulverized garlic cloves and about 2 Tbsp of minced ginger.  When they began to caramelize, I added some lime zest from my frozen stash and stirred it around. 

While that became lovely and fragrant, I pureed the can of tomatoes in the food processor, then added that to the pan along with several cubes of frozen chicken stock and two Tbsp of Thai fish sauce.  I covered the pan and let it simmer for about half an hour.

At this point, it could have been done.  It was a hearty, thick soup that would have been lovely on its own–the ginger, lime and especially the fish sauce giving it an unidentifiable, but distinctly moreish depth–but we were both in need of something substantial, so I determined to add protein.  I pulled out the last carton of farmer’s market eggs and cracked six into the wide skillet, sprinkled them with salt and then let them gently poach in the tomatoey depths.

A mere five minutes later we were at the table, scooping up thick spoonfuls, some enriched with egg, some not.  Without egg, the soup was rich, but still sparkling with acidity; with egg, it mellowed until it almost resembled a sauce.  Both ways were comforting, sustaining and, most importantly, satisfying.    I wanted to wrap my arms around the bowl and huddle into it, letting the steam fog up my glasses and open my pores. 

We scraped the bowls clean, and sat at the table, content.  Tomato soup can do that to you. 

Published in: on November 19, 2007 at 8:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Strange Fruit

Everyone, meet the quince.  Quince?–Everyone.

What does it look like to you?  A squat pear?  An apple with a growth? 

Quinces are a fruit that used to be much more popular, both in early America and in medieval/renaissance Europe.  They were just as popular as the pear, just as well known as the apple.  There is one major difference, though, and this difference is the reason that quices are almost invisible today: they cannot be eaten raw.

Raw quinces are so rock hard that even a chef’s knife has a hard time cutting through one.  It helps to wedge the knife in somehow, and then bang it repeatedly against a cutting board, using gravity and the force of the whacks to drive the quince up onto the knife, rather than the knife through the quince. 

Once halved (or quartered, or what-have-you), quinces must be cored (very fiddly work–a small knife on an oak-dense interior), and then poached before becoming tender enough to eat.  Unsurprisingly, this is enough to scare away most casual fruit-lovers. 

I can’t remember when I first learned about quinces–surely it was one of my many books on the history of food, but given that most books claimed the fruit was no longer available, I didn’t give it much thought.  A few years ago, though, I found a section of quince recipes in a modern cookbook.  I had just rediscovered how wonderful fresh fruit was, and, intrigued by the idea of expanding my repertoire, copied the recipe down.  I really don’t know what I thought I’d do with it.

At least two years later, Teacherman and I were in a little bodega down the street and I saw–what was that?  A protuberant apple?  It’s color was so uniformly yellow-green.  And the skin was kind of wrinkly.  I looked up at the sign: “Quinces, $2 per lb.”

I bought ten, roughly 5 lbs, and then took them home and put them on the counter.  I stared at them for a few days, while my house slowly became suffused with an intoxicating smell that was both floral and fruity at the same time.  It almost smelled carbonated (if anything can smell carbonated), but it was also reminiscent of perfume–or at least what perfume ought to smell like. 

I bit the bullet and hacked into one, poaching it in a mixture of white wine and simple syrup, with no spices.  The unadorned flavor was a revelation.  The perfume and carbonation carried over into the cooked fruit, which had the texture of a perfectly poached pear–soft, but firm at the same time.  Yielding without being mealy. 

I immediately began experimenting with other poaching recipes.  I added cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans, star anise pods.  I poached in white wine, red wine, citrus juices.  I followed medieval recipes and baked it in the oven, tossed it with rosewater, spiced it with the fruity spears of long pepper, crushed into a powder.   

The next year I made jam and jelly, quince paste and puree.  Each batch was different and everyone got some for Christmas.

This year I find that I’m slightly less frantic.  I’ve poached quinces a couple of times, but that’s that.  I grated up two or three and stuffed them into a canning jar full of vodka, planning on a quince liqueur for Christmas.  It was only last week when I read an article on winter fruit desserts, catching an almost hidden, off-hand remark from the author.  Make quince sorbet, he suggested, and I immediately did. 

I peeled and cored three quinces, poached them in water, simple syrup and lemon juice until soft and then pureed them in my food processor.  The mixture was as thick as jelly–quinces have more natural pectin than almost any other fruit–and I added a bit more simple syrup and water to loosen it up. 

We froze it in our ice cream maker, just as it was.  The result was subtle in looks, but stunning in flavor.  The sorbet was a pale yellowish-peach, so pale that it might be better to call it off-white.  In trying to describe the texture, the only thing that comes to mind is applesauce, but frozen and whipped up like cream.  And the flavor?  The same lovely perfume is back, infusing dessert with that indescribable, exotic ‘carbonation.’ 

