A Bit of Whining

This post will not be eloquent. It will be whiny.

I have complained about colds and flus before–it’s so hard to cook when you can’t taste, and/or smell, and/or do anything but sniffle.

I find, however, that I need to qualify that statement: it is certainly a less enjoyable to cook when one has a cold, but things are considerably more grim when one has a sprained ankle.

In this situation, of course, I cannot cook at all. I can balance on one foot long enough to heat things up in the microwave, but that’s about it. Luckily, Teacherman is secretly a saint, so he’s been doing all of the cooking (and dealing with all of my “helpful” shouts from the living room: “We should use up the kale!” “Don’t forget to add SALT!”) Also, I have progressed to the point that I can prop myself up in front of the sink long enough to at least wash my own plastic containers, so I’m not a total leech.

Still, it’s frustrating: cooking is the main thing I do for fun, and now I can’t do it at all. Obviously, this is not a condition that will last forever (my sprain is pretty minor, in the continuum of sprains, and it certainly isn’t as bad as a break), but my innate impatience (definitely my fatal flaw) is already in overdrive. As someone who walks 3 miles a day, dances for fun, and spends at least half of every working day on my feet, I cannot WAIT to be back to normal. Still, though — I have read 15 books in the last week. (I’ll just leave out the part where I mention that I’m actually getting tired of reading).

So: whining completed.

Tomorrow night I’m actually going to try to cook something simple. We’ll see how that goes.

Advertisements
Published in: on April 28, 2008 at 7:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

Avocado Heresy

As I have mentioned innumerable times, my father is from New Mexico. I grew up eating southwestern foods — like salsa — before they were well known in the rest of the country. (It was only a few years ago that I realized that they hadn’t been well known in the rest of the country. I just assumed everyone was eating that stuff).

I don’t have any deep, defining memories of guacamole from my early childhood. In fact, we may not have eaten it particularly often, or even at all. My mother went through a couple of cycles of trying to eat low-fat foods, and avocados weren’t on any of the lists of allowable items, no matter who you asked.

By the time I was in college (and my mother had switched to a moderation-in-all-foods mind-set), guacamole did make regular appearances at our dinner table — usually as a side dish, rather than a dip. We almost always ate it with salmon, I remember: each of us getting a heaping dollop on the plate next to our burnished fillet, the two meant to be eaten together in each bite.

For graduate school, I moved to Austin, TX, a place where one could scarcely avoid guacamole if one wanted to. I was possibly even more cash-strapped than most graduate students are (ask me sometime about the financial aid check that never arrived), but it never occurred to me to scratch the relatively expensive avocados off of my weekly grocery list. (That was probably a good thing. Given how little food I had to survive on, calorie-dense avocados [and my other contemporary indulgence, freshly-ground almond butter] may have kept me alive and healthy).

For all those years, though, I never deviated from the usual guacamole ingredients. Avocado. Tomatoes/tomatillos (my mother’s choice). Onion, jalapeno, lime juice, cilantro. Chop. Mix. Eat. The End.

It wasn’t until I was out of school and a full-fledged recipe junkie that I began to notice avocado recipes from other cultures. Sure, I was aware that things like California rolls existed, but it would never have occurred to me to make ersatz guacamole with wasabi, soy sauce and sesame oil. Or a Hungarian version with roasted red peppers, caraway and sour cream.

I never really cared for any of the variations. In many cases, the resultant mixture had too many flavors to taste of anything in particular, and, almost universally, the recipes called for the addition of another kind of fat–sesame oil, sour cream–which I found highly suspect. Avocados are practically made of fat (not that I mind); adding more of it seemed bizarre. The mouth-feel of the finished mixture went from silky smooth to mouth-coatingly fatty.

(This is one of the reasons that I’ve never seen a recipe for an avocado soup that appealed to me. 2 cups of heavy cream to 1 avocado and a paltry pinch of salt? Served hot? Pardon me while I try to get that mental residue off of my tongue).

Not to mention that things like sesame oil and sour cream have very strong flavors of their own, which tended to mask the actual flavor of avocado. If an avocado is in a recipe simply for the buttery texture and to heck with the flavor, just make a cream-cheese dip or flavored butter or something. Leave the avocado alone.

So I continued along my rigid — but merry — way, making traditional guacamole and eating enormous quantities at each sitting. Every now and then a recipe would worm its way into my mind and I’d try something new, usually disappointing myself enough to send me scurrying back to the salsa.

