It BURNS

As part of our anniversary celebration, Teacherman and I took a trip up to Madison, to eat at l’Etoile, an AMAZING restaurant dedicated to seasonal, local food, and to go to Madison’s epically-sized farmer’s market.

We bought, among other things, four quarts of strawberries (for Teacherman’s first attempt at making a berry wine) and, something that I’ve never eaten before: garlic scapes.

Garlic scapes are the long green stem that grows up out of a planted bulb of garlic. Rarely seen in grocery stores, most garlic scapes are cut off the bulb and tossed away. People who grow garlic themselves, however, have long known that the scapes can be used in food wherever you need an especially pungent kick of garlic.

I’ve read about garlic scapes, certainly, but I’d never seen a recipe that I particularly wanted to make myself. Last Wednesday, though, a recipe for white bean and garlic scape dip appeared in the New York Times. (I would link to it, but it’ll disappear after a few days, leaving my link broken). It’s virtually identical to most white bean dips–beans, olive oil, salt, garlic–but instead of using garlic cloves, it used raw garlic scapes.

I don’t know why the recipe stuck in my mind–I rarely make white bean dips, tending instead to prefer southwestern black bean dip or hummus–but when I saw the garlic scapes at the farmer’s market I was taken in by the piles and mounds of twisty, spiraling, bean-like shoots. Every farmer selling them only wanted to sell the scapes by the pound, but I couldn’t imagine finding a use for an entire pound. I talked one woman down to just selling me a handful–probably 4 or 5 shoots–and took them back to Chicago. I threw the scapes into the food processor with one drained can of white beans, a pinch of salt and a couple of glugs of olive oil. I blended the whole thing until smooth, then scooped the thick mixture into two bowls and served it for lunch with sugar snap peas for dipping.

White Bean Dip with Garlic Scapes

It was astonishingly delicious, the scapes adding a big hit of raw garlic flavor, but also a grassy freshness not present in even the most recently peeled garlic cloves.  It was also so rich with that rawness (really–it was the scapes that added the richness, not the olive oil at all) that it coated every surface in my mouth, and my nose kept smelling it from inside my head. 

We ate the dip quickly and greedily, reveling in the pungency and burn. We finished up with the rest of the sugar snap peas, the sweetness providing a welcome contrast to what had come before.

A few minutes after we finished doing the dishes, though, we noticed that the burning flavor of garlic scapes wasn’t going away. We brushed our teeth. No difference. We brushed our teeth again. No change. We went out and bought NEW toothbrushes and brushed our teeth again. Gah!

I love garlic, but I don’t really care to taste it for six hours straight, with no ability to rid myself of it. The taste filled my mouth all the way up into my sinuses and it Would Not Go Away.

I loved the garlic scape dip. I loved the taste, I loved the burn, I loved how overwhelming it was. I have no doubt that I’ll be making something with garlic scapes in it again. Even now I’m remembering the flavor of the scapes on my tongue: the heat of the dip, due only to the essential garlic oils. I’m almost longing to make the dip again immediately.

It might, however, have to wait until next spring, when I’ve forgotten how absolutely overpowering it is to walk around with my head utterly infused with garlic for hours and hours. If it wasn’t so delicious, it would be horrifying.

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Published in: on June 26, 2008 at 8:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Annals of the Unnecessary

On Saturday night, I made something that might actually rival bacon as the most extraneous-to-modern-home-preparation food item that I have yet created. 

I made ketchup.

As I have reiterated over and over to colleagues and acquaintances, it’s not that I’m so concerned with self-sufficiency–it’s just that I think it’s cool and fun to make things from scratch.  I haven’t eaten ketchup in years, but when I determined to make a recipe that included it as a major ingredient, I figured: why not make my own?

For the past several weeks I’ve been seeing slabs of pork ribs for sale at the grocery meat counter.  I’d never in my life cooked a rib of anything (chicken doesn’t count–it comes attached to the rest of the bird), and I don’t actually know if I’ve ever eaten pork ribs.  There was a barbecue place that my family frequented when I was growing up, and I know they served ribs there (Iowa=big on pork), but my childhood self was fixed upon the foot-long hot dogs.  Even when I lived in Texas, my barbecue meat of choice was brisket, followed, if absolutely necessary, by smoked sausages.  Ribs never made it into the picture.