Quince, meet your match.  Match?–Quince.

Published in: on November 10, 2007 at 6:31 am  Leave a Comment  

Crepe-tastic

I have been on a bit of a crepe kick recently.  At least one morning of every recent weekend has found me whipping up a batter, forming myriad paper-thin rounds of sweetness and filling them with whatever my latest passion is. 

First, I made pear crepes.

I flavored the crepes themselves with vanilla, filling the tender circles with cardamom-caramelized pears.

Next, it was apple-black currant crepes, made with the last of the farmer’s market apples and a handful of the black currants from the freezer.  The currants turned the filling a deep purple and brough an almost woodsy, piney flavor to the meal.

I got a little crazy with the cinnamon.  Both the filling and the crepes were flavored with it, and it was, as you can see, dusted liberally over the top. 

My last crepe experiment, though, was defintely the most elaborate.  A few weeks ago I was reading a novel that mentioned a particular Austrian dessert–crepes layered with apricot jam, toasted ground pecans, and grated chocolate.  This idea wedged itself firmly into my mind and would NOT dislodge.  After weeks of dealing with apricot-pecan-chocolate daydreams, I gave up and made the thing.  And, given that I’ve never seen a recipe for anything like it, made it up, as well.  (That is, I certainly don’t believe that I made up the recipe or the idea, but I made up what I was doing as I went along).  Also, I made it for breakfast. 

I arrayed my ingredients next to the stove: 1. a food processor bowl full of my thinnest crepe batter.  2. a jar of my apricot jam, lightly sweetened (my jam is essentially just concentrated apricot puree, so it needs a little additional sweetener sometimes).  3. a bowl of toasted pulverized pecans (which I could not keep from eating with a spoon as I progressed).  4. a small bag of cacao nibs.  Yes, I could have used grated chocolate, but the idea of the nubbly, bitter cacao nibs lodged itself in my mind right next to the original recipe, and they merged almost without my knowing it.  To make up for the extremely dark flavor of the nibs (and the intensity of the apricot puree), I sweetened the crepe batter much more than I usually do. 

The assembly began.  A crepe.  A smear of jam.  A sprinkling of nuts, then nibs.  Repeat.  Repeat ten times.  Repeat until there is a cake-sized edifice of lacy crepes and gooey filling, waiting to be eaten. 

Eaten it was.  I took the picture after I cut the whole cake in half, the better to see the innards.

It was delicious.  The light sweetness of the crepes was a perfect foil for the tartness of the jam, the toastiness of the pecans and the bitterness of the cacao nibs.  Every bite tasted buttery, even though I’d used no butter in its making.

We ate it all, instantly and eagerly, in spite of the fact that it was so rich and intense that we almost couldn’t stand it.  It was truly a confluence of disparate factors creating a harmonious whole. 

Published in: on November 7, 2007 at 9:20 am  Leave a Comment  

Sans Spice

My spice rack can be a bit overwhelming. 

When I say ‘spice rack,’ what I really mean is ‘spice cabinet.’  My spice collection takes up an entire 3-shelf kitchen cabinet–the savory herbs and spices on one shelf, the sweet spices on another, and salts, peppers, and pickling spices on a third (along, it must be admitted, with some pickling equipment, but not much). 

I don’t just have the basics (though honestly, these days who knows what The Basics are?) I’ve got things that most people haven’t even heard of.  Long pepper?  Check.  Grains of paradise?  Yes, indeed.  Worse, I don’t believe that I could get along without almost everything I have.  I really do use all the different individual chile powders and juniper berries and green and red peppercorns.   I really do USE all three varieties of paprika–weekly, even!

Last night, though, I made a meal without any spices at all.

As you might remember, I spent two weeks of this summer in Germany.  Since then, I have made more traditionally German (or at least Germanic) food than I ever have in my entire life.  Most of the dishes I’ve making are not even ones that I ate when abroad, but for some reason I feel compelled–happily compelled–to make them. 

Last night I made a very unusual stew that I found in a couple-of-decades-old German library cookbook.  The stew originally interested me because it contained enormous quantities of leeks–not as a substitute for onions, but as the major component of the dish. 

The stew starts out as most German stews do, with bacon.  I have rarely seen a stew recipe that did not begin with an instruction to crisp some bacon in a pan, remove the bacon, and continue with the soup using the bacon drippings as the cooking fat.  I could have used leftover bacon fat from the jar I keep in the back of the fridge (yes, I really do.  It’s excellent for searing salmon in), but I wanted bacon bits to sprinkle on top of the stew, and thus followed the recipe directly.

The stew continued in a familiar way, with a saute of aromatics–in this case, an onion, two carrots and two celery root, all cut into 1/2-inch cubes.  After they were browned (a difficult task, given the constrast between the sheer quantity of vegetables and the relatively modest size of my Dutch oven), I added 4 cups of beef stock and brought the whole thing to a bubble.