Last week I got the usual bug in my ear. I had a wonderful new middle eastern-inspired cookbook checked out from the library, and behold: its recipe for guacamole contained chopped preserved lemon rind (which I adore).

Aside from that one fanciful deviation, the recipe was what I was used to. Chopped tomatoes, cilantro, garlic, green chiles, onions: all these ingredients are traditional for middle eastern cuisine as well as southwestern American. I had high hopes for the result.

I peeled, pitted and chop/mashed two avocados, until chunky. I added several generous pinches of salt, a small clamshell’s worth of cherry tomatoes, halved, a big handful of minced cilantro leaves, a few spoonfuls of minced onion and garlic, and half of a minced Hatch green chile. (I do keep my loyalty).

I extracted one of my preserved lemons from its jar of salt, rinsed it off, scooped out and discarded the pulp, then finely chopped the rind. I added half of the resultant dice to the avocado mixture (saving the other half for another dish) along with a few spoonfuls of fresh lemon juice, to take the place of the usual lime juice (I couldn’t leave citrus juice out entirely). A few seconds of light mixing later: guacamole.

AND?

It was delicious. My mind was not blown and I did not fall to my knees and weep, but I was very pleasantly surprised by how well the preserved lemon rind fit into the guacamole. Its astringent saltiness was the perfect foil for the unctuousness of the avocado — fulfilling much the same role as jalapeno, in traditional guacamole. (Yes, this version had green chiles as well, but the parallel was undeniable).

This is a variation on my usual guacamole that I will definitely make again: I can see pairing it with a middle-eastern spiced fish, much in the same way that my mother pairs the traditional version with salmon. Maybe next time I’ll go wild and even try adding some sumac or za’atar.

*(Note: for the record, avocados and wasabi can coexist very peacefully in, say, an Asian-inspired mixed vegetable salad. Just leave out the sesame oil).*

Published in: on April 16, 2008 at 7:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

This is Not a Recipe

It is, however, a moment of astonishing clarity. It was sublime. Also a little ridiculous.

So. I made oatmeal.

Wait! Wait! There’s more to it than that! (But that is the ridiculous part).

This morning I was making breakfast, and I decided that I wanted oatmeal, so I started in on my usual routine: put a measure of oats in a saucepan with twice that amount of liquid, some spices, some sweetener, bring the whole thing to a boil, stir it once, turn it off and let it sit for a few minutes until the liquid is absorbed and the oats are tender, and then eat it. For some reason, this morning I got stuck on the choice of liquid.

Even though it’s in the low 30s again (snow! fie!), I didn’t really want the wintertime richness associated with cream or milk, or even coconut or nut milks. I also didn’t want to be so ascetic as to go for plain water, though–I love oats, and I love Scotland, but I’m not such a purist that I take my oats neat.

I stared into the fridge for a considerable amount of time, wasting shameful amounts of electricity. Eggs. Olives. Green Beans. Leftover soup. This was not helpful. Umeboshi plums. Vodka. Solitary muffin.

Wait. Muffin?

Yesterday I made a batch of muffins for a get-together with some friends. I used a recipe for applesauce-almond muffins, but instead of using applesauce, I used my last jar of quince butter, made in the heady days of last fall when fresh fruit was still a reality. (Don’t talk to me about those strawberries in the store right now. They are not real).

During quince season, I made quince butter and quince jam and poached quinces in wine and syrup and quinces ad nauseum. I stored some of everything in freezer, meaning to spread it out over the entire twelve months until quinces were ripe again, but what with one thing and another, I obliterated my quince reserves in just seven months. I used the last of the poached quinces a few weeks ago (baked and stuffed with lamb, lemon zest and pine nuts: phenomenal), but saved the poaching syrup. The muffins (which were also delicious) used all but a few tablespoons of the quince butter.

When I saw the muffin, I remembered the nearly-empty jar of quince butter hidden behind the mayonnaise, and when I saw the quince butter I remembered the quince poaching syrup in the freezer. Oatmeal. Cooked in quince syrup? With quince butter stirred in? Yes.

So that’s what I did. I microwaved the quince syrup for a few seconds, until it was liquid again, poured it over my oats, added a little cinnamon and ginger, then followed my usual method. I scraped the finished oatmeal into a bowl, then added the last scrapings of quince butter and stirred it all together, leaving the quince butter in big whorls throughout the oats.

It was truly lovely. The rich nuttiness of the oats went perfectly with most apparent apple-pear flavor of the quinces, and the floral/vegetal/lemony backnotes of the quinces lightened the dish enough that it didn’t seem heavy.