I do not know why, therefore, I zeroed in on those ribs at the meat counter.  For some reason they called out to me, and after three weeks of staring at them out of the corner of my eye, I bought a slab.  Now what was I supposed to do with it?

Pork ribs, it seems, are almost universally barbecued.  Given my lack of experience with the subject, it’s quite possible that there’s some iconic method of preparation that I’m unaware of, but barbecue-sauce-glazed, heat-blistered pork ribs are almost an American cultural byword.  This, then, is what I decided to make. 

I had the main ingredient: pork ribs.  Or is that the main ingredient?  Whole cookbooks have been written on barbecue sauce, and there are so many bitter rivalries among sauce afficionados as to make the Scandinavian sagas look peaceful. 

Sauce, therefore, was important, and should be phenomenal.  A major problem inherent in this realization is that I don’t like commercial barbecue sauces, for most of the same reasons that I don’t like commercial ketchup.   They’re too sweet, lacking in complexity, and with only the passing memory of a glance at a tomato.

You are shocked, I know, to hear that I decided to make my own barbecue sauce.   And, since most barbecue sauces start out as modified ketchup, I decided to make my own ketchup.

I did not, however, start with fresh tomatoes.  One kitchen appliance that I do not have is a food mill.  The idea of peeling and seeding the poundsandpounds of tomatoes necessary for even modest ketchup production is enough to give me the vapors.  Also, and more embarassingly, I don’t own a splatter screen; thus, I didn’t want to make anything that would require hours of boiling and reduction, for fear that the majority of the resultant ketchup would end up on the stove (the walls, my shirt, the dog) and not in the pot. 

So.  Yes.  Cheat-worthy as it is, I started with tomato paste. 

I put the contents of 2 6-oz cans of tomato paste into a big nonstick skillet, then added a minutely diced shallot and a practically pulverized stalk of celery (courtesy of what Teacherman would call his “mad chopping skillzzz”).  The pot also took in small quantities of all the winter spices–cinnamon, cloves, mace, allspice, nutmeg–some salt, a few cups of water, a little white wine vinegar, and a tiny bit of sweetener.  I brought it to a boil, smacked the lid on, and left it there for a few minutes, hoping that I wouldn’t ever have to expose the volcanic contents to the open air.

Alas, I did have to–even when you start with tomato paste ketchup still requires SOME reduction.  Through careful monitoring, I was able to keep the stove free of anything more than a light freckling by the time the sauce reduced to the point I wanted.  I strained the mixture through a wire strainer, pressing on the celery and shallot flakes to squeeze out all of their juices.  I let it cool, then tasted it–I ended up adding another spoonful of vinegar, but that was it.  I divided it into four cup-sized portions and froze three, leaving the last cup to be modified into barbecue sauce.

This modification was easy–I added soy sauce (thinking of bulgogi), garlic powder (because chopped garlic would be too strong), chipotle powder (because I wanted both more smoke and more heat), and a little more sweetener, to make it sticky.  I let the flavors meld overnight in the fridge, and voila: barbecue sauce.

After all of that, the ribs were effortless.  I baked them at a very low temperature for 2 hours, then covered them in sauce (and an extra sprinkling of chipotle powder, at Teacherman’s request) and broiled them until bubbly and nearly blackened.

The were both delicious and beautiful.  I meant to take a picture, but forgot entirely in the rush to taste one of the delectable things.  The result?  Tangy, porky bliss.  The pork was flavorful and toothsome in of itself, and the sauce added a sticky sheen and just enough ancillary flavor to complement the pork without overwhelming it.  This is one uncomplicated and ‘unnecessary’ sauce that I’ll be making repeatedly. 

Now pardon me while I go finish gnawing on the bones. . . .

Published in: on October 8, 2007 at 7:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Vegtabularity

Sunday was a rather vegtabular day.