Now for the fun part: bockwurst.  Bockwurst is one of the eleventy-million varieties of sausage produced in Germany, and one of my favorites.  It’s an emulsified sausage, meaning that the insides are smooth and almost fluffy.  Teacherman describes them as “like a meat marshmallow,” but I don’t find that description particularly appetizing.   (He also prefers wiesswurst to bockwurst, which is a conflict).

In spite of my weekly practice of sausage-making, I have never made an emulsified sausage.  Luckily, there are two places in Chicago where I can purchase phenomenal sausages, almost as good as the ones we had in Germany.  Thus, I had easily procured one pound of bockwurst, and I had it at the ready.

I placed the bockwurst on top of the bubbling vegetables, turned it down to a simmer, covered the pan, and left it to stew for 40 minutes.  When I checked it after 20, I discovered that all of the sausages had split, exploding out of their skins and leaving yawning canyons all down one side (one sausage actually managed to split in a spiral–I’m not sure how that happened).  I understand that some people find split-skinned sausages to be an abomination impossible to be tolerated, but I have never minded it.  On a grilled sausage, a split skin just means there’s more surface to caramelize, and on a braised sausage like this, it means that it was easier for the juices of the stew to flavor the meat of the sausage (and the juices of the sausage to add body to the flavor of the stew). 

When 40 minutes were up, I added 2 pounds of leeks, quartered, cleaned, and sliced into 1/2-inch curves.  The lid went back on for 15 minutes, just long enough for the leeks to become crisp-tender, but not long enough to become limp and unfortunate.  I added a little salt at the same time as the leeks, but the stock, bacon and sausage contributed salt of their own, and I barely tipped in more than a pinch.

Voila.  A leek and bockwurst stew.  Given my love for Thai curry and southwestern green chile, can such a spiceless dish garner any praise from me at all?  Aren’t such dishes usually characterized as bland?

Yes, it’s true.  German food is often considered bland (along with “heavy,” a word which I’m beginning to believe means only “makes the speaker feel guilty for enjoying it”).  And it’s also true that this dish didn’t have any screamingly herbal top notes or sparkling, acidic touches.  What it did have was depth–the deep background flavor of the sauteed onions, carrots and celery root, which was mellow and earthy without being in-your-face.   The bockwurst was almost sweet in contrast to the vegetables, and the softness of the meat was comforting. 

The leeks, though, were what really made the stew.  They were cooked just enough to have given up their raw crunchiness, but still seemed fresh.  The soft but firm give of the leeks provided textural contrast and a giant hit of flavor.  Even without spices, it was a delicious, satisfying dish.

Published in: on November 5, 2007 at 9:52 am  Leave a Comment  

Breakfast of Champignons

I love mushrooms.  I’d say that I always have, but I’m sure tha there was a forgotten and/or repressed period of my youth when I despised them as much as almost every other child (and, indeed, adult) seems to.

At this stage in my development, though, I can put away more than a pound of mushrooms in a sitting, and I’ve never found a variety that I didn’t like.  My current favorites are chantarelles (due to the astonishing flavor of the ones I ate in Germany), but creminis, portabellos, procinis, shiitakis–I love them all.  Well, I’m not the biggest fan of wood-ear mushrooms, but I really think that that’s just because of their name.  I need to get over it. 

I don’t know if mushrooms are more particularly in season in fall than at any other time, but since the weather turned chilly, I’ve been eating more and more of them.  Last week I warmed up a solitary luncheon with a salad of sauteed mushrooms, ham and parsley (1.5 lbs) and the week before I sauced some slithery linguini with a porcini-bacon duxelle (3/4 lb).  The best mushroom dish I have made this fall, though, was the simplest: mushroom frittata. 

September’s Bon Appetit had a recipe for a mushroom-caper frittata, and the idea of earthy mushrooms and briny capers combined was very appealling.   Hardly looking at the recipe (and thus, doing things in very much a different order than instructed), I set to work.  Portabello mushrooms?  Sauteed.  Basil?  Oregano?  Capers?  Chopped and mixed with the mushrooms.  Eggs? Salt? Pepper? Dijon mustard?  Beaten to a froth.  I spread the mushroom mixture into a buttered pie plate, then poured the eggs over the top and baked it until it was firm, but not dried out. 

Yes, it was a wonderful combination.  The portabello mushrooms were, as always, meaty and toothsome, and the capers, mustard, basil and oregano added complexity to the background without stealing the show.  Somehow, the mustard managed to deepend the flavors, while the herbs lightened it, at the same time.  I might have wished for a bit more caper flavor, but on the whole, the result was delicious.  It was perfect for a post-hike breakfast picnic in the woods. 

Published in: on November 2, 2007 at 1:42 pm  Comments (1)