It’s a dish that, sadly, I don’t think I’ll ever make again–the confluence of ingredients is unlikely to recur–but it’s one that I am extremely happy to have eaten.

Published in: on April 13, 2008 at 3:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Marshmallow Ice Cream

It’s above forty degrees, therefore: ice cream.

Really, I should stop trying to come up with excuses. It’s much more like: I’m alive, therefore: ice cream.

Yesterday the temperature barely made it to thirty-five degrees, work was extremely trying, and dinner did not come together well. (All of my cooking oils have gone rancid, in spite of being practically new. This distresses me). I really needed ice cream.

I’d planned a fruit dessert for dinner, though, meaning that I didn’t have any cream–or dairy products of any kind. I did, however, have coconut milk. I always have coconut milk–it’s probably one of the few canned goods, aside from tomatoes, that I think of as a staple–and I rarely have cream, unless I’ve purchased it with a specific recipe in mind. At least half of the ice cream recipes I make seem to end up being prepared with coconut milk.

Thus: coconut milk! I scanned through my copy of The Perfect Scoop (the best ice cream cookbook I’ve encountered) for a recipe that could easily be adapted to the use of coconut milk. No out-of-the-ordinary ingredients, nothing so simple that it relied on the flavor of cream to be good, etc.

In the end, I chose the recipe for Leche Merengada, a Mexican dessert in which milk (not cream, just plain milk) is mixed with beaten eggs whites and then used as the base for an ice cream. A recipe calling for milk seemed like a better fit for the thickness of coconut milk and there were barely any other ingredients involved. Instant gratification: I love it.

I poured one can of coconut milk into a small bowl, then added several dashes of cinnamon and a big pinch of dried lemon peel (my frozen stash of ‘fresh’ lemon zest was just depleted last week). The original recipe, of course, calls for infusing the milk with a cinnamon stick and fresh lemon zest, but I didn’t have the time. I sweetened the mixture with a little simple syrup–another deviation from the recipe, which calls for sugar, but I wanted to make up the volume of liquid the recipe actually called for, and a can’s worth of coconut milk didn’t quite measure up.

I whipped three eggs whites–the recipe calls for two, but my eggs are local, and thus (given that it’s barely spring) quite small–sweetened them a tiny bit, then folded the glossy, shiny beaten whites into the coconut mixture. It didn’t combine perfectly, but I didn’t really expect it to. I poured the slightly lumpy mixture into the ice cream maker, and Teacherman (he of the strong biceps) set to churning.

Continuing in the spirit of the day, alas, the churning didn’t go very well. The mixture flash froze to the walls of the cylinder, but stayed rather liquid in the center, in spite of a very long churning time. Hmph. We scooped out what we could, hacked a bit at the sides, and gave up. We put our bowls in the freezer for a while, but before more than half an hour had gone by, I got jumpy, and we took them out again, ready to dig in.

Swoon.

I’m not entirely sure how, but the ice cream tasted like marshmallows–or rather, the perfect marshmallows, the platonic ideal of marshmallows that only really exist in one’s imagination.  I suppose that this isn’t too hard to understand, given that the marshmallows I make are based on sweetened, beaten egg whites, sometimes with cinnamon, but still.  The ice cream’s final flavor was more than the sum of its comparatively few ingredients, and, except for the “marshmallow” tag, which immediately leapt to mind, I can come up with few descriptive markers.

The coconut milk made it creamy, without making it tongue-coatingly heavy; the egg whites gave it the light, airy quality of a good, soft meringue; the cinnamon added an indefinable background layer of sweetness; and the lemon added an almost floral note, one that wasn’t at all obtrusive, but that made me stop at the first bite, wondering.

Coconut milk is already a staple; I don’t really need a reason to buy it.  But now I might have to dedicate an entire cupboard to it.

Published in: on April 2, 2008 at 8:57 am  Leave a Comment  

No Vengeance, Please, Vegans

I love vegan cookbooks. 

This may come as a surprise to those of you who have seen my recipes for fish with bacon, chocolate truffles with bacon, and even bacon-from-the-ground-up, but I love vegetables just as much as meat, sometimes more. 

Vegan cookbooks are a wonderful place to look for vegetable recipes, because, obviously, vegetables are, for them, the whole point of eating.  I love cooked greens with ham hocks as much as the next (non-vegan) person, but sometimes I want the bright, clear flavor of a vegetable all by itself, or a crisp salad unsullied by salty crunchy bits.

I have, however, an unfortunate tendency.

Sometimes, when I make the recipes, I add animal products. 