Saturday’s market visit was both harried and hurried, since we started out late and I had to get to work on time, and Teacherman and I operated on the “that looks neat–let’s buy it!” level.  Saturday evening we spent at a concert in the park, so it wasn’t until Sunday morning that I began contemplating what to do with the vegetables.

Sunday was also Teacherman’s last day in town before a two-week trip to Pennsylvania, so I wanted to make the meals special, or least nice.   After discounting the items I’d be using to make my lunches and dinners for the coming week, I was left with two pounds of heirloom tomatoes–one each of four different varieties (a “pink accordian,” something equally ruffly, but smaller and purple; a “red zebra,” and a long, green-and-red striped “torpedo” that was pink on the inside)–and six ears of just-picked corn.  I designated the tomatoes for lunch and the corn for dinner, and set to work.

Actually, I set to work at doing next to nothing.  Both the corn and the tomatoes were so fresh and so delicious that I barely needed to do anything to them.  I simply made a sauce for each one, a matter of five minutes in total, and let the inherent flavors speak for themselves. 

Both sauces came from recipes I’d torn out of Cooking Light and Bon Appetit.  I only keep whole issues for one year, after which I tear out any recipes I’ve made and liked, or still want to try, and toss the bulk of the magazine.  The torn-out recipes go into an increasingly bedraggled folder, where they end up mixed and filed and smashed together until I have no idea which issue the recipe was originally from.   

For the tomates, I mixed Dijon mustard, fresh chopped dill, lemon juice and zest, and a tiny bit of salt and pepper.  I was a little worried that the sharp flavors of the mustard and lemon would overwhelm the tomatoes, but after swiping a bit of sauce over a sawed-off tomato end, I was unsure no more.  I gleefully sliced and dumped in the entire two pounds-worth and stirred it up.  After a scant 15 minutes of marinating time, the melded flavors worked together even better than before.  We ate the salad with greedily, dipping what amounted to our “side dish” of smoked turkey into the juices. 

The corn was an equally delicious, though more unusual story.  I was making a Thai-ish stir-fry for dinner, so I could have cut all the corn off the cobs and added it in, but I was feeling too lazy to deal with all of that slicing.  I had to turn the grill on for another reason (grilling up my lunches for the week) so I decided to grill the corn–a pretty standard application.  What wasn’t so standard was the idea from Bon Appetit.  After the corn comes off the grill, one brushes it with a mixture of butter, scallions, sweetener, and Thai fish sauce.  I was a little dubious, but I love fish sauce in other Thai recipes, so I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt.  If the first ear turned out to taste terrible, I didn’t have to put the resulting concoction on the rest of the corn at all. 

I dipped a finger into the butter mixture.  Yowza!  My eyes nearly bugged out from the saltiness, but the flavor combination was compelling, and I could see how the sweetness of the corn would fit into the pungent salty-sweet Thai thing.  I threw caution to the winds and drizzled the mixture over all six of the ears of corn. 

Now it was Teacherman’s turn to be dubious.  Teacherman LOVES corn, and likes it best with nothing on it–not butter, not salt, nothing; sometimes he even eats it raw.  (I think this is good, too, but I’m more willing to branch out).  After a few cursory bites of stir-fry, we jumped on the corn.  It. Was. Amazing.  The two of us, along with a visiting friend, polished off all six big ears and could have eaten as much again, if it had been available.  As much as I like to salt my corn on the cob, I never would have thought of brushing fish sauce–the Thai answer to salt–onto an ear. 

I hardly think that I’ve muted Teacherman’s love for unadorned ears of corn, but this recipe may become a new favorite.  Corn season is just beginning; luckily, we have a full bottle of fish sauce.

Published in: on August 1, 2007 at 12:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

All Right, Already

The single most common search query that pops up in my statistics is, unsurprisingly, “Poulet Basquaise.” Back in February my best friend’s husband asked if I had an actual recipe for it somewhere within the site, which, let us not forget, is named for the dish. Well, no. It’s not that I objected to having a recipe up, but that I haven’t made Poulet Basquaise in the entire time I’ve been writing the blog, so all of my posts were on things that I was currently eating.