The problem is protein–I can’t survive a meal without it.  If I don’t get a significant amount of protein at every meal, I will, in fact, faint.  It’s happened before, and it’s not fun.  And while I’m not a knee-jerk carnivore, and while I adore tofu and beans and lentils, I don’t want more than half of my meals to be leguminous.  Thus: meat or cheese. 

(I don’t know why I feel guilty about it–I change other recipes in ways that their authors never intended all the time–but I do).

The other week, I checked Veganomicon, a humongous and engrossing new vegan cookbook, out of the library.  I loved every recipe that I tried, but when the book went back to the library, there were plenty of wonderful ones that I hadn’t gotten to.  Instead of the recipes, I now had jotted notes, combinations of flavors: “Brussels sprouts, roasted, garam masala.”  “Chickpeas–do things!”  “Tofu, barbecue sauce, broccoli?”

The note that colonized the meal-planning section of my brain, though, was “kale enchiladas.”  I love kale, I love enchiladas, and, after the day-long blizzard last Friday, I needed simple comfort food.  (Explanatory note: my father is from New Mexico.  Thus, for me, even though I grew up in Iowa, Southwestern flavors are redolent of childhood, safety and comfort).

What I had: 1 bunch of kale, 4 tortillas, 1 can of tomatoes.  I made the tomatoes into a quick sauce by sauteing a minced shallot in oil, then adding garlic, the tomatoes, and a raft of southwestern spices.  (I know that real enchiladas are made with a chile sauce, not a tomato one, but I was making this up as I went along).  After everything cooked together for about 15 minutes, I turned off the heat, let the mixture cool a bit, then whirled it up in the food processor.

I tore the kale into bite-sized pieces, steamed it, and then added a big spoonful of the sauce.  I wrapped the lightly suaced kale in the tortillas, put them into a greased 8*8 pan, and poured the rest of the sauce over the top.  They looked great, but there was something missing–something that would take them from Extremely Good to Ultimate Comfort. 

Sorry guys: my platonic ideal of an enchilada includes cheese. 

The very last of the locally produced cheese–a chipotle cheddar–came out of the freezer, where I’ve been hording it.  It was, with difficulty, grated, and the rust-tinged crumbles scattered over the tortillas in sauce.  I baked the dish for 45 minutes at 350, until the cheese was browned and bubbling, then let it cool for about 10, until it was still hot, but not molten.

It. Was. Perfect.

The greens, sauce and tortilla had retained their integrity, but had so melded their flavors that they might have been one item: each flavor was distinct, but present in every bite, with no sharp edges between them.   The combination of a cooked green and a tomato sauce was almost reminiscent of spinach-stuffed pasta, even though the seasonings were completely different.  And, also similar to a stuffed pasta dish, the blanket of cheese held everything together and added a layer of chewy caramelization. 

The dish would have been delicious even without the cheese–I admit this.  I would have loved it, and not missed the dairy at all.  But I’m not sorry I added it; it made an extraordinary meal on a cold, cold night.

Published in: on March 28, 2008 at 7:16 am  Leave a Comment  

Priznel 2.0

The first dish that my husband (then my brand-new boyfriend) cooked for me was a long-standing family recipe called Priznel. Priznel is a kind of a quiche, made with cottage cheese, grated hard cheese (usually jack, or something else white), eggs and lots and lots of cooked spinach.

What Teacherman didn’t know was that I despised cooked spinach. I’d tried to eat it innumerable times–I’ve mentioned my struggles here before–but no matter what I did, I still hated it. (Why, you ask, did I keep on trying to eat something I loathed? It annoyed me that I couldn’t conquer the dislike, so I tried with all my might to get past the raw-metal flavors and the the slimy texture. And yes, I made sure to have spinach cooked by capable cooks, even surpassingly brilliant ones, but nothing worked. I still hated it–cooked, at least).

In any case, Teacherman made me Priznel. After many hours of cooking (we ate ate 9 pm that night, I believe), he proudly presented me with a dish of the only food that I absolutely hated. And I had to eat it.

I did manage to, and I didn’t mention that I was revolted by every spoonful I consumed (it didn’t help that the Priznel never did get fully cooked through). I smiled my way through the meal, but firmly sent all the leftovers home with him. Unfortunately, this politeness meant that I had to eat Priznel at every family function I attended for the next year or two, as Teacherman and I became more and more involved as a couple.

It wasn’t until we were engaged that my mother off-handedly mentioned my wretched feelings about cooked spinach. A look of horror appeared on Teacherman’s face. “Why didn’t you TELL me!” he said, “I would have completely understood!” This is probably true. But my inner politeness switch had refused to budge, and, as I mentioned, I had been trying to learn to like the stuff.

In fact, I’m still trying to learn to like it. I’ve almost succeeded–at this point I can handle wilted spinach, especially if there are lots of spices involved, but not the fully-cooked type. (I should point out, here, that I enjoy fully cooked greens of every other variety, just not spinach. This, of course, is because no other cooked greens taste like rust).

This year, we spent Easter with Teacherman’s sister and her family–my in-laws had driven in from Detroit, and we all contributed to what turned out to be a brunch of epic proportions. My entries? A raspberry-ginger cheesecake for dessert, and, for the main meal, a recipe so similar to Priznel–but, in my opinion, so much better–that I actually may have converted the family.

Last month, while doing some research on ancient Roman cuisine, I read a lot of cookbooks about food from the modern Mediterranean, in order to become aware of the evolution of various dishes over the centuries. As might be expected, I ended up copying down a lot of recipes, as well as the information I was looking for. In an encyclopedic book on modern Greek cuisine, I found several recipes for egg-cheese-and-greens pies and casseroles. One in particular caught my eye–it seemed almost identical to Priznel, but with a very important exception. Instead of spinach, it used curly endive and romaine lettuce.

Otherwise, the ingredients were incredibly similar. A grateable cheese (kasseri), a soft, creamy cheese (feta), and eggs. The Greek casserole also included herbs–leeks, scallions and parsley, and one extra flavoring: chopped Kalamata olives. I knew immediately that I wanted to make the casserole, and I also knew that I wanted to make it for Teacherman’s family. Luckily, the Easter potluck presented itself, and I set to work.

Saturday night I washed two small heads of curly endive and two romaine hearts, then wilted them in a large pan until they were thoroughly cooked. I drained the greens in a colander, then squeezed them completely dry, and put them into a large bowl. Next, I chopped and washed two leeks and a whole bunch of scallions, then sauteed them in a little oil until lightly browned. I added the aliums to the greens, along with the chopped leaves from an entire bunch of parsley and half a cup of olives, also chopped.

Once the mixture was cool, I crumbled up 10 oz of feta and 7 oz of kasseri cheese (the recipe called for slightly different amounts, but those were the sizes of the cheeses I bought) and mixed the crumbles into the greens, along with a tiny pinch of salt, and several grinds of black pepper.

At that point, I covered the bowl and put it into the fridge. I left it there overnight, but this was for the sake of convenience, rather than any necessary ripening step. I wanted to make the casserole right before we left for brunch, the meal was due to take place at 10 am, an hour’s drive away, and the casserole needed an hour in the oven. I didn’t want to get up at 5 am to cook the greens, so I did everything ahead.

The next morning, I let the contents of the bowl come to room temperature while I preheated the oven to 350, then I mixed in four beaten eggs. I poured the mixture into an olive-oil slicked 9*13 inch pan, then let it bake while I readied myself for the family gathering.

After one hour, the casserole was finished cooking, and I packed it–covered in foil and wrapped in many layers of dish towel–in a conveniently sized cardboard box. Away we went!

I was a little nervous about presenting Teacherman’s family with a bastardized version of their Priznel–understandably, comforting traditions often matter far more than taste–but I needn’t have. The group dove into the pan, taking generous portions, and, in many cases, going back for seconds.

“This is definitely the new Priznel,” Teacherman whispered to me.

“Man, I love anything with cooked spinach in it!” said one relative.

Teacherman and I looked at each other. We didn’t say a word.

Published in: on March 23, 2008 at 7:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Annals of the Overly Involved

May I just point out that I am awesome?

I made corned beef! From scratch! Starting with a raw beef brisket and some salt!

Okay, YES. People have been making corned beef from scratch for centuries, even before they found out about saltpeter (which was quite a while ago, actually — almost a millenium). But still: how many people do you know that have any desire to do it now?

I don’t mean to suggest that I am the coolest person in the entire world. I could stand to be better at almost everything I can think of. And probably “awesome” is taking it a little far.  But I made corned beef from scratch! And it was GOOD! I don’t think it’s too surprising that I’m excited.

Last year we had a St. Patrick’s Day party, and I made corned beef and cabbage using an organic corned beef from a local market. It was really good, probably the best corned beef I’d ever eaten, but for some reason I got it into my head that I wanted to try to corn beef my very own self. I’d actually thought about making it from scratch for that very party, but given that I was going to be feeding 20 people, I didn’t want to make a mistake and possibly doom them all to an Uncomfortable Demise. This year, though, I would only be feeding Teacherman and myself, so I was braver.