After months of repetative search queries, though, I’m finally giving in.

Poulet Basquaise was my favorite meal when I was growing up, and one of the first things I learned how to cook on my own (I can’t remember if it was THE first–I think that distinction may fall upon beef stroganoff). I’ve made it for all of my friends at some point, and it was the basis of the first meal I ever made for Teacherman. It is definitely comfort food, of the best meat-in-sauce variety, and, in spite of my mother’s occasional claims that I can’t possibly like her ‘ordinary, plain’ cooking anymore, I adore it still. This recipe is entirely hers–I’ve only ever made one deviation* therefrom–taken straight from the recipe card I’ve had since I left home.

Poulet Basquaise

2 lbs skinless, boneless chicken thighs
8 oz fresh mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
sliced pepperoni to taste
1 large green pepper, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
32-48 oz of good quality tomato sauce
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 Tbsp olive oil

Remove any visible fat from the chicken and pound meat gently to tenderize. Cut each thigh into two pieces, then brown in the olive oil.

Remove chicken from the pan and saute mushrooms, onions and peppers. When onions are translucent, add chicken and all other ingredients to the pan. Use as much sauce as you need to get the consistency you want.

Simmer all ingredients on low heat (after heating on high for a few minutes) for about 45 minutes. Better when made the day before.

* Deviation: My mother dredges the chicken pieces in flour before sauteeing; I do not.

It may not sound like much (and indeed, an ex-boyfriend once turned up his nose at a description and called it “goop”), but the flavors work magic together. It isn’t altogether different from chicken cacciatore, but the pepperoni sets it apart. When I was growing up we always used a major brand of stick pepperoni, sliced into great chunks, but since I moved to the city I’ve used the pepperoni from my favorite butcher. The flavor profile is similar (one wouldn’t want to create an entirely unfamiliar dish), but the one is the platonic ideal of the other.

I usually use button mushrooms or creminis; for all that the former are scorned as common, I find that they have a pleasant meatiness that works well in this dish, adding an earthy contrast to the chicken without dominating. As for the tomato sauce, I use whatever plain, tomato-based pasta sauce I have on hand; marinara-style sauces work the best.

The vagueries of my childhood memory say that my mother always served this dish with rice, using the greater amount of tomato sauce in the preparation, but I prefer to serve it as a kind of stew, with no starch to take away from the intense flavors. And she is right–Poulet Basquaise, like almost all other tomato sauces, is better when left to mellow overnight before serving.

Writing this post has made me hungry, and I’m beginning to crave a bowl of my own. I will have no free time until Sunday, however, and on that day I leave for two weeks abroad. Forays into making Poulet Basquaise will have to wait, but wait they will, and so will I.

Published in: on June 20, 2007 at 8:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Plastic Cheese

Oh, the joys of plastic cheese.

I am speaking, of course, of Haloumi, that squeeky, chewy, salty, unmeltable Greek cheese that I have never encountered in a restaurant, but only in grocery stores.  

I first learned about haloumi from Nigella Lawson; I was intrigued by the idea of a cheese that could be seared–even grilled–without melting, but I refrained from trying it out.  I had been burned (literally) attempting a recipe for provoleta (that is, a naked slab of provolone cheese, grilled) a week previously, and I was disinclined to believe anyone’s claims about a cheese that didn’t melt.  (The provolone, in case you are interested, instantly liquified into a molten cheese-lava that adhered firmly to my grill pan and never released its grip.  After about five days of repeated soaking, scraping and washing, I finally threw the pan away).

A few years later I saw haloumi at the grocery, packaged with little line-drawing-instructions on how to grill it, and finally bit the bullet, buying a small amount.  At first I just ate it (very good, but arresting if one isn’t expecting the normal brininess of a Greek cheese in what looks like mozzarella), then I tried grilling it inside other things (wrapped in grape leaves, cubed and stuffed into bell peppers) and finally searing it in a blazing-hot pan. 

Exactly as the recipes and package instructions claim, high heat really brings out the interesting properties of the cheese.  The outside blisters and caramelizes, the inside becomes gooey and yielding, but never does the cheese lose its shape.   I’ve used haloumi as a substitute for paneer in Indian dishes, but it’s best by itself, seared and served with some kind of sauce to dab on at will. 

For lunch on Memorial Day I meant to grill long fingers of haloumi on our outdoor grill, hoping for a crust that cannot be achieved in a saute pan.  Events conspired against me, alas (the grill was out of gas), and a saute pan it had to be.  In an effort to make up for my disappointment, however, I cranked up the heat under the non-stick pan as high as it would go, opened all the windows and turned on the exhaust fan. 

Instant, miraculous, blackened cheese.  I served it with a simple salsa verde (the European parsley-anchovy-caper variety, not the Mexican tomatillo-green chile salsa) and a few other salady things.  A guest, who had never had it before, was astounded at the flavor and the novelty.  I’m sure he could have eaten an entire second package, had we one to offer.

As is so often the case, the simplest thing about the meal was the most impressive.  I ought to remember this for the future, but it’s such a hard message to absorb.  I can’t begrudge anyone the love of haloumi, though; even though I have just finished a bountiful meal, I wouldn’t be unhappy if I had a plate of that cheese next to me right now, hot out of the pan, to be eaten with burning fingers and sated sighs.

Published in: on May 30, 2007 at 8:39 am  Leave a Comment  

Mind-Searing Mayo

What if you gave a party and nobody came?  Or worse, what if everyone came, but nobody ate?

Tonight we had a party celebrating Teacherman’s belated birthday.  Many chips, many dips, many crudites.  Some bread, three kinds of cake.  Most of the platters are still close to pristine.  This is when I wail and whine about Where I Went Wrong.  Well, nowhere, really; people just weren’t hungry.  Still, it’s disappointing.  Especially since I made mayonnaise. 

I’ve made mayonnaise a couple of times in my life, but never just as a basic thing.  I’m afraid to say that I’m normally perfectly satisfied with purchased mayonnaise–though I do have fierce brand loyalty to a specific organic brand made with canola oil–but whenever I want an interesting flavor, it’s inevitably something that I have to make on my own.  Yes, one can buy garlic mayonnaise (aioli, if one wants to be fancy), but can one buy mayonnaise with 2 heads of roasted garlic in each cup? 

This time, I wanted it with jalapenos.  Teacherman requested spicy foods for this party, and I went a little overboard with the chile recipes: when Teacherman came home from the grocery store he had 23 absolutely gargantuan jalapenos.  There was the cheddar-jalapeno bread, the herb-cheese-stuffed jalapenos, and <drumroll> the jalapeno-arugula mayonnaise. 

Mayonnaise is one of those things that I’m always trying to convince people is easy to make, but I must admit that its easiness is entirely predicated upon the fact that I own a food processor.  Back before food processors, to make mayonnaise, one had to whisk all the ingredients together by hand, while also drizzling the oil in minute drop by minute drop; pour in too much oil or whisk too slowly and the emulsion breaks and you end up with a bowl of eggy oil.  Thrilling.  A food processor, though, not only takes the whisking out of your hands, but even controls the amount of oil that one can add at a time. 

I don’t know if all food processors are like this, but mine has a tiny hole in the pusher (that is, the thing that fits inside the feed tube).  To make mayonnaise, all I do is whiz all the main ingredients together with the metal blade, then, with the machine still on, I pour the nearly the entire measure of oil into the pusher.  The oil drips through the aforementioned tiny hole and emulsifies perfectly with the base ingredients, creating mayonnaise. 

This time I whizzed up a jalapeno, a couple of garlic cloves, a handful each of spinach and arugula, an egg, some Dijon mustard, lemon juice, some salt and pepper.  Into the pusher went a half-and-half mixture of canola and olive oil.  By the time I was done washing my measuring spoons, I had a vibrant green and aromatic mayonnaise.  

I’m afraid, though, that inspite of all the ingredients, the taste was slightly one-dimensional.  The recipe called for the entire jalapeno, including the ribs and the seeds, resulting in an incendiary concoction that leaves the lips tingling for several minuts after eating. 