About two weeks ago I bought a 3 lb beef brisket from the market, and brought it home to corn. I thought that I had a Tupperware container big enough to cure it in, but when I got the container out of the cupboard I realized that I had been vastly inflating its size in my mind, and it wouldn’t do at all — the Tupperware wouldn’t even hold the brisket by itself, let alone the quarts of saltwater brine that would be necessary for corning. Instead, after consultation with Teacherman about metals and salts and chemical reactions, I hauled out a biggish stockpot and used that instead.

I put six quarts of water, 2 cups of kosher salt and about 1/3 cup pickling spices into the stockpot and brought them to a boil. (Corned beef spices and pickling spices are so similar that, since I already had a big jar of pickling spices, I didn’t bother to buy the more specialized corned beef spices). I simmered the mixture for a few minutes, watching the salt dissolve and the spices dye the water an odd purplish color. After no more than five of those minutes, I turned off the heat and let the brine cool. When it had come down to room temperature (which took more than the 3 hours I had before I went to work–8 would probably be more like it), I put the whole pot into the fridge to chill.

The next morning I put the brisket into the cold brine. It seemed inclined to stay submerged by itself, but just in case, I filled a freezer bag with some more water and salt — in case the bag leaked, I didn’t want plain water diluting the brine — and put it on top of the brisket. I put the lid on the (VERY full) stockpot and put the whole thing into the fridge. (I was petrified that the weight of the water and pot and beef would collapse the top shelf of my refrigerator, the only place it would fit, but my fears were, thankfully, unfounded).

I left the stockpot there for 5 days, occasionally lifting the lid to make sure that brisket was still submerged and that everything still smelled good. On the morning of the sixth day I removed the brisket from the brine, rinsed it off under the tap to remove any lingering salt, and put it into a zip-top bag, then into another zip-top bag on the outside of that. This package went back into the fridge. It was still five days before St. Patrick’s Day at the time, so I wasn’t sure if I should put the corned beef into the freezer or just leave it in the fridge. After considering history, and throwing caution to the winds, I decided to leave it in the fridge.

At about 12:30 today, Teacherman (who, being a teacher, is on spring break and does not have to work All Week) put the corned beef into the inevitable stockpot, covered it with water and brought it to a boil. He turned it down to a simmer, then left it for 2 hours with the lid on. After this time he checked the broth–it was salty, but not unpleasantly so. When we talked about it ahead of time, I’d suggested that if the broth was horrifically salty at this point, he should toss the liquid and use new water for the last few hours of boiling. As it turned out, he didn’t have to.

At this point, he added two carrots, peeled and cut into chunks, and a small cabbage, cut into eight wedges. He put the lid back on and simmered everything for 2 1/2 more hours. He turned the heat off, removed the corned beef to a plate to rest, and let the vegetables and broth cool down a little bit. After about 20 minutes, we sliced the meat across the grain, and served it up in big bowls with broth, carrots and the cabbage, cooked into silken shreds.

It was, in an overused-by-me word, fabulous.

The broth was saltier than I might have liked, but only a TINY bit, and I have to question whether or not I noticed the saltiness because I was expecting it to be overly so. The corned beef, on the other hand, was perfectly seasoned. It wasn’t too salty at all, but beefy and robust in flavor, with added dimension from all the spices used in the brine. Even knowing which spices were used, I was unable to identify what each specifically added to the flavor, but I was in no doubt that every single one contributed.

The texture was also stellar: the corned beef was tender and melting, but not so soft that it dissolved in the mouth It was meaty and muscular, but yielding to the tooth. We each ate far too much — I think I may have consumed more than half of the entire cabbage — but it was worth it. Even better, we have about a pound of meat leftover. If I can wrest some of it away from Teacherman, I may make hash, but I’m afraid that his spring break freedom speaks of unending, indulgent Reubens. I can probably forgive him. After all, now that we know how to corn beef, there’s nothing to stop us from doing it again.

Note: Some of you, those who have seen other corned beef recipes in the past, may have noticed a significant ingredient missing from the corned beef brine: ‘pink salt,’ or nitrates, the modern equivalent of saltpeter. It’s used to prevent botulism (very important) and provide an apparently appetizing pink color to cured meat (not so important). It’s also incredibly toxic in large quantities.

I’ve tried to use pink salt in cured meats before, and every time I’ve tried it the result has been inedibly salty and chemically tasting. After so many failures, I have no desire to use pink salt, and, luckily, I’ve seen a couple of reputable modern recipes for corned beef that leave it out. Given that we were planning to keep the corned beef in the fridge at all times, and use it in short order, I felt no qualms about not using the pink salt.

Published in: on March 18, 2008 at 7:35 am  Comments (1)  

Confectionary Genius in 16 Steps

Step 1: Stumble out of bed at 6:00 am, cursing the fact that you have to go to work for the seventh day in a row.

Step 2: Peel and section two clementines – making sure not to break the membranes – and put the sections on a paper towel-lined plate.

Step 3: Put the plate in the fridge, uncovered.

Step 4: Go to work. (Sadly).

Step 5: Come home from work, stare at the kitchen and wish that you had some kind of plan for dinner.

Step 6: Remember that you DID have an idea for dinner when you notice the (thankfully filled and turned on) slow cooker on the counter.

Step 7: Ignore the slow cooker and turn your mind to more interesting matters.

Step 8: Put a piece of parchment paper on a plate and stick the plate in the freezer.

Step 9: Melt 6 oz of bittersweet Callebaut chocolate (or 3 oz unsweetened and 3 Tbsp sweetener) and 3 Tbsp of butter in a nonstick pan.

Step 10: Remove the (now completely dry) clementine segments from the fridge.

Step 11: Dip each clementine segment into the melted chocolate and place onto the cold, parchment-lined plate, then place the plate in the freezer.

Step 12: Pour the remaining melted chocolate into a handily-shaped container and put in the fridge for future chocolate delectation. (Restrain yourself; you will be happy to have it on Wednesday).

Step 13: Remember, again, the existence of the slow cooker. Turn it off and eat your dinner.

Step 14: Do dishes, distractedly.

Step 15: Take the plate of chocolate-covered clementine segments out of the freezer and arrange on two plates.

Step 16: Eat the segments, allowing your teeth to shatter the perfectly crisp, darkly bitter chocolate coating, and shocking your tongue at the cold, intensely citrusy flavor of the clementine within.

Published in: on March 2, 2008 at 8:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

What to Do?

The weather does not know what to do with itself.  Half of the time it’s nearly 50 degrees and raining, and half of the time it’s 30 degrees and snowing, and half of the time it’s below zero and too cold for either one.  (And yes, the extremes really DO make it feel like I’m living a life of three overstuffed halves).

Weather like this wouldn’t be unheard-of in late March (though it would still be annoying) or even April, but in February it’s a little discombobulating.  What’s more, it has an adverse affect on meal planning.  Do I want something sprightly and light?  Or do I want to hunker down with comforting stodge?

Even if I do need warmth and comfort, I don’t know how much in the mood I am for real winter food — say, sauerkraut or ham hocks.  On the other hand, I still don’t want to eat anything cold and aesthetically ascetic.  Whatever the official temperature, it’s a safe bet that the day—and the people in it—will be wet and miserable.  Luckily, there’s a world-renown remedy for this condition: chicken soup. 

How to make chicken soup comforting enough to combat the drear, but light enough to look forward to spring and not back to winter?  How about a clear, glistening broth, un-muddied by a hodge-podge of disparate ingredients?  How about poached chicken?  A few weeks ago, when Teacherman and I had some friends over for dinner, I determined to serve just such a dish.

I have often poached skinless, boneless chicken breasts, bringing them to a boil in a saucepan and then turning the heat off and letting them sit, covered, for 30 minutes.  The result is perfectly cooked and moist, but in spite of my wish for lightness, a plain slab of poached breast seemed TOO unadorned—more cuisine minceur than I was going for.  Also, I felt that we needed a bit more fat than a chicken breast alone would produce.  Nothing that would be noticeable, but just enough to round out and deepen the flavors of the final dish.  I did not, however, want to poach only chicken thighs; a dark meat-only mixture often results in a rather gamey, cloudy broth, and that did not fit in with my idea of lightness.

Instead, I decided to poach a whole chicken.

I got out my favorite Dutch oven, and filled the bottom with 1 onion (peeled and cut in half), 3 carrots (peeled and cut into chunks) and 3 celery stalks (wipe clean and thinly sliced).  The onions would be present merely to flavor the broth, but I wanted the option of serving the carrots and celery along with the chicken; thus their more careful preparation. 