I think it might just need more mellowing time than I gave it.  I made the mayonnaise last night, when it was so hot that it set my eyebrows alight; tonight I can almost taste the peppery arugula in the background.  Given another day, the Dijon and lemon might add other notes and the heat might be further tempered.  A qualified success–now if only people had been hungry. . . . 

Published in: on April 14, 2007 at 9:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cor, Limey!

And what, one might ask, did I do with those three egg yolks so noticably left over from marshmallow making?  Prairie Oysters?  Mutant fried eggs?  Are they still sitting, forlorn, in the refrigerator?  Were they, <gasp>, Thrown Away?

Fear not, the egg yolks were destined for a much nobler fate.  After considering yet another custard-based ice cream, I decided to make citrus curd.  Not lemon, nor orange, nor even grapefruit, all variations I have made before.  Orange curd, unless made from Seville oranges, is almost always too sweet for me, and grapefruit curd, the few times I have made it, tasted of nothing but the butter.   Lemon curd is the platonic ideal, of course, but after weeks of aggressively putting lemon in almost everything, I needed a break.  There were limes going begging on the countertop, and thus: lime curd.

I scanned various lime curd recipes online and fiddled with the proportions to suit my own taste.  More lime juice, less sweetener, another whole egg instead of 5 yolks, half a stick of butter instead of all eight tablespoons. 

As usual, I criminally ignored the curd during the crucial Stir-Constantly stage, narrowly rescuing it from the brink of curdling several times.  The butter melted in with excruciating slowness (over ten minutes!), making me nearly regret the whole business. 

In the end, though, the curd was perfect: tinglingly tart, but appropriately sweet, unctuous on the tongue, but not too rich.   It was a perfect Easter dinner dessert, along with some fresh strawberries to dip therein.

Published in: on April 9, 2007 at 8:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ambrosia

I have been to comparatively few American Greek restauarants in my life; I can count the number on less than half of one hand.  I have no early memories of spanikopita or moussaka, had no knowledge of grape leaves until at least high school.  Surprisingly, though, the first sauce I ever learned how to make was avgolemono sauce.  This is even more surprising when one considers that the only time I’d ever had avgolemono sauce before said attempt was at my first meal on an archaeological study trip to Greece, immediately after which I became ill with food poisoning. 

I don’t necessarily blame the avgolemono; it might have been the lamb it was surrounding, or even just random Greek microbial beasties that my stomach wasn’t used to.  Nonetheless, I dealt with an irrational two-year aversion to dill after a similar incident involving tuna salad, so it wouldn’t be out of line to expect a rejection of all things lemon.  On the contrary, when I returned to America it was the egg-lemon sauce that I remembered above all things.  (Well, that and the fantastic feta in the Greek salads I ate at almost every meal after that).

I was living alone that summer, in an illegal sublet from a person with next to no cookware.  She did, however, possess a single pot and a single saucepan, and no matter how destitute I became, trying to live alone on the salary of a part-time library page, I could still afford eggs, lemon juice and chicken broth.  These days I make my own broth and use fresh juice, but at the time I used the cheapest boxed brand and the juice in the little squeezy bottle.  The results are different, but always good. 

I am tempted to make dramatic pronouncements about my first sight of the alchemy that is a successful custard, for avgolemono sauce is really a custard.  Simply scalded chicken broth, lemon juice and a violently whisked egg, stirred together over low heat until thick and creamy, it’s like the savory version of lemon curd.  The first time I made it I poured it over an inexpertly-sauteed chicken breast and found myself unexpectedly sitting down to A Meal.  The chicken breast was dry and underseasoned, but the avgolemono sauce transformed it into _food_.  I ate it all in about two and a half minutes and licked the plate when I was done.

Since then, I’ve poured my various version of avgolemono over pasta, fish, stuffed grape leaves, steamed greens, even lentils.  Sometimes I add herbs, usually oregano or marjoram, sometimes a prodigious quantity of black pepper.  Tonight, though, I made the unadorned basic recipe to acompany roasted artichoke hearts, a combination I adore.  The brininess of the artichokes and the crispiness of their charred edges contrasts with the creaminess of the sauce, the lemon spark just keeping it from being cloying.   It isn’t the nectar of the gods, but it’s a delightful and soothing way to finish a plate.

Published in: on March 28, 2007 at 9:21 am  Leave a Comment  

Going Soft

When I was a child, I drove my parents crazy by insisting that any egg dish I was served be completely and thoroughly cooked. Any hint of jiggle was met with shrieks, revulsion and, usually, tears of betrayal. (My own mother was trying to POISON me!) My fried eggs were rubbery, my omelets were cremated and my scrambled eggs, in spite of the copious amount of cheese my family adds to said dish, crumbled off the fork in little pellets and fell to dust. I ate eggs like this for years, the yolks so dry that they were practically colorless and the whites shriveled up around the edges. To my shame, I can even remember making a bit of a scene in a diner in Texas when I was served eggs that I deemed ‘over easy’ when I had ordered them ‘over hard’. “You know,” said my mother, “MOST people do order their eggs over easy, so it was an understandable mistake.” My glowering look of scorn and petulance would be less retrospectively embarassing if it wasn’t for the fact that I was twenty-one at the time.

Enter Teacherman. He adores soft-boiled eggs. Even though by the time I met him I had mellowed slightly when it came to the dessication of my breakfast, I had never tried such a thing. It is true that I had read about soft-boiled eggs in many cookbooks, and even thought wistfully of how nice the recipes sounded, but concluded that I could never stomach the eggs themselves. The desire to please the one you love, however, has a powerful effect. And Teacherman already owned two egg cups, which I had to admit were pretty adorable.

So last spring, with great trepidation, I made soft-boiled eggs for the first time. We had them for a late Sunday breakfast with the season’s first asparagus, steamed and ready to dip in the liquid yolks. I followed the instructions for a 6-minute egg in How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, taking some comfort from the fact that the timing was supposed to produce fully cooked whites, at least. I cooked them, ran them under cold water to stop the cooking, dried them on a kitchen towel, and plunked them into the egg cups. We carefully cracked and peeled off the top half-inch of the shells and broke through the yolk. The whites were, in fact, cooked through. The yolk was molten and, once salted and peppered, extraordinarily tasty. The asparagus made an excellent dipper, and the combination called up memories of asparagus in hollandaise. I was definitely a soft-boiled egg convert.

In the past year I’ve made soft-boiled eggs several times, often exactly how I made them the first time, with asparagus to dip in. Once I tried a recipe that called for tipping in a bit of caramel syrup and mixing it into the egg yolk. It was a bit like a deconstructed custard; not bad, but a bit too rich without the mitigating presence of a dairy product. A few weeks ago I was looking through a new Asian cookbook and discovered a chapter entirely on eggs, mostly softboiled. The lead picture showed a soft-boiled egg, completely peeled and split on a plate, sauced with a mixture of soy sauce, ginger and sesame oil, and sprinkled with scallions and chiles. This was immediately appealling.

For this past Sunday’s breakfast I prepared the recipe, liking the idea of Asian flavors after the previous night’s meaty Irish excess. It was a qualified success. Qualified because though the flavors were perfect and exactly what I wished, I took issue with the eggs’ cooking time. I followed the recipe exactly, plunking room temperature eggs into boiling water and letting them bubble for 4 minutes. I removed them, ran them under cold water for a second, and, with Teacherman assisting, began to peel.

“Ack!” he shouted, halfway through his first egg. His careful fingers were still too violent for the egg, which, just as he finished peeling it, split down the middle. He hurriedly tranferred it to one of the waiting plates. I was horrified to see that the egg was essentially raw in the middle. The membrane holding the yolk was intact, but surrounding it was a thick layer of gelatinous, near-transparent egg white. I wouldn’t say that I felt faint, but I was definitely non-plussed (and, admittedly, a little ill).