I put a 3.5 lb frying chicken (I prefer these to ‘roasters’, because the breasts are more in proportion to the rest of the body) on top of the vegetables and nestled it down far enough that it fit below the rim of the Dutch oven.  I sprinkled a big, three-finger pinch of whole black peppercorns on top of the vegetables, and then an equally big pinch of kosher salt over the chicken.  I then poured water over all of this—I’m not sure of the quantity.  The liquid came nearly up to the top of the chicken, but it was low enough that I knew it wouldn’t boil over, if it came to that.

I brought everything to a boil over high heat, then lowered the flame to the point where the liquid just simmered, and covered the pot.  I left the pot alone for an hour, then checked the internal temperature of the chicken.  It was perfect, so I turned off the heat, remove the chicken to a platter, and strained the broth into a large bowl.  I removed the onion, then added the carrots and celery back into the broth to keep warm

When the chicken was cool enough to handle, I deconstructed it, removing the meat, leaving aside all the bones and tearing the meat into bite-sized pieces.  The chicken was silkily tender but still resilient to the tooth, and moister than anything short of a confit.  The peppercorns and carrots had infused the meat with a spicy sweetness that was subtle but moreish. 

I put the chicken, vegetables and broth back into the Dutch oven and reheated it gently, checking the seasoning of the broth.  It was very deep and complex in tone, but needed MUCH more salt than I’d given it.  I believe I added an entire teaspoon of kosher salt, which immediately pulled all the flavors of the broth together, without making it appreciably salty.

To serve, I dropped a handful of spicy greens into each of four big bowls.  On top of the greens I laid chunks of the chicken and vegetables, and then ladled broth overall.  On the side, there were obscenely thick slices of sourdough toast, spread with homemade salted butter. 

The whole meal DID manage to be both comforting and sprightly.  The flavors — chicken soup, buttered toast — were utterly familiar, but done extremely well.  No one would have thought of complaining about ‘the same old’; they were too busy enjoying their meal.  The broth was just as crystal-clear as I had wanted, light on the tongue, but full-flavored and mellow.  It was hardly cutting-edge in any way, but it was one of the nicest meals I’ve had in months.

Published in: on February 29, 2008 at 8:27 am  Comments (2)  

Maybe I Should Just Get Over Myself

I’m having a bit of a crisis of faith.  Faith in myself, that is.

I’m beginning to wonder if I don’t talk up my own cooking skills too much—or rather, not my cooking skills, but the results of my cooking.  (This might sound like it’s the same thing, but consider how wonderful a salad of individually fabulous ingredients is—its transcendence has nothing to do with any artistry of arrangement, but is the result of the wonderful flavor of the components).

The last several times I’ve cooked something for other people—for a potluck, say—I’ve made something that I thought was really great.  A fruit crisp with cherries cooked in red wine.  A batch of popcorn dressed in duck fat and smoked salt.  Each time it was something that I’d made before and loved (this is out of the ordinary for me—usually I take a brand new, unattempted recipe, one for whatever I’m the most excited about at the time), and that Teacherman had loved as well. 

In every case, I excitedly presented the dish to the guests—fun, food-loving people with widely ranging tastes—only to receive comments along the lines of: “What’s so special about this?”  No one hated anything (well, okay, one person hate the cherry crisp), but no one thought the recipes were anything special, anything worth talking about, anything worth any amount of enthusiasm.  “It just tastes like popcorn.”  “I can’t taste any of that stuff.”

Upon seeing my startled reaction to their nonplussedness, my friends back-tracked and praised: “Oh, don’t worry, I like it, but. . .”, “It’s not that there’s anything wrong, but. . .”.

I can only wonder: am I over-hyping my results?  Have I become some kind of culinary girl who cried wolf?  I can’t deny that I’m given to flights of hyperbole in my everyday life, but I never thought I was self-aggrandizing about my cooking.  I genuinely believe that these recipes are delicious and distinctive-tasting, and was excited to share them with other people.

Even worse than making a recipe and having it turn out terribly is making a dish and loving it, but having no one else agree.  It makes one wonder if one is flawed in some intrinsic but inexplicable way.  What’s wrong with me that I love this when no one else does?  What am I missing?  What do I not understand?

I know that I am not A Great Chef—I’m a competent cook who’s been lucky enough to have access to what I think are wonderful ingredients, ingredients that I think combine into meals worthy of enthusiasm.  But are the ingredients really as delicious as I think they are?  Do I produce food that is merely passable and not worthy of additional comment? 

It’s a trying situation, and one that I don’t know how to resolve.

Published in: on February 25, 2008 at 11:57 am  Comments (1)