We finished our peeling and looked at the eggs. Given that two of them were split, we couldn’t put them back in the hot water, and even if we could, we wouldn’t have known for how long. I sighed and cheated: we stuck the plates in the microwave for a few seconds. The whites remained translucent, but at least they stopped being so jiggly. We poured over the sauce, sprinkled on the garnishes, and dove in. It really was extremely good. The sesame, soy and ginger both cut and blended with the richness of the egg yolk, reducing the ultra-creaminess that is sometimes too much early in the morning. The raw scallions and chiles perked up our tastebuds and cleared our palates for the next bite. It really was quite enjoyable, even if I did have to occasionally avert my eyes. Sadly, I’m not completely reformed from my egg tyranny; I will definitely make this dish again, but next time I plan to cook the eggs for six minutes.

Published in: on March 21, 2007 at 8:41 am  Leave a Comment  

Party Day: Three Hours to Go

Who knew that corned beef could shrink so much?

Yesterday I slow-cooked a corned beef brisket all day long while I was at work. When I arrived at home, the two and a half pound roast had merrily cooked itself down into two fist-sized pieces of finished beef. Delicious, yes; tender, no doubt, but tiny. With twenty people to feed, this would not do. I was not planning to feed twenty people on only two pounds of brisket, but I was planning to feed half of them thusly. With premonitions of doom, I slow-cooked my second brisket overnight in the same way. It didn’t shrink quite as much, but it still lost half of its starting weight.

Well.

To the grocery store! (Insert Batmobile theme music here).

A third corned beef brisket has been purchased and is simmering away, this time with its cabbagey cohorts in the same pot. (I had been planning to roast the cabbage, but if I have to mess with a corned beef on the day of, I might as well put the cabbage in with it anyway). As of three hours in the pot, it hasn’t become appreciably smaller (though it is still distressingly tough), so there is yet hope.

Instead of hovering and gnashing my teeth, however, I’m focusing on the most positive part of the day: the mustard. Over the last year I’ve made mustard from scratch several times, with an almost 100% success rate. When I decided to make a spicy horseradish mustard to accompany our corned beef, I brought all of my accumulated knowledge to the bowl with me.

The recipe I used was from Epicurious, albeit one that the comments section indicated had a few problems. The ingredients were simple–cider vinegar, mustard powder, mustard seed, garlic, horseradish, salt–it was the proportions that presented a problem. Apparently the finished product was too thin and liquid to really be considered a mustard; the cooks who left comments tended to solve this problem by adding three times more mustard powder than called for.

To my mind, though, the real problem wasn’t with the ingredients, but the technique: the mustard wasn’t cooked. In all of the successful mustard recipes I’d made, after the ingredients were mixed and left to settle for a few days, they were blended, then simmered down to the cook’s favored consistency; only after appropriate reduction was the mustard potted and aged for anywhere from a few days to a few months. For this recipe I decided to follow the same route.

I put all the ingredients into a mason jar, lidded it, shook it, then put the jar in the back of my refrigerator for two days. After that time was up, I poured the contents of the jar into my food processor and buzzed it until it the mustard seeds, softened by two days soak in cider vinegar, had been completely pulverised. I decanted the blended mixture into a small nonstick pan and turned the flame onto lowish heat for about 30 minutes. I stirred it once or twice, walking by the pan on my way to another task, but mostly it minded itself.

When it was about as thick as the Dijon I buy at the store, I turned off the heat and poured it back into the mason jar. I let it cool for about an hour, with the cap on, but with the ring screwed on but loosely. Once it had cool, back into the fridge it went to be ignored for two weeks. Today I tried it for the first time–quite perfect. Some might argue that it’s too much work to make mustard when it’s so easy to buy hundreds of flavors thereof, of good quality even, at every dinky supermarket. I’m certainly not above buying mustard; I do so 90% of the time. I also don’t claim that the mustard I make is infinitely better than the mustard one can buy in the store. I do, however, claim that it is equally as good, sometimes at least a little better, and the fun of Making My Own trumps what paltry kitchen work it requires.

It’s a good thing I love it so much, though. I might have more mustard than I do corned beef.

Published in: on March 17, 2007 at 2:18 pm  Comments (1)